Seasoned traveler and adventure-seeker Tim Cahill has a story in Hold the Enlightenment about hiking into the dense rainforest on one of the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of northwestern Canada. He fell down a mossy cliff and cracked open his head. Knowing that he’d never be found if he rested on the forest floor, he bandaged his head and staggered down to the ocean, and swam around the island towards the camp he and his companions had kayaked to. They eventually found him as he was on one of the rocky points, trying to gather wood for a signal fire, and he lives to this day to tell the tale.
When my wife and I went to the island of Taveuni in Fiji last year for our honeymoon, we went on a guided forest hike that ended at the Wainibau Waterfalls. At first glance it was the epitome of our imagination of the hidden jungle waterfall, beautiful and peaceful.
However, this idyllic spot exists because of a very real, and very serious, set of natural circumstances. There are actually two waterfalls that come together from different heights to form one pool, the flow of water quite strong from both. Over thousands of years, their combined force carved a deep bowl into the forest floor, and their offset direction creates a whirlpool. The walls of this basin are black volcanic rock, sharp and slippery.
Besides admiring the beauty of the spot, one might ride down the lower waterfall as if on a waterslide, or jump from the top of the upper waterfall. I chose what seemed the less crazy of the two, and scrambled up the black walls behind our guide, and sat in the waterfall and let it carry me over the edge. The exhilaration lasted a full 5 seconds before panic set in as the force of the water drove me 20 feet below the surface and the spin of the whirlpool carried me to the wrong side of the bowl.
The guide jumped in and joined me, revealing the trick to getting out – to swim toward the waterfalls, then dive straight down about 8 feet, then about 10 feet under them and towards the far side before returning to the surface. I didn’t swim far enough, and when I surfaced the whirlpool carried me back to the far side. I tried again, and failed again.
Back on the wrong side, I was anxious and tired. I couldn’t rest because there was nothing to hold onto, forcing me to expend energy treading water. I tried to remain calm, even as I knew I had only one more try left in me. I waited a few moments, focused on my breath, sighted the far side, and then swam, dove under the waterfalls, swam further underwater, surfaced, and finally made it. Had I failed the third attempt, the guide would have rescued me, but all I felt at the time was do or die.
Adventuring has inherent risk that we all accept in theory, but the real test comes when the unexpected actually happens. No matter the situation, the key is always to remain calm, think through what has to happen, and then do it.
These experiences, whether “near-death” or not, serve as a wake-up call to not take things for granted and to see past first impressions to the reality behind them. They serve as a test of our ability to remain calm and think ourselves out of a corner.
What death-defying experiences have you had, and how did you get out of them?