I attempted to push myself above the surface of the water, but I was blocked by the weight of the raft. I tried to remove my lifejacket and dive underneath, but the buffeting rapids propelling me along made this impossible. I thought to search for an air pocket, but I was reluctant to move toward the middle of the raft, from which it would be even more difficult to extricate myself; I also doubted I had enough oxygen for this maneuver.
I asked myself: Is this really how my life is going to end?
The predicament I was in began in elementary school, when my aunt bought me “The Story of the White Nile” by Alan Moorehead. It was about the great 19th-century explorers of Africa, including Richard Burton, John Speke, Samuel Baker, and David Livingstone. I was fascinated by their stories, particularly those of Livingstone, and I dreamed that one day I would have the opportunity to travel to Africa and recreate one of his expeditions.
Livingstone (1813-1873) was a Scottish minister, scientist, physician, and advocate of commercial and colonial expansion in Africa. He was also a crusader against slavery, and he hoped to use his fame as an explorer to end the East African slave trade. Accompanied by his faithful servants, Chuma and Susi, Livingstone’s first expedition, from 1858 to 1864, was along the Zambezi River, which he saw as the commercial highway to the inner continent. This expedition eventually took him to Victoria Falls, where he famously measured the depth of this natural wonder.
Livingstone’s second expedition, from 1866 to 1873, was to find the source of the Nile. For most of this time, he completely lost contact with the outside world. The New York Herald sent journalist Henry Stanley on a rescue mission, and he found Livingstone along the shores of Lake Tanganykia, leading to the famously droll query: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” (Livingstone was the only other white person for hundreds of miles.)
Despite Stanley’s efforts, Livingstone was determined not to leave Africa until he had found the source of the Nile, and he continued in his exploration until he died from malaria. Chuma and Susi removed his heart and buried it in Africa; they carried the rest of his remains 1,000 miles to the coast, and the body was transported to London for burial. Livingstone never succeeded in his mission to find the source of the Nile.
(A note of historical interest: In 1886, Stanley was again sent to Africa as head of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition. Mehmed Emin Pasha [1840-1892] was a physician, naturalist, explorer, and governor of the Egyptian province of Equatoria. When the province was besieged by Islamic rebels, Stanley was sent on his rescue mission. Emin, however, chose not to be evacuated, but, instead, he led an expedition to explore the lakes in the interior of Africa; soon thereafter he was killed by Arab slave traders. Emin was, in fact, born Isaak Eduard Schnitzer into a German Jewish family!)
This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Zimbabwe and Zambia, and I realized my dream to recreate Livingstone’s expedition along the Zambezi River. The highlight would be Victoria Falls, but first I rafted down the river with seven other voyagers and two guides, fully aware of the dangerous class four and five rapids and the crocodiles along the shoreline.
On a rapid aptly named “Oblivion,” the raft flipped over. I was the last one to fall into the water, and I thought to throw my weight to the other side of the raft and stop it from flipping; but I was afraid of catapulting toward the rocks, and I forcefully fell into the water together with the others. The raft crashed on top of me, and I found myself trapped by its weight. I attempted various maneuvers to free myself, to no avail. Oddly, I remember being very calm, resigned to whatever would happen.
I attempted one last time to push myself above the surface, and this time I was successful. I searched for the others and was horrified to discover that one person was missing. Someone bravely dove back under the raft and pulled her out; thankfully, she had found an air pocket. There was no time for celebration, as we were aware of the close proximity of the crocodiles. We quickly flipped the raft back over and helped each other scramble back inside. We spent most of the next hours sharing our recollections of these intense, even traumatic moments. Yet there were undoubtedly thoughts and emotions that some of us were not prepared to share. This was true for me.
Soon we will be celebrating the High Holidays. For me, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer has always been the most dramatic part of the service. The words of this prayer include: “…who shall perish by fire and who by water…” This year, as I reflect on my experiences along the Zambezi River, these words will surely have added significance.
I wish you all a year of health, happiness, and safe adventures. Shanah Tovah.
By Paul J. Blank