Yesterday's Class III rafting on the Jatanyacu was a good warm-up, but today's Class IV rafting on the Jondachi was the real deal. Not quite as much pure, blood-pumping excitement and splashdowns; but lots of good technical challenges, lots of fun waves and turbulent spots, and lottts of breathtaking scenery. And all with the very friendly and experienced company, The River People. Rafting in Tena has definitely been worthwhile: possibly the best that I've done so far on my trip.
I ended up going with River People today, because the three Italian guys that I met on yesterday's trip (with Ríos Ecuador) were already booked into it. They didn't need to do much convincing, to get me to come with them for another day on the water — I was looking for more than one day's rafting, regardless. In fact, I would have liked to have done a single, 3-day expedition here in Tena — but they only seem to be offering 1-day trips. Anyway, I was very lucky with today's trip: when I went in and booked it yesterday, they had 5 people confirmed; and since 6 is the perfect number for a rafting trip (there are generally 6 people to a raft, plus the guide), they were more than happy to have me on board.
So, my group for today consisted of: the three Italian guys (they ended up being just as crazy as they were on the water yesterday); a middle-aged Aussie couple (from Melbourne — here in Ecuador for 3 weeks); and myself. We were also extremely lucky to have Tim as our guide. River People (as I learned over the course of the day) is a family business — British ex-pat "Gary" founded it about 15 years ago, and he still runs it to this day — and Tim is one of his sons. Naturally, being the son of the company's founder (as well as someone who was naturally "born to raft"), Tim made an amazing guide. We ended up having 2 rafts: the 3 Aussies set off with Tim; and the 3 Italians set off with another guide.
Not only is River People a family-run and really cosy company, they're also a group of pioneers. Today's river — the Jondachi — is situated in a remote and highly inaccessible jungle canyon, and River People discovered it not that long ago, and pioneered rafting trips on it just 2 years ago! To this day, they're the only company that offers trips on it — other companies, such as Ríos Ecuador, haven't yet touched it. So we felt both privileged and intrepid in being able to embark where we did today, and to brave some of the world's newest commercially-available rapids.
We set off from Tena at about 8:30am this morning, after loading up the van with all our gear, and waiting for everyone to arrive. It was about 45 minutes' driving, to the jungle area near the river canyon, where we disembarked and began the long walking trail down to the river (you can only drive so far to get to it, you have to walk the rest of the way). When we arrived at this spot, we immediately found ourselves surrounded by a horde of local indigenous kids, who inundated our guides with offers to help carry all the gear down (for a small price, of course). Unfortunately, we couldn't hire them all to help (apparently they do this every time the River People come here): so Tim worked out which kids had gone the most days without helping, and chose 4 of them to lend a hand. The others would have to wait their turn, until another day.
The walk of ½ an hour or so, down to the river canyon, was steep and extremely muddy. This made it quite difficult — and in spots a bit dangerous — to get through; but by going slow and steady, we all made it through without issues. I tried doing it with my sandals on at the start — but it ended up getting way too muddy, and my sandals just started getting stuck in the mud constantly — so in the end, I went most of the way barefoot (as did the majority of my fellow rafters). It was a pain when the mud started giving way to rocks and pebbles, towards the end of the track (literally "a pain", as I was barefoot).
Just before we reached the river, Tim offered to take us on a short additional hike, to a nearby lagoon and waterfall in the jungle. All of us were up for it (except the Aussie woman, who preferred to wait by the river), so off we went — just 10 minutes' walking, there and back. The trail to the lagoon — like the trail down to the river — was steep and muddy, and it had a difficult river crossing at one point. But it was worth it when we reached our destination: it was beautiful!
Tim, the 3 Italian guys, and myself jumped into the water when we got there. It was cold, but wonderfully refreshing. We swam across the little, rock-enclosed lagoon, and climbed out on the other side, where we found a series of caves. We were able to crawl up through these caves, onto a rocky ledge about 10 metres above the water. From up here, a waterfall cascaded over the edge and into the pool below.
Then came the fun part. In order to get back down, all of us jumped off the ledge, and into the water below. The other 4 jumping guys managed it pretty well: they all either pencil-dived or bombed the 10-metre drop, and landed just fine at the bottom. However, I wasn't quite so skilful or so graceful: when I jumped, my legs floundered crazily in the air; and I concluded by landing flat on my a$$. When you do this at a drop of 10m, it really hurts! Ouch — felt like someone had slammed a blue whale against my backside.
After this fun little side-trip, we scampered back to the shore of the river, and the fun began. Quick explanation of rafting basics, quick gearing-up (just life-jackets, helmets, and paddles for today — no jackets or wetsuits needed), and then we were in the water.
The Jondachi is an amazing river. Numerous technical spots, where you really have to listen carefully to the guide's instructions, if you want to manage the safest (and/or most fun) route through the foam. Lots of thin and winding areas, but also wider and more action-packed areas (especially towards the end). Reasonably warm water, considering that it comes down from the mountains. And absolutely amazing scenery!
The steep-sided canyon that the Jondachi winds through is covered with pristine, lush tropical jungle. For the entire 40km of the trip, we were passing by cliffs that were 100% covered in every imaginable type of greenery. And it was such a remote and inaccessible area, that half the plants we saw probably haven't even been formally discovered by scientists, and probably don't even have an official name yet. Although I'm sure that the indigenous locals have a name for all of them. Pity that "official" plant names always have to be in Latin: would save them having to invent a whole lot of names, if they just used the original names from the natives' local languages.
So the combination of winding river, vertical canyon walls, verdant plant life, and drifting strands of cloud everywhere, made for a most enchanting and unforgettable experience. The rickety little bridges, that spanned the river at regular intervals, also added a great touch: they were most reminiscent of something out of Indiana Jones — I really could imagine these bridges breaking in half at the worst possible time! Don't think I've seen any jungle this rich and beautiful, since I was in the paradise-like jungle of Palenque in Mexico.
We got in about 2 hours of rafting in the morning, before stopping for lunch by the river, at a beach that was far from any civilisation. Had a great lunch of various salads, chips, cake, and soft drink. Then it was back into the rafts, for the remaining 2 hours of rafting to get us to the end of the rapids course.
In the afternoon, we passed through the most challenging rapid of the day, which Tim affectionately calls "The Waffle-Maker". He explained that you can either take the path to the left, and "get waffled" as the river churns you through some insanely fast waves, and then spits you out at the other end; or you can fall short of this path, and get caught for up to ½ an hour in a churning black-hole whirlpool to the right. Our rafts both made it safely through the former path. But Tim recounted to us how one time, he'd taken a group of unprepared jappy Quito girls through this section (they were serious japs — they turned up for a day of rafting in high-heels), and how they'd gotten stuck in the whirlpool to the right (naturally, since they didn't paddle when told to). As they were thrashing and crashing about, the girls asked him: "what do we do, Tim?". To which he replied: "Err... keep screaming!" :P
We got through this day's rafting extremely wet, and extremely satisfied with the rapids that we'd just successfully conquered. Unfortunately, as with yesterday's trip, I have no photos to show of the day (although there wasn't the same mixup with receiving a CD as there was yesterday — today, there actually were no photos taken). However, I have some great memories, and I'll nonetheless cherish this day as one of the best spots of rafting I've done in my life. Real, Amazonian adventure.