I am alive. The Robben Island Story.


In October, I attempted the Robben Island Crossing.


Ingrid Avidon, the endurance powerhouse and my friend, had invited me to join her on her 10th extreme challenge for the year, after having somehow mustered the strength to complete the 13 Peaks Challenge with her in August.


Anyway, Ingrid is mad. I love her. Each month of the year, she does something wild and difficult, bucket-list-type adventures that most people might attempt one such thing only in their lifetime. This year, she has been doing it every month.


For October, she chose the Robben Island Crossing, a 7.4 km ocean swim in Table Bay, from Robben Island, the notorious former prison and leper colony. The challenge starts on Robben Island and ends at Big Bay Beach.


There is no such thing as an easy crossing, one never knows what you're going to get.

Yes, we watch the weather and tides and moon and whatever else they pay attention to. Busted, I started it by saying "we", didn't I?

I meant "they" - I don't do any watching or reading of temperatures.


I don't want to know, bru - whatever the conditions are going to be, whatever the day may hold - count me the fuzz in.

We took advice from Derrick, the boss man of Big Bay Events, who Ingrid had secured to assist us with the crossing and chose the best day to do it within the week that we had allocated to us.


There are a few companies that one can book a crossing through, but there is only one Derrick Frazer.

I hope you understand that is my way of saying if you want to do anything epic in the ocean, with a man who understands the seas like no other - then you should quickly forget that there are any other companies.


Thankfully, Ingrid knew this and booked them to assist us.

"Us" was a group of 8 women... I'm not sure how many of the 8 were actual swimmers.

I love swimming but I am not particularly good at it, nor was I doing much of it before saying yes to this challenge 2 months prior.


Erica Terblanche, my darling friend, who like Ingrid, is an endurance machine and a legendary ultra runner who has won multi-day stage races in the desert the world over, had also agreed to do the swim when the three of us suffered through 110 km up and down the 13 Peaks together. Erica confessed that the most she had swum in the last ten years was a kilometre at most.


We were excited, three mad women on a mission - insert 5 more and you have our team.

Ingrid chose to raise awareness and funds for I Love Boobies, the non-profit organisation whose primary goal is to provide free breast examinations to South African women.


We made some noise on social media, or at least tried to and off we went, vaselined top to bottom.


I applied vaseline liberally since I chose to go "skins" - that's the term used when you swim without a wetsuit.

I knew it was risky and that I was not acclimatised to the icy Atlantic waters but I was committed to trying.

For years I have been a big Wim Hof fan and I do cold showers most days. Doing things that I find hard and that my brain tells me not to, is a hobby of mine.


That morning my brain was hardcore telling me to put a wetsuit on, but my heart said no - I wanted to suffer a bit.

I think that's when we learn most about ourselves, when we are in uncomfortable situations. I've been put in those situations many times in my life and it was not my choice.

To now be able to choose the pain, and to then sink or swim, if you will - to me, that's living.


So, I wore my new pink cozzie and put more vaseline on my body than I think I've used in my lifetime up to this point and we got on the boat, making our way to Robben Island.


Myself and Sheila were in skins, with the other 6 in wetsuits. Sheila is a beautiful blonde from Benoni, like Ingrid.

Another two of the ladies, Veronica and Leanne, were also from Benoni. I have to say, they've ignited a deep desire for me to visit Benoni. If the majority of people in that town are anything like these ladies, I'm ready to move there.


Since we didn't actually all know each other or our swimming paces and styles before the challenge, it was tricky to pair up. The idea is to be in a team of two, partnering with someone who swims at a similar pace to you, so that your dedicated skipper can stick with your team. There are two people on the boat, the skipper and a lifeguard and they assist a team of either 2 or 3 swimmers.


Generally though, one knows their teammates. We did not.

The lot of us are a group of quirky and wonderfully wild women, who never say no to an opportunity. I'll admit, we did not make things easy for Derrick and his team. They were a bit stretched but they made it work. We did our best to team up according to who we thought would be on the same level.

We knew Ingrid and Robyn Cowley, a 16-year-old swimmer who came to CT, especially for this adventure (I'm so impressed by you, lovely Robyn), would be faster than the rest.

We knew that two of the Benoni babes were not really swimmers and they declared that they would be trailing far behind, determined to finish however long it took. The other Benoni babe, the aforementioned Sheila, is, however, a talented swimmer. To my shock, I was paired with her.

I liked her from the get-go... when I met her the morning of the swim that is.


She's raw and natural and funny and just says it like it is. I noticed this the hour before we started the swim, because of course, there was no talking in the ocean. Firstly because one can't talk and swim, but even if we could - there would have been no chatting because it didn't take Sheila long to swim bye-bye, leaving me looking on at her swimming cap slowly becoming a distant dot ahead of me.


Oops, sorry Jason! Jason was our skipper, it was his job to keep us safe and "feed" us.

A feed is a mix of rooibos tea and honey, along with a carb-mixed drink, which they give us at 30-minute intervals. Derrick made it clear that if we do not drink our allocated 200 ml feeds when they were given to us, we would be pulled from the water. He also made it clear that if we seemed to be getting disoriented or for whatever reason, the team decided we were in danger, we would be pulled. This he stressed to myself and Sheila as we were the only two mad enough to attempt the swim without a wetsuit.


Neither of us lives in Cape Town or frequents the freezing Atlantic waters. It was a big ask of ourselves right from the start but perhaps you're starting to picture what kind of ladies we are. I have a feeling you're thinking "stupid ladies", haha, and in this case, you might be right - but I hope brave and adventurous might feature too.


So here we were - Ingrid and Robyn somewhere far ahead in the distance, Sheila getting closer to them and further away from me and Erica catching up to me and then to my surprise, overtaking me.

I was surprised by this because Erica is not much of a swimmer and she suffers in cold conditions. I thought, "hah, finally - I can redeem myself after always being the weakest link on the mountain."


I thought wrong. There is nothing this woman cannot do and not just do, but do exceptionally.


In the three weeks before our swim, she ran a 270 km self-supported race through the Grand Canyon, ran a marathon in Greece the following week, before arriving back in Cape Town and running the Cape Town marathon - two days before our swim. She doesn't share much about these crazy things she does, she simply Runs For The Love Of Life (which happens to be the name of her book - please do yourself a solid and read it).


Anyway, so once again, someone swam passed me. I was going through moments of doing well and not doing so well - mostly the latter.

We had started the swim by jumping off the boat about 50 metres away from the island (the closest it can take us) and then swimming to the island, to start with our feet touching land.


On the boat trip from Granger Bay, to Robben Island - I tried to get into a zone. I closed my eyes and thought about what I was about to do and why I was doing it.

I knew I was a bit in over my head and I was happy about it. I put my face to the wind and forgot about the others. A few teardrops crept out from under my closed eyes. I was alive.


I was alive and scared and proud already, proud that I was trying.


I wasn't sure if I could do it, having not had much time to train, and then a month before the swim - I had a gnarly fall off my mountain bike and my arm became quite badly infected. I developed cellulitis and my bicep and tricep became swollen to nearly twice its normal size - the arm in which I have had a partial shoulder replacement. It took me out of the water for two and a half weeks, out of the 8 that I had to try and prepare myself.


The thrill of it all excited me and I committed to giving it my best, as long as I did that - I would be happy, I tried to tell myself. I was lying to myself though, and I knew it.

I wanted to succeed, badly.


I wanted to prove to myself that my mind was the master, that despite not being physically strong, despite not being acclimated to the water temperature - I could do it.

I wanted to push beyond the aches of my shoulders, beyond the cold setting into my toes, fingers and brain. I wanted to feel the pain and beat it. I kept telling myself I could do it, I can do anything if I just refuse to give up.


When we started the swim, I tried to look into the distance to the landmark that Jason pointed out, nearly 8 km away - I couldn't see it. At first, all I could see were the ladies around me and the Big Bay boats beyond us, ready to start trailing their dedicated swimmers. When we started splitting up, they did their thing - we knew they may have to swap our feed bottles if our swimming was not in sync with our partner.


They were prepared for this but with our group being so far from the norm regarding a Robben Island Crossing, it became unsafe when it happened in reality.


About 1.5 km in, Sheila was ahead, gaining on Ingrid and Robyn. Erica and I were in the middle and Veronica, Leanne and Ingrid's daughter, Abby, were at the back.

Jason did his best to get feeds to myself and Sheila but the poor man can only be in one place at a time. He was going back and forth and it was decided that this method cannot continue.

Table Bay is a shipping lane after all. Apart from the massive containers in the bay, there are fishing boats, water users of all sorts, and of course - marine life. It's been a while since a Great White Shark was seen in the Bay but it would be foolish of anyone to not take into account that we are in the open ocean and at its mercy.


I didn't bother myself with thinking about all this and happily left it to Derrick and the crew to worry about our safety. All I was trying to do was get my breathing under control and to get into a rhythm. It took me a while to get right.


I kept on looking at how far away any sight of land seemed. I looked at Table Mountain as I inhaled to my right on every 8th stroke and I reminded myself that I conquered the 13 Peaks of Table Mountain National Park and how that was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I told myself if I could do that, I can do this, surely?


"Myself" responded that I could fucking breathe on land and that I was not doing a good job at it in the water. That's the beauty of swimming - if you can't relax, if you can't calm yourself - you're doomed. Maybe that's not beautiful, but there is certainly beauty in it. One can be all kinds of tough and athletic, yet get humbled in the sea, quickly.


I tried to stop focusing on it and just put one arm in front of the other, reminding myself how at swim squad the week before, I had such an awesome session and felt so strong. It worked and I got into a rhythm, but I was cold, very cold.


The water temperature was drifting between 14.5 and 15 degrees Celsius.

As humans, our brains tell us to avoid that. It's a natural human reaction - our minds shout at us to get out, knowing that this could kill us, that it will eventually kill us.

I read that in Ryan Stramrood's book, the South African endurance swimmer, who holds the record for the most Robben Island Crossings. He does it in skins - not only this, but he swims in far icier water in skins too.


Admittedly, I have a wee problem accepting that someone else can do something that I can't when it comes to what I perceive as more of a mental challenge than a physical one because while I know I am not physically strong - the truth is, I enjoy pain.

I guess it's like a drug to me - I can feel it in my body, it hurts. More than that, I feel it in my mind, intensely. I feel the pain I felt as a teenager when fighting two life-threatening diseases and I feel like I am taking back my power.


This time, I am asking for the pain.

I asked for it - I want it, give me more, I can fucking handle it.

I tell myself that as long as there is air in my lungs, I won't give up - I am alive.


Without fail, every time I do something hard; I feel this. I love the feeling. I cry and I laugh and I smile and I feel so proud of myself, alone in my agony and bliss. I am alive.


Before I start a challenge, I envision many things. I envision myself through the various stages - I picture the starting struggle, I picture the pain in between, I picture myself achieving the goal.

I also picture myself reaching my breaking point - I see myself falling, I see myself bleeding and I see myself crawling. I see myself crying and refusing to give up until I can move no more.


I imagine this seems strange to most people, I don't know.

I don't know what your normal is but this is mine and I enjoy it. I don't want to change or lose this somewhat sadistic approach of mine. It serves me. I am grateful and wildly aware of how precious life is.


I believe that without pain, one can't know true pleasure.


I am going off track, this is meant to be about the swim but hey, one thing leads to another and I want to explain how I found myself in the middle of Table Bay.

Ingrid presented me with a challenge and an opportunity. I said yes without hesitation, knowing it would indeed be a challenge for me. Could I do it?


No, I could not. It was too cold. With Jason struggling between going back and forth trying to keep me, Sheila and now Erica safe too, it was time to bring in the big boy:

Derrick arrived next to me in his boat to check on me. He asked if I could speed up a bit to get closer to the others ahead of me. I probably just said no but I know that I was thinking "how the hell am I gonna do that, bru!?"


He mentioned it was either speeding up or slowing down to swim with the others at the back. I said that slowing down was not an option as the cold was already starting to set into my bones.

He asked if I was registering my swim with The Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA). I was not, it was never my intention to log it, this was for me.


He asked this because if I was logging my swim, the rules are strict.

Based on me swimming in skins, he thought that I would be registering my swim because it's quite the badge of honour - if you can complete it, that is.

In order to be recognised, there are certain things that you are not allowed to do - like touch the boat.


It was kind of him to enquire, because had I been registering it, I believe he would have made an alternative suggestion to the one that then came. He said, "Simone, this is becoming unsafe. I can't have swimmers all over the bay, without a boat next to you. This is a shipping lane. I need you with the others."


Or something along those lines. I was already cold as fuzz, and just nodded. He said that Jason would pick me up and take me to rejoin Sheila because he needed the two of us together and that it wasn't too far ahead.


I nodded. It wasn't ideal but it was needed. Jason arrived to get me and helped me up onto his boat, trying to handle my arm gently because he could see that my shoulder was strapped. I had done it the previous day when I saw my chiropractor, Dr Jesse Bruins Roberts (highly recommended).


It was quick, the trip to catch up with Sheila - I wasn't as far behind as I thought - maybe 200 m or so.

Even though it was quick, getting out of the water and then back in again was not good, for my mind or my body.

In those two minutes on the boat, my body was stationary and I got colder. I tried not to think about the fact that this would mean that some of the crossing was in a boat and told myself to commit and to just finish it.


I tried - I'm not sure for how long after that. I swam until my brain felt funny. I had a headache - it felt like my head was in a freezer. I thought about Wim Hof, the charismatic "Ice Man" who is not only able to endure extreme cold, he seeks it.


I love Wim, he is a 60-something oddball. Because of him, years ago, I started taking cold showers. I won't get too side-tracked with it but it is a profound mental tool, along with his breathing exercises. He's a Dutchman and is so fantastically weird, that I sometimes hear his voice in certain situations, saying things like "breathe motherf*%ker" and "become one with the cold".

I could hear him but I couldn't follow through. I kept looking up and seeing how far away it still was. Sheila had gone ahead again and I was losing gas. I felt myself getting slower and feeling depleted. I thought I wasn't even halfway yet and didn't think my frozen body could get me to the end.


I waved to Jason. He didn't see me. I laughed and told myself to keep swimming because haha, I had no other choice!

I carried on for a while, but with each stroke, I lost hope. I waved again and he came, "you ok?" he asked,

"I can't anymore, it's too cold," I said, embarrassed and ashamed.


He lifted me into the boat and told me I had done well. I said thanks, sadly. I felt I needed to explain, repeating again that it was just so fucking cold, and that I don't think I was even halfway yet. He said that I was beyond halfway.

My heart sank a little, but I knew that even so, it was too much.


He took me to Derrick's boat, at the back. Derrick was bringing in the last of the swimmers and going slowly, in a bigger boat. I hopped onto his boat and he asked if I would like to swim the last kilometre when we get closer and I snapped at him, "I've already failed," I shouted.


He told me I hadn't failed and that this is not just a mental game, that you can't outthink hypothermia.

I wasn't listening, I shifted my head out of his sight and I let out a few tears. I was so terribly disappointed in myself.


I wasn't yet hypothermic, so I had quit. How could I have quit, that's not who I am!?

Maybe I could have finished it. I didn't try hard enough. I guess I'm not as tough as I like to think, I thought to myself. What a fuckup.


I wiped my tears, hoping he hadn't seen them.

Life goes on. I apologised for being rude, I didn't mean to be, I explained, it's just that I really wanted to succeed.

He understood. I spent the next hour and a half on the boat with him, having quiet moments taking in all the beauty surrounding me, as well as chatting to him about adventures of all sorts.


He told me about some of the epic swimming trips he assists with and facilitates. He had my attention, this sounds freaking amazing, I thought, mind banking it.


As we got closer to the beach, I said that I would swim the last bit in. I had recovered from the shivers experienced for the first half an hour after getting out of the water and was ready to get back in, having made peace with the outcome.

It is what it is. I didn't achieve the goal but I showed up and I tried. I decided not to torture myself with the question of whether I tried hard enough and to swim to the shore and celebrate the women who had made it.


Erica and Ingrid were on the beach waiting for me. They had already changed into dry clothes and they hugged my wet body closely without care, telling me they were proud of me. I said thanks, again feeling a little embarrassed that I didn't make it. Anthony, Ingrid's husband, sent a picture to my family of me fresh out of the water, letting them know I was out safely.


In my Dad's excitement, he didn't wait for any accompanying text and promptly forwarded it on to all our family groups, celebrating my Robben Island Crossing.

When I looked at my phone later, I giggled.


I didn't need another reason to go back, beyond my own desire to "finish my business in the bay" but I guess I have two now - considering the celebration has been had already.


The next day, I messaged Derrick thanking him for seeing us out of the water safely and notifying him of said unfinished business in the bay. Ever the opportunist, I added that the trips he is doing excite me and that I'd love to join them, quickly followed by why it would be useful for Big Bay Events to have me tag along on a few.


He replied immediately: bingo.


Two weeks after my unsuccessful Robben Island Crossing, I joined Derrick and Debbie Frazer on a week-long swimming tour. We swam with seals in Hout Bay, did a Cape Point swim, slept on Robben Island and stayed on a magnificent houseboat in Langebaan for 3 days - where I successfully completed a 7.8 km official swim from Preekstoel to Langebaan, in skins.


I am alive.


Pictured above: A happy me on the houseboat in Langebaan, Robyn Cowley and Ingrid Avidon smashing their Robben Island Crossing and lastly, my new friend, the incredible, Derrick Frazer.












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