“When a person is dying from oxygen deprivation, you can’t see they are dying because they don’t put up a struggle, they look as if they are sleeping when in fact they are dying.” When the soldier said this to us we all kept quiet, all of us scared and wondering what in the world we had got ourselves into.
But we could not back down, it was already too late, the plane was just about to take off. I felt my heart do double somersaults and looking around I could see that the men I had travelled with on that little expedition were as afraid as I was. We were on board the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) C130 military aircraft as part of the media personnel who had been chosen to experience this year’s Makgadikgadi Epic by the Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO). On this third day since our arrival at the Nata bird sanctuary where the event was held, I had already been on a tethered hot air balloon in the morning. We had not flown that high in the hot air balloon and it was a very stable ride which was something I had not expected for some reason. Perhaps it was because I’d imagined that once in a flying basket one would feel some kind of discomfort but alas, that was not the case. In fact one of the operators, Vincent Cook, explained he had been operating the balloon for five years and it was very stable.
“You can even pop a bottle of champagne up here,” he said and explained that hot air balloons and champagne really go well together. This had been in the morning. In the afternoon just before lunch, those who wanted to go on board the military flight to accompany the sky divers who were going to make a 16 000 feet jump had been welcomed to do so. So that is how we found ourselves inside the aircraft, having driven from Nata bird sanctuary to Sowa airport to catch the flight there.
After we were informed by the soldier that we could possibly die on the aircraft it was explained that this was because the sky divers had requested that they do their jump at an altitude of 16 000 feet which is approximately 4876 metres. According to Wikitravel, over 50percent of people will become ill if they ascend rapidly from sea level to 3500 metres (11 000 feet) without acclimatisation and everyone will if they ascend rapidly to 5000 metres (16 000 feet) and we were going to 16 000 feet. When we started ascending I tried so hard to calm myself, all of us did in fact.
The way we were just making mindless conversation told me we were all scared. The divers were okay. This was something they were used to. The soldiers too. The view was something amazing. Very hard to put into words. The clouds looked like white cotton balls. The sky seemed bluer than I had ever seen it. Some of my colleagues were brave enough to unstrap themselves from their chairs and move around but I sat glued to my seat. I was shaking so much. I have had to deal with panic attacks since Junior Secondary School. But I did take peeks at the window. I even got a chance to see the propellers from where I was sitting.
At this time, the divers had already started making their jumps. At some point I felt myself being light headed. I tried to ignore it but it came back seconds later. I called for help and was told there was nothing that could be done. Imagine being told you could die, then feeling like you are dying and being told there is nothing that can be done? I was however told to take deep breaths and not panic and I tried not to. I was then taken to the cockpit to sit with the pilots and to my surprise, my colleagues came right behind me. So I was not the only one who was not feeling okay but they being males decided to just keep quiet!
By this time, the divers were done. We were now starting to descend. Another thing started happening; our ears started getting blocked. We could not hear each other. We were then told to hold our noses and try blowing so that air would come out through our ears, which we did. I must have shown I was struggling. Even when I did that nothing happened. We were then told to swallow some saliva to aid the process. The minute I started doing that I heard a pop sound and my eras felt much better. As we were descending we went so low that we could even see some wildebeests running because of the huge noise the aircraft made. We went to Nata bird sanctuary where we descended very low and rapidly ascended. I later heard that the crowd below loved this stunt.
When we finally landed, with my wobbly knees I made my way from the cockpit to the back then finally outside. I could have kissed the ground when my feet touched it. I knew then that as much as the experience had been thrilling it had been frightening and I doubt I will be repeating it anytime soon.