The imposing snow-capped Cathkin Peak stands sentinel.
The imposing snow-capped Cathkin Peak stands sentinel.
You need to braked, but which method - DIY or a little help from your guardian angel up ahead?
You need to braked, but which method - DIY or a little help from your guardian angel up ahead?

Kevin Ritchie


Durban - “It’s easy,” said my friend Larry, “t doesn’t matter how scary it looks, remember it's incredibly safe. Just give yourself over to the experience.”

It sounded like great advice over a beer in the pub at the Drakensberg Sun down in the valley, but here I was, in a climber's harness, about to be locked on to a steel cable and from there swing out over the abyss - literally. It was a picturesque abyss below Champagne Castle and Cathkin Peak, I grant you - and unutterably, bowel-looseningly terrifying.

Larry was right, though, there was nothing to be scared of - rationally. The zipline slides that make up the Drakensberg Canopy Tour were guaranteed for weights up to 160kg, which gave even someone like me a bit of leeway, but there's logic and then there's imagination, and I have been blessed with a particularly overactive one.

Normally in situations like this - think the Anaconda at Gold Reef City - I stand in the queue and time the ride. When my turn comes to strap in, I close my eyes as the ride begins and start counting down in my head. (If you're interested, it takes about 45 seconds).

This, though, was slightly different. For a start there are 12 slides. The highest is 65m above the Blue Grotto Forest, the longest is 180m. You don't have to quantify it - it's high and it's long. And the thing was I couldn't keep my eyes closed, because you had to land on the next station and stop, otherwise you'd slide all the way back to the centre of the cable, have to turn yourself back to front and winch yourself up hand over hand to the station.

You also want to keep your legs up so you don't bash your shins as you come in to land.

You are accompanied by two guides - a safety officer who goes first and gets you on to the next platform, and your main guide who keeps chatting to you and ensuring you are properly hooked up before giving you the signal to go.

Sondlo Mvelase was our safety officer. He was the one who would signal for you to slow down if you were coming in too fast. He had a great patter on him.

Some of the rides were designed to be fast, but we weren't to worry as there would be an ABS or “African Braking System” on them, a cunning stopper 20m from the end of the line that you would smash into and which would slow you down before reaching the platform.

For all the others it would be OBS or “Own Braking System”, a light touch on your cable behind the pulley with your gloved hand.

Physics, though, tells us that heavy objects descend faster than light ones. Being an overachiever in this regard, there were many times Sondlo would give me a waiver on the ABS and chip in with OBS, his eyes becoming progressively wider as I hurtled towards him.

Promise Hlatswayo was our main guide, a sweet soul with a gentle smile who would ensure we were properly hooked up - pulley locked in, safety line clamped to the same cable, with a second line attached to the safety cable running alongside - before sending us off at Sondlo’s signal with the words: “Just sit down and let yourself go.”

It was that easy - and she made it look even easier, gliding angelically over the tree tops after us to alight on the platform with pinpoint precision each time.

For the first six slides I was gritting my teeth, willing the experience to end without my disgracing myself - as my wife and kids flew through the forest with absolute abandon and joy - and then, suddenly, I managed to start overcoming my irrational terror and enjoying the experience.

It’s breathtaking. It’s like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, whooshing over an ancient indigenous forest, with waterfalls and the rush of the river far below.

There are more than 150 species of birds, five kinds of exotic trees, from the Cape ash and Cape chestnut to the Outeniqua yellowwood and the Red Pear, and a route that will take you over a kilometre and a half of all this in a journey that spans two hours.

Suddenly it’s over. Promise hands out a KitKat and a bottle of water to each one in the group. Never has anything tasted sweeter or been more appreciated. But there’s one last test, a 450m hike out of the forest that is fairly steep in places - and which may put paid to any fantasies of climbing Kilimanjaro without training.

The bakkie ride through the mist and down through the foothills provides you with a panoramic view of the Drakensberg Sun and all the absolute wonder that is this area. Back at base, you say goodbye to the angels who've been watching over you, hand in your kit and get a toasted sandwich and a coffee while you wait for your certificate.

And, if you're like me, 51, fat and cowardly, you'll put it in a safe place (perhaps tucked into your current Wilbur Smith thriller for your armchair adventure) and take it out now and again to remember the day you actually ticked something off the bucket list.


Saturday Star