TAK­ING THE PLUNGE

Laos’ Khone Falls ef­fec­tively cut the Mekong in half – making them a chal­lenge too good to pass up for a white­wa­ter kayaker.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story & pho­tog­ra­phy by Lachie Car­racher

CON­NECT­ING CHINA, LAOS, THAILAND, Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam, the 4,350km Mekong River has been a vi­tal trade artery for cen­turies. But at the very south­ern tip of Laos, it abruptly changes char­ac­ter in an area called Si Phan Don, Lao­tian for ‘4,000 is­lands’. Here the river braids out into hun­dreds of channels and tum­bles down the Khone Falls, South­east Asia’s largest wa­ter­falls by vol­ume. The falls ef­fec­tively di­vide the Mekong into two rivers: the ‘Up­per’ and ‘Lower’, for they are quite in­sur­mount­able in any or­di­nary craft. To a cer­tain kind of kayaker how­ever, the falls are an ir­re­sistible draw. Kiwi Sam Rick­etts and I are two such kayak­ers, hav­ing tra­versed the world for years on the look out for in­tim­i­dat­ing rapids to run. At Si Phan Don, we found one of the most ideal sit­u­a­tions imag­in­able. On a typ­i­cal river, rapids and wa­ter­falls are en­coun­tered se­quen­tially as you head down­stream. But at Si Phan Don, the white­wa­ter sec­tions are in­stead par­al­lel to each other across a 14km front, with invit­ing flat­wa­ter sec­tions above and be­low. Study­ing Google maps, we were cap­ti­vated to find a con­cen­tra­tion of thou­sands of rapids and falls. Our ap­proach then was sim­ple: pad­dle off from our river­side ac­com­mo­da­tion and fol­low our notes to a pre-de­ter­mined chan­nel, scare our­selves silly, then carry the boat back up over scorch­ing dark rock and through mos­quito- plagued jun­gle to do it all again. With so many channels, the risk of pick­ing the wrong one was very real. At the very least that could mean hours of awk­ward portag­ing, with rocky mar­gins com­pli­cat­ing egress from, or ac­cess to, the river. Fail­ing to recog­nise you were in the wrong chan­nel in time could be far worse, with fish traps and un­nav­i­ga­ble nat­u­ral fea­tures po­ten­tially spell­ing dis­as­ter. On oc­ca­sions though, after nar­rowly cheat­ing death in a fish trap, we would look up to see a be­mused fish­er­man, cig­a­rette dan­gling from his lip as he climbed out to check his traps. Making eye con­tact, we’d smile then, ac­knowl­edg­ing our wildly con­trast­ing jour­neys to such a unique point on the Earth’s sur­face.

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