Panic Falls

2009-12-19 00:00

“COME with us to the heart of thunder, to a place where deep calls to deep ... and feel the reverberations in your soul,” says the website alluringly. Well, I thought, if an 80-year-old and a three- year-old can do it, so can I.

And I did, except that the only thunder I heard was the hammering of my heart and the reverberations were every fibre of my body objecting to being forced to do something so contradictory to the instinct for self-preservation.

My niece, Jennifer Dyne, and I went abseiling down the cliff beside the Howick Falls where the Umgeni River plunges on to ragged black rocks below. We were abseilers number 1 724 and 1 725, respectively.

At 107 metres, the abseil is the fourth tallest in the country beside the second- highest falls in South Africa. It is the only abseil where you finish on the water in an inflatable two-man kayak.

“Look at the view,” said Jennifer, swinging gently in mid-air and gazing dreamily at the falls and surrounding forest, “It’s breathtaking,” she says. I just snapped “No!” and kept working the rope to get down as fast as possible. The video clip on The Witness website proves it. I don’t know, I don’t remember much.

This has to rate as the most terrifying thing I have ever done. I have rock-climbed, abseiled and rap-jumped, so I thought it would be a cinch. However, there is a big difference between leapfrogging down a cliff with your feet in regular and controlled contact with the rock face, and dangling a metre away from it. There I hung on the end of a slender line with 100 metres of fresh air below me and nothing above but a strange man holding my line. The most frightening part was putting my faith in that rope and S’bu Mkhize holding it, and then letting myself down off the launch platform into nothingness. Going literally “over the top”.

Over the Top Adventures has two parallel abseil lines that run from a deck near the falls view site, so you can abseil side-by-side with a partner or friend “to share the adrenalin and beauty as you descend”, burbles the website. I experienced no beauty, only adrenalin and raw fear.

The company is operated by Spirit of Adventure outdoor adventure company owned by brothers Deta and Rudi Clark. Based at Shongweni Game Reserve, where they have accommodation and a range of activities, the company “uses the medium of outdoor adventure to promote personal and interpersonal growth”. It has been operating since 1994 and offers rock climbing, abseiling, rap jumping, hiking and white-water rafting, all in KwaZulu-Natal.

I asked Rudi how he defined “an extreme sport” (see box). He pondered for a while before suggesting it is a sporting activity that involves “a degree of perceived risk”. That worked for me, as I perceived more than just a degree of risk in this particular adventure. I knew from the start that I couldn’t look down into the gorge or I’d never go through with it. Hearing that a man in a group from Gauteng had pulled out in the morning didn’t make me feel any braver.

Clark’s confidence in their equipment was reassuring, but the longer we waited for the camera man to reach the bottom, the more my terror grew. “I know this is not dangerous — the heavy-duty rope is attached to a metal stake cemented into the ground and can hold weights far heavier than any person,” he said.

The statistics he quoted did little to calm me: no fatalities and no serious injuries, only minor scratches and scrapes. Apart from heart palpitations and adrenalin overload, all I suffered was a wet backside from the dingy ride. Once safely in the boat, I was able to admire the falls, and look up at the launch deck, a very, very long way above us. The adventure ended with a wonderful 20- minute walk up the gorge through the indigenous forest of the Howick Falls Conservancy.

Adrenalin junkies and extreme sports fans will love this experience. For the really, really wierd and wired, Over the Top organises night abseils: “If you have the guts, we can give you a really extreme experience! Descend with a headlamp into the abyss next to the pounding spray at the base of Howick Falls ...”

Yeah right. Just count me out.

Watch the video:

Fast facts:

Abseil distance: 107 metres

Time: 10 to 15 mins

Rope capacity: three tons

Harness capacity: 2,5 tons

Return journey: 20 min. walk up Umgeni River gorge

Total time: about 90 mins

What to wear: shorts or longs and comfortable shoes

Contact Over the Top at 082 877 5333,

What is extreme sport?

ALSO called “action sport” or “adventure sport”, this is a popular term for certain counter-cultural activities perceived as having a high level of inherent danger. They often involve speed, height, a high level of physical exertion, and highly specialised gear or spectacular stunts. A 2004 classification divided them into those that take place in air, land, and water.

Air: base jumping, bungee jumping, gliding, hang gliding, high wire, ski jumping, sky diving, sky surfing and sky flying.

Land: indoor climbing, adventure racing, aggressive inline skating, BMX, caving, extreme motocross, extreme skiing, freestyle skiing, land and ice yachting, mountain biking, mountain boarding, outdoor climbing, skateboarding, snowboarding, snowmobiling, speed biking, speed skiing and street luge.

Water: barefoot water skiing, cliff diving, freediving, jet skiing, open-water swimming, powerboat racing, round-the-world yacht racing, scuba diving, snorkel­ling, speed sailing, surfing, wakeboarding and windsurfing.

— Wikipedia.

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