Volume 25 • Issue No. 2 •
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Nov/Dec 2002


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Winter Waters

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< Nov/Dec 2002
Winter Waters
6 stellar winter paddling gems

You’ve just spent the weekend sweeping leaves instead of practicing your sweep stroke and reluctantly, you’ve stored your boat in the rafters of the garage, finally succumbing to the obvious: Paddling season is over. But it isn’t—not everywhere on the globe. Right now, someone is running a sea kayak up onto a sandy beach, or maneuvering a raft down a raging Southern Hemisphere river. It’s time to revisit the plans you made and called off last winter, or make up some new ones. Here’s a few ideas for stellar, winter paddling destinations that have nothing to do with snow tires or pogies.

Welcome to the Jungle

Forget the beach. To experience the real Belize, set your sights inland. And bring your paddle with you.

Bob Pickett really wanted to see a boa constrictor. Actually, Bob really wanted to touch a boa constrictor. Well, actually, Bob really wanted to find a boa constrictor, wrap it around his neck like a Hawaiian lei, and get a photo taken to show the boys back home. Lucky for Bob, when you’re four days deep into the Belizean jungle, finding a willing boa is not only possible, but likely. And by then, wrapping it around your neck doesn’t even seem that weird.

Pickett was one of nine people who joined me last March on the second commercial descent of southern Belize’s Upper Swasey River, which drops east from the Maya Mountains and empties into the Caribbean Sea near the resort community of Placencia. The weeklong trip is one of seven offered by Island Expeditions, a Vancouver, Canada-based outfitter that, despite its name, has made great strides in helping Belize’s many ecotourists look inland for their adventures. While the sun and scuba of the outer reef will forever be the favorite for most Belize travelers, it is the raw interior, the jungles and jaguars and mystery of the rainforest experience that define this Central American country. The Sale Si Puede (sal-eh see pweh-day) Jungle Expedition involves two days of hiking to reach the river, followed by a three-and-a-half-day Class II-III paddling descent. The trip isn’t too easy and it isn’t too hard—exactly what adventure travel should be.

I arrived in Belize a day later than the rest of the group, thus missing the warmup hike to a cave outside of Belize City known as "The Burial Vault." Having visited the cave before, however, I can attest to it being aptly named and well worth the hike. (Though a little freaky what with the skeletons and all.) On the second day, we headed south from Dangriga toward a small village called Maya Center, which sits on the edge of the 102,000-acre Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve—the first and only jaguar reserve in the world. There, we listened to a local biologist eloquently describe the virtues of Felis onca, as well as the history of the park and its Mayan villagers.

Jaguar numbers in the Cockscomb Basin were once pushed to extinction, but have rebounded to the point that some people—hunters in particular—are asking if the recovery efforts have gone too far. Regardless, the reserve is now home to the largest concentration of jaguars north of the Amazon basin. And come morning, we’d be hiking among them.

The trail into the Sale Si Puede camp (translation: "Leave if you can") runs through Belize’s version of a national forest, so anybody could hike here if they wished. But few do, mostly because they’d have to find the trailhead. Plus there’s that pesky jaguar thing. Porters had already hauled our two-person inflatable kayaks and most of the heavy gear into the river, so we all carried light packs consisting mostly of our personal belongings. Our head guide was Canadian Bill Sirota, formerly part owner of Island Adventures, who proved to be an excellent paddler, cook and storyteller. Two Belizean guides, Greg and Pedro Sho, completed the party, hiking in shorts and black rubber boots like they were off to dig a trench in somebody’s back yard.

A two-day hike through the Central American jungle is a unique and fulfilling experience all by itself, but it’s also a rather extraordinary way to meet your fellow travelers. Bob, it turns out, was not just a boa fan, but also fancied himself something of a birder. As was Jane, his traveling partner. As were several other members of the group. And we’re not talking about casual birding here. I thought I knew birders after years of rowing them downstream in Wyoming, but I now realize that those people were B-league birders at best. Belizean birders were a whole different breed. We’re talking checklists and reference books. And not just for the birds. They brought snake books and bug books and books of Belize botany. They would ask about every single insect and track and plant and piece of poop they came across, examining a piece of animal scat like there was a lottery ticket hidden inside. I was in awe. And amazingly, I got sucked into it. I thought I was just there looking for a paddling trip but suddenly, I cared whether that was a scarlet macaw that just flew by. Before I knew it, I was asking our guides questions myself. And they answered every one of them—honestly, I believe—long after I’d have been lying through my teeth.

Peter Rutherford and Gerry Lauro were also on the trip—two middle-aged guys from New Jersey who each had teenage daughters back home. "Of course, you know what having teenage daughters at home means," Gerry said, laughing. "It means that we never know anything." Which, it turns out, is just slightly more than either of them knew about paddling.

The only other commercial trip into the Sale Si Puede had occurred the previous January and it took considerably longer for the group to reach the river. Hurricane Mitch had destroyed much of the existing trail and precious time was spent clearing away fallen trees or hacking a way around what had fallen. Watching Greg and Pedro clear away the occasional patch of jungle growth was impressive, taking as much time with their machetes as it would have taken four guys with axes and chainsaws. By the time we reached the river we were ready for a swim, aided by the Tarzan-type vines that dangled down to the water.

We spent most of the following day pulling our boats upstream, staring up at the face of 3,675-foot Victoria Peak—the highest in Belize. It was tough going at times, but the payoff was worth the effort: a perfect camp at the junction of two streams. While the others went for a hike, Pedro and I decided to go fishing. This, of course, turned into a competition. (Despite cultural differences, were are both, after all, guys.) We were going for two types of fish—muchaca, an aggressive feeder shaped like a trout; and tuba, a sort of bluegill-looking thing, only with fangs. So off we went, me with $1,000 flyfishing outfit, Pedro with string and a piece of cucumber. And of course he outfished me. And he wasn’t quiet about it, either. I mean, I didn’t really know Pedro yet, but after he had me down 2-0, everyone from Honduras to the Yucatan Peninsula could’ve heard him. "HOW YOU DOING TOM!? YOU GET A FISH YET!? TOM?!! I GOT TWO—YOU SEE!?" he’d say, holding them up from the back of his boat. I couldn’t believe it. I was getting my ass handed to me buy a guy fishing with a cucumber. Luckily, I had a strong second half, regained some pummeled pride, and together we caught enough that Bill was able to make the whole camp some fish stew.

Our descent began the following morning—two to a boat—and continued for three days, weaving down small rapids and portaging around anything questionable. There was nothing in the Class IV category, but there were more consistent Class IIs and IIIs than I was expecting. A few people wrapped boats, including Peter and Gerry (hourly), as well as (OK, full disclosure) yours truly and Sarah, my paddling partner. Luckily, with 70-degree water, much of it less than waist deep, you simply hopped out and fixed the problem. It was about as enjoyable a paddle as you could ask for considering the group’s skill level—in other words, enough to keep you interested, but rarely enough to frighten you.

Improved campsites don’t really exist along the river, which meant that Greg and Pedro had to create them as we went along—again, displaying impressive woodsmanship. We stopped to scout rapids and eat lunch along the way and it was at one of these lunch stops and that Bob made the acquaintance of Mr. Boa. At another, Pedro proved himself adept at catching more than muchaca, diving underwater to snatch an iguana that had jumped out of a tree and was swimming by. He just dove in, and came up with an iguana—don’t see that every day. We set a leisurely pace on the water that still allowed plenty of time for short hikes and fishing. Jaguar tracks were visible every morning near camp but we never saw an actual cat. And I think this might have secretly pleased everyone, who collectively figured that, if we did come across a jaguar, Bob might try to sling it over his shoulders. You know, "picture for the boys back home."

Island Expeditions has five dates planned for the Sale Si Puede trip this winter: Jan. 11, Feb. 8, March 3, March 29 and April 14. Info: (800) 667-1630, www.islandexpeditions.com.

—Tom Bie

Augrabies Adventure

South Africa's Orange River

The Northern Cape is one of South Africa's least populated regions...with good reason. Long a wilderness area, in the 1840s when the Cape Colony's northwest boundary shifted to the Orange River, the game-rich bush and sun-swamped islands were havens for outlaws, renegades and runaway slaves. Today, these sun-baked badlands encourage only the most intrepid of adventurers—but for those with a yen for the unusual, desert waters beckon.

Augrabies Falls National Park is one of the most remote paddling destinations in South Africa. It lies 78 miles west of Upington, the only town in the province worthy of a name. Easily accessible by virtue of its small airport, Upington provides the launch pad for ventures to Augrabies—the "Noise-Making Place."

Despite the taming of one of Africa's mightiest rivers in the pursuit of water for thirsty crops, the 1,350-mile-long Orange River is far from cowed. At Augrabies Falls it explodes through a narrow channel, plunging 165 feet into a 10-mile canyon hewn from ancient red rock. Here, below the Falls, between Ararat and Echo Corner view sites, there are rapids to rival Zimbabwe's Zambezi. This rampant stretch of the Orange was used for the 1999 Camel White Water Challenge and plans are now afloat to provide public access to the Class IV and V rapids. In the meantime, the five miles of Class II and III rapids above the falls allow you to get a sneak preview.

Canoeists aren’t neglected. Four daylong routes trace 35 miles of the river's arterial meanderings with only the occasional minor rapid to disturb the rhythmic plash of paddles. For those who prefer their aquatic pleasures more rushed than hushed, the best whitewater on the Orange is found where the river plummets over the Onseepkans gorge. The two- to four-day rafting expeditions encompass Class II to IV rapids along with a rappel into the gorge and a sightseeing diversion to Ritchie falls.

Accommodation inside the park ranges from self-catering chalets to camping, while there are backpacker facilities a few kilometers outside the park or more upmarket lodges and guest houses in nearby Kakamas, 25 miles northwest of Augrabies. The rainy season runs from January to April and summer temperatures can climb as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit, even on the river, so the cooler months of April to September is the best time period for an African experience that offers "more space than your imagination." Info: www.kalahari.co.za.

—Laurianne Claase

Sea Cave Special

Kayaking Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

"Lie down, totally flat," our guide commands, as he skillfully maneuvers our inflatable kayak into the mouth of the cave. He flicks on the dive flashlight and reveals 10-foot-long sparkling stalactites and glittering flowstones. We are deep inside an island on Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay. This semi-submerged cave is one of thousands that open and close with the tide. Like one of Dr. Evil’s secret lairs, the cave deposits our boat into a hidden lagoon in the interior of the island that is surrounded by unbroken rock cliffs.

One hundred and sixty islands explode out of sheltered Phang Nga Bay, just east of the large island of Phuket in the Bay of Thailand. Limestone pinnacles that look like inverted mountains, they march across the bay like giant sentinels, row upon row. Our English-speaking Thai guide is employed by John Gray’s Sea Canoe, a Thai-owned kayaking company founded over 20 years ago.

When we emerge from the cave into the quiet lagoon, a family of curious monkeys bounces from the branches, swooping down to inspect us. One adolescent pulls back the leaves with his furry hands, pokes his head through and stares straight down at us only a few feet below. We spend three days sea-kayak touring Phang Nga Bay, circumnavigating islands with limestone cliffs, overhangs and undercuts. The extreme low tides expose table coral, sponges, giant jellyfish and sea urchins. Endangered white-bellied sea eagles grace our days with their six-foot wingspans. We paddle up estuaries and explore wild, rare mangrove forests; we study ancient rock paintings on 1,000-foot island walls, and delight over mud skippers, a strange terrestrial fish.

Accommodations are on Ko (Island) Panyi, a Muslim village with a Thai restaurant and bungalows run by locals. Thailand is a country where companies come and go from year to year and regulations aren’t enforced. It’s recommended that you exercise caution in choosing your outfitter, which is why Sea Canoe is a good choice. Info: John Gray’s Sea Canoe, (66-76) 254-505/6, www.johngray-seacanoe.com; Khao Lak, khaolak2000@hotmail.com.

—Cindy Ross

Whitewater in the Land of a Million Elephants

Rafting Nam Ha, Laos

Between rapids, we are treated to a staggeringly beautiful natural paradise. On either side of the river, bamboo, betel nut vine, palms, banana trees, liana vines and strangler fig spill in a tangled mash of green and brown for hundreds of feet from the top of the valley to the river’s edge. Towering teak trees with their ivory trunks loom high over us on either side. Gibbons squawk from hidden perches; a Sambar deer bounds out of the shallows and into the shadows like a skipping stone; a five-foot-long constrictor swims through some light rapids in front of the raft. Kingfishers, river chats and redstarts dart in and out of black jungle crevices. The twisting, turning path of the blue-green water sends us inexorably onward through sets of standing waves, over river-wide fish traps and under rickety bamboo and vine bridges.

The Nam Ha recently became the site of Laos’ first-ever commercial rafting venture. As part of a two-kayak, one-raft expedition, our group of eight is the first to experience the excitement, nature and culture of the Nam Ha valley. Laos has slowly but surely opened its doors to tourism since the mid-‘90s and UNESCO has recently assisted in the responsible development of tourism in the area. Ecotourism has only recently arrived as a feasible activity, although limited primarily to trekking. A year ago, Mick O'Shea teamed up with progressive Lao outdoorsman Inthy Deuansavanh and together they created Wildside Eco-Group.

The Nam Ha National Biosphere Conservation Reserve is rich in mysticism and natural beauty. Nestled in the farthest northwest corner of Laos on the Burma/ China border in the Province of Luang Namtha, it is one of the largest, most diverse jungle habitats on earth. In addition to tigers, leopards, deer and numerous other large mammals, the 222,000-hectare UNESCO site boasts over 300 bird species. The area is home to some seven different tribal groups. With the absence of roads the distinctly different ethnic villages of Lanten, Akha, Kamu and Hmong have remained unscathed by the ever- changing world "outside." Eighty percent of the area is covered in pristine jungle and partitioned by the Nam Ha River, a snaking, sinewy vein that runs through this emerald paradise.

O’Shea trained locals to guide rafts down the Class III Nam Ha and share their unique knowledge of the flora, fauna and mysticism of the area with clients. The river is medium sized with bathtub-warm water and year-round flows. The narrow, winding river requires precise navigation; our raft maneuvers between submerged bushes and slots with several blind corners. Quality rapids with meter-high wave trains soak us as we plow through pounding spray. Mick and I find that the deep eddylines and waves are ideal for pulling off cartwheels and spins in our kayaks.

The highlight is our overnight stay in a roadless, remote Khamu village whose inhabitants had seen few foreigners before. We are welcomed with a feast of water buffalo meat, wild vegetables and gallons of Lao Lao rice whiskey. New friends from different parts of the world enjoy life on the river into the wee hours of the morning. Info: www.wildside-laos.com.

—Frank Wolf

Paddling on All Points

A compass tour of Tasmania’s best paddling

Looking for a month-long getaway where you can paddle surf breaks, whitewater and touring locales with equal ease? Tasmania, the small island state southeast of mainland Australia, boasts some of the best surf beaches south of the Equator as well as a vast selection of whitewater rivers, adventurous sea kayaking and also some stunning lakes and estuaries. Tasmania experiences a more moderate climate than the rest of Australia, with mild winters and summers that rarely get too hot. The west of the state is a remote and rugged wilderness of high rainfall and big surf, while the east is drier and more sheltered from extreme weather and sea conditions. Due to Tasmania’s relatively small size it’s easy to chase the best conditions as rainfall and surf conditions dictate.

Hobart is a good starting point for a vehicle and boats. Near Hobart are several moderate rivers with reliable water. The Derwent is a long, cruisy Class II through a rural setting, with a good play wave at Broken Bridge and a scary section of Class V/VI at Butlers Gorge, of The Sound of One Hand Clapping fame. The Class II-III Picton is a moderate trip through native rainforest, as is the nearby Class II Huon. An hour’s drive from Hobart is the spectacular Tasman Peninsula with its dizzying coastal cliffs and its tangible convict past. Surfing and adventurous sea kayaking may be had around the peninsula, with the famous sea stack of the Totem Pole to climb if that’s your thing. Some of Australia’s finest surf can be had at Bruny Island’s Cloudy Bay a short ferry ride south of Hobart.

The northeast hosts spectacular Freycinet National Park. A paddle around the peninsula is as rewarding as any in the world, with the potential to see whales and dolphins close up. Surf breaks stretch from here up the east coast, with gorgeous white sandy beaches to relax on afterward. Launceston’s Class IV North Esk provides a classic technical outing through the spectacular Corra Linn Gorge. Almost in the center of town is the amazing Cataract Gorge, which provides a short but exciting Class V run.

To the northwest are the state’s classic pool drop rivers: the Class IV Lea and the formidable Class VI Leven Canyon. Intermediate paddlers won’t be disappointed with the scenery and water of the Class III Mersey and the Class III/IV Hellyer. Marrawah Beach features the BIG surf of the west coast, where winter waves can be in excess of 20 feet and summer surf can easily reach 10 feet.

The wild and untamed southwest offers a vast array of paddling adventures, from the tranquil beauty of Lakes Gordon and St. Clair, through the remote sea kayaking of Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour, to the classic multi-day wilderness river trip on the Franklin River. The battle to save the Franklin from the never-ending push for hydroelectricity in the ’80s was a defining moment in the state’s history and was pivotal in its turn toward tourism and nature. Whatever direction you head in, don’t forget your paddle. Info: Derwent Canoe Club, www.tased.edu.au/tasonline/ dcc/index.htm; Roaring 40’s Sea Kayaking, www.roaring4oskayaking.com.au; Freycinet Adventures Sea Kayaking, coastalkayak@vision.net.au; Hells Gates Wilderness Tours, hellsgates@trump.net.au; Rafting Tasmania, raftingtas@tasadventures.com.

—Nick Hancock

American Tropics

Kayaking the Florida Keys

Inspired by the islands’ tortured shapes, Ponce De Leon named the Florida Keys "Los Martires," or the martyrs. That was in 1513, but today tourists often suffer like martyrs while they wait in the tedious traffic jams on U.S. Highway 1. So why drive the distance from Miami to Key West when you can paddle it?

The idea of a paddling trail along the length of the Florida Keys is the inspiration of Frank Woll, Key Largo resident and owner of Florida Bay Outfitters. "I want people to be able to experience the Keys the low-impact way," says Woll. The concept of the Florida Keys Coastal Trail has caught the interest of the Florida State Office of Greenways and Trails, making many hopeful that a "blueway" route from Miami to Key West will someday become official.

But don’t wait for an official trail before you plan a kayak tour through paradise. Just 70 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, the waters of the Florida Keys resemble all the colors of mouthwash in the grocery store. There’s peppermint blue, spearmint green, antiseptic yellow, and the whiskey brown that flows over luxurious beds of ecosystem-nourishing turtle grass. Bring the snorkel gear and binoculars along with sunscreen and bug juice. Wildlife sightings above and below water are frequent. Along the 180-mile route, you’ll find waterside campgrounds that accommodate paddlers, or go for luxury by stopping at shore-side hotels and restaurants.

The Florida Keys offer year-round paddling, but expect some tradeoffs. Winter, the busy season, brings pleasant temperatures, fewer bugs and windy conditions. Summer paddlers experience calm waters and excellent snorkeling but campsites will be buggy and hot. Fall is hurricane season.

Excellent day-trip destinations are Indian and Lignumvitae Keys. Both islands can be visited on the same outing and offer nature trails and ranger-guided tours. For a romantic weekend excursion, paddle to Boca Chita Key in Key Biscayne National Park. This cozy key has a coral stone lighthouse, grassy campsites under coconut palm trees, and a spectacular sunset view of the Miami skyline. To kayak the entire length of the islands, plan on taking 10 days to enjoy hunting for seashells, exploring the mangrove tunnels, and relaxing on the beach.

And if you’d like an experience worthy of the name "Los Matires," Florida Bay Outfitters sponsors the annual Rum Runner Classic, a 100-mile kayak and outrigger canoe race that travels from Key Largo to Key West in three days.

Info: Key Biscane National Park, (305) 247-PARK, www.nps.gov/bisc/index/htm; Florida Bay Outfitters, (305) 451-3018, www.kayakfloridakeys.com; Florida State Parks, www.dep.state.fl.us/parks.

—Andrea Lankford

© Paddler Magazine, 2000