“Don’t stop running,” bellows a voice directly into my left ear. The wind whistles around my head, my pounding heartbeat reverberating in my skull. Beneath this cacophony, my internal monologue asks simply: “What the hell am I doing here?”
As I sprint down the slopes of Lion’s Head mountain, at dawn, 2,000ft above Cape Town, I realise it’s a bit late for second thoughts. Still, this is insanity. Food poisoning has meant I’ve spent the last 48 hours shaking, clammy and sick, but after a sleepless night, here I am regardless: tremulous, nauseated and in a cold sweat. While there might very well be an overlap of symptoms, my current state isn’t due to illness, but an acute fear of heights — exacerbated by the fact that I’m about to jump off this bluff.
Every day, Capetonians can be seen leaping off Signal Hill and Lion’s Head: peaks in the Table Mountain National Park, which are surrounded by the city’s streets and suburbs on all sides. On weekends, scores of paraglider canopies dot the skies, sweeping upward on thermal currents and pitching steeply down into corkscrew dives.
In spite of my vertigo, I can empathise with this parade of plummeteers. Unlike most phobias — whether they be of spiders, snakes or even clowns — acrophobia can actually create the bizarre impulse to submit to the source of the terror and willingly plunge into the abyss. The French have a term that describes the phenomenon: l’appel du vide, or ‘the call of the void.’ Clinical psychologists have dubbed this sudden impulse to jump ‘high-place phenomenon’, and here I am about to give into it.
“Keep running,” shouts my paragliding instructor, Petar, as he gallops along right behind me, conjoined to my body by material bonds, like the back end of a pantomime Pegasus. As the fabric wing inflates and lifts us into the sky, my legs continue to bicycle through the air as if I’m riding an invisible, steampunk pedal copter. I feel rather silly, but Petar’s military background comes into play — he barks at me to keep pumping my quads. If I stopped at the same time as we lost altitude, it could result in us tumbling down the mountainside wrapped in a polyester cocoon.
Thankfully, we take to the sky with the grace of a butterfly on a Perspex tandem. Oddly, I feel no fear at all; we simply glide above the sun-bleached cityscape towards the Atlantic Ocean, the fynbos-clad mountains receding beneath us. The paraglider feels reassuringly sturdy as I pull myself up by the harness and into the seat, before sitting back and admiring the views while my instructor plans our 20-minute flight path.
Golden swathes of beach are lapped by twinkling, cobalt sea; insectoid pedestrians navigate liquorice lace roads plied by dinky cars amid Lego buildings; clouds roll off the top of Table Mountain like double cream poured over a chunk of chocolate cake; and behind it, the peaks of the Twelve Apostles fade into pastel shades. By finally stepping into the void, I’ve been rewarded with views that take my breath away. And I’m glad to be alive.