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Book extract: The battle on the river

2017-05-14 09:31

Confluence: Beyond the River by Piers Cruickshanks with Siseko Ntondini

Pan Macmillan

198 pages

R195 at takealot.com

The paddles “thunk, thunk” in the boat. The air’s still but cool under the canopy. The light shafts through acacias.

No time to admire, though. We’re running. Still running well up the steepest part of the hill. And we keep passing boats.

Every single one a prisoner taken back.

A step, albeit a tiny one, towards our goal. Still, so many boats in front of us.

We’re over the hill, rushing down the steep, grassy path and on to the jeep track. Our strides open and we’re flying again. “Thunk, thunk.”

“Coming through, please.”

Mark Mulder looks up. I’m surprised to see him. We’re catching up then; perhaps it’s even possible? But I dispel the thought from my mind.

Focus on the task. Dig a little deeper. But Mark shifts to the left, making space for us to pass.

“Thank you.” I waste energy, but it’s worth it. What a gesture.

We’re into the cauldron. Rank. Stifling. The cicadas screaming in our ears. But Siseko’s on song. Flying through the dip, I’m pushing him up the other side.

A few long strides – we have to walk. Big steps. Forcing the muscles to push us up the path. Our quads burn. The moment the gradient eases, Siseko’s running again.

I’m gasping for breath, but I follow. We crest the hill and there’s ice-cold water on my head again. And again. Never enough, it trickles down my back.

Beautiful, but insufficient.

The boat’s down and we’re dragging it along Geoff’s Road. Side by side, we’re racing down the hill. The boat roars on the gravel behind us.

I’m hanging in. I look across at Siseko – his face is grim. Determined.

Back in the river. And we’re quickly into the current – it feels like our friend. Our rhythm comes quickly, easily. The water level feels lower, warmer.

A few rocks graze the underside of our boat. “Good,” I think. “Slightly low.” It suits us. We’re light and strong.

I can see three boats ahead of us. Maybe four. I’m thinking we might be back into the top twenty then. And I’m thinking, if we can just get to around fifteen today.

Then, maybe …

But before my mind drifts, I’m back on the task, following Siseko’s rhythm. Then we’re passing under the high bridge. Voices shout encouragement.

Too many voices. The water splashes from Siseko’s blades and I can’t hear clearly. But Gav Shuter’s at the bank.

“Fifteen, Piers, fifteen!”

It etches on my mind. “Fifteen.” Three or four boats ahead of us, and we’re catching. My mind struggles to comprehend. We’re back in the mix. Our spirits lift.

“We’re nearly there!”

“Ja, ten is right here. We’re catching them!”

Through the next little rapid, we’re on top of the bunch. One boat swims, fourteen. Then we’re out of the current, over the wave and passing the next.

And the next.

Twelve.

We’re up alongside the next boat, Shaun and Wayne. They push us wide, out of the current and we can’t get past. Then through the next rapid, we’re alongside again.

And then … past them.

Eleven.

But we drift slightly left and they’re in front again. Nothing asked, nothing given.

Twelve.

Finger Neck portage. We’re taking out together. The air’s hot, our breathing is forced.

But we’re past them before the top of the hill and racing down the other side.

Eleven.

Back into the water quickly, we’re moving well. Tired, but loving it. Then we’re racing up to the next boat. Loveday and Thando Ngamlana.

Quickly up onto the wave.

And then we’re past them.

Ten.

The infamous Cabbage Tree portage beckons. The long tar road winds to the left up ahead. I can see Jacques and Shaun. Lucas and Mmeli just behind them – closing down on them.

The tar road is steep, but we’re back in the mix. And our tails are up.

“Come on! This is nine, ten and eleven!” Bulky is spongeing ice-cold water on me. “You’re there! You’re doing it!”

Our spirits lift again.

Up Cabbage Tree, Siseko runs. He just runs. No stopping, no walking, no resting. And I follow. We’re emptying our tanks. Putting it all out there.

We’re moving past Jacques and Shaun on the hill. Ice-cold water splashes on my head. The tar is wet, slippery underfoot. We don’t stop.

Nine.

We’re closing on Lucas and Mmeli. We’re hauling them in. They’re great runners. Solid paddlers. But the momentum is with us and we’re chasing them down. Over the crest – it’s a great relief.

But then we’re charging past them and down towards the dirt road. We’re passing them. My lungs are heaving, but we’re flying.

We’re alongside for a few moments but then past and heading for the water. The put-in is welcome, the river low and warm, but again we know it suits us lightweights.

The last paddle is always hard, tough on the arms. The mind knows the job’s nearly done for the day.

We come through the last drop feeling great. Thando and Loveday still on our heels, then Jacques and Shaun, then Mmeli and Lucas.

All bunched up behind us. We cross the line.

Eight.

Our tanks are empty and I know it. But we’re back in the mix. We’re in the golds and up for a fight!

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