Dangerous crossing

It seems so unlikely now, but thirty years ago I was very nearly killed crossing a river in Australia, on my way to mend a fence. It was my gap year, and after a decade spent wrapped in the cotton wool of private education, I had surprised myself by deciding to work as a jackeroo - or a cowboy - on an Australian cattle station. The place was called Anthony Lagoon, in the middle of the Northern Territory. I can still remember the local residents' surprise when I turned up. I couldn't ride, I was a public school twit who had never done a day's hard work and I was scared of cows. But otherwise I was perfectly suited to the job.

Well, somehow I survived the first three months and even won a grudging sort of respect from the thugs, drunks, fugitives and Aborigines who were my fellow workers. I had one simple rule. I never refused to do anything. I learnt how to ride, standing on a horse. How to jump off a horse while it was galloping. How to duck tree spiders and how to slaughter and chop up a cow. Whatever they wanted me to do, I did it. That was the whole point.

And then came the day when we were sent to mend fences miles away from the main station which meant a six-hour ride on horseback in 40-degree heat. We also had to cross a river; unbeknownst to us, recent torrential rain had changed the currents, turning the water into a death-trap.

We were half-way across when we found out. My horse was called Pickaninny. It was a young chestnut with a white blaze and over the weeks (once I'd learnt how to ride) I'd become quite fond of it. Right now it was carrying me, a saddle, a dozen steel posts, a huge coil of wire and a tent. It entered the river obediently. I remember that, as the water surged over my thighs, I was surprised how fast it was flowing. Then I noticed the branches of a tree poking out of the surface, mid-stream and realised that the river was much deeper than it should have been. I turned to ask one of the others if it was safe. Then everything happened at once.

Pickaninny panicked. I felt the power of the water rushing into the poor animal, knocking it off balance. The saddle slipped away from under me. There were nine other horses and they lost control at the same time, crashing into each other, a tangle of legs, bridles, manes and riders. They were screaming. I hadn't known until then that a horse can scream. After the heat of the sun, the water was icy cold. I lost sight of the world as I dipped below the surface and suddenly I too was fighting for survival, fully dressed with heavy boots and a rucksack dragging me down.

Blind and choking, I flailed out and somehow I caught hold of one of the branches I had seen. Now I was dangling from the top of a tree that must have been five metres high, but my entire body was submerged and it took all my strength to hang on, to stop myself being swept away. There was no sign of Pickaninny but then there was an explosion of water and it burst through the surface, only inches away from me. I will never forget the look on that horse's face. Its eyes were huge, bulging. Its mouth was twisted into an expression of sheer terror, all its teeth showing. It was like something out of a nightmare, a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. I could imagine its legs thrashing underneath it, trying to stay up. The water was boiling all around it.

It drowned right in front of me. It went down, came up, then went down again. There was nothing I could do.

In fact we lost four of the nine horses in that river. It was a miracle that none of the jackeroos was killed too. They had somehow made it either to one bank or the other and (typically) I was the only one left stuck in the middle. To rescue me, the Aborigines formed a human chain, the nearest one stretching a hand to pull me to safety. We dried in the sun and radioed for help. We were picked up by a truck a couple of hours later.

I have never written about this before and, unlike all my other stories, this happens to be true. I only think about it now because so much of my life has been spent sitting behind a desk writing or strolling around in the comfort of a North London suburb, and it occurs to me that it was at this moment, when I came closest to death, that I was actually most alive.

Working with the extract

This extract is an excellent example of a well-crafted, exciting and descriptive autobiographical story. Discuss with your pupils how the writer achieves his effects and makes the account vivid and frightening. Look at how the writer creates excitement and builds tension for the reader through sentence length and choice of vocabulary. The writer tells the story econom-ically to begin with before focusing on the details of the actual incident. The opening sentence grabs the reader's attention and encourages her him to read on to find out what happened. The end of the piece brings the reader up-to-date and refers back to the beginning.

Suggestions for writing

Describe an incident when you were in danger or thought that you were in danger. Plan the story carefully by telling it to a partner first. Ask them for feedback on how you could improve the exciting bits and build tension. Think carefully about your sentences and vocabulary. Try to write a strong, attention-grabbing opening sentence. How will you end it?

About the author

Anthony Horowitz says: "I get my inspiration from James Bond and the world of film - I also write for television. Tin Tin is an inspiration too; every second page ends in a cliffhanger. I also admire Charles Dickens: he combines cliffhangers with eccentricity.

"I write in a studio at the bottom of the garden where there is nothing that is not related to my work. I write with a fountain pen because I love the feel of it and I think of the ink as the blood of writers over hundreds of years. I usually do two or three drafts."

Among Anthony Horowitz's books are The Falcon's Malteser and The Alex Rider books, including Skeleton Key, all published by Walker Books.

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