South Africa just isn’t for softies

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South Africa
By Jennifer Green

One of the worst days of my life turned out to be one of my best experiences in Cape Town, South Africa.

On the bottom
On the bottom
I’d just gotten over the flu, and after 4 days lying half-comatose in bed, I was ready to get out. Outdoors, in fact. Although “outdoorsy” or “athletic” are two adjectives you will never use to describe me, I had zealously signed my name up to go canyoning with friends after deciding I needed some fresh air and an activity that would take me far from my humid bedroom. I might have still been slightly delirious with fever when I signed my name, as I soon came to realize, but at 6:30 a.m. one February morning, I enthusiastically ran downstairs, hair in pigtails and New Balance sneakers on my feet.

Canyoning, or abseiling as South Africans call it, is basically an activity where you have a harness around your waist and a rope clipped to that harness. You are then lowered down the canyon in a horizontal position, feet against the rock, as you repel yourself downwards, letting out rope as you go. You canyon through beautiful terrain, taking in the scenery as you go, passing waterfalls and trees and streams. It would become my worst nightmare.

We took vans out to a remote patch of farmland, where the company we were with had exclusive rites to a gorgeous area of land. As we traipsed through knee-high grass, I half-expected a hobbit to jump out at me at any moment. It was as pristine as the scenery in “Lord of the Rings” – lush green trees, a clear blue sky, and purple mountains as our backdrop. As I was appreciating the beauty of the place, I was also beginning to get a bit nervous. I was almost the last person in our line of hikers. “Why are people moving so fast?” I wondered. I thought hiking was just another word for walking. I seemed to be wrong. We then reached a stream, which everyone before me jumped straight into, wading knee deep in THEIR CLOTHES AND SHOES. I started to panic a bit. What was I thinking? I don’t even like the outdoors that much. How could I have thought this was a good idea? Scott, the owner of the canyoning company and a very fit, outdoorsy looking guy with blonde hair and a patch of beard, was bringing up the rear behind me. I stood atop a rock and looked at him.

“Um, do we HAVE to get in the water?” I asked. “I really hate wearing wet shoes.”

He looked at me incredulously. “Well, how else do you propose you get to the canyon?”

I began looking out through the bush, trying to come up with an alternate route when….SPLASH! Scott just threw me straight in. I tried not to whimper from the cold, or my wet socks squishing against my wet sneakers…I even tried to smile at Scott to show that I, Jennifer Green, was an outdoorsy girl who didn’t mind wading through icy water amongst trees and weird bugs. I mean, this was FUN, right?

When we reached the first canyon, I looked out and almost died. It was the smallest canyon, at about a 70 foot drop. I started wringing my hands and the rest of the group could see I was nervous. They decided it would be best for me to be one of the first to go – to see “that it’s really not that bad,” they said. So someone attached a rope to my harness and then began to lower me down the side of the canyon.

On the rocks
On the rocks
Two minutes later, I really started to panic. I felt like I was hanging in mid-air, with no control over where my body went. My chest tightened and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. About five feet down, I lost my footing on the canyon, and dropped…dangling over the side of the canyon in my harness. This is when I started to cry. And hyperventilate. Which did absolutely no good, because the only way out is down, and you have to have your wits about you get there. And I didn’t. I went into panic-mode, crying and slamming my body against the side of the canyon, again and again. When I finally made it to the bottom of the canyon, dirty, wet and bleeding (slightly), I announced, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore!” With a look of sympathy, Scott informed me I didn’t have much choice. We had 5 more descents and about 6 hours to go.

I’m not going to lie, the first couple of hours were rough. I’d totally psyched myself out on the first descent, and even worse was the fact that absolutely everyone else was having a BLAST – repelling down the canyon like pros, swimming in waterfalls and laughing. Why was I the only one having such problems?

During our lunch break, a few guys from the canyoning crew pulled me aside to speak some words of encouragement. You can do this, envision yourself going down the canyon, overcome your fears, blah blah blah. After seeing my vacant look, they began talking about a tandem-drop with one of the crew. But I wouldn’t do it. I figured I’d gone through the worst, and I wanted to finish the day. On my own. With a goddamn smile on my face.

And I did. I ended up dropping over 1200 feet that day, and by the last few descents, I didn’t even cry. And on our last drop, over a beautiful mossy stretch of rock and waterfalls, I managed a smile for the camera at the top. After our long day, we were treated to a large dinner of smoked trout and South African wine. We lay out on the grass outside the farm, staring up at the stars and the full moon, and I couldn’t help but be proud of myself for making it through the day. As Scott later said after giving me a congratulatory hug, “South Africa just isn’t for softies.” And I was happy knowing I wasn’t a softy.





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