I feel like I’ve been chewing on cotton. My lips are cracked and my hips are sore and I look again to the east, hoping again for the grayness of dawn to arrive. We have no food and our only jug of water has been contaminated with ocean and sand. I am huddled down with 7 other people in a bed made of two nylon paragliders. The fabric becomes an alarm clock every time we are blasted by wind or when one of us struggles to find a new spot on their body to relieve from the hard sand. If I had a watch I’d check it for the thousandth time. The blanket of night refuses to lift. I try not to think about water and cuss silently to myself for orchestrating this mess. My body begs for sleep but my mind stammers off again, reconstructing how ended up here.
We are marooned on an island off the coast of Mozambique. Discovery is anchored several miles away and our guest chef, my good friend Ezra who I hadn’t seen in 10 years before this trip is the only one on board. He knows we’re out here, but there’s nothing he can do. The boat might as well be on Mars for the distance cannot be crossed. A few hours ago all of us were in the air, paragliding a place that had never been flown. Of all the discoveries we’ve made, of all the virgin playgrounds we’ve found on this expedition this one easily tops them all. But this seems little solace right now.
We’d seen this dune on our previous visit to the archipelago back in August, but were never able to fly it. Not because of conditions, but because of logistics. The dune stretches north to south nearly 20 miles. The east side of the dune juts out of the Indian Ocean at a perfect angle for flying, a few hundred meters above the sea. A light breeze will keep you in the air forever, in fact it is possibly the most playful and beautiful soaring site on the planet. No helmet or shoes required. But to get to it you have only two options. The first is to simply luxuriate at the Indigo Bay Resort, drive to the west side of the dune and walk to the top, which in total takes about 10 minutes. Easy (and a REALLY nice place to stay!).
The other way is to arrive by boat on the east side- that is of course exposed to the Indian Ocean. Getting to the beach without getting gear soaked or flipping the dinghy is often impossible. There is no protection from the swell and every time we’d tried in the past the conditions were too extreme to attempt a landing. Tides range nearly 5 meters on Springs, which further complicates the matter. At dead low tide an outer barrier reef blocks some of the swell, and it is only then that a landing is possible. But at high tide whatever swell is running smashes unrelenting right into the dune, creating an impressive and dangerous shore break.
My mind returns to the present. At last there is a glimmer of gray on the horizon. I can’t wait to escape the flimsy confines of this “bed” and get my aching muscles moving. I’m daydreaming of coffee and food, wondering if Ezra is awake yet, prepping yet another gorgeous meal. If I weren’t so dehydrated I’d be salivating- he is an extraordinary chef and has blown all of us away for the past 10 days. But we have to get there first.
Our dinghy is high-and-dry. It is not supposed to be. No one saw it land on the beach, but we know it must have been a hell of a ride, thankfully un-manned. 20 hours ago I had anchored the dinghy well beyond the shore break, dove down to the bottom and wedged the anchor under a large rock and swam to shore. We’d dropped off all the gear and people earlier in the day at low tide when it was safe. The conditions were perfect for flying and we were all racing to get in the air. As I launched I remember looking out at the dinghy thinking, I hope that anchor holds. The waves were well over 6 feet and hammering the beach with violent explosions. Forces the dinghy would not survive.
But the urge to fly was too great, my worry was quickly overtaken by the pure magic of flying this place. Bruce, Mike, Stu, Jody, Tim, Rosie, Leah- we are all quickly in the air screaming in delight like children in a sandbox. We fly miles down the dune away from the dinghy and our camp; the shifting light of day turns the dune and ocean into colors that take our collective breath away. As sunset nears Jody is up on tandem with Stu taking photos; Tim is flying backwards on tandem with Mike shooting video; Bruce and I are trying to outdo each other’s best acrobatics; Rosie and Leah are awaiting their turn. I am more present at this time than I have been in months. It is the most beautiful flying I have ever done. The stress of this season and what we’ve been through is no more real than Santa Claus; it has evaporated. Each of us is in a temporary state of bliss, we have entered another world; we have found Nirvana.
And then Nirvana is shattered by a few words. “Gavin, do you see the dinghy?” Jody and Stu are flying right next to me. The sun has set, we have been flying most of a day that none of us wants to end. I haven’t even thought about landing, I want to fly until I cannot see. We are still a great distance from where the dinghy should be and I’m hoping it is just the light that robs us of the view. But in my gut I know we are screwed. A few minutes later I land and sprint to the beach. The tide is again retreating but the waves are massive. Nightfall is descending.
Somehow the dinghy is upright. It is filled with water to the gunnels, sitting on the beach like a piece of driftwood. A cushion and pump are missing, the battery is floating, but the engine appears undamaged. Maybe we are lucky? But there’s no way to get the dinghy back out through the shorebreak, and there’s no way to get back to Discovery without the dinghy, so we’re staying put for awhile.
I snap back to the present again. The dark is finally fading. It has been a painfully long night, and I mean that literally. The warmth of the sun is finally near. We are cold; we are thirsty, we are hungry and tired. The tide is still too high to try to get off the beach. There is an onshore breeze. We grab our wings and launch. We can’t eat or drink or go anywhere, so we might as well fly.
The pain of the night dissolves as soon as I am in the air. My blood circulates to my extremities and my brain begins firing a soothing combination of endorphins and adrenaline and my hunger and thirst are quenched, if temporarily. My mind wanders off again, to an earlier time on this very trip while still back in Madagascar, 500 miles east across the Mozambique channel. I overheard someone say how much older I look these days. The stress of keeping this expedition alive is exacting a toll, no doubt shortening my own time on this amazing planet in the same way drugs or alcohol do. Later this very day we will get back to Discovery unharmed and whole only to learn the outboard motor has in fact suffered a catastrophic failure. It somehow held together for our trip back, carrying everyone and their gear but the block suddenly disintegrates, spilling oil everywhere. It is a useless un-repairable hunk of metal, barely a year old. At the end of our 4th season Discovery is limping. Down an engine, an outboard, and a long list of other things she- and I are tired. I think about one of my favorite quotes. “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” In my experience making discoveries like we have here in Mozambique always comes at a cost: physical, emotional and economic. But to steal from the Mastercard commercial: “Paragliding in Mozambique?” Priceless.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Check out our award winning film, “The Dune Discovery”: