Meet the woman who survived a fiery plane crash, ice skating collision and nearly drowned in a whitewater rafting accident

For a woman who has nearly died seven times, Janette Falconer should have a head full of white hair and a face full of wrinkles.

Instead, she’s got a cheeky smile and so few greys the hairdresser joked about pulling odd one out during her last appointment.

Two weeks shy of 85 and Falconer knows it’s no mean feat keeping a head full of light brown hair given what she’s been through.

But, the Ōrewa great-grandmother isn’t like most women in their 80s – her life sounds more like something from a Hollywood blockbuster.

Should it be ever turned into a film the action-packed trailer would include her detonating a bomb at high school, sitting inside a burning plane as it crashed in the Sahara Desert, and being held by armed police in Iran.

There would also be romance and plenty of heart-wrenching moments, including the deaths of some of the hundreds of children with cancer that she has cared for during the past 40 years.

But Falconer’s life is anything but fiction.

To her it was just life, a journey made up of many great moments. But whenever she starts talking to people they are fascinated about her adventures around the world.

“Weird things sort of happen when you are travelling,” she told the Herald on Sunday. “All sorts of incredible things have happened to me.”

“I think I’m really lucky that I have survived so many different experiences that could have killed me. I’m just lucky I haven’t gone grey (from them),” she says when asked if she has just had a run of really bad luck while visiting more than 85 countries during her life.

THE ADVENTUROUS CHILD WHO MADE A BOMB

Falconer grew up in a house on a golf course in England during the war. Times were tight and food was heavily rationed but she had a loving family and plenty of great memories.

She was an adventurous child with a mischievous brother who taught her how to make bombs – one of which she detonated under a classroom where teachers were having lunch when she was 15.

After lighting the fuse up to 30 shaken staff came running out of the building. She was later expelled for her efforts.

“I’m not a sadist, I didn’t want to kill anyone, but it did make a fantastic noise,” she recalls with a grin on her face.

Her journey may well have taken a very different path if it wasn’t for that bomb – one of the few things she does regret in life. She believes she may have gone on to medical school but instead found herself travelling instead.

After a year at a public school and a job that “didn’t leave a lot of time for fun” she headed to Yugoslavia where she spent two weeks with a boxer who didn’t speak a word of English.

They trod grapes together with villagers in the town square, visited pretty villages and he brought her a ring with a red stone – it was a taste of travel and adventure but it was short-lived before she had to return to England.

By 17 she was living in Denmark and making the most of her final few teenage years.

“I went clubbing six nights a week, only staying in one night a week to do my hair.”

FASTEN YOUR SAFETY BELTS

It was in her early 20s when Falconer had her first brush with death during a flight from Paris to Casablanca.

“All was well, until when approaching Africa, the air hostess announced ‘fasten your safety belts, we are making an emergency landing. We have an engine on fire’.

“I was 21 and thought nothing could happen to me. I wasn’t terribly worried, I thought it was quite interesting.”

The next thing she remembers is waking up wrapped in a blanket next to the fuselage of the plane in the Sahara Desert. To this day she doesn’t know what happened to the others on the plane.

She had been trying to get to Casablanca to catch a ride on a boat travelling to South Africa so after discharging herself from hospital she made her way to the dock and joined 11 men who all spoke different languages.

There were also 12 chickens and a sheep to keep them fed but three died on the first day and the sheep was a bag of bones after eating a ball of wire.

“By the time we got to Namibia we were on a diet of just dried beans – nothing else. We had broken down mid-ocean three times and floundered for many days so the journey was longer than expected.”

Soon after arriving in South Africa, Falconer found herself in hospital again. It would be just one of many times during her travels – but this was by far one of the most serious.

She was ice skating with a friend when they hit a bump in the ice.

“I landed on my head, moving at a very high speed and I honestly can still remember the massive scrunch of my head making contact with those jagged pieces of ice.”

She spent the next five months undergoing treatment.

“I went to theatre three times – once to get a couple of holes drilled in my skull. Another time I came out with an enormous amount of needles and tubes protruding from my neck.”

Her parents were sent a telegram saying she wasn’t going to survive. Again, she defied the odds.

MARRIAGE, STEPSONS & A BABY ON A BEACH

Falconer’s life took a different turn in the 1950s when she received a phone call from the relative of a man called Ian, whom she had met when she first arrived in South Africa.

His wife had left him, and his young boys – who remembered Falconer from when they stayed in the same hotel – were calling for her to come and look after them.

So, she quit her job and took care of the boys.

She also ended up marrying their father and they went on to have a son called Nicholas – whom she accidentally left at the beach one day after a family outing soon after he was born.It’s a story he never lets her forget.


In 1960, following a terrifying massacre during which she saw police cut the heads off several men, the family moved to New Zealand where daughter Karina and son Gregan were born.

Life was never dull for the family of seven – their Mairangi Bay home burnt down after the busy mum left a preserving pan on the stove one day.

Nicholas remembers a happy childhood, although times were often tight. He said his thrifty mother, used to wartime rationing from her childhood, would always find a way through.

She was also a saver and planned ahead.

THANKS FOR A NICE NIGHT

By the early 1970s the couple had saved enough to take two of the children to England to visit relatives.

Falconer went ahead of them but after meeting up with her sister she ended up in hospital again – this time Heathrow Airport where she collapsed several days after having a reaction to eye makeup remover.

“That was essentially the end of my sight for a week. Swollen, weeping, the pain was excruciating.”

When the boys returned home she travelled some more, visiting Denmark, Russia, Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines where she had more moments only a scriptwriter could imagine.

One involved her ending up in a room with a stranger after part of ceiling came down in her room and she was left sodden as water poured in through a chandelier.

A staff member put Falconer, dressed only in a wet nightie, in another room – but it was already occupied.

“From the bed came the sound of heavy snoring and in the moonlight I spied my newly acquired bedfellow – a gentleman of unknown origins.

“I couldn’t stand in the darkness for another four hours so I carefully eased myself into the spare side of the bed, with half of me hanging over the side to keep as far away as possible.”

In the morning she left her companion, who had slept through everything, a note saying “Thanks for a nice night”.

Another amusing incident happened in the toilet of a Japanese pub where a man walked in and used a urinal right next to her while she was sitting on a loo that didn’t have doors.

Afterwards he offered to take her and a friend for dinner at a flash restaurant.

“Elke and I hardly had 10 cents between us – dinner was not on our agenda, just the cheapest of street food, so…we accepted.”

“To my absolute horror a complete snapper, with a stake through the gut, was put in front of each of us. Its tail was still weakly flapping and its mouth giving gasps, squares cut out of its back and I was expected to eat him.”

She rates that meal as being one of her worst food experiences during her travels, alongside freshly shot seal in Greenland that was covered in flies. A chunk of whale and a camel curry were also “dreadful”.

Her journey back to New Zealand after that trip was anything but smooth.

“A guy went berserk with a knife and was trying kill passengers. We were all instructed to get on the floor and cover heads till he was overpowered and removed from the plane.”

A NEW CHAPTER

Falconer’s life “changed forever” when she was 37 when her husband died suddenly.

She worked three jobs and up to 16 hours a day to make sure their five children didn’t suffer.

By the late 1970s she started working on a ward at Auckland Hospital where there were children with cancer.

“I didn’t know it at the time but a vitally important chapter of my life was just beginning”.

Some of the children had few visitors, or their families had little support, so she started visiting them after hours.

The first child she became attached to was little boy called Ofa. She spent up to six hours a day on weekends reading to him and playing board games like Snakes and Ladders.

Seven weeks later he died, with Falconer and his mother at his side.

“This was a foreign world to me and I found it incredibly hard to cope with. This sweet child that I had walked around carrying almost constantly for weeks was dead.

Despite it being extremely hard to deal with I knew that I was in the place I was meant to be.”

Ofa was one of hundreds of children she spent time with during the next 40 years.

Many of their pictures now hang on her fridge. Some of their parents still call and visit.

A year after she started working at the hospital she met Gerhard – a man who she would spend 33 years with before he died of cancer.

Over the years they had countless children stay with them, two on a semi-permanent basis.

One day she went to war with the Auckland passport office when authorities refused to grant one of the terminal children she was caring for a passport so he could go on a KoruCare funded trip to Disneyland.

“I remember standing at the counter with a queue behind me, bawling my eyes out and swearing at the man behind the counter…I caused such a commotion I was taken into a private room and interviewed.”

She left with a two-week passport for the sick little boy who later spent the final weeks of his short life cuddled up next to Falconer watching videos of their trip to Disneyland.

There were many such trips to Disneyland in the 1980s, some of which involved famous actors and pop stars who had agreed to meet with the sick children.

Back here there were fundraising drives alongside people like John Kirwan and Kiri Te Kanawa. She was involved in Camp Quality for nearly 20 years.

In 2016 her work with children saw her awarded a Queens Service Medal – something her family is incredibly proud of.

TERROR IN IRAN

Her work with sick children didn’t slow down her travel though, and one of her trips with Gerhard took them to Iran where she experienced one of her most terrifying encounters in all her travels.

The group they were travelling with unknowingly arrived at the border of Pakistan and Iran the day after the British had withdrawn from Iran and just days after an American chopper was shot down. They were immediately taken into custody.

“We knew our lives could be on the line but we could do nothing about it. We were locked in a small cell. (It was) a very scary time as we waiting until the Iranian authorities decided whether to shoot us all or let us travel through Iran.”

They were instead escorted through the country.

At one stage a guard held a cocked rifle held under her chin while stroking her arm and they saw the bodies of the pilots who had been shot down on display at one town they were driven through.

The bus they were being transported in with four armed guards was also involved in an accident that tore the back right off the bus and they spent one night in a hotel that was missing a wall that had been blown out.

It was a huge relief when they finally made it to Turkey alive.

“We were later told by authorities that we were only allowed through because all the American helicopters had been shot down and all pilots killed. If the Americans had been successful in their attempt then we would all have been shot.”

THE HAYSTACK AND TERRIFYING RAFTING INCIDENT

During the mid-1980s, while exploring Asia again, Falconer had another two narrow escapes from death.

The first was in the Himalayas when a storm rolled in and she was sheltering near a haystack which was picked up by the wind and thrown on top of her.

“I was smothered and it was not possible to breathe because of the dry hay going down my throat. I was struggling, panicking, but within minutes my fellow trekkers had ripped their way through the haystack and go me out.”

Days later she was caught in a whirlpool after being thrown into white water while rafting the Trisuli River.

“One moment I could hear the roaring of white water in my ears, the next moment all was cool, green, quiet and my body was spinning, spinning, spinning.

“I fought and thrashed around trying to get to the air, but of course I was also swallowing water…I remember thinking ‘I can’t fight anymore’.

“I was saying ‘please god, please god, I don’t want to die in Nepal’.”

Her fellow rafters pulled her limp body out of the water and managed to get her breathing again after pumping water from her chest.

“Thirty six years later I am still numb with fear of the smallest of waves at the beach and cannot put my head under water.”

THE TOPLESS FLIGHT & AN ANGRY RHINO

Along with the terrifying encounters there was plenty of fun during her travels.

In America, in a small Amish town called Intercourse, she promptly purchased 17 postcards from the stationers and took great joy in immediately writing to friends and family saying was in the middle of Intercourse with a man she just met at the local store.

There was the time, after six months of travelling, she took several laxatives instead of sleeping pills after staying up most of the night to catch up with friends and family.

During a flight to Mt Everest she was sitting in the front seat next to the pilot and pulled off her jumper but also accidentally removed her T-shirt with it. She wasn’t wearing a bra at the time.

“Sitting in my seat, staring out at the mountains, suddenly there was shrieking and laughter…all on the plane turned to see what was so funny. I was sitting there starkers from the waist up.”

In Sri Lanka there was a humorous episode with a bug that flew into her ear while visiting the Colombo Zoo with a friend.

“It sounded like a pneumatic drill operating in my ear.”

They made their way to a fountain where many locals were drinking but made space for her to get to the water.

Her friend filled a metal cup and poured it into Falconer’s ear which flushed the bug out.

“I will never forget the look on the faces of the considerable crowd – their astonishment that these foreigners didn’t quench their thirst through their mouths, they poured it in their ears instead.’

There was also an encounter with a water buffalo in India which left her with torn clothing and scarred on one arm and shoulder. On another occasion she and a group she was with were forced to flee from an angry rhino – “I totally wet my pants on this episode”.

ANOTHER CLOSE UP OF THE PEARLY GATES

The early 2000s saw trips to Australia, a country she and Gerhard had spent plenty of time in. They even had a small holiday home on the Sunshine Coast and son Nicholas was also living in the country.

One on occasion the Subaru Gerhard was driving was clipped by the bull bars of a road train – a long truck and trailer unit used to transport freight.

“We were carried in the air, then flung out of the side and went spinning, spinning, spinning into the scrub on the side of the road.”

She ended up in a small hospital, again.

“Just another close-up of the Pearly Gates for me,” she recalls.

Later that decade Falconer ended up with pneumonia during a visit to Antarctica and in plaster after breaking her leg in Samoa.

She laughs, remembering how the only way the airport staff could get her on to the plane was to lift her in a wheelchair up to the door on a forklift then lift her over a very high gap to staff on board.

CANCER & COVID

In January 2010 Gerhard was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in June 2011.

“It’s hard for me to remember a day when Gerhard didn’t make me laugh – he was a clever, intelligent man who would agree to some pretty crazy plans I put before him.

“I miss him still, but now it is tempered with the thoughts that I was so blessed to have him in my life for so long.”

She sold their home in Snells Beach and one in Australia and moved to Ōrewa where she remains today.

There were more trips, including one in 2018 to Malaysia where her son was getting married. Her last was in 2019 where she met up with her sister again and explored Portugal and Rome.

Then, 2020 arrived with a global pandemic that halted all travel.

So, Falconer did the next best thing. She sat down and wrote about all of her adventures – the good, the bad and the terrifying.

Her memoirs capture not only the seven near-misses and hilarious anecdotes but also the truly memorable experiences like attending a wedding in the desert in the middle of the night.

In the absence of travel Falconer is doing everything she can to remain active these days.

She gets up six days a week and does 10km on her exercycle – the seventh day of the week she helps run Mainly Music for toddlers.

Falconer hopes she will live long enough to visit Bhutan and Uzbekistan but, despite the colour of her hair, she is aware of her age.

She is also content with what is to come, knowing she has led a full and adventurous life and helped many children and their families.

“I have absolutely no fear whatsoever over what is ahead of me. I know exactly where I am going – the biggest journey of my life and it’s not costing a cent in cash.”

Her only question now is how many of the beloved children she has lost will be waiting there for her, desperate to catch up on all of her journeys.


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