Looking hack on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air.
Out of Africa
A vision of violence haunts me. Gazing down the mountain slope, I remember yet again the dark spectacle of my friend's being tossed about like a dinghy in a gale, only a hundred yards off the dirt runway in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania, utterly out of control. An experienced hang-glider pilot, she could do nothing but hold on and ride it out. It—what exactly was it? Some sort of turbulence.
"A washing machine!" Chanel Coker's voice triggered the mike on her radio. "This is no ordinary updraft!" Nose up...tail up...starboard wingtip pointing toward earth...then heaven.... The 70-pound aluminum and Dacron ship heaved and yawed in a pilot's nightmare. And then, abruptly, the pocket of turbulence released her.
"I'm heading out to land," Chanel said, her voice jagged but tinged with relief. She turned away from the mountains and headed toward the flat savanna.
A few seconds later God suddenly turned the washing machine back on. Again Chanel lost altitude and was pitched about at such radical angles that I felt certain she would "luck and tumble," that the hang glider would fold up or flip upside down and spin to earth. But the violence ceased as quickly as it had started. Chanel said nothing as she turned the glider back toward the savanna, gliding again toward the safety of the landing zone in a field far below.
"Bloody awful!" she screamed when still another cycle of the washing machine started. The turbulence lasted only a minute, but when it had ended, she was too low over the foothills at the base of the mountains to make it to the landing zone. From the launch site I watched as the parachute burst open directly in front of the hang glider and brought it down behind a ridge.
I force the memory of Chanel's flight from my mind, and as if the beauty of the place could still my pounding heart, I ponder the sheer escarpment of the Usambara Mountains. Gray cliffs festooned with palms and the luxuriant crowns of rain-forest trees drop 3,000 feet to arid foothills. My aerie is set on a peninsula that protrudes like a finger 300 yards from the vertical mountain walls, then falls suddenly to the savanna. My house, a one-room stone studio, sits on a rock outcropping at the tip. Thirty feet behind the house stands a stone bird mews, sunk like a bunker into the mountainside. A hundred yards farther back and a hundred feet higher, in a banana grove by the edge of a field, Georgi Petro, my assistant, lives in a round adobe hut with a conical roof of banana-leaf thatch. With a small army of villagers, I built the entire compound, encircled by a wattle-pole fence, in five months for $3,000.
I first came to Tanzania in 1988 on a Rotary International scholarship. I was about to begin work on a masters in African literature at the University of Dar es Salaam, in the country's capital, when I learned the course work wasn't scheduled to begin until the following year. I also discovered that I wasn't going to be able to launch a hang glider off Mount Kilimanjaro—something for which I had been preparing during several months in California—because the national park service requires a $20,000 deposit in case a search-and-rescue mission becomes necessary. So I left the capital, headed for the Usambara Mountains and spent time hang gliding there instead. A short time later, while on safari on the Serengeti Plain, I ended up in a hospital after an acute flare-up of the stomach ulcer I had developed while learning to fly a hang glider. It was in the hospital that I conceived of writing a book about melding the ancient art of falconry with the New Age sport of hang gliding. Now here I stand, on the edge of the 50-foot runway, ready to take off.
I pull on my helmet, and I secure the hang strap of the cocoon harness and the Kevlar parachute sling with a locking carabiner to the keel of the ship. With my shoulders pushed into the apex of the aluminum A-frame, I stand, lifting the ship into the wind. At 10 knots the head wind hoists the glider, beckoning it into the sky, and I pull alternately against the two down tubes, leveling the wing.
"Georgi!" I yell above the wind. "Ready?"