Part 3 of a behind-the-scenes look opXpeditions: Colombia, an OutpostTV show. Watch it here.
“If you fall out of the raft in fast water, avoid the rocks and point your feet downriver,” our guide explained during preparations for taking on Class III and IV rapids on the Chicamocha River.
I went deaf with fear, and couldn’t focus on anything beyond my dread. Was I really up for this? What was the point? I could have easily caught the bus out of the valley and instead spent the afternoon very safely poolside. Still, when we were instructed to lift the inflatable raft and carry it over our heads, I abided.
Whitewater rafting is one of those activities that draws international adventure seekers to a region, whether it’s Peru, New Zealand or Canada. It’s natural, thrilling, and requires teamwork, which makes it quite the bonding experience to boot. It’s also a thoroughly wet event, and so anything that needed to stay dry was sealed away in a barrel strapped into the boat. From the standpoint of photography, this made waterproof cameras king of the whitewater (I strapped mine to my helmet).
With the raft suspended above our heads, we marched toward the river at the bottom of the Chicamocha Canyon, and dropped it into the churning brown water. Floating down a chocolate river couldn’t be all bad, right? Right! Besides, this was a thoroughly professional outfit with a lead safety kayak in case one of us was ejected from the raft. Oh boy. I wedged my feet under the rubber folds of the raft and clutched my paddle tightly by the T-grip. And we were off.
My fellow opX Colombia teammate Scott Wilson advised that the more I paddled, the more stable I’d become. That seemed counterintuitive—but at that moment I needed to believe him. o sooner had we begun floating downstream than the river tugged us ever more quickly toward the first set of rapids. I hollered and paddled hard and immediately sensed I was secure in my place on the side of the raft—just as Scott had promised. Waves crashed over us like we were on the open sea in a tempest. The watery smackdown made me laugh out loud with the thrill. No sooner had it begun than we were spat out the other side.
With our first Class IV under our belts, we cheered and tapped paddles. We had but a few minutes to admire the staggering beauty of the remote Chicamocha Canyon (a.k.a. the Grand Canyon of Colombia) before we locked horns once more with the river rapids, tossed like salad, hurled precariously close to the giant boulders that peppered the river.
Of course, Colombia is a country of vast natural gifts and the Chicamocha Canyon is just one of many places where the rivers run long and fast, providing awesome whitewater rafting opportunities. Among the hotspots is the stunning Magdalena River that is 540 kilometres south of Bogotá. There is also the Rio Negro close to the capital city, the Barragan River in the department of Quindio in coffee-growing country, and the Suarez and Fonce Rivers in the same region as the Chicamocha (Santander).
As we helped our guides haul the gear out of the valley, I was still beaming from my river experience, having gone from total fear to total exhilaration. As for the answer to my own question about the point of whitewater rafting: to be in the presence of a force far greater than ourselves, and to push outward our sense of limits and what we are capable of.
This lesson wasn’t left at the river. I will carry it for the rest of my life.