Back in the 60s when I was too young to care about very much we used to spend Saturdays at a place we called Mhango’s water hole. It was a mile or so off the road along the Kaziwiziwi river and the path to get there just cut straight through the bush. Most of Africa was fresh and clean then, an innocent Eden almost, and a great place to be a child.
Everyone looked forward to Saturdays, and whatever friends were around at the time were squeezed into my father’s Landrover along with us kids and a picnic. Other cars tagged on behind as we headed up the valley past the houses of people we knew or got to know. The cars had to get left where the road petered out and in no time we were running ahead and into the water before the adults had organised themselves.
At Mhango’s the river flowed into a large quiet, deep pool in the rocks. It came from high up in the mountains and was swift and cold and incredibly clean. It spilled out of the pool again over a lip of rock and headed on down the valley to wherever – I didn’t really care where, I just wanted to swim.
I was 8 years old, everything was an adventure. We jumped endlessly from that over-hanging rock into the cold water while parents cooked food and shouted at us to be careful. We chased each other into the forest, climbed trees, caught frogs and devoted ourselves to the serious business of being children.
But one day things went wrong. They went wrong more than on just one day, but this day I remember more than any other. I swam too close to that lip that held the water in the pool, the lip over which the water flowed when the pool was full. The smooth rock face was mossy there with nothing to cling to. I hoisted myself up on the lip just as three other boys jumped together from the rock that got called Rask’s rock and the surge of water was enough to tip me over the lip and in no time I was being carried downstream in the current. Just above where the river entered the pool it divided, some water going into the pool and other water that went around it and joined further along, and when I got to that point things speeded up.
I was tossed and thrown along the shallow course of the river, bumped off rocks and scraped along the stony bottom. There were shouts from behind me, calling to me, screams and screeches and orders all coming at me at once but they didn’t make much sense. The river got faster and more turbulent and I became disoriented and lost sight and sound of everyone behind me.
After a half a minute that seemed like a half an hour I was flushed into another pool that was deep and I sank under the torrent coming after me. When I surfaced a hundred faces were looking at me from each bank, and the world had turned pink, green, blue, red and yellow. I was too confused to cry or shout and there wasn’t much that was making any kind of sense. People grabbed hold of me and pulled me out onto the grass and made me lie down and stood towering over me.
I had been fortunate. As my parents came running through the bush with some of the other boys and a very fat, out of breath French Ambassador my head began to clear, but the overwhelming impression that dominated my mind was nothing more than a multi-coloured blur that was explained when I was told that the pool I had been unceremoniously dumped into was were a large group of Indian ladies were picnicking and paddling. They had been washing their enormous, vibrantly coloured saris in the pool, had them all stretched out in the water, and I’d got tangled up in them as I plunged into their giant washing machine of a pool.
Now when I head over to Mhango’s water hole when I’m in that part of Africa I still swim about a bit with the boys, but mostly we laze around on the rocks like lizards, everyone of us a different colour except for the Chisala boys, but they’re twins. Black, white, brown ….. all different breeds of the one species, and we remember the day I swam too close to the overflow and more often than not I end up being thrown in off Rask’s Rock into the cold, deep pool.