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.
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.