I am posting a link to an article I wrote for a South African publican, WildSide Magazine, for their Spring 2014 issue.
Elephants have long been one of my favourite animals with dogs (big dogs, not the small ones that can fit into purses or rolling bags – I mean real dogs, the ones who when they get in your lap they cover you and then the rest of the couch because that’s a real dog – and another story entirely) being number one. So when I was presented with the opportunity to go on an elephant ride, I jumped at it.
It was an early morning at the Botlierskop Private Game Reserve & Safari Park, but not too early for riding elephants.
I stood on a wooden deck overlooking a vast green valley surrounded by hills and watched as a trio of elephants, a mom, a dad and the baby (in that order) made their way to the deck slowly from a building in the distance. The anticipation nearly killed me. I wanted them to hurry up and be right in front of me so I could finally sit on one of Africa’s Big Five (the lion, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard round out the five).
It was a strange experience mounting the the elephant as it was similar to a horse only much, much, much wider and taller. Once seated on the padded saddle and holding on to a strap, we were off. Slowly, but we were off. Elephants only step with one foot at a time leaving the other three on the ground which is why it takes them so long to go anywhere but when they break into a run they can reach speeds up to 40km/hr which is not exactly Usain Bolt, but it’s surprisingly very close. The elephants did not run and that just meant that I got to enjoy the ride longer.
At a river bank the elephant stopped to get a drink of water and the guide allowed me to feed her. He gave me a slice of apple and I held it in my hand and felt the wet and slightly hairy trunk grab the slice of apple right out of my hand as she then put it into her mouth. A messy and unique experience.
I didn’t try and fight the movement of the elephant as I sat on its back because swaying back and forth as it stepped over fallen trees and trudged through creeks was part of the fun.
By the end of the ride my thighs were a bit sore and my hand was red from gripping the strap too tightly for fear of falling off – which of course did not happen – but that discomfort was temporary and the memory of riding this giant will last a lifetime.
And subsequently falls face first into the water, wiping out any hopes that he may have had of being a prodigy of the sport, even at his age.
Who would have thought that it would have taken 26 years & 11 months before a boy from California finally got up on a board in an attempt to ride a wave? Certainly not me, and if you would have told me that I would have done it while I was in South Africa I would have laughed at you. I mean South Africa? The place known for Great White Sharks. That’s where I would go surfing for the first time in my life? As it turned out, yes. I did not receive any coaching or training, I just went out there with a friend and decided to give it a go.
I had already been cage diving and bungy jumping, two of the more dangerous things you could do, so how dangerous could surfing in shark-infested waters really be? Quite dangerous actually. While that story is from a swimmer being fatally attacked, the prospect of being attacked a few weeks after, honestly, did not phase me – mainly it’s because I had forgotten about it by the time I actually got into the water and I had been in those waves for the previous four days leading up to the surfing attempt. I was comfortable in the water and made sure to not venture too deep or get caught in any rough currents.
After about what felt like an hour but was actually 25 to 30 minutes I knew I was done. My arms were dead from paddling all over the place and the pounding my body took from the waves made me incredibly sore, tired, and thirsty. I never got my footing and the best I ever did was when I stood too far on the nose, fell over it and into the water which then sent the board soaring into the air and me under the wave…and that was the best one.
I’m not sure if this experience will bring out a side in me that will make me more active in surfing – or what is more likely is that I will turn to bodyboarding – but either way I feel that the ocean is calling me.
With the taste of sea salt and vinegar puffs still in my mouth, the car drove around the Point of Mossel Bay to the St. Blaize trail and parked near the shadow of a lighthouse. Before I hiked up to the start of the trail, I noticed a car with “Just Married” written on the back window and I am reminded of my sister who I just saw get married three weeks ago. She would have enjoyed the view of the dramatic seascape as the brownish red cliffs of the St. Blaize trail met the opaque blue water of the Indian Ocean below. Below the lighthouse was a hollowed out rock that was blackened with what looks to be soot from a distance and there is a raised wooden walkway marked as the start of the trail just underneath.
I slowly made my way up a steady incline and found myself on a narrow rocky trail populated with broken rocks, large boulders and branches which stuck out in the trail. I found the trail marked by wooden posts driven into the ground however some of the horizontal posts that can be used as hand rails had large gaps between them signifying that some of the original posts were missing. Perhaps they had disappeared from years of abuse, poor construction, stupidity or a combination of all three.
The trail features a series of switchbacks and due to the angle of the incline, steps have been carved into the rocks embedded in the ground. The steps are narrow and as I walked up the hill, I took care to notice the broken rocks, tiny pebbles, and animal droppings beneath my feet.
With the rising cliffs on my right and the ocean on my left I continued walking until I saw an elderly couple on a plateau, just below the trail, overlooking the ocean. There is no defined trail down to the rocky shoreline, only a path carved out by erosion and runoff. A slit of rock, looking more like a water trail after a boat has cut through it, acted as my guide down to the plateau. I reached into my pocket for my phone and my lip balm fell out. I stood still and did nothing as I watched roll slowly down a crack in the rock. But thankfully, it stopped just before the edge and I bent down to pick it up.
As I stood up, I look ahead and saw a series of caves in the cliff arranged diagonally, not in the direction of direct water flow. It seemed like an impossible location for caves to have been formed given that the water does not hit the shore at an angle. The rocks that make up these caves look like they are being held up by nothing more than sheer will. I can see defined lines of each section of rock that give it the appearance of being haphazardly put together and that at any moment the structure could give way and seal whatever was inside.
The swirling white sea foam that surrounded the base of the cliffs look like cartography lines that delineate the elevation of a hill or mountain. Only here, if you trace the lines, would they illustrate where the water meets the land. I watched the foam disappear around the bend and my curiosity begged me to push on.
I continued up the narrow trail surrounded by beautifully earth-toned vegetation before a square piece of earth caught my attention . I stepped out into the square and looked down at the waves crashing ashore. Below me boulders of varying shades of rust, brown, taupe, and grey were strewn along the hillside. It was as if this spot had been cut out so I could see the graveyard of rocks below.
Just beyond the graveyard of rocks I spotted a boulder next to the trail with white bird painted on the upper right hand corner. What was the motivation for this piece of graffiti? A senseless act, a desperate attempt for attention or a marking to make sure its visitors didn’t wander off the trail? Which would ultimately result in death.
Further up the trail a furry creature the size of a large rabbit crossed my path and made its way up the hillside before stopping a few feet from the trail and look back at me. Slightly frightened by the creature, I walked away and looked back at the way I came and I saw the lighthouse in the distance, It’s white pillar set amongst hills of green and brown.
I continued on the trail as it wove in and out, walking through a canopy of overgrown brush. The ground was soft and devoid of rocks as I came out into a clearing and looked back at a steep hill that runs from the trail down to the waters edge. The hill was spotted with green like a poorly watered Chia pet and the lines in the rock could be traced down to the water like a road map.
I continued walking until I reached my turnaround point on the trail at a crescent bay where the water crashed onto the large boulders that make up the shore. As the water ebbs and flows it swirled and created a whirlpool, sucking in the surrounding foam and creating a product that looked similar to boiling marshmallows. Just below the trail, a large rock formed a lookout over the miniature bay. As I made my way down the path I saw bits and pieces of glass bottles of alcohol and soda in tiny shards and large strips accompanied by the lids of bottles strewn all over the ground. Clearly I had stumbled upon a popular spot for socializing. Why wasn’t I invited?
Once I had taken in the view, I made way back up the small hill, onto the trail and headed back the way I came. Walking in the opposite direction, the trail looked different. I know I had been here before and have seen the same boulders and bushes but it all looked brand new. As the sun set behind me, the hillside casted a shadow on some of the trail that extended down to just beyond the shoreline and suddenly I am more concerned with my footing on uneven ground than the scenery as I clearly didn’t pay attention to the loose rocks and soil on the way here.
“What’s wrong John?” asked the man suiting me up.
“Huh? Nothing.” I replied.
“Why are you jumping off a perfectly good bridge?” He asked with a smile and a laugh.
Why am I jumping off a perfectly good bridge? It seems like a stupid thing to do a good way to earn a one way trip to the hospital. Only, it’s not. It’s the most exciting thing I have ever done and maybe the smartest. OK, smartest might be pushing it but it was one of the best decisions I made since I have been in South Africa.
I have a natural fear of heights, as most people should. I mean, you lean over something and look down and see the bottom is hundreds of feet below and your natural reaction is to get back from the ledge. It’s a normal human reaction. But why then would you want to jump off that sound structure?
For the thrill.
It’s that simple. Bungy jumping provides an adrenaline rush like nothing else I have ever done. I’ve bungied twice in my life (the first time being off Auckland Harbour Bridge in 2007) and each time I was afraid to jump but went ahead with it because I knew it would be the thrill of a lifetime. Having jumped off Bloukrans in Plettenberg Bay, the world’s tallest bridge bungy, I can say that I have lived.
One thing I will say is that the walk out to the jump platform is the worst part of the entire experience. The metal grate walkway bends with each step you take and you wonder “When was the last time this bridge was tested? I can feel it bending and that’s not normal.” It also doesn’t help if you look down and see the ground below. Bad idea.
If I have one piece of advice to give about this bungy it’s this: Don’t look down. It will ruin the surprise. Pick a spot out on the horizon that is at your level and don’t lose contact with it. This is exactly what I did. I stared straight out and when the bungy guys behind reached 1 and yelled “BUNGY!!!” I bent my knees and pushed off as hard as I could and I flew. I flew through the air and as my body plunged toward the ground below I couldn’t help but flail my arms a bit because the fear inside me took over but I didn’t regret doing it. Not. One. Bit. And as I dangled under the bridge, the mantra of Face Adrenalin popped into my head and reaffirmed my decision: “Fear is Temporary. Regret is Forever.”