Facing my fears on a cliff edge

Guest post from Colleen Setchell of Write Around the World

“I don’t think I can do it!”

My voice sounded shaky, even to me.  The rope pulling me was just so heavy.
“No, come on Colleen!” I said to myself, “You ARE going to do this!”

I stepped forward. The 35kg rope pulling me frightened me so much, I
could feel my heart in my mouth and it was about to get worse. I
placed my second foot on the red marker.

“3 – 2 – 1 – GO!!!”

I leapt off that cliff with all my strength, assuming a vague
parachute jump-style position.  I was immediately shocked at the speed
with which I was falling. I was informed later that it was 120km an
hour – I am glad I didn’t know that beforehand. I screamed. I shut my eyes and then realized that I was tipping forward and falling down the cliff head first. My brain kicked in and my body instantly started flailing to stop myself from falling. I
stopped screaming – I was way too scared now.

Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the bungee rope caught
me and threw me out in a massive arc across a beautiful valley.  Sheer
cliffs surrounded me and below, a river ran over glistening black
rocks.  It’s hard to believe that the free fall lasted for just 2.3
seconds. Do you have any idea how much can go through your mind in 2.3
seconds?

I heard a whistle and looked up.  Joe, my jump master, was waving to
me to make sure I hadn’t died of a heart attack on the way down.  I
waved back and screamed “Woohoooo!” with what little strength I had
left. My whole body was shaking but I felt completely elated. Ah, the
joys of adrenalin.  Pity it didn’t ever feel that good when I was
stressed at work.

I felt a tug and realized I was being winched back up. I looked up at
the cliffs and could just make out a few people on the top who had
watched my few seconds of madness. I looked down at the river, the
black rocks, the bubbling water and last of all, I looked back at the
magnificent Lehr Falls waterfall.  It was stunningly beautiful.

I had just voluntarily jumped off a 165m high waterfall, plummeted
100m and paid R380 for the privilege.  I was at Oribi Gorge Nature
Reserve situated in the Oribi Gorge which sits on the forest-cloaked
ravine of the Mzimkulwana river just west of Port Shepstone in Natal,
South Africa.  The gorge is roughly 27 km long, 4 km wide at its
widest point and 400 m deep in places.

I was now almost at the top.  I looked up at the waterfall and was
amazed at the view I had. The light was behind the top of the falls
and all I could see was a curtain of crystal white drops cascading
against a black background.  It looked absolutely beautiful, I
couldn’t take my eyes off it.  But my spiritual moment was interrupted
when a quick change in wind direction caused the waterfall to, well
… fall on me, resulting in a day of soggy jeans.

I have done a lot of amazing things in my life; I’ve abseiled down
mountains; I’ve dived with sharks, I’ve white water rafted; I’ve done
helicopter flights over Victoria falls and the Grand Canyon but bungee
jumping I have ALWAYS avoided. Why? Because I have always been too
scared. But I don’t like being scared of anything.  I believe that if
you are scared of something, it holds you prisoner. You have to learn
as much as you can about it because  knowledge cures fear.  Then you
get out there and conquer it and that’s what I’d just done.

I had convinced a friend of mine to come with me. We left Durban early
and did the 1.5 hour journey to Oribi. We paid our R10 toll and turned
inland at Port Shepstone, following the brown tourist signs to Oribi
Gorge.  The roads leading to the hotel and reserve were a bit on the
rough side but we arrived in one piece.

Once in the reserve, we found the ‘adventure sport’ spot, parked and
headed down to the launch site. It really is a great location – the
waterfall has a small ledge about 15 metres down complete with a paint
splodge to mark the spot where you jump from.

Four friendly guys run the setup and continuously rotate tasks.
Photographer, videographer, winch man, demo jumper and jump master are
the tasks which need covering and Joe, Fanyana, Mvuyisi and Richard
all do it with a smile.  As well as completing thorough training for
the jump itself, they are also all trained in emergencies and
operation maintenance.

We watch as staff member, Joe (short for Jongile), does a demo jump
for those who are not quite convinced if this crazy act is for them or
not. He somersaults as he jumps and I wonder to myself how many times
this guy has jumped.  Turns out, they’ve all jumped more times than
they can remember.

We pay, sign the relevant indemnity forms and head back down to get
kitted up. Joe will be our jump master for the day. You wear one harness like a nappy and another over your shoulders which is then attached to your nappy-harness. Before climbing down, I have a brief moment of panic when I realize
that I can’t take my camera down with me.

“Give it to me,” volunteers Fanyana, “I am an expert.” He gets some good shots for which I am very grateful. My friend chooses to have her jump videoed and made into a DVD.  For only R100, this is an absolute bargain.  Richard, the videographer today, starts recording the second she starts getting kitted up and Mvuyisi, who is on winch duty today prepares for our jumps.

We climb down a wrought iron semi-enclosed ladder to the ledge and
immediately Joe gets my friend to clip onto safety lines.  I am
relieved when I see how thick they are (the lines, not my friend!)
I am instructed to wait at the bottom of the ladder to wait my turn.
I am not sure if watching others jump before me made the experience
better or worse.

After a while, I realize it’s my turn. It’s time to do some
conquering. I am connected to the safety rope and I make my way to the
ledge and to the red splodge. My friend has waited on the ledge for
me.  She smiles and tells me how much I will love my jump.
I turn back and make sure Fanyana is ready with my camera.  I can
hardly believe I am going to do this so I need hard proof.

Joe sits me down and shouts over the noise of the falls.

“I’m going to connect the bungee rope and disconnect you from the safety, ok?” “Go for it, I’m ready.” I answered eagerly.

“You need to lean back because the rope is very heavy and will pull you.”
Lean back? Okay, I can do that.  Let’s just do this…

Let me remind you that up until this point, I was excited.  I was
looking forward to jumping and experiencing the world’s highest gorge
swing but the second I felt the weight of that bungee rope, my whole
being cried, “What are you doing? This is not natural! Can’t you feel it trying to
pull you over the edge?”

Joe goes on to explain that as soon as both feet are on the red
marker, he will start the countdown.  He laughs when I ask if he can
start counting from 10 and not 3. The pulling feeling was extremely unnerving.  I was leaning back so hard and Joe was hanging onto a clip at the back of my harness so that I didn’t disappear over the edge before I was ready for my jump. I slowly edged forward but instinctively grabbed my friend’s foot.  In
hindsight, I am not quite sure exactly what her foot was going to do
to save me. The instinct to survive is a powerful thing.

I was now half standing on the red splodge and with a final deep
breath, I placed my second foot on the mark and knew what was coming.
The rest they say is history…

You can share in the madness of the experience by jumping tandem but
you need to call and book this in advance because of the difference in
ropes and harnesses.  Fanyana told me they had a wedding there and the
bride and groom decided to jump off together. I can think of many
better ways to celebrate my wedding.

Saying that, it was an unbelievable experience. Asking my friend what
she would tell others about the jump, I got answers such as, “Do it,
do it!!!” and “Just jump!”

I am not sure if I still feel elated simply because, as the movie Lion
King says, “I have laughed in the face of danger” or if the bungee
swing was indeed as exhilarating as I thought.  I think in this case,
it might just be both.

Colleen is a writer, photographer and enthusiastic explorer who has jumped off cliffs in South Africa, dived with sharks in Egypt, been lost in the spice markets in Istanbul and eaten unpronounceable things in Gambia.  She calls England home but is happiest when she’s living out of a suitcase and uncertain where she’ll end up next.  Colleen writes about her travels on her blog and currently freelances for various magazines and websites.  Her travel photos can be seen on www.flickr.com/photos/wobblything/sets