South Africa
Echo Valley

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    • Day 5

      An April Fool's Day Abseil

      April 1, 2012 in South Africa ⋅ 12 °C

      Sunday April 1st – To the Top of Table Mountain

      We awoke at 6 am to another perfect day with not a single cloud to blot the sky. The calendar reminded me that it was April Fools’ Day and I could not help starting to have second thoughts about my suggestion that we climb Table Mountain and abseil from the 1100 metre summit. After all there is a perfectly good cable car which could transport us all to the top without any of us even needing to raise a sweat. Why would anyone actually choose to scramble and suffer all the way to the top, especially at our advanced ages ?

      In spite of my secret misgivings, we all had an early breakfast and caught a taxi to the office of Abseil Africa (the extreme adventure company which advertised the climb and abseil). It was not too encouraging to discover that their office was in a rather dubious part of town, the atmosphere permeated with the strong ammoniacal odour of fresh urine. Apparently, the lane served as an unofficial urinal for the numerous homeless people living nearby. I looked up at the sign over their door and noted that the proprietors’ motto was “We always let you down”. Was this some sort of cruel joke, intended to scare away everyone apart from the truly insane?

      Although we had arrived at the appointed time of 8.30 am (we had been forewarned not to be late), the office doorway was tightly locked and secured by a forbidding steel grate. The place looked deserted. Just when I started to think that we could just forget the whole silly idea and spend the day in a much more sensible pastime, the door opened, and we were summoned to our execution.

      We were introduced to our guide and to the abseil supervisor, neither of whom looked a day over 18. When I asked if it was safe, the only reply I received was a sort of guilty chuckle. After hearing about a near disaster with a bungie jumping enterprise on the Zambezi Gorge a few days earlier, I was wondering whether occupational health and safety were priorities on this continent. The problem was that it was now too late to pull out without losing all credibility and bringing scorn to the Ghostriders’ spirit of adventure.

      After a few minutes we were ushered to a waiting taxi for the short drive to the foot of the mountain. Soon we were on the rocky path to the summit. I crooked my neck to look above, and the sheer face of the mountain looked a truly formidable challenge. With the sun now beating down on us it did not take long for the sweat to start flowing and the heart to start pumping hard. We found that the hiking route rises steeply and relentlessly all the way to the top. In fact, much of the route is a rock scramble over large and uneven steps. This makes it difficult to get any sort of rhythm going.

      Our route to the top was via the Platteklip Gorge. This rugged opening in the otherwise sheer face of the mountain provides access to the flat plateau at the summit. The only problem was that, when we looked up, the opening of the gorge looked just so far away. Slowly and steadily, we made our way higher and higher. As I turned to look behind us, we could see an incredible vista taking shape below. The buildings of Cape Town were diminishing, and the incredible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean was opening up as far as the eye could see. It truly was a breathtaking spectacle (that is if you had any breath left to take) and I am sure that none of us will ever forget it.

      For one member of our group this climb will be especially memorable. Not so long-ago Jerry had two knee replacements and a hip replacement and yet here he was passing many much younger climbers on the way to the summit. This was an incredible personal achievement and also a testimonial to the quality of modern surgical techniques.

      After about 2 hours of climbing interspersed with a few well-earned rest stops we finally emerged at the flat expanse that marks the top of Table Mountain.

      Unfortunately we had little time to savour our achievement before we were led like lambs to the slaughter for our planned abseil. When the final count was taken, although I had tried to encourage everyone to have a go, it turned out that only three of us were too chicken to say NO to the abseil. I was being joined by Bob and Noel. None of us had ever abseiled before so I guess in one way we would literally be starting at the top. After this act of stupidity, surely nothing else could raise the same level of fear and anxiety.

      I was soon strapped into a flimsy looking harness and a silly looking helmet that looked like it would offer about as much protection as an ostrich egg on my head. We were then pushed out over the safety rail and coerced onto a tiny ledge at the top of the most terrifying drop I have ever seen. I have experienced vertigo in many places, including the top of the Eiffel Tower, however this was more than three times higher than that and there were no more safety fences. The only thing offering any sort of security was a flimsy looking rope. I reminded the supervisor that I was a big bloke and needed reassuring that the rope was strong enough. He replied that it “probably could take twice my weight” – a very narrow margin for error as far as I was concerned. Maybe I should not have had that second serving of bacon and eggs for breakfast!

      Fortunately I had skillfully maneuvered myself into a position behind Noel and Bob, meaning that I would be the final one to go over the edge. On the other hand, since they were both skinny guys about half my size, the rope would not really be getting a thorough test. I would have liked to have tested it with a small elephant or a piano first, just to make sure.

      On the ledge above us we could see the rest of our group looking down and waving to us. I tried to put on a brave face and pretend that I was not terrified. It was just as well they did not know just how dry my throat was or how shaky my knees felt.

      After Noel and Bob were thrown over the edge it was my turn. It was too late to turn back now, and they always say you should face your fears head on. Well in my case I was facing them with my backside as I was calmly told to walk backwards to the edge and then hang out over the 1000 metre drop. If that was not bad enough, they said “Now let go and put your hands in the air” so that they could take a picture for their web site. They had to be joking but they really had me over a barrel (or more accurately a precipice). Deciding that everyone has to die sometime and that falling off Table Mountain would be a pretty memorable way to go. At least I could enjoy a few seconds of feeling like superman before the rapid stop at the bottom.

      With my hands in the air and my face a rictus of terror they took their blessed picture and then told me to walk backwards off the cliff. Sounds easy doesn’t it ? Believe me, it isn’t, especially when the cliff disappears altogether and you are left rotating in space at the end of the rope. At that stage I had no alternative other than to concentrate on what I had been instructed to do and trust that the process will work. Far, far below I could see the miniature buildings of Cape Town and the wide blue expanse of the ocean passing slowly before my eyes. In the background I could just sense the highlights of my life also passing before my eyes. It would be impossible to describe accurately the combination of terror, exhilaration, panic and euphoria that flows through your body at times like this.

      I could not see where I was going but just kept feeding in the rope and continued slowly dropping towards the yawning abyss. At one stage I passed a couple of rock climbers working their way to the summit. With a wave and a forced smile I tried to pretend that I was completely in control of both my rope and my emotions. In fact neither was true.

      After what seemed like an eternity but was in fact probably only 5 or 6 minutes I was pulled onto a small ledge by an assistant and informed that somehow, I had actually survived the ordeal. Abseil Africa had lived up their motto and had indeed “let me down” – safely. Bob and Noel were waiting to welcome me, and we spent a few moments shaking hands and sharing the excitement of the occasion. Now that I was safely on the ground (or more accurately perched on a narrow ledge on the side of the mountain) I began to think of how much easier it would be a second time around. On the other hand, there is no point in tempting fate too much and decided it was best to quit while still alive.

      Unfortunately, our battle was not completely over as we then had to climb along a precarious path quite some distance around the cliff face and then rejoin the main path back up to the summit FOR A SECOND TIME. The combination of emotions had left us quite tired, and it actually took quite a lot of effort to rejoin our waiting companions at the summit kiosk. By that time, I was so thirsty that I promptly drank a whole litre of Coca Cola, just to replace both my fluid and caffeine levels. We then spent some astonishing at the views from both sides of the mountain before catching the cable car back down to the base.

      I have seen some beautiful vistas in my life in the Andes, the Himalayas, Hong Kong Harbour from Victoria Peak, Paris from the Eiffel Tower, etc but I would have to admit that the view from the top of Table Mountain was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Of course, we were very fortunate to have crystal clear conditions. When the tablecloth descends on to the summit apparently you cannot see a damn thing.

      Later in the afternoon I returned to our hotel for a shower and to catch up on some laundry before wandering back to Victoria Wharf to watch some free entertainment. In the evening the entire group met for dinner at a seafood restaurant under the stars. It had been a day I will remember for the rest of my life.
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