We spent our last day in the Tana Toraja whitewater rafting. An activity, which in the mind of the child, now forms a kind of holy trinity with zipwiring and zorbing, as sheer, adrenaline-fuelled, screeching fun.
As he put it, “Zipwiring is aerial. Zorbing is, ummm…, terrestrial. And whitewater rafting is the aquatic equivalent.”
Or, “Wooooooo! Wapids ahead!!! Woooo!!! More wapids!!!”
If you’re not familiar with the concept, whitewater rafting means, essentially, paddling a toughened inflatable dinghy down a mountain river, over white water and rapids. What folk don’t often mention is that you cover quieter stretches too.
So when you’re not soaring, bouncing and howling your way over rocks, chutes, swells and chop, you idle gently downstream, admiring the landscape around you, like a character from The Wind in the Willows (or, perhaps, in our case, Three Men in a Boat).
Now, I’ve wanted to go whitewater rafting for a while –- since a climber friend came back from a trip babbling about rafting being “one of the most fun things ever”. And I’ve had an eye out for a good place to do it since January, before we hit the Andes next year.
So the Maiting River, which runs through a dramatic forested gorge in the mountains outside Rantepao, seemed perfect. I had thought about a two-day trip down the nearby Sungai Sa’adan, where the rapids run grade IV and V at this time of year and water level.
Under-14s are not allowed. And, while I’m kind of blase about most age limits, this one exists because you need adult strength not only to paddle the raft but to make your way to shore without serious injury should the raft tip up (they do), or you fall out (folk do).
As we reach the very top of the gorge, when I hear it roaring below us, my slightly childish concern that Grade III rapids means “no fun” rapids, begins to evaporate.
Getting there, in fact, is an adventure in itself. From dragging the 4WD out of the ruts on the road up the mountain — the single worst road I have experienced in a lifetime, far worse than any Borneo logging road, Mauritanian camel track, or Kenyan lorry jounceabout — to bouncing the cattle truck into motion, to slipsliding the hour or so down from the village to the rocks which frame the river.
There, Osbert, our lead guide, gives us a safety briefing. Which is great until he gets to these bits:
“If you fall out or the raft tips up, swim on your back. Don’t swim face down as you can hit hidden rocks.”
“If you fall out, head for the shore and wait to be picked up downriver. Don’t try and swim back to the boat.”
And, the piece de resistance, this:
“When I shout ‘boom boom’, that means ‘rocks overhead’. Get in the middle of the boat and crouch down low, away from the sides.”
This instantly transitions me from a slightly (?very?) childish fear that these rapids will be NO FUN AT ALL to maternal fear for Z’s cranium.
Used as I am to Asian safety equipment, the fact that these lifejackets fit, the helmets look like they could take an impact and the throw ropes are in good nick makes me, paradoxically, rather worried that Z might actually get hurt.
But we’re off. Paddling across the channel, which splits around a boulder, into a surging swell of water which looks set to spin us straight into the black granite wall of the gorge.
I have about enough time to think, terrified, that we’re going to hit the cliff head-on and crash, when we do exactly that.
The raft, being inflatable (doh!), tilts, slides up the side of the ravine cliff a little way, hangs in midair a little while, then angles back, and sploshes into the water.
Z is howling with joy. I can’t help whooping.
My fear transforms instantly into excitement, and we’re ploughing down a neat, narrow water chute into…
Well, into waves about a metre or so high, curving backwards away from the rocks and clashing in a way that waves at sea only do when nasty tidal currents collide…
“Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy!” yells my spawn, his eyes wide with total joy, as the guides and I plough the water, paddling hard on the left side.
And then we’re out.
I look around. We’re in one of the most beautiful gorges I’ve ever seen. Ducks scoot low over the surface of the water. Dark green highland forest stretches down to a pebbled beach fringed with palm and wild banana as the leisurely brown river ambles by.
“Wapids ahead!” yells the child, who has appointed himself mission videographer and is delivering a vocal running commentary from the relative safety of the middle of the boat.
A long, gold and black striped lizard of the kind they call “iguana” here picks itself up from the sun on the bank and enters the water at surprising speed, disappearing beneath the gathering waves.
Then we’re in. Bouncing, jostling, paddling hard around the rocks, great slabs of water thudding into the boat as though someone’s chucking in barrels of the stuff stage left.
A lurch as we scrape across a submerged rock and tumble off the farther side. I almost fall backwards off the edge of the boat but my feet are locked under the dinghy frame.
My son sounds like an underage John Motson commenting on the Derby…
My biceps are beginning to feel the strain.
And then through, the current slowing, waves turning to ripples, and cruising past the most idyllic stretch of waterfalls frothing white down the sheer black granite, kingfishers darting low and blue over the waves.
We break for lunch after an hour or two of this heavenly alternation, on the stony banks of the calming river. Then idle, again, downstream.
It is safe for Z to swim downstream with the current here, and he leaps from the raft to float “gently, gently, gently down the stream”.
A few more gentle rapids, and we reach our pick up point, a little farm where the kids have just caught fresh fish from the circular pond Torajans carve out of the centre of the paddy. Life here is raw and brutal, but it’s a beautiful place to be.
Thanks to Debbie @ Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Friday.