“Oh crap crap crap crap crap….” was going through my head as I lost my footing and swung into the water pouring over the cliff face. I was dangling 20 metres above the river, with water relentlessly pounding down on my head from above. “Must…get…out…of…water……..need…to…breathe!”
And that is why it was the scariest day of my life.
Ok, so maybe not of my whole life, but actually Gina and I still refer to that day as “The day Samantha tried to kill us”, and I struggle to come up with many times in my life when I have been more afraid.
Imagine spending the day trekking through a beautiful forested canyon next to a rushing river. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
Then imagine also abseiling down cliffs and through the middle of waterfalls, going head first down a rock waterslide and jumping off cliffs. Sounds like fun, right? I was about to find out that it wasn’t so great.
I’m scared of heights, but not super duper scared. I mean if there’s some kind of barrier holding me back from the crazy height then I’m totally fine. But take away that barrier and there’s no way you’ll get me anywhere near that cliff edge.
But I also like to push my limits, face my fears head on, and all that…crap. It’s the only way to get over them, right?
Enter Sam with her big Christmas trip to Dalat and a friend who couldn’t go at the last minute, and me with plans that didn’t work out and all the right days off to take the friend’s place.
Sam told me the plans before we went. Canyoning, she said, and I had a vague what that involved. After checking it out on the company’s website I thought it sounded a bit scary but probably ok. Boy was I wrong.
The day started with a short ride to the canyon, a quick trek down a hill, and a lesson in abseiling.
If you don’t know what abseiling is, it’s when you put a harness around your legs and waist, attach it to some ropes that are secured to the top of a cliff, and lower yourself down (also known as rappelling).
I was already a bit familiar with abseiling, having done it exactly once before, twelve years ago in New Zealand. Twelve years is a long time though, and as the lesson went on, I found myself becoming more and more apprehensive about the whole idea. Gina had gone quite pale and was getting a panicky look, having thought canyoning just meant trekking through a canyon. Sam was giddy with excitement.
The lesson was good, however, and involved each of us trying it on a short slope where we couldn’t fall very far. It raised my confidence a bit, and I thought “Who’s scared of heights? Not me!”
So down the first cliff we went. Fifteen metres, slowly at first, then gaining confidence and speed, with a few long jumps if we were really brave. Then landing in thigh-deep water at the bottom, unhitching, and going to a nearby rock to high-five the others. No problem.
When everyone was down we trekked down the canyon to the rock waterslide. It’s short and not too steep, so not so scary, right? Well, that’s what you would think, but it literally took my breath away. Perhaps the water was just very cold. Or maybe it was the exhilaration of lying down, water rushing past me at breakneck speed, and then having the guide let go of my life jacket and ME rushing down at breakneck speed. I emerged at the bottom gasping for air, and not even sure why.
Then we did it again, in a different part of the slide. Head first. Because that’s what you do when you’re on a crazy trip like this. I asked the guide if I had to go head first, and he said it was easier that way. So away I went, head first.
There was a bit more trekking, and then we found ourselves at the top of a 25 metre waterfall. We were going down the middle of it.
There was a bit more instruction, and important details like ‘The first part is really slippery’ and ‘About four metres from the bottom the cliff overhangs, so look at the guy down below, when he makes this hand signal, jump out, let go of the rope, and just fall into the water’ and ‘You’ll get a better grip on the slippery rocks if you take off your shoes and go in your socks’.
Now this caused me a problem. When I looked at the website, it clearly said I should wear my sports sandals. So I did. Everyone else had full shoes and socks (very wet ones by now) and I had been congratulating myself on having the right footwear and not having to get my hiking shoes soaking wet. But I had no socks.
I was angry. As if I wasn’t scared enough, now I was in extra danger of slipping because I didn’t have socks. Why didn’t the website give this important piece of information? I easily could’ve brought a pair of socks for this part, but I didn’t know.
When I asked, I was told that I’d be better off wearing my sandals than going in my bare feet.
So that’s how I went. Terrified after all the warnings, disbelieving that I was actually doing this, and absolutely sure I was going to slip in my inappropriate footwear.
I started off ok, slowly, steadily working my way down through the water that was pounding on my legs and spraying into my face. Almost slipping a couple of times, but catching myself. Shaking, heart pounding a million miles a minute, gripping that rope with all my strength, wondering why I was even here.
And I slipped. One second I was horizontal, carefully walking my way down the cliff face through the rushing stream, and the next second I was vertical, hanging directly in the water, and starting to panic.
The thing about sitting in a waterfall is that there’s a lot of water, and not much air, and so breathing becomes difficult. This makes it necessary to rectify the situation quite quickly. And that’s not easy when there’s water pounding down on your head and shoulders and you’re scared shitless.
Somehow, miraculously, I managed to position myself so I was facing the cliff and got up onto my knees, which allowed my face to clear the water’s stream. I gulped a few deep breaths, looked up in a mixture of panic and relief, and the guy holding my safety rope (Oh yes, thank god for that!) gave me a thumbs up.
Seriously? Did he not see that I had slipped? And that I was still just on my knees against the cliff! I think I was hoping that he would decide that was enough and just pull me back up to the top and I could walk down the side of the waterfall like any sane person would. Clearly this was a bad idea, so why did I have to continue?
It then took all the strength I had in my legs to lift them one by one out from under the water pounding down on them, and position my feet back against the slippery rock so I could continue on.
And so on I went. I reached a tiny ledge and stopped for a moment’s rest, wondering how much further I had to go. A lot, as it turned out.
Down, down I went, until the guy above me was out of sight and I found myself trying to crane my neck around to the right to see the one below, with his fancy hand signals telling me to jump out and let go. All I could see was rushing water.
And I slipped again. As I fell into the pounding water again, without even thinking my hands automatically let go of the rope, and I dropped into the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
It turns out that I had been at the stage where I was supposed to jump out and let go anyway, but hadn’t seen the guy’s signal before I slipped (which was probably because of the overhang) and I guess I was lucky that the spot I fell in was safe.
I crawled out of the water, still shaking, heart pounding, exhilarated and relieved to be alive and in one piece.
We stopped on a rock at the bottom of the waterfall and congratulated ourselves, had lunch, dried off in the sun and relaxed a bit before moving on.
Little did we know, but two minutes down the stream was a ten metre cliff that we were jumping off.
In terms of anticipation, this was worse for me than the waterfall. I put it off, buoyed by the fact that Gina didn’t want to jump either. Maybe we could both just walk down. But then everyone else jumped. Gina hesitated for a while longer but then she jumped too, and then they were all at the bottom, watching, waiting for me. I delayed as long as I could, shaking with fright. I climbed down to the lowest ledge I could go from (about 7 metres), and hesitated some more.
I jumped. It was high enough that a fraction of a second before I hit the water I actually wondered just why I had not hit the water yet. I emerged from the pool to cheers from my group, and the guide asking me if I had touched the bottom. I had, and he said it was because I had not jumped out far enough. Seriously? He was lucky that I had jumped at all.
By this time I was done. Drained, both mentally and physically, my whole body trembling with fear and cold and the strain on muscles I don’t often use. My courage, the pride and exhilaration at facing my fears were completely spent. I just wanted it to be over. And we still had one waterfall abseil to go.
This one was called the Washing Machine. The waterfall came down a cleft between two cliffs, and we had to abseil off the side of one of them in front of the waterfall. The cliff has an overhang, so after a few metres there was nothing to brace myself against and I just had to dangle there, descending right down into the pounding water, not knowing what was underneath me or where I was going to end up.
Side note: They told us later that they call it the Washing Machine because if the water hits you the right way it spins you, around and around and around…..
I took a deep breath and lowered myself into the roaring water, dropped into the pool, and the force of the waterfall pushed me out from underneath it.
It was finally over. I had survived!
We climbed the hill back up to the van, dripping wet and exhilarated to have made it through the day’s challenges.
Am I glad I went? Well, yes, I guess so. Because I’m proud that I did face my fear head on, and I survived it. And because now I know.
I know for sure that I never want to go canyoning again. I know that I am definitely not, in any way, an adrenaline junkie. I don’t enjoy that feeling of intense fear, and the sensation afterwards is not really exhilaration, it’s relief. Relief that it’s over, that I’m out of danger, that I didn’t die. I know now that there’s really no reason to scare the crap out of myself, all in the name of new experiences.
That doesn’t mean I won’t push my limits anymore. I just have a better idea of where exactly my limits lie.
I might even abseil again, but definitely not in a waterfall.
Was Samantha really trying to kill us? Probably not, but if she was, she put in a pretty strong effort. And she did try again the next day, but that’s another post.
Have you ever done anything scary like this? Do you regret it, and would you do it again? How often do you push the limits of what you think you can do?
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