Mekong River adventures in a Safari Kayak

Khong Phapheng Falls

October 12, 2000

The Mekong, flowing from the frigid Tibetan plateau to an immeasurably vast delta on the South China Sea, is the twelfth longest river in the world and the world’s tenth in terms of volume of water. It is not a navigable whole, much to the chagrin of the French former colonizers of Indochina. Rapids obstruct the river’s course in several places. Of these, the mighty falls in the Sihandon (four thousand islands) region of the Lao Mekong just north of the Cambodian border, Somphamit to the west and the larger and more ferocious Khon Phapheng to the east, are splendidly impressive and would certainly excite interest among the intreped readers of Canoe & Kayak, Whitewater Paddling and similar publications. Unknown to recreational paddlers in the wider world, the mighty Mekong’s immense falls patiently await the attentions of the likes of Shannon Carroll and Doug Ammons.

Both sets of falls offer Class V+ dangers and thrills; the time to attempt either would be in July and August when the Mekong is running full and swift. In January there is more rock than water in evidence and fearless local fisher folk clamber over slickly wet rock surfaces to rig precarious, flimsy but visibly effective fish traps over the tumultuous billows and crashing surf. A brief experience of tubing the comparatively demure Nam Song River at Van Vieng in Laos encouraged me to try tubing the Mekong, Then brown as oxtail soup, full and flowing at a brisk walking pace, in August 1999.

Dire warnings of probable disasters and the menace supposedly posed by electric eels (they are, in fact, both rare and shy) reduced my tube trip to a mere three kilometers, from Mr. Tho’s inexpensive bungalow resort on Don Det to the sturdy old railroad bridge linking Don Det and Don Khon. A light railway was constructed early last century to bypass the falls and make the Mekong a navigable waterway of sorts; it was abandoned in 1945 and the rails are now used for fencing local yards.

For the locals who inhabit the thirty-odd inhabited islands of Siphandon, the Mekong is both larder and highway: every adult, wrinkled crone and toddler can handle a wooden canoe with confidence and adroit skill but tubing was seemingly unknown in Siphandon until then.

Kayak recreational tourism has to be one of the cleanest and nicest form of tourism; we pollute hardly at all. If we spend relatively little, that modest expenditure finds its way into the packets of the lower-middle entrepreneurial class and peasantry of the locality, rather than the metropolitan wealthy who own vast hotels and resorts. Ideally, I would like to see Siphandon become a year-round kayaking resort for responsible kayakers; the local children are well nourished, cheery, self-confident and healthy but they could use some better clothes.


My Innova Safari kayak now lies at Mr. Tho’s ramshackle thatched-hut resort on Don Det; readers of this article are welcome to use it so long as they stay at Mr. Tho’s or have a meal there. Should you feel you need it, written authorization may be had from me by e-mail at sonoekurimoto@yahoo.com

From the Chinese truck tube (“Double Coin Brand”) rented from Mr. Pye in Muang Khong to an inflatable kayak is none too great a step. Then a resident of Osaka in Japan, I ordered an Innova Safari kayak to be sent to Mr. Pon’s guest house at Muang Khong on the island of Don Khong ( Don means island in Lao, as Ko does in Thai and -shima in Japanese) from the Innova distributors in the U.S.A. (www.innovakayak.com). The Innova, made by the painstaking Bohemians of Gumotex in the Czech Republic, proved to be everything the American distributor claimed; it is tough, buoyant, comfortable and light enough to haul around and carry with ease.

The morning of the kayak’s inflation drew a crowd of onlookers and eager participants; the kayak’s rightful owner was brusquely elbowed aside while every available man and youth in the village tried the Innova experience, to be followed by Mr. Pon’s serving girls – almost certainly his second or third cousins, for everyone in Siphandon seems to be related to everyone else. Squealing with glee, the two waitresses crossed the navigation channel to Hat Xai Khun, accepted the plaudits of all onlookers and returned aglow with triumph.

In January the Mekong is low and sluggish, a mere shadow of its mighty self in July and August. Still, I had not been in any kind of kayak or canoe in moving water for over two decades and the 22 kilometer passage from Muang Khong to the old railroad bridge at Ban Khon was a languid delight of six hours, enlivened by numerous stretches of Class I whitewater, rather fewer stretches of Class II and one lamentably brief stretch of Class III.

Every village on Don Som and the other islands passed contributed a host of enthusiastic, if bemused, onlookers; a simple kayak journey had the improbable air of a royal progress, like the young Elizabeth Tudor being rowed on the Thames. A bright red inflatable kayak had never been seen before in Siphandon. Being now neither young (alas) nor unduly given to strenuous endeavors I was content to return from Ban Khon to Muang Khong with the light Innova by powered launch (an informal waterbus service makes the journey several times a day) and then to return with the current. A muscular and enthusiastic young American set an interesting precedent by taking the Innova, in the unaccustomed role of a cargo vessel, thrice from Mr. Thos on Don Det to Ban Nakasong on the eastern Mekong shore to bring back crates of Beer Lao on the grounds that Beer Lao was to be had cheaper at Ban Nakasong; this entailed strenuous and unceasing paddling against the Mekong current, a fairly demanding feat.


A glance at a detailed map of Siphandon suggested possibilities beyond unswerving adherence to the main channel, that had been delineated by navigation markers in the French period. Bearing to the west of Don Som takes one into quiet water frequented only by local fishers, local delivery boats and occasional waterborne commuters (grannies, aunties, tiny children and piglets).

I regret not having taken the westernmost channel from Muang Saen on Don Khong through the maze of islands to Don Xang and thence to Don Det; there simply wasn’t enough time. It shall be done by other outsiders, if not by me.

There is a drawback to exploring the more minor channels of the Mekong when the water is low and sluggish. In January such channels are often blocked by green water weed in dense mats like the thick white polystyrene used for encasing computers and refrigerators. An hour or so spent struggling out of this heavy, clogging and impeding stuff can upset the best laid plans; I was overtaken by nightfall in a baffling maze of bushes and islands west of Don Det. Forward progress in the starlight appeared impracticable, a night spent in the Innova would have offered a midnight feast for every mosquito in Siphandon and invited agonizingly stiff joints the next day. While pondering these uninviting alternatives, your chronicler was cheered to observe a bonfire flare up a mere hundred or two meters away. After forty minutes of struggling with the mats of weed, I bumped into a moored canoe, struggled up the riverbank leading to a small community on Don Puey. Let it suffice to say that the civil and hospitable people in this insular hamlet, Don Puey being an island with maybe 25 families, offered the forlorn wayfarer a change of clothes, a hot meal and a bed with a mosquito net. A payment of approximately $4.00 was readily accepted (costs in Laos are low, except for the visa and the expenses incurred in getting there in the first place. My spouse complained bitterly that on occasion I was spending over $20.00 in a single day!).

Now, let me offer suggestions: go to Laos in July and/ or August. The truly adventurous could try doing the falls mentioned above. Those with more time but less enthusiasm might consider a kayak/canoe trip from Luang Nam Tha down the Nam Tha River to its confluence with the Mekong and a journey downstream to Siphandon. Whether a kayak journey from, say, Jinghong in China to the river’s mouth in Vietnam is politically possible is necessarily open to question. Sooner or later someone will do it; why not you, dear reader?

William Corr
Professor of English
Yosu National University – Korea

Current Twitter conversations with the word “kayaking”


Venice – Jon L Sattler’s Venice Travels in an Innova Helios II

As the Crimson Poobah glided into the glimmering water bathed in the quiet morning sun, I knew immediately that I was plunging into one of the coolest experiences of my life. I was in Venice in a kayak.

I had mailed the Poobah, my inflatable kayak, to my hotel in Venice from Orleans, France. In Orleans several weeks earlier, I had paddled a section of the castle-ridden Loire River Valley with my French brother-in-spirit Christophe (a friend of mine from my high school days in France).

The staff and some guests gave me curious looks as I inflated the Poobah on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, which luckily fronted a canal.

I had dreamed about Venice since I was a child. My visions had been a Disney-like version of gondoliers, romantic canals and historic architecture. The next morning I launched the Poobah into the waters of Venice to learn that there was much more to the city than I first imagined. For example, people actually live there! As I began exploring some of the tranquil backwaters, I could hear the city slowly coming to life: the sounds of breakfast dishes, showers and morning conversation. I wound around from alley to alley letting curiosity and the magnetism of the beauty around me be my guide.

Not part of my original sanitized version of Venice was the smell of some of the canals. Some of them reeked horrifically of sewage and other fowl substances. I spotted many unknown items drifting in the waters that the Office of Tourism is not likely to mention on a brochure.

People often ask how locals reacted to seeing me in my bright red kayak. It turns out that in a world where everyone is born, lives and dies using boats, one more boat is not a big deal. I caught the eye of more jealous tourists than locals.

Venice, while spectacularly impractical, is stunning to visit. The ancient city seems designed to be navigated by boat, but you also get a neat perspective exploring by foot the vehicle-free, cobblestone streets which are stitched together by an endless variety of charming old bridges.

In all, trying to describe the magical experience of paddling around Venice goes beyond my abilities as a writer and it is something that you should just try and experience firsthand if you can. By the way, if you ever get a chance to go to Venice with or without a kayak, GO!

 
 

2007 Attempt at Circumnavigating Kauai in an Innova Sunny Kayak

4-7 June 2007 attempt at circumnavigating Kauai in an inflatable Innova Sunny kayak. This video covers the section from Lihue to Hanalei. the first 2 days were especially tough as I was going against the wind.

7 to 11 June 2007 attempt at circumnavigating Kauai in an inflatable Innova Sunny kayak. This video covers the section from Hanalei to Kekaha where I gave up because of a bad weather and wave forecast and I was exhausted.

600 Miles to Timbuktu in an Innova Safari

Called a “real-life Lara Croft” by the New York Times, Kira Salak is the first documented person to kayak solo 600 miles down West Africa’s Niger River.

Below are excerpts From the Print Edition of National Geographic Adventure Magazine
December 2002/January 2003 issue

(click here to read the article)

(click here for a National Geographic video on Kira Salak)

(click here for a CBS Evening News interview with Kira Salak)

(click here for more excerpts)

Mungo Made Me Do It—Rafting to Timbuktu

Writer KIRA SALAK’s aim was audacious: To paddle nearly 600 miles [966 kilometers] down the Niger River, a hazardous journey, inspired by legendary Scottish explorer Mungo Park, that no person had ever completed solo. She was slightly crazy, people thought; highly determined, she knew; and completely alone: in a little red boat, en route to Timbuktu.

In the beginning, all my journeys feel at best ludicrous, at worst insane. This one is no exception. The idea is to paddle nearly 600 miles on the Niger River in a kayak, alone, from the town of Old Ségou to Timbuktu.

And now, at the very hour I have decided to leave, a thunderstorm bursts open the skies, sending down apocalyptic rain, washing away the ground beneath my feet. It is the rainy season in Mali, for which there can be no comparison in the world.

Lightning pierces trees, slices across houses. Thunder wracks the skies and pounds the Earth like mortar fire, and every living thing huddles in its tenuous shelter, expecting the world to end. Which it doesn’t. At least not this time.

So we all give a collective sigh to the salvation from the passing storm as it rumbles east, and I survey the river I’m to depart on this morning. Rain or no rain, today is the day for the journey to begin.

“Let’s do it,” I say, leaving the shelter of an adobe hut. My guide from town, Modibo, points to the north, to further storms. He says he will pray for me. It’s the best he can do. To his knowledge, no man has ever completed such a trip, though a few have tried. And certainly no woman has done such a thing.

Earlier this morning he took me aside and told me he thinks I’m crazy, which I understood as concern, and so I thanked him. He told me that the people of Old Ségou think I’m crazy, too, and that only uncanny good luck will keep me safe.

What he doesn’t know is that the worst thing a person can do is to tell me I can’t do something, because then I’ll want to do it all the more. It may be a failing of mine.

I carry my inflatable kayak through the labyrinthine alleys of Old Ségou, past the huts melting in the rain, past the huddling goats and the smoke of cooking fires, past people peering out at me from dark entranceways.

Old Ségou must have looked much the same to Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who left here on the first of his two river journeys 206 years ago to the day. It is no coincidence that I’ve picked this date, July 22, and this spot to begin my journey.

Park is my guarantee of sorts. If he could travel down the Niger, then so can I. Of course, Park also died on the river, but so far I’ve managed to overlook that.

Thunder again. Hobbled donkeys cower under a new onslaught of rain, ears back, necks craned. Naked children dare one another to touch me, and I make it easy for them, stopping and holding out my arm. They stroke my white skin as if it were velvet, using only the pads of their fingers, then stare at their hands, looking for wet paint.

I stop on the banks of the river near a centuries-old kapok tree, under which I imagine Park once took shade. I open my bag, spread out my little red kayak, and start to pump it up. A photographer, who will check in on me from time to time in his motorized boat, feverishly snaps pictures.

A couple of women nearby, with colorful cloth wraps called pagnes tied tightly about their breasts, gaze at me as if to ask: Who are you, and what do you think you’re doing?

The Niger, in a surly mood, churns and slaps the shore.

I don’t pretend to know what I’m doing. Just one thing at a time now: kayak inflated, kayak loaded, paddles fitted together. Modibo watches me.

“I’ll pray for you,” he reminds me.

I balance my gear and get in. Finally, irrevocably, I paddle away.