Crazy people strap mower engines to their backs and call it a race
They are taking part in the Icarus Trophy, hopefully not to end up the same way
What does an intensive care unit nurse, part-time anti-poaching agent, orthopaedic surgeon and a chemical engineer on a two-year gardening sabbatical have in common?
Nothing, until they lined up at sunrise on Wednesday morning on a dusty field north-west of Pretoria with lawnmower engines and parachutes strapped to their backs.
This motley bunch of adventurers, who come from South Africa, Mexico, the US, UK, New Zealand, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, have set out on a world first: attempting to fly their paramotors (paragliders with a two-stroke engine attached to a harness) from Hartbeespoort Dam in North West to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.The 27 participants will, if successful, be the first in the world to fly 1,200km, across three countries, in what is described as the smallest flying machine known to man.
Already two had dropped out of the competition during pre-competition flights because of injuries.
At stake? Nothing, say the entrants except their lives and a sense of achievement.
Driven by their spirit of adventure and camaraderie, the participants have been brought together as part of the international flying competition – the Icarus Trophy. It’s the first time the competition has come to Africa, having for the past two years taken place in the US.Divided into race and adventure categories, the competition is designed to have a minimum of rules.
While those entering the race category have five days to complete the competition and may not receive any form of support along the route, the organisers have gone somewhat softer on those in the adventure category, giving them eight days to complete the epic journey.
To stand a chance of winning, all participants must finish under their own power, having passed through compulsory checkpoints, stopped to land at border posts along the route, greeted unsuspecting border officials and got their passports stamped, before they can continue with their journey – which sees them fly north from South Africa through to the great Botswana pans before they head to Zimbabwe.While the winner of the race category is the first to cross the finish line, event organiser Aneurin Rainbird – of the UK based organisation The Adventurists – says the winner of the adventure category is the person who has the biggest and tallest tales of bravery, survival and adventure to tell at the end of the journey.
“Why do we do it? It’s about tapping into people’s sense of adventure. We have done it in the US several times and decided, well, lets bring it to a continent where there is real adventure, where people have to sleep out in the bush, and deal with all sorts of threats from wildlife, isolation and very few petrol stations. Basically participants have to be fully self-sufficient. Entrants will have to overnight wherever they land, be it under a tree or in a Good Samaritan’s home.”He said competitors would be constantly monitored through real-time GPS devices and would be in radio contact with those on the ground.
“Other than that they are on their own, although those in the adventure category do have access to backup teams.”
Rainbird said the journey was another way of conquering the sky.
“We have organised some of the craziest ground adventure races in the world, but had never conquered the sky. We looked around and came up with the idea that paramotoring would be the best way to do that.”
With teeth gritted in determination, Mark Perrow , a chemical engineer who is on a two-year gardening sabbatical, checks his parachute lines, throttle and GPS.Moments before he takes off, the paramotorist tells Times Select he has just nine weeks of flying time.
“In my five cross country trips I have never landed successfully once. I have had my reserve parachute deploy on its own, my air filter and exhaust break off and go through the propeller and have got my hand struck by the blade.“Yesterday [Tuesday] the orthopaedic surgeon [who is also flying in the competition] pulled a couple of pins out of my hand because I couldn’t fly properly with them in. But that’s not my biggest problem. The biggest problem is my wife. She thinks I’m seconding a friend, but 30 minutes after I get lift-off and tell her ...” he says laughing nervously.
With a soft breeze blowing he’s running flat out down the field, fellow competitors cheering.
“Lift, lift, lift,” yells New Zealander Dane Dickinson, a paramotorer with nearly three years’ experience.
For Dickinson, who recently got his PhD in soil engineering, the competition is his greatest adventure yet.
Making final minor repairs to his craft, he smiles.
“This is my cuppa tea. You do this because of the adventure. It beats sitting in a stuffy office.”
Californian intensive care unit nurse Kevin Mihalik was lured into the race through his best friend, who will be flying alongside him.“I have only been flying for about five months. My aim is to take it easy, enjoy the views, meet new and interesting friends and have some great adventures. I have a rough idea of where I’m flying to. It’s a few countries slightly north of here.
“I love the excitement of fear and the great unknown. It makes you feel alive,” he says, laughing.
“All I can say,” he says tightening his flying suit, “is I don’t plan to be like Icarus and fly to close to the sun.”