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Features & profiles


Playing cards with Elvis

29 March 1995

Published in the Byron Echo

Two types of people seem to go whitewater rafting: the gravely misinformed, who think it is just another adventure sport, and those who expect to die soon anyway. Along with Echo journalist Carol Page, I was recently initiated into this sport on the Nymboida River, courtesy of The Whitewater Professionals of Coffs Harbour.

Two days earlier Cyclone Violet had dumped several billion litres into the Nymboida's catchment. This provided us with water every bit as violent as Meryl Streep braved in The River Wild.

We covered 26 kilometres in two days. Day one saw 40 of us divided into crews of eight, each with a professional guide.

Rafting involves longish periods of gently paddling down quiet water - punctuated by the shooting of rapids. Shooting rapids in a raft is possibly the most exhilarating physical experience known to our species. It is considerably more exhilarating than most sex, and makes hang gliding look like knitting. It involves plunging headlong through narrow gaps between rocks, over the tops of boulders, or vertically down waterfalls - into the boiling madness below.

The boiling madness below - called a hole - is where things get really interesting. Your raft can be held stationary by the enormous suction under you. (Called surfing.) Or it can pitch from side to side - and/or end-to-end - till the crewmembers are hurled out. It can also flip, flinging eight adults like toys into the cauldron. During these moments the looks of terror on your companions' faces are most memorable. Your companions later say the same thing about you.

At the end of day one, our riverbank camp resembled a World War One field hospital. A guide had had a front tooth knocked out and his lip ripped open; several people limped around in heavily bandaged legs; there were serious headaches from accidental head-butts.

Everyone was asleep by 9.

Each rapid has a name: the Roller Coaster, the Chute, the Decapitator, and so on. The Chute slides smoothly, but at fierce speed, dead straight down into a hole. The Decapitator is where you plunge with horrifying unpredictability downhill, over huge rocks, pitching and slewing from side to side, all the while ducking tree boughs which come at you at great speed from in front. You get the picture.

We found ourselves, sometimes, looking back pityingly at crews helicoptering (spinning down a rapid out of control) or surfing. Our hubris ended at a rapid called The Liftover.

We entered the Liftover by going down a waterfall, then sliding over a large boulder. At the bottom was a series of holes - each a real mother. We went into the first hole at the wrong angle, and performed what we were later told was one of the most spectacular flips yet seen on the river. One crewmember was hurled down a chute to the right, on her back. The rest of us were sucked straight under. Several were masticated by the Beast for some seconds, then spat out and sent downriver. Hysterical screams rent the air ("Where's my wife?!" "Oh my God!").

Meanwhile I was caught underwater in a stopper - the fierce downward pressure of huge amounts of water hitting a boulder head-on. Eventually I was expelled, and began catapulting, end-to-end, along the rock riverbed, periodically smashing into boulders. I had no idea of the difference between up and down, and colossal amounts of water were being injected up my nose.

Then I was pushed under a rock. We'd been told that this frequently means death: they find a pared-clean, grinning skeleton there when the dry season starts. Fortunately my rock had an exit on the far side, and I was sieved through it.

I knew that if I didn't get air soon I was in serious trouble. This is the state rafters picturesquely describe as Playing Cards With Elvis. Then my lifejacket popped me to the surface, 100 metres from where I'd gone under.

I was sure the (rather unfit) Carol would be dead. I wasn't far wrong. She was being hauled aboard a raft, limp as a fresh corpse, her skin a mottled grey. Her adrenalin had just shut down, and she'd gone near-catatonic. She was still throwing up 24 hours later.

Rafting the post-cyclonic Nymboida was, in retrospect, a curious idea. 

My knee is injured - and, somewhere, a rock gave me the mother of all kidney punches: the bruise extends from hip to shoulderblade. Large tracts of the Nymboida are still being disgorged from my sinuses. But it was a small thing which gave me the clearest idea of the river's power. My baseball cap (itself tightly clipped on) had been sucked out from under my tightly strapped helmet.

"Perhaps Elvis wanted it," Carol later remarked.

Whitewater rafting is, simultaneously, the best fun you could ever have - nothing else comes close - and unadulterated madness. If you have not so much a life as a Near-Life Experience, rafting would be one hell of a way to kick-start it.

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