It was quite dark by the time I had dropped the students off at the airport in Durban. They were from 23 different countries and had been on an extended youth camp that I’d organised and run for Lions Clubs International. Most of them were going on to an adventure tour from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town run by professional youth tour organisers. The others were going home to Europe, East Asia, America and Canada.
I was quite sad to see them go, but also relieved that it was all over and that everything had gone off smoothly.
I was deep in thought on my way back home, when my car suddenly started coughing and spluttering and came to an abrupt halt. I tried to start the car a couple of times, but decided to stop trying before the battery went flat.
Desperately I took out my cell-phone and tried to phone for help but it was as unresponsive as the car. The battery was totally flat!
I got out of the car, opened the bonnet and looked blankly at the innards of my BMW. I know the anatomy of a cat or a dog pretty well and can usually see what is wrong with them by looking at their innards when I do an exploratory operation, but with a BM I had no idea of the anatomy or physiology involved in making the thing go. So after a few minutes I closed the bonnet and stood disconsolately next to the car, looking at the oncoming traffic in the forlorn hope that some Good Samaritan would stop and come to my assistance.
My car had chosen the worst spot to give up the ghost. It was a notorious area close to Umlazi Township, where a number of people had had horrific accidents when rocks were dropped onto their cars from the bridges spanning the highway by township youths. There were also a number of hijackings in the area.
There were no lights to illuminate the road and I stood out like a sore thumb, next to my white BMW in my all-white outfit that I normally wore when working in my veterinary hospital. The whites of my eyes in my white petrified face must have shone brightly in the headlights of the oncoming cars.
Now you must understand that I grew up as an Afrikaner with very strong ideas about what to expect from my fellow black South Africans. “Mercy” was not high up on the list of expectations. My history teachers had stoked the fires of fear and hatred by telling me how Dingane, the Zulu king, had treacherously murdered my ancestor, the Great Trek leader Pieter Retief. (I later learned that, like everything else, there were two sides to that story).
I desperately tried to flag down cars with white drivers, but most of them did not even want to look in my direction. I guess they must have been distracted by something on the other side of the road. Others stared at me wide-eyed, as if to memorise the scene, in case they read about what happened to me in the papers, and they could boast to their friends:
“I actually saw the guy! He was standing right there next to his car. I just knew the blacks would get him!”
Then it happened - my worst nightmare: a truck pulled up in front of my car and two young blacks got out and purposefully walked towards me. What should I do? Make a run for it? Go into a Jackie Chan karate stance? Attack before being attacked?
Fortunately I did none of these things. Instead I said nervously: “Good evening guys!” and held out my hand in greeting, while quaking in my boots. I swear I could feel my heart beating somewhere near my throat.
I was confronted with two sets of white teeth shining in the dark, hands outstretched to take mine, and two friendly voices saying in unison. “Good evening! What’s the problem? How can we help you?”
I explained that I had no idea why my car would suddenly decide to stop at such an awkward place and time. I told them that I needed to get the car to my home, so that I can get to a telephone. The taller one of the two said:
“OK, No problem, we will tow you, man. Where is your home?”
I told them that I lived about ten kilometres away and that we would have to negotiate some tight corners, steepish hills and heavy traffic to get there.
“No problem!” said the tall one, who seemed to be the more outgoing of the two.
In the course of the next hour I learned that his name was Philemon and that his favourite phrase was’ “No problem!” They were on their way back to Newcastle, having offloaded some cargo in East London. A journey of more than 2000 Km. They must have been exhausted after travelling so far and yet they were willing to spend all this time to help me, a total stranger - and a whitey to boot!
When we eventually got home, I invited them in for a cold drink and introduced them to Rose, my wife. I thanked them profusely and asked them why they had stopped to help me, a complete stranger, when they still had such a long way to go. As usual Philemon was the spokesman, he said simply: “But we have to help each other in this world!” He sounded surprised that I had to ask the question.
Philemon and friend, wherever you are, I salute you. You have changed quite a few of my ideas about race and have shown me that there are still good people in this world.
The youth camp became very popular, and I found myself organising another one the next year. This time I decided not to drop the youths off at the airport, but to go with them on their journey to Cape Town.
One of he highlights of the trip was an opportunity to bungee jump off the bridge over the Blaauwkranz River - the highest bungee jump in the world!
On the way, the youngsters could barely talk of anything else. They all wanted to know what it was like, how dangerous it was, etc. I told them that I didn’t have a clue and that we’d all have to see when we got there.
They naturally wanted to know if I was going to jump as well. I told them: “Of course I’d love to, but you know I have to pay in Rands. You guys have pounds and dollars to spend. So no, I simply can’t afford to spend so much money on a few minutes worth of dangling from a bridge”. I think some of them actually believed me.
When we got to the site, we all filed into the small reception area where the brave ones had to fill in indemnity forms and pay their fees. This is when the girl behind the counter looked at me and said casually that people over 60 could jump for free! For a few agonising seconds I thought of ways to get out of this corner I’d painted myself into. I thought of suddenly discovering an excruciating pain in my back, or a previously undisclosed heart condition.
On reflection I knew that it would be obvious that I was simply shit scared, so I had to put on a brave face and say: “Hey, that’s great. I’ll jump! Let’s go!” As I said the words I thought: “Retief, you idiot! You are going to get yourself killed for sure!”
With feigned enthusiasm I started filling in the forms, when the girl said “Sir, do you have an ID to prove that you are over 60?” Putting on a sad face, I said: “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have it on me.” “Well then I’m sorry,” she said, “you’ll not be able to jump unless you pay!” There were sympathetic murmurs all round. A girl from the Netherlands pleaded with the receptionist, but to my secret delight, she remained adamant.
We all walked down a gentle slope towards the Northern bank of the river where they weigh you and put the harness on you. I think they weigh you to make sure that they use the elastic band with the right breaking strain for your bulk. A sign on the building proclaimed “The Highest Bungee Jump in the World!!”
The youths were all joking and laughing nervously and teasing me, because I think they could see the relief on my face.
While they were putting on the harnesses on the ones who’d elected to jump, the man in charge asked me if I was jumping. I said that I couldn’t because I didn’t have my ID with me.
“That’s bullshit!” I heard him say. “Of course you can jump! You simply fax us a copy of your ID when you get home.” In a daze I heard him call the girl in the reception area on his cell-phone to instruct her to let me fill in the forms as I was definitely going to jump.
With nervous excitement I ran back up to the reception area, where I filled in the indemnity form to say that I wouldn’t sue them if they killed me. Back at the weigh-in area, I was greeted with cheers and back slaps. I tried not to look at the bridge that seemed impossibly high over the thin shiny silver ribbon of water way down below it.
There were about twenty of us, all with harnesses snugly around our buttocks, mid-sections and shoulders. To get to the jump area, you walk along a narrow steel walkway about ten metres below the road built on top of the bridge. I felt quite dizzy when I looked down at my feet and discovered that I could see through the steel grid I was walking on to the river far, far below us.
When we arrived at the launching pad, the leader of the bungee team explained the procedure to us. First two padded straps are securely fastened around your ankles, and this is firmly attached to the thick elastic bungee chord. There is also a strong nylon rope attached to a clasp on the harness at your belly button. This is the safety rope in case the elastic bungee chord snaps.
One by one the youths stepped up to the small platform overlooking the abyss. One of the bungee team, who was the official cameraman that filmed each jump, asked the jumper to face the camera and say a few last words before he jumped.
As each one stepped forward, the rest of us would chant: “Five!……four!……three!……..two!……one!……Bungeeee!” And they would fling their arms out and jump.
Some screamed, others laughed hysterically and some kept quiet while they disappeared over the edge. But every one of them had huge smiles and shining eyes when they were brought back onto the launching platform. The comments for the camera ranged from “Incredible!” to “Awesome! It was truly awesome!”
I elected to go last and by the time it was my turn, it was about eight o’clock at night and quite dark. The youth campers started chanting, “Gerreee!………Gerreee!…….Gerreee!” sounding exactly like the inane audience in the Jerry Springer Show on TV.
I stood on the edge of the platform looking down at a black void and confronted the greatest fear I have ever experienced in my life. There was no way I could lose face in front of my charges and turn back, so I decided “what the hell!” and jumped into the blackness while they were still busy with the countdown.
On the way down… down…. down, I experienced many different sensations. Strangely, the fear had disappeared. There was no time for that really. I could hear the rushing of air past my ears and in an incredibly short space of time felt the massive elastic bungee chord take the strain of my weight as I hurtled down at God knows what speed. And then I felt myself going up and up again.
Suddenly I was enjoying myself. I was on an incredible high as I became weightless for a moment at the top of the upswing. During this weightless time I looked up and saw the moon and silver-lined clouds slowly rotating in the sky above me. And then the downward plunge again. This time I knew what to expect and savoured the moment when I went up and became weightless again. After the third downswing, it was all over.
This was, in fact, the only unpleasant part of the whole experience. At this stage you hang with your head straight down from the chord around your ankles. During the jump you don’t think about your feet slipping out of the ankle straps, but hanging there upside down, you suddenly and idiotically hold your feet at right angles to make sure the ankle straps do their job.
High above you a voice shouts: “Gerry! Are you OK?” And of course you shout back: “Yeah I’m fine!” Then the “fetcher” arrives having been lowered to your position with a rope and motorised winch. He attaches a rope to the shackle on the harness near your belly button and they start winching you up.
You are in a face-up position and turn in lazy circles on the way up. When you arrive back at the launch platform, you feel the elation as the crowds cheer and you feel solid earth under your feet again. You look into the video camera lens and you say something inane and totally inadequate.
This experience taught me a few things: First: Age is relative; Second: Fear is conquerable; and Third: Bungee jumping gives you an incredible natural high!