“Oh ****!” I squeaked. I know it was a family holiday, but at that precise moment I was scared. Our canoe had stopped abruptly for no apparent reason, my mind jumped to the worst case scenario for explanation – that a hippo had popped up under our canoe.
My 11 year old daughter Beatrice and I were on an Exodus family holiday, the ‘Zambia Volunteer Experience’. So far we had paddled 60k on the Zambezi, slept on uninhabited islands, seen elephants, baboons, hippos, crocodiles, fabulous birds and spent time helping in a school and community garden. I hadn’t wanted to go on the classic safari holiday where the only locals you meet are staff and the blurb extols the virtues of the service and the thread count of your Egyptian cotton sheets . Sheets? We should have been so lucky. Our bedding was gritty sleeping bags on thin foam mattresses which doubled as cushions for your canoe and consequently got wet every day. Our accommodation for the most part was in tough, small, well used two person tents which came with us, along with all our food, water, charcoal stove, charcoal and the kitchen sink.
Three families totalling four adults and four children aged 11-14 met for the first time at Nairobi airport. The kids got on unbelievably well; invented hilarious games which involved imitating animals selected from reference books at random, swopped books and compared wildlife observations, made up songs to help them while away the river hours and take their mind off their blisters from paddling.
Visiting the school and orphanage added another dimension to the trip. We helped in the school for the day, learning more than we taught; witnessing a school without desks, without chairs, with minimal resources. Attendance fluctuated wildly as small children came in and out, all dressed in shabby clothes with mismatched footwear or bare feet. All our kids came away determined to raise funds, to make links to try and improve the situation in some small way.
I expected to be amazed by the animals but I hadn’t anticipated the magnificence of the night skies, the Milky Way, the southern hemisphere constellations. Creeping cautiously out of my tent for a wee in the small hours I saw Orion doing a handstand, sort of comforting and alarming simultaneously. The world turned upside down.
Bea was starting at high school 24hrs after our return. I thought this trip would be the perfect distraction from worrying about the transition. I hoped that this experience would be tucked into her mental belt, that there would be a residual aura of ‘Don’t mess with me, I’ve just canoed the Zambezi’, to protect her and give her confidence.
It was such a privilege to share this time and experience with my nature loving daughter on the brink of puberty; having raised her two older sisters I know that her world too could soon be turned upside down.
Oh and the hippo? Just a sandbank and a panic reflex!