…a packrafting journey into the heart of Sierra Leone and Liberia's Peace Park…supported by the RGS Journey of a Lifetime grant

Without a paddle

IMG_2739I swing back and forth across the top of the rapid, teetering in the neutral area where I can still fetch the raft back from the lip of the sliding water, trying to pick the cleanest line but really just building up the courage to take down the drop.

I’m looking for the tongue of the cataract; a v-shaped flume of flatish water that if I nail head on will see me through this last piece of danger and safely into my camp for the night. My nerves have been shredded over the last few days. I’d had some close calls, hit some rocks and once even found myself wedged up hard against a submerged tree, but I’d held on through the worst of it and was starting to feel a bit more confident in my ability.

One last look. There are three potential lines and I cant see the full run on any of them, the rapid plateaus awkwardly in the middle before dropping out of sight for the last ten foot before the splash pool. It isn’t ideal. I decide to go for the middle for no other reason than it looks slightly less rocky, a bit cleaner maybe. I turn the raft in a long circle, straighten and go for it.

It’s all fast. The rumble of water on rock fills my ears, focuses my sight; I’m holding my breath with hands tight round the paddle. I drop into the plateau cleanly but from the blind spot a black rock emerges dead ahead. I dig hard into the foam down the right side of the raft, pressing back, desperate to adjust my line before a devastating impact. The raft buckles before it bends to my will. The nose turns hard, I flip to the left side and drive forward, straightening and rounding the rock in a nanosecond. Suddenly I’m through, the splash pool sanctuary is directly ahead but so is another rock. I can’t do anything this time. The raft smashes in headfirst and my entire 130-kilo load is lifted free of the water like a Polaris missile. Everything slows as we roll. I hold my breath as my world goes black.

*            *            *

Into my second week on the river I knew which rapids I could take on by sound alone. A flat ‘burrrrr’ sound, like a washing machine spin cycle, was a good one, a dull burble was always too shallow, a heavy jet engine was deadly and must be portaged but it was the dull rumble I feared the most, those were the fifty-fifties and by far and away the type I encountered the most.

I had left Sakpa at Vangaima, a three-tiered giant of a waterfall with clouds of black fly swarming above every churning pool. It had been a scary approach to the falls. I could hear them a mile off, an imperious guttural roar through the forest, a truly prehistoric beast. The lip was hidden from view behind a barrier of rock. The water lapped round into a small funnel, an inviting innocuous looking siren disguising the ultra-violence that crouched just metres away. I knew a mistake here would be deadly. Sakpa watched from the tree cover on the right bank as I headed into the funnel and pumped my arms hard across the lip of the waterfall. “You’re a long time dead,” my mother’s words rolled through my mind.

I remember doing a day at the whitewater centre in Cardiff back before the Trans Papua in 2011. I had been stunned at how close you could get to a fall and still rescue your craft, if only you knew how and where to paddle. The trick is to paddle directly across, don’t fight the flow by trying to go against the swell but do try and keep your nose angled slightly upstream – that and pump hard, really, really hard. Sakpa and I broke down the gear and carried it by hand to a white sand beach at the base of the drop and said our goodbyes for the last time. From there I headed into the heart of the forest utterly alone, the next time I’d see Sakpa would be at the end of the expedition, whenever that may be.

The next few days drifted between the sublime and the ridiculous. The jungle continued to deliver scenes of unparalleled beauty: I encountered my first troop of Diana monkeys, a gloriously decorated primate with grey fur merging with a rust-red back, white breast, black face and long black tail. I startled the group as they drank from the riverside, they scattered and resumed their chirruping call, reassuring and regrouping just out of sight. Time merged in those middle days. Long paddles among a backdrop of 70-metre trees, I never knew what I might see round the corner; I heard my first chimps, encountered catfish the size of Staffordshire bull-terriers, saw snakes hunting frogs, eagles snatching fish, and was continually awestruck by the constant whirling presence of hundreds of different bird species: hornbills, herons, egrets, the stalking Tiger bittern and giant wooly necked stork, an array of ducks, the pygmy kingfisher and the brilliant blue cuckoo-shrike. Then there were the animals I didn’t see but was continually made aware of: the micro-second flashes of colour, the creaks, croaks, thumps and grumbles from the bushes and the large animal that I felt sliding along my packraft base as I drifted free in one particularly deep and dark pool.

Those days were not without problems: my sleeping mat was doubling as a useful cushion on my packraft base but after numerous collisions it simply punctured, the stove I had picked up in Kenema (ironically named ‘the safety camping’) exploded on one of my afternoon breaks, I faced down an enormous midnight storm, tore my raft base on the rocks and continually spilt, dropped and lost things, classically I would pack away all my kit and discover something vital staring me down outside the drybags or something I needed for the day was buried deep within the raft. Slowly though I gained control and momentum. I found simple fixes for my problems, I was putting in longer days, growing in confidence and had my portage routine down to a fine art, realising I could leave the heaviest bag tied in the raft base and use the straps to carry the load and raft on my back simultaneously became a real timesaver.

The night before the capsize I washed in the river then lay back on the warm stones to dry out. I lay back, looking at the clearest of night skies full of all the familiar constellations of the northern hemisphere and drew comfort from the fact that all my family and friends were under the same set of stars. I felt less alone in that moment and more determined than ever to pull this off. My greatest tests though, were waiting right round the corner.

*            *            *

I popped up in the middle of the river. I had stupidly strapped my mixer and mic to my chest yet had somehow managed to keep them above the water by thrusting them skyward as myself and the raft plunged under. My feet scraped the riverbed. It wasn’t deep and I could arrest my journey downstream by jamming up against the rocks, finally I was safe, now where the hell was my raft?

I looked ahead. It was base-up free floating down the river. I turned around to see my paddle, rolling over and over at the bottom of the rapid, trapped in a small whirlpool. I had to think fast: without the paddle my rafting expedition was over but the raft had my food, the shelter, the medical kit, my navigation equipment, the satellite phone and all the recordings. Without it the project was doomed. At least if I only lost the paddle I could survive out here and have a record of my story, with just the paddle and no raft I was finished.

I started after the raft, ditching the radio kit on a large rock in the middle of the river. I half swam and half strode downstream in pursuit. The raft looked like it wasn’t moving that fast but I just couldn’t seem to make up the ground and save it, it felt like I was swimming in porridge and reminded me of a recurring nightmare where I am running from an unseen assailant with all my friends and suddenly I forget how to run and the group slowly leaves me behind to my fate. The raft stalled in the shallows. Gripping the bungee cords holding the bags in place I tried to flip it over. The weight was unbearable, an extra gallon or so of water sloshed in the base and added another ten kilos, but I just managed it, my body shaking with adrenaline, full of fear that my bags might have somehow come loose, abandoning me to my fate. A cursory glance confirmed everything was still in its place; even the suncream I had wedged in my boots and the morning’s fish I had caught and placed inside an empty ration pack. I had strapped everything down just well enough and had been extremely lucky.

The evening drew in as I placed all my belongings out along the rocks in the last of the day’s sunshine. The dry bags had done well, the Aquapac duffel exceptionally so, and I had even managed to retrieve the paddle, but there were casualties: the sound mixer had taken on water and the screen had stopped working, I had lost one empty drybag and my older Arcteryx rucksack was soaked right through. I realised I could be the first person to win this Award and then destroy the kit. “People have taken this recorder to the Himalaya and come back fine” said Simon Elmes, the Creative Director of Radio 4, as he handed me the equipment in Broadcasting house. I stared at the blinking screen one more time before removing the battery pack, the mic, headphones and anything else that might stop the release of moisture. I’d try and dry it in the morning heat tomorrow. Heat it up and pray. It was all I could do.

That night I knew I had to find the fight. People draw strength in different ways. I read through a page of notes I had written before I left, kind words from friends and family, the poem Invictus, a few quotes, some music – just enough to make me feel buoyed again without being too self-indulgent. Then I went through exactly what had just happened, re-visiting my mistakes and analysing what went wrong without beating myself up to the point that I become too afraid to continue. The fact the rapid was small gave me the hope that I was unlikely to flip again in the future, but it also acted as a warning that even the smallest of obstacles could take me out. I reminded myself of a word of caution from a man named Wyndham Jones, who I had met while working on a series about the British woodland: “it’s felling the small trees that ‘ull kill ya” he muttered, beneath his impressive grey beard. Relaxing or underestimating the smaller dangers on an adventure are often where you run into trouble. I promised myself I would take more care. No more fifty-fifty calls or unnecessary blind descents. Unless I could see all of a run, forget it, get out and portage. It wasn’t like I would run out of food, progress had been incredible so far.

I was lying back, surrounded on all four corners of my tarp by giant plate-sized tarantulas that had crawled out of holes in the bankside, when suddenly I became aware of lights on the river. I quickly flipped off my headlamp and peered out into the gloom. I could make out two men working the far bank. They were using their lamps to try and find ‘eyeshine’, the reflection off a mammals eyes, and a dead giveaway for any hunter looking for an easy kill.

I was beyond the halfway mark now and coming back into the realm of man. This was the first sign of illegal activity I had seen and was a warning of things to come.

Catch up on the first episode of Will’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z and tune in for the second at 11am on the 20th September on BBC Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03b2zb1   

Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for the charity Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/

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