‘Abseiling and Canyoning in the Blue Mountains’, says the RedBalloon website. Without thinking about that phrase in too much detail, I decide it all sounds really cool and click the box. I’ve been abseiling before, caving too, and I loved it. That may have been years ago, before that awful vertigo and fear of heights kicked in… But, honestly, after swinging from a trapeze and having flown in a plane more times now than I can count, I thought I’d kicked my big irrational fear.
After all, what do I have to be afraid of…?
If that sounds cocky and overconfident… it is. If you think I’m a bit of a noob for confusing ’canyoning’ with ’caving’…. you are correct.
I had no idea what I was I for.
I met up with Scott The Canyon Guy, the tour leader, and Barry, the other amateur adventurer, at 9am in Katoomba last Sunday morning. The canyoning school kitted us out completely with harnesses, safety gear and helmets, wet weather gear, wet and dry backpacks, canyoning shoes and a super sexy, high fashion canyoning wetsuit (even at that point, after being fitted for a wetsuit, I still didn’t quite get it… The way my mind just leaps entire tracts of logic alarms me sometimes.)
Then we pile into the coolest, ricketiest old van you’ve ever seen (on par with the wine tour bus of days Before), and cruise on up to Mt York for abseiling practice.
As we drive, the conversation naturally turns to fear and psychology. ‘It’s a good thing’, says Scott. He is some kind of crazy person who does this stuff for fun. ‘When I stop being afraid, that’s when I stop doing this.’
It’s his favorite part of the job, he says, working with people and getting them to face the things they are afraid of. He must have a sense for people, an empathy, I think, being able to read their emotions like a barometer. It’s only later on in the day I find out exactly how true that is.
I confess to him that I am afraid, I’m scared of heights. But as we set up- step into harnesses, tighten buckles, run through safety mantras- I discover I’m nowhere near as afraid as I thought I’d be. Maybe it’s the desensitization I’ve been doing for a while now. Maybe it’s the simple fact that, abseiling, you don’t look down– your eyes are almost always looking at up at where you’ve come from, not where you are dropping to or exactly how far away that is.
But I think a lot of it is just that this, climbing over rocks and traipsing through bushes… this is what I do. Give me a pagoda of sandstone rocks with gum trees sprouted firm between crevices, and I’m fine– my footing is solid, my balance almost perfect.
|The largest ‘practice’ drop. Heh.|
We abseil down a three metre drop, then move up to a fifteen metre cliff face. I surprise myself with how ridiculously easy this is– abseiling, it seems, is quite like riding a bike, an intuitive skill once learned. Even the final ‘practice’ cliff (heh) a thirty metre drop of uneven, beveled sandstone, is pleasant and we conquer it in the space of forty minutes, dropping into the fern covered bed of the gully three times over. My burgeoning overconfidence grows and grows.
Scott the Canyon Guy unpacks a picnic basket and we feast on cold meat, cheese, dips and rice crackers. There’s even a packet of Tim Tams for Barry, who’s here on holidays from the UK (just for the record, not backpacking. And he was nonplussed. Something wrong with the man.)
We pile ourselves, our gear and the picnic basket back in the van and head back to the other side of Katoomba and the amazin- and quite aptly named- Valley of the Waters.
This is, absolutely, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
We follow the bush track down, down, down; and after ten minutes the path spikes off to left, a slightly less worn-down and cleared-out combination of wooden logs, carved sandstone and the occasional metal tract that make up the route to the beginning of the Empress Falls canyon. It’s an eternally popular route– people have been canyoning through here since the 1890′s when they used to ‘wear woolen clothes and go really fast,’ Scott tells us. There’s only two anchor points to abseil out of the canyon once you’re in, so the council quite sensibly makes canyoning groups book in and stagger their times, lest there is a bottleneck of freezing people waiting for their turn to slide down a rope suspended over the Falls itself.
|Canyon sign in book, to prevent bottle necks at the exit. Photo pinched from here- cheers.|
I think you might be stating to catch on now…? I really, really, really don’t like the cold. I don’t like being cold. I don’t like being wet. Cold and wet… that
‘s torture for me. That has the ability to revert me to vulnerable six year old Lori, probably at the snow for the first time (and one of the only times) blue-skinned and miserable and crying.
Being cold brings out the big sook in me. But I’d never considered as a ‘fear’, listed it as one of those irrational things I was afraid of. Who’s afraid of being cold…?
It dawned on me that I had grossly underestimated myself, my threshold for discomfort, and exactly what ‘canyoning’ involved as we sat on sandy, pebbly stretch of sandstone ‘beach’ next to a small running, gurgling stretch of water. In fact, I think it was right about when Scott started saying how cold the water actually was (between six and eight degrees, Celsius) and what to do if we started to get really, really cold. Not just hands and feet and face– that’s unavoidable, he says– but your insides, your stomach or your chest.And the thing to do is tell him about it- “Once your body reaches a certain temperature, there’s not much I can do to bring it back up.”
I can hear the group just ahead of us, just around the bend where we can’t quite see them. I can also hear running water and splashing and the occasional swearing. Terrified doubt, as cold as the water I’ve just popped the (very ventilated) toe of my canyoning shoe in, begins to creep into my stomach.
It’s OK, at first. It’s cold, so cold, and my ankles ache before we’ve even gone two metres along the river bed. The scenery is amazing- Jurassic, lush, green and overflowing with dense foliage. It smells of that vivid emerald heady rainforest scent, the tiniest hint of decaying sulfur beneath moist earth. The water, continually flowing from it’s mountain home through the bed of the canyon itself, is cold and crisp and almost perfectly clear.
Twenty metres in, and we reach the point of no return– the real beginning of the canyon. It’s an open topped cave, two giant walls of rock on either side, and we’re standing on a huge boulder. In front of us, inside the ’cave’– which I later learn is giant mill well, a massive smooth circle ground from the rock by millions of years of swirling water and debris– is a pool of water, ten foot across and, Scott the Canyon Guy tells us, ten foot deep. Far too deep to touch the bottom. This deep pool of murky water laps at a smooth sandstone shore on the opposite side of the pool– that’s where we’re headed.
|For reasons obvious, I didn’t take my camera… this pic from RedBalloon|
But to get there, we actually need to get in to the water first. Apparently, the best way to do that is to jump off the boulder were standing on. Fling ourselves- preferably backwards so our backpacks don’t drown us– into near freezing water from an almost totally dry, wetsuit–clad position.
This is my worst nightmare.
Barry does it with so much ease and grace, not a moment’s hesitation save a heavily accented hut resigned “Sh*t”, that I want to kick him. I approach the edge of the rock, look into the water… and I can’t move. I want to– Barry is standing on the other side of the pool by now, totally wet and shivering. We have to go fast from this point, Scott had said, so no one gets cold. I know this– my head is repeating it to me, over and over, and causing hypothermia to a British tourist isn’t really on the mission statement for today… I still can’t move.
This isn’t like me and I know that, I’m angry and frustrated with myself just standing there. I’d only said to Scott the Canyon Guy two hours beforehand that I didn’t usually let myself get into that state, I normally just closed my eyes and jumped before that kind of panic of anxiety could take hold.
And I wasn’t lying at the time– that is what I ‘normally’ do. But my God, I think I’d forgotten or my mind had blocked it or something…. I despise being cold.
I really don’t think I thought this through properly.
So I stand there, shaking my head, eyes piped wide with fear. “I can’t do this.”
“Sure you can.” Says Scott.
“No…” My bottom lip trembles and tears rolls down cheeks before I realize I’m crying, “I really can’t”.
I don’t remember much of what Scott said after that, or what I said. I know I stood on a big rock, wrapped in an unflattering wetsuit, sobbing and shaking while Barry shivered and silently cursed me from ten foot away and the crazy guy who does this for fun tried every psychological mind play he knew to entice me to jump.
In the end… I jumped. I took a deep breath and silently asked my husband to hold my hand and jumped as far as I’d could, tucking my legs up and bombing, butt first, straight into the coldest water I’ve ever felt. The second my body breaks the surface my lungs constrict and if I could gasp, I would. Every muscle in my body clenches, cold water shoots up my nose and will remain there, an annoying not quite salty freshness blocking my sinuses for days. I instinctively open my eyes to look for ’up’ and it’s all murky, tealish green light and bubbles and when my head breaks the surface my chest muscles feel frozen, too cold to make my lungs draw in air. I scramble, an ineffective dog paddle of frozen limbs going almost nowhere, and I’m not even aware Scott the Canyon Guy has jumped in behind me until he grabs my backpack and helps drag me up onto the bank.
“F*ck you!!” I yell at, irrationally, then, “Sorry…”
He grins. I think he may be laughing at me.
And we’re off again.
To be entirely honest, I don’t remember the next twenty minutes or so of the journey through the canyon. I know we did at least one more jump like that first one, that we swam for metres, climbed up and over rocks. I remember shivering to Scott at one point that I was “too–ooo–oooo–ooo cooo–oooo–ooold alreee–eeaaa–dy!”
Then we came to a tiny ’beach’, a two metre square stretch of sand that is, thank the canyoning gods, our halfway point. Scott passes me a orange therma–fiber wrap and opens a packet of lollies, telling us to keep moving, move our hands and feet, to chew and swallow– moving and eating are the only things that can increase your core body temperature. We rest and warm ourselves in the sun like pussycats for a good ten minutes. The spot we’re standing, Scott tells us, is called Heeby’s Beach. He points behind us, and written in thick white paint high into one of the small caves in the wall of the canyon it says ’Mr and Mrs J Heeby 1931’. They were married here. Their graffiti remains, as does namesake of this tiny, secret stretch of sand.
That’s so damn cool it makes jumping into that bitching cold water almost worth it. Almost.
Scott hands me his own fleece jacket to go under my wetsuit and asks if I’m ok to keep going- no more big water jumps until right at the end, he promises. It’s all ‘only’ knee to thigh deep freezing water from here on in.
That… I think I can do. I don’t want to– ever fibre of my being just wants to stop, to go home, to change back into my warm clothes and have a hot shower and hot chocolate and a cry. But, dammit, I also really want to do the huge abseil over the waterfall at the end– that’s the good bit. And damned if I’m slinking away, humiliated and too sacred to see something to it’s glorious end.
Besides that… I’d have to confess, here on my blog. And you lot would be so dissapointment in me.
So we’re moving again. And I’m freezing and I hate it but I remind myself it’s almost over, twenty more minutes and, anyway, the worst of it is done.
And the worst of it was done. The next few hundred metres were still cold and uncomfortable… but so, so worth it. The scenery was un–freaking–believable. More of those giant mill wells lined the sides of the canyon. Ancient trees sat diagonally across massive moss covered rocks. There’s a slippery slide made from a thousand years of funneling water pushing hard over soft rock, and we slip down it on our bums, water pushing us as much as gravity.
We come to another massive mill well cum open cave, another cold pool of clear water at the bottom. There’s another stone slide to drop us into it. I spy Scott, who’s gone ahead, monkey climb the rock face rather that swim the pool.
“Can I do that?” I ask “Climb the rock instead of going into the water?”
“You will fall. Is slippery. I guarantee it. You’ll end up in the water anyway…”
“I won’t. Ill take the chance. Please” Anything to avoid another muscle-clenching dunk like that first one.
“OK then.” Scott shrugs and I clamber across, sure of my footing, fingers tucked into crags in the rock. And I make it across dry.
Only to have wade through waist deep water to reach the top of the waterfall anyway. Dammit.
I’m so cold when I get there, I barely even notice where I am. I wish I had of paid more attention- how often do you stand on top of a waterfall…? I wish I’d been more observant of my awesome self, abseiling down over that waterfall. I actually piked out halfway down– swinging over to a rock perch that led back to a bush track rather than dropping right down into the huge, clear pool of water the waterfall ran into. As gorgeous as that looked, I was just so glad to be back on dry, solid land and able to get out of that soggy wetsuit and into my own clothes again (kept toasty by the awesomeness of canyoning dry bags)… I really wasn’t too fussed at having missed out.
And then there’s all all this other stuff to deal with.
I now know what it’s like to be ‘that’ woman, standing literally petrified, too terrified to move. I know the tunnel vision that comes with it. The guilt that eats at you knowing you’re making other people uncomfortable, the embarrassment of being so afraid that it becomes debilitating.
I’m still working against being annoyed with myself.
“I’m cranky with myself,” I tell Scott, fighting the mounting exhaustion that’s attempting to lull me into sleep during the bus ride back to Katoomba’s quiet, quaint Main Street. “That’s not like me. I’m not used to be so unprepared, being caught out like that. I’m ashamed of myself for being so scared.”
“Why?” Replies Scott, and he seems genuinely surprised. “You did it. You were afraid… But you still did it. Honestly, I’ve beer seen anyone get cold that quick– I’ve never seen anyone start to shiver with their whole body that quickly. I really thought we would have to bail at the half way point, I didn’t think you’d make it.”
“And”, he finishes, “you did.”
And that, I guess, is the truth of it. I’m always saying ‘be afraid and do it anyway’. I’ve gotten so used to doing that maybe I’m not as afraid as I though I was, of the things I used to be.
It takes me days to recover, physically– I’ve never been so exhausted– and my poor wounded pride is hurting frightfully, bewildered at crying like a big girl instead of being the tough one for a change.
I have to hand it to RedBalloon– this one quite literally pushed me out of every comfort zone I thought I had, and broke that fug of boredom that’s been following me around in the most kick arse way.
That has to be a good thing.
Tips for those of you also crazy enough to think that canyoning might be a good idea….
Know what you’re in for. This is hard core. While it actually didn’t require the physical strength of the trapeze, it takes endurance, a certain amount of agility and– to put it frankly– a lot of balls.
Consider making it a weekend away. Depending on how far you live from the Blue Mountains, consider spending the night there, especially the night of your adventure, if not the night before as well. It’s a two hour drive from Sydney and I promise you will so exhausted that driving anywhere will become a monumetous task. At $150 of the entire day’s abseiling and canyoning– including all your gear and a yummy picnic lunch– you can afford to stay the night. Really.
Take spare socks. And lots of clothes that are warm but relatively light to carry. You will thank me. I (almost) could have kissed those warm, dry socks that where waiting for me in the van at the end of the day.
per person. All purchases are subject to Red Balloon T’s and C’s.