Two months into my Dakar move, I heard about a grand annual race that takes place from Dakar to Goree island – a distance of 4km. I love swimming! Me and a few friends decided to start training for the race by swimming from Ngor to Ngor island and back a few times a week. I still recall that first time. It was something from a bizarre comedy. This was my first time swimming in the ocean. Of course I have swam in the Ocean a few times, but it’s more of jumping, catching waves etc. – not intentionally leaving the shore to swim into the deep of the ocean – get to an island across and swim back. I have also swam in other water bodies including a river in Arembepe, Bahia in Brazil. There I was enjoying the swim in the peaceful river when my friends called me back. “Watch out for the snakes!” So river swimming – yes there are risks. My favourite open water swimming was in Lake Tanganyika in Rumonge, Burundi. That water was perfectly clear, freshwater lake – no salt, calm…and I was told that in this particular part there are no hippos or crocodiles. It was such an idyllic place to swim.
The ocean though – I had my concerns before. What about the salt? I was going to wear goggles but you know you can never trust those things – the number of times they get misty and you can’t see anything. What about the waves? We were going to swim at 7am and the waves were not expected to be terrible. What about the sharks? There have been only 4 shark attacks in Dakar from 1828 – 2004. Basically if I got attacked by a shark, then it was fate.
There were 5 of us the first morning. We got to the water at 7am. The view was lovely – the sun rising over the ocean, rocking boats by the beach, a nice view of the island we would be swimming to. We began swimming and everyone got to their natural rhythm. We were all swimming at different speeds and doing different strokes. I chose to do breast stroke as it was the easiest to breathe in, given the waves coming in from the side. I would have drunk too much water if I tried to do crawl – and crawl is tiring for a long-ish swim. Everything was going perfectly up until I was really close to the island. One of my friends is an outdoors rockstar. She had already done the Dakar to Goree swimming race twice, rides a scooter, surfs all the time……ooooh and by the way, she also happens to be an amazing project manager at DalbergJ, in addition to being a really nice, kind, fun person! Before we started swimming, she warned us “When you get to the other side, there will be rocks but don’t worry. They appear much closer than they actually are.” At that point, I had wondered why rocks should be something to worry about – I would soon learn.
I got to the rocky part – the rocks were still far beneath me. With my goggles I got to see lovely small fish swim past me. I was marveling at nature. I went a bit further and because the tide was low, the rocks were much closer to me. It was becoming hard to swim as the water was now really shallow and the rocks were touching my thighs. The obvious instinct was to walk on the rocks…..
The rocks were covered in poisonous sea urchins.
At first I didn’t see the sea urchins. I stood on the rocks a bit. At this point, Tania (the rockstar) turned back and told me – “Ciku don’t stand. Keep swimming. Swim flat so that you don’t touch the rocks. There are urchins on them!”
Up to this point, my interaction with sea urchins had been limited. There had been a plate full of live urchins that my crazy cool Japanese friend – Natsuno – had ordered the first time we went together to Point des Almadies. Those things are ugly! So I knew they were ugly and move like something from a nightmare.
I had later learnt that on top of being a very creepy meal, they are extremely dangerous. Two weeks before, Tania had been surfing and landed on sea urchins on a rock. Her knee had been the size of small football for 4 days.
I knew I wanted nothing to do with these urchins – not on my plate, not under my skin.
“Did something sting you?”
I replied, “Yeah. My foot hurts and my finger too.”
“Oh no. You’ve been stung by sea urchins. Let me see if there is a way to get to the beach without having to pass these rocks.”
By this time I was petrified. I had no desire to get to the island anymore – we were close enough, but would have to go through poisonous territory to get there. I decided to turn back and swim back to the mainland. By the time I got to the mainland, my foot and finger were stinging. From an inspection of my wounds, we suspected that my finger had been stung by a jellyfish, while my foot had sea urchin spikes in it. Tania got a needle, heated it usinga lighter and got to work. I thought I would need a shot for the spike removal but it wasn’t too bad.
Some spikes were really deep inside and Tania advised to call a doctor home to come remove them immediately or risk getting really swollen and having to deal with lots of pain. A doctor was called and I needed quite a bit of language support from my friends as I could not even pronounce what got me Les oursins (sea urchins) et une meduse (jellyfish). I kept on saying Les Oiseaux (birds.) Clearly the doctor must have been wondering how “birds stung the sole of my foot.”
Aaaah. I got up close and personal with these sea creatures! Be warned. These stings get worse day by day. On the first day I thought “this is not too bad.” By the 3rd day it was really painful to walk. I had to bail out of a weekend trip to Gambia.
Sea urchins, next time I will eat you.