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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Riding With The River Gods


Those were the guide's harsh instructions, yelled at a volume of 33,985 decibels, to my 16-year-old self on my first white water rafting experience down the Shotover River in Queenstown, New Zealand. I still remember thinking then that I was REALLY going to die and have my bloody insides displayed all over the sharp rocks for my family to see when they zoomed past on the Shotover Jet.

I recall that our raft had only 6 crew members on it - 4 teenage girls without any obvious hint of muscle in our still-growing biceps and a couple on their honeymoon. The sole male on the raft looked very nervous throughout the ride. Thankfully, I survived and have a Super 8R-sized photo to prove it, proudly displayed in the family album.

Since that day, I've tackled 2 more rivers, which unfortunately, were nothing to crow about.

In 2005, on my first work trip to Sri Lanka (where I blinded my future husband by squirting crab juice into his eye and he was so charmed that he fell head-over-heels in love with me - or was that because he couldn't see...) a bunch of us rafted down the Kitugala River. The river was so calm that it felt more like a cruise, and we ended up splashing around in the water instead, using the raft as a springboard to see how far we could launch ourselves across the river. (I failed miserably - I had always sucked at my Standing Broad Jump during NAPFA.)

2007 saw me rafting down the Shotover River in Queenstown again, this time with Dan and my siblings. As usual, the stringent briefing made everybody very nervous but the rapids didn't quite live up to our expectations due to the low river flow. Nevertheless, The One Called Oh Shit gave me a sizeable fright and really made me squeal "oh shit!" and had my brother sniggering at his chicken-shit sister for days after.

2 years on, we found ourselves in the middle of Colombia being tossed around like pieces of driftwood on the mighty Rio Suarez. I hear you say, "Colombia? Rafting?!"

San Gil (pronounced 'san hil') is turning heads with it's growing reputation as a mini-Queenstown. The only thing mini about it are the prices of the activities. We had initially intended to spend 4 nights in San Gil but when we saw the list of outdoor activities available and the reasonable prices, we readily extended our stay by 2 more nights. We were spoilt for choice:

- River rafting: COP 25,000 (US$12) for the milder Rio Fonce; COP 120,000 (US$60) for the raging Rio Suarez

- Torrentisimo (rappeling down a waterfall): COP 35,000 (US$17)

- Caving Cueva Vaca: COP 25,000 (US$12)

- Parapenting/paragliding: COP 60,000 (US$30)

- Ponz Azul (freshwater swimming hole with small waterfalls): FOC

Including a day trip to the colonial town of Barichara (which we really regretted - we found it Boring-chara), our days were packed!

Coming from the freezing heights and polluted realms of Bogota, arriving in San Gil was like waking up in the tropics and, literally, a breath of fresh air. We saw that a group of hostellers had already signed up for rafting on Rio Suarez and promptly added our names to the list. It was good to have some company - just in case we ended up paddling the raft on our own!

It turned out that we had really good company on the trip and soon became fast friends with Kamile and Iris, a couple from the Netherlands, and Karen, a chirpy Aussie from Melbourne.

Nice and dry before rafting. Kamile is third from the left, followed by Iris, Karen, me and Dan.

We were given a very very thorough (read: lengthy) safety briefing (which left me slightly bored but very impressed), where the guide took us through 101 scenarios starting with "It is possible..." Once again, the 101 possible capsize scenarios scared the *beep* out of the first-timers but after a few practice strokes, everyone got the hang of working together (despite some initial confusion and uncoordination) and then down the river we went.

And it was literally a rush of excitement indeed! Unlike the Shotover River where you have long breaks between the rapids to lay back and take in the scenery, rafting non-stop on the continuous rapids of Rio Suarez left us panting hard for breath. This was not just another bubble bath in the jacuzzi! My favourite command from the guide was "INSIDE!!!!" - where everybody just stopped paddling, jumped down into the raft and clung onto the rope! It was a sign that the ride was going to get really rough! Whoo hoo!

My underwater housing for the Sony Cybershot came in handy for a couple of wet shots. (I also learnt that a waterproof camera is the key to instant popularity - everybody wants photos. I've never had so many people readily give me their email addresses before.) The photos were taken by the safety guy on the kayak trailing the 2 rafts. I thought that it was awfully nice of the tour organiser to let us take a camera onboard and not force us to buy the pricey "professionally taken" ones in a souvenir folder.

Look at our raft fly!

Crossed a rapid succesfully? Celebration!

The mighty river pulled us down into its depths, totally soaking us through and through

We navigated our way through a string of rapids ranging from Class 3 (challenging) to Class 5 (extremely challenging). There were times when my heart rose to my throat in fear that the raft would capsize and I would either get trapped under it, or go cruising down a rocky obstacle course. Other times, instead of my heart, I had water in my throat (the result of stupidly screaming at a wall of oncoming water.)

After emerging from an extremely technical and bumpy ride on a Class 5 rapid, we cheered at our success... and turned around to find our guide missing!

Ooops! I think we lost someone! Man overboard!

Thankfully, the river had calmed down a little and we paddled backwards to keep the raft floating on the spot while the guide swam, unhurt, back to the raft. We teased him about not following his own instructions to "hold on tight to the rope and dig your foot hard into the foothold!" but he didn't find it too funny and pointing to the biggest guy, demanded that "you (pant), especially you, (pant) have to paddle harder (pant), harder (pant), harder!!! (pantpantpant)"

Midway through, we pulled up on a small beach for a light lunch as a herd of cows grazed and gazed curiously at us (yes, cows on a beach). And a toilet break.

Going potty and sitting on his "throne"

Group photo! Dan and I splashing the guide at the count of "1,2....3!!"

Crackers, tropical fruits and local snacks - served on an inverted kayak

Energy booster - Bocadillo (guava paste) and cheese combination. It was very good!

Slurping up this passion-fruit-like snack is the only way to eat it. I forgot what it's called - naranjilla or lulo I think. The insides look and feel like frog spawn. Sweet and juicy, and very messy to eat!

After the energy boost, we got drowned out in a few more Class 5 rapids, peppered with many "oh shit!" moments! At one point, we didn't paddle hard enough and got pushed in between some rocks. With the strong currents bent on jamming us hard against the rocks, and wedging us tightly into our rocky prison, there was no way we could backpaddle our way out of the watertight situation. We were literally stuck between a rock and a hard place! The guide had to climb out of the raft, hop across the swirling rapids from rock to rock with a rope in hand, and single-handedly lift and drag the raft out of the rocks!

Getting sucked right in!

Going under!

End of a good run with paddle-mates Iris and Kamile from Holland

Totally soaked through but very happy people. The rest of the van actually says "Colombia es passion!" I agree 100%!

White water rafting was a good choice of activity to start off our stay in San Gil. We bonded quickly with our travel mates over the course of the afternoon and that set the note for group dinners and breakfasts, visits to the local market, a (very lengthy) game of Risk, ant-eating episodes, and more adventure sports together over the next few days.

Wolfing down a chicken dinner at the only joint that was open in town on a Sunday night

We very highly recommend river rafting in Colombia! Don't just go for the small rapids on River Fonce though. Make sure you sign up for an afternoon with the River Gods on Rio Suarez and throw yourself wholeheartedly into a fall-off-the-boat washing machine ride!

After all, Colombia es passion!


WeLoveRoy said...

Just great!

lint said...

DAMNNNNIIIIIIITTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (i keep saying the same thing!!!!!!!)

Haha....mom and yuj are having a conversation behind me, and mom's gasping at how violently he's killing people:

Yuj: "I'm stressed okaayy"

Mom: "you stressed meh? school holidays what, what to stress you?"

Yuj: "You."

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