My father, who is 82 years old, still goes white-water kayaking every now and then. Not quite the extreme stuff he used to do when he was in his prime, going down 5m-tall waterfalls and through narrow mountain gorges that had far more rocks than water, but proper white water nonetheless, with rocks, lots of white foam, and all.
Some of the rivers he and his buddies paddled, can only be descended for a few weeks each year, and only if the weather holds. They would do one-week trips to Italy, France, or Croatia. Often the rivers were so technical that they would only manage to cover 5 or 10km a day, with plenty of sections where they had to climb around waterfalls that were too big to go down on in the kayak. All this while I was at home, revising for year-end middle school exams, or doing some other boring stuff. If we were lucky, then we could stay at a camping site in our caravan, playing checkers or cards, or going for little walks, while the old man was having all the fun.
To this day I’m a little upset that he never took me on any of his adventures. My Mom can be a bit of a killjoy (don’t get the kid killed blabla… remember all the friends you’ve lost while kayaking… and so on), but still…
Let’s do white-water rafting
About a month ago I had secured a reservation for an afternoon of white-water rafting for Ellie and me for £55 per person. A few minutes after I had completed the procedure, the operator, Rapid Horizons, emailed to say that they do not offer any white-water rafting for the time slot in question. Apparently due to Covid. I mentioned that perhaps they should not let people book white-water rafting if they are not offering it, which was met with an email shrug.
I had done white-water kayaking before. The reason why I booked white-water rafting is because I had never done it before. That had been the whole attraction, really. Anyhooo, I was willing to accept that it was now going to be white-water kayaking.
Change of plans
Ellie wasn’t feeling 100% last Friday, so we emailed the operator late on the night before the big day to say that we realised we wouldn’t get a refund or anything, but just to let them know that Ellie was going to drop out.
Despite having bailed out of the kayaking, Ellie joined me on the trip to the Peak District, about 2.5h from London by train. We changed trains in Derby. At around 11:15am the train arrived in Matlock Bath.
High Tor Hike
The train station is next to the starting point of the short hike up the High Tor, a steep, 100m tall hill, whose Derwent valley facing side includes a 35m tall sheer cliff face. UK Climbing calls it the “best limestone outcrop in the Country containing face climbing of outstanding quality.” Sure enough we could see several daredevils making their way up the wall. The view from the top towards the little village of Matlock Bath and the Heights of Abraham on the other side of the valley is lovely. You can see the cable cars going up and down the other hillside in sets of three.
Tattoos and leather
We checked out a few more of the shorter paths in the area, before venturing to the village, which sits on the opposite side of the Derwent in the narrow valley. There was a biker convention or something going on that day and motorbikes were howling left, right and centre. These weren’t One Percenters or Bandidos. Yes… a lot of tattoos and leather, but mostly middle-aged family fathers. All good in our book.
Fish & Chips
Matlock Bath styles itself as seaside town. There are chippies, amusement arcades, and candy shops all along the main street. We grabbed two delicious mini fish & chips from Kostas Fish Bar which we ate while standing on the pavement next to the river watching the boats pass by below. Quick coffee to take away from the café next-door and we were on our way to Artists Corner, about 25 minutes’ walk from town, to arrive 10 minutes before the agreed time of 2pm. On the way we passed by a kayaking slalom course where a pretty cool dude was performing his tricks on the Derwent.
More changes of plans
We were greeted very friendly by the relaxed dudes from Rapid Horizons. Turned out I was going to join a relatively large group of canoeists as only kayaker. We would have to wait for the previous group of canoeists to arrive, as we needed their canoes. This was going to delay the start by about half an hour, which was perfectly fine with me.
At around 2:30pm we hopped on the vans in a socially distanced manner (I was the only person sitting on my bench). The stretch of river you paddle downstream on is only 7km long, which meant that the van ride was very quick. Despite this being a large group, we all managed to put our waterproofs over our clothes, put on the swim vests and helmets, and get ready to roll.
King Kong, Playground Castles, and Inflatable Women
I was a tad disappointed that my kayak turned out to be one of those inflatable rubber boats that bear little resemblance to actual kayaks. An inflatable gorilla is not a gorilla, an inflatable castle is not a castle, an inflatable woman is not a woman… and… you guessed it… an inflatable kayak is not a kayak. Fact.
The thing did look a bit small for my size (2m tall) and weight (108kg), but my instructor, Gary, assured me that it was the perfect size. When I checked the manufacturer’s website later on, there was no indication of any weight limit, which is weird, but hey, I’m game. Most reviews of the thing are okay, around 7 out of 10.
Puns and pointers
The banter during the process that followed was at times quite hilarious and the instructors made sure that everyone had a good time. The first three kilometres on the river were extremely calm. Gary gave me a few pointers about paddling techniques, steering moves, and safety, which I tried to take on board.
Nature & Wildlife
For the most part, Gary and I were chatting away about past and planned future adventures and we were enjoying the beautiful nature around us. There were Mandarin ducks, tiny yellow wagtails, and plenty of other birds. Apparently there is also a pair of very shy otters, but no one ever spotted them on any of these tours.
Yes… it’s the feature picture again… I like it that much… also, there is no other pic of me falling in and it assists the narrative.
Navigating the rapids
Before the first rapid, and before each of the rapids that followed, all participants were given detailed instructions on how to handle the respective rapid. For example, you might be told to stay on the very far left until you pass the big tree, then turn your boat to 1400 (where straight downstream is 1200) and paddle as hard as you can through the first stretch of the rapids, making sure you stay pointed at 1400, then turn the boat to 1000 as soon as you’re out of the first rough bit.
“Keep on paddling as hard as you can and keep the boat pointed in that direction and aim for the middle arch of the bridge. As soon as you’ve passed the bridge make a sharp right turn and stay at the eddy behind the pylon.” You usually follow your instructor or the boat in front of you and try to mimic them. “And remember, always lean to the right when turning right, and to the left when turning left. Quite like riding a bike.”
For the first two rapids, which were really more like flat, calm water without bigger waves, certainly without any foam, and just a bit more and ‘more uneven’ current than usual, this worked very well.
However, already on the third set of rapids, the first rapids that involved actual waves and a few tiny bits of white foam, I fell into the freezing 4C (39F) cold water. I was flummoxed, even gobsmacked, quite possibly outright flabbergasted…!!
I had done PROPER white-water and waves before. What on earth..?!! Partially because falling into the water had seemed like such an outlandish, almost impossible risk to me, considering that some of the other group members were complete novices, including 8-year olds, I was so shocked that I swallowed an enormous amount of the ice-cold water.
Indeed I had swallowed so much water that I couldn’t speak more than a word at a time for about a minute, which made communication slightly more difficult. ‘Are you okay?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘Can you grab the back of my kayak?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘What………….. about…………. the…………… paddle?’ – ‘I got it.’ – ‘Do…………. I…………. go………… on…………. land……………. now?’ – ‘Yes, but be careful with your feet, there are sharp rocks.’ – ‘Okay……….. do……… I…………… climb……………. back……………… into…………. my…………. kayak…………… now?’ – ‘Yes. Do it in one fast move, just let yourself fall into the seat.’
These three pics and the two below are free stock photography from Pexels.
Back in the game
And back I was in that misnomer kayak rubber thingy. I tried to use my senses to get a feeling for the state of my clothes beneath the waterproofs. My shorts and budgie-smugglers were 100% soaking wet. My two base layers and fleece on my torso were only 30% wet, and not soaking wet, just wet. 70% had kept dry, quite amazing. The jacket was almost like a dry-suit jacket. I was able to confirm my initial impression when I got changed again at the finish point. Either way, the air temperature was a pleasant 12C, so there was nothing to worry about.
On the way back to Artists Corner outside Matlock Bath, I was trying to figure out what had just happened. I’m always in for a bit of fun and I don’t mind too much looking like a fool, but I still wanted to get my head around this.
Rubber-thingies vs. packrafts
My first idea was to compare my rubber thingy with the packraft that I had been commandeering on my trip to Wales last summer. The packraft’s uplift was much higher, the sides of the packraft stuck out of the water much higher, and I had been sitting literally as low as physically possible, right on the uninflated bottom of the packraft. This ensured that the centre of gravity was extremely low, making it almost impossible to turn the packraft over. I remember that back then I had been given a boat that was a fair bit bigger than those of the other participants or the tour guide.
And back then we were not doing any rapids. The biggest challenge had been the little waves that the motorboats on the lakes we were paddling on produced.
Now we were navigating ‘white-water’ and my boat was not providing much uplift. In the photo where we are floating on calm water you can see that there are barely ten centimetres between the top of the boat and the water level.
I was sitting on a 10cm-thick, 1.5m long inflated pad that lifted the centre of gravity up by more than 20cm. This is because without the rigid pad, the floor of the boat would give in by more than 10cm.
Don’t mean to lean in, but leaning in..?
To top it all off, I had been given the advice to ‘really lean in’ when making turns and to follow my instructor’s lead. Now, my instructor was using an actual kayak, a plastic tube with a little whole through which you climb in. Otherwise it was covered on the top, protecting it from water coming in. I can see how it makes perfect sense using the bicycle analogy if you’re in an actual kayak. If you’re sitting on an under-sized rubber thingy, perhaps leaning in when you’re making turns might not be the wisest thing to do.
Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I’m not a good person. For those of you who don’t, let it be known now: I was very pleased when three other participants fell into the water about 50 yards from the finish line at the last rapids.
A fun day out
In short. I had a lot of fun yesterday. I absolutely mean this. Even after I fell in, quite early on, I enjoyed the rest of the experience. Nature is mind-blowingly beautiful along the Derwent. The banter was fun. The sun was shining. And who doesn’t like a bit of a wild swim.
Travellers’ Choice 2020
When I had checked out the tour operator, their ratings seemed pretty decent. On Tripadvisor, for example, they’ve got a Travellers’ Choice 2020 Award and out of 279 reviews, 267 are excellent, only 3 are average or below. My guess is that they don’t normally let big guys go on rubber thingies and that they usually use kayaks when they sell kayak tickets, and rafts when they sell rafting tickets?
Maybe they usually acknowledge emails even when they are sent last minute the night before (they didn’t in our case, and we would have appreciated a confirmation that I can still go ahead on my own, despite Ellie pulling out)? Who knows. I’m a sweet guy, so no rating from me today, but I will not book another activity with them.
We arrived back at the train station well ahead of our departure time of 5:37pm. On the trip back to London we both had a couple of naps and took it easy.
Looking for other fun water-sport activities? Feel welcome to check out our posts about open water swimming, canyoning, deep sea fishing, calm-water kayaking, jetlevving, kitesurfing, and my ride on a powerboat.