Live for the thrill: Cliff diving in the Azores

Featured, Fitness, Travel

Ever fancied surfing with the pros, rowing with world famous sailors, or mountain biking with Norwegian ski heroes? Now you can visit the most beautiful locations in the world, getting to know world champions thanks to Destination Red Bull. DOSE contributor Berti reports on a cliff-jumping experience with a legendary diver in the Azores…

A man backflips off a 112 ft cliff in front of a large, chanting crowd. A move commonly known as a “gainer”. He lands well, it all looks good. What follows is a shaved leg sporting a laceration from the top of the knee to the shin held together by bloody staples. Well, luckily that’s not me. I’m watching this on my phone on route to the airport. Just the sort of encouragement I need before embarking on a cliff diving holiday…

The culprit behind the clip is my father. A reminder that I’m in my thirties, married and in a job where my physical health is paramount. I reluctantly take out travel insurance that covers me for the loss of sight and any limbs. I can’t help but think he’s being a killjoy. But perhaps he has a point. I practically kamikaze’d through my childhood living with ADHD. My own personal super power that made me feel fearless. Needless to say, it got me into all sorts of trouble. A decade later, my life couldn’t be more of a contrast. I leap at the chance to break free of the routined hum-drum to release my inner daredevil once more. Cliff jumping was always a particular favourite past-time…

The destination for my adventure is the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. One of nine islands that comprise a lonely archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean, about 850 miles west of Portugal. High green volcanic mountains give way to deep azure waters with rustic fishing villages clustered along the coastline.

I am being hosted by Red Bull that has recently crossed into the world of retreats. It’s an opportunity for mere mortals like myself to train with and experience a day in the life of their super hero athletes. On this Destination Red Bull retreat, my mentor is the cliff jumping and high diving world champion Orlando Duque. The Colombian pony-tailed legend has more than 20 years experience and is known as the sports’ main ambassador. He won the Azores leg of the Red Bull Series last year and part of the retreat will be watching him defend his title.

A short bus ride from the airport lies Santa Bárbara Eco-Beach Resort – my base for the week. A surf chic paradise nestled in the shadows of the Lagoa do Fogo mountain that overlooks a half mile stretch of black sand – Santa Bárbara beach. The rooms here are spacious with huge beds and open up onto a private deck complete with infinity pool looking over a view of the mountains and sea. On a good day the beach has a decent wave and the hotel offers surf lessons and board rental.

Back in my room I find a welcome basket with a cliff diving t-shirt and several cans of Red Bull. I haven’t touched the stuff for years but in the spirit of the trip, I decide to don my wings. There’s no denying the dopamine rush, hence why it proves a hard habit to kick on returning home. Perhaps I started a little early… My companions are still sleeping off their jet lag whilst I’m practically bouncing off the walls. It wears off in time for supper. We dine on locally sourced seafood at the hotel’s restaurant. It’s some of the best I have ever had and slips down nicely with a bottle of Sagres beer.

My first day of our adventure is based out of a catamaran where we get to experience the wonder of Scuba Diving in the Azores. I’ve never scuba dived before and after revealing this, my patient instructor Ellie, fearful of my incompetence, clutches on to me and guides me around the water like a stork holding a child. I am finally released and we swim down as far as 18 meters through a web of volcanic rocks and crevices. The abundance of sea life is jaw dropping. Highlights include disturbing a trigger fish (I later learned this wasn’t the best thing to do, they have a tendency to head-butt…), gliding next to a huge eel with a gaping maw and swimming through a shoal of sea bream (it’s nice to see them as something other than a fillet).

After the Scuba diving we jump in a rib and pick up Orlando Duque for the cliff diving workshop. Professional credentials aside, meeting the man in the flesh is truly inspiring. Orlando can only be described as an absolute dude. He’s got a black ponytail which reaches down his back and a happy go lucky carefree air which makes him instantly likeable. Easy to talk to, I pester him with questions about the sport and his preparation. We are a few days before the competition and Orlando tells me at this stage he just likes to relax and swim around the island and have fun.

With him on board we set off to find suitable diving spots for novice divers. As we are tearing along in the rib we are joined by a high speed Red Bull jet ski manned by what looks like two special forces operatives. These jacked guys are part of the cliff diving safety team and have been sent to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.

Orlando and the safety team decide on the competition Island. Red Bull choose their diving spots based on their spectacular location. It’s the tip of a volcano jutting out of the sea with a blue lagoon where the crater used to be.

Jumping onto a manmade dock on the side we get a personal tour of the island from Orlando. Two huge diving platforms jut out from the cliffs and upon seeing them my heart sinks. Standing at a respective 28 and 20 meters high, I am filled with even more respect for my mentor. His highest jump (for fun) was 34 meters. Luckily for me Orlando passes these platforms by and instead opts for the much more manageable 8 meter platform around the corner.

Orlando offers some wise words of encouragement before walking a few meters higher where he effortlessly back-flips off a cliff. He’s back a few minutes later with the same easy smile and I know it’s now or never.

Looking down into the churning waters below and the expectant eyes of the safety team, I take a quick intake of breath before throwing myself off. Inelegantly flailing I just remember to pencil myself before impacting the water. Surfacing I give a thumbs up and am whisked onto the jet ski. What a feeling!

After that it’s easy to see why Orlando has dedicated his life to this pursuit. With adrenalin and Red Bull surging through my system, all I can think of is the next jump. Inspired by Orlando, this time I try a flip. Graceful I am not. I land slightly side on. Even so with the churning of the water into the cliffs you don’t really feel the impact.

We end the day by having dinner with Orlando and his beautiful wife at the Saca Rolhas Taberna. A famous local haunt. It’s a culinary sensation where the chef is also the waiter and guides us through each course. Starting with a local specialty which I can only describe as tasty barnacles along with lobster, we move on to a main which is two huge platters of seared beef and tuna.

The next day is a free for all. It’s an inspired thing to have on a retreat, and I take advantage of it by heading off with the other members of the trip for some sight seeing around the volcanic peaks and lakes of the island. There is a lot to see and our guide, an ex-priest called Walter answers every question we have about the island. Unfortunately our final sightseeing view from the top of the mountain is obscured by clouds and so we end the busy day by going to a local thermal bath. Whilst relaxing in the rejuvenating waters I learn the reason for Walter quitting the priesthood as he reminisces about romancing beautiful women on a starlit night.

The third day is competition day and we set off to the marina for a coffee where we see the athletes departing the shore and making their way to São Miguel Island. Wishing Orlando good luck we soon follow back onto our rib, which takes us back to the catamaran. It’s anchored off the island in perfect view of the first jumps of the day. Very different to the day we visited, the island is now a hive of activity with athletes press and camera crews crawling over and around the steep cliffs. It’s quite harrowing watching the first jumps as the athletes abseil down the sheer rock faces before perching on small ledges. They then perform inhumanly complex gymnastic feats only achieved through a lifetime of dedication and a fearless attitude. Orlando jumps and pulls off a very slow and stylish backflip into the water. Unfortunately this is his last jump of the day, as I later learn that he has injured his foot in the process.

After these initial jumps we settle into an amazing lunch which has been cooked on the catamaran before heading off for a closer look at the competition from the rib. After this thrilling experience it’s time to have a closer look at the platforms. Walking my way out I try to appear as fearless on the outside as possible whilst on the inside i’m turning to jelly. It looks even higher from up here and with a strong wind behind me. I’m happy when allowed to return to the safety of rock under my feet.

The next day I find myself back in London preparing for the week to start. But something is different. I feel reinvigorated with a newfound joie de vivre. Orlando’s words play out in my head: “It makes me feel excited… it makes me feel alive”. It’s rare that you get an opportunity to meet people that are so inspiring that they help you to question your own direction in life. If you’re looking for an adventure to push your boundaries, or a thrilling experience to make you feel a little more alive, then choose Destination Red Bull. They have been living this dream since 1987.

Now that i’ve landed back down to earth, I’m riding high on life. God, is this how they feel the whole time?

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Berti is a Personal Trainer at Bodyism

A destination for healthy hedonists that fuses the worlds of fitness, healthy food and drink.