I have a choice: either continue putting one foot below the next, or completely submit to the anxiety-ridden vertigo knocking on the doorstep of insanity, ready to consume me whole and spit me out, sure to send me careening to my demise.
I hang on a metal ladder, essentially swaying in a symbolic breeze, hands death-clamped around corrugated rungs, feet sketchily resting a few steps lower. Below, roughly 38.2 meters beneath me, is my desired destination–the ground.
Today, I hike the Tugelo Waterfall, theoretically the tallest waterfall in Africa and second tallest in the world if you fudge your numbers a bit. It’s beautiful, green, lush, foggy, dramatic, reminiscent of a hike from my childhood in Verbier with my grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousins, the photo of which I kept for decades for its atmospheric beauty–really everything a hiker could hope for in a Drakensburg jaunt.
Well, maybe a little less rain and a little more heat.
I am definitely under dressed for these conditions, and along with half the crew, we freeze our nuts off as we mosey along the serpentine path, up and over a steep crevice type thing, to lunch atop the mesa. We are about twenty deep today, a lively group from the Lodge complete with rowdy yet sweet Dutchmen, a crew of chill ladies, and a few spicy interluders.
All in all, it’s quite divine, this mix of people, and when they see that attached on my ladder I almost freeze in panic, they start to chant my name to encourage my legs and hands to move in unison and go down one more, one more, one more.
At 3121 meters, we reach the climax of our hike, and instead of going back down and over the bend, we take a massive chunk out of the 621 meters of vert left to do and fast-forward almost 80 meters of descent via metal ladders dating back from 1809. I jest, but only mildly, as these two consecutive ladders are most definitely old, decrepit, rusted, bent, and staked into the rock with god knows what. Our guide makes it known that he is less than keen on having to rope us down, all safe and shit, because, you see, that would take a solid three hours, and we simply don’t have this kind of time.
Watching people download from the side, I barely register the steepness on the scary meter, but once confronted with looking into the emptiness and actually having to back my ass up over the hump and down the ladder, it is terrifying.
The first ladder goes without too much of a glitch, and in fact, I almost speed down, but the second ladder … ooooooffff. It’s endless, slippery, certain death, and oh my god, I curse the lack of safety precautions in this wretched place and think that no way in hell would something like this ever be allowed where I’m from and how dare they devalue our lives because, baby, there is no rescuing here.
Then, I remember, I elected to attend this beautiful hike.
And, I don’t have a choice. If I want to get down, I have to overcome the menace of vertigo, an event horizon of dizziness sure to catapult me into repatriation via the coffin. And, below me, a whole 125 feet, a family of backpackers await, their pack-laoded children ready to scale up like Sherpas.
Safe and sound, I resist the urge to make out with the ground, and instead, we carry on. Lucky for me, another man suffers from another form of vertigo, his pronounced at narrow passageways, where, if he could, I think he’d melt into the earth to avoid falling into his void, crawling like a spider, attached as tightly as possible to phantom stability. Vertigo ain’t no passing phobia, and I recall too many previous encounters of the vertigo kind–skydiving, jumping heights into the water, backpacking, skiing, hiking, flying, riding chair lifts.
The way down winds itself around and around towers of stone for an hour or two, and like ants, we follow the leader, pausing briefly for flowers, a millipede tickle, and to, just generally, admire the view that makes me think of Ireland for no good reason other than I imagine it to be green and cloudy.
Then, just to keep me on my toes, a massive bolt of lightening shocks the drizzling sky violent white and no Mississippi’s later, the thunder announces it is directly overhead. And, we, of course, are just around the bend of a massive chain link fence with massive rods and massive hunks of metal ready to drive us home.