After four months of sweating through the hot, dry season in Southeast Asia, it was with a sigh of relief that I reached the mountain town of Dalat. For the first time in months I felt cool; the weather more reminiscent of a rainy autumn day back home in Manchester than the heavy, sticky heat I had grown accustomed too.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into an alpine town in the French Alps. There were green mountains all around and street vendors selling thick woolly jumpers and hats. There was even red wine. Dalat’s very own, locally produced red wine. And it was good!
But I wasn’t here for the cool air and the quirky European-style buildings. I was here for the canyoning (and maybe the red wine).
There are numerous tour operators in Dalat, all offering similar packages at similar prices. We opted to book with Groovy Gecko, a well—known established company recommended in Lonely Planet. The price is slightly higher than some of the other operators but I’m glad we chose to pay that extra bit more.
We were picked up early in the morning and driven a little way out of Dalat to where the canyoning begins. We put on wetsuits, life jackets and helmets and began our safety briefing, learning how to abseil using a rope tied around a tree.
Note: Groovy Gecko was the only company at the time to provide wetsuits. I laughed at the idea at first – “why on earth do we need wetsuits in Vietnam”. But I put one on anyway. And I can assure you they were needed. We were in the ‘French Alps’ remember, wandering around soaking wet. It got chilly!
We were the first group to arrive there but within minutes our peace was shattered when another giant group arrived with a different tour operator. Despite arriving after us, they completed their safety briefing before us. That would be worrying enough on its own but what made it even worse was the fact that our group had only six people whereas theirs had at least five times that amount. I wouldn’t have been feeling overly confident if I was in that group. And whilst our group was fun and relaxed, they were being rushed around and hurried down the cliffs with shouts of “faster, faster!”
It turns out that abseiling is not as easy as it looks. I was very much mistaken in thinking it was simply a case of holding onto a rope and walking down the side of a rock. If your feet are too close together you could lose balance. If you lean too far back you could slip and flip up. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous doing my first abseil.
The first cliff is the ‘small’ one but I can assure you, it looks anything but small when you are stood at the top of it about to go over the edge. It took me a fair few attempts until I dared even step off but eventually I did it, trying not to think about the huge drop beneath me and hoping desperately that my rope would not snap.
One of the guides would stay at the top of the rope, ensuring that we were safely attached and shouting down to guide us as we made our way down the cliff. The other guide would run to the bottom and take photos.
I was terrified the entire way down but when I made it to the bottom, still alive and in one piece, I felt such a huge sense of euphoria and achievement. I was already hooked!
Although I was loving canyoning, my terror didn’t subside. Instead it returned in full force with every drop we abseiled down. After a few fun activities – sliding down a small waterfall and floating down a ‘lazy river’ we reached the ‘big one’. A huge waterfall that we were about to abseil down.
Now this was scary. The rock was slippery and at one point my feet slid down the rock but after a bit of guidance from the guide I managed to get my footing again and continued on.
Two thirds of the way down the waterfall the rock dips in and at that point the guide tells you to jump. And by jump I mean let go of the rope and fall backwards into the river. If that isn’t a leap of faith then I don’t know what is.
Unfortunately one member of our team got injured at that point. She flipped up, hit her shin against the rock and dropped down into the pool below. The guides bandaged her up so she could continue to the end but it wasn’t until days later that we realised just how deep the cut was. It wasn’t just a cut, more a hole in her leg that continued to get infected and would plague her for the rest of her travels around Vietnam.
The last abseil was called the ‘Washing Machine’. This time we were lowering ourselves down a waterfall that ran down a narrow crevice in the rock. We were given two pieces of advice:
- Do not put your head down; if you do the flow of the water is so strong you will not be able to pull it up again; and
- Whatever you do, when you reach the bottom, let go of the rope. Do not continue to hold on.
Of course, I did both these things, accidentally letting my head get pushed down so that I was unable to lift it again and unable to breathe easily. Panicking, I lowered myself down as quickly as I could into the water at the bottom.
This is when I learned why they told you not to keep hold of the rope and why this particular waterfall was called the ‘Washing Machine’. I continued to cling on for dear life which resulted in me being furiously spun around and around in the water. ‘This is it’ I thought, ‘I’m going to die! Why hasn’t the guide come to save me yet!?’
And then after what felt like a lifetime but was actually no more than about twenty seconds I remembered – “let go of the rope!”
The second I let go I was carried out of the crevice into a small, calm pool. Still alive. Still breathing. The guide hadn’t moved an inch, clearly not as concerned for my life as I had been. And I was touted as a cautionary tale for the rest of the group who were still awaiting their turn.
Near-death experiences aside, this was one of my all time favourite ‘experiences’ in Southeast Asia, second only to the Gibbon Experience. Have no doubt about it…it is tiring and nerve-wracking but absolutely worth it. I returned to the hostel afterwards euphoric and vowing to come back to do it again.