Beyond the Alps
Part I - From Idea to Airport
by Mark Rainsley
NB. This two part article was first published in 'Paddles' Magazine. It is intended to offer advice to paddlers contemplating their first big overseas paddling trip.
Widening Your Horizons
The UK is among the best places anywhere to paddle whitewater. But the time will come when you seek a little of what we lack; sunshine, access, and blue water. Driving to the Alps can go a long way towards satiating this lust, but they are the thin edge of a very thick wedge. Consider venturing furtherpaddling exotic whitewater is about the most fantastic thing you can do within our sport. Here at Paddles we have a wealth of experience in globe-trotting paddling, mostly acquired the hard way! This month we examine about what is involved in putting a trip togetherget planning!
Where on Earth?
The choice is huge. The ongoing Paddles World Guide outlines plenty of destinations to tempt you. However, there are more general decisions to make. Do you want river-running or play? Steep creeks or big volume? Roadside shuttles or multi-day camping? A more fundamental choice is (using discredited terminology), Third World vs. First World? A trip to a less economically developed country like Peru or Ecuador offers incredible cultural experiences and memorable travel, coupled with phenomenal untamed rivers and genuine commitment. On the other hand, a trip to a developed country like the USA or Norway offers safe roads and the cultural reassurance of MacDonalds, alongside equally challenging paddlingwith detailed river info and professional emergency help easily available. There are exceptions to these rules, but for certain; the former will be ludicrously cheap (apart from the flight) whilst the latter may cost the earth. You will lose out on some paddling days on your Third World trip due to unforeseeable hassles; but your First World trip might lack the true adventure those amusing hassles offer.
Paddlers naturally spin yarns and share experience. Numerous guidebooks cover all popular destinations and magazine articles are a goldmine (never throw Paddles away!). The Internet brims with reports and has revolutionised communication between boaters. A query on www.boatertalk.com or www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk will yield results. Emailing a local expert may be more effective than letters and long distance calls. Last month, one email sorted airport pickup, accommodation and shuttles for our Christmas Uganda trip. Maps (can you get lost on rivers?) carry a wealth of data and their own allure. Stanfords www.stanfords.co.uk sell USAF Tactical Pilotage Charts for obscure spotswe are actually planning a Vietnam trip with the TPC used to carpet-bomb Hanoi!
The Away Team
Ideally youll be joined by your usual boating mates, forming a safe, cohesive group. End of problem. In the real world, not all of your mates have the same salary, holiday or sympathetic marital situation. A worst case scenario finds you boating with random strangers; a heroboater demanding supergnarl, a novice you met at the put-in (Im a grade 4 boater) and Ensign Nobody, a doomed fellow with poor social skills whom you met online. Great friendships have been forged like thisbut factor in whitewater and youve a trainwreck ready to happen. Whomever youll be boating with, youll need some time with them before the trip. Ignore reputations, CVs and testimonials; spend a weekend confined in a tent or small pub with prospective group members. If this doesnt lead to cabin fever and subsequent violence, you may have found a match. Next, reach 100% agreement about what you want from the trip. This is no naff platitude, many trips fare badly because X expects playboating, Y wants waterfalls. No-win compromises result; X winds up scared, Y not scared enough. Dont cut corners on group planning, youre going to share experiences and pressures that would strain marriages. No mates? Consider a commercial trip. You take your chances with companions, spend serious money and relinquish free will. In return you get professional guiding and safety cover, with logistical stresses removed. Adventure Whitewater www.adventure-whitewater.comand Kayak International www.kayakinternational.com are established tour operators.
If your trip breaks boundaries, you may be eligible for a grant; the Royal Geographical Society Expedition Advisory Centre (www.rgs.org) is full of advice. Consider commercial support - sponsorship! Sponsorship doesnt mean handouts; you have to be able to offer something concrete in return. Articles, photos, film footageexamples of how to offer your sponsor a raised profile and positive image. Get real. If you want cash, look beyond the paddlesport industry; truth is, few paddlers achieve this. You are unlikely to get free gear within the industry, but may be able to negotiate discounts. In any case, approaching the sponsor professionally with a thought-out plan is essential. Most begging letters get binned; ask yourself, why? Lastlydo you honestly need the grief? Do you want to bimble merrily down the rivers, or instead worry all day whether the light is good to photograph the cag you blaggeddaftly, some trips have been marred by confused priorities.
Covering your Back
Personal Survival. Important. Paranoia aside, its a scary world for the uninformed and unprepared. Health and gear insurance is a must. Check that your policy specifically covers your destination and whitewater sport. Consider worst case scenarios; are you covered for heli-rescue? Snowcard www.snowcard.co.uk and the British Mountaineering Council www.thebmc.co.uk offer recommended policies. You may need jabs and tablets before departing; ask your Doctor and check Travel Health Advice - www.dh.gov.uk/PolicyAndGuidance/HealthAdviceForTravellers. Tempted to skip this bit? So were the boaters who returned from the White Nile with malaria. Nepals recent Maoist situation is sad proof that our world changes fast. Even in safe developed countries, the shadow of terrorism now needs due consideration. Check the latest Foreign Office advice www.fco.gov.ukheed it! If you insist upon somewhere lethal, trawl www.comebackalive.com...Chechnya has great whitewater!
Pack it in!
Well talk gear in Part II, but for now lets think about getting it there. Going to North America, youll have an indulgent 2x32 kilo allowancea mate brought his entire classical music collection Stateside last Easter. Usually, youll face a restrictive weight limit. Rule #1: dump everything but boating gear; take all of this including all the safety widgets. You can acquire Y-fronts anyplace, but finding left-handed splits will be trickier. Where do you put it? Inside the boat is ideal. We use large drysacks with rucksack straps as luggage, these can strapped into the cockpit, carried separately, or rolled away. Full paddles should be gathered into a padded ski or paddle bag and strapped to the deckboat and blades become one item of luggage. Camera, guidebooks, small heavy objectshand luggage. If restricted to a 20 kilo limit, things get grim. Boat and blades form your 20 kilos. Wear BA, spraydeck and helmet at Check-in. Everything else is worn or goes into hand luggage, a medium drysack compressed with roofrack straps. It can be done!
Leaving on a Jet Plane
Research flight availability and prices online at www.ebookers.co.uk. Then book with a real person, via Trailfinders www.trailfinders.com or BTW www.bridge-the-world.co.uk, cheapskate travel specialists. Flying your kayak is simply not a big deal, but this is hard to appreciate when your dream trip hangs on the unknown factor of, Whatll happen at Check-in? The database of reports at www.thepoly.co.uk is essential reading, but dont take it at face value. Boaters operate in an uncertain grey area between the rules. The few certainties we have
Phoning ahead, you will hear scary rules about maximum dimensions and cargo rateswhich you wont hear at Check-in.
Politeness and the word Sir work wonders at Check-in.
If your baggage including kayak - is within weight, you will probably not be charged.
You may end up paying to fly your kayak, but it will almost always get on the plane.
If you tell fibs at Check-in (My creek boat is featherweight) and get caught, youll suffer.
Oddly, groups seem less likely to be fleeced than lone paddlers.
KLM are perhaps the only airline that will never carry kayaks, BA are great.
Insisting your kayak is a surfboard will make you look silly.
This author has flown kayaks on about fifty flights, paying $100 once and being refused once (KLM).
Because its there
How seriously should you take your trip? Are you organising a holiday or something with higher purposean expedition? If your name is Allan Ellard, its probably the latter. For most mortals, lets face ityour trip is a holiday, in the sense that you will be paddling where many others have paddled before. However, from your personal perspective the distinction is meaningless. You had might as well be running the Tsangpo, as it will all be new and challenging to you. Invest your personal expedition with as much meaning and aspirations as you wish, but keep your feet on the ground; other boaters will have been there, and will help and advise. Whilst wading through the minutiae of preparations, dont lose the Big Picture; your trip is about great times on great rivers with great mateswe guarantee that youll get them!