Five-minute Memoir: Nicci Cloke recalls a rites-of-passage rapids ride

 

At 18, I was the kind of person that my future self would dread spending time with. My main concerns about going travelling were these: what will my hair look like when I can't get my roots done? Is it possible to purchase pink hiking boots? And how can one maintain a smooth bikini line for three months straight?

I was a dreadful individual. My boyfriend called me "Princess" and carried my backpack on his front, his on his back. Backpacking was not my natural calling.

I hadn't planned on a gap year; I'd intended to go straight to university to study Law. Unfortunately, I realised about three months before final exams that I didn't want to study Law, and that spending time with said boyfriend was far more fun than studying.

Thus, when August came, I had managed to end my running streak of As and Bs with two Ungradeds. I lost my place at my first-choice university, and this was enough of an impetus for me to put my foot down and say that what I actually wanted was to study English, something my dad had told me all along.

I therefore found myself with a year to kill and a boyfriend who had lofty ambitions about heading out and seeing the world.

I got myself a job and started saving money, determined to tag along – not because I had any burning desire to have adventures, but because I was jealous to the extreme and the idea of him spending a summer with bronzed girls in bikinis left me tugging out my meticulously highlighted hair in clumps.

It was decided that he would jet off first and take in Thailand alone, and I would join him six weeks later in Singapore. I saw him off at the airport and cried the whole way home.

The weeks ticked by in a tortuously slow manner, until the day when it was my parents' turn to see me off. I cried the whole way there. I'm a very ugly crier; it was probably not the romantic reunion either of us had dreamed of.

Singapore was wonderful: clean streets, a lovely hotel, a smooth bikini line. But when the time came to move on to Australia, I began to realise how unsuited I was to the travelling lifestyle.

I had zero tolerance for shared accommodation or cold showers, but, worse, I had no confidence. I hated ordering things in restaurants or paying for myself on the bus; wherever possible, I let my boyfriend do these things for me.

Sadly for me, we'd signed up to a tour from Sydney to Cairns and the organisers seemed hell-bent on sending me and my pink boots to an early grave. And so it was that one night we found ourselves by the edge of a river in the pitch black, each clutching a kayak.

 

Signing up for midnight white-water rafting had been a stretch in the first place – but I had imagined a big raft, me safely tucked in the middle somewhere. It was now apparent I was going to have to do this in a way I found more frightening than anything in the world: alone.

"Stay away from the edges if you can," our instructor told us as we strapped on our helmets, "because there're spiders in the trees, and they sometimes drop in the boats."

Never had I wished I was at home in front of Hollyoaks more. We were each given a number. After every set of rapids, we were instructed to shout them in order, so that the instructors could work out whether anyone had capsized or been eaten by spiders.

It was terrifying; I spent the entire time whispering the foulest swear words I knew, every muscle in my body rigid with fear. I watched as others tipped over and had to be rescued, clutching my paddle and trying not to cry. I cursed my boyfriend, the instructors, Australia in general.

But when I made it to the end upright and alive, I was exhilarated. As we relaxed in a 'hot tub' (a hole somebody had dug into the ground and filled with boiling water), I realised that I had done something. I had felt the fear and done it anyway. It was a revelation.

The relationship ended soon after our return to England, and I was still a bit of a princess. But that midnight date with a kayak had ignited a slow-burning spark in me. Little by little, I kept on doing things I was scared of, and each time I felt I had achieved something.

I'm a different person now – a world away from the girl who wouldn't carry her own backpack. But sometimes, when I'm sitting on a plane alone, I think fondly of her. In many ways, she was a lot braver than I am. And she did have really nice hair.

'Someday Find Me' by Nicci Cloke is published by 4th Estate

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