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Rafting: Staying afloat in Ecuador

The seething waters of the Jondachi River can be treacherous at times — and that’s half the fun

Rafting: Staying afloat in Ecuador
Whitewater rafting. Image: Alamy

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One moment, Nick is sitting opposite me, gasping like a beached fish, and the next he’s gone. It’s not a dignified exit. He gives a little squeal as he topples backwards overboard, and the red soles of his trainers seem to flap farewell to the sky before he disappears under the thrashing surface. But there’s no time to worry about Nick. The rubber raft is bucking and spinning in the frenzied current as it’s shoved from rock to rock like the runt in a litter. We become wedged broadside between two boulders and Gabriel barks orders that are drowned instantly in the violent rush and roar.

The river comes in surges around the boulders — black and cold and smashing into my face — and I can’t breathe. I cannot breathe! Then, thank God: a pause. Gripping the blue rope with all my might, I open my eyes and there’s Gabriel trying to pull and prise the raft free, pushing the rock with his feet, the jungle a green blur behind him, holding onto the rope — don’t let go — forehead pressing against the rubber, rough and hard and grey, or perhaps brown, not sure, and here comes the water again, a falling wall of it, water, water everywhere…

And then the boulder’s jaws release and we’re bumping and rolling away until the river flattens, and everything calms. The white water can only rage and foam at us from a distance like a rabid dog straining at its leash. We unravel ourselves from the middle of the raft to take our places once more along its sides, drunk on those scintillating 60 seconds, the six of us — five tourists and Gabriel, our guide — pink-cheeked and laughing like we’d known each other a lifetime. What. A. Buzz. Gabriel leads us in a high-five with our oars and we paddle towards the bank, where we’ve spotted a bedraggled-looking Nick wringing out his socks.

For two days, it’s rained, a steady drum roll on the iron roof of my accommodation and a papery patter on the leaves overhead as we slopped along the forest trail that leads to the Jondachi River, a tributary of the Amazon. We ducked through gushing waterfalls and dunked chest-high into swollen streams that crossed our path; immersive travel experiences don’t get more immersive than this.

All that water heading for our gorge. “When rivers rise in Ecuador, they go big,” Gabriel had said. “It won’t be like Venice.” No other rafting company is equipped to tackle this remote stretch of the Jondachi. We’re being tracked by GPS and have an SOS device linked to headquarters; two expert kayakers accompany us as back-up, their boats carried overhead along the trail by barefooted women from the Kuchua community who live here in the rainforest. Our heads say we’re safe, but there’s more than enough space in our hearts for doubt, and that’s good because, hell, what’s the point otherwise? Feel the buzz. With only life jackets and plastic helmets to protect us, we ride this wild, swirling mass of water on its desperate dash down towards the Amazon.

“Forward, forward,” urges Gabriel as we enter the fray, paddling as hard as we can into churning grade-five rapids that crash over and around, and back on themselves like defenders against a charging mob, currents clashing in eruptions of white spray. The raft dips and arches, an unbroken animal fighting to fling us off, and it’s all I can do to stay on, my toes aching from the effort of anchoring themselves in one of the boat’s crevices.

Each of these seething patches of white water has a name: The Drop, The Fall, The Washing Machine. “The Indigestion,” Nick mutters as we set off again after a quick stop for sandwiches. But there’s none to compare with The Waffle-maker. The Waffle-maker is the dastardliest of the lot, spoken of with reverence by those who raft this river: a series of three rapids that allows no pause for breath. “Whatever you do, keep left. If you get it wrong, the raft can bend in two and the ends clap together,” warns Gabriel. Like a waffle-maker. And it’s coming up next, closer and closer and louder and louder. And we’re the soft, doughy tourists in the middle about to get waffled. What a buzz.

Essentials

TravelLocal offers a nine-day Amazon Adventure, including a full day of rafting along the Jondachi and Hollin Rivers and a visit to a camp deep in the Amazon from £1,510 per person (excluding flights).

Published in the Adventure Travel guide, free with with the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)