After River runner, I would like to sheepishly record here the one and only white water rafting experience of mine in Bali, Indonesia on my 50th year. River rafting is considered rather naive unlike kayaking, its boistrous and adrenaline pumping cousin. Once in a lifetime adventure, I think I bettered my long held records in all areas with rafting. I don’t think I shall ever be able to repeat the feat as I age. With my team leader denouncing me for lacking stamina and vigor on learning that I was vegetarian (information helpfully supplied by my spouse), I became ever more determined to do the whitewater rafting against all odds, even if I was deeply aware of the fact that I was the weakest link in the group who could let them down. I swore I wouldn’t do that to them. I had the responsibility in my shoulders and I knew I had to play the role that was expected of me.
My brother-in-law’s family toured Bali before us and they asked us never to miss river rafting because Bali rivers were tame unlike the Ganga in India, viable for amateurs like us. I mean, they were ideal length and width with just the right rapids safe enough to negotiate. Bountiful monsoons ensured you got a good paddling season. Weather after monsoons is favourable from Oct-Feb. However when my husband googled it, the top items to catch our attention were the casualty in almost every single river in Bali. There were harrowing accounts of victims’ kin who blamed poor planning, control and management and lack of timely medical help and logistics. There seemed to be no mechanism in place to handle emergencies. Yet the unregulated adventure sport was on and proved to be a huge draw mostly with younger people. There were a handful of rafting companies to choose from. I picked the Ayung river after a little research.
Our son called us from the US the morning we were planning river rafting. ‘Are you guys crazy?’ he asked shellshocked that his 50 year mom and 53 year old dad were planning to paddle across a throbbing equatorial river just after the monsoons. Then I heard my husband tell him, ‘or else i shall sit it out in the river bank and wait, let your mom go rafting!’ He quickly turned to me and said, at least one parent needed to stay alive for our son and it is better it is him because he was the earning member!!! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! But then I remembered, my man was scared of elephants as well. I had to literally drag him against his will shouting and screaming to touch and caress a tusker, let alone ride one! Also mentally we women are stronger I guess! All the male machismo is blown to smithereens when you ask your guy to do real man things such as river rafting! The elephantine problem also surfaces every time I would like to go for the giant wheel or for a swishing joyride in theme park. Succeeded in convincing my hubby to get into the float with me for the water ride in Dubai’s Wild Wadi but no such luck in Orlando, so enjoyed the virtual reality crazy ride zigzagging up and down with just my son. The level of excitement omg! It always amazes me how our so called brave men chicken out when it comes to trivial things.
And so I took the lead in our Bali hotel, calling up the tour operator and asking him to drive us to white river rafting in Ayung. My confidence was also partly due to the trek I managed downhill and upstream with my school friends just the previous year to the base of Athirappalli falls in Kerala. Not many brave that in our age and we girls took our time to go down to the bottom of the gorge where the glorious falls fell in. Once again it was right after monsoons and the waterfalls had swelled. The volume of water discharged from the top made us girls speechless. Mostly younger people had made it to the bottom of the falls apart from us. With a huge momentum, the falls fell down the gorge in such a splashing splendour. The climb down on foot was tricky as the steps were crudely shaped out of the rocky earth. At some points, there was handrail kind of support with twigs and barks and pieces of wood put in by fellow trekkers but not all along. Not for a minute could we avert our eyes from the footsteps carved out of the mountain slope taking us to the base of the falls. But finally it was all worth it. Uphill was daunting but not unexpected! Anyway we made it in our own sweet time, and that’s it!
I can say the same of climbing atop a sand dune. No child’s play this is, not to be underestimated. You have to be real surefooted as the mounds of desert sands could prove to be as tricky as quicksand to say the least pulling you into a vortex, freeing oneself from which can sap all your energy. Soon you could find yourself buried knee high in the rising and falling mounds heaping like wave upon wave. Nature’s wonders! One foot forward up the sand dunes, you slide down two feet sinking yet again. It is like you are moving against gravity. And then you have the crisscrossing dune buggies racing past you as if on collision course as the young and the brash behind their wheels may have this devil-may-care attitude! You got to watch out for these daredevils most of who are addicted to such adventure sports in this part of the world!
Needs no reminder that with every passing year, we get older. Plus both of us husband and wife have a bit of lifestyle conditions (not contagious diseases) but manageable. We get along on low dose pills. So this was a situation. I also had to factor in my arthritic knees especially apart from other bones and joints! Quick calculation and I still voted YES! to rafting 😀
So off we went one morning to the white water rafting company on the shores of the Ayung river in Bali, supposedly their longest and best suited for paddling. It supposedly had 32 or so rapids among which a handful were deep jumps. Neither of us could swim. We were asked to fill forms stating our health parameters. Heart issues were a serious no-no. We were then debriefed on the sojourn. I could tell from the start that our tour guide who was like our team leader had problems with me. He foresaw that I was unfit in every possible way – with my age, food habits, poor stamina etc. He was worried that I wouldn’t paddle, would give up half way. He warned me that there was just NO TURNING BACK once we started. I looked at our crew. Our boss who was the rafting guide, my husband and me and three Malaysian chinese girls of 22 years or so who were taking a break from their term at an Australian university. The girls asked our age and gushed that we were same age almost as their parents and vouched that never would their parents attempt anything wild as river rafting like we did!
The idea of whitewater rafting in Bali was to give a tourist a wholesome feel of their rich geography and lifestyle. Indonesia is a rice growing country. We were to walk through picturesque countryside in the first segment of our rafting tour. We made our way through what we may call in Tamil ‘othai adi paadhai’ winding through paddy fields. Cultivated lands flanked us on either sides as we went in a file in our lifeguard gear and helmet, each carrying our paddle which by itself weighed a ton. At least I was outfitted right. When in water, I always go for waterproof clothing: i had pulled on a pair of waterproof knee length swimming shorts over a sports teeshirt. My shoes were Sketchers slip-ons but no way waterproof. I decided to carry a light handbag with change of clothes and no valuables.
We ate very light breakfast at our hotel Ramada Encore that morning. We went light on liquid intake as well. In the rafting company, we were asked to gear up on filling out obligatory forms. We were allotted a locker to safekeep our things. We left behind our digicam etc., having realized that we would be better off carrying ourselves light. Which meant, we left our cell phones behind as well. We were handed over a waterproof pouch to strap to our body wherein we could keep safe our wallets or phones just in case. My husband chose to wrap it around his torso. Most of our cash etc., we left behind in the lockers along with change of clothes, etc., but basic credit card and a single phone we decided to carry on our body. Our passports were in safe custody of our hotel lockers. We were dressed minimal as the occasion demanded. We spoke to our son before we embarked on the trip on foot following instructions from our tour guide who was a young Balinese guy fit as a fiddle. It was a routine for him and my confidence grew in leaps and bounds as I saw how energetic and focused he was. He piled us on to a waiting truck to be transported to the paddy fields wherefrom our rafting journey would begin.
I jumped out of the truck that had made its way through typical Indonesian rice fields. The views were breathtaking but alas, no phone to shoot pictures! It was better this way considering what lay ahead for us!
Next three kilometers or so, six of us fell in line walking on the farm lands that were in various stages of cultivation such as sowing, resting, harvesting etc. Square plots intersected in neat angles as rural Balinese men and women were seen bent over their agricultural activities sporting the typical south east Asian coned hat. By the end of the trek through the farm lands, I was already catching my breath that my husband and the guide were concerned about. We both were falling behind by a few steps. I was slowing down my husband as well.
Not over one or two minutes behind, we reached the top of the gorge from where we had to descend by foot to the river that flowed at a few hundred feet below. Any last chance for turning back ended here. The brisk walk through the agricultural lands had taken over an hour for all of us and we were perspiring already in pleasantly chill Bali weather. Downhill sounded like cake walk first but I wasn’t to be fooled after my Athirappalli experience. And Athirappali seemed like kg kid compared to post graduate Bali river rafting!
One glance at the route revealed that the downhill to the river level went winding through heavily forested woods where ancient trees grew. Home to a variety of flora and fauna, the equatorial jungles wore a canopy of treetops that saved us from the glare of the sun mercifully. The landscape was surreal, green and moist from monsoons that had drenched the soil for past many days. Everywhere around was green. So that made for slippery paved slopes. And once again, none of us carried a cam fearing an ounce of extra weight that could stall us. I looked in dismay at dozens of steep rocky carved steps that vanished into the oblivion. The roughly hewn mountain steps had no hand railings in the sides for grasp obviously and were almost a meter high. It meant we had to stay extra vigilant to avert a fall or breaking an ankle. On either sides lay the wild forests wherefrom butterflies danced from one exotic flowering creeper to another. Ferns were like a tapestry gracing every available space. A sweet mixed fragrance floated past us carried over from the fruits and flowers that bloomed all around us. The orchids were a riot of colours. Trees rose right upto the skies. Birds of every feather, nameless to us, sang from branch to branch. However our guide kept calling to us to not pause as he led from the forefront. It was not the straight way down. The three chinese girls followed after him. I and my husband brought up the rear, thanks to me! The steps wound around the hill slopes taking us far from the point where we started that I realized we were crisscrossing mountains and at the same time descending. I knew my husband could manage a pace as good as our young man steering us, even better than the girls. Over their shoulders the girls kept chatting us delighted to learn that we had a son of about their age studying in the US. They were even impressed to learn that we lived in their home country Malaysia for four years. We seemed to have closed the distance between us in one move and our guide was flabbergasted that we did just that! The girls from then on started looking at us as if we were their parents. They kept cheering us to do it. At one point our guide stayed back behind to lead us as the girls overtook him.
I have to give it to my reluctant husband who finally was enjoying the trek, supporting my every move extending a hand, leading me with confidence and egging me to give it my one hundred percent. Not a word of discouragement. He stayed completely by my side and took me in places by hand, warned me in advance about big leapy stony steps, alerted me to wild creatures around us that were coming alive by the minute. I didn’t know where to look: at our trail or at the beauty that surrounded us from all sides, so pristine. Nature was at her best element. Just then our guide fractured our dreamy spell stating that we hadn’t even descended hundred steps out of 1500!!! Not an easy task, we took a good two hours going down to the river level.
When we touched down on the river banks where the sloped steps ended, we saw the group hunched over a small rafting boat. It was an inflated red one bobbing in the jetty with not much room, that deflated my confidence in a minute. The guide beckoned to us just then impatiently. I asked the girls how much did we delay them. ‘Not more than 5 whole minutes’ parroted the bright youngsters but in that serene quiet atmosphere, each minute could drag like an hour. The group of us amateur rafters stood in circle around our guide who began teaching us basics of rafting without wasting another single moment. He taught us the hand signals as well as verbal commands that we had to strictly follow in the swirling waters. He said that our tasks were multipronged. We had to paddle according to his guiding and at the same time keep ourselves safe from slipping from the raft, with our eyes glued to the river. He showed us different motions that he urged us to have by heart. He shoved his paddle forward and showed us a hand signal for the same, jumping on to the raft. He then showed us how to stall, how to edge back the raft and how to remain still. He virtually demonstrated to us how to circumvent rock cleavages that sprouted out from nowhere in the midst of the river but those that were no rapids. He most importantly taught us how to maneuver our way through the gushing river whose level was raised to the season’s high thanks to very recent monsoon spells that had preceded our arrival. It meant, we had an interesting rafting ride ahead of us and at the same time a throbbing river at full force. It carried risks. He then gave me a worried look but I forgot to mention how the four of them clapped as I had made my way to the raft minutes after them not squandering their precious energies and time. Now my guide’s fresh predicament was whether I would paddle at all. I was a middleaged housewife. Did I have it in me to paddle for two hours thirty minutes downstream over two dozen rapids. Most of the sailing would be smooth, he assured us. Bali rivers were not Amazon and not even the Ganga. The width of the river Ayung itself came as a surprise to me. It would be manageable, I told myself. I had overcome one third of it already. I looked forward to the first and only ever river rafting experience of my life.
I noticed half a dozen water bottles in our raft as our guide weighed pairing us to balance the raft. In the front went one of the girls small size. I and my husband were paired in the next row. Behind us the other two girls took their places. The rear was brought up by our team leader himself. He quickly revised with us the basic rafting lessons he had taught us only moments before. Satisfied, he untethered the raft that was fully inflated to float comfortably. Frankly I took in the tarpaulin material and wondered how many punctures it could take! Just then the young man announced, we had to raft, look for his hand signals for the entire two and a half hours of rafting without missing a beat, and at the same time enjoy nature all at once! He then blew his whistle signaling the start of our expedition!
And thus began my incredulous whitewater rafting that I never thought until that moment, possible. Ayung was breathing life, so infused with fresh seasonal rains. Lush and green reflecting the enveloping environment, the river brought an instant peace to my mind in turmoil, with its steadiness and timelessness. Ayung that had stood witness to civilization for centuries, humbled me instantly. Greenery on either sides of the river bank emerged like fresh frescos retaining a little dampness. Mosses and lichens covered the rock faces and river beds as well as the overhanging cliffs and gorges and ledges and secretive alcoves wherever there was a gap in the line of scraggy bushes and towering trees with their gnarled roots webbing and clutching to whatever foothold was manageable in gradient slopes. The green carpeting shrouded the river and the banks, with the sky peeping out here and there from the foliage up above to allow mellow light for us to paddle on. Cool gentle breeze had set in by the mid morning. The banks were rising steep as our raft floated downstream paddled by six of us in unison in smooth strokes under the aegis of our rafting guru. First few minutes we had it easy as our leader tested us on the hand signals. All five of us passed his practical exams in flying colours. Slowly our raft wove its way around to the middle of the river where we were told the depth of the river was maximum. I had uttered a small prayer before setting foot on the raft earlier.
Our raft maintained a steady momentum as we tugged and heaved, steered partly by the mild wind. The weight of the lifejacket and the paddle were still making me sweat profusely. The air was thick at times like in Malaysia. It was after all equatorial country whose musty nature I was familiar with. My helmet was a nuisance but considered a must. In case I must slide down, my guide assured me that at least my head would not pop open like a melon! He could still jump out and save my life, so the helmet had to stay. In fact it was checked and rechecked by him for its tightness before we embarked on the river, so I understood our leader meant business. He had checked on all our gear as to whether we wore them tight, strapped tight. The raft was an open one and so I realized i had no hand support on the right but then my right hand was to hold the paddle. Mostly we had to use both our hands to paddle. There was a hold for my left hand to be secured if i wanted to steady myself that was shared with my husband who was my roving partner to my left. His fist closed over mine giving me quiet assurance that all would be well. Gradually our raft had moved out to mainstream river where it widened and the banks grew apart. I looked up to see that our descent point was no more visible and we had drifted over several more hundred feet by then.
The river rafting was proving to be exciting and experience like none other. Adrenaline rushed through my veins and I put all my doubts to rest to enjoy the moment for what it was. I was with a young and able group mostly and my husband was fit as any of them. I felt better. I began relaxing and savouring all that nature revealed to me right then. In the rocky banks I found Ramayana etched by Hindu Bali ancestors. It was an ethereal sight where reality and mirage hung suspended in one plane of time – or it so seemed to me. We jumped one or two rapids and our boss taught us then what to expect about the rapids and how to stay prepared spotting one. We had no time really as one after one the rapids kept coming in the course of our rafting journey. After a couple of rapids. our raft leveled into still calm waters for a change where the river was its broadest and in full flow. Depth here was safe for swimming said our guide and asked us to duck in if we wanted as we drew right below a waterfalls. Unbelievable omg! I can’t relate here those 10 minutes under the falls over the river clinging to the raft but resting my paddles. My hubby encouraged me to step out. Our guide said, I wouldn’t have to swim. He asked me to shower under the falls and I would dry out by the time I went back to their office. But courage failed me at this point. I had had so much, and I was satisfied. My husband was a little disappointed I knew but I didn’t want to stretch my luck as I saw the 3 girls have a whale of a time swimming under the falls stripped to their bikinis that they probably had worn in the insides. All the same I was wet thoroughly drenched by the falls.
We navigated our way out of the falls and next began our ride through literally testy waters. Forward paddling and back peddling alternated as we skirted some rock formations that raised their ugly heads out of river taking us by surprise. There were quite a few bends in the river and at some spots the turns came back to back like hairpin bends. In some points, the rapids and bends were together that we had to carefully maneuver through with skill and patience. More than a dozen times my heart was in my mouth as we wove our raft through some anxious moments. In jumping over rapids and negotiating river bends, I realized that the raft tilted to one side and I had to hang on for my dear life! In one particular spot that was like a whirlpool, our raft got stuck hitting a boulder that had sprung out in the midst of the river course. Our guide stepped out and manually steered the raft in a different direction. He had to carry out this exercise a couple of more times and the waters were frothing. He had even warned us about the raft capsizing in worst circumstances but asked us never to panic. Whatever the situation, we would not drown and our life jacket and helmet would see to that we lived. Thankfully, ours did not capsize that day but from the way he said it, and later admitted, I understood there had been quite a few incidents when the raft turned turtle.
We jumped over wide rapids, narrow rapids, back to back rapids, high rapids. low level rapids – dozens of them. I later looked up their gradings and discovered that some were riskiest. I knew we were doing some 30 plus rapids in total. Somewhere out of the jungle peeked a coffee point where a camera crew were conveniently poised to shoot our pictures that I have posted here. The four of them climbed out of the raft as we both opted to stay put. Our raft was tethered loosely to the jetty and I did worry about the knot getting undone and our raft drifting downstream. It was just a 5 to 10 minute break and we were on our way again on the Ayung river as our guide announced that we were past the halfway mark and would be turning back. He warned us of the trickiest rapid that awaited us yet before we paddled our raft to a different jetty where we had to alight. This rapid as we had been warned got us rocking side to side as I tightened my grip over my left hand hold in the raft as did my husband. I stilled my paddle and waited it out as we finally overcame the monstrous rapid and our guide declared that we had successfully rafted along the river without an incident. We cheered as after some 2.5 hours we disembarked from our raft with no heart to go back to the normal boring world!
But then came the next insurmountable task of climbing uphill. We had some 1000 earthen steps that were steep and half to one meter in height like it was in our descent, winding through the jungles again. The ascent and descent were two entirely different paths with no intersection. Two thirds of our white water rafting experience was over by now. We had started earlier that day on light stomach. Drive to the company was one hour in thick Bali traffic. One hour of waiting it out. 3 hours of walking through the farmlands and trekking downhill. 2.5 hours of rafting in gurgling river that was fresh and alive and kept coming at us. Now another 2 hours of ascent back to the company remained. Our guide did not wait for us this time, taking leave from us assuring us that we would find our way. He had after all the next batch of tourists waiting to raft.
The girls left after him saying their goodbyes. We the oldies took our good time climbing up, heaving and catching our breath wherever and whenever we felt like. Not a word of complaint from my hubby who bore with my slow pace. My knees were hurting from sitting crosslegged somewhat cramped in the raft. I had been traveling in the cab since arriving in Bali, for hours a day. I had had a long flight. He was aware that every bone and joint of my arthritic body literally shrieked. I had mild BP that was manageable, like his. He had mild diabetes as well but within bounds! Together we made some pair!
Finally when we climbed and walked back to the company office, we were greeted cheerfully by the staff and especially by our guide and the three chinese girls who were already planning their night out with our young guide and his male friends. I heard something like campfire in Ubut. We weren’t late by more than 10 minutes. The lunch was on the rafting company. We quickly thanked them and went to our lockers to retrieve our clothes and belongings. We took a hot shower and changed and walked to the open air restaurant to claim our promised Bali lunch. By this time, we had come to love Balinese food which was basically flavoured rice or noodles with dumplings of soya chunks, spinach etc. There was vegetarian fare waiting for me and meat for my husband. We shared a filling lunch seated in wooden benches overlooking paddy fields.
Our tour operator materialized out of nowhere and congratulated me in particular. He confessed he never thought I was capable of completing the rafting and was parked near the office, half expecting me to turn back from the jetty not wanting to go on. From that moment, the duo (the driver of our cab and our regular guide for 6 days) showed me more respect. Next stop was Tanah Loh, they announced. Did I have the energy for it. Do they even needed to ask!
With Tanah Loh hindu temples in the sea, we brought to a beautiful end a beautiful day. For the first time in my life, I went for Balinese massage as well, feather touch, butterfly kissy. I had booked for an earlier appointment. I told them, it was my first ever massage in my life and the girls seemed to be surprised that I hadn’t got one until my 50th year!
Totally relaxing my every single taut nerve and muscle that had been stretched to the maximum that longest day, the Bali girl did a wonderful job like a magic that washed away all my tired lines. I slid into a dreamless bottomless kind of sleep that late night having downed a fruity Balinese beer with our dinner by the poolside. I had preferred to don the Balinese dress for the dinner – a sarong over my t shirt. It was another first for me as I had merely knotted my skirt not buttoning up anywhere risking my honour! Thank god, no mishap once again. Or probably my sari sense saved me. Our Indian sari after all holds world record for serving us women as the longest unstitched garment from time immemorial! Whitewater rafting in Bali remains our best lifetime couple-experience as my husband admits.
What a beautiful dream is Bali. I would like every couple to go here and experience what we did: its magical and like a second or third or fourth or whatever honeymoon to all of us – not to be missed. Its not about just river rafting. Bali is easy on our purse. Its Hindu and so closest to our hearts… And then there is this gift of nature that is getting rarer by the day…
Whitewater rafting proved to me that nothing is impossible. That where there is will, there is a way. Of course, our son extracted from us a promise that we parents would never again subject ourselves to needless risk in future. I became aware how many insecure hours my poor darling had suffered until we messaged him back we were safe on rafting. Rafting may be sport for young men and women, but for middle-aged couples like us, this is still an adventure that can quicken our pulse. A one time life experience, unparalleled. A memory to cherish for the rest of our lives. Couple goal. Bucket list. Etc., etc!