Rappelling 300 Feet Into A Belizean Rainforest

c20-Rappelling.jpg

“Feed, lean, feed, lean back! Vamos, Lily!”

“Ok, Ok, hold on, there’s no place to put my foot…Oh my God! I don’t know if I can do this.”

“It’s ok, you’re not going to fall. Just lean back, pull the rope up, feed the rope, and then you step back. Take your time. One foot at a time.”

I am 300 feet above ground level in a Belizean rainforest.

For almost thirty minutes prior, I watched each person in my group inch their way to the edge where the guides would hook them up. Fear came over most when it was time to step backwards from the edge of the cliff. And then they disappeared below the where I could no longer see them.

It’s almost my turn. There’s one girl ahead of me and she’s having a meltdown. At the start of our hour-and-a-half near-vertical hike to get to the top, she’d warned her husband and anyone within earshot that she wouldn’t do it. She’d just do the hike and skip the rest. Now she is standing on the edge, strapped up, her back to the big drop below. Her husband is ready and parallel to her but not that close. He lets out a “you can do it” but doesn’t insist. In between strangled sobs she For more–> shouts for him to go ahead without her. “I love you but I can’t do this, I can’t do this! Oh my God I can’t do this!” Her fingers are gripping the guide’s forearm. I am afraid for her now, and for me too.

The guides give up. “Okay Lily, you’re next!”

I wasn’t expecting to go so soon. Even though I knew my turn was coming, I had taken my time, watched everyone and observed the power of the human mind when faced with something uncertain and bigger: Mother Nature.

But really, how hard could it be? All those hooks weren’t going anywhere. An intricate system of knotted ropes led to two thick tree trunks. There were two guides with us up on that ledge – Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch trained, professional guides who are also medics. One of them, Arnold, gave us a demonstration earlier of the do’s and don’t’s in rappelling. The worst that could happen: losing your foot balance and slamming face first into the cliff. Nice.

Arnold demonstrates how to rappel safely

For the first twenty minutes it had all looked pretty cool and adventurous from where I sat, watching everyone make their way to the edge. I wanted photos, of course. So I’d asked and the guides if I could. They hooked me up at the waist with a rope and tied the end to one of the tree trunk so I wouldn’t slip when shooting. I stood by the edge, crouched down a little and inched forward as much as I could. I was limited in my movements, like a dog on a leash. I looked down to shoot. The weight of my SLR pulled me farther forward, but maybe it was the fear. Chico assured me I couldn’t fall. I can almost hear him think, you’re on a leash remember? I had but a small bit of earth to step on. The view was incredible looking down. I snapped two, three shots. Then I felt nauseous – maybe I was tempting fate at this point. So I asked to be unleashed, and stepped back to wait on my turn.

And then within minutes, it was my turn.

I step forward. My camera is back in my dry bag. I’m ready to go.

Rain starts falling. Oh no, why now.

I give my back to the edge and I say a prayer as I get hooked and roped up.

“Scared? Nervous?”

“Uuhm…yes!!!

“You know, it’s because you take the photos! You see all the way down!” Chico, who is Guatemalan by birth, laughs as he says this.

I knew he was right. I had seen too much, too soon. But how else was I going to capture this? Not while suspended 300 feet up in the air?

It keeps raining, hard. I’m not sure if you’ve experienced heavy rainforest downpour that high up but it’s not your average rainfall. Chico hooks my dry bag last, to one of the ropes on my body. I couldn’t even tell how many there were, I could see them but only felt my harness. I ask to swing the bag to my back -because if I slam into the cliff, God forbid, so would my camera. Not my D700! He reluctantly places it towards the back.

And now it’s time.

“Vamos Lily! Feed, lean back, lean your body back, and feed! Pull the rope, little bit, little bit! Put your foot back, another foot!”

That first step back is shaky. The rain isn’t helping. The earth is a deep orange-colored mush. My right foot slips a little. It’s time for another prayer… Lord, I love my new job and my life, please don’t let me die just yet.

How am I supposed to just lean backwards into emptiness and make myself parallel with the cliff, with just a rope to rely on? My mind wanders to the liability waiver I signed that same morning when I checked into Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch. No wonder…

Enough.

I make a decision. I’m not going to think. I’m going to do. Off goes my right foot and immediately after, my left follows. It’s too late to go back. All I have to do is what Chico said, and lean my body backwards slowly, put my feet parallel to the rock. Step by step. I stop thinking about what’s behind me; or what could happen if I lose balance or how long it would take to go down. I had to talk to myself –go with it, go with it, it’s okay! Focus on now!

The rope is tough on my hands when I feed it up, and the weight of my D700 pulls on my back, but I choose to not focus on it. Soon I will be able to just let my feet down and relax.

“Don’t grab too hard on the handle! You grab too hard!” How could he see that far down? Chico was still watching, but that made me feel safer. He was right, my fingers are a deep pink, I am gripping out of fear. I let go a little.

And there I am, before I know it… rappelling into 300 feet of Belizean rainforest.

Finally, I reach the part where there was no more rock to place my feet on, just an empty space where I could let my body stand, above a black hole in the rainforest where I would descend safely.The hard part was over.

“Ooookaaaay…now enjooooy the view!!” I could hear Chico as if he were right beside me, but he was still up above, controlling my rope and watching.

I turn my face away from the rock and towards the rainforest ahead. What a view. I take a deep breath and take it all in. And as I’m doing this, I pull, lower myself, pull again and again all while looking up ahead of me.

A few minutes later, I am closer to the ground, I look to the right and see a magnificent cave, and the rest of my group.

My feet touch the ground, a guide unhooks me. I look back up 300 feet, stunned at what I just did. I spot the girl who had a meltdown; she was on her way down. And I’m thinking, she may have gone last in the group, but she’s the bravest.

What a day! Ready for the next adventure? 🙂

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning, Ethiopian-American travel writer, photographer and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Moon Belize Cayes, and Moon Dominican Republic (October 2016). Her work focuses on Caribbean culture and adventure, and has been published in AFAR, CNN Travel, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and Every Day With Rachael Ray, among many others. Lily is also the 2016 recipient of the Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for her Caribbean coverage, from the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–she speaks four languages fluently and has lived in Cote d’Ivoire, England, Jamaica, Belize, the Dominican Republic and traveled to some 30+ countries around the world. Last but not least, she is a former corporate attorney who ditched her Washington DC office for the road in 2009 to pursue her dream of becoming a storyteller. Lily holds a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish (summa cum laude) from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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20 Comments

  1. Jacqueline 15 July, 2011 at 9:37 PM #

    I am not laughing at you….no, wait….I am laughing at you! LOL!

    I know exactly how you felt. That was my experience on the zipline in Haiti as well! Glad you made the leap of faith and stepped off the ledge. It is so exhilarating!

  2. Julie 16 July, 2011 at 1:25 AM #

    Lily-

    I love the way you describe your mental processes in the lead-up to this experience and during it, as well. I also felt inspired by the way you decided to manage your emotions so that you could take that leap!

  3. Dave 16 July, 2011 at 9:42 AM #

    Great photos! I stayed at Ian Anderson’s Adventure Lodge during my visit to Belize in 2006, and did the same exact abseil. Your photos are way better. 🙂

  4. Lebawit Lily Girma 16 July, 2011 at 9:54 AM #

    @ Jacqueline, it was a fantastic experience! And trust me afterwards, I laughed at myself too!

    @Julie, thanks!! I really had to talk myself out of the emotions and just focus on the facts…the power of the human mind is amazing. I’m beginning to notice it even in other activities! All about going w the flow and staying positive…..without sounding preachy 🙂

    @Dave Thanks!! So cool you did it too! Carrying my gear on the 2 hour hike was actually tougher than the rappelling! But so worth it 🙂

  5. Lorraine 16 July, 2011 at 10:04 AM #

    What an adventure Lily! You are braver than I am. Enjoying your blog and great writing.

  6. Linda 16 July, 2011 at 10:13 AM #

    I can’t believe that I’ve never come across your blog before (Dave retweeted it, thank goodness!). I love what I’ve seen so far, but this post just takes my breath away. It really, seriously makes me want to get out there before I am too old to do things like this!…..and now to enjoy some more of your blog!

  7. Chyrisse Ahmed 16 July, 2011 at 4:05 PM #

    Bravo!

  8. Lebawit Lily Girma 17 July, 2011 at 12:38 PM #

    Thanks Linda! for stopping by and I’m glad you found it too, thanks for the RT Dave! So happy to hear I have inspired you!! 🙂 Much much more to come!

    Chyrisse thank you !!

  9. tsedey 17 July, 2011 at 11:46 PM #

    I’m so proud of you!! I would be like the girl who went down last lol blaming my husband and all!!

  10. Efren 18 July, 2011 at 4:14 PM #

    Hi Lily,
    this is a great story! I loved the way you expressed all your emotions made me live that same tour all over again…

  11. Diana 19 July, 2011 at 2:16 AM #

    I laughed out loud at your prayer, “I love my new job and my new life. Please don’t let me die just yet” Good one I felt as if I were with you in this experience. Nice imagery.

  12. Mack Reynolds 20 July, 2011 at 2:25 PM #

    wow this looks insane! as scared as i’d be, i think this is exactly the sort of thing i’d be into. props for actually doing it! three hundred feet is no small descent. way to go.

  13. Lebawit Lily Girma 20 July, 2011 at 6:02 PM #

    Thanks Tsedi!! LOL @ blaming the husband…I can see you doing that but in style am sure! 🙂

  14. Lebawit Lily Girma 20 July, 2011 at 6:02 PM #

    Thanks Efren! 🙂

  15. Lebawit Lily Girma 20 July, 2011 at 6:03 PM #

    @Diana, lol…I was seriously praying, you have no idea. Thank you, am glad you enjoyed it!

  16. Lebawit Lily Girma 21 July, 2011 at 1:17 AM #

    Thanks Mack! I’ll never forget it. 🙂

  17. Sandy Azancot 9 September, 2011 at 7:07 PM #

    I just got turned on to your website so this is my first time commenting..GYAL! I am so afraid of heights I was almost in tears FOR you in the blogpost! Gosh! So brave you are!

  18. Lebawit Lily Girma 9 September, 2011 at 9:01 PM #

    Hi Sandy, welcome!! 🙂 And YES that was one brave but fantastic experience…you could do it too, trust me, lol…

  19. Alex Evans 14 November, 2011 at 2:41 PM #

    Great story… Won’t lie… I literally felt my heart start to pound as I was reading this… Way to actually put us there

  20. Lebawit Lily Girma 15 November, 2011 at 10:53 PM #

    Thanks Alex! Have you ever done it before?

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Adventures in Cayo, Part I: My Top 5 Picks on 19 July, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    […] wrote about my rappelling experience here, but what I didn’t talk about is the hike getting to the 300 feet in the rainforest. Probably […]

  2. By Top 20 Highlights of My Trip to Belize on 9 October, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    […] 10. Ian Anderson’s Black Hole Drop […]

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