White-water kayaking is easy, right?

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Flag of Colombia  , Santander,
Friday, May 27, 2011

The long and tortuous journey up to Merida should have warned us that crossing the border by bus in these mountainous parts would be long and slow but we were still unprepared for the long journey to our next destination, San Gil in Colombia, that involved more than 36 hours, 1 coach, a taxi across the border, two Colombian minibuses and many hours stopped in queues to get through road blockages. To add to this, Gordon had picked up something of a man-cold and was feeling sick and fevery; just want you want when tearing around mountainous roads in a hot and crowded minibus.

Still, we eventually arrived in San Gil which was a very nice little colonial mountain town that is trying its best to make itself into a bit of an adventure sports centre (it has a little way to go yet to achieve this goal). After an exhaustive search, we found ourselves what has to be our best value hostel so far in South America. Beautiful, clean large room with bathroom, breakfast, hot water, internet and a roof terrace with hammocks overlooking the town – and most importantly a TV in our room with cable that was showing both the rugby Premiership final and the Champions League final. All for about a tenner.

We were in town because we had been talking for a long time about doing a white-water kayaking course. We have been rafting and riverboarding quite a few times and are always fascinated by the safety kayakers you tend to have with you. They make it look a lot of fun and they make it look effortless and easy and we couldn't wait to have a go.

So feeling nice and optimistic we found an agency and booked a three day beginner’s course and bright and early the next morning were taken off to an eddy area of the river where we started to practise "Basic skills". This basically consists of learning to Eskimo roll. Easy, right? Not for us it transpired.

We are not sure if we are not designed for doing this but we found it impossible. You basically have to do 3 movements: one with your arms sweeping the paddle backwards at the correct angle, another with your upper body to lean back in the boat and twist and another with your knees and hips push the boat around. All of this you need at exactly the right time and in the right order. That is: do them concurrently but at slightly different times. And do them the right way. All of this while you are upside down and your head is under the water and a rubber skirt is keeping you stuck in the kayak and you can’t breathe. Confused? We were.

It probably didn’t help that our instructor Nestor spoke only Spanish and whilst we have felt fairly confident with our conversational Spanish ordering food and chatting with people the technical kayaking lingo and descriptions of body parts and movements and how they should be done was a bit beyond us. His teaching style also left a little to be desired. Rather than any preparatory exercises to get the different movements right his first approach was just to put us in a kayak, turn it upside down, shout for us to do it and then when we inevitably failed and our lungs were about to burst he’d turn the kayak back over for us. His most often used lines were: “It’s easy, it’s easy” (not what you want to hear when you have just tried and failed for the 60th time to do an Eskimo roll) and “Just do the opposite of everything you’re doing” (but how for pity’s sake!).  At the end of the first morning the owner-manager of the agency told us to be patient and that many people don’t get it first time..... “Or at all” she added ominously under her breath.

So we fell into a routine for the three days. Get up early, get driven to the eddy area (which normally had a donkey hauling sand and p*ssing and sh*tting in the river, nice) where we tried to do Eskimo rolls, and failed. And tried some more. And failed some more. And eventually gave up and went kayaking down a relatively mild bit of river with grade 1 or 2 rapids. This part was quite fun but once again we were pretty much left on our own with no instruction from our guide and just winged it really. Then we would go back to our lovely hostel and relax & recover for the afternoon.

On our last day, after a final attempt to do some Eskimo rolls and not even coming close, we asked if we could go do a different stretch of river rather than doing the same part for a 3rd time; the lady in the shop had promised we would go somewhere different each day after all. Nestor looked a little worried and grimaced but said “Okay we can go down the higher bit of river, but it’s quite big”.

It turned out he wasn’t joking.  The rapids were high grade 3s and felt like a grade 5 from our little kayaks.  Nestor spent most of the time in the increasingly large and vicious rapids shouting “Tranquilo! Tranquilo! TRANQUILO!” in a more and more panicky sounding voice in between instructions to “Go Left! Go Right” that came thick and fast and confusingly. As we approached a particularly massive and ominous looking set of rapids he looked around and seemed to make a decision. “Sarah”, he said, “Come over here and hold onto the side of my kayak. Gordon..... just don’t capsize, okay?”. Right.

Of course Gordon capsized almost immediately whilst trying to obey an instruction to go around the worst of a particularly big wave. He immediately ejected but then lost both kayak and paddle in the tumult of bubbling water and rocks and long dunkings. Eventually after what seemed like about 10 minutes he made it to the side of the river and grabbed onto a rock only to have the too strong current pull him off, bang him into another rock and suck him off down the river. The kayak pretty much sunk, turned on its end and floated off down the river, along with the paddle. Eventually, he managed to cling on to another rock for long enough for Nestor to arrive with Sarah clutching onto his kayak for dear life. The remainder of the big rapids where then spent with Gordon, in the water, clinging onto the front of Nestor’s kayak while Sarah still aboard hers somehow clung on from the side while Nestor attempted to steer the flotilla in between more shouts of “Tranquilo! Tranquilo!”  Let’s just say that we were quite glad to be alive for the familiar sight of the beach where we got out of the river.

So generally white water kayaking didn’t quite go to plan. We can’t say we are done with it yet; we are determined to give it one more go with a better instructor who we can communicate a bit better with.  And perhaps in a proper school where we might learn in a more controlled and regimented way. And one with a pool where we can open our eyes whilst practicing Eskimo rolls and not worry about hitting a donkey with our paddles.

We had also decided during our lazy afternoons that we quite liked the sound of Ecuador and wanted to save a good bit of time for it and also not spend too much time days trekking across the rest of Columbia on windy roads in uncomfortable minibuses. This meant it was time to press on.
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