Friday, April 29, 2005
Day 3 came at us quickly. Loathe to hang around the house and continue to be an inconvenience, we arose with the family and were out and on the water by 6:45am. Unlike the previous night, we were not presented with a bill and in fact were not asked for any money, though we gave some. And unfortunately, we had to provide our own breakfast which consisted of the last of our hard boiled eggs (which were a bit funny after being wetted by the Nam Ou for a couple days) and some peanuts.
Low hanging gray clouds threatened rain as our paddles dipped into the silent river, shoulder and back muscles sore and tight, no words breaking the silence. A set of rapids woke us up, and we then began to worry about the weather as well as distance left before us. Our food supplies were about depleted which would have been ok since we were along the road and food could be procured. Only our money supply was also dangerously low. Our water supplies were non-existent and boiling the river did not seem sufficient to filter out all the crud. To make matters worse, the people in the village told us that Luang Prabang (our destination) was still a couple/few days of paddling away. This weighed heavily on all our minds, though noone spoke of it.
Almost two hours into the day we pulled off near a small village to look for water. We were told by a guy from the village that they had a shop across the river that had water. Loading him into our boat we paddled across; leaving the girls to watch our things we headed uphill and among the huts to buy some water. Which is when the rain started. A chilling torrential downpour that we barely escaped by ducking under onto the porch of the little shop. While waiting for a let-up we chatted with our friend about the village, it's 'moving' across the river (much hated by most villagers) and life there. Good guy. Finally the pour slackened, we bought some water and headed back to the boat. Fortunately the girls had good ponchos and didn't mind the rain. It gave them a chance to talk to some locals who expressed worry for our sakes at the upcoming rapids (echoing what we'd been hearing). Everyone told us how bad the rapids were, most tourist boats capsize (our friend leads kayak tours on that part of the river), and whoa! What were we thinking?!?! These comments prompted the girls to rethink the day. Cold, hungry, tired, scared and Quebecian, they began to think that grabbing a bus was preferable to continuing on in the boat. Allen was still game to continue as was I, so we parted ways. The girls took all our stuff, with the exception of my small backpack within which I kept our raingear and the last of the food. Against the expectations of everyone around us, we figured we could make the Pak Ou Caves, a popular tourist destination at the convergence of the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers (Nam Kong). Once there we could tie up the boat and hitch to town, or more hopefully tie our boat up to one of the slow passenger boats and tow it into Luang Prabang. These caves, by our map, were maybe a day's paddle from town. We hoped that was all since they were about the midway point to Luang Prabang from where we estimated ourselves to be.
The girls left and in a light mist we took up our paddles and headed toward the dreaded rapids! And boy we were disapointed (for now)! They were not nearly as bad as others we had seen and were handled easily. Soon after the sun came out and it got very hot. Rapids came up now and then, but nothing too tough. More laughter reached our ears from the locals as we were now only 2 people in our enormous boat. Quite a sight! Finally we began to see the rapids of which we were warned. Worse than any we'd come across, it was good the girls bailed. Water continuously broke over the bow (like we needed another way to get water into the boat!), we were tossed around, rocks whipped past on both sides, and locals watched intently to witness whatever outcome lay in wait for the funny white boys. With a lighter boat it was easier to avoid (thanks more to the water flow than our efforts) the boulders mid-river that towered above us; the shallow rocky bits were handled decently since we displaced less water than before; the excitement was greater not only due to the bigger whitewater, but also because we no longer had to worry about dumping all our stuff into the river.
Lunch was eaten on the boat as we drifted sideways down a slow patch. Very nice and relaxing, and helped give us a better picture of how tired we were (though again, we said nothing).
Soon after, trouble began.
Growing more and more tired as the day slipped by, it was only the adrenaline produced by the rapids that kept us paddling consistently (there were rapids all day long). The set which found us after lunch were almost our downfall. We'd been paddling for about 7 hours by now on minimal food. The sun was overhead which created terrible light for seeing underwater obstacles before hitting them. The first set we hit showed no smooth spots thru which to shoot them, so I guessed a strategy and Allen from his seat 2 miles behind me agreed it looked the best. Not so much. It was our first run over a 'waterfall' (only a couple feet) and as soon as I saw what was coming and that we had no choice, I was sure our boat was doomed. Very long and semi-sturdy, I figured half-way across we'd crack in half. Miraculously we passed over without so much as touching the rock or hearing any funny sounds. Elated and confused glances were shared, and we refocused on the task at hand. Unfortunately, a similar obstacle presented itself only this time our luck ran out; after I crossed the rock the Apocalypse Brown halted, and cracking noises hit our ears. I immediately jumped out and began manouvering the boat off the rock. Allen joined me and we were able to get resituated and moving again. Jumping back in and passing out the last of the turbulent water we agreed on the need for a damage assessment. A sandy bank appeared on our right and we stopped. The leaking was much worse than it had been before so we shoved cut up bike tube strips (remnants of my bike ride thru China) into the cracks. It slowed but did not stop the flow.
A rest was needed. The food was finished and we meandered around not saying much. But agreeing that with the next passing passenger boat (we'd actually been looking for one the last hour or 2) we'd beg for passage and if necessary, maybe leave the AB. Not the ideal, but we still had no idea how far we had left to paddle.
Exhausted, we reboarded and shoved off. I was done. Worn out and ready to burn the damn towel. I found out later that Allen felt the same. Fortunately, neither of us spoke these words because it would have been our undoing. So we paddled. Slowly and intermittently.
Half an hour later we rounded a bend and came up on some towering limestone cliffs on our right side (The Cliffs of Insanity!!). The river pooled below them; it wast deathly silent with only cicadas for noise; on the far side it appeared as though the river ended. Giggling a bit hysterically, I tossed out this idea and commented on how funny it would be if we made a wrong turn somewhere. Allen didn't laugh, only said that he was convinced that we had reached the caves. Not wanting to allow disappointment to knock me down, I refused to believe it. On we paddled.
The river did continue. As we passed the far end of these cliffs (only about 100 yards) the river widened and a passenger slow boat appeared behind us! As they began passing on our right, we waved and yelled out. They waved back and kept going. Bastards! However, I watched the boat as Allen cussed and noticed that they headed for the left bank and pulled over. Could it be? A sudden burst of energy hit as I noticed another boat on the bank.
"Allen," I yelled, "let's go maybe we can catch up before they head off again!"
Furiously we paddled, desperate for deliverance (hehe). It was Pak Ou! And the riverbank was full of boats, and there was a restaurant!!
Relieved, we ran the boat up on the muddy bank and before it came to rest I had leapt out to go and talk with the boat drivers. All scoffed at our request for a tow into town; which in retrospect made sense. There was no good place to tie off and why would they want to rope our piece of shite behind theirs? One man said yeah, he could do that, but he couldn't take us! All these boats acted like charter boats; they were hired for the day and some carried only one or 2 people though they could easily have handled a dozen or more. And no one seemed inclined to want to share with us. I can't imagine why! Allen went into the restaurant to check out the scene as I secured the boat and kept asking (begging) around. The looks of disgust he received made him furious! Damn tourists!
Our final decision was to pull the boat up and tie it securely and finish paddling to town the next day; grab our stuff and get a tuk-tuk into town. Finally, after much wrangling we got one for less than a major rip-off and headed into town, sharing the ride with 2 Australians who didn't seem put out at all by our dirty and stinky appearance (thank you).
The girls told us where they were staying (previous reservations) and saved us a room. As we stumbled into the place with our bag, 3 paddles, bucket and rope, machete and water bottles, they rejoiced at our being alive!
Time to relax.
Allen hit the showers. I found 2 big BeerLaos and knocked on the door and gave him one, earning me his undying devotion. I took my shower and with the girls we headed off to dinner to eat and retell the day's adventures (they were not upset to have missed the day, especially when hearing about the near halving of our vessel).
Good times. Only one more day to paddle!