The muscles I’d used for the mountain-trek were feeling My China Travel more sore now that they were having a rest. I strolled and watched some women bent My China Travel over in rice paddies, busy thinning out the shoots and making bundles of the excess ones for replanting in fresh paddy fields. New paddies were being rotavated by water-buffalo belly-deep in mud, and struggling to pull spiked wooden drums. In muddy pools near the river I paused to watch the resting buffalo wallow. They just sit there with only their heads and horns above water. Some children saw me, and stood rooted to the spot, round-eyed. When I moved they all ran away. After a few miles the stream took me under a small arched stone bridge and, leaving the valley, flowed into a gorge. My mind woke up and I checked around for problems, but the gorge seemed quiet and the river, though rocky, was no larger or faster than before. Parts were overhung with shady trees, giving temporary relief from the sun, hot now at mid-afternoon. Ahead I could hear foaming water, and felt the canoe begin to gather speed.
As we came around a comer I saw rocks poking out of the water, but they were well-spaced and easy to avoid, making very minor rapids. The canoe rode them without trouble, responding well to my paddle-steering, so I stopped worrying. None of the rapids was above a Class 1 or 2 so I couldn’t congratulate myself on achievement. But just to be sure I pulled over to the bank several times and got out to take a better look at what lay ahead. I gave myself a scare at the top of one swift rocky section when a deceptively strong eddy pushed the canoe broadside against two rocks, and the current roughed up against us. For a moment, things got serious but, digging my paddle fiercely backwards and throwing my weight on to the canoe’s high side, I managed to free the prow and slid Safely between the rocks. The moment made me cross with myself; a professional would never have let it happen. Late afternoon sun lit the gorge, and its boulder-strewn banks glowed an earthy red. At a guess I had paddled twelve miles when we reached the junction where the small river joined a larger one, three times its size. The junction was not turbulent and I avoided the eddies, but straight away I could feel the increased power of the current. It made me suspect that we were in for some action. But not today; my muscles ached with tiredness, and I decided to stop and make camp for the night. An enclave among boulders and trees provided me with shelter, and the rocks would stay warm long into the cold night. I didn’t bother to cook supper, having brought plenty of cereal and fruit. More than anything I wanted to lie down and sleep. The next morning, after re-stowing my luggage and settling myself in the canoe, I paddled out into the turbulent current. The gorge was growing deeper and craggier.
Where numerous large boulders had rolled down into the river the water heaved around angrily. I could usually hear roaring water long before I reached its cause; it was a case of working out exactly where was the focus of noise, because from down at river level I couldn’t see the sudden drops and chutes. In one fast patch a broad but invisible rock, causing a slide and trough of churning water, came so quickly that I went straight into it. The water roared, and the canoe was pulled sharply down on one side, though luckily it bobbed back up. But I was still in the trough which held us in its recycling path; with water pouring back on itself, making what canoeists call stopper waves and holes. I was in a hole. The canoe didn’t flip over simply because I was paddling so fast to both sides that it kept us nosing out of the hole. And equally abruptly we were free, racing away downriver; into some rocky turbulence and chutes which were rather fun.
Running them gave me a tremendous thrill, a sense of exhilaration which is timeless. The gathering speed of the current made me hope that I hadn’t taken on more than a’sehsible person would do. It’s not necessary to kill oneself; neither to be so cautious that risk is nil. It’s a question of striking the right balance for oneself. Knowing myself to have a reckless streak I try to be prudent. Before coming to China, my experience of rapid-filled rivers was limited to two trips; one using an inflated tyre-tube down the whitewater of a small highland river in Papua New Guinea, and the second in that same country, when I joined a team of professional river-runners with Avon rubber boats. We were attempting to make the first descent of the Wahgi River, one of the world’s roughest whitewater rivers and it was filmed by BBC television, as part of their River Journeys series. The rapids we’d shot there were far larger than what I now tackled, but they had given me a taste for more. In the afternoon the gorge became wilder, leading me into a wonderful landscape of rugged mountains. Their slopes were too rocky for much cultivation though occasionally there were stone cottages on hill shoulders. River bends became more frequent and they held bigger rapids. At most of them I had to stop and try to plan a way through.
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