South African flies from Robben Island using giant balloons


Mon, Apr 08, 2013 - Page 6

A South African man on Saturday successfully flew across the sea from former South African president Nelson Mandela’s apartheid island prison using helium-filled giant party balloons.

The 6km crossing, to raise funds for a children’s hospital named after the former president, was the first stunt of its kind from the historical site.

Matt Silver-Vallance, 37, took about an hour to float across the Atlantic Ocean from Robben Island, while harnessed to a mass of multicolored balloons in gray, drizzly conditions with low visibility.

Making his way wearing a wetsuit, he floated a few meters above the sea, with controls for flight including bags weighted with water and an air gun and make-shift spear to pop balloons.

“Wow, that was crazy,” he said, saying he felt “unbelievable” after landing in a rubber duck between 300m and 400m from shore once the balloons were released.

“Don’t try this at home,” he added.

With no test run ahead of lift-off, a total of 160 balloons were inflated on the island early on Saturday morning, with several popping ahead of departure.

Silver-Vallance popped about 35 more balloons during the trip to manage his equilibrium. A hard ground landing was ruled out as too risky.

The daring mission aimed to raise 10 million rand (US$1.1 million) for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital, which will be built in Johannesburg.

“We’re trying to raise as much money [as possible] for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital and we really see this project as a catalyst,” Silver-Vallance said ahead of take-off.

The hospital will be part of Mandela’s legacy and the balloon run was a “small thing” to try to remind people of everything the 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon had done, he said.

“The risks that I’m taking are tiny compared to the risks that he took,” Silver-Vallance said, adding he did not consider himself a daredevil.

When asked what message he had for Mandela, an emotional Silver-Vallance said: “I think like most South Africans we all love him very much.”

He said he hoped the flight “could bring a smile to [Mandela’s] face.”

Later, after the flight, Mandela was discharged from hospital after being admitted 10 days ago for a bout of pneumonia.

The Nobel Peace Prize recipient spent part of his 27 year imprisonment on Robben Island, which is now a museum.

There have only been 12 previous such balloon flights in the world — two of which were fatal — according to Silver-Vallance, who now lives in Britain.