by Doley Henderson
I see bubbles, as I sink. CJ didn’t mean it. Yes, she did. She is five, I am two. She pushes me off the dock. I see bubbles and white stones. Aunty Viv saves me. Mum cries. “I went to the bottom!” I say.
Mum left me money and marble eggs. I will raft the Zambezi. By the rushing St. Lawrence, I slice my grapefruit. Pssst! A stream of juice down my face. I address the green egg that holds some of my mum’s ashes. “Go big or go home!” I kiss the air between us and grin.
Drrrip! A stream of sweat down my face. I grip the rusty railing, paddle, and drysack, as I slip on metal stairs hanging on the rock face. I focus down 300 feet. Rubber rafts bounce off the rocks and waves. I exhale. Today, three of us, in tight harnesses, jumped off a cliff, swung from a rope, and screamed. We are ages 25-75, camping, whitewater rafting, in the turquoise Zambezi frenzy. Steps apart, we descend, 12 guests, five guides, and a trip leader.
At the bottom, scrambling over boulders, I shake from adrenaline. Some of us barf, collapsing into four rafts. Nonjabulo, trip leader, is solid muscle and has run 2,000 trips. One by one, we fly down the river. Musa shouts above the rushing water, forward, down, hold. When the rafts eddy out, we slap our paddles, in the air, as Nonjabulo sings, in Ndebele.
We have run six of today’s 21 sets of Class V rapids. This one is Nothuba, Mother-of-Chance. I thrust my paddle into the waves. It is pulled away, and I, with it. Underwater now, I am tumbling. I see bubbles, as I sink. CJ didn’t mean it. Yes she did. I kick hard, thrash my arms. Air hits my face, as I am sucked down again. I remember to relax and bob to the surface, point my feet downstream, and float. I gulp, search the river. Sindiso, support kayaker, weaves towards me.
She grabs my outstretched hand, places it on the gunwale, and we spin to the nearest raft. Nikelwa and Tulani pull me over the side. I gasp, “Siyabonga, Thank-you!” My teeth chatter, my legs shake, my face beams. I fist-pump the cheering paddlers. I didn’t go to the bottom. I am exhausted and exhilarated.
My raft appears, I sit front-right. Musa checks, “Okay?” I nod and look over at Sindiso, rocking in the waves. I kiss the air between us, she kisses back, and we grin. Each rapid is different. Sometimes, we portage over boulders, if the drop is too dangerous. We hold hands, carry our paddles, cross to safer on-boarding rocks, while the guides lead the rafts by rope or let them bump down, eddy out.
On rapid 17, one of the rafts high-sides, capsizes. We bob up and down, watching the guides right it. Swimmers and kayaks float to each other. We on-board a shaking woman, who asks, “Am I dead?” Even pros capsize, depending on experience, how they enter a rapid, how quickly paddlers respond to changes, and the luck of the gods.
Past the rapids, we slow down, dreaming about warm clothes and strong drink. Rounding the last bend, we hear singing-whistling-clapping dancers, welcoming us to this country, this river, this campsite. I have come home. This is where I belong. The music reaches inside me, pulls out my self-doubt, and flings it away. I watch it fly down the river and sink.
We beach the rafts, stumble, and collapse on the sand. My hands shake. I paw through my drysack, find the camera. The battery is dead.
Sindiso walks over, kneels down. “Unjani? All right?” She puts her arm around me and I lean into relief. Then, we laugh, help each other up, and sway to the music, happy to be alive, really alive, in this magical moment.
“Siyabonga,” I whisper.