The monkey freezes, holding two pieces of toast overhead like semaphore flags.
For a moment, nothing happens. We just stare at each other across the patio table: two primates who want breakfast and are a little startled to find that someone with overlapping priorities has added complications to the goal. For a moment, I think he’s going to set them back down, pat them reassuringly with his long, delicate hands and cast a fulsome grin over his shoulder as he saunters bipedally into the bushes. Instead, he lets loose with a cowabunga screech when I start to rise, tucking both slices under one lanky arm as he uses the other to facilitate an impossible leap to the roof above my head. Once up, he pops his face back over the edge. I’m quite sure he winks. He then chitters his way into the enormous baobab that overhangs the packing huts, clearly satisfied with himself.
My companion at the table pours himself another cup of tea, orders more toast and pats his forehead with a napkin. The first load of the morning is on a 30-minute call, but we’re already tugging at our collars. Diani snuggles the equator, so the seasons don’t dance a spring-summer-fall-winter foxtrot; it’s either pretty hot or really hot, and it’s pretty darn hot already before 9AM on this early-December day. The pressing swelter is making us pay for last night, which was spent at the beach bar next door, with several bottles of Tusker and an ill-advised shot of tequila or two, chasing crabs through pools of lamplight on the velvet sand.
The heat blossoms up, up, up from where we sit in the sultry seaside jungle, pressing long thermal fingers through the troposphere, summoning a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of cumulonimbus calvus. These puffy troops stand a daily watch along Diani’s ribbon of powdered-sugar sand; along the impossible blue of the Indian Ocean. Similarly reliable, Kenya’s coastal wind system pumps as reliably as a healthy heart. It pushes consistently and directly down the twelve-mile-long line of the beach, day after day after day.
When the ten-minute call goes up, I set my remaining toast back down and smile. It’s time to go play.
My companion and I wiggle into our gear and make our way to the dropzone bus, relishing the little puffs of air conditioning that emit from the ceiling vents. Once our motley bunch of boogiers have boarded, we’re underway: two French freefly medalists, fresh from the Mondial; a South African dropzone owner watching his clever daughter giggle her way through AFF; my curly-haired companion, a beguiling Briton who has taken national gold in freefly and freestyle alike; a Russian instructor who has probably never once frowned; Diani’s resident TIs, who look like two different artists’ renderings of Peter Pan; an international assemblage of fun jumpers, representing a comprehensive gamut of languages, disciplines and gear loyalties. As we cobble together an exit order, we scratch down the gravel road from the stately white house and grounds that comprise the dropzone, starting what I can only properly describe as a ten-minute summary of the African experience.
The road between the dropzone house and Diani’s Ukunda Airfield is about four and a half kilometers long. That four and a half kilometers starts in earnest with a paved, two-lane road, lined by crayon-box craft stalls and criss-crossed by vervet monkey families. Exuberantly painted tuktuks (“JESUS LOVE! WU-TANG 4EVER! BIG DADDY!”) blast past the bus, signs proclaiming their three-passenger capacity partially obscured by passenger number five’s arm, leg or shopping bag. When we negotiate the sharp turn onto the airstrip road, we’re greeted by a gaggle of tiny children in baggy school uniforms, howling and waving at us through the windows as we bump along. Shiny babies peek shyly from the backs of their mamas who, draped fastidiously in the sherbert wraps of their kikoy, walk with the lulling, rolling cadence of hips that have never been parked at a desk. Imminently pregnant cows march, at their kid shepherd’s behest, to match our forward movement as we pass a series of crumbling tin-roofed shops selling peanuts and airtime; a mission schoolhouse; a braiding salon comprised of a single pink lawn chair; a toilet plumbed directly into the middle of an open yard; a throng of shoeless teenagers in Chinese G-Star polo shirts, singing. The bus driver tries to hurry. I want him to slow down.
Once we’ve passed the stern-faced airport soldiers and have bundled out of the bus, I lean down to firm my shoelace ties. I’m jostled by a woman dressed in her shiny-shoed Sunday best, as is often the case in Kenyan airports. She has wandered over to poke at the rig on my back.
“Is this a parachute?,” she asks, as I weave to avoid a more comprehensive probing. When I answer in the affirmative, she shakes her head and smiles the wide, crinkle-eyed, hakuna-matata smile that seems to be the Kenyan default.
“Say hello to God for me,” she says as she wheels her carry-on through the doors of the tiny terminal.
As I try to figure out exactly what she meant by that, I hear the Dornier spin up. Another Diani day has officially begun.
Skydiving, as you can see in the faces of the locals, is a relatively new addition to the list of activities on offer at Diani Beach. In fact, as of my first jump at the dropzone, it had been three years almost to the day since Skydive Diani first opened its doors. Though the country’s history in skydiving goes back a decade, Kenya’s skydiving scene had been categorically temporary--a week-long belly boogie, here or there, hosted from borrowed safari bushplanes in different parts of the country. In 2012, a square-jawed British expat named Gary Lincoln-Hope ended up at one of these boogies--which was, fortuitously, taking place in Diani.
Gary did his first tandem at age 16. He joined the British army soon thereafter, as a commissioned officer in the parachute regiment, traveling extensively in the process. Though circumstances and conflicting responsibilities prevented him from going through his AFF while he was in the army, it was his first priority when he matriculated. The new skydiver founded a London-based security company and jumped faithfully all weekend long, every good-weather weekend. When he decided to expand his security business to Kenya--a country he’d fallen for during the course of several army training jaunts--he didn’t want to stop jumping.
“I had been in Kenya for a little when I happened to come to that boogie,” Gary explains, “And I really enjoyed it. It was a huge buzz. I just knew that there should be a drop zone here in Diani. It didn’t hurt that I was really missing skydiving, because there was nowhere to do it in Kenya and I was based in a place with nowhere to jump. Luckily, I was quite entrepreneurial back then. I didn’t really know anything about skydiving, but I had set up a business here and in the UK, and I reckoned I could make it work.”
Within months, Gary found the house, sourced a 206, rushed through some documentation, put the proper requests through to a somewhat baffled aviation authority and--four weeks later--found himself the proud operator of an active dropzone. By the time 2012 was out, it was all systems go. At the time Skydive Diani opened its doors, Gary himself had 300 jumps. Several thousand jumps and all their instructor ratings later, Gary and the team find themselves flying multiple aircraft from the cute to the huge.
“Skydive Diani was always intended to be a place to go to jump for fun,” Gary insists, “Fun is now and has always been at the top of the agenda.”
“I didn’t do it to make money,” he continues “I did it because I wanted to skydive on weekends. But I got a couple of willing tandem instructors to come over. Business was slow at the start, because the difficulty in Kenya is you are not selling tandems; you are selling the very idea of jumping out of a plane.”
“During that first four months,” he continues, “I was jumping every single load, just to build up my own experience and jump numbers so I could through the rating courses. It’s been a long road, but it has steadily, organically grown to what it is now.”
Continue reading part 2
Originally published in Blue Skies Magazine