The mercury easily hits forty-five in the steaming bush of the Olifants River valley at midsummer noon.
It wasn’t noon yet but I was already sweating.
“Horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow.” Mom told me; but I was sweating.
Way down below the tiny ribbon of river snaked its journey through the Drakensberg towers to the sea.
I’d often swum in those syrupy warm waters. There were crocodiles and Bilharzia snails in the river,
leopards, mambas and giant pythons in the bush. I had been on eye-level with a four metre black
mamba, so big that she had grape-sized cattle ticks between her scales, - slept on the ground below the
Leulu cliffs, with a male leopard sawing his distrust of me ten strides away. I had ‘stared down’ a great
dog-baboon with his family safely behind him. I had watched a python so long that when she
caterpillared past me in a clearing in the bush I couldn’t see both head and tail at the same time. My
friends and I had lazed many hours away in the blood-warm river with its Bilharzia, I had it three times,
and crocodiles, they were down in the ‘park’ we told each other, and I was never scared.
But I was scared now.
After coming off night shift on the mine I had driven up the back slope to the top of those ancient cliffs
above the river, to clamber, and dream; to watch rock pigeons whistle away from diving falcons; and
baboon mothers pinch their recalcitrant teens into a rage of screaming. Today I had lowered myself the
twenty metres down to a ledge where long gone people from the North had hidden their great clay
I put a net around a pot to be hauled up later and then scrambled up to a ledge to the left that a rock
pigeon had just splashed out from. I wanted that nest. The nest was empty but another red eye glared
down at me from a higher ledge. Nothing. And then another…
By this time I was just below the top of the cliff and all I needed to do was ‘friction’ over an eighty-
degree slab of granite, and stroll over to the top of the rope and pull up my prize.
A bulge at the top of the slab made that impossible.
To ‘friction’ in climbing terms, is to lean into the rock, and with the friction of your hands and feet
against any slight bulge in the rock face, work your way up. That is difficult going up, and well-nigh
impossible going down. I couldn’t get over the bulge and was losing friction fast.
The mercury easily hits forty-five in the steaming bush of the Olifants River valley at midsummer noon.
And even though it was two hours before noon, it was hot. Shimmering, cicada-screaming hot.
When it’s Lowveld hot horses and scared men sweat.
I was bare-footed and shaky-handedly frictioned onto a shimmering rock, a hundred miles above that
peaceful river and blocked by an overhang from going up. And sweating away the friction.
Far down below some Pedi ladies wound their way along the river path. It took them a while to work out
where the crying was coming from and their cries of dismay met my cries of distress.
“What can we do?” I imagined them asking through the hands on their mouths.

“Go to the mine and ask someone to drive up here. There’s a rope along there and they must pull it up
and bring it to me!”
Both they and I knew that, I was asking the impossible. They wailed and watched and my friction
sweated away.
My praying must have scared them even more than my shouted suggestions, because I was praying up a
And then I knew what to do. Above my head was a perpendicular crack in the overhang. Perpendicular
means it goes straight up and straight down… no place to hook fingers over.
Slide my hand into the crack. Make a fist in the hollow inside… and flip myself over the top with a one-
arm pull up.
I’ve never been able to do a one-arm pull up, but it worked.
I did my dance of celebration against the sky and the dancing ladies’ ululations filled the valley.
I found out many years later when I became Master In Charge, by default, of Rock Climbing, what
friction was called, and that my inspired life-saver was called a fistjam.

-Zac Graham

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