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Jun 2012

I discovered tubing in China. I was in a rather hippy spot called Wangshao, deep in those incredible karst mountains that you see in Chinese watercolour paintings. Clearly the laid-back feel of the place was getting to me for when I spotted, in the Lonely Planet Guide, that one could navigate this scenic section of the Yangtze River in an inflated tractor inner tube I was intrigued. My poor husband was given no choice – the next day we were going tubing.

We didn’t let a little thing like being unable to locate a suitable tube, operator or guide put us off. Eventually, in my best sign language, I managed to procure said tyres and, I hoped, a vehicle that would pick us up at an obvious bridge some eight kilometres downstream. The water was dark and rank. To be honest, hopping into it - even with a sizeable round of blown-up rubber as floating protection - was not appealing. But I had the bit between my teeth and the scene was perfect. A fisherman sat in the middle of the river, his cormorant tied to his long wooden boat by a line that he used to haul it in after it had dived into the water to catch a fish. The irrigated green padi fields of the flood plain contrasted with the dramatic grey limestone hills that flanked the valley. The sun was shining and I was convinced that we were in for the trip of a lifetime.

It was. Of a sort. As we rounded the first corner we encountered a more industrial scene. The paddle steamers that ploughed up the Yangtze were moored six abreast on both sides of the river’s banks. A babble of high-pitched voices announced frenetic activity on board. The water around us was now covered with a layer of oily slime and we watched, dismayed, as the tanks were emptied. Dirty water and worse spewed from the bilges. We shuffled as high as we could in the tubes, trying to avoid contact with the river. The current took us down, albeit slowly, so we needed only a few correcting hand paddles to steer. But this was not quite the fun we’d been expecting. Then it began to rain. No matter how hard we paddled we could not get warm. Three hours later, hypothermic, smelly and bedraggled we finally spotted our retrieval boat. My husband was barely speaking to me. It was 10 years before I ever got him on a river again.

But what a contrast the Palmiet is. This time I had wooed him with a tubing trip on a dark chocolate-coloured stream that tinkles through the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve just over an hour out of Cape Town. The reserve forms part of the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas World Heritage Site. So I at least I could convince him that there would be no industrial waste to manoeuvre through on this little outing.

We parked the vehicles and shouldered our rather sophisticated ‘tubes’. A little more than inflatable inner tyres, these ‘geckos’ were designed especially for the Palmiet. They sported a padded foam floor to keep you relatively high, bump-free and dry. They also had small handles, which allowed us some degree of navigational control. It was autumn and the river was still relatively benign – or so we were told at the briefing. We expect a leisurely float in a reclining position for most of the way, with a few spurts of white water excitement. In which case facing forward might be the position of choice.

Our group consisted of a family group – a gung-ho dad and his rather less gung-ho wife, a teenager and a wide-eyed ten-year-old – a group of friends in their twenties, and us, on the wrong side of forty. But we looked like a well-trained group of warriors by the time we’d donned the issued wetsuits, booties, paddling jackets, helmets and webbed gloves. We launched our tiny craft. The guides signalled the ‘OK’ and we were off, spiralling around in the current. We ended up in the reeds as we wriggled into a position that allowed us to use our webbed hands as mini-paddles.

The first rapid loomed and the guides repeated the instructions on how to ‘run’ the white water and what to do should we fall out. Then one by one we shot the little series of rocky steps and punched the air at the achievement of staying afloat. By the next rapid we were more confident, but pride comes before a fall. I was the first to flip, catching the side of my gecko on a sneaky rock protrusion. The group clapped as I pulled myself back on board unscathed. This was fun. The rapids got bigger and trickier and we soon learnt a golden rule of the river – look where you want to go, not at the obstacles you’re trying to avoid. It was hilarious. One rapid had a big rock right in the centre of the stream so all we had to do was decide whether to go right or left. But almost every one of us rode our tubes right into it, and then bounced inelegantly down the drop to the side.

The rest of the day proceeded in much the same fashion. It was simply beautiful. The Cape Fold Mountains soared above us, framed by the deep blue of the sky. Birds flitted over us and the sound of tumbling water was all we could hear. We were deep in the wilderness, letting the cares of the world wash away; revelling in the adrenalin rush of the white water stretches. By the end of the trip we had mastered tubing so well that we braved a bigger rapid in which the guides were showing off their skills. The geckos became rodeo horses, bucking, rearing and throwing us off. It was a fabulous day out - the perfect way for novices to get comfortable in white water.

Fact Box

Gravity Adventures offers tubing on the Palmiet when the river is low. When it’s high (following winter rains) the trip is done in two-person or larger rafts. Contact +27 21 683 3698, [email protected],

Nightjar Travel