I sailed around this wild world for 10 years when I was just a cub. Things rarely went wrong.
Yesterday I took a homemade bamboo raft down the river on the final day of a 3 day trek starting from Hsipaw (Myanmar), and it took less than 20 minutes for everything to go wrong.
It's amazing isn't it. You can be safe for 10 years crossing oceans and fighting winds and waves, then you can die on a simple excursion down a river. Well I'm still alive, but this was damn dangerous.
The trek started off well. With me was a guide, 3 porters carrying sleeping bags, food and water, a woman who never spoke and a guy who spoke way too much.
We climbed a mountain to reach tree houses the guide had built himself on the first day. That evening was extremely cold. Perhaps for that reason, I ate way too much for dinner. It felt like a security to stuff myself. The food was good too.
I was pulled out of dreamland with a nightmare. My mouth was dry and my forehead boiling. My water bottles were empty. They were to be refilled the next day with boiled stream water. I peaked at my watch, expecting it to be early morning. It was 11:30 p.m. I was awestruck. It was going to be one very long night. Indeed it was. From that moment I repeatedly had an identical dream. It was me, walking in to a store, buying water then waking up empty handed in that dark tree house. I was dreaming of water. It must have happened about 30 times, over and over. I was praying for morning to come. At 1 a.m. I woke up yet another time. My stomach felt wrong and my dry mouth started to water in a peculiar way. I was going to throw up. I did.
In the morning I went straight to our guide and asked him to bring us to the closest village, for me to grab a cab back to the hotel. He laughed and said "No village here my friend, you must walk and do trek." He was a short and chubby man, more than you'd expect a mountain guide to be. He laughed for everything, and was easygoing on many things, too many things.
That day I walked for 6 hours with fever and vomiting here and there. My stomach allowed no intake, not even water. In the middle of the afternoon I felt drained. No more joules in my legs. My body was giving away. I reached the night camp at 4 p.m. and slept till the next day.
I woke up with a sore body but feeling alright. The plan was to take a bamboo raft down the river until we'd reach a Shan village. The raft had been made the same night by a local and his son. They'd be our skippers too. By the time we all had gotten on the raft it had sunken down by about 30 centimeters. We had water up to our ankles.
The raft was made of one layer of bamboos which constituted the floor and two benches on each side for us to sit on. Father and son each had an oar locked in an X at front and back to try to steer this floating sponge.
Once we all were onboard our guide, in his usual naive smiley tone, said: "I can't swim I'm from the mountains, if we have problem please come get me." then giggled.
We passed the first rapids with waves crashing in, reaching up to our knees. The whole thing felt like a bad idea. I took a sec to peak at our two pilots and saw fear in their eyes. I wanted to say "Stop here I'm off" and walk, but I'd have been the scared boat kid who couldn't raft down a river whilst 2 nights ago I had told stories about my decade long sailing trip in front of an attentive audience.
I glanced at the guide. "Was this the worse rapids we'll go through?"
"Still two more!"
That wasn't quite what I was asking.
The second rapids went as the first.
The third rapids went as the second. Oh but this time, there was a rock in the middle, a little after the the roughest part.
It was perfectly in the middle of the current, neatly positioned. Submerged enough to be hardly visible but still a threat. I spotted it in a blink of an eye. I looked at the two fools on each end and pointed at it.
"There is a rock. You can't hit it get away."
Father screamed at son and they started to row.
. . .
We hit it perfectly. I mean absolutely perfectly. Not a bit to the left or the right to get pushed to one side or the other, no, I said perfectly.
The impact caused us to stop, instantly. The back which was already submerged now had water flowing in.
It took us each a second to understand the rafting thrills were ending here.
In a thundering noise the back of the raft got dragged down to the bottom as the little knots linking the bamboos together snapped. The whole thing bent sideways and propped itself against the rock. Some of us were on the raft and others standing on the rock. I was among the latter. The force of the water was tremendous. It plowed it's way through and in between the bamboos making them flex back and forth. I felt this was very unstable, and dangerous. If the bamboos slipped over the rock it was going to all fall on me. That's 5 people, the raft, our bags and a beastly river flow.
One asked our guide what we were going to do. With his usual smile he said to throw our bags in the water and swim to the shore. I literally felt like slapping him in the face for that grin he had. We were in trouble and had a lot of value with us: cameras, phones, passports... How could he be smiling at this?
I unhooked my bag, put it in a plastic bag, cut off three bamboo poles and slipped into the water.
I went from a boiling state fueled by adrenaline to freezing and hyperventilating. I tried to slow down the breathing and intake more air. It was merely impossible. I could feel my heart pounding through my chest.
No time to lose.
I drifted to the shore and climbed out among the rocks.
I quickly got my bag out and opened it. Everything was wet. I took my camera out of its pouch and sat it on a rock, then did the same for my phone. The rest could wait.
I lit a fire with the help of one of our porters who happened to be just there, then I undressed.
I'd be fine.
Now if I did get off after those first rapids I wouldn't have been the scared chicken in the end. I would've been the experienced one who knew better when to stop.
Always trust your gut.