It’s one short ride

Posted by Michelle Hardie on 18 June 2019

Events in her life have cemented the importance of seizing the day, says Getaway’s Managing Editor Michelle Hardie.

Image by Ofer Cohen

It’s 6 February 1979.  My parents are on a week’s holiday in Victoria Falls.  My father is 45, my mother 47. After four daughters and 19 years, they are finally celebrating the honeymoon they didn’t take in 1960. They are staying at the grand Victoria Falls Hotel, and my mother has brought her finery – she wears a pearl necklace and a long dress in the evenings. She smells of Rive Gauche; the famous blue bottle stands on the dressing table in their hotel room. My father wears a suit for dinner. His jacket pocket holds a box of Country Club cheroots.

During the day they explore, meet other holiday makers and express their love for each other. Some of the time they sit down to write postcards to my sisters and me. In blue ballpoint, my mother’s familiar writing says she’s having a wonderful time, and she’ll be home soon. Each night, they go to sleep caressed by the sound of the Falls.

Forty years later, on a January morning, I was in a Cessna facing the back window and looking at the sky. Victoria Falls was somewhere far below. I was with Israeli skydive instructor Ofer Cohen. It was my first jump and I was unusually calm. I could feel Ofer tugging at the straps that held us together, checking that we were safe.

Ofer was beautiful and strong. He had curly black hair and bright eyes. He was full of life and he loved his job – he had been travelling the world for 13 years and done more than 6 ,000 jumps. On his Facebook page he had written a poignant account about his first swim in the Zambezi River. He felt privileged to have had the experience, and was ‘full of gratitude and happiness’ for his way of life.

The door was open and it was time to go. Curled into a fetal position with Ofer behind me, he propelled us into the sky. Adrenaline surged through my body. I watched as we slid down an artist’s canvas of blue and white blots in the 30-second freefall. I screamed with excitement. Suddenly the chute opened, jerking us up. The jolt was terrifying. Then we sunk into a gentle, quiet ride. It was overwhelming and I started to cry.
‘I could live up here,’ I said to Ofer. I thought of my parents’ visit to Vic Falls.

On Monday 12 February 1979 they begin their journey home to Harare on flight RH827 via Hwange to Kariba. Viscount Umniati arrives at 4.45pm in the late-afternoon heat at Kariba airport. Passengers disembark and more get on for the final leg to Harare.

Just across the border in Zambia, a surface-to-air heat-seeking missile is being prepared. Civil-war guerrillas are waiting for a plane to fly over before they pull the trigger. There are several flights that afternoon. Viscount Umniati takes off at 5pm flying low for 40 kilometres until it starts to climb. Passengers hear the clink of the drinks trolley being prepared. At 5.06pm the Russian missile arcs towards them. It’s a perfect hit. The engine explodes and falls off. The left wing drops, the nose pitches up, the plane is on fire and in a spiral dive. Thirty seconds later Umniati hits the ground.

I’m in prep on Monday evening when Mevrou Koernick appears at the door. In her thick Afrikaans accent she calls out that the headmistress wants to see me. I’m astonished. I’m embarrassed in front of my peers. What have I done wrong? My heart beats wildly as I walk to her office. It’s dark and lonely in the school corridor but I can see my sisters silhouetted by the light at her door. We enter and stand to attention. Mrs Twiss tells us a plane has gone down and my parents might be on it. We start to wail and she tells us to be quiet. She sends us to the sick bay to wait. All 59 people on board Viscount Umniati die. I’m 13 years old.

Ofer let me hold the ropes to guide the parachute. We swept through a cloud and hit turbulence. I started to feel sick but I held on as we were nearly down. Suddenly, the ground rushed up and we were pulling up clumps of earth as we came to a halt. ‘I need to sit for a while,’ I said to him. I could see my takkies were smeared with red soil.

Later, sitting near the hangar fighting my ongoing nausea, I heard him gently say, ‘Micky, I have to go… I thanked him for taking me on my first jump – those glorious few minutes were worth how green I felt.

Ofer was beginning another adventure soon. He was leaving in a few weeks for South Africa and then on to skydive in Kenya. The magic of the Zambezi River lured him back for one last swim, but this time it didn’t let him go. His clothes were found on the bank of the river. A day later his body was retrieved from the water. Ofer was buried in Israel on 11 February 2019. He was 33.

Image: Ofer Cohen

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