By her own admission, Mpho Molemela is terrified of open water: the sea scares her and she won’t even go near a swimming pool as she’s never learnt how to swim.
“Even the water in my bath frightens me sometimes,” laughs the Bloemfontein labour relations manager.
That makes it remarkable that the first taste she had of open water was being dumped out of a raft into a churning, and freezing, grade 4 white water rapid on the Ash River just outside Clarens in the Free State. But what takes Mpho’s story into the realm of gob-smacking is the fact that she is a virtual paraplegic, with little use of her legs.
Mpho and the six other people in the raft were attempting to negotiate the last of five rapids on the river, each growing in intensity. That grade 4 monster, fed by a rushing torrent of water from the Lesotho Highland scheme (which discharges water for Gauteng into the Ash River), was a place with an appetite for rafts. The guide on our raft, Thab Magagani, warned us that we had to paddle like people possessed exactly when he told us to and then to hold on to the ropes on the side of the raft exactly when he told us to.
Upstream of the rapid, pulled over into the reeds on the bank before making our assault, Thab said simply: “We must do this properly because otherwise the raft could flip over.”
We would be the first of two rafts to tackle the rapid. Mpho was in the one following us. Thab’s brother, Fortune, had warned us earlier at a fear-inspiring “safety briefing” about what to do in the event (not so unlikely as it turned out) of the raft flipping over.
“Don’t panic. Even if you are trapped under the raft. Remember to let go of the rope and float out from underneath. Then roll on to your back and pull your legs up and float downstream feet first.”
I had buyer’s remorse immediately for volunteering to do this. I suppose that is covered by the job description of a travel editor, though.
There was a moment, when I looked at Mpho being carried by Fortune on his back over the jagged rocks down to the launching site, when I wondered what on Earth would happen to her, with no legs to help her. Wrapped in a wetsuit with a safety helmet on her head, Mpho wasn’t in the least bit frightened. Her broad smile and laughter said: Bring it on!
And on it came for us. As we hit the last rapid, it was like being tossed into a cross between a washing machine and a deep freeze. I clung on grimly for the last test as we plunged into a deep pot beneath the surface and between the large rocks.
We tilted up and then toppled over, safe to the other side.
From the comparative comfort of the bank we watched as Mpho’s raft was swallowed by the raging waves, only to pop up and out. But then the nose of the raft started climbing and, in slow motion, it went past the vertical and toppled backwards, chucking everybody into the freezing river.
What followed was an eternity of fear-fuelled shouting and paddling as we struggled to rescue our comrades as they popped out from under the raft and were swept downstream.
Where was Mpho? We heard shouting from under the raft. How long would it be before she was pulled under and lost?
Suddenly, Fortune broke the surface, the raft in his left hand and Mpho tucked under his right armpit.
We hauled her into our raft and she was giggling like a schoolgirl. It was infectious and we joined in, the realisation setting in that we were safe. When I reminded her of her impromptu “swim” this week, she laughed: “I had almost forgotten about it!”
Again, as I saw her hoisted on Fortune’s back up towards the road where the vehicles were waiting, I paused to admire her courage and her spirit.
“Ah no,” she insisted, “I am not brave. But I live life to the full every day. I have been given another chance and I will not waste it!”
To hear someone who is confined to a wheelchair or crutches for her days saying something like that is truly humbling.
Mpho and a number of other people with disabilities were taken recently on tours of the Free State organised by SA Tourism as part of its #TourismForAll campaign, which has as its key focus universal accessibility.
“We still have a lot to do to make places easier for people with disabilities. Sometimes the problem is the buildings are old and there are no lifts. But sometimes, people try to make a place more accessible but without talking to us.
“We say: ‘Nothing about us, without us’, so we need to be consulted when they plan hotel rooms, for example.”
She said that on a number of occasions on the trip to the Free State, she would struggle with simple things like bathroom mirrors which were too high, or shower taps that were out of reach.
“In the old days, people with disabilities were put in places like homes. Now we are everywhere and we want to be treated like ordinary people.”
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