Several years ago, WWT's Sacha Dench was in a small plane off the coast of Panama. Everything was fine, until the plane began to wobble. First there was turbulence, then there was an almighty storm, and then there was fear. Real fear. “We all thought that was it,” she recalls. “The plane made it through, but, as a result, I developed a massive fear of flying. I was completely petrified by the idea of it.”
These, bear in mind, are the words of a woman who is undertaking a 7,000km aerial trip from eastern Russia to WWT Slimbridge, strapped beneath the wing of a paramotor. How can she even countenance the idea? How, indeed, could anyone? To find out, let’s go further back into her past…..
Sacha's early inspiration
Sacha was born and grew up in Australia. “My family moved around a lot, so I attended a total of 11 schools on the east coast. Growing up with parents who loved snorkelling, I spent a lot of time in the sea, and soon developed a love of marine life. Later, my mum moved out to the bush, so I lived there at times. It was a complete contrast to Sydney; very little electricity, for a start, which meant I could only watch half an hour of TV a day. As a result, I could be found outside more often than in, spending endless hours in the bush. I became very comfortable with nature, and very resourceful, too.”
The next David Attenborough?
Her time in the bush and out at sea gave her a strong understanding of wildlife. “I think I learnt that it’s important to remain humble with animals, but to get to know them well. Do your research, take advice and fully respect wildlife, and you will learn how to live alongside the animals.”
There’s one memory in particular that stands out from her childhood. “I remember telling someone once that I wanted to be David Attenborough. I’ll never forget their response. “You can’t,” they said. “You’re not a man!” Well that was like throwing down a gauntlet. I’d always challenged myself, and I resolved that I always would have a career in wildlife.”
And so she did. Having come to England, to study biology at University College London, where she got to know and was inspired by the great genetics professor Steve Jones, Sacha went to Surinam to study turtles, before getting a job with the Environment Agency. Then, she began working with an anthropologist in South America and took that fateful trip to Panama. Many would have struggled with the fear of flying that such an experience engendered, but not Sacha. She tackled it head-on…and took up paragliding, and, later, paramotoring!
Controlling her fear
“It was the turbulence that had me scared,” she says. “There I was, sitting in a plane that was being buffeted by extreme air movements, and I had no control over it. Like most people, I didn’t really understand the forces around me. So I thought to myself, “If I can understand air better, I’m in more control”. The thing about paragliding is that you’re in touch with the wing above you. The more you do it, the more you understand how air moves, and the more you understand, the more control you gain. To be honest, it took me about two years before I could really say that I started to enjoy it, but it worked. I now understand how turbulence works, what happens and why, and how, under the wing of a paraglider, I can manage it. My curiosity about air, and about flight is endless.”