The words of the guide still rang through my ears as we approached the steep drop in the river, “this is the most dangerous rapid on the whole route”. I paddled with all my strength to get us into the correct position, yet it was all in vain as the current slowly spun us around. The raft was now heading to the drop…backwards. Helplessly, we dropped off the edge of the world into the unknown...
Sugarcane fields and mountain backdrops were all the eye could see from the van. One of the instructors from the white water rafting company addressed us and talked through the day. “You must all be adrenaline junkies,” he started in his American twang (he was ex-marine), “the grade 4 raids of the Russell River are up there with skydiving, scuba diving and bungee jumping!” We all looked at each other confused. Is this what we really signed up for?
All of the rafting supplies were unloaded into a spacious green field, with the rain forest in the distance and the mountains behind that. It was like a scene from Jurassic Park. I picked up a bundle of rafting boat floors & my paddle and followed the group into the forest. The floors weren’t that heavy but when negotiating the dimensions through the ancient vegetation, muddy slopes and loose grounding in creeks, things became tricky. Beside spiders, there were leeches to be worried about and this poisoned plant where the needles would have to be surgically removed if coming in contact with it. There were stories of soldiers in the war taking their own lives when they ran face first into the leaves and they could no longer deal with the pain.
After forty-five minutes of trekking, the narrow path opened onto a quiet stretch of the river where we inflated our own rafts with the pumps and took a well deserved water break. Unlike conventional rafts, these were two seated ones. Alan and Nathan were to go with the girls as they were the most experienced paddlers. That left Bryce and I.
I had met Bryce a few weeks prior and liked him due to his wacky humour and ‘gentle’ disposition. Also, he was once in the top five Smash Bros. players in all of Australia, I have not played him yet but I hope to give him a good match. Now I was putting my life into his hands. We decided that he would take the more important position as the driver in the back, while I would paddle in the front.
All the rafters spent a few minutes paddling around the calm waters to get used to their boat. There was also an opportunity to jump into the water and practice getting back into the raft in case we went overboard. I threw myself off the edge into the river. Oof! That was icy. I was pleased that I managed to pull myself back into the boat rather easily. What I was concerned about was that the raft had no sense of direction. Bryce was taking a while to get to grips with the steering. We need some more time…oh, the instructors are signalling everyone to go down stream. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
The rafts pulled up to the shore next to this giant boulder. The instructor called for the divers to join him on the rock. Bryce shared his concerns, “do you want to take over as the driver?”. “What are you sure?” I asked him, apprehensive about the late change in tactics. “Yeah, I’m not feeling it”. I jumped out from my seat to join the others where the instructor was already underway explaining the route. “So, I want you guys to be heading in this direction,” he threw a pebble and it rippled in the river. “Then I want you dudes to hit the current here,” another pebble thrown. “Then you guys have to go between the rocks,” another. I imagined him to conclude with “if you guys don’t follow this route, you’re going to have a bad time.” So wait, how do I steer?
Bryce and I were one of the last to launch off as I tried to get to grips with my new role. It was not fruitful as our first rapid ended up with us getting stuck on a rock. Things did not get any better as we struggled in the rapids. Taking wrong turns, getting battered by rocks and getting swept with the current.
Hold on, lets rewind back a bit. What level of rapids did the instructor say this was? Grade 4? This is what Wikipedia describes Grade 4 as:
“Whitewater, medium waves, maybe rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp maneuvers may be needed. (Skill level: whitewater experience)”
Hmm, OK. Whitewater experience? This is what Wikipedia says about Grade 3:
“May require significant maneuvering. (Skill level: experienced paddling skills)”
Hmm, OK. Paddling experience? Does being twice on a kayak count? I was perhaps two levels behind the requirements with the most experience between the two of us. Time to get some inspiration. We paddled off to a calm part of the river and proceeded to venture into a cave tunnel carved into the hillside. From the darkness we appeared into a secluded pit where a hidden waterfall fell. Due to the sunshine, a constant rainbow formed in the spray. The guide told us that this was an Aboriginal ritual birth pool. With the soft stones, a paste was made on the boulders and everyone starting smearing patterns on their bodies. I drew some war paint across my face and prepared to go into battle with the Russell.
The raft sedately drifted down the river with not much paddling required. A butterfly with the perfect hue of blue fluttered past our heads, disappearing in the sunshine. The calm before the storm. Now we were going off the most dangerous drop…backwards. When you are in that situation you come to terms with what was happening quite quickly and you brace yourself. The raft fell for a few seconds and I imagine we hit something on the way down as Bryce went flying overboard. Now riding solo, it was impossible to steer as you did not know what was in front of the raft but all of a sudden I was out in the river floating backwards.
Bryce was still missing. Shortly after, the life jacket pulled him to the surface. He was in a bad shape, choking up the water that filled his lungs. I paddled the raft towards him, helping him back in. After a struggle he fell into the boat, spluttering uncontrollably. Later when discussing the incident, he stated that he could only see white while being dragged through the rapids.
The good news was that I survived, the bad news was that the second most dangerous rapid was quickly approaching. With Bryce still dazed from his near death experience our team became fatigued. Surely we couldn’t do much worse than the last time? Wrong. We went off this drop backwards as well.
The raft was hurtling vertically down the river, with rocks scattered across our path. Without being able to steer, we hit one of them. Hard. For a few heartbeats I was lodged out of my seat and was now sitting on the edge of the rubber tubing falling into the deadly river below. “That water sure looks cold,” I thought to myself as I accepted my fate. All of a sudden we hit another rock that threw me back into my seat. Someone had my back.
In the final third of the river I finally got the hang of the steering. Bryce and I became a well-oiled machine as we expertly navigated the remainder of the river without a hitch. There was this part called Ayers Rock where we were told that if we were to hit this awkwardly positioned rock side on, we would be automatically in the river. It seemed with our previous encounters, there was no way we would be avoiding it. The river took us right into the rock’s tractor beam and it seemed like the end for us. Last second we managed to pull away. We had survived!!!
Despite all our early failings Bryce and I came out at the end as a decent team and had a good run of awesome rafting. It was an experience I’ll appreciate and if you guys ever want to take part, the company we went with was called Foaming Fury.
Crazily enough, I was one of the few people NOT to fall out of the raft. All that overboard training was for nothing.