Matt’s daring flight from Robben Island to mainland Cape Town had been in planning since the idea was born in 2007. Eventually the date was narrowed down to April, with take-off to be determined by ideal weather.
One man. Helium balloons. One mission. To raise R10,000,000 for the new Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital by donation.
With the date pinned to Saturday 6 April, media were invited to cover the event from either Robben Island for take-off, a Naval Vessel to accompany the flight, or Big Bay beach to welcome Matt. I opted for the Navy Vessel, in itself exciting. A group of 12 reporters and bloggers gathered at the V&A Waterfront at 6.30 to board Umdloti, the SA Navy Mine Sweeper, whose guests we were for the day.
The mist was thick and soft rain fell as we headed out towards Robben Island, basing ourselves just offshore in zero visibility, we kept in contact with Matt’s team on the Island as to progress. They had been inflating balloons since 3am, each 1,5 metres in diameter, the targeted 200 would reach a heigh of twelve stories. Take-off was scheduled for 9.30 am.
With no sign of the mist lifting, the decision was made to delay. A test pilot confirmed that 160 balloons was enough to carry Matt, weighing in at 110kg, to shore. Wearing a wetsuit and harness attached to the balloons, there were bags weighted with water to adjust the height, and a pellet gun and spear to pop the balloons once he reached the other side. There had been no test runs and Matt wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Eventually just before 11am we had word of take-off! We clung to the deck with cameras in hand, trying to see him, and there through the thick mist he was. What a thrill.
The vessel followed his flight as he seemed to climb higher and higher, ever moving in the mist with no land visible to anchor his progress. We noticed some balloons popping and Matt descended to a more manageable height, drifting further South with the wind than anticipated. He was nearing shore, although in line with Sunset Beach and not Big Bay as anticipated.
After about an hour, Matt reached the support boats just off shore.
Arriving to the boats, we watched as he struggled to pop the balloons by pellet gun, the bullets bouncing off the surface. The support crew took hold of the rope and held him as he was eventually forced to release the balloons. The mist had still not lifted.
In an interview on shore afterwards he described how he struggled at this point, and were it not for the support team taking hold of him, he could well have drifted up and been lost. How terrifying that must have been.
An incredible achievement, a man with a dream, with focus on making a difference. Humbled and inspired by his bravery, I am very grateful to have witnessed Balloon Bloke flying above me and to have shared in some of the adventures of the day.
Matt being interviewed on the beach. This video from the Telegraph shows his take-off and a post flight interview.
For us to reach land and join Matt, we descended by rope ladder from Umhloti to a rubber duck which took us towards the coastline, here we met a smaller craft for the final stretch to shore. As I climbed down, naval life-jacket for added precaution, I looked up and the sky was blue. The sun was shining. The challenge had been won.
It doesn’t end here though, donations are encouraged and much needed. If this hero of a man can put his life on the line, literally, we can put our hands in our pockets and make a contribution towards this great cause.
From me, as I look through my photos and remember the day at sea, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been there and would like to thank the SA Navy who hosted us, Positive Dialogue for the arrangements and the wonderful media-infused company that I shared the shivers, excitement and a few motion-sickness wobbles with.
But mostly to Matt for showing me that its more than okay to dream big, and then follow that dream!