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Kayaking down the Mighty Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong. Below, kayakers set up Camp II on a small island in the Mekong.

H ere was our challenge: Put two single "Feathercraft" ocean kayaks and a fiberglass twoseater into the Mekong River at the base of the Khone Falls on the Lao-Cambodian border - then paddle 250 km through unknown waters to Kratie in three and a half days.

The best account of this fickle stretch of the "Big River" remains Milton Osborne's River Road to China, the thrilling account of the ill-fated 1866-1868 French expedition to prove the Mekong as a viable trade route to China.

Following a successful 160km sea-kayak from Koh Kong to Sihanoukville a year earlier, we were joined by a Commonwealth team of two New Zealanders, Conrad Edwards and Alison Turner, to begin plotting afresh.

Kayaking is slowly taking hold in Cambodia, but is yet to develop into a perennial attraction. Rivers have been scouted and explored in Kampot, the Cardamom Mountains, Koh Kong, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, the Tonle Bassac, Phnom Penh and Kandal. Cambodia boasts a kayak manufacturer in Prek Leap and there are rumors, following the increasing popularity of the water festival boat races, that Cambodian kayakers may soon be trained to Olympic levels.

For now, and especially in the northeast, self-powered boats are viewed by the locals as a sign of financial poverty and mental vacuity. Good ambassadors that we were, we failed to dispel these firmly held beliefs.

Unlike the French in the mid-19th century, we did not expect to face death and disease at every turn in the river.

To start with, the excellent road from Phnom Penh to Kratie took only six hours, and we tried to take note of the formidable rapids that awaited us at the Irrawaddy-dolphin viewing area.

Kratie to Stung Treng was covered in a record four hours on the new Chinese-built road, which links to two gargantuan bridges (under construction), across the Sen and Kong rivers as they converge with the Mekong at Stung Treng.

This region is morphing at light speed; every hotel was full with tourists and businessmen. The riverfront is all a bustle and in 30 minutes we had organized a support boat and Khmer guides to take us up 65km to the border the next day and then accompany us back downstream.

Being late December, the rains were well spent but the sheer volume and speed of the water leading down from the deep pools near the Khone Falls led to some quiet reflection while assembling the rigs and briefing the support crew, in the shadow of lush-looking Laos only 500 meters away.

Departing at 3pm, we edged into a 20km-long slippery chute, winding around huge trees holding wet season debris ten meters overhead and through a tangle of sand banks and islands which generated unpredictable whirlpools, weird cross currents and water of varying density. To keep control, travelling faster than the river is crucial, otherwise the mighty Mekong decides what it will do to you.

With paddlers tired in the midst of the rapids, the two-seater was abruptly tossed upside down and the guides performed an admirable rescue, the thin difference between potential disaster and salvation a sobering thought for all.

At dusk we struck an island camp and the guides prepared a delicious Pakse fish with dill, basil, thyme, lime, garlic, chilli, and pepper. Over a campfire they spoke of food, justice and money, injustice and no money, and declared their favorite fish as the erstwhile head of the opposition.

Thundering, razor-thin speedboats plying the river trade arrived with the chilly dawn as we consulted the maps and wondered how 200km-plus was possible in three remaining days. In searing heat we paddled hours through a long, slow section to Stung Treng, collecting another guide for the wilder sections below.

Dotted down the river were the remains of concrete navigation pillars installed by the French when they blasted a route for larger boats long ago. We came to associate these sentinels with strong currents and whirlpools and marvelled at the river's capacity to change abruptly.

Exhausted, we beached at our Camp II on a muddy island, knowing we had not gone far enough and that before us lay an incomprehensible section of river according to all the maps we had; whether Vietnamese, US, UN or some other variant, the cartographic data was all based on US Department of Defense info from 1967.

Tree roots exposed by the dry-season water level.

The guides advised us to follow the east bank until equidistant between Stung Treng and Kratie, and then cut across to the west bank and strike as far south as possible on the west side of Koh Rongiev, an island which divides the most pristine and wild parts of the Mekong for about 40 km and which until 1995 was under Khmer Rouge influence.

We slalomed through long sparsely-populated corridors of rapids and trees, stopping for lunch in the middle of nowhere. Faster waters and Grade 3 rapids immediately followed, some taken sideways, some backwards, but all with complete ignorance of exactly what lay around the next corner.

Trusting the guides was necessary but not always easy; three kayaks can split far from a motorized support boat in a heartbeat. Safely through, we marvelled at the surrounding fecund jungle, the river swiftly pulling us along the west bank, with Phnom Chi visible in distant Kampong Thom province.

We landed on a magnificent rocky beach at 5:30pm, elated at crossing the 'unknown' but still with at least 60km for the final day, which included the roughest rapids.

From nowhere, the support crew produced some barbecued monkey. By 8pm we were sound asleep.

After first light we sped downstream to Sambor, where the Mekong and its tributaries merge again into a 2km-wide monster. A great lunch couldn't hide our trepidation or exhaustion. Locals placed the "big rapids" about 10-to-20km downriver, and our guides told us to stay midstream until they began.

Our unease with this strategy grew with the realization that we were on a vast, quickening body of water and midstream was 1km from safety on either side.

Attempts to converge and re-assess, or to stop and scout proved fruitless as the river raged south. A fast decision to trust our boatmen and follow a westerly route through the 2km of rapids placed total faith in their skills to navigate the rocks and vegetation.

One kilometer in and one kayak got pushed sideways into bushes and the two-seater was equally jammed before being flipped like a feathery coin. One kayaker was swept down on to the support boat while the second anchored himself and the kayak on a vital bush.

From nowhere appeared a flotilla of tiny fishing boats whose occupants launched an abusive tirade at our crew for taking such a dangerous route. Two kayaks were quickly loaded on to the support craft, which led the way down the main eastern route for Edwards and his "Feathercraft", which breezed the 600m channel and its foot-high waves.

We pushed the final 30km home with a strength that comes with the end in sight. The white beaches below Kratie lured us in, tired and proud, just after 6pm.

Go now, see it now, kayak it now, take your time, respect the river.

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