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Dicing with death on a Manoutsa Mountain hike

“I don’t know what to do!” wailed fellow hiker Linda, her legs visibly trembling. It’s probably fair to say that none of our five-strong group did. For not often do you find yourself stranded at the top of one of South Africa’s Manoutsa cliffs having just witnessed your guide nearly plunge to a particularly unpleasant (not to mention spectacularly messy) death.

Well, I’d wanted adventure – and I’d got it! As mentioned in previous instalments, feeling my nine-to-five London life lacked both meaning and excitement, I’d flown out to join a wildlife conservation project held at a private game reserve in Hoedspruit, South Africa. Besides lectures and practical work in the bush, at additional cost there were also several optional excursions on offer. Of which the hike was one…

A relaxing ramble through the lush, shady woodland of the escarpment. What better way to spend a gloriously sunny Sunday?

We set off along the trail, the trees’ canopy painting dappled patterns on the sun-baked ground. Furthermore, it provided welcome relief from the scorching afternoon rays. (Fair-skinned types, beware! Not even frequent, liberal smotherings of Factor 500 would necessarily prevent you turning a pretty, albeit painful, shade of pink)

There were gasps of wonder whenever the trail passed through a cool, shady clearing, each a nature-lover’s paradise complete with stunning flora and a towering, cascading waterfall as its focal point. The lure of the cooling water proved irresistible; the perfect antidote to soothe sizzling, sweat-soaked skin.

Equipped with refreshments you could laze by the edge of the dappled pools for hours, listening to the tumbling water and watching fiery-red dragonflies dance over the glistening surface.

With just one clearing proving the exception. Gasps? Well there WERE gasps. From all concerned. But gasps of surprise rather than awe. After all, not often do you stumble across three men clad in nothing but underpants crouching under a huge plastic sheet.

Needless to say, we decided not to laze by THAT particular pool. In fact, we called a cheery “Hello!” to the locals and strolled on by, as if stumbling across three men clad in nothing but underpants crouching under a huge plastic sheet was unworthy of the batting of an eyelid…

Otherwise, relaxing at these mini havens of tranquillity proved utterly blissful.

But the hiking bits in between the bliss? Let’s say that, compared with the UK, encountering health and safety regulations in South Africa seemed about as likely as encountering a polar bear.

The freedom this allows is fantastic! You’re not mollycoddled, stifled by over-zealous restrictions; you’re a grown-up! You can make your own decisions about the risks you’re prepared to take! Providing you’re given adequate information about the risks involved, that is…

Advice from experience, then: should you ever consider hiking through this terrain, don’t take a cumbersome rucksack that swings you off balance when negotiating awkward rocks next to sheer drops. Don’t wear sandals, even walking sandals; your feet tend to slip in them, particularly if you’ve entered rivers (intentionally or otherwise!), sending adrenalin levels rocketing when you consider the height from which you might be slipping. And most importantly, BEWARE OF THE LADDERS!

It took about, ooh, two minutes to ascertain that this was more than just a simple stroll through the woods. For starters, it involved climbing some fairly sizeable rocks. A couple of the shorter girls had to ask for assistance (i.e. a shove from behind) as they couldn’t quite manage to heave themselves up. (Don’t even enquire as to the condition of our hiking-novice thigh muscles the next day. In mere hours we’d been transformed from able-bodied twenty- and thirty-somethings into wincing, wailing, shuffling octogenarians when attempting to traverse any surface that wasn’t completely level…)

“We’re not going in there?” I asked as we stood gazing down at the tiny, tunnel-like entrance to a pitch-black cave. But yes, that was exactly where we were going. One by one we wriggled down into the cool darkness, our hands sinking into coarse sand. I prayed I wouldn’t slam down my hand on any of the biting or stinging things – spiders, snakes, scorpions – that might be lurking in the blackness. In fact, forget “might be”; they undoubtedly WERE lurking in the blackness.

After shuffling down steep, sandy declines, barely able to see a thing (note to potential visitors: take the Light of Elendil with you. Failing any Lord Of The Rings-inspired Elven accessories, the most powerful head-torch you can find will suffice), we at last emerged blinking and temporarily blinded into dazzling sunlight, caked in an incredibly fetching mixture of sweat and sand.

Still, that was the difficult bit over with.

Or so I thought.

We arrived at the top of a cliff. Remember the flimsy ladders in the Indiana Jones movies? The ones that look as though they’re held together with bits of string and couldn’t support the weight of an anorexic butterfly? “Just follow me!” exclaimed our chirpy guide Marjolein, casually stepping on to the rungs. She clearly wasn’t a novice.

Suddenly one side of the ladder fell way from the cliff, sending her swinging outwards, right arm flailing. We froze. Time stood still. Blood drained from our faces. A horrible, sickening sinking sensation assailed our stomachs.

After what seemed an eternity she recovered her balance. Then, to our horror, promptly lost it again, swinging out further this time.

The whole ladder would rip away from the rock. She’d plummet to the ground. She might even die! It’d be a stunningly beautiful place to die, with dramatic views of the eerie, mist-shrouded Drakensberg mountains in one direction and the Lowveld’s wildlife-teeming, sun-soaked bush savannah stretching for miles in the other. But she couldn’t die, she COULDN’T! Could she…?

Our minds raced uncontrollably as interminable seconds crawled past. Eventually – seemingly miraculously – she recovered her balance for the second time and rejoined us on the cliff. “Oh my god, Marjolein!” I exclaimed. “We thought you were a goner!”  “I’m fine!” she laughed, nonchalantly brushing down her clothes and seeming largely unfazed by her near-death experience.

Unfortunately retracing our route before nightfall wasn’t an option. Unless we wanted to sit at the top of the cliff until morning – and we were far from equipped to do that – there was no choice but to tackle the Ladder of Potential Doom.

We watched with baited breath as Marjolein stepped on to the rungs again, this time putting her full body weight on the ladder’s unattached side to hold it against the cliff. Eventually she reached the bottom. “Okay, next one!” she called. “Take it slowly and you’ll be fine!”

The author, alive…

I raised an eyebrow.

“Are you mad? Do you want to die?!” screamed part of my mind. “Are you mad? Do you want to look like a complete wimp?” retorted the other. The same battle appeared to rage in the minds of all of us. We really DIDN’T know what to do.

But then, if Marjolein had managed to reach the ground in one piece…

One by one, defying survival instincts, we gingerly made our way down, carefully stepping over the missing rungs (expecting a complete set of rungs was expecting a bit too much!)

At last we gathered in a group at the bottom. We’d made it! And with no casualties, either!

Only after completing the hike did we discover the crucial (albeit rather obvious) factor: this once-maintained route hadn’t been maintained for quite some time…

But, prospective visitors, don’t let that deter you! Hiking through this area is certainly challenging but it IS fun. Repairs were due to start imminently and, it should also be pointed out, if you know what to expect and are appropriately attired, the risks are greatly reduced.

And if the very worst scenario should come to pass? Well, it WOULD be a stunningly beautiful place to die…

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