Keen for a spot of adventure, Angelo and I embarked on a (not so) gruelling two day trek-kayak in the countryside surrounding Luang Namtha, Northern Laos. It was a fairly stock standard tour package of scrambling up hills after our guide – scrambling due to monsoon season conditions not lack of fitness (ahmm), eating lunch in the ‘traditional’ manner – off palm leaves with quickly assembled bamboo chopsticks, sleeping in a local ethnic village – so as to tick off the ‘cultural experience’ box, and returning the following day aboard two-man inflatable deathtraps.
Wait, this is all sounding pretty negative.
Despite all the organised-for-tourists-so-it’s-not-spontaneous-ity of it I did actually enjoy the trip. Let’s just call it creative license for the sake of the story.
Now let me just start by saying I do have some experience on kayaks. Growing up in New Zealand meant every family holiday, school camp, river-flooded-down-the-back-of-the-farm meant a kayak would be involved. I have used ones that you sit in, ones that you sit on, and ones that have the little rudder for steering. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I can do an eskimo roll, or am capable of Class 5 rapids but I am reasonably confident of getting from A to B – only going around in circles occasionally.
So with just a life jacket, a helmet, a wet bag for cameras and absolutely ZERO safety training we all jumped in the inflatable kayaks and zig-zagged our way downstream. After 15 minutes-and as many domestic arguments, I discovered that perhaps Angelo didn’t have quite the same level of experience as I. This may be a much longer few hours than I’d thought.
The first couple of hours passed without incident – apart from some splashing, and “accidental” head-oar collisions – oops! How did it get up there?? And with the current flowing somewhat quickly our only task was paddling straight (at the same time) and avoiding the occasional cluster of river reeds. It wasn’t until we attempted to paddle over to dry land for our next palm leaf buffet that we got our first taste of just how swift the current really was. With nowhere particularly inviting in which to birth the kayaks we just aimed directly at our guide, Tsiam. With his feet planted firmly in the mud (or so we thought) and water up to his waist he attempted to bring us in single handedly -literally in this case as he was also trying to maintain a number of other kayaks long-abandoned by the more ‘capable’ members of our group.
Well, that didn’t work. As our boats, and ourselves, started drifting downstream, all five-foot-nothing of him was dragged along with us. With some difficulty we finally managed to scramble onto the mainland, albeit, some metres past the picnic site.
Still enthralled? It gets better.
With bellies full of bamboo omelets and sunscreen applied to an already burnt face (damn Irish skin) we jumped back onboard in a much easier fashion than we’d struggled off, and with Angelo now in the control possie (at the back) we took to the rapids once more. The first few were maneuvered well enough. I mean, it’s not hard to paddle straight AND forwards right?
As the rapids started getting a little more chunky and the reeds (trees? I don’t know what they were) became bigger in size and bigger in number we struggled to move past them in the appropriate kayak orientation (straight). Then before I knew it we had hit a patch of reeds side on. As the river kept flowing – and we did not – our boat started to fill with water.
“Shiiiiiiiiiit…” and a number of other profanities escaped in single-file out of my mouth. But, luckily, and with a bit of encouragement in the form of me swinging side to side in the kayak – much like the way you shunt yourself back and forwards in your seat in an attempt to make a car go faster, even though you know it won’t – the reeds started to give way, and bent under the water allowing us to slide gracefully over the top.
The second time we weren’t so lucky.
While I was attempting to bale water out of the kayak with cupped hands (and very little success), Angelo was directing us into another patch of reeds. Sideways. Again.
Being of a much sturdier nature we now found ourselves ‘up shit creek’ -but with paddles. The current here was so strong that our kayak actually started to bend around the reeds with each end capturing the full force of the current.
Angelo, now at the front of the boat (we had spun backwards), was being held against his will and against the current at one of these ends. With one hand holding a paddle, the other trying to keep himself above the water and a foot stuck somewhere underneath I had to act quickly before something terrible happened. Like, losing a paddle.
So, jumping on top of the kayak I grabbed both paddles and attempted to wedge them into the reeds – we’d probably need these later. It was then that something occurred to me that made my stomach drop – both of our cameras were in a bag that had been tucked into the back of the kayak.
And by ‘our cameras’ I really mean ‘our babies‘. These were not just simple machines for the sole purpose of taking selfies and pictures of foreign food we eat in restaurants. Oh, no. These were, in Angelo’s case – a passionate hobby that attracts most of his attention and sucks up most of his time, and in my case – something to keep me occupied while Angelo is pursuing his hobby. So, pretty important.
Anyway, I think this thought occurred to both of us at the same time. Angelo tried to reach beneath him to see if he could feel them…
“I think… I’ve got them!” I then tried to reach under him with my leg, and felt the bag. Carefully balancing with one hand still holding the paddles I hooked the bag with my foot and slowly drew it towards my hand. With the two of us nervously yelling at each other and the camera bag getting pulled into the strongest part of the current this was turning into quite the frightening experience. Before long it popped out and I slung it over my shoulder like the latest Prada accessory while I considered my next move.
The kayak was bending more and more that I was expecting it to explode at any minute like a balloon under a fat person. Things were getting worse for Angelo too, who managed to free his foot from beneath him, only to find himself swept quickly and violently around the end of the kayak and drinking more than his daily requirements of dirty river water.
With Angelo barely able to hold on against the current, I scrambled onto the reeds themselves and started to jump for dear life. I figured, if we can’t go around, we’ll have to go over. So I jumped and jumped and jumped with my waterproof Prada on one side and the two paddles on the other.
Just as Angelo’s sounds of struggle were starting to diminish the reeds started to give a little. So I jumped harder and harder. Then, in one fell movement, I was swept clean off my feet by the kayak, landing square in the middle of it as it scratched its way across the top of the reeds.
Once clear of the imminent danger, Angelo scrambled back on board and we both sat back and marveled at our good fortune. But that’s when I realised we weren’t so lucky after all.
We’d escaped with our cameras and lives intact, but…
…we’d lost our jandals.