Girl at the Edge of Death

What a girl thinks about at the edge of a 120-metre abyss

Fear turns you inside out. Like an invisible, open hand, it reaches out towards you from the unknown. We all have fears, and most of us hide them as far away as possible. Our fears are so defining and embedded in our character and our past, that it isn’t until we know someone well that we even dare to approach the question. No one ever asks about fears as an icebreaker, or during small talk (but why the hell not?).

There are three kinds of people in this world:

1) Those who embrace fear and overcome it. These are the craziest of travellers, the curious minds, the adrenaline junkies who take a step forward and arch their bodies over the edge of their comfort zone, letting themselves fall into the unknown.

2) Those who watch the grip of fear approaching from afar and run, as fast as they can for as long as they need to, before fear even knows where to look for them.

3) People like me. Hybrids. These are people who, after a life of running, spin right back around and place a foot out of that fearful comfort bubble, facing fear in a power stance, as confidently and heroically as the first man who set foot on the moon.

Everyone should, every once in a while, ask themselves which of these the are, and whether they’re okay with that.

As I got closer to the edge of the viewpoint, I felt good. I held on to the thick, wooden fence that separated me from the abyss and looked down. The view was stunning. I looked into the distance and felt calm. As we went further up, the fencing disappeared, and my heart started racing. I stayed on the path, but I knew that if I wanted to experience the view properly, I would have to stray away from it. That’s the thing about paths: stay on it and you’ll be safe, but stray from it and you’ll find that safety is overrated.

I have had, for as long as I can remember, a natural talent for falling over thin air and running into all kinds of walls, lampposts and invisible rocks alike. So when I stepped out of the path of — small, polished, even and safe stones — my heart began to race. I loved hiking in spite of my clumsiness, but the thought of walking towards the edge of a cliff that stood over an abyss of 120 metres made my heart and feet tremble.

I had to keep remembering to look down at where I was stepping. The furthest I walked away from the path, the lower I felt my jaw dropping. The adrenaline kicked in. My heart was pounding, with fear and excitement at the same time. I felt alive. As I stepped onto the furthest rock, I made an effort not to look down.

Some called this place the Cathedral of Mountains. Officially, it was the Valley of Desolation, and was declared a National Monument by the South African government in 1939. The strange pillars were columns of dolerite, a product of volcanic and erosive forces of nature that happened over the last 100 million years.

Fear kicked in. Below my feet and all around I saw unending tunnels of rock and dolerite embracing a dark pit that would kill me in an instant if I took a step further. I slowly went on my knees and sat down on the rock, pushing away the thought of it cracking open and throwing me into the deadly void before me. I stretched out my legs so that they were hanging just over the cliff. The satisfaction of being so close to death felt macabre. I sat there in silence, trying to calm my nerves and contemplate the sun setting over the vast plains of the Great Karoo.

The adrenaline building up in my stomach started mingling with the serenity that sights like these caused in me. I looked down and tried to imagine what would happen if I tripped like I usually do. 

A literal faux-pas. 

I saw myself falling, in slow motion, into a 120 metre abyss, accepting my fate. I thought of my parents, my friends, the people around me. Who would miss me? Who would suffer? I thought about my own suffering. What would my last thought be before hitting the ground? What would my biggest regret be? How many things would I have left undone? I frowned, and pushed the thought away. I felt the hand of fear gripping in again, but I softly pushed it away. One fear at a time, mate.

As I pulled my hanging legs back up I felt smaller than ever before. I realised how fragile life is, how utterly and violently ephemeral time is. I needed to remember this moment every day, for the rest of my life. Why? Because I knew, at that moment, that as soon as I went back to my every day life (work, eat, sleep, repeat), I would forget this. I would forget what it feels like to fall off the edge. I needed to remember this. Everyone did. 

Everyone needs to fall out of their comfort zones, and that day, I vowed never to fall too far back in.

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Girl at the Edge of Death