I’m not entirely sure how it happened. But this one time, my plans to go to Gua Tempurung for some caving somehow turned into whitewater rafting.
My colleague and I initially intended to do some caving in Gua Tempurung in the state of Perak. He was in KL for a meeting with us, and his family came over from Bangkok to join him for the weekend. But as uncool colleagues began cancelling on us, we adapted.
Another colleague who is super outdoorsy recommended Nomad Adventure, and we picked out a package from their list, which didn’t turn out to be caving after all, but a combination of whitewater rafting and mountaineering school. Then we padded it out with a wander around nearby Ipoh where you could also pick out a trendy boutique place to stay for the weekend.
So the day after our meetings, me, him, his wife, and teenage daughter all piled into my little car. Northwards we went to Ipoh.
Gopeng Whitewater Rafting
Getting to the camp was straightforward enough. It’s just that the route takes you down narrow country lanes where I usually start talking back to myself and second guessing. Just don’t do that, and you’ll be fine. There’s not that many places to end up in, in rural Malaysia.
Rafting safety – equipment
The thing that I liked about the rafting trip we booked, was how thorough Nomad was with the safety bit. It was my first time whitewater rafting, and I’m the sort that kinda prefers to know in advance the big ticket things. Not the details because I’ll forget them. But just the important 2-3 things to uh, not die.
So they gave a full briefing for how the day would go, and the do’s and don’ts of whitewater rafting. Then they took us to the equipment shed and we were issued helmets and life jackets. Crucially they taught us how the equipment ought to be worn, like helmet sizing and jacket tightening and the like. They also explained why – like what happens in an emergency if you don’t wear them correctly (like if you feel you’re too cool for this crap).
I mean, I always thought I knew how how to tighten a life jacket, but nope. And they’re right – it feels better when it’s correctly tight.
Rafting safety – overboard and capsize
We were taken to the starting point of the whitewater rafting by truck, through narrow rural roads. Keep your eyes peeled, and duck for the low twigs overhanging the road.
At a spot by a bridge, there was a landing. A row of inflatable rafts were lined up along the riverbanks. We were not the only group out rafting that day.
We stopped and piled out for the next stage of briefings and to be assigned our raft captains. After explaining to us the basics of raft handling, we were briefed on practical safety.
Clearly whitewater rafting can be a hazardous sport. I mean, just look at that water, frothing and foaming as it skims – sometimes just barely – over boulders and rocks, spinning and rocketing through the deep middle channels. But that’s what training and contingencies are for.
I’ve been trained to capsize before, but only in relatively calm water. So it was good that they made each one of us slide into the current, feel what it’s like being dragged with it. Practice grabbing the ‘monkey fist’ that their sentinels along the route would chuck towards you if you fell overboard. Less likely to panic if it’s not the very first time.
The river pooled just after the practice stretch, so those of us who failed to catch the monkey fist were fished up there where the water broke to a relative calm.
Riding the White Water
We got a good captain. OK so they were probably all good, but ours took charge, gave us clear directions, and he was quite engaging too. It was fun rafting under his command. Earlier that year I’d gone to Belum Rainforest and been impressed by the nature guides, so I guess it was a good year for being impressed.
I took my waterproof camera.
Nomad stations photographers at the really good rapids anyway, so actually most of the photos are from them. Still, I wanted the option to take some of my own. But if you do this, secure the camera well since you could easily lose it in the rapids. Or go with a GoPro.
The rapids in the beginning were fairly gentle – breaks you in, you know? But then the river got serious.
Angles around boulders lead to drops of water, and then there are those rapids that require some nifty manoeuvring. We just basically listened to our captain and did exactly what he said, and pulled the oars in when he said. And enjoyed the rush of the water.
The calm stretches
Yes, calm stretches! In between rapids sometimes you get to just enjoy the ride. The green river carries you along its run, sometimes spinning you about. The jungle’s green foliage climbs over itself to the left and right, and the birds and insects call and creak around.
Later on we passed by some riverside chalets. Children and teenagers laughing as they go tubing down alongside us.
Further on, closer to the downriver pick-up point, the creek opens up to flatter land. The tree cover breaks and in the distance we could see the limestone hill where Gua Tempurung is – our original destination.
Maybe next time.
The Mountain School
We went to school for the rest of the day! Mountain school, to be exact.
I didn’t know what to expect, really. But it was full on! It was a large clearing with slender trees rising high up above, and high rocks behind. Ropes and platforms and bolts and whatever else that my climbing glossary doesn’t extend to, form the means for instruction and skills practice.
I’m not entirely sure how much I actually remember – but I do remember some. But I think the fact that I can’t describe it is good – it probably (hopefully) means I remembered it as body memory, which is what really matters for this sort of thing. I’m an ok climber anyway, just naturally. It was probably inherited from my mom, who ironically would never let me climb anything despite that I climbed before I ever walked – or crawled.
The afternoon rain put a slight damper on our fun though.
The Leap of Faith
Afterwards, our instructors suggested that instead of more climbing, we could try the Leap of Faith.
What is the Leap of Faith you ask? Well, it’s nothing more than a high platform, where you leap from to try and touch a sepak takraw* ball that’s suspended in the air beyond. You’re harnessed so it’s all safe.
Sounds simple enough. And yet…. sigh.
Somehow when you have to go up there by yourself, voluntarily, and then voluntarily jump into the air… let’s just say it took a while for me to just go for it.
I knew from the moment I hesitated that my chances of touching the ball was not good. It was only a small platform, and you really are just going by the spring of your leg muscles. You need to go with all your heart. I held back. And so my leap fell far short.
Read that as a profound metaphor if you like.
* sepak takraw – a sport like volleyball but with the feet, native to Southeast Asia.
** Gopeng is quite reachable from Kuala Lumpur, only about 3 hours’ drive, give or take traffic. I recommend staying in nearby Ipoh, which is coming up to be a pretty cool town in recent times.
*** It’s important to choose a nature/adventure tourism company that is credible and responsible to the natural setting of the activity. This is especially so in Southeast Asia, where by and large the level of regulation and enforcement over private business is patchy. Plan flexibly, and don’t be shy to walk away if you’re not sure. If they’re not responsible to the natural setting of their business, how responsible would they be to your safety, and how open to your feedback?