Our South African Adventure

I thought I was a true adventurer until I met Anthony. He found me through my website, from half way across the world, in Cape Town, South Africa. By the time we had exchanged a few emails, I sensed that Anthony was more than a kindred spirit.

Gene bungee jumping from a bridge in South Africa over a river

One day I received the following email from someone who visited my web site, a parent of a child with a disability:

“6 years ago we had a boy and found out he had CP….often I get depressed about what he’ll miss (me too as a dad) because of it…..but he’s such a happy kid, smart, still able to do a lot despite, that I hardly feel that way anymore and see that those like you, who plow ahead and enjoy, don’t have to sit and miss out on life if you really want to do something….when I saw him push up on his arms and bring his knees up (on all 4s) my mind was inundated with all the possibilities that simple ability opened up to him. Thanks to you that list of things has grown immeasurably.”

All ego stroking email only served to fan the flames of adventure within me. I felt a tingle every time I looked at a map, every time I heard of a new expedition, or new discovery. I was more determined now than ever to seek out adventure sports whether on this continent or another.

I thought I was a true adventurer until I met Anthony. He found me through my website, from half way across the world, in Cape Town, South Africa. By the time we had exchanged a few emails, I sensed that Anthony was more than a kindred spirit. We are brothers of different mothers: both use wheelchairs, both enjoy extreme sports, and we take extreme measures to enjoy those sports.
Anthony had been diving with sharks off the coast of South Africa for years, It was easy to recognize Anthony in the photos. As a paraplegic, he never wore fins. Along with some amazing photos, Anthony sent me an invitation to join him on one of his dives. I thought, “Let’s see, diving in really cold water with animals that would eat me for a snack…” I responded with “What else have you got?” He sent me a video of him “bridge swinging,” I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching. It appeared that a man in a wheelchair was dangling from the end of a rope far above a canyon, at the bottom of which was only the suggestion of a creek.. I’d never even heard of such a thing, never imagined anyone taking this level of risk, with or without disability.

I found my new mission in life, a reason to get up every morning. I would dedicate my energy and resources to getting to South Africa to go bridge swinging with Anthony. This sport was totally new to me but I was confident Anthony would show me the ropes.

As fate would have it, a close friend of mine, Joni, told me she planned on going to South Africa. Joni loves adventure as much as I do. I met her years earlier just prior to our expedition to Mount Everest base camp. Joni handled all of the logistics for this expedition. We were in frequent contact and I rested easy knowing she was handling all the details. The expedition would not have been possible without her. I was really disappointed to find out, just before our departure date, that Joni would be staying behind.

Somehow, Joni and I had a unique connection. I only knew her through emails and phone calls but I wanted her to know that all of us on the team appreciated her efforts. So I hatched a plan. I looked at our airline tickets and noted each city we would stop it before getting to Nepal. On our way to Kathmandu we would be stopping in Los Angeles, Taipei, and Bangkok.

When we left Austin, I brought three envelopes with me all addressed to Joni. In each envelope I had a letter already typed saying, “We are only in Los Angeles, and already we miss you Joni.” I had similar letters noting our location as Taipei, and Bangkok. I would then have some of the guys on the plane sign the letters and I would be sure to mail it from airports in which we had connecting flights.

Mailing these three letters to Joni became my mini-adventure. I thought LA would be easy as I could use a US stamp for that envelope. It was important to me to have the post-mark and stamp of the airport’s country on the envelope. As it turns out, LA threw me a curve ball. I was surprised to learn that they didn’t have a mailbox in the LA airport. I had to find a stranger in the airport that was willing to mail my letter to Joni, in a mailbox outside the airport. I eventually found a willing Good Samaritan. One letter down, two to go.
Taipei and Bangkok would provide a greater challenge to mail a letter. I anticipated I would have to change currency to buy postage stamps in those cities. Each currency exchange stand has a minimum amount of currency to exchange. I would have to find another way to secure postage. Mailing these letters was no longer just an adventure, it was my quest. I had to figure out how much postage would cost. Then I would go about with currency exchange. To compound the problem, airport employees were escorting me through the airport terminals. It was standard operating procedure to escort anyone in a wheelchair from one gate to another. Escorts didn’t have the time or inclination to go on some wild goose chase to get a stamp. Nothing with me is ever easy.
On the plane to Taipei, I had some guys write a short note to Jody on my next letter. Once I got to Taipei it was time to find a stamp and a mailbox. Again I got lucky. The person escorting me asked what I was trying to do. I told him of my quest and he ushered me to the right kiosks to get a stamp and mail the letter.

By time I boarded the plane to Bangkok my mission had become routine. More guys and gals signed the letter to Joni, and when I got off the plane I asked the escort for some help mailing the letter. More than the month and a half later after coming back from our expedition, I learned that Joni had indeed received all three letters. My efforts were appreciated and even years later, I learned Joni had kept those letters.

I told Joni about my pen pal, Anthony, and encouraged her to meet him once she got settled in South Africa. Joni is nothing if not gregarious and always open to making new friends. She and Anthony exchanged emails. When Joni arrived in South Africa, she made arrangements to meet Anthony. The two of them hit it right off, and not surprisingly, became good friends.

Joni’s visit to South Africa became an extended stay. The passage of time though saw Joni yearning to move back to the States. This seemed like the perfect time – or should I say perfect excuse, for me to go to South Africa to visit Joni, meet Anthony, and do some adventure sports. The wheels were set into motion. I looked into flights while Joni and Anthony planned my itinerary.
For me, traveling anywhere involves a lot of logistics. I need to find a travel buddy /attendant who can take the time to travel with me. Each trip is usually about two weeks long. That travel buddy must have the type of temperament that can weather just about any situation.

I always travel in my manual chair, which is light weight, foldable, and fits in cars. My electric wheelchair would be far too heavy and bulky with which to travel. So my travel buddies must have the endurance to push me around everywhere we go, up and down curbs and steps. They need to be strong enough to lift me in and out of my chair several times during the day, in and out of taxis or trains. Most importantly, they need to be available when I want to go somewhere. I also have to have the financial resources, or at least the confidence I will acquire the financial resources, to pay for such a trip. Beyond that, logistics involved locations, weather, airline schedules, lodging, currency conversion, passport, visas and vaccines and the list goes on.

The distance from Austin, Texas in the USA to Cape Town, South Africa is about 9,500 miles, as the crow flies. Not being a crow, I resigned to use the airlines. My travel buddy, Laurence, and I were scheduled to fly from Austin, Texas to Washington DC, then on to Cape Town, South Africa.

We didn’t exactly get off to a flying start. Our plane departing Austin was delayed. By time we did arrive in Washington DC, we missed our departing flight to South Africa. We were told we would have to wait for the following evening to get a flight out to South Africa.

As a frequent traveler, I’m pretty good at managing risks. One of Life’s lessons is to make stepping-stones out of stumbling blocks. I already had a “Plan B” mapped out. I talked to the ticket agent. I said DC is a great place but I’ve been here many times and I really don’t want to spend a full day here just to catch another flight. I said, “How about flying me and my travel buddy to London? There’s a flight leaving shortly. We will be able to sleep on the flight, it’ll land early in the morning, and we can get a cab, and tour the city. That evening we can fly to South Africa.” The ticket agent arranged the flights and we were once again on our way.

London was a familiar stopover for me. We landed about 8am and looked for a cab to take us to see the sights. I learned it would cost about $280 dollars for round trip taxi from Heathrow – London airport to the Eye, the most famous modern day attraction in London. Time is more precious than money so I bit the bullet and off we went.

The cabs in London were great. They were all wheelchair accessible. They also have some sort of amenity for people with hearing impairments. The cab had something called a “Hearing loop”. There were instructions on the cab to ‘switch your hearing aid to the T position.’ I didn’t quite understand the way that system worked but it was obviously a progressive attempt to include people of various abilities.

Our next flight, from London to Cape Town South Africa didn’t leave until the evening so we had all day to play. We headed directly to “The Eye”. The Eye is a huge Ferris wheel type of attraction. It’s composed of 32 pods, each of which could hold 25 people. The Eye was totally wheelchair accessible. Anyone in a wheelchair could roam around in each pod to seek out the best ever changing view high above the streets of London. After one revolution of “The Eye”, which took about a half hour, we went to Sherlock Holmes pub for fish-and-chips as well as a pint of Guinness.

I even used my own fork to eat. Since I can’t use my hands, I use a Velcro strap, secured around my hand, to hold a special, bent fork. Restaurant forks are usually too wide to fit in my strap so I need to bring my own fork. TSA would have, as they have in the past, confiscated my fork if I tried to bring it on the plane. I had to smuggle my fork past airport security in order enjoy a simple meal, between connecting flights.

After the pub, we walked the streets, taking in the local sites. Well, we didn’t walk, Lawrence walked, and I rolled. He didn’t have much interest in international travel, but I took him on my trips because he was strong and easy going, not hyper like me. He was a good travel companion, like an old shoe – familiar, a good fit, dependable – no surprises. He would just go with the flow. He was never in a hurry to go anywhere or get anything done. This was in stark contrast to my ‘get it done’ approach to traveling. I like to make use of the daylight hours. Get up early, get out and see as much as you can. Lawrence was sometimes painfully lax. I remember times yelling at him to wake up, get up and then get me up in my chair. He had traveled with me on scuba trips so the routine was nothing new. On the other hand, who wants to get up early on your vacation?

Laurence was built for endurance, not for speed. He was about 5’6”, 140 pounds and several decades my junior. He never really exercised but he was strong enough to throw my sorry butt around. He was mechanically inclined as well. I felt confident he could help me fix just about any wheelchair issue.
Lawrence and I often poked fun at each other. I guess that’s a way of male bonding. When the real work needs to get done, Lawrence is like a horse. He keeps plodding along. He would get me dressed, up in my wheelchair and washed and ready for the day. Most days consisted of him pushing me up and down hills, over curbs, around obstacles, up and down steps, and lifting me in and out of vehicles. Did I mention nothing is ever easy with me?

In the streets of London, all of our senses were assaulted with all manner of fragrances, sounds, sights and flavors. The diversity of languages and contrasting attire ignited my imagination. I could of have been in any one of the hundred countries Britain had once colonized or in one of a thousand movies about such exploits. After getting our fill of monuments, stately structures, cathedrals, and museums and, of course, an obligatory picture of Big Ben, I concluded our time and money was well spent. Note to self: Good job on having a Plan B.

We caught a cab back to the airport. Our flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa left on time. It was a night flight so we were able to recover from our London whirlwind tour and bag some Z’s.

By the time we landed in Cape Town, I felt like we had already been traveling a week. Arrival at airports always brought mixed emotions. Since I had to be lifted out of my airplane seat and into a wheeled aisle seat to be taken off the plane, I was always de-boarded last. It was called an aisle seat because it was narrow enough to roll through the aisles of an airplane. It looked, however, like something Hannibal Lectern would be strapped into. How long would it take this time? As a frequent flyer, I eventually learned not to let them get me out of my airplane seat until I was assured that my wheelchair was at the gangway. I’ve had experiences where they take me off the plane in a straight-back, hard as rock, narrow aisle chair and then they simply can’t find my wheelchair. I’m stuck in that aisle chair until they come up with something better. Sometimes they took me off the plane in the aisle seat and put me in one of the airport wheelchairs. Those chairs are always three times too wide with leg rests too long. I’m only 5’5” and, at that time, perhaps 130 pounds. Those chairs are built for someone twice my size. I feel like I’m swimming in the airport wheelchairs. I wanted to use my own wheelchair. It was custom fitted for me. I wasn’t moving until Lawrence saw my chair on the gangway.

I was now in my own wheelchair, on the third continent in as many days. I was looking forward to collecting our luggage, getting to Joni’s place, changing my clothes and continuing our sojourn. Our luggage, however, was nowhere to be found. It took a different route. It seems that when we left Austin, our luggage was sent on to South Africa. But since we ended up going to London first, rather than through DC, our luggage went MIA, Missing In Airport. I filled out the requisite MIA forms all the while trying to express how important that luggage is to us. The people at the baggage office were unimpressed. Is it any wonder that more people don’t travel more often?

I had all my medical necessities in my carry-on backpack so all that I was really missing was clothes, cameras and accessories. At the moment though, I really needed a change of clothes and MIA was no longer a trivial matter.
Joni met us at the airport. To say she was happy to see us is an understatement. She was the picture of energy. The radiance of her smile surpassed that of the sun, and was a perfect complement to her blonde hair. Joni has always been health-conscious. She was a careful eater and exercised regularly. She had an hourglass figure with not a minute wasted.

We followed Joni to the parking lot. The weather in Cape Town was in stark contrast to London. Here, the weather was sunny and warm, almost too warm. I wouldn’t say it was oppressive but rather it was tangible and would need our consideration. The mini-van we piled into was certainly too warm, but with windows open, on the open road, it was a much preferred conveyance over a closed airplane.

Upon arriving at Joni’s place, we were introduced to Carl, her housemate. Carl was a South African of European descent, average build, with short brown hair. He owned his own construction business. He knew how to get things done and wouldn’t let anyone push him around. With us though, he was really gentle and sensitive. I was impressed with how personable he was.

We shared our luggage Mia story and were given a knowing look, the kind of look you get from someone who has heard the story too many times. They knew how the story ended; it was never good. Carl would ultimately prove unrelenting in pursuit of our luggage. On the third day MIA, I remember overhearing Carl talking to folks at the airport, saying, “You don’t know these guys. They’re American and they’ll sue you! Now find their luggage.” I know we are a litigious society. Still, I didn’t like wearing that moniker.

Joni and Anthony planned a fun filled visit for us. Weeks previously, Joni sent me a brochure that she and Anthony created. It was an itinerary that listed all dates, places, activities and even pictures of our forthcoming festivities. The activities included diner at AFRICA CAFÉ and the following morning, a visit to Groot Constancia Wine Farm where we would be treated to an excellent breakfast, and great company in the Groot Constancia vineyards. We were to partake in a Braai at Carl’s parents house. A Braai is akin to our BBQ. We would take the tram up to Table Mountain, go to Haot Bay, and Boulders Beach. That’s where I saw penguins mingling with humans who dared to encroach on their territory. Being immersed in such oddities is one of the perks of traveling in a part of the world with which I have no familiarity.

Our list of activities went on and on. I appreciated the thought and level of detail Joni and Anthony put into our itinerary. My thoughts were focused though on the Holy Grail of our trip, Bridge swinging.

We finally got to meet Anthony. It had been 5 years since he saw my web page, which prompted him to invite me to South Africa. He looked like someone from one of those outdoor magazines. He was a good-looking, rugged kind of guy. He had an infectious smile and we hit it off well. He invited us to dinner at his place. It was, of course, wheelchair accessible.

Anthony cooked Bobotie for us. Some call it the national dish of South Africa. Think of it as a meat pie made with lamb. It was delicious. In addition to great company and tasty food, we had the opportunity to discuss life in South Africa. While doing so, I fell into a comfortable, relaxed state. I soaked in the warm, hardwood accents of his spacious home. It was so liberating to be able to glide from one accessible table to another.

Like me, Anthony had plenty of books. More than one was on hang gliding. I recently went sail planing and had been paragliding, so we had a common interest in flight. So in addition to politics, we discussed physics, flight, and Bernoulli’s Principal.

Anthony told us how he became paralyzed by braking his back in a hang gliding accident. I reminded Anthony that I broke my neck and became paralyzed in a fall from a cliff. I embraced the irony of engaging in our up coming adventure sport, bridge swinging. We both narrowly escaped death in accidents that involved great heights. Actually, I was given Last Rights three times, so my brush with death was even closer. Note to self: Narrowly escaping death is not a contest. Now we were preparing to tempt fate again.

Finally, the big day came. We piled into the now familiar van. Joni, Carl, Anthony, Laurence, myself and two wheelchairs were packed in like sardines. To go bridge swinging we drove to Gourits River Bridge. It is about 4 1/2 hours east of Cape Town. This is where bungee jumping began in South Africa. Gourits River Bridge is 65 meters high (213 feet), and is the longest running bungee site in Africa. The company we used, that ran the bungee jumping / bridge swinging there, was called Face Adrenalin (www.faceadrenalin.com/).
The concept of bridge swinging is to swing from one bridge, under another to which the rope is attached. You swing like a pendulum, dangling from a bridge 213 feet high. Of course, you have the peace of mind knowing that if the line brakes, the harness fails, or a knot gives way, your fall will be broken by 2 feet of water in the river below. When the swinging stops, you are lowered into a boat and taken to shore.

After Anthony and I signed our obligatory release of liability forms, we were led to the area where they did the bridge swinging. Note to self: You know an activity is going to be fun when you have to sign release of liability forms.
Anthony and I considered which of us would be the first to go off the bridge. He had done this before so he had the benefit of experience. I was still affixing camera equipment to my wheelchair and reasoned it would probably be more appropriate for him to jump first. Finding no fault with that logic, Anthony was secured in a harness that attached to a long line affixed to the adjacent, yet not so close, bridge. I didn’t see anyone else bridge swinging. Perhaps the big attraction here was the bungee jumping.

Waiting was the worst part. Perhaps they intentionally wanted to give people time to change their minds. Perhaps they want to give people time to say a prayer. I decided there wasn’t enough time in the world to plead my case so I passed on the prayer. The tension was palpable as Anthony approached the platform. I tried to keep an eye on him and an eye on Lawrence, who was securing camera equipment to my wheelchair.

Anthony appeared to be a man resigned to his fate. He had a serious look on his face but not one of fear, more like determination. To participate in this type of activity you have to have complete faith in the equipment you’re using, and complete faith in the people helping you. Anything less would be the hallmark of a fool-hardy venture. Knowing that this vendor had been in operation for many years provided some solace. Still, there is turnover in staff and equipment wears out; there were no guarantees. None of this was lost on Anthony and myself.

I wanted to watch Anthony go over the edge, but my line of sight was blocked by the railing of the bridge. The only view I had was from his back, watching two people pushing him over the edge. Just as he disappeared from my view, I was privy to the loudest collective gasp I had ever heard. The crowd on the bridge was glued to the rail. They all watched helplessly as Anthony completed his first pendulum-like swing. I looked over at Joni and I could see she was doubled over. It was explained to me later that when Anthony was pushed over the edge, he fell straight down, about 10 feet, before he was drawn into an arc by the rope. When the rope first came taught, Anthony was jerked from his wheelchair. It seems they had put a harness on Anthony and put a harness on his wheelchair, but nobody bothered to secure them together. Anthony and his wheelchair were now swinging together, side-by-side. The fear was Anthony may have been hit by his chair when the two collided in mid air. We would have to wait until we saw Anthony again to find out. For now, people could see that he was still conscious and holding onto the rope. There was an audible sigh of relief. This is not the kind of result that inspires confidence. Note to self: Consider WHY they make you sign “release of liability” forms.

The site of this mishap certainly gave me pause. One screw up here and it’s adios forever. A fall of over 200 foot from this bridge was not survivable. Undaunted, I continued my preparation. I hoped that the people operating this bridge swing learned from their mistake. I thought surely they would be more vigilant with me. Maybe now was a good time to reconsider saying that prayer.
As I was getting my harness on, I told Laurence to be sure I was securely attached to my wheelchair. As I am paralyzed from the shoulders down, I depend on the wheelchair to hold me in an upright position.

Most adventure sports I do, including skydiving, scuba diving, skiing, and paragliding can not accommodate someone while in their wheelchair. Whenever possible, I use my wheelchair. Vendors will make suggestions and at times provide instructions but I try to be the one that decides whether or not it’s possible to stay in my chair.

I had Laurence take the cameras off my chair as I felt they could be jerked off the chair in the fall, a great loss to me and a possible danger to anyone below. He was unfazed by what had just transpired. After all, he wouldn’t be bridge swinging. Besides, he and I had been down a lot of rough roads together. Particularly in terms of access, we learned to adapt to many situations. He just took everything in stride.

Once assured all was connected properly, I was lifted to the edge of the bridge platform. A strong push and I was off and away! I dropped about ten feet then was swung under the opposite bridge. I considered the prospects of the rope breaking or of me slipping from the harness. The water more than 200 feet below was only about 2 feet deep. What would be worse, to have the rope brake and I die on impact in shallow water, or to have my fall broken in deeper water, only to drown?

After swinging back and forth like a pendulum a few times, I was eventually lowered to the river, into a waiting boat, brought ashore, and then portaged, in the boat, back to the top of the canyon, to the bridge.

I savored the moment knowing that I had completed my quest. I have experienced something that was previously unimaginable. I traveled a great distance at great expense and now was enjoying the fruits of my labor. There was only one question, did the video and pictures turn out well? And if so, would they be a compatible with my video and photo software? Would they even make it back to Austin Texas? I would have to keep this visual proof media close with me all the way back to Austin.

In contrast to bridge swinging, bungee jumping is a drop straight down. Your fall is slowed by the bungee cords, stretching, slowing your decent before you reach the bottom. Once the cords stretch to their maximum, they begin contracting, bouncing the jumper back up.

I decided I would bungee jump after I went bridge swinging. I did not really know what to expect when bungee jumping, so I decided to play it safe and wear some depends just in case. After all, it was 4-1⁄2 hour drive from Face Adrenalin back to Cape Town.

Anthony didn’t want to bungee jump so I was the only one foolish enough to try it. They wouldn’t let me do it in my wheelchair though. I really wanted to be in my chair because I thought it would be a great picture. If you just see some nut bungee jumping, you can’t tell whether or not they have a disability unless you see them in a wheelchair.

They took me out of my chair and put me on a platform overlooking the canyon. For some reason, common sense took a vacation and I really was looking forward to the jump.

They pushed me off the ledge and I fell a considerable distance. As I approached the maximum length of the bungee cord, I could feel the deceleration. The cords began to spring back and I was flung back up towards the bridge. As I got closer to the bridge, that’s when I got scared. I studied physics and I knew that I couldn’t spring back any farther than I fell. I’m pretty sure though that the bungee cords never studied the laws of physics, a concept I reluctantly embraced, as I was being flown closer and closer to the bridge that I just left. Like a moth to a flame I was drawn closer and closer to this bridge. I slowly began to decelerate and, for once, was happy to feel the pull of gravity as I dropped back down to the full length of the of the bungee cord. A few more bounces and I was lowered into a boat again. As we made our way to shore I felt very satisfied that I had indeed a very good day. My quest was now complete.