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Desirée and the River - A Story of Strength and Survival

One mistake nearly cost them their lives; a true story of one woman's strength

By Christina BlanchettePublished 3 years ago 11 min read

The water was higher than yesterday. As the Land Rover traversed the low-water bridge, the tires slowly lost traction and the front end of the vehicle began to float. One thing was immediately clear - they weren’t going to make it to the other side of the river.

This is a true story. It is a testament to the strength that can lie within, and how it can be revealed in times of need.

Going on a safari in Africa was on Desirée’s bucket list. More specifically, taking her daughter on a safari was something that she had always planned on doing. Her daughter was wholly enamoured by lions since the age of two. Desirée’s sister-in-law brought a little stuffed lion as a gift, and that was it, her daughter was hooked. You would think that a person might grow out of something like that, but the lioness tattoo on her daughter’s back would prove otherwise.

The stars seemed to align for the perfect time to take this dream vacation. Desirée’s husband’s job provided the opportunity, he had taken a position with Exxon working in Chad. His previous job with Imperial Oil allowed him to work a shift of nine days on and five days off. Those five days he spent focused on work around the family farm. This new role saw him a month in Africa and then a month at home. While he was gone, Desirée managed the farm by herself. It was difficult, but the short-term sacrifice was worth the significant increase in income and financial freedom it presented.

The frequent trips to and from Africa meant that Desirée’s husband wouldn't need to travel all the way from Canada. She confirmed that the dates over Christmas break aligned with her daughter’s work schedule, and started planning.

The day of the trip arrived. Desirée and her daughter flew from Canada to start their safari adventure. Her husband would meet them at a connecting airport and they would continue the rest of the way together. There were a lot of moving parts, but Desirée had planned everything to coordinate perfectly.

At the airport, waiting for her husband, Desirée was visibly distressed. She paced back and forth and appeared near tears. Her daughter grew frustrated with her and told her just to sit and wait, Dad would get there when he gets there. She attributed Desirée’s stress to a typical over-reaction that she’d seen before from her mother. While Desirée’s reaction seemed excessive, it wasn’t unheard of for her to white-knuckle things.

There were underlying significant stressors that her daughter wasn't aware of. Desirée’s husband had told her the month before that he wasn’t coming. He said that he had met someone else, he wanted a divorce and didn’t think it was a good idea to come on this holiday.

Desirée was caught completely off guard. There hadn’t been any signs of a stereotypically bad marriage, they didn’t fight and she wasn't unhappy. She asked her husband to reconsider everything, especially his stance on this trip. Desirée didn’t want to ruin it for her daughter. He agreed to think it over.

Waiting in the airport, Desirée didn’t know if her husband would show or not. She didn’t know if she would have to be the one to tell her daughter why he wasn’t there. She didn’t know if the last month he was home would be the last time they were together.

Desirée first met her husband at a bar. A typical meeting place for couples, but not a typical evening out for either of them. On that particular night, they both happened to be there to see a band. Desirée was with a group of friends and a guy that she had met recently. That guy ran into an ‘old friend’ of his who was having a rough time and offered to take her home. He assumed Desirée would get a ride with her friends. Her friends thought that Desirée was with that guy. Both left without her.

Desirée, frantic, realized that she was over an hour from home with no way she could get back. While her dad might be able to come and get her, she would need to wake him and she worried about where she would be able to safely wait. Last call had come and gone and the lights would be coming up soon.

She rushed to the bar and the man who would become her husband was sitting there, drinking a coffee and chatting with the bartender. He had jeans and dusty work boots on. He took one look at Desirée and asked if he could help.

Many years later in an airport, travelling to a safari vacation, Desirée spotted her husband and began to cry. He had decided to come after all.

The safari in Tanzania was nothing short of magical. Desirée arranged a private tour that took them all over the country, from the plains of the Serengeti, past Mount Kilimanjaro, into Ngorongoro Crater and everything in between. Jonathan was their driver and knowledgeable guide.

They saw amazing sights like the wildebeest migration, hippos playing and a family of cheetahs. Their vehicle had to reverse quickly because a bull elephant decided they were getting too close! As for Desirée’s goal of helping her daughter see lions? Jonathan told them that he had never before seen so many lions in one single trip.

Whatever tension Desirée and her husband felt, they worked to conceal it and ensured that the safari was memorable. Their daughter was left none the wiser, only a few strange moments indicated that there was anything amiss.

After they toured Tanzania, they visited Zanzibar to spend a few stationary days together and celebrate a small Christmas. The goal was to relax and explore. Desirée even rented a scooter and rode along the beach.

They travelled to Kenya for the last few days before her daughter would return home to Canada. Together, they dropped her at the airport in Nairobi. Desirée had hoped to wait with her daughter until she was through security, but only ticketed passengers were allowed inside the terminal. She hugged her daughter goodbye, still holding the personal turmoil secreted inside her.

When Desirée originally planned the holiday, it hadn’t made sense for her and her husband to fly back to Canada only for him to leave again a week later. She booked an additional leg for just the two of them in Kenya. Her husband was an extremely proficient driver, most family vacations incorporated a portion that involved him driving. In Tanzania, you had to have a licensed guide to drive through the national parks. The rules were not so strict in Kenya.

They rented a Land Rover and began the trek out to continue their safari holiday. Desirée didn’t know if this would be a chance to fix their marriage or if it would be one last adventure together before saying goodbye.

They visited a beautiful resort at the heart of one of Kenya’s nature preserves. To get there, they had to cross a low-water bridge. These bridges are designed so that the road is essentially level from bank to bank. If the water level is too high, water will flow over the top. This bridge was partially underwater, but it was like driving through a puddle and was of no concern.

The next day the tour groups left at sunrise to see the local wildlife. Desirée and her husband opted instead to relax and take advantage of the resort’s luxuries. They planned on checking out late and departing after lunch to travel to their next destination. The staff asked if they wouldn’t mind giving a ride to one of the hotel employees. She was starting her days off and would otherwise have to wait for an available driver to take her into town in the evening. Desirée and her husband readily agreed.

They enjoyed lunch at the hotel and then started the drive back into town. When they reached the low-water bridge, they noticed that the water seemed higher than the day before. Desirée’s husband paused but ultimately decided that they would still be able to cross. As they began their traverse, the wheels lost traction and the front of the Land Rover began to float. It became immediately clear that they weren’t going to make it to the other side of the river.

The year before the holiday in Africa, Desirée was hospitalized with pancreatitis. She nearly died. She refused to let anyone know how severe her illness had been because she didn’t want them to worry. After that experience, she wasn't willing to let herself feel helpless again.

The Land Rover was floating, heading downriver. The water surged and the vehicle began to roll. Her husband yelled that they needed to get out and swim. Their passenger was crying and refused to move. Desirée fumbled with the seat belt and climbed up and out of the open window. She pushed herself off the side of the Land Rover and into the churning water just as it rolled fully upside down onto its roof.

They had been warned about the river, about not stopping too close to the banks for photos. Crocodiles were lurking, happy to grab whatever they saw as a choice meal.

Desirée swam as hard as she could, struggling to keep her head above the water. The current pulled her further away from the road. She strained, kicked and willed herself to keep going, adrenaline surging. She made it to the bank and pulled herself up onto the shore. Her husband followed. They watched helplessly as the Land Rover, wheels jutting out of the water, was washed down the river and lodged against the far bank.

Desirée suddenly was hit with the gravity of their situation. No one would be coming for hours. All of the tours were back in for the day, they wouldn’t be out again until twilight. No one was expecting them, they wouldn’t even be missed. They were in the middle of a nature preserve in Kenya, alone. They could only hope that their passenger would be alright, there was nothing they could do to help her.

Soaking wet, Desirée and her husband backed away from the bank and returned to the road. Armed only with a rock, they started walking back to the resort.

Caked with dust from the road, the hot midday sun baked them until they were covered in hard clay. No water, no sunscreen, blisters formed on their feet, they kept going. Desirée put one foot in front of the other, no option to stop. They watched the horizon, fervently hoping that the wildlife was using this time to rest.

They walked on. One step, another. Stopping could mean death. Desirée had just beaten death last year, she was determined that this would not be the end. She walked on beside her husband, the man who had told her just weeks before that he wanted to end their marriage. She wondered what would become of them.

The landscape of a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, awe-inspiring as it was, now invoked nothing but fear. As the sun beat down on them, they continued on.

Hours later, sunburnt and dehydrated, they limped back onto the grounds of the resort. They were immediately fussed over, given water and comfort. Desirée had made it, a testament to the strength that she didn’t know she had.

Luck played a role in this story. The Land Rover was carried downstream until it was lodged against a tree on the opposite bank. Their passenger climbed out of the backseat and up the tree as high as she could go. There she remained, waiting for someone to come. She told her rescuers that she knew she would drown if she got out of the vehicle into the river.

Everything that was in the Land Rover was damaged by the river water. Their electronics were destroyed, some of their luggage was salvaged through the efforts of the resort. They were allowed to stay and recover free of charge. The owners even went so far as to provide them with clothes and a flight back to Nairobi.

This story could have easily turned tragic. Determination and a well of previously untapped strength, combined with a bit of luck, allowed everyone involved to survive.

Afterword - Notes From the Author

This is a true story about my mom. She was dealing with tremendous emotional distress, then pure physical terror. It would have been easy to give up. It would have been justifiable to stop and wait for someone to come. But she didn’t. She discovered depths within her that allowed her to keep going.

My parents did end up getting divorced and my mom made a new life for herself. She didn’t stop travelling, she continued to explore and experience new things.

When I became pregnant, she decided she would move across the country to be closer to us. She relocated to a strange town and built her life up again, this time with the title of grandmother.

Two years ago she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She continues to fight. She has had major surgery and so many chemotherapy treatments that I’ve lost track. Her cancer is not in remission, some of the tumours are platinum-resistant. And still, she continues to fight.

If you want to know the true definition of strength, look no further. It is the ability to keep going when everything around you is dark and uncertain. You keep going because you have to. This is what I think of when life feels too heavy or harsh. I have to keep going. I have wells of strength within me, just like my mom. It’s one foot in front of the other.

Image Credits: All photos were taken by the author in December of 2006 while on safari in Tanzania. All rights reserved.

Hello! This story is very important to me, I hope that you enjoyed reading it. If you did, please consider leaving a ❤️ or sharing it. If you would like to read more of my work, you can check out my profile here, or start with the story below. - Christina


About the Creator

Christina Blanchette

Hello! My day job is spent working as an engineer, I am a mom of 6, avid reader and part-time creator.

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