Thursday, 31 October 2013

Into the Heart of Borneo

To finish up the summer I headed out to Borneo for 8 weeks as part of Kayak Borneo. Before landing in Kota Kinabalu I had no idea what to expect, but what followed was two months of great food, minor mishaps and adventure. We met indigenous tribes who have occupied the highlands for ten thousand years, paddled numerous first descents and ran countless class three rapids...upstream! Check out the Kayak Borneo blog for stories. Here is a collection of my favourite photos and memories. 

The Telekosang 
An awesome river found by the first team. We headed there early in the trip to warm up and get a feel for the white water of Borneo. 

Photo: Jonny Hawkins
Photo: Jonny Hawkins
The Tuto
After warming up the team decided to leave Sabah (northern Malaysian Borneo) and head south west to Sarawak. After talking to helicopter pilots, consulting our seriously out of date topological maps and driving through the small country of Brunei we set of on an unconventional route to Mulu national park. Two ferries, a long boat and a scary four wheel drive ride later and we were at the top of the Tuto. With persistent heavy rain we had to move camp three times on the first night whilst dodging the jungle wildlife. The river was mostly big, big volume grade 3/4 but one rapid was so serious that it had us trapped for four hours waiting for the levels to drop. Every time we thought it was getting ok to run a tree would emerge like the sword from the lake below the drop.

Traveling upstream towards Mulu National Park.
Photo: Jonny Hawkins 
Third time lucky. Where our camp ended up after the river rose 10 meters over night.
Photo: Jonny Hawkins
A boily horrible mess still pretty scary after two hours and a meter less water....
Photo: Jonny Hawkins
Along the way we managed to get immersed in the tribal culture of Borneo; staying with Penan and Kayan tribes in traditional longhouses. We were even given a demonstration of the silent and deadly blowpipe. 

Getting warnings of a flooded limestone gorge with a huge waterfall to sump....
Photo: Jonny Hawkins
A Penan elder off hunting.
Photo: Patrick Clissold
The paddle out back to civilisation.
Photo: Jonny Hawkins

The Trusan
Aftre the Tuto we drove around quite a bit and then got a little grumpy. That was until at around 2pm one afternoon we got on the lower Trusan. In honesty it was an accident, we thought we were getting on a different river. As it turned out the lower was great. Medium volume class 4 and clearly running high! The next day we decided to explore the upper reaches and after a good bit of flat and encountering a crocodile we found an excellent gorge. 

Fun rapids washing the stress away.
Photo: Jonny Hawkins 
A tight and steep gorge on day one of the upper Trusan.
Photo: Jonny Hawkins
A butterfly at camp in the morning.
Photo: Nick Bennett
Killing time
After the Trusan we had a bit of spare time as the rest of the team was soon heading home. Jonny and I decided we would climb Mt Kinabalu, South East Asias highest peak, Patrick decided to get ill instead. When Dom arrived for the second leg we got some coaching in with the local raft guides. 

Photo: Jonny Hawkins
Sunrise over South East Asia
Photo: Jonny Hawkins
Dom teaching one of the raft guides how to roll.

Into Indonesia
A proper jungle mission! Seven days which literally left me speechless. Two days getting to the top of the river and five days of paddling back down. A trip which involved up river boats, a bulldozer, a tractor, portaging a 50 m waterfall and countless classic rapids. 
Kids in Tawau
Photo: Nick Bennett 
Running rapids upstream.
Photo: Nick Bennett
An unconventional shuttle vehicle.
Photo: Nick Bennett 
My kind of 4x4!
Photo: Nick Bennett
Dozer. Photo: Sean Ziehm-Stephen

Sean in the rain.
Photo: Nick Bennett
Getting a ride out.
Photo: Nick Bennett
Sunset whilst paddling the last stretch into town.
 Photo: Nick Bennett

The End
After Indonesia Dom and I headed back to Sabah to go and chill on the Padas rafting run and also to claim the second decent of the upper, a super fun and quite scary section above the rafting run. 

Playing in a RiverBugs RPM on the rafting run.
Photo: RiverBugs
Thanks to the BCU and the Lord Mayor of London for funding and to Pyranha for giving us boats. Also huge thanks to the WWF in Indonesia who were no end of help with logistics.  At then end of our trip we sold our boats and the money is going to award winning conservation charity Heart of Borneo Rainforest Foundation. Both charities are enthused by the positive impact that responsible tourism can have in protecting one of the most bio-diverse and threatened parts of the planet. Offering locals an alternative to deforestation whilst still driving development.     


Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Grand Canyon of the Verdon.

One morning, about three weeks in to our Alpine holiday, after enjoying the aqua blue waters of the Soča in Slovenia, the coffee of Itlay and the croissants and bread of France, we decided to make some calls and see if we could get the Verdon gorge done. We had all heard so much about it and really wanted to make it happen. It was the usual lazy morning, until the rafting company down in Castellan gave us the go ahead -it would be releasing the next day. Then it was all systems go. After a quick trip into Briançon to stock up on supplies (drybags, fruit and nut mix, chocolate…) and hit the road bound for the Gorges du Verdon.

The journey there was eventful in itself. The road we (ok Matt and I) had chosen ended up taking us along the Col d’Allors, one of the skinniest, windiest and scary roads of all time. With a rather queezy Matt looking out over the shear drops and squeeming noises coming from the driver accompanied by rounds of very nervous laughter we were all very happy to have finally seen the end of it. 
But we wouldn't have found this little gem of a town had it not been for the horrible road!  

We arrived in Castellane rather late and found ourselves in the oddest of scenarios, it seems all the local hippies were out dancing, there was a band, and lots of hemp and felt skirts... Next morning we woke with the sun, packed up camp and headed back into town to go quiz the rafting company on levels for the next day to see if we could sleep in there tonight or if we had to do it all in one day. Matt –our linguist, came back rather dejected by the nasty rude rafting man who had said we couldn’t do it and would be fools to even try. This is because there had been large floods a month or so prior and no one had been down the gorge since and as such there was no knowing the extent to the wood that may be blocking our path. However, cutting a long story short, we came across a local kayaker who told us he had friends that had done it 2 weeks prior and it was good to go (with a few extra portages).
So, we were back on! Excitement levels rose as we were driving to the Carajuan Bridge and we packed out boats with the essentials (Sleeping things, some beaufort and a bottle of Jamesons).

A gift from some wonderful Irish guys we had met in Slovenia and been with since then .

Team Photo, Matt, Nathan, Nick, Tom and Debs. All sweltering in our drysuits...

Nick and Debs chillin' on the Pre-Canyon
 We had put on early to avoid a massive walk in and to get used to our laden boats on the easy stuff. Then we reached the beginning of the gorge and the get out for the rafts, now it was really starting. The first blind corner (the first of MANY), the raft guide said it was to be run on the left, but even being told, we were still rather nervous especially after our kind kayaker had said "watch out as there really are siphons everywhere". 
The get out for the rafts. Now the siphons begin.. 

The first very ominous looking cave, I had thought it was “the Styx” home to enormous siphons. My stomach dropped when we got the signal “choo choo -all go”…of course... it wasn’t the styx.
One bonus of taking two days to run the 34km is that you don’t have to rush, so we had time to explore the tributary which at first glance doesn’t look up to much, but then… you break through the narrow gorge, through a waterfall and into paradise! The photos just don’t do it justice! The water was so turquoise! 
Nathan checking out the trib...just look at that water!

A little further up, 100 times more amazing in real life. 
After dragging ourselves away from the wonders of the Artuby (the tributary), we soon saw the footbridge that warns of the first grade 5, l'Estellie, suitably named if it is french for zigzag or right, left, right, left, riigght and then the line was not a simple down the middle.
Matt and Nick at the start of l'Estellie. Pushier than it looks. on their first left. 

The second right, Tom and Debs avoiding the large tree barring the river. 
Not long after this rapid we stopped to make camp for the night, dried out our kit and very sweaty thermals and got some pasta and cheese on the go. We had been told that the next day the dam was to be releasing between 20-26cumecs, potentially double what we had paddled that day. So we left our kayaks high up on the sandy bank where we made camp for the night in case of a sudden rise in levels. 
Thermals off first, then food. It was SO hot!.

The kitchen.

Jamesons and cards for our evenings entertainment.

Our camp up on the sandy ledge at the foot of a large, slightly overhanging cliff .

We had some fun with these shadows. 

 Next morning we rose early and grudgingly put on our drysuits and started our second day in fine fettle. Eddy hopping our way down, Nick jumping out to scout the next blind corner, then we came to 'The Styx'. Now this was the siphony cave, after a good look Nick went first and styled it, Nathan then followed and made Nick's line look even better after finding himself pinned on a rock you can't see in the photos.
Nathan on the lip of 'the Styx'. Pre pin, the nasty pinny rock is just behind that big boulder in front of him . The water was pushing you right and into it. Nick had done it so smoothly you hadn't noticed. 

Matt narrowly avoided the pin but ended up valiently fighting that hole to the right (in front of him). No one swam and no one got too close to the siphons. 
I had seen quite enough pinnage already, so decided to walk this one rather than scare my self silly as people have been lost to the Styx in the past. 
Now this is never a good sign. More evidence of the floods. Barring our way through l'Imbut. The river  dissapears underneath this massive boulder choke and you climb out of a kayak shaped hole at the other end and seal launch back in. No way would this be clear of wood. So a long and hot portage was embarked upon. A shame to have missed the rapid.

Long hot portage involving lots of ropes and climbing..

Our Lunch spot. After the grueling portage that took about an hour.
After one or two more small portages we came to 'The Curtain'. We had started to walk round when I heard whooping from Nick on the other side of the curtain, 

"It goes, it goes! It doesn't look like it does, but you have to trust me! Go left!" 

I had already portaged but passed the news onto the others who then one by one dropped round the corner, were faced with a wall of rock in front of them and nasty wood choke to the right. You only see the little entrance through the wall of rock about two meters from it. It must have been terrifying! But they all did it successfully after many shouts of 




Not too stylish, but successful non the less. 

The water gradually eased and we paddled out of the gorge up into the lake, winding our way through a mass of peddle-o's and canoes and back into civilization.
The end of the gorge. Drysuits and thermals off! 
A truly awesome trip, no photos do justice, nor words describe it adequately. Being at the heart of the gorge, away from everything, just you and your team. It was such a special thing. Multidays are so where its at! We finally did it! 

Thank you to Nick for keeping us safe, Matt Washer for the photos and the lovely people at Aqua Viva Est who sorted put us in touch with the local kayaker (who had a french name that i just cant remember!).

Photos: Matt Washer and Nick Bennett.

Words: Debs Perry.

Debs x

Sunday, 3 February 2013

A Chuffing Cold Silly Idea...

For the last couple of weeks I've been cruising around the Highlands of Scotland in the van making the most of some time off and the snowy weather. After parking up in Wester Ross, my hopes of getting up some wintery hills with views over Inverpolaidh were spoiled by incoming rain. Lots of rain. As usual, when the rain arrived so did the flood of texts from paddling mates. One stood out from the rest.

"Ossian this Monday night and Tues? Forecast looks great."

Sent from my friend Dave Maltby in Edinburgh.

Hmm. Paddling huh? I'd not really been overly enthusiastic recently about getting out on the water. Not in this country anyway. Maybe somewhere far away where the sun is still hot and the water not so cold. But the Ossian! I'd been hoping to get on this trip since I'd first heard about it. A little paddled river that emerges from the remote heathery bogs of Rannoch Moor. From Loch Ossian, the river emerges small and meandering at first before picking up the pace as the gradient increases and more tribuatries add to the flow.  The river relaxes for a bit in Loch Ghuilbinn before it is reborn as the Abhainn Ghuilbinn which steps up the gradient and volume of whitewater as it carves its way down the wide glacial trough of the glen into the Loch Laggan reservoir at the bottom, and on into the River Spean.

Sounds good? Why haven't you paddled this river yet, I hear you ask?

The catch is, there is no proper road to the get on. The most straight forward way might be to lugg your boats up the rough land rover track for the 15 or so miles to the end of Loch Ossian. Or by being very nice to the folk at Fort William train station, get your boats in the Guards van on the last train out of town, the 7.50pm sleeper to London Euston, and hop off quickly at the lonely station of Corrour on Rannoch Moor. Find somewhere to sleep. Carry down to Loch Ossian, and hopefully with the wind behind you paddle for an hour or so from the top of the loch to the river at the bottom.

Another problem is the river requires a fair bit of water and so is rarely in condition during the summer when there is warmth, daylight, and the Corrour Youth Hostel is open to escape the fierce midges.

And so it was that I found myself giggling out of breath with Nick, Debs, Dave and all our boats in the guard's carriage chugg chugging out of Fort William station in the darkness of a cold wet January night.

Getting the boats on the train turned out to be a bit of a panicy rush as we spent a little too much time sorting ourselves out in the carpark, but we managed to venture in with only a few minutes before departure.

The guard asked us how big the boats were.

I said, "hmm, about this big."

He said, "that's too big, they wont fit."

I said they will.

And they did... just about.

Dave and I managed to maneuver our two boats into the bike compartment of the carriage, with two minutes before the train was due to leave. As the guards shut the doors behind us, that was when Nick and Debs appeared on the platform with two more boats. People were not impressed. Especially when we realised that Nick's van had not been locked up and I had the key on the train. Many thanks to the folk at the ticket office for locking it and looking after the key until our return. We owe you one.

Phew! We were on. All four people, four boats and four paddles. We made our way to the comfortable sleeper train seating and enjoyed a pint of Deuchars each from the onboard bar. After a comfortable hours traveling, we pulled up at Corrour Station and slid our boats out into the windy darkness of Rannoch Moor.

Red Sky at Morning...

Home for the night.

I didn't sleep very well. If at all. After the beer on the train followed by a couple of bottles of Inveralmond Brewery's Ossian beer, it wasn't long after getting into my cosy sleeping bag that I needed to take a trip outside. I didn't want to go outside. The powerful wind screaming past the door of the little wooded shelter all night didn't help a good nights sleep either and made me frett about our long paddle across the loch in the morning.

But morning soon came and we emerged to a fairly decent day. The wind had calmed down and it wasn't snowing or raining. We ate breakfast, packed up camp into the boats, and set off down the track to Loch Ossian.

The loch was a bit of a mission to be honest. It would be a pleasant paddle in an open boat on a warm clear day, exploring its little islands. But in small creek boats in January, even with the wind behind us it was a tiring mission. But we endured and made it to the far end where the slightly sinister looking glass towers of the Corrour lodge house guard the loch's outflow, and our entry into the river. (Perhaps I've been reading to much Iain Banks or Stephen King).

Paddling down the Ossian was a delight. We had to portage and duck under a couple of fences early on but the river was a fun level and we bounced down some fun wide rapids all the way to Loch Ghuillbinn.

Well almost all the way...

Debs attempting to paddle through the collected ice.

Whilst paddling down we had enjoyed floating along with mini icebergs and sheets of ice that had flowed down presumably from Loch Ossian. We guessed that they would probably just collect in Loch Ghuilbinn. Little did we know that Loch Ghuilbinn was covered in a thick layer of ice, and that all the ice flowing downstream to meet it couldn't float any further and was backing up the river. The river wasn't flowing too powerfully here but it was still a bit disconcerting to watch the flow disappear under the piled up ice sheets. It looked like we would have to drag our boats overland for a bit.

Bugger that.

Loch Ghuilbinn with ice too thick to paddle through, but too thin to walk over.

Walking round however was a good way to warm up our cold legs and feet.

By the time we got round the ice we were good and warmed up again, had a bite of lunch and headed off down the Abhainn Ghuilbinn. The river started off pretty chilled, much like the Ossian, but we knew bigger rapids awaited, and soon we were upon them...

...and I was in them.

Dave led the way, having paddled the river earlier last year. I stopped for a minute and sorted out my boat outfitting as I knew the first steeper rapid was coming up. When I was sorted I floated on down to see that Dave and Nick were already at the bottom of it.

"Cool. It must be fairly straightforward then."

Dave signaled to head river left. Debs indicated to put in a good boof stroke from the bank. So I headed down. A little too left. Bashed a rock and pretty much just fell, with no momentum, into a nice big hole, which bounced me around for a nice while under the cold water. I didn't feel like I'd be coming out of it anytime soon in my boat, so before I ran out of breath I pulled my deck, struggled out of the boat and had a very, very cold swim clutching the cold metal grab handles of my boat. I felt the icy streams of water seep into my no longer one-hundred percent "drysuit". The ice-cream head was killer!

After the initial adrenaline rush, and relief to be safely on the bank intact and reunited with boat and paddle, I soon felt pretty cold and drained from the whole experience. I enjoyed eating some good chunks of chocolate and ran about a bit to warm up before venturing back on the water.

After that the drops, although mostly flowing into good pools, seemed to steadily build in technicality and pushiness. After cocking up that last drop and now feeling pretty cold and tired I opted to walk around most of them taking photos of the others having fun. One of the rapids, that I talked myself into sorting myself out for and running, didn't go well either and I spent some more time upside down in the head numbing water above a pretty unfriendly drop.

Oh well. More chocolate for me. Numpty.

Nick right on line.

Dave putting in a stroke to (hopefully) get through that very cold looking hole, and be upright for the next one.

The rapids are awesome though! Especially in the decent flows the melting snow gave us.

By the time we made it back to the warmth and safety of the the van, where dry clothes and warm soup awaited us, I was knackered. However, now that I'm warm and safe in the house by the roaring fire with a cup of tea, I'm kind of looking forward the next time I can get out there. I know the lines now... I'll show it what for ;-)

I'll definitely be waiting for things to warm up a bit more first though.

Story and Photos by Ben McKeown.