Eskimo rolls and hyacinth stew

At 6am, heading south from Joburg on very little sleep, I began to ponder my relationship with water.

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It’s an unusual preoccupation, but when you’re about to run the region’s largest river it’s good to know how things stand with the old hydrogen compound. Not well, was the verdict I came to.

I couldn’t think of a stretch of water within a hundred kilometre radius of the city I wasn’t afraid of, for one reason or another, including the Zoo Lake swimming pool. One of my earliest memories is of finding six cat corpses under a bridge over the Jukskei River in Joburg north, where I grew up.

A move…: A move called ‘Divine retribution’.

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At Parys on the banks of the Vaal, I had no trouble identifying the premises of the White Water Training centre by its litter of neon life jackets and strange little vessels shaped like Punjabi juttis. A wiry man came down the gravel drive to meet me wearing the kind of shapeless polyester micro-shorts I’ve only seen before in photographs of tiger fishing tournaments from the 1970s. “Deon,” he said, “your instructor.”

He introduced me to my fellow students: Moya, his fetching sister, and her man Pierre, both sky-diving instructors. They had brought a friend along, Picks, or Pixie, who looked and behaved like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Between them they must have represented – what? – about 5 000 Facebook friends.

One gets the sense, when meeting certain sets of friends, of their being the advance envoys of a large, powerful, possibly cannibalistic tribe. Never mind, I told myself, you’re practically at home anywhere – versatile, mutable – except, it was soon obvious, when it came to my appointed kayak. Which fitted my lower body about as comfortably as the jaws of a medium-size crocodile.

“It’s our biggest one,” said Deon, frowning.

Undoubtedly my self-harming trait is the belief, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that I can teach myself to do almost anything. Tolstoy had the same problem, I hear – he thought he could cobble shoes as expertly as any cobbler, and his children grew up with deformed feet.

At some point that morning, with my mind still wandering in the fog of the night before, I caught Deon saying, “Ja julle, so that’s how you perform a C-to-C roll…” It bothered me for a second that I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but then the old autodidact reflex kicked in: I’d catch up.

Moments later we were all afloat in the pool. “Sean, let’s start with you,” said Deon, standing beside my kayak, chest deep and with his hands steadying my bow.

“Lean forward over the kayak with your hands to one side and the paddle flat on the water’s surface. Good. Then follow your hands over into the water and, when you’re underwater, make a broad stroke with the paddle and flick your hips up all the while keeping your head underwater. It seems unnatural, I know, but your head has to stay in if your hips are to flick out. Now I’m going to tip you…”


“No Sean, you’re trying to get your hea…”


“You need to keep you hea…”


“You see, everyone, this is what happens when your hea…”


“OK, out you come, I’ve got you mate.”

Meanwhile, campsite children dressed in pink had gathered around to gawk. Among them was the instructor’s wife, making a video that will doubtless bring much joy and merriment to people I’ll never meet.

Up in the fresh air again, I wasn’t at all confident that my face was not webbed in snot, so I pushed away into open water and promptly rolled again. Only this time I Houdini-ed out of my splash cover and came up gasping while my kayak sank beside me.

The sky-diving instructors, on the other hand, aced this part of the day, to the clapping of little hands. McConaughey didn’t just ace the exercise, he emerged from the water on his own terms, blonde locks flicking out like some deodorant ad on TV.

Somehow Deon soon deemed us ready for open water, which suddenly seemed, in all its rocky brown flow, far too real. We were going, he explained, to learn how to navigate eddies at a rapid called Gatsien. It turned out to be one of those features with the power to draw colloquial surfer language out of the most up-standing urbanites – words like ‘huge’ and ‘pumping’.

Deon leavened its mystique with one or two trade terms. It was also a ‘sieve’ – a place where water pumps between two obstacles – and a ‘hole’ – a place where water courses over some submerged object, causing a sucking, backwards flow. This enables skilled kayakers to ride a sort of standing wave at that spot for as long as their muscles hold out.

Tricks one might perform include ‘the backstab’, ‘the superblunt’, ‘the space Godzilla’ and ‘the helix’, which is nothing less than a 360° degree, upside-down aerial rotation.

Two ‘weekend warriors’ were playing about on the wave, not really ‘owning’ it, but riding it at length. After launching we made our way towards them, following Deon like brood of ducklings. The rapid neared, the oxygenated water foamed white, and I began to experience shockwaves of self-doubt, which I tried to quell by splashing McConaughey with water. “Take it easy,” he said. “There’s enough methane under my splash cover to blow us all to hell.”

“You scared too?” I asked, and when everyone nodded I experienced a mysterious change of heart, an unaccountable jolt of confidence.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m going to show you how it’s done.”

“How what’s done?” asked Deon, spinning his kayak around with one muscular stroke. “I haven’t even told you what we’re going to do yet.”

We were, he then explained, to let the backflow of the rapid draw us in at the side of the white water which we were to enter, lifting the left edge of our kayaks to allow the current to turn us downstream. When we hit the next eddy we were to lift the right side.

“Left, right, OK?” Deon shouted, for the river had suddenly started to roar. “Failure to lift the right edge means the current pulls the kayak under. Sean, you were saying…”

The transcript of my most private thoughts in the next few seconds runs something like this…

Here you go, this is your chance to… OK, right, no, left… Underwater… Shit, I’m underwater… Let me try a C-to-C…. C-to-what? No, don’t be silly here. Ouch, did my head just hit a… Shit! Fold in to avoid rocks! Fold in! But wait – I’m running out of air here, time to pull the splash cover… There it goes. I’m out. It’s OK everyone, I’m fine, nice little swim, actually, you should all give it a try.

“Pull your legs up,” shouted Deon, quite distant already. “Keep away from the hyacinth.”

What? No, please, anything but hyacinth. Oh, he’s only joking. Right, time to get back to the team. Not too bad being in the drink, though, at one with the elements and all that. Must’ve swallowed a jug, but not too bad, quite refreshing actually. Hang on, why are they all waving so hysterically? No hippos here, surely. No emerald-eyed crocky-wok. So what’s the fuss?

With that, a billion volts of electricity crashed into a nearby granite outcrop and the sky split three ways with thunder. I recalled the widely-held African belief that lightning bolts are despatched to take care of common criminals and charlatans and I soon found myself on a rock sheltering next to Deon.

Seconds later, a cloud came over dragging skirts of water, like a tremendous airborne jellyfish. The rain hit the water, and the air was filled with the whooping of my new friends. Such was the cathartic energy of the storm, so exhilarating the intake of negative ions, that I felt like hugging someone. I was barefoot and ‘rivery’, squelching through hyacinth to get to the shore, shouting and laughing.

I was that much more euphoric for having forgotten that such sensations exist. Thereafter I wanted to help lash down the kayaks. I wanted to be the one to jump out in the rain and open the farm gates. I felt absolved of something I hadn’t even realised was there.

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Eskimo rolls and hyacinth stew