The river’s secret

‘Orange River’s coming up!’
We took up our positions along the bank of windows in the corridor.
As the sashes dropped, a mix of soot and Karoo air rushed into the passageway. Half-a-dozen bolsters, the much mocked plastic cylinders of rail travel and the only item of furniture not nailed down, were pitched through open windows, their intended destination anywhere outside the train but preferably the muddy waters a few hundred metres below.
As I made to position the missile on the window ledge, it snagged my wallet.
‘I won’t be buying you another one.’ There had been no sympathy from my mother.

On the other side of the river and another 110 kilometres up the track lies the town of Kimberley. The longest I’d ever spent there was the half hour allotted to this stop between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Just long enough to walk the platform and swig a bottle of the locally made ginger beer. In February 1965, I would extend that length of time by a few days.

Kimberley is, of course, known for diamonds. The first gemstone was found on the banks of the Orange River in 1866; five years later another discovery on a small hill launched the town of New Rush. Thousands of prospectors flattened the hill in a frenzy of digging, picking away at the landscape until a gaping hole appeared.  This was the Kimberley Mine, affectionately known as the Big Hole.

The diamond fields lie in the elbow of the confluence of the Orange and Vaal Rivers, within the natural borders of the Orange Free State. Four stakeholders claimed them:  the Cape Colony, the South African and Orange Free State republics, and the local Griqua tribe whose leader, Nikolaas Waterboer, fancied that his interests would be best served by placing them under British protection. The area became known as Griqualand West, transitioning through Crown Colony status and then to incorporation within the Cape Colony in 1877. With their asset gone, Waterboer and his people lost influence. Their lands were progressively bought up by prospectors and it wasn’t long before licences to mine or deal in diamonds were the privilege of whites only.

But I hadn’t come to Kimberley for diamonds. My primary purpose was to compete in a national schools swimming tournament; specifically, the girls under fourteen 110 yards backstroke. And there would be tough competition from the hometown girl, Karen Muir, who’d shown impressive form in recent outings.

On that summer afternoon in February, I took my position behind the block a few lanes away from Karen, heart pounding as it always does in the moments before the start of an event. At the sound of the whistle I jumped in feet first, turned around to face the wall and gripped the handle on the block. I lined my feet up against the wall, one foot slightly higher than the other, toes just below the water level. This is my technique for mitigating the backstroker’s worst nightmare: sliding down the wall at the sound of the gun.
‘Take your  marks.’
I tensed my buttocks and lifted my body higher out of the water, pulling myself towards the wall to allow for maximum thrust. The gun popped.  We were off and racing. Or rather, Karen was. A quarter of a minute separated us at the finish. She’d clipped two seconds off her personal best time; I’d added at least that much to mine. My backstroke career was on the skids.

A few months later, Karen would break the world record over the same distance in Blackpool, making her the youngest swimmer ever, at 12, to achieve such a feat in any stroke and distance. Over the next five years, she lowered world marks in every backstroke event, the only honour denied her an Olympic Games medal. In December 1967, Karen handed a note to the American gold medallist Don Schollander, as he was about to board a flight in Cape Town towards the end of his tour of South Africa.  The message implored him to do anything possible to enable South Africa to compete in the Mexico Olympics the following year.  This was all she’d lived and trained for, she said, a chance to prove herself in Olympic competition.  The International Olympic Committee briefly flirted with this idea, but after several African nations threatened a boycott it was quickly scuttled. I wonder what she could have achieved, given the opportunity.

The last time I saw Karen compete was at an intervarsity competition in Durban in 1971. She’d retired from elite swimming; the whippet-like physique had given way to a more rounded figure and cellulite had started to dimple her thighs. At the starter’s whistle the competitors bent down on the blocks, Karen the last to go down. The other competitors and spectators waited patiently.  Then she toppled off the block. According to today’s rules, that would be grounds for instant disqualification; back then, there were two more chances. Again we waited politely as she emerged from the pool to prepare for the second start. As if in slow motion, she went down on the block, but this time managed to hold her balance. This was not how I wished to remember the great Karen Muir.

I often wonder what happened to the myriad bolsters that we pitched from the train. If they’d made it to the river mouth a thousand kilometres west, they would have had an eventful journey; through the desert region of the Northern Cape, bumping down the cascades of the Augrabies Falls, passing the point where the Orange River defines the border between South Africa and Namibia, and floating gently towards the alluvial banks that open to the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve kayaked a stretch of the river that borders Namibia and it is truly a spectacular landscape.

Or were there grateful hands on the banks below the bridge, waiting to catch the gifts showered from above? Hands that belonged to people as familiar with the Orange River ritual as we were? Which may have caught my wallet?

What tales the river could tell.