While on the end leg of my 2400km Orange River Source2sea journey, I had to swim well into the night to maintain my daily distance, in order to reach the mouth at Alexander bay on the 17 of May. By that stage, the desert winter was in full swing and the days as well as the nights, not to mention the water temperature, was taking a big dip. I can still remember getting out of the river in the pitch dark, near hypothermic, getting to work on a fire ASAP, before I could take my wetsuit off and dry out, plus set up camp etc. It was then that I thought, hey if I can swim for 14 hours straight for 3 weeks and also doing that after I already completed 2200km’s, surely I can do a 24hours record swim. And so the Guinness World Record idea was born
After registering with Guiness World Records (GWR) and playing the waiting game, I finally got the guidelines, rules and evidence stats from GWR and started planning the mission. What makes this attempt interesting is that the environment is uncontrolled. So to get the optimum flow of water, you cannot do it in the summer months because the river level is too low, 90% of the time. Winter time, after good rain, is ideal, but then you have to deal with the cold, so it is a bit of a catch 22. Then you also have to navigate a flowing river at night which would be the most dangerous part of the whole attempt. You are allowed to stop at any time, for however long you want, but you are not allowed to leave the river banks.
So this is where the snowball effect started picking up speed, that would eventually become an avalanche and would ultimately cause me to sadly not better the existing record of 60km’s. After getting confirmation from my friend Alain (Operations manager at the Felix Unite Round the Bend Lodge) that there was good water coming, I had to quickly scramble to get everything ready, so not to miss the incoming water, and not knowing when or if it would rain again for months. Because of the short notice, non of my back-up crew members could join, which I think in most cases is where most wives of any athletes come in, the behind every successful athlete stands a seconds crew member\shuttle bunny\chef\doctor and in my case, a slash fire starter. And because my wife Chanel couldn’t leave our 10month old daughter Kacey behind, she was set to join on her first ever adventure outing and of course our awesome baby sitter, Tendai from Malawi:)
So on arrival at the famous Drew bridge, we saw that it was under water and the bridge was creating a standing wave, perfect conditions for the swim 🙂 But, there is always a but. My overconfidence to take on a swollen river, alone at flood level in the dark through a section of river which is notorious for having very narrow channels, of which is normally choked with tree strainers everywhere (tree strainers are tree blocks in fast moving water which are extremely dangerous) and that with my 200lumen LED lenser head torch, I started getting second thoughts. I quickly pushed them aside and decided to get on with it… no chickening out now!
So at 5pm, I jumped into the frigid water and saw even on my 11 month old, that she wasn’t too sure about this. As my backup team disappeared from view, it was game on for me. Things got real very quickly and before I knew it, I was kicking frantically to miss the maize of deadly strainers which seemed to be attracted to me like a magnet. As if that wasn’t enough, having almost zero visibility from my headlight was another problem. As my head would bop up and down the wave trains, the strainers would only come into view, only meters away and I would have to do ninja like moves in order to avoid them. Taking the wrong channels became a matter of just sorting out what was in front of me and not having enough time to work out where I was going. The one channel became increasingly narrower and I knew that I would soon find myself in a spot where I didn’t want to be, especially in the dark. Seemingly out of nowhere, an open spot on the side of the river became visible in my dim torch light, and the famous words of Matt George in the Movie – IN Gods Hands, “I sense the Angels at work here”, popped into my head as that little piece of land illuminated ahead of me. To get there was another story, and if I stayed in the main current, I would be swept past it in a matter of seconds, so in one swift movement, I shook the cold out of my legs, turned my board upstream, and started kicking for dear life, to try and ferry in behind a strainer, where I could rest and try work out my next move. I made it!!! But the eddie (the calm water behind a stationary object like a rock in fast moving water) behind strainers are never as secure as a rock eddie because of the flow that passes underneath the tree. I started to get pushed out to the main current again and now completely off line right below me, another bunch of tree blocks and strainer city became visible and was waiting to receive me with it’s doors wide open. I dropped a gear and now long forgotten that I could not feel my toes a minute ago, I kicked and paddled frantically with my arm to try and get back in behind the strainer. After about 30 seconds of a 100% effort at about 6000rpm’s I finally made it and got hold of a branch. Now all that kept me from the side was a fast current and relatively easy ferry across. Although, 3metres downstream, a huge tree block was visible, with a massive log jammed sideways into it, extending about 2m’s to each side. This was barely do-able. I took a moment to compose myself and work out my next chess move with some dire consequences. If I go for it, I risk not being able to generate enough speed to keep me from getting swept into the strainer a few metres below me. Getting swept into a strainer with a backpack and being so cold at the same time would be catastrophic, to say the least. The other option, was to go downstream, into the maize of tree blocks and strainers and try to pick my way through and hope for the best… MMMM
Decision time for me, I looked again, made my calculations for the shore, and felt confident that I, at the very best, had at least a 60% chance of making it. One hard move and I’m safe. Crunch time! I throw myself into the current, now not focussing on the strainer anymore, but keeping my eyes fixed on that little piece of land. I started kicking like a madman … To be continued…