[Its been a year since I first wanted to write this post ! Call it the ‘Heights of procrastination’…but hey, as they say – its better late than never 🙂 ]
1st April, 2007 – otherwise known as April Fool’s Day ! A day – the less ordinary would most likely doodle away playing pointless pranks on each other ………But to Bharat, Anand, Santosh, Ganesh and I, this was the day we chose to rewrite our personal histories and attempt the unthinkable […and almost nearly succeeded] !!!
It was Santosh and Bharat who had first come out with idea a few months ago. But at that time, the proposition had sounded absolutely insane ! I mean, who in the right state of mind would think of flying up in an airplane to 13,500 feet in the sky …open the doors and then JUMP off into thin air …….allowing your body to be thrust towards the earth at enormous velocities…..and then finally, open up a parachute and land safely onto the ground !!!
Welcome to SKY-DIVING – the ultra-extreme, adrenaline-packed, thrilling yet spine-chilling sport, that only the bravest of the brave may dare attempt !
When I first heard about it, I had laughed it off……but then, one sleepy afternoon, when Bharat and Santosh showed me sample videos on the website, I got instantly hooked ! There were many agencies around Britain offering the facility…but the nearest one for us was just outside of Cambridge. We looked at all the details on the website. For beginners like us, they wouldn’t allow us to jump alone, but would be strapped on to a trainer – who would operate the chutes. Though it looked a bit scary, we were assured that safety was well taken care of.
However, at around £150 for a jump and another £100 for a DVD video, the damage to the pockets would be unavoidable … 😉 Nevertheless, for something that we’d do just once in a life-time [……unless of course, for pure emergency reasons J ], it seemed worth every penny !
The website said that we’d get a small discount if we go in a group of 5. So the next task in hand was to find 2 more accomplices. Understandably, this wasn’t really the easiest of tasks – there were people who’d rather enlist for the Iraq war, than sky-dive with us ! Finally, we found our 4th comrade in Anand Ramakrishna! Following that, one phone call to my good friend and partner-in-crime – Ganesh (based in London), and we had our team of 5 J
On 31st March, Saturday afternoon, Bharat, Anand, Santosh and I boarded a National Express bus from Bristol to London, reaching there late in the evening. At London Victoria bus station, we were joined by Ganesh and boarded another bus to take us to Cambridge, arriving there in the night.
Having had major plans to party the night away in Cambridge, we were quite disappointed to see that much of the town had already shut down…and city was almost entirely deserted. Cambridge was a very small town, and hardly had any night-life at all […..outside of all those University hostels , that is 😦 ] . Santosh had booked us rooms in a tradional Inn, and following the sign-boards on the streets, and with a little help from the odd persons we ran into, we walked all the way to the place on Newmarket Road.
En route, we approached a stretch of road that was curved in a convex manner. Around the corner, was a sign-board (hanging outside a restaurant), that we could only see a part of, due to the curvature of the road. Initially, it looked as if the board read ‘Asha’. [Not bad..…an Indian restaurant was just what we wanted!] As we got closer, another alphabet appeared round the corner and the board now read ‘Pasha’ !!! [Ok, must be an Afghani eat-out] However, when we finally negotiated the curve, we could see the whole board….and it read ‘Pipasha’ ! Turned out to be a Bangladeshi restaurant, but of course, marketed as ‘Indian’, just like all Bangla or Pakistani restaurants in the UK.
Less than 50 metres ahead was our Inn. We checked into our rooms and after dumping our luggage, walked back to Pipasha and treated ourselves to a couple of Kingfishers and an amazing tandoori meal ! We later heard that Pipasha was the best ‘Indian’ restaurant in Cambridge, and must admit – it truly lived up to its name ! I’d totally recommend this place to anyone visiting Cambridge. Check out their website -> http://www.pipasha-restaurant.co.uk/?id=contact [….No, I don’t get paid for this 😉 ]
The next morning, we rose early. The taxi van we had booked to take us to the airfield arrived at the appointed time. The day was sunny and bright, and there were no signs of clouds or rain. We had come to know earlier that the jumps would be permitted only in perfect weather conditions [ ..something that’s a little too much to ask for in Britain]. But that morning, looking up at the clear blue sky, we couldn’t help ourselves from smirking with the confidence that nothing could possibly come in between us and our sky-diving dreams for the day !
After about ¾ of an hour driving through lush green fields, we finally reached the airfield. The place was almost in the middle of nowhere – endless green stretches of land extended as far as the eyes could see. Far ahead on one side, the open landscape was broken by a series of huge wind-mills, that kept spinning furiously, as ifthere was no tomorrow !
Upbeat and confident, we walked into the office room of the airfield. But what they told us then hit our spirits like a ton of bricks ! Apparently, we had overlooked one crucial weather element – the WIND !
That 1st of April in the spring of 2007, unfortunately it was a very windy day in Cambridge. The permissible wind speed for sky diving was around 20 knots, but then it was more than double that figure that day. The guys pointed out towards that wind-sock that stood in the middle of the field. It was nearly horizontal 😦
We were told that we could either wait around, hoping that the conditions would improve by noon [which they advised was unlikely] or go back and come again another day ! It sounded quite simple to them …but to us who had come all the way here from Bristol, taking 2 buses and a van; and staying overnight at an Inn …it was too hard to digest 😦
Shattered and dejected, we moved into the adjacent lounge area and settled down on a couch…trying to come to terms with reality. We weren’t alone …there were lots of other people in the lounge including children, moms, grannies – all of them equally dejected ! We ordered some hot chocolate and a light breakfast and sat down pondering – a lot of “why, what if and when’s” ran through our heads ! But we knew there was nothing much we could do than sit and hope that the weather would improve. We were told that we could atleast complete our initial training today…..so that whenever we actually jump, we wouldn’t have to go through the sessions again. That sounded reasonable and we followed the instructor into the adjacent hangars and underwent the training. This completed, we were formally licensed to dive…if only the weather Gods permitted.
We went back to the lounge and set out on the awfully boring task of waiting, hoping the winds would ease down. There were 2 internet PC’s in the hall, but were almost continuously occupied. In the adjacent hall, we played a few games of pool and once we got bored of it, picked up a giant jigsaw puzzle having a picture of a busy street in London on it…and religiously started working on it.
A couple of hours passed by and the windsock stood as horizontal as ever ! [Bloody hell … they build the airfield right next to a wind-farm with all those wind-mills, and how on earth can they expect it not to be windy ? ]
Every half an hour or so, we could see that an official took off in a small Cessna plane, hovered around the airfield [possibly collected weather related data] and came down again.
Soon we were getting bugged of the jigsaw as well 😦 Anand decided to go out and shoot some pictures with the Cessna plane. He asked us to join him, but none of us obliged, except for Bharat … we were still quite involved in the jigsaw and was reluctant to leave the comfort and warmth of the building !
A few minutes later, through the glass windows we saw Anand and Bharat accompanied by the pilot of the Cessna walking towards the plane. We wondered why Anand had dragged along the pilot as well when all he wanted was to take a snap with the Cessna ! We continued to focus on the jigsaw…… but from the corner of our eyes noticed that Anand and the pilot were now boarding the Cessna, while Bharat stood there outside the fence. [OK …maybe they’re going to take a picture of him sitting inside the cockpit !]
The next thing we realize – the propellers started spinning and the engines roared into life ! “WHAT THE HELL” – all 3 of us exclaimed in unison ! Instantly, we were on our feet, and having left the jigsaw behind, ran outside towards the fence, just as the Cessna taxied onto the makeshift runway.
We stared at each other in disbelief as the Cessna charged ahead on the runway, and took off …taking Anand and the pilot up into the sky !
“What the *&*”%* is going on ?” , we asked Bharat ! He smiled and explained how they had both gone into the office asking for permission to shoot with the Cessna, and this generous pilot had offered to give them both a ride in the plane !
This was unbelievable !
We watched as the Cessna soared up into the sky, took a large circle and slowly started to descend back onto the runway. But just as it was about to touch-down, the plane shot up again. Anand was clearly having the time of a lifetime.
After another large circle, the Cessna did finally land, and off came a triumphant Anand – with an expression as if he had single-handedly won the 2nd World War ! Bharat rushed towards the plane and got in, as Santosh, Ganesh and I just stood there scratching our heads !
Bharat got just one large circle and as soon as he was back on the ground, Santosh and I ran towards the plane. I eagerly asked the pilot if we could fancy a ride as well ? “Sure thing”, he said and was willing to give each of us a round.
Enthusiastically I got into the cockpit beside him and strapped on my seat-belts. This was a trainer flight, and so all the controls including the steering were duplicated in front of me as well …but the pilot ordered not to touch anything ! He then gave me a pair of headsets…..which proved to be quite useful, as the Cessna was very loud when airborne.
Now, we were ready to go…..the Cessna slowly taxied down to the end of the field and turned around. The next thing I realized, we were charging ahead and after a very short run-up, we took off …up into the sky ! The feeling was amazing …I had once traveled inside the engine of a passenger train, back in India, but flying in the cockpit of an airplane was really something ! We soon ascended to about 1000 feet, and by this time, we could really sense the power of the winds as the Cessna was wobbling quite badly. The pilot was friendly and chatted all throughout the flight, telling me of how he also comes from somewhere around Bristol, and that flying was just a part-time hobby for him. He radioed the weather conditions back to the office down below, and it was anything but positive news 😦
We took a large circle up in the air, and I feasted my eyes on the wonderful English countryside below – the endless stretches of green fields, the lakes and the army of wind-mills incessantly spinning in the distance !
Soon, we began our descent and slowly the earth started getting closer and closer, until finally, we touched down ! I thanked the pilot and got off, Santosh and Ganesh had been waiting for their turns. Once, everyone had had a chance, we all lined up with the generous pilot, and shot some snaps. We went back into the lounge and played the jigsaw until about noon, when they finally announced that there would be no jumps at all that day ! 😦
But by now, we didn’t really complain. The free Cessna rides that we got had ensured that the day was not entirely wasted. We rang up a couple of cabs and went back into Cambridge town, stopping at the Grafton Centre mall. Enroute, we passed through some of the most beautiful English villages I had ever seen …and when the radio in the cab blared out U2’s “It’s a beautiful day”, I couldn’t help but wonder how inappropriate it was !
At the Grafton Centre, we had some junk lunch and set out to explore the town. We had until late evening, for our return bus to London […and subsequently Bristol] …and so we just wandered around …through the High Street, cutting across the parks …watching the students and families recreating under the Sun. Someone suggested that we try the Punt boat-rides at the river, so off we went. Even before we got to the river side, we were approached by students, canvassing us to ride on their boats …..we ignored them all, and excused ourselves ……but that was before we ran into Monica 🙂
This girl was different. She came up to us and introduced herself. Anand went ahead and presumptuously took the liberty of introducing us as well. She then explained about the punt boat rides [..which now we all had a sudden interest in taking] and that it was £10 per head for adults, £8 for students and £6 for children.
Whatever said and done, 10 quid was a little too much for a punt boat ride !!! Sensing our reluctance, she asked us, “Are you guys students ?”. When we said ‘No’, she smiled and said, “Maybe you can be students for today and I can give you tickets for £8”[….This girl could easily sell a helmet to a Kamikazi pilot]
“Can we be children for today, and pay £6?”, I asked.
But she didn’t really reply to that. She merely handed us 5 tickets costing £8 each. Next she led us along the quay towards the boats. Some of the students on the passing boats serenaded her…..quite evidently she was quite popular around here J She led us on to one of the docked boats, in which we occupied half the space. The other half was taken by a family. Our punter was a young student, who shoved the long oar right into the river bed and punted the boat ahead. For the next hour, we blissfully sailed by many of the beautiful historic college buildings and under a number of ancient bridges across the river, with the boatman narrating the history behind all that we saw….It was quite an experience to see Cambridge from the river. It looked as though all the college buildings were on the banks of the river Cam.
One of the most impressive buildings that we passed by was the King’s College Chapel, established in 1446 !
Later in the evening, we stopped by an Indian restaurant called ‘Gandhi’. Seeing the name, we thought it might be alcohol-free, but just like all other Indian restaurants here, they served Kingfishers 🙂
Finally, we took our bus to London and after bidding good-bye to Ganesh, proceeded towards Bristol in another bus.
We vowed to come back to the airfield when the weather’s good …and in precisely 2 weeks time, we found ourselves heading towards Cambridge again !!!
So did we end up being second-time lucky ? To know the answer and much more, read on ! 😉