Marooned in Mozambique

The sun has set, we have been paragliding most of a day and none of us wants it to end. I haven’t even thought about landing, I want to fly until I cannot see. We are still a long way 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. Marooned.

I feel like I’ve been chewing on cotton. My lips are cracked, my hips are sore, and I look again to the east, hoping 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 seven 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 to lie on, seeking to relieve our aching bodies from the hard sand.

If I had a watch I would 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 we ended up stuck here.

We are marooned on an island off the coast of Mozambique. Our boat, Discovery, is anchored several miles away and our guest chef, my good friend Ezra whom I hadn’t seen in ten years before this trip, is the only one on board. He knows we are 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 in a place that had never been flown. Of all the discoveries that we have made, of all the virgin playgrounds that we have found on this expedition, this one easily topped them all. But this seems little solace right now.

We had seen this particular dune on our previous visit to the archipelago back in August, but were never able to fly it. Not because of conditions, as they were often perfect, but because of logistics. The dune stretches north to south along the island for nearly twenty miles, with 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.

The light breeze that caresses this dune will keep you in the air forever, and it is possibly the most playful and beautiful soaring site on the planet. No helmet or shoes required.

To get to it you have only two options. The first is to luxuriate at the Indigo Bay Resort, drive to the west side of the dune, and simply walk to the top, which in total takes about ten minutes. The other way is to arrive by boat on the east side—that is of course exposed to the Indian Ocean.

Up until today, reaching the beach without getting our gear soaked or flipping the dinghy had proved impossible. There is no protection from the swell and every time we had tried in the past, the conditions were too extreme to attempt a landing. Tides range nearly five meters during the spring, 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 unrelentingly into the dune, creating an impressive and dangerous shore break.

My mind returns to the present. At last I see that there is a soft 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 am daydreaming of coffee and food, wondering if Ezra is awake yet, prepping yet another gorgeous meal. If I wasn’t so dehydrated I would be salivating. He is an extraordinary chef and has blown all of us away for the past ten days. But we have to get there first.

Our dinghy is now high-and-dry. It is not supposed to be. No one saw it land on the beach, but we know it must have been one hell of a ride, thankfully un-manned. Twenty hours ago I had anchored the dinghy well beyond the shore break, diving down to the bottom, and wedging the anchor under a large rock, before swimming back to shore.

Earlier in the day, at low tide, we had dropped off all of our gear and people when it was safe. The conditions were perfect for flying and we were all racing to get in the air. As I launched upwards I remember looking out at the dinghy thinking, I hope that anchor holds. The waves were well over six feet and were 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, and I — 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; while Bruce and I are trying to out do each others best acrobatics; and 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 have been through is no more real than Santa Claus, it has simply evaporated. Each of us is in a temporary state of bliss, and we have somehow 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 am 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 is no way to get the dinghy back out through the shorebreak, and there is no way to get back to Discovery without the dinghy, so we are staying put for awhile.

I snap back to the present again. The darkness is finally fading. It has been a painfully long night.

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 immediately begins firing a soothing combination of endorphins and adrenaline.

My hunger and thirst are quenched, even if temporarily, and 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 that drugs or alcohol can.

Later this day we will eventually get back to Discovery unharmed, only to learn that 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 fourth 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 Yvon Chouinard 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 classic Mastercard commercial, “Paragliding in Mozambique? Priceless.”

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