Friday, November 30, 2012
Six in the morning, and the Indian Ocean resembles a colossal pond. Barely a ripple disturbs the surface, which reflects the kaleidoscopic dawn sky: a shifting canvas of burnished gold, violet, russet and sapphire. On the water, boats seem to huddle as though sleeping. Mother Nature has offered a benevolent hand today. It is the morning of Saturday 24 November and a group of swimmers, of mixed age and ability, is gathered at the waters edge on the Peninsula. Excitement is palpable: swimming conditions are perfect and even the widespread knowledge that jellyfish will be relishing the still, warm water, does not dampen the mood. Nearly six kilometres away, clearly visible on this most magnificent morning, the island of Bongoyo rises low in the water: cloaked in green with a distinct curve of white-gold sand at its tip. It is to this beach that the cluster is heading. The ocean, deceptive in its presentation of distance, is begging to be ventured into. Photographs taken, sips of water drunk, goggles and swimming caps donned, it is not long before the swimmers have begun their journey. A few kayakers set off in their midst, and the adventure has begun. There are moments in life that cause me to stop, heart in chest, and wonder what kind twist of fate led me to be living here – in Dar es Salaam – a breath away from the Indian Ocean. Descending into the water, as I did on Saturday, was one such moment. Months of morning and afternoon mammoth swims, one too-close-for-comfort encounter with the bough of a boat, and countless jellyfish stings suddenly made sense. There was simply nowhere else on earth I would rather be than right there, feeling almost weightless in the water, about to take on this new challenge. What is it that makes swimming in open water so utterly pleasurable? So, dare I say it, addictive? There is a meditative quality about swimming, the matchless combination of breath and stroke that somehow stills the most preoccupied of minds. There is also something so balancing about the movement of the body through the water. When I swim, I – to a large extent – ‘disappear’ and am left only with breath and movement. Add to that clear, warm water and you have quite a spectacular sport. Doubtless, it takes effort and energy and certainly gives the entire body a major workout, but for me swimming always feels a little less like exercise than running or cycling. It is somehow so much gentler. An hour into the swim, and I am badly stung by a jellyfish that apparently wrapped itself around my upper right arm and delivered a sharp lash. My energy levels are high and, despite swimming through what feels like a forest of jelly, I am relishing every stroke. My friend is swimming close by but, apart from her, I see no other swimmers. The island is in view but is strangely mirage like: no matter how fast I swim, it seems to grow more distant! It doesn’t worry me: I feel liberated and care free. Another half hour later, and a few more stings, we know that we are on the last leg. My mouth is salt-lined, my arms mottled by stings and sun, yet this is heavenly! As the final stretch progresses, I feel elated and a little sad. Adrenalin is pumping, and I sense that I could swim forever, yet I am quietly relieved to see the seabed emerging far beneath me and gradually draw closer. A hunger pang bites my belly and, as I stride out of the sea, I immediately think ‘food.’ Once everyone is ashore, the mood is a cocktail of tiredness, exhilaration and satisfaction. We eat breakfast, sharing stories and comparing stings. Swimming makes ‘me’ more ‘me’. That is what I have concluded. It distils the muddles of life, clarifies my thinking, helps me to be more efficient, and soothes my spirit. What I love about it best, as a sport, is that it discriminates against no one, transcending age, size and fitness barriers. I really believe that anyone can swim, given the right support and that the effort it requires is more than justified. After the swim, I barely wanted to leave the water – so generous had it been. Luckily, it’s waiting for me to wade in again, goggles and swim cap in hand. I’ve had a day off: I think I’m ready again!