Beyond the Alps
Part II There and Back Again
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.
In Part I we looked at planning a trip to paddle exotic whitewater in awesome surroundings. We steered you through the minefield of choosing a group, gathering info, wading through paperwork and blagging your boat onto the plane. Now we take you by the hand - not literally mind, we might catch something - and lead you through your first long-haul boating trip. Overseas trips are simply the best buzz boating can give you and our painfully earned globe-trotting experience will ensure you get the most from it. Or your money back. Not that well be paying, mind.
Jetlagged, bleary-eyed and possibly drunk, you alight from your plane onto foreign soil. You and your boating buddies have several weeks of blinding boating lined up, the trip youve planned and anticipated for months. However, a few obstacles remain between you and the bluewater creeks and sculpted playspots you seek. Not least, getting out of the airport. If you have a hire car prebooked, all credit to youbut never tell them youre boating and be careful, foreigners drive funny. No roofracks? The inflatable HandiRack (from www.wwc.co.uk) is a stopgap solution. Youll be hot, tired and disorientated in unfamiliar surroundings; be careful. In less economically developed countries (LEDCs, aka the Third World),, youll meet a billion taxis outside the airport competing for your wonga. Youll be charged 9000 times the local rate but theyll accommodate your boat anyhow Ive taxied into Kathmandu with the boat sticking out of both side windows. Give the driver a hotel name (see Lonely Planet) and stick to it whatever; a certain American boater agreed to ride all the way to war torn Kashmir, after his Delhi taxi driver persuaded him that the entire subcontinents rivers were flooded
Take me to the River
Youre going to get more boating done if you can hire a vehicle. If its your credit card being bashed, record every dink and scratch before driving away. If your group only has one vehicle, stick to roadside runs. Hitching is easy in the Western World but is gruelling elsewhere; shuttling Chiles Rio Bio-Bio took 36 hours and 14 lifts, despite being accompanied by the only blonde woman in Latin America. In LEDCs, local transport is usually the way to go; buses, taxis, porters, carts, mules, anything that moves. Here we enter a world of amusing pain. These journeys will drive the most serene boater to stressed despair, assuming you survive my running total is three Asian bus crashes and one rickshaw pile-up but oddly, will be among your most cherished trip memories. Inspecting Indian gorges from bus roofs, negotiating with Nepali porters, explaining the brake pedals function to an Ecuadorian lorry driverpriceless experiences. Just remember to secure your boat where it cant be damaged or removed; and when an outrageous boat tax is demanded; swallow your pride and cough up.
Toys R Us
Take a boat you are very familiar with. Which one? The old adage big boat for big river is long since outdated by modern skills and designs; many hybrid river-play designs are perfect for big volume rivers. Pure parknplayboats have no place in a river-running scenario however, and if your trip involves even a smidgeon of creeking, then accept it you take the creek boat, however bored youll get at the playspots. If you were listening in Part I, then youve lugged every item of your boating widgets abroad; no cutting corners for weight limits! Most importantly, youll have the same safety kit that youd carry on UK trips, beefed up for the extra commitment of foreign climes. We found a night lost in a Californian gorge was helpful for reinforcing the importance of safety kit; like a map or torch, neither of which we had. A top-notch set of splits is essential; after a spanking in Terminator Rapid, try chancing the rest of Chiles Rio Futaleufu with something bodged from Schlegel remnants! Protect your precious throwline from misuse by packing roofrack straps. Scrutinise your first aid kit; a small damp elastoplast and a paracetamol wont cut the mustard, especially boating someplace with limited medical facilities. Carry clean hypos in LEDCs; although this author actually forgot about his supply during three days of treatment in an Indian dentist. Waterproof waist or neck pouches allow you to keep a minimalist survival kit on your person (boats can get mislaid on rivers); passport, dosh, matches, iodine drops (to treat iffy water), map, beer bottle opener. There is a sharp guide to river safety kit at www.thamesweirproject.co.uk/kit.htm, written by a reformed playboateralthough all of the above applies to playboat hols too.
Eat Sleep Boat
Food and accommodation options will reflect the paddlers concerned. Scrounging students will be happy kipping on riverbanks, soaking lentils for lunch. A compromise variation is, Eat well, sleep cheap where a full restaurant bloat-up takes the edge off the bivvying. Weak soft people will require good food and a proper bed; thankfully, cheapish accommodation is always possible, from Chiles Hospedajes to the USAs motels. If making a multi-day trip, two optionsthe first is to join a raft trip if available slow and often expensive (unless you agree to safety kayak), but with empty boats for playing and all the food you can chow. The second option is to go self-support. This is demanding but great fun. Space and weight being everything, paddlers usually carry a group plastic tarp instead of a tent. Thermarests are wonderful things and fit down one side of the kayak with a 1-2 season sleeping bag; not too chilly if you wear your wardrobe to bed. Camp high above the river; it gets cold down there and rivers can rise; weve woken with damp feet on Indias Zanskar! Consider the minimalist approach to catering; boil pasta and random sundries in a single pot over an open fire. Each boater carries a spoon andwell, thats it. Just focus on the blow-out meal waiting back in civilisation
As a boater, you have single-minded tunnel vision reaching only to the next river; but there is more to boating abroad than the rapids (so weve heard). Contact with locals is often rewarding and at worst, never dull; from seeking directions in Pidgeon Spanish to conversations about guns with Appalachian Rednecks, be nice to Johnny Foreigner. What goes around comes around; offend the locals and the next boaters through will suffer for your ignorance. Dont be too literal in exposing yourself to different cultures; poncing about in rubber shorts will cause offence in quiet villages from Tibet to Norway. Respect the local paddlers and rafters too; take time to seek them out and buy them a beer. These folk can be a mine of information on the local rivers and if not, they may still have warm floors to sleep on! However friendly the natives, maintain sensible security. We left hundreds of dollars in an Ecuadorian hotel room as we totally trusted our pal, the receptionist. Oops. A bigger danger is losing gear; a UK group had their spraydecks nicked on arrival in Madagascar; end of trip. Always leave someone with the gear whilst you buy rail tickets, run shuttle, and so forth.
Read and Run
Were not going to tell you how to paddle, you know that already. Be alert though, to the markedly different river environments youll encounter. Ecuadors ineffable Rio Jondachi is actually a dead ringer for Devons East Lyn Riverexcept that the Jondachi is relentless for over twenty miles, lurks deep in a rainforest canyon and suffers frequent flash floods. Factors like this need to be understood and compensated for before your spraydeck goes on. Even shiny new guidebooks cant be relied uponweve been surprised by landslides, low bridges, river-swallowing tunnels, fishing nets, log jams and the old favourite, large waterfalls behind blind bends. So, boat awake. Outside Europe, big water can be very big indeed, and steep rivers can be verywell, you get the gist. Shrinkavision is the phenomenon by which you misjudge this scale, inspecting from a road above. Hilarious results ensue, I still get nightmares about a certain ninety minutes in India. Similarly, river levels can catch you out. In the UK, we equate clear water with low river levels and brown water with paddleable levels. Abroad, these might equate to optimum and suicidal levels, then again they might notlook twice. This reads rather negatively and we really dont want to scare you off the rivers; theyre fantastic and thats why you came, after all. But if nothing else, note that our biggest frights and mishaps have happened early on in trips. Please be very, very careful in selecting your first river on arrival.
Picking up the Pieces
Thats all folks! Except to say, take a camera. Drive your mates mad by hopping out and clicking at every juncture. Protect your film like the gold dust it is; once its developed back home, use it! Present a slideshow to your envious friends, then write up your trip and send your report and photos to Paddlesthis isnt (completely) vain egotism. Others will want to hear about your experiences so dont be shy, share them. Then right away, get planning for the next triphow else are you going to bear being back at work?