MACHETES, FLASH FLOODS AND INTERNET CAFES
Chris Wheeler reports from deep in the jungle in Ecuador (first published in 'Canoeist' magazine)...
I really didn't know what to expect: nearing the end of their World tour, Mark and Simon had been paddling full time for seven months. Would I be confronted by a couple of 'White water Ego Warriors', you know, the sort of guys who wear shades indoors. Or would I be confronted with the incompetent, self depreciating 'White water Tourists' that I know and love. I needn't have worried.
Now, I don't know about you, but some boating articles make my eyes glaze over - I usually don't get further than the photographs and first paragraph ('then we ran rapid No.23. John went river left and then Dave went next....'). Others consist of macho accounts with no helpful information thereby putting the reader off following in their footsteps.
What follows are....well, to be honest, tales of macho incompetence, but at least I give you some facts later on.....
"Slime, I thought you said Ecuador was peaceful!"
A couple of weeks before we were due to fly out it was not looking good. All sorts of e mails were flying around from people who had been to Ecuador, talking about riots and shootings in Tena- exactly where we were heading. Dave Manby, who had only just got back from the country, e mailed Slime with tales of riots and shootings- Dave couldn't even get to Tena.
I e mailed Rios Ecuador, the rafting company in Tena, to ask them what was going on. The reply was that the Indians had struck a deal with the Government and that it was now O.K.
We flew out. They were right.
Tales of the troubles were sobering. The Indians in Tena had blockaded the town, demanding economic reforms. Soldiers flown in to Tena airport found themselves in a fire fight with the Indians - people on both sides were killed. Rumours that the protesters might try kidnapping westerners led to Rios Ecuador evacuating everyone to Quito.
Good job Mark and Simon pencilled in Ecuador for March.......
" Er, why's the river brown upstream?"
Like I said, I needn't have worried - Mark and Simon were still amateurs - I felt at home. Sure enough, as soon as we got on the water we had an epic. We went off to run the Upper Miasaulli, a good grade 4 warm up. Careful planning ensured that we had all the ingredients necessary for an epic: late, rushed put in at 3.30 pm straight after arriving in Tena after a 4 hour drive; guest local paddlers who we had never paddled with before; 2-3 hours of steady rain before we got on; I had only just picked up my hire boat which I'd never paddled before .......
The others were getting on whilst I conveniently stayed on the bank, stuck my head in my boat and tried to make sense of the footrest. Suddenly there was a shout of "run for it" and the rest of the group cane running up the bank with their boats, eyes like saucers. A wall of brown water came past and within two minutes the river had risen by over a meter and gone from being low and blue to scary and brown. The Severn Bore had arrived in Ecuador.
Needless to say, we then got on and paddled regardless, not because we're hard but because the taxi had gone! We were all thinking "is this really a good idea?" but of course, no-one said anything. "Well if the local boaters are getting on, they must know what they're doing...."
Sure enough, one local American swam and the other lost his paddles grabbing the nearest tree he could find. The local British guy wasn't looking too comfortable either in his little Riot Glide and after suggesting we push on, admitted that he hadn't actually done the river before...
Our own guys were alright, but with the group decimated, we aborted mission half way.
Was this a normal day's paddling in Ecuador? Was this going to happen every day?
And the moral of the story? Choose your river carefully after heavy rain - flash floods do happen - all it takes is a landslide upstream temporarily damming the river. Be very wary of paddling with strangers and don't assume the locals know what they're doing. Usually they do, but don't rely in it!
How paddling 14 days running can be bad for your health
I was only out for two weeks and was on a mission. I worked the group mercilessly:
1: Upper Miasaulli
2: Upper Miasaulli
3: Upper Jondachi
4: Lower Miasaulli
7: Upper Anzu
8: Quijos (Cheesehouse and Bridge 1 to Bridge 2)
9: Quijos (Bridge 2 to Bon Bon)
10: Lower Oyacachi and Quijos (Bob Bon)
11: Lower Papalacta and Quijos (Cheesehouse)
12: Lower Cosanga
13: Lower Oyacachi and Quijos (Bon Bon)
14: Quijos (Cheesehouse and Bridge 1 to Bridge 2)
We're talking 60 odd hours on the water. It was only a matter of time before something went wrong. Sure enough, on day 11 Mark cracked. Or rather bruised his ribs on the boulder filled ditch from hell that is the Lower Papalacta. Well, I say bruised, as everyone will know that has ever bruised their ribs - they feel broken. All credit to Mark - he paddled out. He was then a bit of a girl and went off to Quito for X rays but no seriously, a sensible precaution with a multi-day trip looming ('Chris you unsympathetic bastard, the hospital later confirmed the bust rib' - Mark R).
On day 10, I led everyone into a hole with a rock immediately downstream guarding the hole. The guy behind me bent the front of his boat on the rock. On day 13 we returned in higher water- sure enough, someone else bent their boat - on the same rock.
On day 11, I was drifting down the Cheesehouse section of the Quijos, relaxing after the ditch from hell Papalacta. I landed in this innocuous looking little hole that turned out to be a nasty grippy hole from hell with rocks either side blocking any hope of an escape and a 6-7' tow back dragging me back in whenever I went vertical. However, after banging on all week about how I hadn't swam for three years I had my record to defend and knowing that Mark would also be writing an article on the trip, I decided that drowning would be preferable to the ritual humiliation. I hung on there for hours (well, 3-4 minutes- it seemed like hours), side surfing, cranking ends. Being a conscientious Level 3 coach, Mark didn't want to throw a line to a paddler still in his boat. A shout of "Throw me the bloody rope" emanated form the hole and after two throws ( I missed the first throw which then wrapped round me- Mark was right all along) I was dragged out still in my boat, upside down.
On day 14, would you believe it, I led straight into the same hole, in higher water. All I can say is that I wasn't going through all that again - humiliation was the better option.
That man's got a machete!
The trip south from Tena to the river Anzu was a typical Ecuador road trip - with half the trip spent queuing at road works. I was dozing off when suddenly there was the sound of metal scraping metal. A huge tipper truck had gone tearing past loaded up with rubble before a truck in the queue could get out of the way. Trouble was inevitable. Sure enough, the drivers were soon out of their trucks and eye balling each other. They were talking in Spanish but you didn't need a translator to get the gist of it. It looked like it would be a case of handbags at ten paces until all of a sudden one of them threw stones at the other and then before we knew it they were picking up boulders and then scrapping on the ground. Then out of nowhere another guy appeared with a machete and started hitting one of the drivers. These guys were going to kill each other.
Lots of people started to run over and with the calming influence of some women I thought it'd soon be broken. Far from it - it was like a playground scrap - they just wanted to get a closer look!
Anyway, fortunately, it degenerated back to handbags at ten paces- no blood was shed- and I started to doze off again.
I used to live in New Cross, London and thought I'd seen it all.
Kiwis don't travel well (but are useful boaters)
Poor Rob, our Kiwi member of the team- yes, we were an international team- impressive eh? He only had to look at the food on the first day and he then spent the whole of the first week in our en-suite shower room. Not want you want when you're doing a committing 7 hour jungle paddle. As soon as he emerged from the shower room, he then went down with Dengue fever, which put him out of action for several days. Good job I'd forced the group to paddle every day beforehand.
Rob was still speaking French to the waiters after two weeks, when the local language is Spanish, but then most Kiwis do descend from the English.
Rob was however a top bloke- a very useful paddler - whenever a nasty horrible horizon line appeared on the river, I'd conveniently find a break out and leave Rob to take on probing duties. Maybe his time working on The White Nile and river running in NZ had taught him something. Mark liked probing too but had a more Kamikaze approach with mixed results. Always entertaining. Rob just seemed to lead a charmed life. Despite being very useful, remarkably, he didn't have a huge ego. I didn't know that was possible.
"Well, that all seemed to go smoothly..."
As the plane descended down into Gatwick through the usual gloomy low cloud and rain, I reflected smugly on how the trip seemed to have gone remarkably smoothly - the plane hadn't crashed, I hadn't trashed the hire boat, I hadn't bruised MY ribs, I even hadn't had any sunburn, blisters or food poisoning....Needless to say, I then got stuck at baggage re-claim for two hours only to find out that my paddle bag had decided to stop off in Miami for a well deserved holiday.
(Well done to BA though, for delivering the bag to my home the next day).
Anyway, enough of all that macho stuff.....
What a great trip! Enormous amounts of time on the water intrepidly negotiating continuous white water rapids, with civilised evenings spent time wasting in Internet cafes, watching satellite T.V and drinking beer with local American and British paddlers.
Certainly better than sitting at home watching endless news reports on the Foot and F***ing Mouth crisis.
Read on if you fancy going to Ecuador some time.....