Dear newcomers to my blog,
Driving the Camel is a memoir that I am publishing as a serial on this blog. It follows my adventures as a child life specialist during a transformative year of my life when I battled breast cancer and travelled the world. It includes reflections on my past work as a child life specialist, my personal life and stories of the wonderful people I met on my travels. You can find previous chapters in the side menu categories (or scroll down on mobile devices) under “Driving the Camel: Adventures of a Child Life Specialist.
I lay in bed that night, feeling unready to let this day be the last chapter of the Deb and Garth adventures. I thought about love, and how strange it was to feel my heart so full for people I’d just met that day. I was hard to put understand the connection and affection I felt for Garth. It was like I’d known him for years, or maybe even in another life.
I phoned him the next morning.
“I know I am not ready to abseil into a cave and swim out,” I said. “But would you be willing to give me a ropes lesson, so that I can try some abseiling in the light of day?”
Garth readily agreed and we set our sights on Saturday. That would be my last full day on the Island before I would head to the South Island for the last leg of my journey. That morning he picked me up and we drove back to the cave, both of us in high spirits and joking. He entertained me with a story of an intruder who’d awoken him the previous night.
“I heard this noise and I figured one of the chooks had gotten into the house again. So, I followed the sounds and opened the bathroom door, and there was a damned possum in there, hissing like it was going to eat me alive.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Well, I just sat myself down on the floor and started to sing it a lullabye. Then once it calmed down a bit, I got myself a blanket and tossed it over it and carried it outside.”
“So what you’re telling me is that you’re a kind of possum whisperer,” I laughed.
As we neared the turnoff for the cave, I decided it was important to be honest with Garth.
“I just want to tell you something. I am terrified of heights. I get vertigo, my knees turn to jelly, and I feel like throwing up. But it is something I really want to face it today. I want to abseil.”
“Everyone is scared when they do this for the first time,” he said. “The difference between boys and girls is that girls are more likely to admit they’re scared.”
I hopped out of the car to get the gate, and then followed the car into the pasture. It was another perfect day, not a cloud to be seen and a warm breeze tickling the grass. Garth popped the boot and hauled out a tangled mass of ropes and gear. I grabbed a helmet and secured the strap under my chin.
“So first, I’m gonna teach you a bit about tying knots. When it comes to abseiling, you’re only as safe as your knots.” He nimbly worked a small rope into the shape of a harness, telling me a story as he went about rabbits and holes and foxes. As quickly as he had fashioned the harness, he undid the knots and handed it to me.
I fumbled with the rope, trying to recall the story and moves. He watched patiently and guided me with a few hints now and then. It took more than a couple of tries, but he seemed in no hurry. When he deemed me ready, Garth helped me step into the homemade harness. We practiced on flat ground first, tying the ropes around a sturdy tree. Garth’s big hands moved efficiently, as he hooked my harness to the rope and showed me where to hold on, and the art of leaning back and playing out the rope in my right hand.
“Keep your feet shoulder width apart to maintain your center of gravity. Never let go of this rope without securing it. Here is how you hitch it if you need to free up your hands.”
His instructions were clearly demonstrated, but the tasks were unfamiliar to me, as I struggled clumsily with the equipment. He patiently guided me through each step until he felt comfortable with my technique.
Only then did we make our way up the wooded slope slanting back over the mouth of the cave. He hauled the heavy ropes and I did my best to keep up with him. We reached a plateau and Garth led us to the precipice of the cliff. We stood directly over the entrance to the cave, about 80 feet above. I looked down at the vertical rock wall, which we would traverse with the ropes. About 10 feet back from the edge, there were several stakes buried deep in the ground, remnants of previous forays over the cliff. Garth securely fastened two lengths of rope to the stakes.
“How do you know these are secure,” I asked, not fully able to trust.
“Because they go down about six feet into the ground” he said. Good answer.
I stepped into my harness and prepared for my descent.
“Don’t look down.” I told myself. “You can do this if you look straight ahead.”
Garth lowered himself backwards first. From there, he coached me as I made my first tentative steps in his wake.
The harness felt like a flimsy string cutting into me, rather than a secure perch. I gripped the rope with all my might, terrified that my weight would make it yank from my grasp.
“Easy does it,” came Garth’s voice from below. “Widen your stance. Lean back until your heels make contact with the wall.”
I did as I was told.
“Now take a step down,” he instructed.
Somehow, I thought he meant for me to look for a purchase in the wall. I looked down and spotted a passable crevice. I took a deep breath and jumped towards it, letting out the rope as I scrabbled for a foothold.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said, laughing. “Just walk down the wall one step at a time.
The jump had shot adrenaline through my veins, and my heart began to pound. My excitement was evaporating quickly as I scanned the lip of the cliff that was now about two feet over my head. Just like the plane ride, there was no going back. The only way was down and I was frozen, unable to go any further.
“I am panicking,” I told Garth. “I don’t think I can move.”
“Just hold on a minute. I’ll be right there.”
He quickly navigated his way up the face of the rock to where I clung to my rope in a death grip. He steadied himself beside me and smiled.
“Let me tell you a story. The Dali Lama had this doctor. They were discussing health and the doc said to him, ‘You know what is wrong with people today? People today forget one very important thing. They forget how to breathe. And he took a deep breath in and out with the Dali Lama. And then he took another one.’”
As Garth spoke, I followed the emotional stepping- stones of his story. I breathed deeply and after a few moments I felt my panic begin to subside.
“I think I’m okay now.”
“All right, then. Let’s do it.”
Garth returned to his spot below me. I took one more long, deep breath, set my feet shoulder width apart and began my descent. From there on, the exhilaration returned. I only had one moment when I lost contact with the wall. I spun in a circle, my feet kicking out for contact.
“I don’t like this! I don’t like this!” I squealed.
“You’re all right!” Garth called up, laughing at my distress.
His humor made me relax. He wouldn’t be laughing if I were in any real danger. I let the rope out until my feet felt the wall again, and then I walked backwards down the wall with ease.
When my feet finally touched the ground, I shouted “I did it!”
“Yes you did!” said Garth.