Slackline Over Victoria Falls
Words Reinhard Kleindl, pics Jacques Marais - adidas.com/outdoor
The roar is deafening. Chilly clouds of fog waft around me, water is running down my face, collecting on my chin, soaking my T-shirt. Behind me is a wall of people, all full of anticipation. In front of me is a fence of interwoven brushwood. Beyond it, the landscape falls steeply away, into a hazy, black void. The other side is so far away that I can barely make it out.
Carefully, I climb over the fence, walk towards the cliff edge: suddenly, I am face to face with one of the largest waterfalls in the world.
I am in Zimbabwe, a country which is completely alien to me as a resident of the Alps: dry, sandy, vast. Ramrod-straight roads run for endless kilometres through lightly wooded areas, past termite mounds, dried-up riverbeds, small settlements of thatched mud huts and dirt football pitches whose goalposts have no nets. A lot of land for not many people.
Through the heart of this dry landscape flows the Zambezi, Africa’s fourth-longest river, a blue artery.
Then, on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, there’s an abyss which seems to appear from nowhere. Over time, Zambezi has formed a broad delta, more like a lake than a river, with countless green islands, before plunging suddenly downwards, over a width of just over a mile. A hundred metres below the water regroups and continues on its way through a vast canyon. The lazy flow has become a raging torrent. And the place where this unceremonious change takes place is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world: Victoria Falls, Mosi Oa Tunya in the national language, “the smoke that thunders”.
Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. We are two friends who had a dream we couldn’t let go of. A dream that excited and scared us at the same time, because it felt presumptuous; too big; destined to fail. We are Lukas Irmler from Freising and me, Reinhard Kleindl from Graz. Two friends who share the same passion: slacklining, a modern form of tightrope walking. Our dream: to cross the Victoria Falls on an inch-wide webbing of synthetic fibre.
We have been chasing this dream for more than two years. During this time, we have not just studied the Falls, observed watercourses, collected pictures and analysed diagrams of the water levels, but we have also got to know Africa. Lukas had already been here, but this continent was completely new territory for me. I had seen the pictures, knew the facts and figures, but none of that means very much. It was not until I came here and visited the Falls that I started to understand. The kind of people who live here, what makes them tick; different, yet strangely familiar at the same time.
We learned more about the history of the Falls, which had been known to the natives since time immemorial. The explorer David Livingstone became the first European to lay eyes on them, almost 159 years to the day before our quest, describing them as the most beautiful place in Africa. We get all of that. What we can’t understand is why no tightrope walker has ever crossed them before. The Niagara Falls were crossed by high wire artistes as long ago as the 19th century, but the Victoria Falls - never. If we succeeded, we would be the first. The great tightrope walkers of the world have always inspired us; we follow in their footsteps, but in our own unique style.
Now, our dream seems to be within reach: I’m standing on the edge of the canyon, with the Zambezi thundering into the depths in front of me. Next to me hangs our slackline, a rope bridge to the other side. I’m connected to it by a safety rope, the leash my lifeline: if I lose control, it is this rope, the thickness of my finger, that will stop me from falling. Soon I will be crawling out and trying to stand up, so that I can balance across to the other side. The first person ever to do so if I can overcome my fears, my doubts.
I know this feeling. This is not my first highline, as slacklines over canyons are known, and it isn’t even my first project with Lukas Irmler. We have both been involved in this sport for about eight years, helped to make it what it is today, grown up with it. When slacklining came over to Europe, we were both hooked on it to the point of obsession. Since then, we have done highlines in many different countries: Malaysia, Peru, Iran, Russia, South Africa, but in the Alps too: South Tyrol, southern France, even on skyscrapers. But we have never been involved in a project of this order of magnitude. The highline we have stretched across Victoria Falls, after many problems and a great deal of uncertainty, is 91m long and about a hundred metres above the ground. An inch-wide, a thread stretching away into nothingness. Gusts of wind and spray whip into it, setting the line swinging. Do I really want to go out there?
Despite my experience, I always have to fight down these fears and doubts, which are part of the sport, part of what attracts me to it. Whilst my brain is still looking for an exit clause, something in me takes over, calmly prepares me for the task at hand. Fasten the belts. Attach the leash. Steady my breathing. Check the knots, then, sitting down, head out onto the line and peer into the abyss for the first time. The roar of the water mass is breathtaking, my mind is overcome, overwhelmed, gives up all resistance. It’s just sheer determination driving me forward. I shake the slackline, feel the weight of the soaking wet webbing, then I get into my starting position, stand up and begin to walk.
All of the earlier difficulties are now forgotten: the fact that we weren’t sure whether we were even up to the project, from a technical point of view. The canyon is about a hundred metres wide, almost the length of a football field, but when we fell in love with the project and started planning, only very few people in the world had ever crossed highlines this long. Compared to tightropes, highlines are looser and free to move to the sides, so the level of difficulty increases rapidly in proportion to their length. We didn’t know how we were going to lay the connection across the canyon. All of the methods we had tested out had a range of no more than 60 metres – nowhere near enough. And ultimately, we had no idea where we were going to fix our slackline. Good anchor points are a matter of life and death in highlining, but would we find a decent rock to set a bolt into? And this was all assuming that we would get permission: the Victoria Falls are in a national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are under specific protection. Would we manage to convince the authorities that we wouldn’t do any damage? The bolts were a particular worry. The fact that we ultimately decided against hooks and were able to fix the line cleanly between two trees was also extremely satisfactory from an aesthetic point of view. This is what outdoor sports should be: they should leave no traces.
For the first time, I am standing, shakily, above the canyon. Spray gusts at me from the Falls, hitting me in waves. The vision keeps blurring before my eyes. I am well prepared, but not for this. I have done highlines in snow, wind and rain, but I have never experienced anything like this. The visibility is incredibly poor, the line is wet, hard to control. Two steps, three, then I slip. I can’t hold onto the line any longer and the safety leash breaks my fall. Adrenaline is coursing through me, my doubts grow stronger. I have to overcome them! Keep going, once more. I fall several more times before I can cover enough metres to be out of the fog of spray. Suddenly, my vision clears and I am standing right over the middle of the canyon. The void, the boiling masses of water, the abyss beneath my feet – I am overwhelmed. Then suddenly it all just falls into place. I manage to calm myself down, keep putting one foot in front of the other and an incredible feeling of freedom comes over me. It’s not an adrenaline rush, but an adrenaline flow lasting several minutes, which is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I manage to reach the other side. The first crossing is in the bag! But I have fallen several times, which is not what we intended. In highlining, you have to get across the line without falling.
When I get back, I unfasten my harness and hand the safety leash to Lukas. I tell him it feels great, that the cloud of spray isn’t that bad. A little white lie to help him, the kind of thing we often do. He sets off on his first attempt. He falls too. When he reaches the other side and turns back, he falls again, but I can see that he is starting to get into it. It’s my turn again, and now I can feel it too. I almost manage the crossing; just a few tumbles. But the conditions seem to be getting a bit better now. Lukas’s turn again. When he stands up, I can see from his body language that he is extremely nervous. As he fights his way along, metre by metre, all at once I can feel his fighting spirit. He’s going to do it, I really believe it, I’m almost certain. Almost living the thrill with him, I turn out to be right: Lukas is the first to send this incredible highline. When he gets back, he looks almost like he’s having fun. I congratulate him, am a bit jealous but, at the same time, I’m absolutely delighted, as is so often the case. It’s quite clear to me that the project has been a success, now that the unthinkable has been achieved. But for it to be perfect, I have to send the line too. I would be so disappointed if I didn’t. The pressure on me is even greater. Am I going to be able to do it?
When I get on the line, my movements are a bit wobbly and uncertain. I fight my way out into the middle and suddenly I’m in serious difficulties, I’m standing at such an angle that mentally, I’m already preparing to fall. But something in me won’t give up, putting off the inevitable for a bit longer. And then the hardest part is behind me: I’m standing upright again, but I’m so churned up and shaking so much, my self-confidence has taken such a knock that I just want to throw in the towel. Once again I manage to take control, try to find inner calm, take the next step. I can hardly believe it as I slowly near the end - if I can just avoid making any more mistakes. If I fall in these last few metres, it will all have been for nothing. The next few steps feel to me like an eternity, and then I’m touching the tree. I’ve done it. Only now is it all perfect, only now are we free. We don’t spend a lot of time celebrating, we get back out on the line, but this time there’s no pressure. We do a few tricks, try to make the most of these precious moments with the waterfall. This kind of opportunity only comes once in a lifetime.
We don’t actually realise how lucky we’ve been until the next few days, when the weather really starts to close in. The spray cloud is so dense that there’s simply no point in any further attempts. We take the line down and now the project is definitely over. But we don’t get straight on the boat to come back, we stay at the side of the waterfall for a while, sitting on a rock right next to the main fall and there, above its roar, we suddenly feel a deep calm.
We decide to call the line "Nyami Nyami", after the Zambezi river god. We always felt it should be an African name and we love the carved pendants we found on a market in Victoria Falls, which we have worn around our necks the whole time we were on the line.
The next day, as we make our way into Hwange National Park, we start to realise that TV channels and newspapers throughout the world have picked up on our story. We spend a few more days in the bush, in the stunningly beautiful, unfenced Bomani Lodge, and head out into the wilderness a few times with our ranger, Sibs. It does us good to have a bit of down time before we have to throw ourselves back into the whirlwind of interviews and emails. We have encounters with an elephant bull, buffaloes and an enormous cobra – on foot, not in a jeep – and later we see a hippopotamus, a cheetah and two lions mating. A visit to a nearby elementary school, where we put up a slackline for the children to try out, is the perfect end to our adventure. They are so enthusiastic about it – slacklining is addictive! Nobody knows that better than we do.
In the evenings, around the campfire, we are drunk on the impressions and all the events of the last few days start to fade, leaving just a hazy feeling in the back of our minds. When the time comes to leave, we find it hard. I could lose myself in this state - stay this way forever.