Lake Malawi – Abi’s story

For weeks and months May 1st has been a deadline.  Not just for Abi but for several of us.  In my mind it has been the date that I can’t see beyond.  Karen and Abi and more recently Clem have been my greatest and closest friends in Malawi – every lunch, most evenings, every weekend, we hang out.  This group are closer to me than many of my oldest friends.  We have other friends, lots of them and do our separate things, but much of the time here we are together.  In fact I have met many many brilliant people here…  A lunch break is too short for the amount of chat we have and we email constantly.  It’s animated excited chat – crazy ideas being plugged, theories on development, questioning about what we are doing  – our jobs are a constant inspiration so that we bash out ideas, experiences, emotions and beliefs passionately and all the time.  Our roles include HIV AIDS prevention and awareness, child rights, economic development and social development.  We are a force to be reckoned with and I often feel for those who join us – there isn’t much space and you need to be quick to fill it.  Originally nicknamed the Glams, until we got to know the Indian crew who are truly glamorous, and we were renamed The Bombs.   Indeed each one of us is a bomb, none more so than Abi.

The training for this epic voyage has re shown me a world I had completely forgotten about.  Abi is, as everyone who has met her knows, a really incredible human being.  REALLY INCREDIBLE.  I don’t say that lightly I know few, if any, like her. I don’t quite know how to explain what it is.  It isn’t her fabulous CV nor the fact that every boy, almost without exception, that meets her falls completely in love, it isn’t her fantastic political chat (the Boris t-shirt) nor her geographical knowledge (the world map that hangs on her bedroom wall without the Americas), it’s not her peace sign greeting although I am fan of that, it isn’t her comment ‘I will be creative when I am bored’ (I am a big advocate of creativity) and most definitely it isn’t her question ‘so what exactly do you gain from a classical education?’ (even then the way she asks it is with such interest that it flaws me – why did I study Latin, how does knowing about Baroque help?).  It isn’t any of those things… It is something beyond conversation.  It is her attitude.  She has a genuine, profound interest in and positive outlook on the world – her mind is, it really is, open.  She is incredibly human.  She sees so much, always engages and whatever it is she takes it, looks at it, considers it and makes the most of it.  She really does. Every experience and person is to be appreciated, to be learnt from and makes her grow and this epic swim stands as a testament to it.  Not only on the day itself but in the run up and the endless preparation for it.

Abi loves adventure, I do too, I had slightly forgotten about the fact I do until I came here – the tougher the better.  She reads real life adventure books one after the other, talking frequently about those who climb Everest, with bright eyes, passion and utter admiration. There is always a way and our attitude is ‘how hard can it be?’  We’ve done bike rides that start at 6 am on a Saturday, last for 5-6 hours, climb 800m, offroad for 60km and finish at 40 degrees centigrade, Kenyan river crossings avoiding elephants, with water running high a 100m drop just feet away, 14 hours of walking on a day we climbed Malawi’s highest peak, swimming channels at new year off Lamu, we’ve run half marathons (question mark) having gone to bed a couple of hours earlier because we were on the dance floor in 80s kit from 8 until 4am, we’ve run into Bingu’s palace grounds only to find ourselves arrested moments later – the thing is we like to live life on the edge…  Have to live life on the edge. With a scuffed knee and scratched calves we are at our happiest. This swim was yet another example of Abi’s self testing… I made it to the pool most mornings with her and her dedication and again her attitude to it has to be admired.  For months she has been swimming up and down the pool in Blantyre Sports Club and tirelessly so always exclaiming how incredible it is to be able to swim in a 30m outdoor pool looking up at the blue blue sky at 0630 in the morning before work.  We both actually revelled in this, every time… I have genuinely loved every morning – it is indeed… again… incredible.

So the swim.  This adventure.  It began months ago but the actual ‘doing it’ part, really just the icing on the cake, began as we drove in two Ravs jam packed with stuff and six Bombs to Safari Beach Lodge, insisting on showing the posters and newspaper articles to dumfounded road block staff as we went. So by way of intro we were the Bombs (Abi – A Bomb, Clem – Agent Orange, Karen – Kars Maester General, Me – err Luce Cannon and Nadia, Doctor Glam (a wonderful dutch consultant paediatrician volunteering on the ward with the highest mortality rate in Malawi, who has also become close to us all over the last few months) and Becky, Abi’s sister – red hair, plucky, warm, funny, kind, woweee, she stepped into her lives from New York having surprised Abi the week before… then there was a man named Martin who arrived on Friday at Safari Beach Lodge, head of Malawi Swimming and teacher at the international school in Lilongwe – he became an honoury bomb – another crazy but totally amazing person who just fitted in and supported us all… and last but not least Manson and Mango, the boat men – Mango dressed in a life guard t-shirt and Mason the ready side kick.  That was us and this was it.  We were off.  We began to take stuff from the cars down the steps towards the edge of the lake.  It was choppy and looked more like the North Sea than the lake I have grown to know and love.  And our boat, our boat was a total shocker.  Funny, but a shocker.  It was small, wooden, with a roof that swayed from side to side and the wrong sized spanner to fix it – it was beautiful but quickly quashed the idea of sunbathing on deck and the chance of me finishing the two books I had brought with me.   Already the challenge was heating up and if I am honest I felt a bit more nervous and a little more excited.  Things in Malawi never go to plan.  Another phrase that we often say.  They NEVER go to plan.  We know that but somehow on this mission we had forgotten.

It was cold and rough on the water and we sang, we often sing here – every song we could think of – favourites include the Baywatch theme tune… the Moulin rouge (not Kars’s favourite)… Round Here, Slumdog’s ‘bosh bosh bosh…Gonna take your money…’ (our Africa self elected theme tune) and errr anything about Romeo and Juliet (Dire Straights and hmm Taylor Swift).   Abi and I sat at the front and were constantly drowned by crashing waves.  Manson bailed… not the greatest sign… After 3 hours of balancing on the narrow wooden seats, again reminding me of the North Sea and endless childhood outings, singing loudly, I was still grinning and on top of the world but a tiny part of me was beginning to be a little tired of being there and hoping the land may emerge soon… and Abi was shaking so moved to the back to sit with Karen under the dog blanket.  We were all soaked to the bone.  As were our rucksacks as were our sleeping bags.  But it did not matter, our spirits were high and whilst it was fairly obvious it might be tougher than expected, there was no possibility of it not happening.  Grit.

I forgot the salt.  I FORGOT THE SALT and a COLLENDER and a BIG SPOON.  But we set up camp on the beach, rather further North than we had intended. No sign of a croc or a hippo.  No sign of much actually – it was very dark and beautiful. The stars.  I counted seven, I always do.  It was as we had hoped, very remote…  We struggled to get phone signal, Mango made a fire, we cooked spaghetti, heated up the Bolognese, I thought about how Abi must be feeling, we chatted away, less animated than usual, drank red wine, talked to locals and showed them posters and went to bed.  A bit damp, a bit cold, a bit nervous but very excited.  The alarm was set for five but was not necessary.

I think each one of us felt responsible.  Not for anything in particular but just a responsibility to make it happen.  I certainly did and I didn’t know what I could do.  I actually thought I would swim with her quite a bit of the way, after all my training, but getting in at hour number five I honestly nearly drowned as I couldn’t work out how to breathe in the very choppy.  In the pool I do 8 lengths to her 10 and we swim 2-3 kms each time.  I have swum at Cape Maclear before from island to island BUT this was different, it was so rough.   Abi made it look easy, hour 5 was when the waves had calmed down even… The first four and a half were worse, big waves and for the third time think North Sea, not Lake Malawi…  But she is strong… very strong… When she had set off, we were all tense and so excited and wishing her so well.  Whenever we swim we start by saying ‘see you on the other side…’ – it was more appropriate than ever. So much passion behind what we were doing.  It was a wonderful scene with Karen leading the way.  Karen is another heroine of the story, slightly unsung – she and Abi are sisters of sorts and although marginally more hesitant to be over the top affectionate (no kisses at the end of texts…), which I am certainly prone to being (lots of kisses at the end of texts), she is a staunch friend and yet another incredible woman.  Her enthusiasm for life is infectious as is her love for Malawi and all it has.  She is always up for stuff, kind and loyal to the bone.  With a little more life experience than the rest of us, she is a leader and example to us all.  She is the photographer, a brilliant photographer and she snapped away in the early hours as Abi set off.  Those first moments, the first strokes what must that have felt like.  Abi said she looked back and saw numerous villagers waving.  She had a lot of people behind her and even more before her, at the end of phone lines, on face book, on email, on justgiving and of course on the other side, every one eagerly waiting and wishing her well.

The waves rolled and she swam, never showing any sign of weakening, not even to the end.  Each break, every hour or two, marked by another coloured energy gel… yuk – Karen tried the plain one once and revolted us all with what she compared it to and so the joke never wore thin… I felt confident in Abi’s strength and a little redundant in what I could offer.  We chatted on the boat, keeping an eye on her, always there, we kayaked with her, swam a bit and time flew by and Abi cruised on.  But not quite in the right direction.

The boat was supposed to have a GPS – it didn’t.  Clem, super efficient, French, super glam, super dedicated, super kind, super everything had a Tom Tom (a girly one that her dutch law firm gave to her when she left and it even tells you in a delightful English accent where the clothes shops are – amazing but its usefulness… BIG QUESTION MARK) – it didn’t work for very long.  As Kayak Queen, she was in the Kayak a lot but the Tom Tom dropped in the water and the battery died.  The word amateur …again came to mind.  We didn’t know where we were heading, the land seemed further and further away.  But Abi kept on swimming. She remained fast, my goodness… Her pace never slowed.  A demon.  But I expected nothing less.

She was cold at the beginning, another blow she had not foreseen but recovered from that as the water heated up and then I think at about hour 6 or 7 she emerged.  It’s funny I don’t quite know what to say in those situations – of course it is tough – I didn’t want to yell at her – ‘go… go…’ it feels hypocritical because I was not doing it… I know it is the customary thing to do and I did a bit of it but it feels false… somehow it is not the relationship we have.  It lacks humour and it is a one way communication.  I find British sarcasm more comforting or a quick ‘err whose idea was this?’ or another one of our quotes taken from Ben Stiller who appeared on stage at the Oscars dressed in an Avatar outfit and announced ‘it seemed like a good idea in the dressing room’…  somehow more me, potentially not helpful…  Our friendship is very frank and usually we are both in the shit with a big grin together.  I felt uncomfortable somehow giving her advice not being in the water with her.  I did get in several times. I didn’t give much advice.  I just said I know it’s tough – it was never going to be easy and that is what differentiated her from the rest and it’s true… why else do you think so few people have and no other woman has tried it?  When I was in the kayak I remember feeling, this is much better we are in it together and will get there.  In a kind of team way, I know I was part of the team on the boat, but it wasn’t active enough for me to feel satisfied.  At this point she was still strong although the realisation that we had gone off path was a tough one.  I was fairly ignorant about the bigger picture, I often am, but did see that we were going ever more to the right… A fairly hefty sign was that in the kayak I only really needed the right paddle! And there was at times a non-verbal battle going on as Abi tried to head left but the kayak was pulling her right.  She knew something was up as she had mapped out the area for many months.  Aghhh.

The sun began to set.  It sets very quickly.  It was both beautiful and unwanted at the same time.  I remember thinking another fucking sunset… and also I thought here we go, what can be done? Think. I wanted to help with all my heart and took the kayak role again thinking it must be getting pretty gritty in there.  But not for one second did I think we would not make it.  It got darker and darker, the waves got bigger and bigger and I went closer and closer to Abi.  Martin, awesome Martin, took a red head torch and we told Abi to follow that whilst I, also with head torch, attached myself as closely as I could.  Finally I could do something.  When the going gets tough I really do like to be a part.  I can’t explain and I am not that proud of the way this trait works but I am genuinely at my best in extreme situations.  I was not afraid, not at all, it was not an option.  Even though actually the dark and deep water are two of my worst things – (when swimming in the lake I often close my eyes when I put my head under because I don’t like looking at the depths and at night I turn the light on in the corridor to go to the bathroom because I cannot stand the dark).  I had to keep her in sight, under the weak beam of the torch and actually the only time I had difficulty was when we stopped because the waves lashed against us and carried us to different places.  But otherwise we had a system.  We ran like this for a couple of hours.  I could hear people on the boat yelling and another boat came to join.  They had no phone power left and so were shouting from one boat to the other which distracted Abi and she kept trying to find out what was going on.  It was pitch black and still we soldiered on.  I genuinely thought I would go all night if that is what it would take.  I took a life jacket because I was cold but I did not want to do it up because if I lost sight of Abi, or she had a problem, she has no fat on her, and there is no buoyancy at all in the lake, I would need to jump in very quickly.  And my goodness I would. It is funny how rationally the mind works in a far from rational situation.  Nothing was likely to happen because she is so strong and I trust her to say she couldn’t do anymore when she couldn’t… I have no idea when that would have been but we were still a way away.

I could trace her white figure in contrast to the thick, black depths as we were both whipped by unseen waves and I followed the red light.  I was, dare I say it, enjoying it, perhaps I am stupid, perhaps it was no longer safe, but we would have done it… I knew that we would be alright.  Inside I felt completely calm out there… But we weren’t getting any nearer and that was the thing.  I began to feel frustrated for her because she was swimming but the supposed one kilometre to shore, dictated by a rescue boat’s gps, was remaining one km then six km and noone seemed to know how far it was… A boat who had come to support us and help us in were our saviours really.  Although at the time I felt they were, in some respects, kill joys.  I don’t know why I felt that because evidently they saved us from what could have been a bad situation.  I just felt worse case scenario we would have gone all night.  I suspect I have something of my father in me with that approach.  But with everyone waiting on shore and a boat that was not up to it, the panicked team made the decision to get her out.  She did not resist.   What a decision to make.  It felt right.  Until that moment I did not consider stopping…  The Bombs are always in control though and Agent Orange and KMG often have the final say.

And so I have to finish the account because I can go on and on… but there is so much more… when we lifted her from the water she was fine, tired and fine.  Her positivity came through straight away – I do not know how she does it.  She immediately saw the opportunity of failure, more to learn, more to be taken.  She was not beaten, she was challenged and will rise again to fight it.  Damn right she will. Nature is a powerful thing and over the last months we have many times been challenged by it.  It is a wonderful thing though to touch upon it and realise its power.  It is one thing to challenge a person, a situation but to challenge nature in its purest form is really humbling.

Getting back to shore – it took hours and I froze again at the front of the boat, soaked… as the pink moon rose quickly and the green laser light from friends at the lodge flashed across to us hungry to pull us in.   There were tears all round of relief, exhaustion, admiration and achievement… So many people were on that boat yet so few in person… Abi’s family, her grandmother leading the way (how many grandmothers can use facebook?), Dan, endless friends and admirers, all eager for updates along the way… Abi immediately began to contact them… I hugged Agent Orange, next to me, as she offered her sun burnt legs as a radiator.

When we hit land it felt like a dream, everyone was so supportive.  Abi was our heroine, she is, and an inspiration… I think even more so because she had swum for twelve and a half hours, about 35km and had not given up but had not done what she wanted to… this made her, as ever, human… easier to relate to… braver actually… She was not phased by not achieving her mission… she did the peace sign and smiled… she was ever more inspired…

We had done our bit and our dream was over but I could not wake up.  I could not engage nor drink, nor talk…  Wonderful Effie rescued me and Beckie and gave us her and Yass’s room to shower and change in… My goodness two bomb supports, no matter what – we couldn’t be without this pair in Blantyre… I love them… And want to always remember so many others (– Kerryn – an Ausie BOMB and Montron, a Canadian hip-hop genius, Chrisso, a salsa dancing fell running king, Derek – ’cabbaged’, Demo, Brad, Georgie, Beanie, Marco, Zein, Carlos – ever there… Sandy and Kate, Rick, Sharife, Kevin, Rob (court case today – free him!)… and Fergus, the British High Commissioner, what a thing to be there… and Millie and Karan… and others who had been a part but weren’t there Peter, Mountaineer, Bex, John Cashman, Maggie and Brian – so many magical bike rides… Rick and Anne who married the day of the swim… Maxwell and Neil Kennedy… and Brainch Ventura who gave me and Abi and Karen the bestest start to 2010… JP – an inspirational lightening bolt… This place is full of them… aghhh stop)  But by that point I was totally cooked, and needed a rescuer… there were plenty… The lights were too bright and conversation too loud… The food did not taste and my mind was still on the lake.  I did listen to the speeches, I heard what they said but they had not lived it, witnessed it and the words that summarised so much, so full of good intent, so true, felt somehow hollow – they were not, and Abi would not have felt that… but somehow words did not suffice what we had seen… The adventure was for now done… it will happen again, another adventure, she will do it another day. Manson will kayak the full distance and has asked his boss for time off for it – he is in training… And already on a big adventure, I will carry on and do more because of this, and because I have known Abi….

I was tired, we were all tired.  Exhausted.  We were a bunch of incredibly close friends trying to do what had not been achieved before.  We were amateur but we all wanted it badly and our support was wholehearted and true.  It was the first but won’t be the last time. We’re making a plan. Abi partied on with Kars until three and looked pretty fresh.

What a 24 hours.  My goodness.  She will try again and again and again if necessary and I will be there, as will others.   Where ever we are in the world.  I want to say thank you to Malawi and to those girls who give so much to life and as a result take what they want.  It is unquestionably theirs to take.

With all my love on Monday the 3rd May 2010.