I did my first rafting trip in 2006 in Sulawesi, and since then I’m always on the look out wherever I go whether you can go rafting there. In the meantime I went rafting in Honduras, Thailand, France for 5 days, and Peru (Apurimac river for 4 days).
In France I went to the Ubaye valley with the Belgian rafting federation (Herwig and Veerle) and learned most of the things I’ve written here.
Basic white water rafting tips
– Rafting is not a democracy. There’s only 1 boss on board who says what everyone will do, and that’s the steering man. When there’s a rock coming up, you don’t have time discussing ‘how will we tackle that’, the steering man decides, and everyone does as he or she tells. If you can’t accept that, it’s better you start kayaking instead of rafting.
– Rafting can be dangerous, therefore to avoid the dangers as much as possible you need good equipment, good steering people with experience on that particular river, and you should know the limits of your own skills.
Avoiding the dangers
Choose a good rafting company:
– A good rafting company should have steering people with a lot of experience on that particular river. One guy can be good on the river where he learned the skills, but put him on another river like Zambezi, and he can get lost.
– It’s also better to raft with several boats then with 1. It’s easier to “rescue” someone out of the water when you are with several boats.
– Check out the equipment.
– As for boats, there are several brands: Avon is the Rolls Royce amoung rafting boats, they cost around 5000 Euro for 1 boat, Aqua Design is also good but cheaper at 3000 Euro. A Czech boat like Bora is much less good costing 1500 Euro, although if he’s in good condition you’ll probably won’t notice it. In wilder rivers, straps to put your feet in are imperative. They saved me more then once from falling in the water on class 3 – 5 rivers.
– Life vests are also very important. Not only do they keep you floating, it is also the main tool to lift you out of the water into the boat once you’ve fallen overboard. A rescuer will grab the shoulders of the vest and pull you in. Therefore, a good vest has reinforced shoulders, fits well around your body and has a strap between your legs, so that when people try to pull you in, they pull in your whole body, and not just your life vest.
– You also need wetsuits. Usually the quality of these is an indication for the quality of the rest of the material.
– In Western Europe, and I suppose also in the US you can hardly go wrong choosing a company. In France f.i. rules are so strict that it’s impossible to start a rafting company without good steering men and equipment.
Choosing a good river
– Don’t raft a class V river on your first day. You can get scared and probably never jump in a raft anymore. Start easily on a class II river, and you can also do some rescue exercises there so you know what it is when you flip into the water. A good idea is f.i. going to an artificial wildwater river like in Arras France (near Lille). You’ll learn what to do when the boat has flipped, or when you fall into the water etc…
– A river in rainy season is completely different from the same river in dry season. I saw pictures of Ubaye river in April and in August, and it’s a huge difference.
– Don’t attempt a forbidden (class VI) piece. If it’s forbidden, it means people have died there, and it’s wise not to risk the same.
– Never underestimate a river, even the Austrian world champion kayaking drowned in 1999 while people where watching him and tried to rescue him. The power of water can be enormous.
Our rafting trip in the Ubaye valley 7/2012
– We went rafting for 1 week in july in the Ubaye valley (region of Barcelonnette, French Alps -Haute Provence) with the Belgian Rafting federation. Herwig does 2 weeks of a Great Alps tour where rivers in the Alps from North to South are tackled. From half July, he bases himself in Les Thuiles for 4 weeks to raft the Ubaye river. They have their own website at www.rafting.be.
– All the people participating (we were 10 that week) stayed on the camping “Loisirs de l’Ubaye” which is Belgian run. The owner is a very friendly guy, but his mother who comes to help in summer months sometimes thinks she’s running a nunnery. There’s a swimming pool, and you can play football, basketball, tennis, badminton, table tennis. They have their own website at www.loisirsubaye.com. You can also stay in a hotel or guesthouse if you want to.
– When we arrived, it had been pretty dry and it didn’t snow much in winter, so water was rather low at 9 m³. However, it started raining a lot, so water levels rose considerably to 25 m³ by wednesday.
Day 1: monday
As an introduction, we went to the Durance river. This is 40 km trip by car over a marvellous road east of the Serre Poncon lake (great views!!). The Durance is a class II river, very wide and very few rocks. Perfect if you don’t have experience, but boring if you expect really rough action. In that case you’ll get more action when you step into a floating canoe instead of a raft.
Day 2: tuesday
We did the Ubaye which was OK and the upper Ubaye which is quite active and rocky, especially in the beginning. with a water level of 25 m³, this is a class 3 river.
Day 3: wednesday
We did the Martinet – Le Lauzet piece which is class IV with the 25 m³ we had. This is a really great piece of river, plenty of rapids, and at the end a marvellous canyon covered by a Romanesque bridge.In the afternoon we did almost the same stretch by hydrospeed. Here, everyone gets a personnal floating raft, a protecting wet suit and fins.
You then try to swim in the river, following a guide who knows the best way to go. Personnally, I didn’t like this very much, but it depends a bit on yourself. You’ll get a lot of water thrown in your face and hit plenty of rocks.
Day 4: thursday
We did the Martinet-Le Lauzet piece twice again, once in a floatable canoe for 2 persons which was also a lot of fun.
Day 5: friday
We did the “ex-infranchissables” which is the piece before Martinet-Le Lauzet. This is class V river, and you can only decently raft it with an experienced and well trained team. In other words, we had several people overboard, but no harm was done.
– We also did a parapente flight with Matthieu and his team. Off course, if you’ve never flown, you’ll have to do a “biplace-vol” where you’re attached to a guide. We went for the “Soleille-Boeuf” flight. due to the wind, they do this in the evening. You’ll be around 15 minutes in the air, but the preparation of the flight may well take over 2 hours.
First you’ll go up the mountain by Landcruiser over a very steep way, but then you still need to walk up the mountain for at least 15 minutes (for me it was 30 minutes!). Once up the mountain you’ll probably need to wait a bit if the wind is too strong, then people start flying one by one.
– Taking off was much easier then I thought, although this also depends a bit on the wind: the more wind, the less you have to run. You’ll be in the air for about 15 minutes, and it’ll depend a bit on your guide and yourself whether you’ll do acrobatic things or not. Flying actually is pretty windy since you fly at a speed of 35 km/hour. Especially when you start rotating you get the impression you’re going very fast. Prices for the flights range from 60 to 75 Euro. This seems expesive, but if you see what logistics is needed for your 15 minute flight, it’s a reasonable price.
Other places to raft
Sulawesi – Rantepao
As I said, I went rafting in Sulawesi. This was my first experience in rafting and it was really great fun. We went with Sobek which is a reputable company. The first part of the river was great, and also the scenery was marvellous with some beautiful waterfalls. After lunch however, thing got a bit less spectecular. We went in May which is rainy season in Sulawesi.
– Don’t get fooled in Thailand: there’s rafting and bamboo rafting. Bamboo rafting is not nearly as spectacular as usual rafting. A bamboo raft is pretty slow, and you’ll have to work hard yourself to get the thing moving.
– Real rafting can only be done in rainy season (july till november) in Northern Thailand (in the Pai region there’s a French guy offering trips) and also near the Myanmar border around Mae Sot. This last river gives you also the opportunity to see the biggest waterfalls in Asia.
The Rio Cangrejal near La Ceiba is a great river, but again, there’s a big difference according to the season you’re going. In dry season the water becomes low and the river is very technical. In that case it’s better to go with a 2-persons floatable kayak rather then a raft. You can also talk to the guys and when you’ve had some experience, you could do the river higher up which is more spectacular.
– Around Cusco there are plenty of rafting trips offered. If you’ve never done it, the Urubamba river offers a good introduction for 1 day.
– Otherwise the Apurimac offers a great 4-day experience where you camp along the river. Several operators offer this trip. Amazonas Explorers are certainly the best but also the most expensive at 615 US$. For this you get state-of-the-art equipment and guides. Other companies like Instinct and Mayuc are cheaper at 200 US$.