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TALL POPPIES

It is our moments of greatest physical, mental and psychological discomfort which invariably lead us to our moments of greatest growth.

20 years +
 

Earlier this year, TPA Managing Director NATALIE MAROUN was invited to join a pioneering group of hikers, extreme athletes and triathletes to carve out a slice of history by walking a daunting 156km stretch through one of the most inaccessible canyons in Africa. The five-day Kuiseb Hike — which only two other people have ever attempted — would prove an unmatched test of resilience, stamina, and grit.

But also much more than that. Because growth, as a person and as a leader, only happens at the edge of the precipice, where we challenge ourselves, physically, mentally and emotionally. And when we step into fear.

 

Hardwired for comfort, most of us instinctively, but also electively, shy away from struggle and tribulation.


We choose the roads extensively travelled, in the mistaken belief that we are made safer by relying on known navigation.


And forgetting, or never learning, that it is our moments of greatest physical, mental and psychological challenge and discomfort which invariably lead us to our moments of greatest growth. And our most valuable insights.


Because ours is a society culturally conditioned to admire the tall poppies, all the while perpetuating the tall poppy syndrome — the tendency to hold back, maintain the status quo and reward those who blend in.

 

My own life and career have been the opposite of this.

 

I have always admired the tall poppy, while also aspiring to be the tall poppy. The pioneer who never stops searching for a new way.


A better way.


Who never settles for what is, and always challenges the status quo, in the belief that we are capable of constantly evolving into better versions of ourselves.


As a business leader entrusted with the gift of followership, I have embraced challenge and calculated risk throughout my career, knowing that playing it safe never pushes the boundaries of who and what we need to become to guide our organisations, and our people, forward.


And few places on earth offer gifts comparable to the spectacular and unforgiving Kuiseb Canyon. Carving a ragged and unforgiving ravine through some of the harshest terrain in the world, the Kuiseb Canyon in Namibia is a landscape of extremes: Extreme beauty. Extreme climate. Extreme awe.

But also extreme physical and mental exertion. And extreme psychological anxiety.



Hemmed in by barren, treacherous rock cliffs measuring up to 800 metres on one side, and some of the tallest sand dunes in the world on the other, the canyon is a gorge of treacherous and hostile geology.

Not surprisingly, it has proven virtually unconquerable, remaining to this day one of Namibia’s most hostile and formidable frontiers.


So naturally, I leapt at the opportunity earlier this year when invited to join a small group of extreme hikers, adventurers and explorers to pioneer a five-day, 156km trail through the canyon.

 
An experienced hiker, the distance did not daunt me. And having previously walked the Namib100, nor did the extreme heat or severe, unforgiving environment.
 

And, at first glance, our route seemed relatively uncomplicated, and the game plan deceptively straightforward:


To determine whether this could indeed be developed as a commercial hike, we would walk the spectacular Kuiseb river bed during the day, exit the 800m-plus canyon by late afternoon, camp at the cliff’s edge, and then climb down into the canyon every morning to resume the 156km hike.


Of course, game plans, as life in general, often prove deceptively simplistic.


Once in the belly of the beast, the magnificent, mesmerising and daunting character of the canyon reveals itself.


A victory to be repeated, over and over, with dwindling resources, mounting fatigue and extreme anxiety about whether we will, in fact, be able to climb out of the canyon before nightfall.


Because not exiting is simply not an option.


Extreme night-time temperatures well below freezing, and the presence of wild animals, including leopards and hyenas, as well as highly venomous scorpions, make staying in the canyon unsafe, and unwise. We simply have to keep moving and climbing at pace, even as every day becomes a race against the sun, the elements, dehydration, physical peril and extreme exhaustion.


We were warned, long before we set off, about the hazards we would encounter, from house-sized boulders blocking what should be clear paths, to sheer drops masquerading as navigable crags.

Fellow hiker and one of our team leaders, Cobus Steenkamp, pulled no punches:

“If the Fish River Canyon is a 1, the Kuiseb is a humble 10.”


He was not exaggerating.



The precarious terrain, and stop-starts scrambling it necessitates, exacts a heavy physical toll. But I soon realise that the mental and emotional toll is even greater.


Throughout the hike, as we faced the daily, non-negotiable objective of climbing out of the canyon, we came to experience what we termed “exit anxiety”. Knowing, with certainty, that we needed to scale 800m-plus cliffs, but having no certainty about how we would accomplish this.

 
It becomes a race against time. A race against the elements. And a race against your own mounting mental and physical exhaustion.
 

With every step, Martin Luther King Jr’s famous rallying cry of perseverance fuels every step: If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl.

I did all three. I walked, I crawled, I cried. A lot. But I never stopped moving forward.

And in the heart of the canyon, however, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the challenge that towered over us, I came to a visceral revelation:

No-one exits the Kuiseb alone.

Psychological safety is something all of us at The Performance Agency talk about often. It is the cornerstone of performance. Without psychological safety, none of us would dare to dream and, most importantly, fail forward in pursuit of exponential performance.


On the Kuiseb Hike, psychological safety came in the form of the experienced Live the Journey team, who travelled 2 600km over five days, navigating one of the most unforgiving terrains in the world to provide logistical support from the canyon roof. A team in whom we would come to trust, completely, to guide and support us into, through and out of the canyon every day.


And the incredible hikers — the pathfinders and the sweepers — who individually, and collectively, weaved the safety nets that allowed us to tackle this extreme challenge:

Cobus Steenkamp, a fountain of experience, who is currently writing a book about the Kuiseb. It has, by his own admission, been a rocky, 17-year relationship, which has culminated in him “trying to make amends.”


Banie Erasmus, the ultimate pathfinder, whose supreme athleticism and an unwavering commitment to running ahead to find the safest exit route, would prove the gamechanger for me, and many others.

And Tjaart van der Walt, whose calm, resolute support was arguably one of the greatest factors in helping us to dig deep when the stakes were highest. And who never failed to look out for the most vulnerable in the group - including carrying the hiking packs of those who had come to the end of their strength and endurance.

 

Our expedition walked into the canyon as strong, accomplished individuals, believing that our own stamina, endurance and resilience would carry us through. Five days later, emerging from the canyon for the last time, it had become clear: What carried us through, was each other.


At different points along the five-day hike, different members of our party stepped up to find the safest route. They took up the mantle of “pathfinders”.


Similarly, at various intervals people of superior strength and fitness choose to fall back, becoming “sweepers” — a human safety net for those who are struggling. Often, these roles reverse as the terrain demands. And as individual strength and endurance ebb and flow.


Ultimately, this would prove one of the Kuiseb’s most profound lessons:

  • The only way to meet moments of extreme challenge, is to work together.

  • Human connection, not simply human endurance, is what helps us survive, and thrive.

  • We are all sweepers. And we are all pathfinders.

  • We all have a trail to blaze.

  • And we all have a safety net to hold.

© Natalie Maroun

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