It looks like a scene from the movie Freefall, only that in it was a trained stuntman who took the risk on behalf of Eric Roberts, for a fee of course. However on this cold Sunday morning the people taking the plunge down Panorama Falls in Graskop (Eastern Transvaal) are the ones paying R235 for what is referred here as a swing. This is a highly dangerous extreme activity that resembles bungee jumping only that here the person gets deliberately suspended to facilitate a wild swing over a ravine.
It seems people's obsession with flying never stopped with the Wright Brothers. Many years after Orville Wright piloted his first powered flight in 1903, the air is still as appealing as ever.
This is proven by the thousands of people who have signed away their rights to sue or claim compensation in the case of a mishap and took part in these two dangerous activities called a slide and a swing. "No, a swing is not bungee jumping" protests the attendants. And what about the next activity, anything similar to a human cable car? "No, it's a slide, and it's not dangerous at all" another protest.
I survey the safety measures put in place at this obviously menacing venue. Everything seems to be in order, however since I know nothing about safety, everything looks safe to me as I tend to see what I want to see. All of the attendants here say they had plunged down the ravine and have fond memories to share.
Joseph Mokgope takes me on a tour. "The tourists who come here say they do it for enjoyment, especially the swing. Most come from Europe and America. I've done it a lot of times too, to show potential customers how it works. Everytime before I go there is a little fear, but it's not like when I did it for the first time. I've gone down there quite a lot of times" he brags.
Moments later a couple arrives and expresses a wish to go on a swing, the dangerous of the two. The crew suddenly attends to them. They strap them in paratrooper-like suits. A safety harness is also attached to the suits to attach them to the semi-relaxed cable that stretches for hundred and ten metres across the ravine.
Fear is now all over their faces. At this stage they have already signed off their rights as they are in the ENTER AT OWN RISK zone. Minutes later they are guided to the edge of the launching plank. One can see the uneasiness on their faces, but it seems there is more love for each other than the fear of dying together.
The countdown begins. Three, two, one and off they go… "Uhhhh!!!" they scream as they swing wildly over mushy bush that is overlooked by the waterfall. The swing lasts for minutes.
At completion of their successful swing, there is a man on the ground waiting to remove the safety harness, then guide them to the top of the waterfall.
The couple is excited as they emerge from the ravine. I wonder if it's the two cans of beer they've just downed as a reward for taking the ultimate plunge or adrenaline. "All people who go down there get a 340 milliliters can of beer and a bravery Certificate from our sponsor Castle Lager. They also get a free shooter at the bar" informs Bishop Lebjane.
"It's basically about the thrill, there is a certain thrill that I experience, especially just before I leap from the pad", says a now relaxed Gerhard Prinsloo. "It only becomes really scary when we fly and approach down there and you can't tell what's going to happen next," he adds.
His partner adds, "For us it was the first time, but given the opportunity we would do it again. It's rather addictive". Really? "For sure I tend to think it is the adrenaline rush that comes with it, the feeling is beyond comparison. It is just its own. No words can explain it" Riette adds jovially.
I look at the couple with suspicion until Gerhard explains, "It is very scary and fun and I guess for me that's the whole fascination, the scary part" he confesses. The part that says you can die? "Yes" he says.
But I see no black person coming to any of the activities and I have to ask. Mokgope responds, "Most black people would say that they have so much bad-luck they'll never make it through without splashing their brains on the menacing rock below. We however had a black person from Nelspruit who plunged down there". Down there is 110 metres with a sharp rock at the bottom.
"Another black person who once did it was a teacher who wanted to show her learners how it's done. But blacks shy away from the risk" Lebjane says.
"There is no risk. Yes, when I'm on the edge I am really scared. I think because I calculate the distance. Also mainly because of the sharp rock down there that incase the rope fails I will fall hard on it" Mokgope protests. It sounds like a flirt with death, more since these attendants say it takes only 2.2 seconds to reach the break-even point.
"We use a safety harness to guarantee no deaths occur," they say. What if something bad happens? "Our approach is simple, once one person falls to their death, it's not negotiable, the swing and the slide closes".
This is noble when you bear in mind that some people come here with their heart problems. However scores of documents signed before the activity indicate that everything is done at own risk.
A drunken Afrikaner suddenly takes part in a R40 slide across the waterfall ravine. On his return he muses, "I've just gone on the slide en dis baie lekke', you should try it too". What about the swing sir? "No, no it's dangerous, I'll never do that".
The truth is if anything is dangerous, it must be the whole area. But something that stands out and makes the activity gorier is that the participants don't wear crash helmets to protect their heads. Not that they would help in the event of misfortune, but celebrity Patricia Lewis had one when she plunged down here while shooting an episode of Bang Jang Dooie Jang. Maybe that's part of the thrill
The attendants are happy to inform that one drunken man fell 80 metres to his death while having beer on the other side of the waterfall. Also to report that a couple once exchanged engagement rings while in a wild swing. Saddened to report that the helicopter crash that claimed the life of R&B singer Danny K's brother a few years ago happened just half a kilometre from the waterfall. "We only heared a loud bang," one reports.
However they promise, "We don't allow people to smoke after signing the Risk Form. We don't allow eleven-year-olds and the pregnant though we once did an 80 year old"
Mokgope is also excited to report that some time ago President Thabo Mbeki made a pit stop close to the ravine. The president is not known for his death wish, I however ask Mokgope if they'll gladly attach the harness on the first citizen if he requested. "We would do it, though it would be scary working with the president". What's scarier, risking your own life or that of an adrenaline junky who has signed his life away?
It seems, contrary to what most security experts have been recently saying, South Africa is not only the best place to live, but to die as well. Ask the folks at Panorama Falls