Acutely aware of my own mortality I teetered on the edge of a sheer cliff-face, face green and legs trembling. It astonished me that I should have volunteered myself into such a situation. It seemed so easy while in the depths of pregnancy to promise that one day I would abseil down Table Mountain. But now that day had come.
A little anxious, I had arrived on the top of the mountain a whole hour early, so had had time to explore the walkways and views. Why hadn’t I been up for so long? Table Mountain really is magnificently, upliftingly impressive. I stared in awe at the views all the way to Cape Point and let my eye explore the nooks and crannies of the Cape coast line. Breathtaking. But time was ticking on and rather unwisely I decided to get a preview of the Abseil Africa team’s operation. One disbelieving glance downward and I turned away abruptly. I tried nonchalantly to resume my meander but the world had been stripped of its joy. I slumped on a rock, my face rigid as I tried to suppress the urge to be sick.
I realised there was a strong chance that I wouldn’t see this through and I knew I would regret it if I backed off. After all, at 112 metres this is the highest commercial abseil in the world. And it’s not just any old rock face but dear old Table Mountain – 520 million years old and an internationally recognised icon. It would be like abseiling down Paul Newman.
Lifting my head from between my knees, I trudged back to where Tim, who was in charge of the operation, had obviously seen plenty of people as nervous as me. He talked gently but confidently, and like some kind of horse whisperer he had me in a harness before I could say “Gravity”. He explained the principles of abseiling, had me repeat a couple of simple rules and then leapt over the rocks to the start point, with me lurching unsteadily behind him.
We were in the shadow here and looking down to the warm, bright sunlight over Camps Bay and Clifton the contrast was startling. It was a windless day and the sea was dead calm – a Mediterranean azure blue that cried out “Don’t die today!”
I didn’t look down again for a while after that. Feeling the Fear rising again, I jumped up and down and cracked my neck from side to side the way boxers do in films. I tried to ignore those around me who were leaning out over the cliff edge saying things like “Oooohhh – is that a waterfall?” and “Aaaah – look at that cloud below us!” I added punching my own hands into my repertoire, and blew out short hard breaths.
Then it was time to go. I was told to put on a pair of what appeared to be gardening gloves and various clips were undone and redone and checked and double-checked and before I knew it I was leaning out backwards over a 1000 metre drop and grinning idiotically for what might well have been my last photo.
I glued my eyes to the rock face and gingerly inched myself down. It was fine. So long as I didn’t look down and didn’t move an eyebrow more than necessary it was fine. I got a bit braver and took a couple of longer steps. Then I heard a sharp exclamation from Vaughn, my anchorman at the top. My head snapped back with alarm, eyes zeroing in on him as he turned to Tim and said “Did you remember to buy milk?”
Ha ha. My laugh might have sounded a little strangled, but the tension was broken. I lowered my gaze as far as I dared and took in the astonishing view – the grey face of the cliff dropping steeply then curving outward in lush green slopes ending in golden beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. The houses of Camps Bay and Clifton were tiny dots and these vibrant suburbs seemed still and silent from my perch. My head spun momentarily but the rope didn’t snap and my feet remained on the wall. I was safe. I was hanging from a bit of string off the side of a mountain but I was safe.
I carried on walking backwards, the glove on my right hand growing hot with the friction of the rope. I stopped to admire a tiny plant growing happily in a crack on the rock face. I hadn’t a clue what it was, but on Table Mountain alone there are over 1 500 plant species – more than the whole of the British Isles – so this was bound to be something special. How many people had ever, would ever see this particular plant? I ran out of things to think about the plant and made myself look down again. Right, still miles to go.
I was feeling fractionally more relaxed by now. Growing in confidence, I propelled myself out a little, pushing with both feet at once. Down, down, dooby down down, smooth as 007. I could feel the remaining length of rope growing lighter. Then without warning the cliff edge veered straight inwards, leaving me wobbling on the tip of a huge overhang. I scrunched my toes in my boots, trying to cling on to the last fragment of rock before the void, but there was no choice. I took a deep breath and lowered myself a little further. Now I was just dangling in space, revolving slowly. How insignificant was I, a tiny little speck against this vast ancient mountain? Yet I was overcome with elation at the freedom of the situation, at the awesome view, at my own achievement.
The end of the rope met the ground another 15 metres below. I slid down slowly, tired now, but reluctant to bring my escapade to an end. When my feet finally touched the ground, my head was still in the clouds. Scrambling back up the protea-lined path to the top, I came across a couple of straggling tourists who avoided my flushed face, crazed eye and triumphant grin. I felt ten foot tall and infinitely superior to those common folk who had simply wandered around near the cable car. I had conquered a mountain. Life was great.
For more information on abseiling in Cape Town visit the abseil listing on our site