Zelda Norden, a Handicapped ScubaAssociation (HSA) diving instructor,her Active Scuba partner Lynn Retief,and Bernie Kirsten of Guinjata Resortin Inhambane, Mozambique decidedthat there should be more persons with disabilities diving in our wonderful South Africa.
They asked Jim Gatacre, the Directorof HSA, to come to South Africa to runmore than the ususal instructor course- three courses in one! Yep, Zelda haddecided that she needed to get herCourse Director qualification so thatshe could teach scuba instructors, andthen she decided that she would teachthose instructors while Jim was here tooversee, and of course they wouldneed students to practice on, so whynot run a student course as well!
When she called me to ask forassistance, I was sceptical that wewould be able to pull off all three at thesame time, and the necessary fundingwas going to be huge. Bernie hauledout his cheque book and soon Zeldaand Lynn had Forever Resorts and Indaba Hotel coming onboard asvenues for the theory sessions andaccommodation for Jim and his wife,Pat, as well as the Bela Bela ForeverResort for the weekend pool sessionsfor the students, and then ForeverResorts Phalaborwa for the overnightstop on the way up to Guinjata Bay forthe qualifying sea dives. Mc Carthy Group got various dealerships withinthe Pretoria area to sponsor two Jeepsand two Mitshubishi bakkies to takethe students and gear up toMozambique.
I suggested “Amaglubglub”, as thename for the venture and I had comeacross the creative talent of RobertCrisp, a quadraplegic, who kindly put together a cartoon of the disableddiver, incorporating mobility, hearingand visually impaired sectors.
Time just flew and before I knew it,Jim was here and everyone wasmeeting at the Centurion Forever Hotelfor the first time. We had our seveninstructors: Lynn, Jana, Hayley, Braam,“Groot” Koos, Le-Roy and Roger; andour seven students: two quadriplegics(Frank and Andew), an amputee(Flippie), a paraplegic (Koos), Versha(my very special friend with spinabifida), and two hearing impairedteachers from St Vincent school for theDeaf (Stanley and Laiken).
Zelda, Lynn and Bernie ran aroundorganising vehicles, collecting custommade wetsuits, sponsored shirts andrural wheelchairs from the FreeWheelchair Mission for the communityof Inhambane. Students arranged whowas collecting who and which carwould take what and so we set off toBela Bela to start the Student course.
There was quite a bit of tension inthe air on the Saturday as the instructorstook their students through the initialsteps of getting into the water. Wivesand cargivers looked on anxiously asthe students took their first foray intothe magical underwater world underthe scrutiny of the local press.
Under blazing African skies, waysand means were worked out on how tohandle each unique person. At dinnerthat night there were many happy,sun-burned and tired faces andeveryone went to bed very early!
Sunday morning breakfast was greatfun, much more relaxed, and studentsand instructors eagerly looked forwardto the second, deeper pool, session inthe tidal pool. Most completed theirskills in the time allotted by the resortbefore they switched on the wavemachine, but Stanley and Laiken werejust ending their session when thewaves started up. This gave Laikenquite a fright as she had never been tothe sea, and so had never experiencedwave action. As spectators watchingfrom the pool side realised that Laikenwas struggling they all jumped in tohelp, even the press photographer,Chris Collingridge. Laiken was finebut the cell phone in the photographer’spocket was not so lucky!
The rest of the day was spent atleisure and Jim, Pat and I went for alovely game drive before joining theothers at Andrew’s accessible cottage.(The rest of us were housed in the hotel- Forever Resorts have really tried hardto make their premises accessible, butthere are still a few small issues thatneed to be adjusted and tweaked).
On Monday we were up bright andearly to drive through to Phalaborwaen route to Inhambane. What shouldhave been a short three hour run,dragged on a bit as with six vehiclesriding in convoy and loading andunloading everybody’s wheelchairs inorder to visit the one accessible loo atstops. We decided to share one chairand when Koos’s frame flew off one ofthe bakkies at 120km an hour - onlynarrowly missing the car behind - weadmired its bumps and bruises andused it for the “loo run”.
we all arrived safely at PhalaborwaSafari Park, another Forever resort,and were amazed at the luxury of ourair-conditioned tents and outsideshowers. After a wonderful braai weturned in early for the next day’s drive,a monumental trek through the KrugerPark, Trans Frontier park and southernMozambique.
Frank, our Rolling Inspiration webmaster, was driving his kombi and we had all worried how the heat and long driving times was going to affect him. After a long hot day we were all finished, but Frank kept on going, not even leaving his docking station for 19 hours! We arrived at Guinjata Bay late in the evening, where staff showed us the changes that they had made to the chalets (for wheelchair access) and made sure that we could all manage, before we hit the hay.
Wednesday dawned and most of us got up to watch the dawn break over the sea, another perfect day in Africa. There were moist eyes all around when the students came back from their first sea experiences. Words cannot describe the feeling of accomplishment and the sense of wonder you see in the students after their first experience under the sea. Each day brought more confidence to each of the students. Frank became completely hooked on the sport – we had created a monster!
We took time off from the sea to deliver rural wheelchairs to the Inhambane hospital, and then on to a village where we presented a ruralchair to the brother of one of the staff at the dive centre. The entire village turned out and it was emotionally overwhelming to see this young boys’s face when he sat in his very first wheelchair, after being carried around - or pushed in a wheelbarrow - for the past 12 years!
I did not know what I was letting myself into ... this was bigger than I had ever imagined. On the first day I realised that this was something I needed in my life and, when Jim had me in tears on the first day of training, I realised that I had to prepare myself for an emotional rollercoaster ride . And then I trained Frank, a C7 quad...
The first time with him in the water was something I have never experience in my life, his big brown eyes looking at me with excitement, approval and intense fear. “Even thinking about it now makes me cry”.
I used to think “Life is valuable and precious...” Then I went scuba-diving and now valuable and precious have taken on a whole new meaning and dimension. Over the years my motorised wheelchair has become my comfort zone and the place where I learn to adapt to life and where I spend up to 15 hours a day. Take me out of this comfort zone and I feel totally helpless and insecure.
Then I agreed to be placed in a heated pool - without a lifejacket! Real life shock therapy... and I’m glad I did.The training is intense, scary yet exciting. Every skill learned in the water is an achievement, a small step of victory towards qualifying for the open water dives and the ultimate - certification as an HSA scuba diver! Each stroke is a tribute to the professional instruction, dedication and passion of my instructor who taught me to dive, and to dive safely.Placing my life, my trust and my fears into the hands of my diving instructor was all part of the communication and challenges that were necessary to transform my life and move to a new comfort zone.