The Thin Line
Slacklining. You may have never heard of this sport before, but once you step into the thin air zone with these death-defying athletes, chances are you’ll never be able to forget it. Jacques Marais’s stunning photographs of German slackliner Lukas Irmler demonstrate that in this up-and-coming outdoor sport there is no room for vertigo.
The line is just 3cm wide. It stretches from a massive boulder to an anchor point atop a plunging, granite crag, approximately 30m away. Below it, there is nothing but a mind-numbing, 280m plunge to where tempestuous waves batter against the foot of the vertiginous sea cliff.
“If you’re a slackliner about to step onto this thin line, your head must be screwed on right”, I think, “or more than likely you’re probably completely off your head.” There’s no time to think about the gut-thumping drop yawning below, or the wind gusting at up to 20knots, or the mist rolling in from the peaks. Around you, every thing fades away, and all that remains is absolute balance and flint-sharp focus.
The first stride is the most difficult. When you step off from Mother Earth, you’re gambling your life on a line as thick as the belt keeping your jeans up. There’s a safety rope and harness, though; slackliners may be daredevils, but are judged as some of the most safety-conscious athletes within the extreme sporting community.
Yes, you’ve heard correctly. Slacklining is currently the flavour of the month in both Europe and the USA, where thousands of outdoor enthusiasts are taking to the line every month. And, even though you might not think so, it is easier than expected.
Individual slacklining genres allow you to take your ‘baby steps’ on a low-rope only a metre or so above the ground. Trees, rocks, pillars - it does not matter – any solid structure in your garden may be used to anchor the line, or you could use purpose-built, metal ground-screws and trestles if you’re on a beach or in a field.
When you eventually master your balance, the goal posts may be shifted by either increasing the length or height of your slackline. The latter adjustment is what impacts psychologically the most on slackliners, as focus does not come easily when a massive fresh air plunge prowls beyond the smallest of missteps.
It is exactly this type of challenge, which entices athletes like the young German Lukas Irmler to test their skills the world over. Irmler, sponsored by adidas International and viewed as a phenomenon throughout Europe, has the slacklining world at his feet, if you’ll excuse the pun. And when you see Irmler execute a perfect backwards somersault to landed securely on the 3cm wide line, you immediately realise this is way more than a backyard game.
Cape Town popped up on Lukas’ radar when he ‘bumped’ into his South African counterpart, Warren Gans, in cyberspace, and it did not take long for the high-stepping German to arrange a visit to the Mother City. “Ever since I first saw images of Table Mountain, it has been one of my dreams to walk a slackline there”, he laughs, “but I hope the view does not distract me”!
The view proved irrelevant as Lukas walked the thin line on one of those absolutely breathless Cape mornings. Hundreds of metres above the craggy slopes and with the city still slumbering far below, he securely stepped onto a slackline strung super-tight between outcrops adjacent to Platteklip Gorge. For half an hour, he did the splits and knee-drops, ‘surfed’ the line and lay on his back while we literally gaped in amazement.
This may sound like a death wish stunt, but as with rock climbing and other extreme mountain sports, slackliners live by a strict code regarding safety and the environment. The temporary anchors are non-intrusive and leave no damage to the natural surroundings, and they treat the environment and fellow outdoor enthusiasts with utmost respect. “Right now, the conservation authorities do not understand slacklining”, says Irmler, “but we hope in time to prove to them that we love the great outdoors as much as they do”.
Text: Jacques Marais and Sonja Güldner-Hamel
Photos: Jacques Marais