Swimming in the Rhine
Swimming in the Rhine
Image: Spike Art Magazine

Since open water swimming has become a firm part of my life, preparing for any trip away from my natural habitat (False Bay) and the usual routine I’ve created around swimming means doing research related to the swimming culture of the city I will be visiting. Usually, a gym or hotel pool will suffice. Sometimes I have been lucky that there’s a lake or a beach where I can immerse myself. Sometimes I have to mentally prepare myself for no swimming at all in which case, I return to my first love: walking.

While preparing for a trip to Switzerland recently I discovered that Basel is known for floating along the Rhine River for fun. I went down the internet rabbit hole watching videos of people getting ready for the experience. I made a mental note of this hoping that I could find a way to experience what looked like a bucket list item. My research also led me to the Bach App, which has information about the Rhine’s current, temperature etc. This armed me with some information even though the app is in a European language I do not understand.

When I arrived in Basel, I was pleased to discover that the apartment where I would be staying was close the river. When I asked about swimming spots my host explained that the local pool was closed for renovations, which cancelled out the most familiar prospect of swimming.

One thing about swimming in a new environment; it forces me to become a little more sociable as talking to strangers means getting information about where to swim and how to get there. While settling into my home for the week I met Micha (one of the staff members at the institute who had come to fix the internet malfunction). I showed him the app and explained my interest in the river expedition. He gave me the directions of the ideal starting point. He also helped me decipher the app, warning that because of the recent rains, the current was probably not ideal for swimming and it was best to wait for the sunny days later in the week.

I also asked him about the wickelfisch bag: a bag designed to make floating easy and keeping one’s belongings dry throughout the experience. I had hoped to rent one but Micha was kind enough to lend me his bag. And true to his word, he arrived the next day with the wickelfisch and warnings about the cold water.  As someone who has acclimatised to Cape Town’s ocean temperatures, I have watched myself become insufferably smug when talking about swimming and temperatures (I am not proud of this smugness!).

A day or two later the sun made a come back and while taking a walk I noticed people flowing down the river. Within an hour I was walking towards the river. I decided I would accost people who looked equally as nervous as I was and would ask if I could join them. I spotted two strangers with wickelfisch bags in tow and when we got past the awkward introductions, we decided we would attempt the river together. Being in the company of others gave me a little more confidence.

Long story short, we decided on a spot, undressed, put our clothes into the bags and inched towards the water. The temperature was perfect.

I began to enjoy what felt like magic: going with the flow. The metaphor became an embodied experience. I had to undo the instinct of fighting or struggling with the water.

Usually with open water swimming I have to be prepared to struggle with the water. It’s unfamiliar waves or wind, which require more effort. However, I learnt quickly that swimming along a current needs a different strategy. There’s a thin line between active swimming and allowing the current to take over. There was no way of slowing down once I was in the current. There were other people flowing down the river and yet we never bumped into each other. We all seemed to find the flow, especially once my initial trepidation had worn off. I began to enjoy what felt like magic: going with the flow. The metaphor became an embodied experience. I had to undo the instinct of fighting or struggling with the water. The bag kept getting in the way so I had to learn how best to float and flow, which is unlike what I’m used to in the ocean.

Figuring out how to float is akin to “reading the room”, in a sense, reading the water. If I had more space, I would write about the daunting effort of making my way out of the current and out of the river. I would write about the second and the third swim (which inspired a new poem). But for now I want to savour the lesson from this river. It is true what we say in isiXhosa: ukuhamba kukubona — to travel is to see. And in the experiences of swimming in other cities, to swim is to see, feel and read every body of water as though I were encountering water for the first time.

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