Well, so much for the grand plan to blog my travels. I finally have some time without any specific plan, so I've decided to try write up a bit about my trip. I'll try to get to the earlier experiences eventually, but don't count on it! I'll also adjust the publication date on these to put them in order of when they happened, not necessarily when I wrote them. That means that if you're actually reading along, some things might seem out of order. Sorry!
Yesterday I did what had to be the most exciting thing so far on this vacation: I rafted the Tully River with 50 other people. The trip was a 12 km-long series of grade 2 - 4 rapids. We went down in rafts of 6 to 8 people.
Cairns' Raging Thunder picked me up at 6:25 am on Saturday, May 2, 2009 and drove me to a Greyhound-sized bus full of other sleepy-eyed people to begin the 2-hour drive to Tully. Along the way, one of the employees gave an entertaining briefing about the day's activities. They also handed out the typical waiver releasing them of liability if I smashed my head on a rock or drowned. They even required us to have someone sitting nearby sign as witnesses!
My witness turned out to be Rachel, a cute girl from Saratoga, CA, of all places! Halfway around the world, I meet someone who lives only 20 minutes away from me. Seems only natural. Because we were both traveling alone, we would end up together in a raft with a guy from France and some cool Swiss.
We arrive at Raging Thunder's Tully location, where we can get breakfast, use a restroom, and rent "adventure sandals" (which turn out to be Crocs) and wetsuits. I kinda wish I'd rented the wetsuit, because later they recommended not wearing t-shirts, because it would make you colder. It was an overcast day, at least at first, and I was relegated to being photographed in all my pasty-white flabby glory. (Sorry about that.)
It's here that I run into Lara, who was one of the dive instructors on the Tusa dive boat I went out on two days before. They were a great ship's crew, and it was strange to see her now as just another participant. I didn't even know how I knew her at first, and she had to remind me. But she had never done the rafting before, and it was nice find someone I knew.

This is Lara, one of the dive masters on my Great Barrier Reef dive two days before. Lo and behold, she booked today to go rafting!

After wrapping up our breakfast stop, we get back on the bus and get driven out to the first entry point along the Tully. We file out of the bus, find helmets and life jackets, suit up, and grab a paddle.

Start of the day, as we were suiting up.

We find our fellow crew and guide, and head down to the river's edge to find a raft. Our guide's name is Fisherman (yes, that's his given name), and he's a wiry, thin, leathery, weathered guy with a deep tan, and a prominent missing front tooth. He has long scraggly hair and the veins along his arms stand out dramatically. Each one of us thinks, "Oh no, we got that guy," but he proves to be the best guide in the group. He knows the river, he knows how to get us safely through the rapids, and he knows how to make us feel like seasoned professionals while we do it.
We find a raft, and climb aboard. The raft is a yellow inflatable thing that can hold eight people plus our guide, but we're only six. Fisherman shoves off and jumps in. He repeats some of the briefing we'd been given on the bus earlier, the most important aspect of which is to always keep a hand on the T-handle end of the paddle, to ensure that no one gets hit by it. It's apparently how he lost his tooth, probably decades before. As he shows us the proper grip technique, you notice he's missing part of his right ring finger. Everyone assumes a croc took it, and no one asks, because we figure its life ended before he had a chance to take more.
What follows is a straightforward class on river rafting. We learn how to sit in the raft with a foot tucked under the cross-brace so you don't fall out, and the meanings of "paddle forward," "back paddle," "hold on," "get down," "right side," "left side," and "relax."
The first two should be obvious. "Hold on" means to put the T-handle down between your feet, tuck the other end under your arm, and grab the red rope along the perimeter of the raft. "Get down" means to slip your rear off the edge of the boat and down onto the floor, with the T-handle down and the paddle blade straight up. It is clear that if we don't do this when he commands it, the result will be a painful watery death (or at least mouthfuls of river water).
"Right side" and "left side" are like "hold on," except that those on the opposite side of the command are to shift as far to the right or left as they can before grabbing ropes. This is to keep us from capsizing in the middle of some incredibly slanted chute of rushing water.
We float lazily down the river, practicing these commands, and then he teaches us what to do when the boat flips over. Then he lets us practice what to do when the boat flips over. We all go into the water as the boat overturns and comes crashing down over our heads. Pop up under the boat, take a breath, go under and find the outside, then swim like mad to shore, all the while holding the paddle in one hand.
Let me just say here that you should find your way to the side of the boat closest to the shore, not farthest. In the fast-moving river, it's really hard to swim effectively with all the crap you've got on. Normally we'd swim to the boat, but not for this exercise.
With the briefings more or less done, we head down the river in earnest. As we approach each rapid, Fisherman gives us a quick rundown of how we're going to get through it. "First I'll say 'paddle forward,' then I'll tell you to hold on, then we'll paddle some more, and then I'll say, 'get down,' and you bloody well better get down!" Sometimes he throws in a "left side" or "right side" for good measure.
We get to our first rapid, and everyone's sure we're going to fail miserably and fall out of the raft. We're all trying to remember the briefing on how to float down the river: on your back, feet first, be careful not to bang your bum on the rocks.

Our first photo op of the day.

"Paddle forward!" We start paddling more-or-less in time (we actually go pretty good at that), at some non-intuitive angle to the first set of rocks that create the rapid. Since our guide is behind us in the boat, we don't know exactly what he's doing. A violent, roiling mass of water is just a meter or two away, and there is no turning back. Paddling like made, he yells, "hang on!" and we all shove our T-handles down and grab the rope. We're committed. The raft plunges into the mess, heaves and flexes enough to burst any pool floaty mere pool floaty. A tremendous torrent of water cascades over the side, threatening to spill us out, and we hear, "paddle forward hard" followed all too soon by "get down!" We bounce off a giant rock, the raft tips precariously, turns, and suddenly we're past it, upright, in relatively calm water, everyone still aboard.

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Our hearts are pounding, we're breathing hard, and we all have the biggest shit-eating grins on our faces. Fisherman calls out, "high five," and we all smack our paddles together in the air over the raft. This day is going to be awesome.
We do several more rapids, all variations of one another, and all wonderfully different. At one point, part of our pre-rapid briefing includes instructions to put big silly grins on our faces (as if we weren't already doing that), and to wave to the camera when he says. It's our first photo op of the day.

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After a few hours, we break for lunch. We doff the safety gear and carry the raft up to the trailer. Lunch is burgers with lots of toppings, including cucumber, carrots, and beets. Apparently beets make it Aussie. They have water and cordials (fruit juices) to drink, and we all learn, by trial and error, that cordial in the plastic bottle needs to be diluted with quite a lot of water.

My crew, during our lunch break.



After lunch, we pile back onto the bus, and drive up to a point 6 km upstream from where we first started. This starts the second half of the day, and gives us more challenging rapids. We're working better together, and our guide is proving to be very adept at drenching other crews with his paddle. They try to strike back, but are no match. He teaches us how to make a little water go a long way in battle, and how to smack the paddles down on the water with a loud crack. Our high fives turn into a choreographed clack-smack as we crash them together above, and then bring them down and smack the water.
The rapids are definitely more challenging. A lot are named with risqué monikers such as "foreplay," "wet and moisty". When we get stuck on big rocks, our guide calls for "group sex," and we all bounce up and down on the raft to dislodge it (all the while grinning). There's also "zig zag," "staircase," and "maze." For one, we have to do "right side" followed by "left side", because otherwise we'll tip over. We manage to go the whole day with no accidental capsizing or man overboard events. We are pros.

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We paddle our asses off through one particularly long set of rapids, and we feel awesome doing it. We often "park" in little pools of calm behind rocks, or up on rocks, and watch the other groups go through. None of them paddle through the section we just completed, and and we realize that we looked much cooler, and enjoyed it much more. Fisherman says it's the difference between us taking ourselves through the rapids, and him just taking us along.

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At the end, he sets us up all crammed together at the very end of the raft. All our paddles have been tucked in under ropes and cross bars, and we wonder what the hell is going on. Every raft is being set up in similar fashion, and there are guides standing on the rocks around a very steep waterfall that must be a couple meters high. We're basically hugging each other in a six-person embrace as Fisherman maneuvers the raft toward this insane fall. He climbs in the other end and acknowledges that this is basically a set-up. We go over the falls, and the boat flips and we all fall out. Magically, our guide manages to stay on it. Or maybe he wasn't in the boat at all; I actually can't remember now. We float around the water for a while, and swim our way to shore.
We haul the raft out, put it on the trailer, turn in our safety gear, and change into dry clothes in "Queensland's second-biggest changing room," which basically means anywhere you can find a blade of grass or a leaf to cover your privates. Surprisingly few such places appear, especially considering we're in a rainforest. I have no idea what Queensland's first-biggest changing room is.
Back aboard the bus, we head back to Tully, for food, beer, and photo review. They sell us a photo CD for $100 (although if your whole group buys copies it works out to about $20 each). There are over 50 great photos on it, so we all decide it's worth it.


We think we're going to sleep on the ride home, and I really want to, but Rachel and I chat most of the way home. She and I have both been rafting before, but this was, by far, the best. Lara was a bit anxious about it at the start of the day, and exhausted for most of it (I had slept about four hours the night before; she got maybe one. They work hard, that Tusa crew), but after it was all over, she really loved it.
If you ever make your way to Cairns, be sure to call up Raging Thunder and run the river. It's a fantastic way to spend the day, and is one of the best parts of my trip.