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Risk and reward with Team oZONE

The “O” in oZONE represents “outdoor”.

We are the Outdoor Zone Team. Beyond work, we see it as a lifestyle, seeking adventure in everything we do. Naturally, this comes with risk. We understand, accept, and take this risk seriously.

When you see our images on mountain tops/ in rivers and oceans, know that we weren’t conveniently placed there. We have the great joy of going to some of the most spectacular, majestic spaces of open wilderness, which are deeply off the grid.

We are constantly in awe of nature, appreciative of the opportunity to explore it, and are always respectful of it.

On this trip, even though we didn’t think we needed a reminder, we were given one - a reminder that Mother Nature is... well, it is life and that our lives can be taken by it in an instant.

Fortunately, the team lives to tell the tale of our latest oZONE AFRICA assignment, which we are now home from. Well - two out of three of us is, while the third member lays in hospital after falling roughly 15 - 20 metres off a cliff.

On what was meant to be a relatively quick sunset run, after reaching the hiker’s hut just before sunset, we were met with a disaster 15 minutes into the run.

Now that you know what happened and that JM (Jacques Marais) is stable, let me start from the beginning:

The Team met in Porterville. Zane (Beardie) and myself, Simone, are both based in George and drove together, along with Willem, a friend, and fellow adventure lover. JM drove from Cape Town, with us reuniting after a week apart after the last oZONE assignment in the Baviaanskloof. We went over the schedule for the next few days over burgers at Koppikoffie, walked through the main street, and got a bit of footage in the local butchery while the boys stocked up on their meat supply.

We then drove into the Groot Winterhoek conservation area, which comprises 30 608 hectares, of which 19 200ha has been declared a wilderness area. It is a roughly 45-minute drive from Porterville to get to the reception, and from that point, it is a 2-hour drive on a jeep track to get to our hut.

The jeep track is only used for the management of the reserve, with guests hiking to the huts and not using vehicles. An ordinary car and even many bakkies would not handle the terrain. We are, however, thankfully powered by Isuzu, and since we were there on an assignment for Berg River Tourism, with all of our camera equipment to capture the magic of the Groot Winterhoek, we had to drive in.

I was on a high as we did so, and my stoke levels rose with each kilometre as we went deeper into the reserve, further away from “civilization”. We were surrounded by fynbos, of which certain species are endemic to this specific part of the Western Cape, and Table Mountain sandstone that kept on fooling us.

I drove in with JM, and we both kept on seeing various shapes at the top of the formations that required double-takes, with it looking like there were birds/ dassies and all sorts of animals at the top of the rocks when in fact the wind has just weathered it that way.

I truly don’t have the words to describe how stunning the space is. As we drove, Jacques told me stories of how he and a friend of his had wild-camped there many years before, going down the kloof and sleeping next to the river, living off the land for a few days. They caught trout for dinner and slept under the stars. I made him promise that we would come back and do just that at a later stage.

I also kept on thinking that I need to take my Dad there, knowing that he would feel the same sense of joy just by being there, surrounded by nature - with more proteas than I’ve ever seen, everywhere you look.

When we arrived at the hut, we agreed to not unpack fully but to just change into our running gear and head out for a quick mission before it got dark. We were not planning on going far, it was meant to be just a little taster as we had already decided that we would spend 2 nights there, instead of the 1 that was planned. It was too beautiful to only stay for one night.

We set off, fully kitted in Core Merino, starting in a trot, with Die Oom, JM, leading the way. The trot on the path didn’t last long and Beardie laughed as he said how typical it was of JM to start bundu-bashing almost immediately.

We made our way through bushes, getting scratched up along the way. JM was still in front, with myself and Beardie not far behind. Willem had made a quick disappearing act because - when you need to go, you need to go.

As we missioned forward through the bushes, I looked up and ahead and saw the most magnificent rock. I told Zane it looked to me like a baby bird looking up and he agreed that it was indeed a wow overhang… I’m not so sure that he saw the baby bird that I was seeing.

He asked how I felt about standing up there, I responded by picking up the pace to get there - it was a yes from me, but JM beat me to it, and suddenly appeared at the top of the cliff.

Zane got some pictures of him up standing at the top, while I made my way around the back of the rock to climb it and meet him at the top. As I moved past Beardie, we both noticed that my leg was bleeding from the bundu-bashing and joked that the first blood had been drawn.

We were all in such great spirits until as I started climbing, I heard a blood-curdling scream as Zane shouted Jacques’s name, and then I saw him falling through the gap that was in my line of sight. My heart sank as I realized the height he had just fallen from and as quickly as I could, I made my way back around to get to them. It was only a few seconds before I reached them and although I didn’t have much time to think, I had a sense of dread as I approached, feeling that I was going to return to a tragedy.

I made it to them, with Jacques moaning in pain and Zane on top of him assessing the damage of his injuries.

JM had been making his way down when both hand-holds that he was using broke. He fell from a distance of 15 - 20 metres but had the sense to fall in such a way that has allowed him to live to tell the tale. While he was falling, he noticed a patch of grass in between all the rocks on the ground and somehow managed to position himself there, landing mainly on his bum and hip, avoiding a head injury, with his elbow, shoulder, and ankle taking a lot of the impact too.

Zane stayed impressively calm throughout the situation, as did Jacques himself despite the agony he was in. Zane made sure he didn’t move and I held his head steady and protected it from the rocks as he checked his body thoroughly. He had a big gash on his arm, his ankle was banged up, and he said it felt as though he had cracked his femur. Jacques was focusing on his breathing throughout the body check, and they concluded that, thankfully, his back wasn’t broken.

Willem arrived during that time, after hearing Zane shout, followed by the thump of Jacques landing. Zane says JM bounced three times before coming to a halt. Willem rushed to us, also thinking he would be greeted by devastation. Zane mentioned that the camera was still up there, and Willem bravely started making his way around the rock to climb up and retrieve it. I rushed ahead as I know he suffers from vertigo.

I made my way up to get the camera, and took a quick picture of the scene below, wondering if it was insensitive to do so. I decided that JM would expect no less, as one of the country's leading photo-journalists. He confirmed that on the drive out, saying that if one can’t change the outcome of the situation, then you should document it.

Before we moved JM, I asked if I should run and get the SPOT, thinking that we would need a chopper to get him out of there, but both he and Zane decided it best to start the process ourselves. JM said he could move and that we needed to get off the mountain before it got dark. We were running out of time to do that.

Willem ran ahead to get the bakkie, and JM put his arm around Zane’s shoulders as they slowly made their way through the bushes. I stayed behind them to be on hand when needed, as sometimes Zane would have to go forward and reach up to help JM lower down in certain rocky sections. Once we reached consistent level ground, I ran ahead to show Willem where to meet us with the bakkie, and we loaded JM into the passenger seat.

Willem and JM turned around in the bakkie and Zane and I ran back to the hut. The track is so bumpy and rough, that we were quicker on foot. We got back to the hut and packed up everything we had brought in, in a hurry.

Zane hit the SOS button on the SPOT, although we decided to continue on our own to get out of the wilderness. There was zero cell phone reception and no way for us to notify anyone of what had happened, but we knew SPOT would be aware that there was an emergency.

Zane, JM, and I drove together, with JM in the fully reclined passenger seat and me in the back, holding him down as we thudded and thumped over the rocks to get out of there. I don’t believe I was of much use in doing so, and can only imagine the excruciating pain that JM felt during the two hours of jeep track driving for us to get out. JM continued to focus on his breathing, in between miraculously finding the strength to crack a few jokes to ease mine and Beardie’s worry. They bickered like old love birds, and I finally felt a small sense of relief.

As we approached Porterville, we finally picked up some signal and I started googling the nearest hospital that we could take him to. Although the hospitals in Piketberg and Worcester were closer, we decided to hold on until N1 City Hospital, to be closer to JM’s home and family. This meant that after the accident, it was close to 4 hours before we could get JM to a hospital, with him in severe pain the whole time. I am in awe of his strength and fortitude throughout the situation.

We called off the rescue with SPOT, as we already had JM securely in the vehicle and would take him to the hospital ourselves, as opposed to either transferring him into an ambulance or chopper to do the same thing, with extra movement to do so.

JM called his wife and told her what was happening, reassuring her that although he was hurt, he would be ok and that we were going straight to the hospital.

He subsequently got messages from his children, with Robbie, his son’s message giving us all a good chuckle. He said something along the lines of, “I have heard of your predicament. Please do not let this happen again as it will not end well. I wish luck to the hospital that will be receiving you, good sir.” It put a smile on Jacques’ face, and I loved that Robbie knew that it would.

While we were driving, Zane kept on telling JM to let him know if he started to have difficulty breathing. I believe because JM is as fit as he is, and daily practices Wim Hof mindful breathing and has cold water immersions, his body and mind were in the best shape that they could be in and allowed him to deal with this as well as can be.

He continued the breathing exercises throughout the journey, but about ¾’s into the drive, he coughed up blood. We all realized this was not a good sign and Zane put his foot on the accelerator a little harder. JM maintained calm and although he said he felt like he might pass out at one point, he held on and stayed conscious until we arrived at the hospital.

Once there, before he could be admitted, as is the procedure, he had to have a COVID test done outside. The nurse told him to push his head back for her to put the nasal swab into his nose. JM responded with, “I just fell off a f*£ken cliff”, before obliging, confirming why Robbie wished them luck :)

We arrived at 21h30, and with curfew only 30 minutes away, Zane arranged for the hospital to print JM’s admittance letter for us and we drove to his house, where his lovely wife Karyn had arranged sleeping space for us.

The update is that there are 6 broken bones throughout his body. His thumb is dislocated, with three bones broken in his wrist, an ankle fracture, and his shoulder blade is cracked. He had to have stitches in his arm, will need surgery on his thumb and wrist, will be in a considerable amount of pain for a while, but will heal.

For that, we are incredibly grateful.

From the experience, we have all been dealt a few lessons and realize that unknowingly we may have developed a bit of a relaxed approach in situations that require full awareness. We regularly push our limits, for both work and pleasure and are confident in our abilities. However, we can never afford to get over-confident and need to give the activity the level of concentration and safety protocols that it requires and listen to our gut.

In this case, it was a freak accident, as JM used two holds, in case of one breaking. Both breaking was a case of really bad luck, but we know there is always that risk.

We keep this in mind and choose to continue, re-awakened as to the realities of an outdoor lifestyle and with a refreshed respect for potential disasters attached to it.

JM has admitted that while he initially thought the lesson was in the fall, he is now realizing an even greater one in the recovery. For a man who thrives on pushing his body and being active, not being able to do that for the next few weeks will be hard on him, and he is now finding himself having to make peace with the recovery process.

Is the risk worth the reward?

For the reward of a life lived in the great outdoors, a hundred times over, yes.

Get well soon, Oom - the mountains are calling.

Written by Simone Sharpe, the thorn amongst the roses.

Pictured above, Willem Haarof, Simone Sharpe, Jacques Marais, and Zane Schmahl.

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