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One Man, 200 Helium Balloons – And One Daring Flight Across Shark-Infested Water For Charity

by on 31/01/13 at 11:30 am
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How far would you go to raise money for a good cause?

Robben Island Balloon RunFor Matt Silver-Vallance, the answer to that question is 600 metres above sea level, the equivalent of a 50-storey building – strapped to a bunch of helium balloons, drifting over the ocean at the mercy of Cape Town’s wind.
Matt is the intrepid aviator of the Robben Island Balloon Run, a daring attempt to fly from Robben Island to the mainland of Cape Town using only a cluster of helium-filled party balloons.

The purpose behind this daredevil stunt is to raise R10 million for the building of a Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital – a cause close to Matt’s heart and a passion born out of his experience as a volunteer paramedic in South Africa on the Western Cape Ambulance Service in 1999/2000.

The Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital, currently in its planning and fundraising phase, will be built in Parktown near the Wits Medical School in Johannesburg and is the fulfilment of Madiba’s wish that there should be such a specialist hospital for the children of Southern Africa. It is targeted to open in November 2014.

Sibongiseni Mkhize, Chief Executive Officer at Robben Island Museum, is optimistic about the success of the initiative. “I think it’s a very ambitious project but I think it’s achievable,” he comments. “The history of Robben Island has shown us that nothing is too difficult, as long as people work together, have a common goal and determination to succeed.

“The Balloon Run for me represents that kind of spirit. A paediatric hospital would be the realisation of the dreams of a lot of people,” adds Mkhize.

Matt will be one of just 13 people in the world who have attempted the feat of cluster-ballooning, as it’s known amongst fellow adrenalin junkies. Not all those attempts have been successful – two of those people have perished in the process, so the stakes could not be higher on this daring stunt.

Matt’s attempt will take place between 1 and 27 April 2013. As he will be entirely dependent on the wind to blow him in the right direction, it’s not possible to set an exact date for the event, the timing of which will be determined by weather reports provided to him by the eNews weather team. Statistically, the month of April provides the best weather windows to gain a gentle, consistent wind between 230° and 310°, which will allow Matt to float from Robben Island towards the Cape Town mainland.

When the conditions are just right, Matt will be strapped to a paragliding harness, which will be attached to approximately 200 four-foot diameter helium-inflated balloons. His ascent and descent will be controlled by either jettisoning ballast or deflating a balloon.

In order to ensure that he doesn’t become a tasty snack for one of the great white sharks that are often spotted near Robben Island, Matt has an internationally experienced team who will be helping him every step of the way. Mike Howard, the flight operations manager for the Balloon Run, is a pilot for Emirates Airline and Guinness World Record holder for performing the highest cluster-ballooning flight at an astounding 19 000 feet. Extensive and careful technical planning has gone into ensuring a smooth flight.

Matt’s support crew on the day will include a boat crew who will be following him from the water, medics, as well as 10 open water swimmers who will start swimming from Robben Island three hours before Matt’s flight in order to catch him when he lands on the mainland.

International rugby players from around the world have also come to the party to support Matt in his endeavour to raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. Jean de Villiers, captain of the South African rugby team, along with both New Zealand and Australian captains, has donated his rugby jersey to the cause. These jerseys, which include the Springbok Captain’s inaugural jersey from the Rugby Championship, will be raffled off to raise additional funds. This symbolic gesture of support follows the famous post 1995 Rugby World Cup match gesture of solidarity between Mr Nelson Mandela and the then Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar.

“I think [Matt’s] crazy,” comments de Villiers with a laugh, “But it’s a great initiative and it’s for a good cause, so hopefully everything will go well and [he’ll] firstly raise the funds and also get there safely.”

The Balloon Run also enjoys the support of a number of sponsors, including BMW, Afrox, Castrol, the Mount Nelson Hotel, Google SA and Rent Shield.

Matt is thrilled at the level of support that the initiative has already received, and acknowledges the important role that the public play in its success.

“It’s really the public all over the world who are integral to this project – it’s the public who will be donating funds to the hospital,” he says. “The Balloon Run is just the vehicle to facilitate those funds going directly to this deserving cause.”

Donations can be made to the cause at To keep up with Matt’s planning and all the Balloon Run news, follow him on Twitter @Balloonbloke or on

Ideate is one of South Africa's biggest business blogs, with a team of authors all of whom have had entrepreneurial experience. Ideate is read by entrepreneurs thinking BIG. Follow us on Twitter here. View more articles by Staff Reporter.

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