Swimming the ‘Great River’

Hanging out in Seville with the Puente de Triana in the far background

My kids didn’t believe me when I told them I used to swim regularly in the Guadalquivir – “yeuch Daddy, it’s so green, and in the middle of a city it must be full of pooh!” exclaimed Isabella.

Back in 1991 as a much younger man I lived in the top floor apartment of a cheaply built apartment block in the ‘barrio’ of Triana (the Trianeros proudly displayed banners with ‘Republica de Triana’ hanging from their windows in recognition of their proud rebellion from standard arch catholic Seville, a place where gypsies, poets, artists and malcontents lived cheek to jowl down humble narrow streets). These apartments had no air conditioning and having been built at cost had no insulation either. When temperatures in Seville rose above 35ºC. (a regular event in the summer when the locals pushed the TV’s up to the windows of their ground floor living rooms and placed their sofas on the streets in order to enjoy the cool of the night) my apartment became insufferably hot. I was working evenings and nights in the giant Universal Expo ’92 a world wide exhibition of culture, industry, business and food where I managed a slick operation of hamburgers, salads and pizzas for its Canadian owners.

I was invariably shattered from hard work and post work drinks until 4 or 5 in the morning as we all (that is the whole city) were revelling in the cool of the jasmine scented night air. The afternoon was like a dry sauna, so hot inside I couldn’t move and so hot outside the birds (literally) would drop dead out of the branches. The Guadalquivir was just a 5 minute walk from my street and one day while walking to work I saw some young kids diving off the old mooring steps into the water. It was mid-August and anybody with money had decamped to the cooler coast, these local kids were making the best of a bum deal while their friends were hanging out in Punta Umbria on golden sandy beaches or enjoying the surf of Conil.

Night time view under the Puente de Triana taken from the restaurant now installed in the river masters lookout

I got into the habit of every afternoon diving off an old pontoon (no longer there, it was on the opposite bank under where the sculpture by Eduardo Chillida now is) and sunbathing on the hot planks. I’d swim across the river (at this point about a 100m.) back and forth and under the great buttresses of the Spain’s oldest iron bridge the elaborate Puente de Triana. Occasionally tourists would stop and ask me whether it was really safe to swim in the water. The truth is I had no idea. It was very warm, very green and probably full of nasty bacteria but I never got ill from it. The Arabs called this the Wadi El Kebir, the ‘Great River’ which in their time was navigable all the way up to Cordoba a 100 km. upstream. As I swam I had to negotiate with rapid strokes the tourist boats as they cruised up and down, completely unaware that there might be a swimmer in the water as the kids never ventured more than a couple of metres from the embankment.

Swimming the Guadalquivir was really just an extension of my childhood. We were encouraged by my father (who was brought up on the banks of the Limpopo river in Botswana where crocodiles in his swimming pond were a regular feature) to jump in virtually any water and enjoy it. “Don’t think too much about it”, he’d say, “because if you do you’ll never go in and then you’ll never have the pleasure of it”. Later in the evening he’d be telling us gory tales of children on his ranch getting eaten by crocodiles. Strangely we never questioned his wisdom. Some things don’t change.

My dad, 80 years old in this photo and still diving

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