Final Word

‘Between a rock and a hard place’


‘Between a rock and a hard place’ is that distinctly uncomfortable place we in South Africa are almost starting to get comfortable with.

This expression signifies an uncomfortable, if not downright dangerous, choice between equally unattractive options.

Newspaper reports are currently identifying more and more people and institutions in South Africa as being caught between a rock and a hard place.

In April 2010, according to news reports, Gwede Mantashe was “ … the man we’ve always seen as being between a rock and a very hard place …”. In July 2015 the South African Reserve Bank was there too. (“SARB stuck between a rock and a hard place,” a headline read.)

Recently universities, vice-chancellors and even the Springbok coach joined the ranks. In November 2015 the University of the Western Cape was seen as being between a rock and a hard place (Thulani Gqirana on News24). On 4 October 2016 Richard Poplak (Daily Maverick) was convinced that’s where one would find Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib.

And Springbok coach Allister Coetzee placed himself there barely a week later after the crushing defeat by the All Blacks: “You are under constant pressure to win tests. Once you have to re-start after a World Cup cycle you are actually sitting between a rock and a hard place. You need to win test matches and you want to evolve as well.”

Roots in reality

Like many expressions carrying some folk wisdom, ‘between a rock and a hard place’ has its roots in very real situations. In this case, it was popularised by American miners on strike, almost a century ago.

Striking miners in Arizona were presented with a stark choice, continue working in mines for low pay under bad conditions (face the rock) or be deported to an equally ‘hard’ place elsewhere.

American newspapers began using ‘between a rock and a hard place’ in the late 1930s, from where it spread to the rest of the world.

The expression’s historical roots actually go back a few thousand years, with Greek poet Homer (8th century BC) describing Odysseus having to navigate a  perilously narrow passage between Scylla (a monster on a rock) and Charybdis (a fatal whirlpool).

Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) used the expression figuratively, as did many after him. 

A plucky jump

‘Between a rock and a hard place’ in both its literal and figurative meaning often came to mind while doing research for On Top of Table Mountain, out on the shelves this month.

Trawling through 500 years of fascinating accounts of climbing to the top of the mountain, I came across two stories that still give me the chills.

The one is about Alfred Bolus, member a famous family of botanists, who in the 1890s went climbing Table Mountain with a friend Frank Guthrie.

They got stuck near the top, at that precipitous bit of mountain just under the cable station, and were hanging on with their toes and fingers. They were about an arm’s length from the top, but unable to go further. Going back was impossible too.

Under them were over 60 metres of straight drop.

Alfred was leading and Frank managed to wedge his fist under one of Alfred’s feet, giving him a ‘leg-up,’ but still leaving him at least seven centimetres short of the ledge.

In a desperate effort, he jumped upwards and grabbed the stem of a short, stout shrub, the climber’s friend (Cliffortia ruscifolia), growing right on the edge of the precipice. With the other hand and the edge of the ledge, he slowly pulled himself up.

Frank afterward described that jump as one of the pluckiest he had ever seen. If the shrub had given way, he would have been dashed to pieces down below.

Even more spine-chilling is George Travers-Jackson’s account of being trapped between the rock and the hard place far down below. In 1906 he and Johan Hefner, attempted to conquer Fernwood Gully – the meanest, darkest, most perilous gash in the body of Table Mountain on the Rondebosch side.

After hours of gruelling climbing, Travers-Jackson, from a narrow ledge under the overhanging rock face, with a drop of about 500 metres below him, had to attempt the final climb of the overhanging rock face.

After two failed attempts he managed to gain a slight footing at a critical moment.

But his hands, strained to the utmost by the morning’s climbing, cramped and relaxed their grip on the rope. With split-second timing he caught the rope between his teeth, hanging on for dear life while massaging his hands.

After another extraordinary effort, he gained a small footing and could pull himself up by a tuft of grass to the ledge above.

Final word

It seems that, yes, there is a way out of the dilemma of being caught between a rock and a hard place. But it calls for courage.

Do we, South Africans, politically speaking have what it takes?        

                                              Special offer

On Top of Table Mountain. Remarkable Visitors over 500 Years contains the stories of 27 extraordinary people who climbed to the top, from seafarer António de Saldanha who needed to know where on Earth he was, to Lady Anne Barnard who donned her husband’s trousers for the climb, to the ‘Blind Traveller’ who rode up and down the mountain on horseback, to Jan Smuts who had a mystic bond with the mountain and was still climbing it shortly before his death at 80.

Special, signed copies of the book (300 pages and retailing at R300) can be ordered from Paternoster Books at the special price of R290 (postage included) to readers of The Intelligence Bulletin. To order your copy, please click here.

Also read: A “biography” of Table Mountain

                Hanging from a cliff above the gaping ‘abyss’

by Joan Kruger

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