Like most fears, my phobia about heights is irrational.
Throwing myself off the 216 metre Bloekrans Bridge in the Western Cape of South Africa was not something I did for fun. It was a dare I made to myself.
The Bloekrans is the largest single span bridge in the world. We walked out to the platform on a steel mesh walkway. On the way the winch guy told us that even experienced sky divers won’t look down. The ground is close enough to see, but far enough down to make you dizzy.
When we got right out to the middle, it felt like we were in the clouds. Two hundred and sixteen metres isn’t much horizontally, but vertically, it’s a real bitch.
Our group consisted of Sarah, a Welsh student who seemed quite shy but was more addicted to adrenalin than a base jumper after ten cups of coffee; and a very funny Dutch guy called Sander on a year’s sabbatical from his life.
I’m not that brave and certainly this wasn’t a very brave thing to do. No one had ever been killed doing it; my feet and harness line were attached to the bridge with bungee cord and the operators knew exactly what they were doing. I was more likely to die getting mauled to death by a rogue gerbil. Still, phobia is phobia.
I don’t think I showed my nerves.
I didn’t vomit or anything. But I had to concentrate real hard to keep the butterflies in my gut in formation.
Sarah went first. She screamed as she hurtled off the edge. I assumed she was dead. Shame, I liked her.
While the rest of the team went looking for the body, a rangy Kiwi and a wise-cracking South African strapped me into a harness and attached my legs to the bungy. Then they carried me to the edge.
I stood on the lip of the platform, buffeted by the wind, and fought my own instinct to draw back. Heights really make my butt go funny. For me, this was the most terrifying thing in the world; and that was why I was going to do it.
I felt light-headed, cold and leaden. My heart was punching against my ribs like it wanted to get out. There was a grease slick on my palms. I felt like I had swallowed a couple of pounds of cold chicken fat.
I swayed towards the edge, before my mind and muscles could take over and bring me back. The winch guy started counting back from five.
To hell with it. They got to three and I launched myself forward, just wanted to get it over with.
The Kiwi had told me to keep my eyes fixed on the horizon so that my head did not drop and the blood burst the capillaries in my eyes. So I focused on keeping my head up. Best thing to do when you’re scared; concentrate on instructions.
And for a few seconds there it was, the thing I dreaded most in the world; falling.
It was probably just a few seconds of free fall before the bungee rope kicked in, then I felt the steady pressure on my ankles as it gripped, slowing my descent. But the ground kept coming. I stopped about thirty metres from the ground; it felt as if I could reach out and touch the tops of the few scrubby trees below. Then the bungee whipped me up back up towards the bridge and for a few WTF seconds it shook me up and down like dice in a cup.
Finally I hung there, upside down and limp as a wet sock, feeling the harness slowly slipping off my ankles – it wasn’t, but it felt like it was – and all I could do was tense my toes back towards my forehead and wait.
Eventually, I knew, the winch guy would come and get me. This would all turn out all right and I would be glad that I had done this.
But for that moment there was just the silent swinging in space at the end of a long and uncertain rope.
Tomorrow I fly to Barcelona to start a new life. It’s ten thousand miles away, and I know absolutely no one in the city and my Spanish is a bit sketchy.
It feels a bit like that.
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