The river surges around us like angry whipped chocolate. It is muddy, foamy, bubbling, fast. There are grey skies and driving rain above, grey rocks and churning water below. Either side of us the river cliffs loom up into steep forested banks that then fade into mountain mist. We are somewhere on the Rio Pastaza, at the edge of the Amazon Basin, bumping along in an inflatable dingy.
There are six of us in the boat. I’m up front with Spanish buccaneer, Fernando. Menna and Arthur sit in the middle, Matilda and Captain in the rear. It is the end of the rainy season and the water is high and fast. There are no less than three rescue kayaks around us.
We received instructions and a safety briefing before we set out. When the Captain says paddle we must row as if our lives depended on it. Fernando and I must shout time: ‘One-two! One-two! One-two!’ to set the tempo. If any of us should go under water then there is a rescue protocol: don’t panic, float on our backs until the kayak finds us, wrap arms and legs around the nose of the kayak so as not to flip it too. Allow them to transport you to safety. It all seemed easy on dry land. None of us thought to ask what happens if the boat capsizes and all six of us are floundering around in the rapids.
“What is the minimum age for this tour anyway?” I had asked when the minibus picked us up from the hotel at 5am.
“Well. How old are your kids?”
“Arthur is ten and Matilda is nine.”
“Oh. Have they done rafting before?”
“Can they swim?”
“Yes. No! Well sort of. In a swimming pool they can swim fine, probably not in a fast moving river.”
“So they can swim. It is ok. They will be fine.”
Now, as we hurtle between rocks and the raft bumps into the hollows beneath standing waves, I can barely maintain my balance sitting up on the hull, one foot hooked under the central thwart. How will Matilda manage? Every time I turn around she looks frozen in fear and misery. She has given up paddling all together. The captain gives her words of encouragement but she just nods dumbly, unhearing, bounced around like a doll on a trampoline.
One member of our rescue team is a real kayak virtuoso. He hits the rapids with gusto, spinning and pirouetting, finding unexpected lines through the waves. He is also our photographer. We see him putting himself right into the middle of the most frenzied torrents, then flicking his kayak around so he can take pictures of us as we come hurtling down towards him. “Cheese!” He shouts as we paddle in fear of our lives. “Cheese!”
We go into a long section of waterfalls and whirlpools where all is noise and motion: ramping up wave faces, scraping past rocks, spinning one direction then another. Then we are in the calm of a pool and we clash our oars above the boat in the ritual high-five. We drift. Arthur behind me whoops and cheers, a huge grin plastered across his face. Is it river water on Matilda’s cheeks or tears?
The youngest member of the rescue team has been flipped though and remains inverted, trapped upside down in the water for a long half-minute, his kayak bobbing around in the rapids. Eventually his helmeted head pops up, spluttering, further downstream. Abandoning his boat he splashes over to shore and crawls into the shallows coughing. He looks scared. “This one is Pancho” Says Captain indulgently, “It is his first time.” Our rescue kayaker has never done this before?
The other two safety boats set off to retrieve the loose kayak, now drifting off downstream. Captain beaches our raft in the shallows and has some stern words with Pancho in some Ecuadorean dialect I don’t understand. We rest for a while before setting off again. “We have no support now,’” growls Captain. “Be careful.”
On we go through smooth passages where we glimpse egg shaped stones scattered like treasure beneath the water, then through angry, ugly sections where craters and boils appear, boulders jut out and the water surges up in white columns, spray and chaos. The rescue team swarm around us again.
We haul ourselves through a whirlpool where waterlogged trunks roll around like turds in an endless flush, and here Pancho somehow smashes one of his blades. He holds his paddle aloft helplessly, shouting out something which I interpret to mean “I can no longer turn! I am scared! Help!”. Photographer is up ahead, he turns and butts his way back upriver like a salmon leaping against the flow. He pulls alongside Pancho and swaps paddles, then skims off again with bravado. Having only half a paddle doesn’t seem to diminish his abilities, he changes his grip and uses it Indian style, holding the good blade down and deploying it one side of the boat then the other. “Cheese!” He shouts, taking a photo over his shoulder as he surfs down a rocky bank.
There are patches of river far ahead where the horizon is a blur of spray and mist and rain so sky and water are indistinguishable. It is the end of the world. There could be some epic waterfall there, white curtains roaring, smashing into dark rocky basins. Perhaps this is Captain’s surprise finale! I imagine our raft floating down white cascades like an Indiana Jones movie: gravity washed away, icy river water in our faces, lives flashing before our eyes.
We survive another heavy section of river. “That was grade IV,” says Captain with grim satisfaction. “From here on we can drift. You have made it. Well done!”
Pancho has a final trick for us. We hear his cries and turn around to see that he has managed to lose his new paddle and has grounded his kayak on a rock in the middle of the rapids. He sits there miserable, while the wild waters churn around him, unwilling to rock himself off his perch and fall back into the seething white foam.
Captain shrugs. We all laugh. “Hey Pancho!” shouts Photographer, pointing his camera, “Cheese!”. And even Matilda manages a little smile.
“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”Kenneth Grahame