It must have been tough. I found myself thinking of the Ethiopian lady and I only do that when it is. I remember back to cycling on a mountain pass out of Addis Ababa; I was out of shape, struggling and generally feeling sorry for myself. I desperately wanted to stop. In this state I passed a lady walking up the same hill carrying an impossibly large load. She seemed unfazed by the climb, laughing at my odd appearance and making a mockery of the struggle. It is an image that has stayed with me. Whenever I get to thinking times are tough I think of her and all the people like her who have shown us what hard work really is.
I was thinking of her this morning. I heard the alarm from somewhere deep in the recesses of my sleeping bag. I heard it and was immediately filled with dread. Once out of the sleeping bag the cold would envelope me. I was warm and didn't want to leave. I lay thinking about the day that lay ahead.
I imagined fumbling with my swollen hands as I pulled on my damp socks. I pictured holding my breath as I pulled on my filthy t-shirt. The initial forays with changing would be carried out to a chorus of heavy breathing and wincing. My mind would be off as I carried out tasks in auto pilot. Pack away the inside of the tent ,then pack away the tent before waking Maghnus. Next I would collect water, put on the stove, pack up the kayak , eat porridge and carry all my gear to the river.
I felt that if I could just not think about the day ahead until I was paddling I could get through it. I thought this but I lay still. I listened for the signs of wind, wondering if we would have to contend with head-on gusts and waves as we pushed on. Doing the maths I reasoned we had probably averaged 42km per day during the last 19 days of non-stop paddling. It was a reasonable total. If we could do this for the next 23 days we could have a day off. I thought this would cheer me up but it had the opposite effect. Why can’t we have two days off? Three days off and I could paddle to Shanghai. I hated the pressure. After 9 months on the road surely we deserved a little time to relax.
Ok- one day at a time thats all I can think here. Just get today started. Just get on the river and things won’t seem as bleak. My mood lifted. Maybe we would be rewarded by the selfless gestures we had received yesterday afternoon. We could be called aboard another fishing boat for lunch. We could be given Chinese tea, and some steaming hot rice. I pictured sitting in that little kitchen drinking tea. Yesterday hadn’t been all that bad. The locals really were coming to our aid now. It’s like they suddenly sensed we needed it. They were helping us along, helping us grit our teeth.
I thought of that Ethiopian lady. I pictured her smile and rediscovered mine. Unzipping the sleeping bag to begin another day on the Yangtze.
What a difference a couple of months make. This time two months ago I was raft-less, in need of new equipment and desperately trying to convince Chinese Immigration to give me a new visa on a temporary passport. I write now from Chongqing nearly 2000 km further down the river and at the end of the whitewater. In the meantime we have had some of the most difficult, exhilarating, terrifying and memorable moments we have ever experienced. Trying to capture those experiences in their totality is difficult and i fear may not accurately reflect how I felt on a daily basis. Thus I again look to my diary to better articulate my true feelings at the time;
The rapids keep coming. Every corner seems to bring something substantial and there appears to be no end in sight. Four long messy sections greeted us in the first two hours on the water. On the last of which I took a stupid swim entirely because I switched off. Our skill level, or lack thereof, dictates that we be “on it” constantly. The relentless spells of total focus numb the mind after a time and I got flipped before I even knew what was happening.
A couple of km later we arrived at a very large rapid. We scouted it and reckoned that although the swim would be unpleasant there was time enough to self rescue before the next bend. Unlike earlier we were both switched on. Despite this the waves proved two much for us and my raft was flipped back on itself and I was again swimming. The swell sucked me under a few times before I eventually righted the raft and clambered back in just before being swept around the next bend. Bloody horrible feeling being sucked under.
The current condition of the river is pushing us further and further toward what we cannot handle. It is also demanding more and more of us mentally just to get through the day. The river is often referred to as ‘The Dragon’s Back’ and at the moment we are barely clinging to the reigns. The day finished with three back to back rapids. Burnsy scouted ahead and reported that they were just about manageable and that the carrot at the end of a watery stick was a possible campsite beneath a waterfall.
The first of the rapids we both passed through with not a small amount of difficulty. The second, though, was one which I will not soon forget. Edging in on the lip trying to avoid a very messy left hand side I was hit from the right by three or four large waves pushing me directly into the worst of the mess on the left. Waves, bubbling aerated water and whirlpools of huge proportions seemed to crash and form all around me. I forgot all thoughts of lines and direction as I spun wildly, sticking my paddle into the swirling mass simply to stay upright. Just as i resigned myself to a nasty swim I was spat out the right way up. No time to reflect we hit the last of the three and with manic excitement we both squeezed through before eddying out at the base of the waterfall. In hundreds of nights camping we have never experienced a more special site. Water hazed from 100 metres above bouncing off glistening rock before plunging into a shallow pool as if rain.
It has truly been a testing stage, filled with adventure, genuine danger and at times great fun. The mental fatigue we both currently feel is testament to the size of the task it has been. Although we are both reticent to say it aloud we feel we are now within touching distance of completing what we set out to do so many months ago. It is far from over with over 2000 km of hard slog ahead but in making such a sustained push at a time when such a push was most difficult we have taken an important step. I believe, or rather hope, that when we look back at the river in its entirety those few weeks will be the ones that convinced the dragon to permit us passage.
Have you suffered, starved and triumphed,
groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
"Done things" just for the doing
The Call of the Wild - Robert Service
I wonder when all this is finished and we are looking back at those days on the great bend of the Yangtze river. Will we view them as the defining moments of this expedition ?
Never before have we lived with such a sense of fear. Never have we questioned the subtle line between courage and stupidly or had days so full of exhilaration. At the time we craved safety but were aware that these moments were special. These were the moments that got us into this way of life, these were moments to remember.
We have now entered the final section of our expedition. The white waters and adrenaline filled days of the upper river lie behind us. Our new challenge is a familiar one, a final test of endurance on a flat and heavily populated river.
There is still a possibility we won’t complete this expedition. That we won’t get a chance to stand in Shanghai and remember all the agony and ecstasy lining the roads and river banks across Asia. That some unforeseen event will stop us so close to the end. It would be horrible to fall at this final hurdle but it would no long ruin the expedition.
Don’t get me wrong, finishing is still hugely important and we will be throwing all we have left into this final test. We will approach it with the respect and determination required. Im sure it will be an amazing time and an opportunity for us to thank all the people who have made this possible.
It will be memorable. But as we have always found, the great days aren’t the days spent posing for pictures. Finishing lines don’t bring some sudden uncontrollable excitement and they don’t make an expedition. The moments we end up remembering are the quiet ones on mountain passes or after great rapids. They arise after fierce struggles and are spent gazing back towards the setting sun. They are filled with an illusive feeling that if only for the briefest of moments, and if only for the sake of doing, I had done.
I woke up feeling more nervous than yesterday and for some reason felt jittery as we paddled off from a little jetty. I say ‘for some reason’ as yesterdays fall wasn’t particularly bad and during the resulting swim I felt composed and relaxed getting out of trouble long before any rapids. I concluded that the feeling was more to do with the general uneasiness I have regarding this stretch. I have always felt that once we reach Chongqing we will be safe and so it seems the closer we get the more I think of all the possibilities for disaster that could arise before this landmark. It seems akin to the feeling one can get in Rugby or Football when trying to hold onto a narrow lead. You become so obsessed with not making mistakes that you lose your rhythm , an extremely dangerous mindset to adopt on this river.
As we paddled off I wobbled on a series of tiny whirlpools. Then I began readjusting my bags and seat trying to correct a balance issue that only existed in my head. Maghnus humored my dilemma by pointing out that jitters were only natural and that my raft looked perfectly balanced. I then exclaimed for the first and last time that ‘I needed something big to get me back in the groove’ - I certainly got my wish. Throughout that day we negotiated rapids every few kilometers, rapids which made all our efforts on this section seem like some sort of extended warm up. One in particular stands out :
The river seemed to be forking into two channels divided by a shingle bank 30 meters from the left bank and flanked by the sheer cliffs which are beginning to characterise this section. The sun was in my eyes as I strained to make a call. Peering down both channels looking for an obvious horizon line or white water jumping up in the distance. At 1km away river left seemed like the preferable option and I could make out a period of calm afterwards which would be perfect for recovering should either of of get into trouble.
I slowly began to get in position not yet committed to running this river left but certain that we could read and run whatever was ahead. As I moved out towards the centre of the river I could see fully down the bend the water took going river left and knew something was up. The noise didn’t fit with the calm scene in front of me and the water had grown extremely calm. I strained my eyes trying to see where this noise originated and saw some puffs of white water just visible behind a calm horizon which spanned this side of the river. I couldn’t see the full extent of it yet but knew it must be big. I turned to indicate my mistake to Maghnus and started paddling hard across the flow heading for the right hand passage. Maghnus was 50 meters back and in a perfect position to get across. I still felt I could make it but as I paddled and the noise increased the struggle I was in for became apparent.
Getting closer to the right hand channel the speed of the river increased. Although the right hand side was wider 75% of the water seemed to curving round and going down river left. I got to within 5 meters of the calm righthand channel before I realised for certain I wouldn’t make it. I swung the raft round and prepared to get pounded. Maghnus has enough time to get right I thought, I dearly hoped he wouldn’t follow me into this. After this I started manicly shouting at the upcoming water, all nervousness was gone and I was ready for a tussle. My aim was simple get as far as possible before falling out I had no grand illusions off making this in one piece.
Water was coming diagonally off the shingle bed on the right and seemed to be hitting boulders as it rushed across to join the main flow which followed along the cliff on the far left. There was a slight lip of calm water leading into the huge waves on the left and I used this as a target. Before I knew it I was on the lip and sinking deeper and deeper into the trough of a wave with another rising high above me. My only strategy was to hit as many as I could head on, and for the first two I managed it. The raft rising vertically on each occasion but crashing down each time. I was roaring at the water, crashing through wave after wave with adrenaline pumping. I had no chance of picking a line or trying to get out , it was purely one wave at a time. On several occasions I was sucked into a whirlpool or blindsided my some monster wave but miraculously kept upright. I began to take in my surroundings and noticed the waves were decreasing. I managed a quick look back and saw that Maghnus had followed me in and was perched on the crest of a wave someway back. I felt I would make it now but still had to work hard and keep an eye on Maghnus. He appeared every few seconds on the crest of a wave before plunging out of sight. The next corner was 1km away and getting in position was essential. As soon as Maghnus was through the worst of it we were working hard to get back across river right. Reminiscing would have to wait until we camped.
We are heading back to the river today with about two weeks of paddling remaining until we leave the mountains for good. We will attempt to put up a few more diary entries before then.
At last! After weeks of arguing with immigration officials and with huge help from everyone at the Irish Consulate we are ready to head back to the river for a final three-month push to the Shanghai. Equipment, which was once of the North Face/Berghaus/Lowe Alpine variety, has been replaced by the well-known adventure brands Primark and CCF (Cheap Chinese Fakes).
Crucially, however, thanks to Alpacka Rafts we will have the best pack-rafts money can buy.Putting this expedition back together has been a hugely difficult task made possible only with the help of a few people. We would like to thank Austin Gormley, Lucia and Peter at the Consulate, Nancy at Alpacka Rafts, Rowena Knight at Palm, Brian Crean and finally Tempa, our host in Yushu. Finally we’d just like to say how blown away we were by the support from home. When things were looking particularly bleak the messages from home encouraged us to start again. Cheers to everyone.
I estimated that the distance to the bend was somewhere in the region of 800 metres. The distance to the opposite bank was roughly 70 metres. Rapids ﬂanked both banks before giving way to a second bend the end of which I could not see. Burnsy had pulled his raft off the river onto a rocky outcrop just preceding the inside of the bend. Holding a 25 metre rescue line in waist deep water he would be able to toss the line if i could not make it across the river before the bend. If i missed the line I would be swept into the ﬁrst of the rapids. In the previous four weeks we had come within a stones throw of a bear, encountered numerous wolves, been thrown out of my raft twice in white-water and on three separate occasions I had found myself clutching a cliff-face knowing that a misstep would almost certainly be crippling if not fatal. Yet now, standing at the waters edge, my mind lost in the speed of the main ﬂow, I was more physically scared than at anytime previously in my life.
8 days after beginning our post run rest period we left Xining for a second time and headed once more toward the Yangtse source. Chinese authorities had closed the wider Tibetan Autonomous zone to foreigners without group visas (all but impossible to get) and so reaching the source of the Yangtse would demand a border hop. The topography of the land at the border crossing creates a natural gateway through which travelers are funneled. 5000 metre peaks form a 300 km natural barrier to progress broken only by a narrow pass. A river which emerges from this pass cuts a steeply walled canyon bisecting the break in the ridge, further necessitating a route through the border checkpoint. To avoid this checkpoint we would have to cross the canyon, hike east into the desert and use the cover of nightfall to sneak past the police before re-crossing the river on the Tibetan side. This was further complicated by the fact that we would have to attempt the trek with a pack containing all our equipment and three weeks supply of food for the beginning of the river. I weighed approximately 70 kg and, ﬁttingly, my pack weighed approximately 70 kg.
40 hours after leaving the road, headed east toward the canyon, we rejoined it a mere 15 km further along. Crucially, however, within those 15 km lay the border crossing, the only remaining obstacle to us reaching the source of the longest river in Asia. A day later we camped on frozen ground 5000 metres above sea level on the bank of the Yangtze River. As I climbed into my sleeping bag I clearly remember thinking; no matter what happens from now on, being here has made this past years work worthwhile. The truth or perhaps honesty of this single thought would be tested with a scrutiny I scarcely considered as I nodded off for the ﬁnal time before we began our descent of the river.
Unlike any previous expedition for the next three to four weeks we would truly be on our own. The height and inaccessibility of the ﬁrst 1000 km of the river precludes any signiﬁcant human settlement. We would be out of contact with the outside world completely dependent on our ourselves. Excitement suppressed all but a smattering of anxiety. The tiredness that had set upon us in India and which was our constant companion on the run seemed to dissipate. Our enthusiasm returned with a force that I think surprised us both. on three consecutive days I wrote in my diary that each had been the best of the expedition to date. Massive birds of prey circled overhead as herds of wild horses galloped along the river banks. Burnsy paddled obliviously as a wolf scrutinized his every movement. A bear hardly ﬂinched as we ﬂoated, rigid with fear, metres from his island perch. Landscape more breathtaking than seemed possible gave way to steeply banked cliffs as we paddled through snow covered mountain ranges even more demanding of breath. Through it all the singular constant was the absence of humanity in its various guises. What i know about nature could ﬁt comfortably in a largely spaced childrens book but I am now convinced that all it takes for nature to ﬂourish is for us to disappear.
The physicality of the run and cycle was replaced by a level of mental concentration that left us drained if not sore. Paddling for about seven hours a day, whilst tiring, lacks the intensity of running or cycling. In itʼs stead though is a requirement for constant vigilance. Our lack of experience in rafting requires that we approach every bend with caution. Every minor rapid must be examined and scouted. Constantly we reinforced this to each other, mindful to avoid even a semblance of over-conﬁdence. If we were to get through this initial and arguably most difﬁcult stage it would be through prudence, patience and self- awareness.
Rigidly sticking to this approach we found ourselves one difﬁcult continuous rapid from reaching Yushu within four weeks and ﬁnishing the ﬁrst stretch. Conscious of how close we were to success we scouted this ﬁnal rapid carefully. Identifying two difﬁcult sections in particular we made our way back to the rafts conﬁdent that we could get through it. Burnsy passed through the ﬁrst section dropping into a stopper but forcing his way through. Unable to fully see his struggle I followed him into the stopper but similarly did just enough to come through it. The second section had appeared very imposing but Burnsy reckoned if we got our angle of entry right we could slip through a break in a wave. Glancing ahead I saw that he had indeed made it through and following a similar line I slipped through the same gap. A mixture of relief and adrenalin ﬂooded through me as the main ﬂow carried my raft through the remaining whitewater. My concentration lapsed as I turned to move out of the main ﬂow to the calm waters near the bank. Turning too abruptly the front of my raft caught the static water of the eddy as the main ﬂow continued to exert force on the rear.
The raft ﬂipped in an instant and I was swimming. The water at this height is so cold that even in a dry suit it forces all air from your lungs. Struggling to swim out of the rapid with the rope attached to the raft in my mouth I swallowed water and the resulting cough saw the raft continue down river as I reached for a boulder and pulled myself from the water.
For the next three days we chased the raft. Burnsy on the river and me on the shore.Darkness fell soon-after my swim giving the raft a 10 hour start on us. It was a gap we would never bridge and a massive weir just before Yushu probably put paid to the raft, equipment and all. The reality of losing the raft and with it every piece of equipment and identiﬁcation I needed for the expedition became ever more apparent with each passing hour. Chasing a raft on the shore of a river the size of the Yangtse meant committing to a side and the obstacles it would bring. Time and again I found I had scrambled to a point where I could go no further and with each new corner-formed cliff the risks I was taking grew. On the evening of the third day I found myself at yet another cliff formed by a bend. Burnsy pulled off the river and waited to see if i could climb across. Moving horizontally along the face about 40 metres from the ground I reached an impasse. A two metre gap separated me from the next foot hold. I climbed back down slowly realising that to continue I would have to swim to the opposite bank.
Thus I stood in frigid water trying to compose myself enough to throw myself into the main ﬂow. I couldnʼt slow my heart but reasoned that the increased adrenalin might serve to keep me slightly warmer. I sank to my knees bringing the water to my neck so as to avoid being shocked. Ultimately it was a single thought that provided the push I needed to begin swimming; I had no other choice. I waded in and began a labored front crawl that took me to the other side some 100 metres upstream from Burnsy. I lay exhausted on a rock struggling to ﬁnd oxygen in air that seemed reluctant to provide it. It was only then, shivering and spent, that it ﬁnally sank in; The raft and everything on it was gone. Although
dejected this realisation ended a period of constant hope and repeated deﬂation. Accepting that if we were continue it would only be by starting anew meant facing some harsh realities but at least I would not be throwing myself into a river merely hopeful of making it to the other side.
At times during previous expeditions and in the early stages of this one I have often killed some time during difﬁcult periods trying to recite the words of Rudyard Kiplingʼs ʻIfʼ as I cycled or ran. A mistake would send me back to the start prolonging the length of time I could distract myself for. Such repetition of the early verses meant I had spoken this line more times than I could possibly count;
If you can bear to see the work you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build it up again with worn out tools.
If those words meant anything to me then here was an opportunity to give meaning to them personally. I write now stooping to see if we can put this expedition back together.
"After a month on the Yangtze and within metres of finishing the most difficult section of the river we will do Maghnus got flipped exiting a rapid. He made it ashore but the packraft continued down the river. We chased it on foot and by packraft for over 100km but having reached Yushu we have to resign ourselves to the fact that the raft and all of the equipment is gone."
Maghnus wrote the above statement last week and since then we received the incredible news that Alpacka have donated a packraft for us to complete the journey. We are incredibly grateful to both Alpacka and all the people who have got in touch with words of support over the last few days.
With the Chinese holiday week in full swing we have to wait until at least the 15th September before getting our new visas and getting back on the river. We will use this gap and the availability of internet to catch up with all the content we have missed over the last couple of months.