A Beautiful Day

Believe it or not, I once went skydiving. It was circa 2002 and I was travelling around southern Africa in a truck on a small group adventure holiday with a fantastic company called Drifters http://www.drifters.co.za. We’d had a great but tiring time wilderness camping alongside a river where we’d been kayaking and in the desert where we’d hiked sand dunes and spotted dangerous wildlife. Now we were arriving in the Namibian seaside town of Swakopmund renowned for its adventure activities. Drifters owned a number of inns around southern Africa so the grass roots down and dirty experiences of camping were intermittently broken up by a night of relative luxury. A good shower, proper bed and a bar were most definitely the order of the day in Swakopmund. As it turned out, the inn was run by the man who had been the guide on my first Drifters adventure to Botswana some years previously. It was great to see him again and reminisce about our previous capers and the group involved. It is an odd thing, holidaying with a bunch of strangers. You live in such close proximity to them for a few weeks and get to know them well and yet you then part ways and never see each other again, despite promises of reunions. These days there would be Facebook groups and the like of course but it’s still an unusual form of friendship.

Over a few beers that evening, the following day’s activities were planned. The strange German couple decided they could not rest unless they revisited the desert road we had travelled along en route to Swakopmund in search for these weird looking plants called the Welwitschias which are almost unique to Namibia. Seeing these things was almost their raison d’être and they were unamused that the spring-like weather meant that there was greenery in the desert which had hidden them. Everyone else, however, was bound for quad biking the giant sand dunes in the desert just outside the town. This sounded dangerous to me but it also seemed like a prerequisite and the thing you had to do while in town. So it was. In fact, it was brilliant. I really enjoyed it and even had a certificate for a time to prove my bravery.

However, that was not all. I’d managed to be talked into doing a skydive. I think the rest of the group was a bit surprised that when the guide enquired as to who wanted to do it that I was the first volunteer. I’d always wanted to do one and couldn’t imagine that there would be anywhere better than this town where the desert bordered the sea. Up I went at dusk to 12,000 feet in a plane with a man called Michael strapped to my back. He was friendly and had induced confidence in me despite his dodgy moustache. In my opinion moustaches on their own should be relegated to the plughole except, of course, during Movember when they can be justified in the name of charity. I forgave him for this however as he seemed like he knew what he was doing and would make sure I was returned alive and intact to the UK at the end of my trip. I had phoned my mother the night before. I hadn’t spoken to her since the start of the holiday due to us being out in the wilds and it had cost me £16 because I’d stupidly told her about the impending jump and then spent most of the call trying to get her to stop sobbing. I knew this was likely to be a once only experience for me so I’d paid extra to have a videographer jump as well. This was in the days before Go Pros and the like of course and so he literally had a video camera strapped to one side of his helmet and a still camera to the other. He operated these with wires which he bit down upon at the right time. There would be no sound at that height but he would capture plenty of shots and footage. He jumped first then Michael and I shuffled to the open door of the plane. I sat with my legs over the edge and he shoved us through the gap. We were off. It was indescribable as I experienced his massive but momentary lurch of my heart and stomach into my mouth but then we were lying prone, floating through the sky and it was just absolutely incredible. I was thumbs up all the way down, the videographer laughing and giggling, Michael shouting in my ear about how well I was doing and me responding accordingly with big grins and hand gestures. Then Michael pulled the chute and we settled into a seated position, spiralling ever downwards towards the sand-covered earth we call home. It was sunset and a clear day. I could see out to sea but all the time below us was this crinkly sandy surface, each of the teeny tiny imperfections being one of those giant sand dunes which I had ridden up early in the day.

As always for me, the ending was not perfect but rather comical and it turned out to be a befitting way to punctuate the exhilarating yet emotional experience that went before. On hitting the ground, I fell face down and by default Michael ended up spreadeagled on top of me with the chute engulfing the two of us. Safely rescued and back on our feet, we went into the office to watch the video footage and I was asked whether I wanted it set to music. I instantly knew that the only appropriate sound track to this video would be A Beautiful Day by U2. It must have been recently released because we had listened to it endlessly in the truck where the CD collection was somewhat limited. We would be driving along and when it came on we would all sing it at full voice, even the Germans joining in occasionally. In the days and weeks following this holiday, I would watch the video frequently, both in amazement that I had actually done it, in a show off sense to my mates and whenever I felt like I needed a laugh. I haven’t seen it for years as I no longer have a video player and this has been a reminder that I must get it digitised so I can watch it again.

And so it was that yesterday was also A Beautiful Day. Nothing so dramatic happened but every so often you have a perfect day just because the circumstances conspire with you and not against. Black Friday 3 did not happen so I awoke in my own bed in my own house after a short but justifiable lie in. I stepped into the indulgent rainforest shower in my gorgeous new en suite which is now complete with the windows unfrosted so I can stand there looking out at the beauty of this fabulous place where I live. Then a friend came around with a Christmas tree for me as they sell them near her house and she has a car big enough to transport one. She brought her daughter but no amount of manhandling by them and supervision by me was going to make the tree stand upright. Cue a phone call to another friend to come and give us a hand. By the time he arrived we’d got it sorted so then we were free to sit in my lounge and drink café frappés and Lewis Road Creamery chocolate liqueur (just try it!). The doors were open and it was a wonderfully balmy day outside with one of those ink blue skies and just enough breeze to offer relief and to deliver a faint whiff of jasmine.

In the end, we parted ways and I went to visit my friend who has not been well. It is no secret that she is undergoing chemotherapy. As much as she doesn’t like to talk about being brave or of it being a battle or she a victim, it is a deeply unpleasant experience nonetheless and she has impressed us all with her resilience and positive attitude. I like to think about keeping things as normal as possible for her. After all, she is a friend who happens to have cancer, not cancer which happens to have a friend attached to it. She is at the same point in this current chemo cycle as when she was at her worst in the last. I have tried to check in with her daily by text to make sure she is OK and she has seemed fine but it was still a really fabulous surprise to me to find her at home ready to go out as she was feeling as well as she could be. We had a lovely lunch in a trendy cafe overlooking the water and she ate the most she has in ages. I was so pleased as this meant she was up for the truffle fries and I could help her finish them… They just happen to be a weakness for both of us. After that, we mooched around some trendy but expensive shops where I happened upon lots of things I’d buy except for knowing that Christmas sales are just around the corner and I hate buying things that then get reduced! We retired to hers to watch some trashy TV while trying a cocktail of Chambord and sparkling wine to try and re-create a wonderful raspberry drink we’d had in times gone by. Actually, I seem to recall an evening after a day working in Nelson when we had a Chambord cocktail at the Rutherford Hotel followed by a meal including truffle fries at Hopgoods. Or maybe that was the time that Hopgoods had only ordinary fries on the menu and I sulked like a teenager. It was certainly the night that we retired to her room to drink a bottle of champagne and when we phoned a friend to come and join us he showed up in his dressing gown as he’d already gone to bed!

Now, many people have asked me why I’m doing the cycling trek. Well, no one reason really. I like a challenge and I like to do my bit to support charity, especially ones with a focus on children and local ventures. However, more than anything, I’m doing it because my friend suggested it. She supports this particular charity, Variety, but she is obviously not up to a cycle trek at the moment so I thought, why not? Why not do it for her and at the same time for me and the charity. Despite being unwell, she has been so amazingly encouraging and has never wavered in her opinion that I can do it. I know she will wave me off with a variety of crazy face masks, muscle lotions and chocolate just as she did for my last overly ambitious venture. Thats what friends do for each other. So, I set off from her place resolved to have another go on the bike.

So far I have cycled only on a quiet track in the bush near where I live. This time I went along the Auckland harbour water front on a shared cycle path and pavement. It was much busier and being a sunny day, there were people everywhere – walking, skating, cycling, just wandering; locals and tourists, adults and children alike. There were also hazards like pavement works, cars, ramps and so forth. But, it was absolutely fabulous. I loved every minute. Yes, it was flat again, but it was the furthest I’ve been so far at 15.3 kms and there was enough of a breeze to relieve the heat from the sun but also to make it a bit challenging as I had to pedal a bit harder.

Auckland is the most picturesque city and I feel lucky every day to be allowed to stay here. There are those from outside who pour scorn on our city and its inhabitants, referring to us as JAFAs* and criticising our traffic and housing prices. Well, where else could you cycle from one stunning beach to another with the glittering blue waters right next to you, looking out to sail boats and an island volcano and most people giving you a friendly wave or hello? The traffic may be heavy and the housing prices high but show me a city where they aren’t.

After coming home, I put all 150 ornaments on my Christmas tree, each one a reminder of such-and-such a market, holiday, friend or family member. There are Aboriginal baubles from Sydney, reindeer with conical hats from Vietnam, metal hearts from Cardiff Castle, gingerbread men bought by one set of nephews, a shiny silver handbag from my sister and a festive foot made out of flour from another nephew. The whole thing is a construction of sentiment and, in my opinion, this just makes it even more beautiful than it is anyway. Bugger those who have to have a colour scheme or the right shaped baubles. Sod off to those who say my tree isn’t right as it doesn’t have tinsel. Christmas isn’t about trends, design and showing off. Christmas is about family, friends, reflections, memories and looking forward. Yes, this may be soppy and so to lighten the mood, I’d just like to add that if my mate J doesn’t offer to swap his inflatable reindeer costume for the departmental Christmas party for my ever-so-small Little Bo Beep Santa dress, then he may no longer be on the Christmas card list. As he would say, this is no deterrent as I haven’t sent cards for years, preferring to donate the money to the Auckland City Mission! Actually, that’s just a cover up for being hopelessly disorganised but from bad sometimes comes good.

So, I hope you all had A Beautiful Day! Do let me know in the comments what makes a perfect day for you. I’d like to think of the blog as a conversation rather than a diatribe.


PS The Germans never did find the welwitschias but we happened upon one in the car park of a campsite a few days later and they were grudgingly happy

* JAFAs = Just Another F***ing Aucklander (sorry mother but at least I spent another £16 on phoning you to let you know I survived the sky dive!)