Tineke Van der Eecken is one of five shortlisted contenders for the 2016 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award to be announced at Fremantle Arts Centre on Wednesday 2 November. Here is an extract from her shortlisted manuscript called Traverse.
I felt around for the next stable patch of earth while the sediment-filled water of the Bemarivo rose to my waist. My feet were wrapped in Gore-Tex boots and two pairs of socks, now infiltrated by water and fine river sand. I could not see my legs as they felt about for rocks or large pebbles, the occasional sunken branch, anything that didn’t move. Ahead of me was the porter who carried the bag with the aluminium pots in which the cooks had prepared food for our group over the two previous weeks. The porter’s body language guided me along an invisible path. Like him, I threw my hips slightly forward as the water rose.
The current pushed me to the left each time I lifted a leg in search of balance and was uncertain where and if it would land. The river now reached my chest. With the ragged bag held up above his head, the porter pushed on. I took off the small daypack I had bought for this Madagascan trip and, grasping it firmly with both hands, raised it high above my head. I didn’t want to hold up the others. The weight of the water made pushing ahead a struggle. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Dirk. Much taller than me, he had no problem keeping his stuff dry. He playfully darted along the underwater path and bypassed the porters. He was in his element: in remote Africa, with nothing but rocks and boundaries to cross, and practising geology, his first love. For a moment, I thought that he just might give me a hand, but he didn’t, and I didn’t ask for help.
We were halfway across the river. The other geologists had made it to the other side, and so had about a dozen of the porters. I could make it across too, in spite of being the only woman, in spite of being white and inexperienced at this sort of trip. Many of the Malagasy people couldn’t swim. I could, but I knew there were rapids ahead, and swimming might not save me.
This crossing of the Bemarivo was not the first hazard to bring on other fears, anxieties and questions. What if I died? And why? For his research? For his geology? For our relationship?
At that moment, Dirk took a picture.
It took another ten minutes to reach the opposite shore where geology student Guillaume was waiting for us. I peeled off my socks and shoes, waded back into the river to wash them. The soles of my feet, soaked since we set off that morning, felt soft and sensitive and radiated an almost fluorescent whiteness in the shallow water. After the feel of the fine mud between my toes, the cleansing rinse of cool water refreshed me, until it was time to put the wet socks and shoes on again.