There’s nothing like a flooding river to bring out the chicken in you…

The simplest insults are always the best. But there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest for its enduring ability to cut a man down: you, my friend, are a chicken.

Somehow being likened to a fat bird still causes fights in schoolyards and boardrooms every day. It says you’re a coward, a spineless push-over with no guts. Not a real man.

And this is what made it so damn hard to admit to my two friends – as we sped along the N7 towards the flooding Doring River – that the cold feeling of dread in my gut was fear. I was chicken, pure and simple. For the first time in the 20-odd years we’d been paddling this white water river in the Cederberg mountains something felt wrong… I had a premonition of my own death.

“I have to get this off my chest,” I eventually blurted out. “I’m absolutely shitting myself. I don’t think I can do this trip.”

There, I had said it to a car brimming with laddish excitement, our kayaks strapped to the roof as we readied ourselves for some much-anticipated adventure.
“Because the river is so high?” asked fellow paddler Andrew whose day job as a psychologist sees him plumbing the depths of powerful emotions like fear.
“Yes, the river is running at five metres boys!” I exclaimed. “Last time we ran it the river was three metres. And Smiler nearly died, remember? We could… just… die.”
My words hung in the air like a bad smell.

“Well,” said Smiler thoughtfully from behind the wheel, “maybe not all three of us at once.”

Thank god for Smiler, he shears through melodrama like a bolt cutter. And at that point we all needed a foil for our anxiety because my confession opened the floodgates – the others had the fear too. This was hardly surprising because the last time we paddled here Andrew and I had watched in horror as Smiler’s kayak had disappeared into The Siphon and didn’t reappear until the water-levels dropped two months later.

Fortunately Smiler had escaped just before his boat was sucked into the vortex. But the drama of that event had grown in the retelling and in the weeks preceding this trip my imagination ran wild and my nights filled with panicky dreams: I foresaw my own entrapment in The Siphon. I saw myself feebly fighting the overpowering torrent and finally floating off to my watery prison. With each dream my fear and loathing grew until the thought of this trip became a burden of life-changing proportions. I began to wake each morning with anxiety gnawing at my insides – a bit like one might feel before that long-overdue confrontation with your father, or before a potentially career-changing presentation to the board, or as you watch the biggest trade of your life begin to slide with the market.

These things become all-consuming.

“Well,” said Smiler, “I say we see what the river looks like when we get there. But don’t go reptilian on us just yet Adam.”
Reptilian? I had to ask. What’s that?
“It’s what happens when a person sees the wall of flame coming at them and they curl into a ball instead of running for their life,” said Andrew. “That’s reptilian: when all rational judgement goes out the window.”
What’s that got to do with reptiles?
“Ever watched a lizard when you surprise it on a rock in the sun?” asked Andrew. “They first freeze and then they bolt. That’s what happens to us. We freeze and then bolt when it’s way too late.”
Chuck Norris wouldn’t do that.
“Okay, but in a traumatic situation most normal people have their brains flooded with stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. They shut down the brain’s advanced mammalian parts and we return to a very primitive reptilian brain response.”
So I’m becoming a reptile?
“Ja basically,” said Smiler.
“Not really,” countered Andrew. “You haven’t frozen yet and you’re talking about it. Fear happens on a continuum from mild concern to all-out panic. We’re somewhere in between.”
So I’m only partly lizard.
“More like an impala,” said Andrew.
“Ah, another wildlife analogy,” exclaimed Smiler as he gazed out the window, the snow-capped peaks in the distance getting closer.
“Think about it: fear is fundamental to survival,” said Andrew. “Someone once said that in evolutionary terms it’s the anxious who survive. It’s true – you know those skittish impala sentries on the edge of the herd who compulsively snort? They’re the ones least likely to get nailed.”
But they relax once the lions have fed.
“Yes, because the pattern is predictable. They’re lucky because their fear hasn’t changed for centuries – it’s always the same suspects and the same strategies. Unfortunately we humans have so many changing fears that our worry wiring is constantly being stimulated. We are almost constantly in some state of fear.”

STRANGELY I never used to experience fear like this. But then I suppose I’m no longer 25 and able to bench-press my girlfriend or sleep on the ground without considering the bruises on my hips in the morning. Today I feel like I have so much to live for. I don’t want to risk everything for this trip. I’d much rather camp on the banks and get drunk under the stars with my friends and return home safely to my cute family, my cushy job, my cool friends.

It’s in this conflicted state that we pull up to the river’s edge and like clockwork my avoidance techniques kick in. I start making excuses like a schoolboy wanting to get out of writing an exam. At the same time I know that I need this trip like a farmer needs rain – it nourishes me. It also forces me out of my comfort zone, like being asked to make a speech at your best friend’s wedding. To chicken out would be to miss the chance to stand on your own two feet and let the people hear your voice, to stake your claim on this historic moment.

“So are we just going to run this bloody river regardless of my concerns?” I say as we pack food and clothes into dry-bags and prepare to shove our bodies into wetsuits that seem to get tighter each year.

“Look, right now we’re facing our fears with eyes wide open, with full brain function,” says Andrew. “We know the risks and we know how to manage them. Many people think bungee jumping off a bridge in a frozen, reptilian state is facing your fears – it’s not, that’s more like trauma. We’re not doing that.”
So what’s the difference?

“To face your fears there has to be some kind of learning, a measure of control like having a plan if something goes wrong or tackling it in a team.”
“Okay team, enough said, let’s go run a river,” says James as he leads us down to scout the first rapid. We are meticulous, plotting our approach even though we’ve done this so many times before. As I slide into my kayak my heart is thundering in my chest and we head down in single file with white knuckles wrapped around our paddles.

Needless to say we shoot it like old pros and when we regroup at the bottom our elation is hard to contain. I’m whooping like a schoolboy.
“Feel that dopamine kick!” yells Andrew.
“Whose dope is sick?” asks Smiler above the roar of the river.
“No man, dopamine – the neurotransmitter that gets released when you face new experiences. It has the great side-effect of enhancing your mood.”
Is that what you call a natural high?
“Yes, and it’s part of having mastered something. It’s one of the reasons we keep coming here – our brains want that kick. The power we feel now serves us in all parts of our lives.”

So I spend the next three days stoned out of my mind on dopamine knowing this: it’s not so bad being a chicken because there’s strength in owning up to my fears. Just as long as I never turn into a lizard.

*By Adam Cooke