I knew the words safari, savanna and Sahara, but Africa seemed to be such a far-off place.
I occasionally watched the wildlife splendor of Africa on American television and the grand spectacular of its savannas. I read books about lions and elephants. I marveled at pictures of alligators and gorillas. The towering pyramids of Egypt, the beautiful coastlines of South Africa and the gigantic waterfalls of Victoria stood out as vivid examples of the majestic of the African continent. In my mind as a child, Africa was a magical place that was nothing even close to my existence in my native America. It was a special place far, far away with breathtaking geography, unique creatures and exotic cultures beyond my imagination.
As a young adult, I also recall the news from Africa bringing famine, war and wildlife slaughter to my consciousness. I recall numerous images of starving children dying from hunger, innocent people evacuating their homelands, and rhinos missing horns. Through the news content on American television, magazine and newspapers, the wonder and richness of the Africa that I knew as a child was transformed to a seemingly endless mass of disasters and manmade misfortunes.
Time moved on as the news presented on Africa in the American media continued to be a mixture of unparalleled splendor and the spectacular sandwiched between disasters and misfortunes.
So when I had a chance to observe the aQuellé Midmar Mile in Pietermaritzburg in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, I was excited beyond words. This presented a first-hand opportunity to see Africa - at least the southern part of it - and judge whether the continent presented to me in American schoolbooks and television was closer to the wonder of my childhood or my disappointment of my adulthood.
Wayne Riddin, a nominee for the World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year, was my host and the long-time aQuellé Midmar Mile race director.
Frankly, from the time I passed through Customs in the Johannesburg Airport to the time I left African airspace, I was not disappointed. Anything but disappointed: I was in constant sensory overload with new images that I have never processed before.
"This is Africa," pronounced Neville Smith, a member of the board of directors of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, who guided me around. His definition seemed to be ubiquitously appropriate. If I did not understand something or saw something that I saw in Africa and could never imagine before, Smith quipped, "This is Africa."
When Smith drove me to a friend's house near the Midmar Dam and I saw a zebra munching on grass in the front lawn, Smith reminded me, "This is Africa." When I saw a young child dart across a major highway alone, the mantra 'This is Africa' came to mind. When I saw over 18,000 race packets waiting to get picked up by aQuellé Midmar Mile participants, the unexplainable was explained by 'This is Africa'.
What Riddin and his colleagues and an army of volunteers have carefully developed over the years is as much a marvel to me as the wildlife and vistas of the African savanna. In a country where there are fewer than 10,000 registered swimmers with South African Swimming, Riddin has managed to attract nearly twice that many to the Midmar Dam, a 6-hour drive from Johannesburg. Heats and heats of disabled swimmers, competitive age-group swimmers, once-a-year weekend warriors, masters swimmers of all abilities, fitness fanatics, triathletes and newbies take to the waters of the aQuellé Midmar Mile. If the swimmers are not coming out of the warm waters with a smile as broad as can be, they are coming out with a determination to swim across the dam as quickly as possible. Some swim straight, some swim fast, some swim breaststroke, some swim with friends and families, and all wear a color-coded cap that helps keep over 18,000 swimmers in order and visible.
As arguably the world's top open water swim, the aQuellé Midmar Mile is spectacle that should not be missed. For This is Africa.
For more information on the aQuellé Midmar Mile, visit here. For a list of the World's Top 100 Open Water Swims, visit here.
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