Continued from Part 1
Steady and organic as it has been for three years running, the growth for this particular event is a little more along the “exponential” lines. The biggest boogie Diani had seen before this particular crowd descended was made up of around 30 people; today, almost a hundred jumpers are thronging about the place. They’re poured out in ones, twos and threes on the pillows heaped on princely carved daises. They’re queueing up for smoothies at the bar--a converted Volkswagen bus, painted a cheerful robin’s-egg blue. (The van’s side roof has been removed to reveal a seemingly indefatigable blender and its winking operator--Jimmy, a Kenyan with light eyes, a quick wit and international schooling who’s just about to start on his helicopter pilot’s license.) Two dropzone dogs chase wayward monkeys up the treetrunks. A local taps an endless stack of coconuts with his practiced machete, revealing the restorative nectar inside for the jumpers rustling back in from their beach landings. A dozen packers, tidily kitted out in their official Skydive Diani shirts and swoop shorts, busily compress a steady stream of nylon under thatch roofs. It’s busy here.
Not too long ago, this wide lawn would have had a population of perhaps four, give or take--and, reliably, one of those residents would be Ingvild Finvåg.
Ingvild’s Viking-blue eyes and honey-blonde, Disney-princess locks announce her provenance with rigorous clarity, even if the mildness of her Nordic lilt does not. Her polished manners and peach-cheeked smiles belie the steady, bulldog resolve that has placed her squarely next to Gary at the heart of the Diani operation.
Ingvild did a handful of skydives in her early 20’s, but it didn’t quite take. Seven years later, she moved to Mombasa from Oslo to work the volunteer circuit; this time, it snagged her thoroughly. She landed from her first Skydive Diani jump and essentially never left. Ingvild started her AFF in earnest a week later, logging a hundred jumps within that first season, then quickly going on to earn her TI and AFF instructor ratings. As it turns out, hers was one of the first tandems Skydive Diani had ever done.
“I just hung around, jumping all the time, and built up jump numbers,” Ingvild remembers. “I just wanted to be around the drop zone.”
Ingvild initially picked up a gig as the dropzone’s marketing liaison; now, she’s General Manager. On this particular afternoon, she’s ensconced at the front desk, working out the details of the catering for tonight’s Christmas party as she scruffles Bonbon, her roly-poly, lambswool dog. Next to Ingvild, Aaron Kitchener--an old friend of Gary’s, who co-runs his Kenyan security firm--is pitching in to run the manifest and make sure the bottomless coffee and tea urns stay full. When the final load goes up, Aaron ambles out from behind the desk, summoning the ground crew to help him unbox, unwrap and light dozens of oil lamps, all in the DZ’s signature blue. By the time the sunset load comes whooping down, the lamps are casting warm pools of light at the feet of the lawn’s tall palm trees, guiding the way to the free beer.
If this isn’t paradise, I don’t know what is.
We hear the Christmas party before we see it.
Kenya Defence Forces Parachute Display Team by Joel Strickland
As we stroll down the long driveway towards the boutique hotel Gary and Ingvild have arranged to host the shindig, the happy chitter of a hundred giddy skydivers comes through the trees to announce that we’ve come to the right place. When we enter the venue, we’re stunned: this is an actual-factual Christmas party, not a cobbled-together skydiverly simalcrum. It’s a pressed-tablecloth affair, with roses and candles and African-themed Christmas crackers at every place setting. Skydivers swish about in showy dresses and ironed collars. Solicitous waiters work their way through the constellation of tables like fish in a reef, wine bottles dipping this way and that. We’re seated with the Kenyan Defense Force parachute demo team, a decorous foursome who, as we draw them out, set about showing us smartphone photos of their farms and families. We work our way together through a splendid little buffet, watching luminarias twinkle around the pool as we tell our stories.
As we tuck into our Christmas pudding, a representative of the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority makes his way to the front stage, attired in what must be his full traditional kit. As he sings the dropzone’s praises and hails the rich future of Kenyan airsports, jumpers pepper his speech with happy hoots and hollers. The phenomenon seems a little new to him, but he rolls with it, eventually passing the mic to Gary, who delivers an emotional brief history of the place before introducing a live band.
In a handful of minutes, the dance floor is pumping and the pool is splashing. At one point, Jarrett Martin takes advantage of a suitable path to take a flying roll into the deep end. By the time I call it a night, I’ve already written off tomorrow morning.
It’s certainly not the only morning that we happily write off over the course of the ten-day event. Gary and Ingvild have planned get-togethers for every night we’re together there, and none of them are missable moments. From the outdoor cuddle-puddle movie night to the jump-in “invasion” of the island at the far border of the marine reserve, these are one-event-per-boogie special, but they’re happening every time the sun goes down.
There’s the pizza night at the fancypants resort down the road, for instance.
After we pass through the massive wooden gates, staff in crisply pressed uniforms with crisply pressed hellos lead us past a succession of rose-petal fountains. Somewhere back beyond the second or third swimming pool, we’re established family-style at long tables and presented with pizzas that would pass the muster of any Italian expat. Someone unfurls a projector screen and hits play on the day tape, which revolves on the axis of some gorgeous flying by Airwax--the French team--as they spin around the tropospheric ballroom with consummate grace. The dazzling footage has the knock-on effect of reminding us that we’re here for skydiving, after all. Several of us immediately order water.
On another evening, we pile into the Dornier for sunset inhopps to the Tiwi rivermouth. The takeoff timing leans heavily towards the late side for this strictly VFR airstrip, so we hardly get a peek at the low, golden sprawl of Mombasa and its interwoven estuaries before we’re scrambling out the door.
The exit rush and the sudden fall of darkness has me a little discombobulated when I land, so I’m nowhere near prepared for what happens next.
As I’m scrabbling up my lines and putting together what just happened, a group of Kenyans marches up from the treeline, surrounding me and the jumper I landed with. Dozens of them. Before I can respond to their sudden arrival, they start singing. And hugging us. And hugging each other. And dancing. And suddenly, we’re spinning in a vortex of big gospel voices, heads thrown back, pouring bouncing, burnt-sugar Swahili into the twilight sky.
They eventually let us go after hauling us back in for just one more selfie; just one more enforced nuzzle into a rotund grandmama’s rooster bosom; just one more high five for somebody’s shy preschooler. They wave until we’re hundreds of feet farther on our way towards the barbecue Gary and Ingvild have set up on the banks.
As I tromp through the rivermouth dunes towards the glow of headlights and smiling faces, I can’t help but thinking there’s no place like this one. I can’t help counting the days until I return.
And next time, I’ll order extra toast for the monkey.
Originally published in Blue Skies Magazine