“A full moon kayak?” I asked, intrigued. Dan, whom I’d met a few days ago in Bellingen, a village on Australia’s East Coast, had just invited me to join him for a paddle down the local Bellinger River. I’d never kayaked at night before, let alone during a full moon, but it sounded so exciting I simply couldn’t say no.
“A blue moon kayak,” he corrected with a grin. “Oh, and make sure you wear lots of layers. It’s going to be cold.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. About the blue moon, that is: very rarely, there are two full moons in a single month and this August was one of them. I was an enthusiastic rather than an experienced kayaker, but I wasn’t worried. Dan had been paddling for years and knew the river inside out. All I had to do was follow him. How hard could it be?
We met by Lavender’s Bridge under a moon as brilliant as a giant’s torch, its reflection casting a silver shimmer over the river, which seemed to ripple in response. Despite my thick jumper, I shivered. Dan was right, it was cold. Longingly I thought of the coat I’d left behind, but it was too late for that now. Launching our kayaks, within a few minutes we were off.
Our plan was to follow the river as far as the estuary, then turn back. “I don’t know how many kilometres it is, but it’ll take a few hours,” said Dan airily, when I questioned him. “Don’t worry. All that exercise will keep you toasty.”
The first ten minutes I worked on my stroke, trying to emulate the effortless way Dan scythed through the water, making barely a splash. Daintily he dipped his oar in and out, whereas I was already puffing with the effort. “Slow down,” he called. “We’ve got a long way to go. Just relax and take it easy.”
Sound advice perhaps, but the current was strong and I had to work hard to keep from careering into the bank, dark and indistinct despite the bright moon above. At my approach, reeds rustled, birds squawked in indignation and overhead, bats as big as birds flapped through the mist, squeaking.
Only now did I register how thick the mist had become. It hovered above the river like a wraith, obscuring details that had been visible mere minutes earlier. Obscuring Dan, too, for he was nowhere to be seen and though I strained my ears for splashing sounds, I could hear none. If this was his idea of a joke, it was a very bad one.
“Dan!” I shouted into the darkness, but each time I was met with silence. Don’t panic, I told myself, but the fact remained that I was floating down a pitch-black river with my companion gone and a cold – no, freezing – mist closing in on me like a bad dream. My sleeves were soaked through, my hands blocks of ice. I had no idea where I was going, and more alarmingly, I couldn’t see more than a metre in front of me.
Half an hour later, I could no longer feel my hands. I knew they were still attached to my arms because I could see them clamped grimly to the paddle, which I was somehow managing to swing in and out of the water. Desperate though I was to warm them up however I could, I was too afraid I would lose my grip on the paddle to do anything other than maintain the status quo. The same unsatisfactory options swirled through my head. Keep paddling. Stop paddling and bank the kayak. Look for Dan. Don’t look for Dan.
I have no clear memory of being found. Apparently, I’d taken a wrong turn when the mist descended and been carried away so quickly by the current that Dan had not known where to look for me. By the time he’d driven me home and insisted I stand under a hot shower, my hands had begun to turn blue. The rest of me was as pale as a drowned fish and it was almost an hour before I felt warm enough to get dressed and crawl into bed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d kayak the Bellinger River again in a heartbeat. Nevertheless, for thirty terrifying minutes on that misty, blue-moon night, it was the one place in the world I did not want to be.