I have two feet, but sometimes I forget

Before I get started, let me give you a layout of Cape Town for reference. The centerpiece of the city is a flat topped mountain resembling a table and ingeniously labeled Table Mountain, imagine that!  The city center looks quite small when you first arive with not too many tall buildings and a managable amount of roads and intersections. But soon after making your way around the city you realize that it’s massive – that it’s built around the mountain, and that it’s not just the one Table Mountain, but several mountains tucked behind it all the way down the penninsula.

Noel and I had decided before we even landed in South Africa that we wanted to climb Table Mountain and our plan was eagerly embraced by our host, Dorian, whose family had taken us in for a few nights. Our other friend, Clint, who was in Cape Town visiting his girlfriend was quite a bit less enthusiastic.  In fact, it took a lot of prodding and peer pressuring to get him to agree. It would be his third time up, afterall…. it wasn’t until later, though, that he admitted that the other times up were by cable car… cheating!  He was finally convinced and we pinky-sweared (with thumbs even) that he would join. I was stoked!  I love strenuous activities every once in a while, just to keep the blood pumping.  Plus the added benefit of climbing being free and getting more exposure to the stunning views.

The journey started with a game of gawi bawi bo (scissors, rock, paper) to see who would get a bottle of water poured on them, a typical scene for the four of us… I lost.  So, drenched and exasperbated, I follwed the other three as we headed toward the city center.  We stopped by a supermarket to stock up on some snacks and liquids for our climb then packed into a minibus taxi… (an experience that deserves an entire blog entry to itself, but probably won’t get one).  We got dropped at the foot of the mountain and cheerfully began our hike.  Things were going along like a good hike should – great views, wonderful company, a variety of flora, and a nice steady, but gentle rise in elevation.  This was going to be easy!… until our guide, Dorian, turned us down a path that would put me face to face with one of my greatest fears: rock climbing.

I should probably give you a little back story as to why this is one of my greatest fears.  I’m not afraid of heigts, I bungee jump, I dream of sky diving and paragliding one day, I enjoy cable cars with glass bottoms (probably, I’ve never done it), I even sleep on the top bunk sometimes. It’s rocks that scare me.  Not small rocks (although read my upcoming blog on trains wine and bicycles and you’ll see that small rocks can be scary too).  No, it’s the rocks in your path, the ones that are taller than you that you have to get over one way or another, where you have to cling on to the side with no ropes holding you up and nothing catching your fall except more rocks.

It was my first year in korea when the oil spill on the west coast happened. I saw an advert for KTO (Korean Tourism Organization) who was putting a group of expats together to volunteer cleaning up one of the more popular beaches to help restore tourism to the area. I sent out a message to my friends to see if anyone was keen to help for the day so four of us hopped on a bus from Seoul to the small fishing town about 3 hours south of us.

We’d donned our gear: rain jackets and pants, rubber boots and gloves and a big bag full of rags and made our way along the rocky coast to scrub oil off the rocks.  Not the funnest of jobs and one that didn’t seem particularaly productive since rocks look dirty no matter how much you scrub them. But we were dong what we were told, we were making a difference! The morning was spent scrubbing rocks, chatting, laughing, and comparing the oil on our rags to see who made a bigger difference. Then it was time for lunch, but the tide was coming in and if we went the low, safe route, we’d get wet (heaven forbid our rain gear and rubber boots get wet!!!…. oh the horror!!!) So instead our guide took us along a rock ledge which ended up scaring me away from rocks for the rest of my life. I know, I know this blog is about Table Mountain, not the oil spill int South Korea, but trust me I’m almost finished here and we’ll return to Cape Town shortly.

The ledge was only about 12 feet up from the rocks below so at first it didn’t scare me at all.  It was about 2 feet wide so there was room to walk normally but still room to be a bit nervous.  I was right behind the guide, following one cautious step after another when the world just went in slow motion.  She looked down to the rocks below on our right.  her hand left the rock wall going up on our left.  She didn’t even look like she lost her balance.  She didn’t grasp for the rock wall or try to steady herself she just kind of… went.  I was close enough that I could have grabbed her, but as slow motion as she was moving, my body was even slower, frozen in fear.  Slowly I saw her falling until about halfway down when the cinematographer in my mind sped up the film and with out a sound she was just theter laying on the rocks below unmoving. She had literally belly flopped from 12 feet onto rock.  (I was just telling my friend Frederik this story and he suggested that she might have fainted. That would make so much more sense!) Anyway focus the camera back on the expats still clinging to the rock ledge.  My knees were failing me, my hands shaking uncontrollably. I was frozen there watching for signs of life from our guide.  Help came running up. Rescue helicpters were called in, orders shouted in Korean, all the while we’re perched above paralyzed with fear watching the entire spectical.  Finally someone noticed us and coached us off the ledge to safety, but with every step toward saftey came a new wave of terror. You just want to sit down and cry, but you want to be off the rock.  You see yourself falling any second so part of you wants to just get it over with, but then you remember that that’s what you’re afraid of in the first place so you take another step.  Every step cycles you through this vicious circle of fear, insanity, logic, step… fear, insanity, logic, step.

I’m afraid of rocks. Why not heights? I think because we weren’t that high up to begin with.  Twelve feet isn’t life threatening (our guided lived with some cuts and broken ribs). It’s fear of not being able to hold on to something, not trusting my own strength.  And also seeing that woman fall over and over again with every step.

So lets return now to Table Mountain, keeping what you know of my fear fresh in your minds so you can understand the struggle I went through getting to the top.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, we’re still at the bottom.  Our slope was pretty flat, although it was midday heat, we were already sweating buckets and runnning low on water.  Dorian turned us up a new path that would take us toward a river gorge that looked as though it had been put there just to trick climbers into thinking they could climb it.  We were the fooled climbers, we went for it. My first run in with paralyzing fear was when our path was interrupted by a pile of rocks clearly placed there to prevent people from going further.  Instead of being defeated and backtracking, Dorian says, “let me climb up this rock wall (to the left of our path) and see if the path continues…. (moments later)… Yep! Come on guys!!”

Rarely does angry, snide, nasty Stephanie come out (unless you know me very well), but one step up that rock and she reared her ugly head, alright. I made it up the rock but expressed in very angry words that I would NOT be doing that again, and if we came across another rock like that I’d be turning around and seeing myself as far from that place as possible. Of course it wasn’t until well into our journey -when turning around was impossible – when the real rock climbing came.  It’s really hard to understand the fear unless you’ve felt it.  It’s completely irrational at times, but paralyzing nonetheless.  If not for Clint taking up the rear and patiently waiting for me to figure out my hand foot placements…. man. His humour at my situation was well timed and reminded me that I was irrational.  One of the most helpful things he said as I was clutching onto the side of a rock with no idea how to make my next moe was, “Stephanie, sometimes I think you forget you have two feet.”  Very simple words that helped give me the confidence that I was strong and able.

It always turned out that at the top of the rock I felt so satisfied and accomplished, it was just that I would get to that point on each rock I climbed where I would realize that I’m clutching the side of a rock, like the time when the woman fell. Then I would go through that cycle of fear, insanity, logic, step all over again.

Finally we made it to the top! The others were sitting on rocks examining the views.  MY word were they stunning! My eyes glided over the coasts, the beach houses, the path we’d just climbed and finally rested on the mountain next to us and the cable car perched on top of it… the cable car we were aiming toward to get back down the mountain…. let me just reitereate here: I was looking at the cable car on the mountain next to us. To describe the sinking feeling in my gut would be futile, there’s no describing it. There was no more enjoying the view, no more pleasant satisfaction and rest, no more conversing with the others, there was just me sitting in the shade of a boulder by myslef fighting to keep angry, ugly Stephanie out of sight and come to terms with the fact that we had a lot more climbing to do.  Was it really just a few short hours ago that I was so excited to climb this mountain??  No point looking back, I focused on my current perdicament.  I was exhausted, on the verge of a nervous break down, AND nearly out of water.  We hadn’t bought enough because it was so heavy to carry and our hike was only supposed to be 3 hours long. There was no choice but to soldier on.

Sitting at the top of our mountain looking over at the mountain we should have been on. (the outcrop at the top middle of the photo)

Unsure of our path or if we were even going in the right direction, we finally made it to another peak, this time with two path options. Clint and Dorian went to check them out.  Clint was back first with an unfavourable report of rock ledges and hundred foot drops….. no thank you.  But Dorian’s report back was equally unpleasant, he had seen a snake cross the path before him, and with dense grasses and wearing shorts…  we chose the lesser of the two evils and went the direction of the snake.

Various misadventures now behind us we were finally to the flat part of the mountain from which it’s name is derived. All we needed to do was follow the flat to the cable car and we were home free. Out of water, out of energy and ready to give up, we paused to take in our surroundings. Instantly all the struggle, all the fatigue and fear left me when I saw the table cloth zooming past my face.  Speeding at me and whooshing and swirrling around my body.  The “table cloth” is what they call the cloud that often rests over Table Mountain and rushes down the sides to evaporate into nothingness.  It was all around us.  It was wet and cool and beautifully refreshing. 

The conclusion of our hike was spent uner the Table Cloth with arm hairs, and eye lashes collecting dew.  My hair was wet as if you’d just sowered and a hazey white covering everything in mystery. Imagine not being able to see anything around you except some fynbos (small shrubs) and whiteness.  It’s amazing how quickly it went from the scariest most difficult hike in my life, to absolute best hike.  Lack of water didn’t matter any more.  Nothing mattered, I was in the clouds.

At this point words are futile because you just need to see it.  Also  I  have the sneaking suspicion your mouse pointer is floating closer and closer to the “close tab” button.  So I’ll wrap it up.  After a long walk in the flat under the table cloth, we arrived to the cable car.  We were out from under the table cloth at this point so we just stood there forgettingn our dehydration and exhaustion, just watching the clouds rush over the flat and fall off theside of the mountain.  Every hard step, every word said out of anger, every longing thought of water, was woth this moment.

We celebrated by playing some cards on the mountain top and having a bit of soju, having a game of cubby bunny, but instead trying to say talbe mountian.  It was a difficult day, yes, but so so rewarding.  I would defineitely do it again if I had more water and Clint there to remind me, “Steph you do have two feet, you know”

Clintos, the guy who helped me up the mountain


3 thoughts on “I have two feet, but sometimes I forget

  1. Aunt Nancy says:

    Wonderful story and told so beautifully. Thanks!

  2. Steven Hoyland says:

    Hey I love your wrıtıng style and yes sleepıng on the top bunk takes huge amounts of courage sometımes. x

  3. […] a close friend I’d met teaching in South Korea and the same Clint who helped me survive Table Mountain in Cape Town, was living just outside the city.  I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see that […]

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