Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
I LOST TWO DAYS in my note book. The cause was simple, a surfeit of Coke Po Ruski on the second night and exhaustion on the third.
Day two on the Chatkal was mild and beautiful. Jackie, who was asking Vlod at the beginning of each day what the rapids were like, was relaxed, happy to learn that we would encounter two gorges, but no rapids harder than grade three. She would, by evening, be convinced it was the best day's introduction to white water you could ask for, and if it was only a little nearer to Brisbane, would have used it with her students.
The river moves swiftly, almost green, cold, the result of melting snow and ice in the mountains, so the hands are cold and the rest of the body burning in the twenty to thirty degree heat. The gorges were neck wreckingly beautiful; vertical rock walls rising up from the river, which was narrow and in shadow as it wound its way through. High above, in a cloudless sky, birds wheeled, so small they were merely specks of dirt moving across the blue.
The colours were strong and clean; the gorge sides a mixture of deep orange, pale greys, faint yellows all patched with green of bush and moss. The blue green of the water flecked an intense white where the rapids were. And always the noise of the river.
By the end of the day we had enjoyed ourselves immensely, and as we organised camp in daylight I decided I didn't want to spend the evening smiling hopefully at the Russians. Andrei (call me Andy) spoke English of a sort, and I knew he wanted to practise, so I called him and Oleg over and tried to start up a conversation. I was intrigued to know how a Russian could get involved in Rafting, especially a younger Russian. I knew that Vlod and Gena had met at university and took up rafting there. After half an hour I was none the wiser. I think that Andrei was saying that in the past it was easier, now all the rafting clubs are trying to make their hobby into a business. For him the chance to work on this trip had been a great opportunity.
While we were talking, my mug, my old battered blue plastic mug, had taken on the magical property of those vessels in fairytales which never empty. After a while I found it difficult to focus on Andrei's face let alone his struggling English.
"Chris," I called, "We need a translator."
She came over. "You know, I am sick of people calling me all the time. Chris, Chris, Chris."
"Ok," I said,"I'll call you Blodwyn, but translate what this man is saying for me."
The evening unravelled, came apart at the seams, and soon we were feeling
no pain, perfectly immobilised, drunk. Or I was. The guitar was produced.
I realised even in my dislocated state that he was requesting a song, not cheering the thought of my performance. Strangely there was nothing in the Russian's repertoire, either in Saint Petersburg or on the river, to match the joyful rhythms of songs like the Drunken Sailor.
When Chris finally got around to translating the words, some days later, they were astonished to learn that such a happy sounding song is so cruel, but I think that made it even more appealing. So we sang, and my mug refused to empty, and I remember Chris deciding she was going to kiss everybody, except Gena, who kept picking on her accent, and so he kissed Jackie, rather passionately, and offended both Jackie and Trevor and Hooray and up she rises, they were dancing to the Lewis Bridle song and "Tonight will be fine", for a while anyway, and people were dropping off to bed. There was no way I was going to attempt to lie down before I was sober, so I staggered to the fire and sat down on a log.
"I am drunken" said Blodwyn. Mild grammatical mistakes were common in her English, and were not to be confused with fully fledged Blodwynisms, which were the result of trying to juggle four or five different languages. Great Blodwynisms of the trip included: "I have a sensible nose, do you have a mushroom I can blow it on." and "My fiend, she puts cows in her rucksack and runs up and down hill to keep fit."
Oleg had taken the guitar and was singing some lugubrious Russian folk songs that sounded for all the world like a young Leonard Cohen, drunk and falling asleep. It sounded wonderful.
There is something about campfires which turns us all into philosophers. The conversation was one of those dialogues which seem quite sensible at the time but when recorded or scrutinised are so pathetically banal that they are embarrassing. A drunken Blodwyn seemed worried by the fact that at twenty five she was still unmarried.
"You are a man," she said, revealing how truly perceptive she was," tell me: is there something wrong with not being married."
Gentle reader, consider the author's plight. Here he was, a long way from home and loved ones, tired, happy, very drunk, and here was this increasingly attractive girl sending out all kinds of confusing signals. It was enough to drive a saint to sinning. This was genuine Expedition Suffering, of a moral and physical nature. I recalled my good catholic upbringing. I took imaginary cold showers.
"You have to go with the flow," I said," Face que voudras, it's like paddling rapids, you have to find the grain in the wood and follow it."
I did warn you that the conversation was not staggeringly intellectual, but I record this bit of it, with its muddled metaphors, because it would return to taunt me in Tashkent.
I finally rolled into my bag at two thirty, and still managed to be one of the first to rise, without any kind of hangover. There was a curiously fragile quality to the morning. The Russians,in particular Gena, were worried that Jackie and Trevor had been offended the night before. When Trevor appeared he looked far too fragile to waste his energy on indignation. I failed breakfast, drank four mugs of coffee and didn't manage to urinate until lunchtime. Let that be a lesson to you said my kidneys, you're too old for this kind of behaviour.
The river picked up in size and intensity and we were forced to scout from the bank. It is difficult to pick lines from the boat, as you're only a metre or so above water level and at that height its almost impossible to distinguish waves from stoppers and holes.
Lunch was a long drawn out affair. As most of us had less than four hours sleep no one seemed enthusiastic about moving. The Admiral had been searching for an abandoned orchard, where he hoped to supplement our supplies with some fresh fruit. Following the path through the dry scrub and trees, I was back on the Main Salmon in the States; following a path to ruined buildings; same warm dry air, same smells, same river noise.
We wandered of to find the garden and saw a building through the trees. There was a wall of twigs, like a small palisade, and an earthen gate which had fallen apart. Inside the enclosure a headless scarecrow kept watch over the bee boxes. We thought the place was deserted; the walls were broken and the roof holed, but a silent dog chained to the gate suggested otherwise.
These solitary homes, huddled in river valleys and mountain passes, seem a greater monument to the courage and tenacity of the human race than any gilded cathedral stuffed with art no one can use and few can see.
The story is universal and biblical in its simplicity. A man comes here and stays because there is something about the place which appeals to him. He breaks his back to clear the land and build a house and plant his garden, and maybe there is a woman with him, or maybe he finds her later, but they raise crops and children, and the children grow and leave, because the garden isn't big enough and there are other places to see, and the man and woman grow old and die and the land reclaims the house.
At five o'clock we arrived at the start of a long, large, noisy rapid. Unusually for the Chatkal this one had a name: "The thing you strain spaghetti through after you've cooked it." We were supposed to have paddled it and portaged a fall and camped below, but we had travelled very little distance. That didn't worry anybody.
We walked down the bank to scout it through the trees. Scouting is a complicated process; and the ability to do it successfully is one way of defining a paddler's experience and skill. It's not just a matter of finding a line that will lead through all the obstacles although even that requires an understanding of what the river is going to do to the boat, and how the force of the water can be used to the paddler's advantage.
It's not enough to say;"I'll start over on the left, move right to avoid the pour over then get back to the left to avoid the stopper." As the difficulty of the rapid increases, the consequences of getting it wrong become increasingly severe. On a grade five rapid if you do something wrong, you're going to get hurt. There is a scary level beyond this where you can do everything right and still die. So when you look at the rapid you have to ask yourself not just what the route is, but what are your chances of making a mistake, and then are you prepared to live with the consequences of such a failure.
The thing you strain spaghetti through after you've cooked it was graded five. It was long and complicated, but with acres of room to move away from one or two obstacles that we definitely needed to avoid. Trevor, characteristically, was for "running through the guts" but I didn't feel like risking the consequences of getting pushed off line half way down the rapid, where visibility would be non existent. It would result in getting trapped in either the big pour over or the stopper. While either would eventually spit me out, the chances of staying in my boat given the pressure of the water were remote. The eddy line was a good grade three technical rapid and that would allow me access to the rest of the rapid. Walking back to camp we agreed to differ. We often do.
Andrei and Oleg were obviously very close friends; brotherly almost. They touched each other often, hugged in the morning, and after rapids; walked arm in arm and seemed to be in charge of the cooking. They had built a fire between two trees and strung the pots on the wire between them. I offered to help, and we made compote out of the wild fruit we had picked. Oleg spoke no English, but knew some French, so while we cooked we talked French.
I learnt that he was married, with a small boy he missed greatly, and that he was one of the numerous Russian "Engineers" who were now looking for work. Everybody with any education in Russia is an engineer. It occurred to me that I had been talking almost exclusively with Blodwyn, not because she was tall blonde and pretty but because she was the only foreigner I could talk to and the only way I could gain any access to the others. Trevor was still trying to speak Russian. I had given up on my attempts to learn when I realised I couldn't understand what he was saying.
Now I discovered the Russians couldn't understand him either. His pronunciation was a source of gentle hilarity. The Russians were flattered he had made the effort to learn their language but amused by his way of speaking it.
The Admiral was nursing a cold, but had been seen to smile on occasions. I was trying to justify his caution to myself. If something went wrong he was the one responsible, but his method of river running was painfully slow. Sasha seemed very good, if equally cautious. He seemed to be able to bring the blue catamaran through most things by going with the flow. He did snap at Blodwyn once or twice, but I suspect he was used to being in total control of his boat and I doubt he'd be used to paddling this level of water with a beginner. Not being able to rely on her to act instinctively would be enough to make anyone a little nervous.
While Oleg and I talked, Blodwyn revealed she had spent a year in Paris, so after correcting our accents, she declared this was our French evening and only French was to be spoken.
While we talked she asked me if I was scared. I didn't think too much about the answer, I merely said, of course, you can die down there. (It sounds nifty in French.)
It was strange to sleep with the roar of such a rapid in your ears, knowing that if you survived breakfast you were going to have to run it. Small streams might provide a poetically popular sound that lulls you to sleep, but a big river thrashing its way through a long drop seethes with a monstrous malevolent sibilance which envelops you and does strange things to your mind. I can't count the number of nights I've clambered desperately from my sleeping bag, still half asleep, convinced the tent was being flooded.
At least Mark seemed to have the same problem, because on a number of occasions he woke me violently in the middle of the night to tell me the river was pouring through the tent. One night on the Pskem I woke to find him hanging off the tab in the tent's roof:"Grab the tent, Liam," he was saying through clenched teeth, "grab the tent and watch out for the rocks." After two or three days of paddling the problem is compounded by the fact that your body refuses to believe you are no longer in the boat. You close your eyes and you see rapid, and the tent floor sways and rolls and you might as well be back on the river.
For me there is a curious paradox in what we do. As we discuss the next rapid, looking for the ideal line, I know we have to be serious about the job in hand. But at the same time I cannot take the expedition and paddling too seriously. I don't have to be there. I could be at home with my family, eating at a table, having hot showers every night, sleeping in my comfortable bed. I have chosen to put myself beyond convenience, and I feel reluctant to dramatise it. If there is no pleasure, only fear, then there is no reason to be here.
Fear, yes. Of course. But it is not the nagging fear of daily worries; the parents' fear for the sick child when the doctor can't diagnose the illness; the workers' fear for the security of their job; the father's fear that the money won't last until next pay day; nor is it the sick frustrated fear of the headlines, when you see the world gone sick and nasty and you can do nothing about it. This is physical fear, intense and brief, the body is designed to cope with it, and the release at the end is almost sexual in its power.
The BCU used to have a sticker that claimed "Only Screwing beats canoeing." They were wrong. I took a student down Grandtully rapid in Scotland. He was sixteen and it was his first big rapid. When he got to the bottom he turned to me with the biggest of smiles and said; "Eee sir, that beats f__ing any day."
Big water kayaking requires a certain frame of mind. You cannot conquer a river. How can you defeat something that is never the same twice, that is unaware of your presence? To the river, we are so much flotsam, and if we forget that the results can be decidedly final. It is often difficult to remember the force of the river in places like this; the water can smash a swimmer to pieces on the rocks and leave them broken like a doll or a piece of rubbish bobbing in the backwaters of an eddy.
There was enough force in "The thing you strain spaghetti through after you've cooked it" to rip us from our frail craft and pound us like so much drift wood. And the river wouldn't even know we were dead. There can be no competition, no way we can fight against the huge forces we travel on. We have grace and style and experience, but our arrogance is tempered by humility.
Standing with a throw bag in case something went wrong, I had time to admire the grace of my partners as they danced their way through the mess of water. They are very good. But it is a dance, never a contest. Like a ballet dancer with a sumo wrestler, or a child with a bear, as long was we dance, we survive. The minute we try to compete, to fight the river, we are crushed.
One by one the paddlers squeeze into their three and a half metre craft, stretching their spray deck over the cockpit. Despite the heat the water is cold, uninviting, and from the seat of a kayak the waves look ominously huge and the noise drowns conversation. The features that were so obvious from the bank are now obscure, and it takes a lot of experience and discipline to remember the line. Each kayaker remembers their own signposts, rehearsing the moves they must make. There will be no time to try and remember half way down the rapid.
It was a portion of gateaux. Almost an anti-climax. Trevor ran the centre without incident, we skidded through the rocks on the left hand side, and came out into the main channel after the nasty bits were over. The cataraft took Trevor's line and crashed through the waves to the bottom. Vlod had told us this was followed by another grade five rapid, but we trusted our own judgement and moved effortlessly down the eddies, avoiding some monstrous holes.
It seemed crazy that with experienced paddlers of the skill of Mark and Trevor in the crew we were trying to run a river on second hand information which was, at best, crudely translated. Off the river, we needed the Russians like a baby needs its mum.
We simply couldn't have reached the Sandalash without them, and I suspect we had fallen into the habit of a semi conscious reliance on their judgement. On the river we were equals, our different techniques the result of our different craft. It was obvious that we would have to free ourselves from the Admiral and his river notes, and back our own skill and judgement. Once we began to do this, moving as we usually did on a river at home, we quickly began to outpace the Russians.
A grave by the river marks the spot where a girl died in a rafting accident. It was a sobering little reminder. The rapid was graded six. We got out to look, agreed with the definition, and began the long, hot, arduous portage. Mark and Trevor ran the first section, but carried the rest along a well beaten trail through dry yellow grass. It seemed to take forever. It didn't occur to any of us that we could have easily delegated someone to get lunch ready while we humped rucksacks and gear to the end of the rapid. By the time we were ready to move off again it was nearly four o'clock.
Dropping through big waves we came to the start of a long rapid and the Admiral got out to scout. This time I ignored him, saw big eddies, and hopped down to a point where the rest of the rapid was obscured by rocks. We got out to scout, Trevor taking his camera to film some big water action. "It's only breaking waves," he said,"go though the guts."
I followed Jackie while Trevor and Mark filmed. She missed the eddy at the top of the rapid, then disappeared through the rocks. I meant to follow her closely, but the eddy line spun me back in to the eddy. On the second try I had the line right and began to work left.
No sign of Jackie; then I saw Mark turn, lower his camera and take a few steps downstream. Shit, thinks I, Jackie's in trouble. But by now, sliding between big rocks and lining up for Trevor's "Breaking Waves" I was stuffed, gasping for air, and too busy staying upright and on line to worry about her. In one of those bizarre moments that occur when you're suffering from oxygen deprivation and exhaustion in the middle of a rapid, I remember thinking: Hastings Point; Beach break surf on a bad day.
The waves came from all angles on top of each other; I braced and pulled and pivoted, trying to use the crest of each wave for turning and sight seeing. Trev's "Breaking waves" looked suspiciously like boat munching stoppers to me. I was aiming for the Admiral's rock, a big rock on the left hand bank, where the river began to bend left and where an obvious eddy offered some safety.
As I was about to pull into it I waltzed into a wall of white water and the boat crunched to a dead stop. Almost immediately it felt as though a big hand pushed down on the stern and the nose rose and we popped out and into the eddy. Breathless, euphoric, alive, I saw Jackie sitting on the other side of the river. She crossed over and indulged in a most unladylike series of expletives. Her run had been even more dramatic than mine as she'd been stopped dead, spun around and side surfed in a stopper.
We waited for the others, who conspicuously avoided running "through the guts" and then we hooted and hollered and were high, all talking loudly and at once. We waited for Vlad the inhaler and his raft. I scrambled up the bank and met him helping Sasha carry the blue catamaran. Indecision time. Should we complete the rapid, which ran away round the corner, or wait for him? Were we camping here? Yes? No? Perhaps? So we waited. And waited some more. We had finished our run at about five thirty. The big raft didn't appear until seven o'clock.
But they were laughing and happy, and seemed to have enjoyed themselves. Before I left home my eldest son had sold me ten bars of his school's fundraising chocolate.( A state education is free in Australia, ha ha.) I had been keeping it stashed in front of my foot plate. Now I broke it open and shared it around, Mark contributing strange things he had brought with him.
I had never camped half way down a rapid before. The next section of what Mark had decided to call "All Day Sucker", in honour of the gob stoppers of his childhood, contained the ugliest looking pour over I had seen in a long time.
It was dark by the time the meal was finished, and we adjourned to the campfire. But the wine had been drunk and the leavings were stale. There is a time when you get tired of excitement and strangers and foreign languages and more than anything else you crave familiarity. I can construct this feeling for myself with a guitar and some songs I have known for nearly twenty years. But the inevitable campfire game of "do you know" began, and I thought, I don't need this, and went to bed early.
Which was a bad move. The noise of the rapid was like a wall of amplified sibilance and the numerous sandfly bites itched desperately. Instead of falling asleep I dozed, imagining conversations which could not be happening.
The next morning was to be our last on the Chatkal, and the beginning of the best day's paddling so far. Mornings were cold. My thermometer, which had caused such excitement in Moscow, a million years before, did not rise above ten degrees until the sun was on the campsite. Mornings were therefore slow; someone worked to get the fire going, someone else mixed baby powder until it resembled milk, and I stole water from the porridge pot to make myself coffee, eventually getting one for Mark when breakfast was approaching.
On good mornings I got the water out before they put the salt in. It was a time for sitting in the growing sun, writing diaries. Jackie would try to get Vlod to explain his river notes so she could know what she faced that day. These river notes were difficult to follow, not only because questions like "how far will we travel today" blew Volodya away, but for the simple reason that the river was higher than expected for this time of year and some rapids were obviously blurring into one another.
Volodya thought that "All day sucker" was followed by another grade five rapid, but after some more difficult ones the last rapid on the river was "The Diaphragm", which the Admiral told us was spectacular but easy. He made whooshing noises, and seemed to mime a shoot running down between narrow rock walls.
"And is there a stopper at the bottom of the chute?" asked Jackie.
As if that wasn't enough to get Jackie worried the conversation turned to what would happen when we got off the river. We would stay at an hotel. "Like the one in Kirovskia?" "No No. Real hotel, over looking lake, with banya."
You could translate the word Banya, but you couldn't translate the mystical overtones the word seemed to posses. Vlod sounded as though he was expecting to find the holy grail, the gold at the end of the rainbow and the celestial houris all waiting for him in a place called Bishmulla on Charvak lake.
"Banya," said Blodwyn, getting visibly excited. "A banya. What bliss." It turned out that a Banya was the Russian version of a sauna. We couldn't quite work out what was so exciting about sitting in a room full of steam, we did that every Christmas during the Queensland summer, but it appeared there was more to it than this, and Vlod and Blodwyn talked excitedly about Great Banya's They Had Known. There was apparently a lot of ritual involved.
I wasn't paying much attention, I was idly writing down bits of the conversation for future reference and thinking about the rest of "All day sucker", until Blodwyn said,"You know. I don't mind being naked with you guys, but I think I would feel uncomfortable with the Russians."
"Naked," Squeeked Jackie, who had been following the conversation with growing alarm."Do we have to be naked?"
"Of course," said Blodwyn.
Our line for the rest of "All day sucker" was down the extreme left, hugging the bank to avoid the horrible mess in the middle. It should have been simple. The left hand line tipped me out into the centre, and over I went. I saw rocks, with the water rushing over them, thought, this river's shallower than it looks, went under bumping my helmet on the river bed, and rolled automatically without thinking about it. I was glad the roll still worked, because all day sucker developed into a field of waves that would have been horrendous to swim.
Mark called the next big rapid Binary Proposition: it was a matter of life or death, a simple choice, success clear cut for a change. It was a short, narrow rapid by Chatkal standards. It dropped through a harsh diagonal stopper kicking right and plunged into a F__ing great crater. Jackie and I ran the first part and portaged the rest. Mark and Trevor ran the whole thing. Mark making it look easy, Trevor getting a little off line and dropping in to the hole, which promptly spat him out. I didn't feel too good about having portaged the last part. After four days on this glorious river I was still keeping a long way back from the edge of the envelope.
The Admiral had asked me to stand in a safe place and catch the raft's throw line to ensure they didn't get swept down the next rapid before they had a chance to walk the length of it and scratch their heads and decide where they were going to run it. I found the first big eddy and waited.
The raft ran the rapid like a smoothing iron, flattening out the waves, but then jarred to a trembling halt in the last stopper before the crater. As they did so, the tube bucked and the Admiral's foot slipped between it and the frame. They came past the big hole, saw Jackie standing taking photographs and thinking she was me tried to get in to the micro eddy beside her.
Oleg threw the line, then leapt out to try and secure the raft, which was inevitably swept on to the nice big eddy I had found for them. I threw my throw bag, and dragged them in. It took a while for them to free the Admiral and when he got out he acted like a bear with a sore head rather than a bear with a sore leg. We watched in amusement as he spat the dummy. Then he abruptly stopped, and smiled sheepishly. I think it is good rapid, he said.
Below Binary Proposition there was another rapid which Jackie had already walked down to look at. She claimed it was merely a case of swapping from side to side to avoid the holes. What she omitted to mention was that the stoppers in the middle of Multiple Choice were huge and the opportunity for zigging or zagging were almost non-existent. Jackie, Mark and I found ourselves in a small eddy on river left with no way of knowing which way to go.
For the first and only time on the Chatkal I felt we had pushed our envelope and arrived on the outside edge. It was not a pleasant feeling. Trevor filmed us running through more big waves and stoppers and suddenly the river opened out into fields of waves. Blackadar boating, (drifting sideways and only straightening out to punch through stoppers we couldn't avoid) we ran on down. After a while I came screaming round a bend and saw a beautiful mountain appearing to cap the valley. Below it, a large pool or eddy, the first we'd seen since leaving Multiple Choice. We pulled into it and collapsed in the sun.
The Chatkal is one of those rare rivers, designed in Heaven, which don't let up. Most either begin with difficult rapids and peter out into long flat stretches, or they have the hard bits in the middle, but it is rare to find a river that just keeps on getting harder.
As we continued it was obvious we were entering another gorge. The river kept dropping, kept falling away, and the walls closed in. I got side surfed in a stopper, spun backwards, buried in a hole and I kept hearing the voice say;"relax,react."
We passed the obvious point of no return, where we were committed to finishing the river as there was no place to camp on the steepening banks. The sun illuminated the mountain ahead of us, and the mountain behind, but though they glowed a warm orange the river was in shadow and the walls were dark in the growing cold.
The Cataraft had disappeared ahead of us, and we were dropping though a series of steep rapids, edging closer to the uncomfortable feeling that we were heading towards this "Diaphragm" without the chance to pull out if it turned out to be nasty.
I missed an eddy, skidded sideways down a narrow grey rapid and reached the ultimate bad place of every Kayaker's nightmare.
The whole river funnelled down to a narrow gap between vertical rock walls that was narrower than the length of a kayak. The Admiral had told us that the "Diaphragm" was harmless. What he hadn't told us was that the river was higher than he remembered, and that the approach was through a series of grade three to four rapids. I found myself hurtling down towards a breaking wave crammed between two sheer sided walls.
Stay calm said the voice. I hit the wave determined not to go sideways, was surfed backwards into the wall and recycled in the eddy. Shuttle memories; France and Al Lowande telling me "Whatever you do, when you hit the wall, lean into it," I leant into it, it was pocked and pitted but smoothed by the water. Lean in to the rock said the voice, stay calm. Stay upright. Because you have to get through this. I felt the boat slide backwards out of the eddy and found myself surfing backwards on the face of the wave.
This is a trick I have attempted on numerous rivers, and now that it was the last thing I wanted to do I finally managed it. I heaved on the paddle, and I finally popped through, the Mountain Bat standing on his tail and dropping me into a whirlpool of sorts. Stay upright said the voice, which was beginning to sound a little tense as the paddle disappeared down the yawning hole. Fig 5.7 "The vertical disappearing paddle brace." Try teaching it sometime.
I found the cataraft crew, all of them smiling. Gena mimed someone taking a deep breath and squeezing through a narrow space.
The swift current we had followed for so long had disappeared. In place of the free running river there was the deep water of the lake, and large boils slowly breaking the dark surface. We found a flat sandbank and realised we had finished.
Euphoria had to wait while the boats were unloaded and we dithered, hoping Gena would fail to find some transport so we could spend one more night on the river. He did, and so we pitched camp and settled down for the night. I could hear voices discussing how hard the Pskem would be, so wandered off on my own to play the guitar while the stars came out and the mountains were black outlines on the clear night sky.
I was so happy to simply be there. Then. I had no desire to rush towards problems that may not exist. I had run some of the best continuous whitewater I'd seen in a long time, and all I needed was my family and it would have been a perfect evening. I had been daydreaming about my boys for most of the day; I had a powerful visual image of walking through the doors at Brisbane airport to their noisy welcome.
After dinner in the dark the Admiral said; "My Friends, I propose five drops to the Chatkal." It was after two O'clock before we'd drunk the bottles dry and sung ourselves hoarse, to celebrate our descent of this stunningly beautiful river.
We woke to the wind battering the camp. The Admiral's tent would have taken off if Blodwyn hadn't been sleeping in it. Vlod and Gena had disappeared early to try and find some transport. The sand had drifted into our tent and everything was infected by silt. After so many beautiful mornings, it seemed an anticlimax but it was time to leave the Chatkal. The Admiral returned with our transport, a small green van.
Piling our gear into it we found, to our delight, seats. We lurched off towards the hotel complex outside the town of Bishmulla. For the first time on the journey I felt old and tired, but as my companions looked more like a bunch of geriatric wrecks than hard core boating heroes, it didn't really bother me.
End of Chapter
11. . .
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