Your Holiday disaster

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The Independent Travel
Eva Chapman remembers the day a simple mistake turned an idyllic river trip with her son into a near-tragedy

CANOEING DOWN the Dordogne sounds idyllic in theory, and indeed it was - meandering in a two-man canoe past medieval villages, soaking up sun and lush greenery, camping out under the stars. My son Joe happily set the canoeing rhythm each morning, and we clocked up the miles and healthy biceps. In the middle of our canoe, safely ensconced, was la boite - a waterproof container holding all our essential goods such as passports, money and tickets. Nothing bad was going to happen.

Day five dawned as stunning as usual, and with muscles now splendidly primed, we eased ourselves into the next stretch of the river. Our life- jackets, which we had assiduously worn for the first four days, were now thrown carelessly aside; vanity commanded that nothing should come between my bikini-clad skin and the glorious sun beating it to a healthy brown. On this perfect day I was navigating, and we were approaching a large island. The instructions given to us by the holiday organisers said we should take the right fork. "Do not go left!" was written in bold letters. By now we were approaching the fork very fast, as the river was roaring us along. I chanted the mantra "Mustn't go left", "Mustn't go left" confidently to myself. Joe at the rudder shouted: "Which way mum?" At that moment, an extremely perverse thing happened to my brain.

"Left!" I shouted. Just as I realised my horrible mistake we were catapulted into a whirling maelstrom of angry, sucking water. Our feeble attempts to control the canoe with our paddles were futile. We were hurled and buffeted and finally thwacked hard into a tree trunk that snarled its way into the river. The canoe tipped out its contents and I was plummeted into a nightmare of drowning hell. My head narrowly missed submerged objects as I was sucked into what seemed like an underwater tornado. Steadily running out of air I thought: "I'm dead!" But then, like a sock in a washing machine, I was thrown up out of the water almost colliding with the canoe. With superhuman effort I leapt on to the craft, which was now bottom up, and let it hurl me further down the river. I looked about desperately for Joe but he was nowhere to be seen. The river was now calming down and I saw a bank with some people on it. I slid off the canoe and splashed towards them. "Mon fils, mon fils!" I screamed, "J'ai perdu mon fils!" gesticulating wildly towards the river. A man with an Alsatian immediately ran up the river to look for the lost "fils". I stood there dripping stupidly, with nothing in the world to my name except a skimpy, red bikini, totally incongruous garb for my new role in the "distraught- mother-drowned-child" drama. Everything else I owned, including la boite, had long disappeared. Miraculously, man and Alsatian returned with lost "fils", who had managed to grasp the tree trunk and swing himself on to the bank. Miraculously, we eventually retrieved the canoe, and found the paddles, la boite, the life-jackets, and even our sunglasses gently flowing down river.

It was only a couple of days later that we discovered that two years earlier a person had drowned in the very same spot, where you "Mustn't go left!"

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