I love sharing this story. I am glad I am alive in retrospect to tell this story. It was as close as I came to checking out in this life.
I was volunteering in South Africa, just finishing some time in Swazliland. I had the chance to meet up with some friends in Zimbabwe. We backpacked our way around, so we found cheap housing at hostels and homes. We met up in Harahe which was an amazing place, but word was that it was dangerous. You did not want to venture out without some understanding of where you were heading. We set a general plan knowing that we wanted to end up in Victoria Falls where we would go white water rafting on the famous Zambezi River.
Typical of backpacking plans were all subject to change at any moment. We truly traveled where the wind blew, depending on hearing about a place we had to go and see, or simply that a ride was heading in a certain direction and had space for us to join (as long as we would contribute towards gas which was the unwritten rule). What an amazing time and experience. So many stories to tell.
In a land where time stood still, we zigged and we zagged as we made many stops on the way to our destination. We finally arrived in “Vic Falls”. What an amazing sight to see the falls. I had visited Niagara Falls which was awesome. Victoria Falls had a very similar appeal. We put up our tents and grabbed some grub at a local eatery. That evening we went to the meeting point where those who went rafting that day met to view the video that was made of their trip. The videographers did a fantastic job catching the highlights to some awesome music. We were excited and ready for making our own journey the next day.
The next day we arrived and joined up with a few others to fill our raft. We selected the option to use paddles which was described to be harder but with the benefit of reaching areas of the river the other rafts could not get to (So naïve and of course so macho of us, after all we could conquer the world at that time, but after all we were accustomed to this. Taking risks meant experiencing more of life). After a brief training exercise we hit the river.
We approached the first rapid, a smaller rapid. Each rapid was classified by a number defining the intensity of the rapid. This was one of the “easier” rapids. “No sweat” we thought as we paddled under guidance from our guide to a specific location. We hit the first rapid and out fell my German mate. How could this be? We dragged him back into the boat and all had a good laugh. Little did we know that this was a sign of things to come.
The next few rapids were met with ease, although we were all exhausted from the paddling. Who made this decision anyway (-: There were several guides in kayaks who navigated the river and rapids with ease, ready to help out if needed. We were now approaching the king of rapids, the rapid that made this a Class 5 river. As we rounded the bend it looked like a mountain of water. Instinct took over and we paddled like hell, even though we were exhausted. I am not sure if I felt anything at that point, a place where the experience was so extreme that there was no place for fear.
All I remember is that I was under water, turbulent water, being tossed and turned and totally out of control. It seemed like an eternity, but I don’t believe I was thinking anything at that point. I recall seeing the bubbles all around me and at one moment approaching the surface. I was out of breath and attempted to gasp for air. Instead all I got was a mouthful of water and once again returning under water. Before being submerged I caught a glimpse of the next rapid. I do recall thinking, Oh S#&t.
Time stopped. I simply existed in a place where I had no control. And then I surfaced, with my first memory being taking in that wonderful air, to be able to breathe again. Somehow I made it. The life jacket, which had no impact while under water in the rapids, now kept me afloat. I lay on my back, totally exhausted. I was floating towards the shoreline. I was so ready to put my hands onto solid ground. But then I was unable to touch the shore. I was caught in a whirlpool and just kept going around and around. That was my luck I thought. I looked around and a kayak was picking up one of the other passengers on the other side of the river. We were all over the place.
I mustered up the strength to swim out of the whirlpool. Once again it took everything I had. I touched the shore! I pulled myself out and sat on the most comfortable rock ever. Actually it did not matter what if felt like, I was on land! I started to catch my breath when I noticed that the guide paddling towards me was waving at me frantically. Initially I thought he was just signaling me that he was on his way. The closer he got, I noted that he was yelling something at me, but I could not hear him.
Then I heard him. He was saying, “jump in, jump in..” What? I thought. Is he nuts, jump back into this river and risk landing in the whirlpool again? But then another word he was screaming out was now discernible. It was “crocodile”. OMG. It was so surreal. Once again instinct took over and back into the water I went. This time to be rescued and returned to the raft to join my compatriots to once again venture through several more rapids. It was like a reunion getting back into the raft. We just experienced something amazing! The only words shared were expletives while the guide was telling us to gear back up since we were on our way again.
Exhausted and at the end of our journey we now had to venture up a steep path to where we would regroup and celebrate. I will never forget the taste of the Zambezi beer I had. It could have been the worst tasting beer ever, but at that time it quickly became my favorite. And of course the videographer asked me to comment on my trip. Just uttering the words, “I made it” seemed to say it all for me.
That evening we joined our fellow rafters and watched “our” video this time. We watched as they captured our experience. For a moment each of us on our raft were quiet as it brought back the memories of what seemed like a dream. It was indeed real. Then we lifted up our beers and laughed. And the video finished with Louis Armstrong singing, What a Wonderful World. How appropriate.
Okay, so how does all this relate to Personal Growth? Only that it was TOTALLY symbolic of my life, being out of control at times, learning to surrender to the greater power, and accepting my destiny. It remains as one of those moments that reminds me that I can get through challenging times, after all I made it on the Zambezi River that day!