Canyoning in the Highlands of Vietnam: A Terrifying Venture.
It was early in the morning, and the damp, cold air had seeped into the duvet in which I had cocooned myself to stave off the chilly temperature of our of somewhat dingy hostel room in Da Lat, Vietnam. My friend, Laura, was already in the shower, having gotten up at the first ring of the alarm we had set for the day. I’d twisted my ankle tripping down the stairs the day before, and a part of me wished that it’d be sore enough to justify backing out at the last minute. To my dismay, it felt fine… I’d have to go canyoning today. As someone who is notoriously clumsy – as anyone who’s ever spent time with me will be able to testify – and scared of heights, I was, truth be told, dreading it. Before we left to go travelling, I’d promised Laura that I would do one sporty thing with her. Since neither of us had the 300 odd pounds for a scuba course, she had decided that abseiling down waterfalls with her unfit and physically unstable friend was the next best thing. My stomach was in knots all through breakfast, and I was trying to frantically come up with a mystery illness that I could use as an excuse before the bus was set to arrive.
“My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing through my body.”
We clambered out of the bus at the top of one of the many mountains of the region. The air smelt of dew and pine needles – an oddly familiar, European smell to come across in South-East Asia. After a few practice climbs, we were ready to head on to the first actual abseiling station: an 18-metre cliff beside a waterfall. After I’d gotten my harness sorted, I positioned myself at the edge of the cliff. Hanging onto the rope for dear life, I leant back and took my first tentative step downwards. I kept my gaze fixed at the edge of the cliff, fearing that if I looked down, or even at my feet, which were extended horizontally against the side of the cliff, my step would falter and I’d go smashing into the rocks. I reached the bottom of the cliff unharmed and breathed a sigh of relief. “That wasn’t so bad”, I thought. “That was actually sort of fun. I think I might be able to do this.” This newfound confidence in my abseiling abilities crumbled the moment I saw the next station: a 25-metre waterfall with a 6-metre drop at the end of it. Into a dark pool of water. Surrounded by rocks.
Once again, I found myself sitting at the side, petrified, frantically searching for an alternative route down that would not involve walking down a waterfall supported by nothing but a rope. One by one I watched my group make their way down, and by the time it was my turn to go, my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing through my body (and making me want to make a run for it). Before I could really register what was happening, I was leaning backwards over the slanted edge, cold water rushing past my ankles. I moved my stiff, tense legs along the wet stone, the water gushing down at an increasing strength the further down I got. It wasn’t long until I could feel it hitting my knees. I had to keep my face turned to the right so as to not have a face full of water. It was at this point that I noticed a small rainbow forming in the shower of water. This was enough to make me loose my concentration, and thus my footing, and I went slamming into the wet rock, my hands gripping the rope tighter than ever. Just goes to show that I really should not be allowed to partake in activities that require both physical strength and the ability to keep focused. I somehow managed to regain my balance but was soon faced with the next obstacle – having to let go of the rope so that I could free-fall backwards into the water approximately 6-metres below me. I mean that just goes against basic survival instincts if you ask me. I closed my eyes and released the rope from my hands, and before I knew it, my body hit the cold, dark water. My clothes weighed me down as I resurfaced, shivering and dripping, but elated.
“The air is expelled from my lungs and my torso feels like it might explode from the pain.”
“You were too far to the right.” I was told as I reached the edge of the small lake. “You almost hit the rocks.” The adrenaline and sense of accomplishment made me completely disregard this statement. I was buzzing for the next stop: the cliff jump. My newfound confidence left me resolute in my decision to cliff-jump from 11-metres. But, as fate would have it, my fear of heights kicked in last minute. A second of subconscious hesitation before making the leap, and I don’t jump quite as far out as I should’ve. As I’m falling, I can feel how close I am to the cliff, and in an attempt to propel myself forwards… I land on my stomach. The air is expelled from my lungs and my torso feels like it might explode from the pain. Luckily, I was wearing a life vest, which pulled me to the surface. Now floating on my back, groaning and gasping for air.
I’m still unsure as to which was worse, the pain or the sensation of not having any air in my lungs (honestly, who let me come on this trip. It’s a miracle I’m still alive and in one piece). Once Laura realises that I am in fact alive and breathing, all I can hear is her crying with laughter on the shore whilst the rest of my group stare at me, concerned. Once I’ve managed to get a sufficient amount of oxygen back into my body, I stumble out of the water and reassure everyone that I am alright and not (that) hurt.
“Despite my protests and a frantic internal monologue, I once again find myself preparing to abseil down into this crevice filled with cold, gushing water.”
The next stop is aptly named “The Washing Machine”, due to the fact that there are not one, but two waterfalls that you have to abseil through. Upon hearing this, I once again resolve to walk around the cliff and meet the others at the end. The instructions to let go of the rope once you hit the water, “because otherwise you will drown due to the pressure from the waterfalls”, do little to calm my nerves. Despite my protests and a frantic internal monologue, I once again find myself preparing to abseil down into this crevice filled with cold, gushing water. The panic kicks in and I squeak a frantic “I can’t do this, can I please come back up?” at our guide, who spends a good few minutes reassuring me that it’ll be fine. I soon realise that my only option is to just suck it up and walk down, so I begin my shaky descent down the mountainside. The rocks start to slant further and further away from me, and with the water coming down on me at an enormous pressure, I take my feet off the cliff and start to lower myself down the rope. I barely have time to take one last gulp of air before I’m underwater, the current pushing me further and further below the surface. Reluctantly, I let go of the rope and let myself be pushed towards the opening of the lake. It’s much further to the opening than I had initially anticipated, and I begin to panic a bit as I can feel myself running out of air. I start kicking harder, and can feel my legs shaking as I get out of the water.
In spite of my complaints, before, during, and after, and the handful of near-death experiences (not to mention the 20-minute hike up the near vertical mountainside to get back to the bus), canyoning was definitely something I don’t regret. Might even do it again at some point…