Five-minute memoir: Lydia Syson on developing a fear of heights

 

Heights never bothered me when I was little. My mother would quake and quail as I teetered on cliffs and castle battlements. I just pranced closer to the edge. That breath-catching rush on looking down was half the fun of getting high in those days.

Now I'm as bad myself. "Careful!" I call to my children. "Careful! You'll fall. Come back." And visions of small tumbling bodies somersault through my mind.

With a parent standing near, worrying for you, you can hand over the possibility of tragedy. Here, take this a moment, I don't want to carry it. Like a coat that's too hot and heavy. Fear of falling arrived in my life at the moment I realised I was alone; it came without warning, high above the rainforest in Guatemala. But I'd seen it before. I knew what to expect.

Soon after my 18th birthday, I took a trip to Moremi gorge in Botswana. I was working as a teacher in a village in the north-east of the country where I'd first learnt to read and write. One weekend, a Peace Corps friend and I hitched to the Tswapong Hills to see a colony of Cape vultures. In Palapye we picked up Pete, a British Council teacher of the bearded ectomorph variety. Tall and milky-skinned, he was a vegan who smelt of biscuits and perhaps didn't spend much time in daylight: his passion was astronomy. We stayed a night and looked through his telescope at Botswana's unimaginably clear skies.

Our guide at the gorge was Per, a Danish development volunteer of exceptional competence, based nearby. This was a magical spot, full of legend as well as wildlife. We drove off into the bush in Per's four-wheel drive, and he knew just where to stop.

Getting up to the cliff from which we could look down on the nesting vultures was a rewarding scramble. In a dry country, the thrill of water and greenery is intense. Pale, elongated tree roots fingered their way to moisture down pink granite boulders streaked with black, and made good handholds. I remember hanging plants like vines, and the sound of vulture wings above. The birds were huge, and pleasantly menacing. Their heads moved from side to side as they checked us out, reminding me of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.

Per was gentlemanly, offering hands and help to me and Catie as we clambered up, but not insulting Pete with assistance, though we wished he would. At the top, Per produced binoculars, which we shared, perching on the cliffs. He had found us a perfect view. We counted vulture chicks, and felt adventurous.

Coming down was harder, of course, though the only really tricky section came close to the end: a shuffle along a narrow ledge, with rocks above and below, and a drop into a deep and icy pool. On the return, if you were right-handed like me, you had to support yourself with the wrong side of your body, which I didn't enjoy. The third to cross, I turned to look at what I'd conquered as soon as I reached safety. And I saw that Pete was stuck. Really stuck.

I'd never before witnessed anyone frozen with terror. Crouching on hands and knees, he couldn't move at all. Not far off childhood, I found such naked fear both horrifying and transfixing. How could a grown man let this happen? I felt part of the humiliation.

Per shuffled back and tried to coax him. It was getting dark by the time we accepted it would never work. Pete had retreated to the opposite bank of the pool. He began to undress, though swimming was an equally terrible prospect. Was it the intense cold, or the depth? Or unseen threats… bilharzia, or water snakes? I can't now remember.

Elongated body rising palely from shadows, underpants loose as a loincloth, Pete stood there, an emaciated Christ-like figure. Still he couldn't move. Eventually Per stripped off, too. He brought Pete back through the water, clinging to his shoulders. We didn't talk about it around the fire we lit later. We slept out, under the stars.

Four or five years later at Tikal, a small gathering watched the sun set in silence over an endless sea of treetops at the top of a towering Mayan temple. Our backs were firmly against the wall, our feet pulled away from the edge of an unguarded ledge. But when it was my turn to step back across the gap at the corner, a rush of nausea felled me. I felt myself swaying, losing my balance. I knew nobody in this country. There'd be only a camera and a room key to identify my corpse. I had to get myself onto a vertical iron ladder to descend.

Strangers were kind to me. I thought of Pete and I forced myself to move.

'A World Between Us' (Hot Key Books) by Lydia Syson is available in paperbook, ebook and as a Multi Touch edition for the iPad

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms