Mountainside

We managed to make a little holiday out of the trip to South Africa. Thankfully we left before the football started (I might be the only person on the planet who thinks that's a good thing).

We arrived in Cape Town around lunch time the day before the gig. The weather was treating us very well; it was winter time and supposed to be cold and rainy but was actually clear, sunny and very warm! Andy, Bob and I decided to go up table mountain to see what all the fuss was about. I was keen to go up, but I wasn't expecting much from it. Turns out it's incredible. It's very big (you can walk for 90 minutes before you fall off the far end) with incredible views of Cape Town and the surrounding area. We walked around for a while, saw the sunset and caught the final cable car back down. It was while we were queueing for this last cable car that I spotted the brochure for Abseiling which immediately grabbed my attention. I picked it up for later perusal.

It turns out that Table Mountain sports the largest commercial abseil IN THE WORLD. 112m down sheer rock. You need not have abseiled before. I was determined to have a go.

I tried convincing the guys that it'd be fun but they were having none of it. I left a message on Russell Gilbrook (drummer with Uriah Heep)'s hotel phone to see if he'd be up for it (he struck me as the adventurous type) but never heard back from him. At the gig the next night Russell approached me and asked if I'd left a message on his phone. He said he could make out about half of what I was saying but it was mainly noise and drop outs. I told him "I was asking if you fancied abseiling down table mountain". He said "you've gotta be joking. I won't even climb a ladder!"

I was giving up hope that somebody would join me when Tom, the monitor engineer, came over saying he'd overheard I was thinking about doing the abseil. He leapt at the chance to have a go.

9am the next morning Muddy and I got a lift to the cable car. Muddy had stayed behind when we went up the other day so he was coming along for the view. We met Tom at the bottom and caught the cable car to the top.

The abseiling team (two 19 year olds with a bunch of rock climbing gear) were located just behind the cable car station. I was feeling quite calm and confident about the whole thing. Blue Peter presenters used to do it all the time and I never thought it looked particularly difficult or scary. I stepped into the harness and rearranged myself to allow for the future possibility of having kids. They hooked me onto a test rope so I could get a feel for what happens. Basically, there's a long rope that goes all the way down to where you want to end up. To this rope you attach a friction device which is, in turn, attached to your harness. Once the rope leaves the friction device you grab it with your right hand and control the descent by the tightness of your grip. It was explained that with just two fingers I'd be able to create enough pressure to stop myself.

It sounded fine to me so we made our way over to the edge of the mountain and were attached to the proper rope. I stepped backwards and leaned a little over the edge. My pilot (I think that's what he called himself) explained that he was in control of a second, safety, rope. This is what would save my bacon if I passed out and let go altogether. He locked it off and asked me to hold both my hands in the air to show I trusted him. I did this with a big smile on my face but I was secretly very glad to be able to grab the rope again once the photos had been taken.

It was time to go. I stepped backwards expecting to see a vertical cliff wall beneath me. The first surprise was that the cliff actually went inwards to begin with! That made it feel like I had to be hanging almost upside down. As the harness took my weight I realised that my weight was considerably more than I'd expected. Suddenly all of me was being supported by a harness around my waist that was digging in quite severely and knocking the wind out of me. I quickly discovered that this suggestion that I could stop myself with just two fingers was complete nonsense. I was grabbing the rope for all I was worth and I was still moving at quite a speed. I reached up and grabbed the rope with my left hand as hard as I could and managed to stop myself. I caught my breath. My mouth was already dry as a bone. There's obviously no going back once you've stepped over the edge and my "pilot" was out of view the moment I'd rounded the corner. I was shouting up to him explaining that I thought he'd forgotten to do something with the friction device as there seemed to be no friction and I needed to grab on for dear life in order to stop. I can't even remember if he answered me. He probably just laughed. This wasn't quite as much fun as I'd been hoping for!

Before the descent had started I was all up for the "jumping out/sliding down" style of abseiling that you see on the telly. What I actually did was the "hold on with both hands as tight as you can/fall down the cliff with jelly legs" style which didn't seem quite as cool. Thankfully nobody could actually see me at this point without looking over the edge. Muddy, the only person who'd come up with me, had nearly thrown up at the sight of me leaning back with my hands in the air, so there was no chance of him seeing me crapping myself 40m from the top. I think if I'd felt like I had any kind of control whatsoever I'd have been fine. I'd been told that I could let go of my rope and, due to the safety rope, everything would be fine. The thing is, I didn't really want to test out this theory when I was 1km above sea level. I'd rather have figured that stuff out on a little climbing wall with a soft blue crash mat below me.

Half way down I discovered a surprise that had been hinted at by my "pilot" before we started. Suddenly there was no cliff left to put my feet against. It just stopped. I took another look down and could see 50m of rope just dangling in the air. 50m is a long way to just slide down a rope, especially when your muscles have seized up from gripping so hard. As I was struggling to stop myself I didn't have much choice.

When I landed in a heap at the bottom I had to prise the fingers of my right hand apart with my left. My right forearm was visibly about twice the size of my left and my heart was pounding. I'll be thinking twice before submitting my application to Blue Peter!

The view upwards from the bottom was way more impressive than the view down from the top, but I'd left my camera up at the top so I couldn't take a photo. Afterwards I scoured the internet for that view - I was sure somebody somewhere must have taken a shot. I failed in my search. I even emailed the company to see if they could send me a photo for this blog but they said they preferred not to advertise the surprise. The photo of the guy with the big hair isn't me - but that's the point where the rock stops.

Joe

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