10) Inside cave

Subterranean Whitewater Blues

Packrafting the caves of Laos's Xe Bang Fai River

By Eduardo Hazera

After a few days of trying to convince some grim-faced bureaucrats to give me a rafting permit, I said screw it.

A week earlier, I was packrafting down the Xe Lanong River in Laos when a mute in green fatigues pointed an AK-47 at me. He grunted and gestured to the shore with the muzzle of this gun. Then he took me to a police station and fabricated some charges about not having proper permits.

That's the whole reason I went to see the permitcrats. I wanted to packraft down the Xe Bang Fai River - a river that passes through a cave - but I didn't want to stare down any more gun barrels.

But they wouldn't give me a permit! So, I went anyways.

Pigs are loaded under a bus headed to Vilabouly, a town near the Xe Bang Fai River

My trip down the Xe Bang Fai began with a 30-mile trek. By noon on the second day I was pumping up my packraft. A village called Ban Loboy was only a quarter-mile upstream from my put-in, and I was terrified that a few soldiers would bum-rush me and start screaming about permits. But nothing happened. Before I knew it, I was floating downstream.

I portaged around the first few rapids. Then I got tired of being a fairy, so I started running them.

Adrenaline electrified my mind all day long and eventually it wore me out. When that happened, I pulled over and set up camp on a fluffy beach.

That night I slept like a naughty baby. I was breaking the rules. And I was getting away with it.

I woke up to the sound of a helicopter. Oh shit!

I unzipped my tent flap and peeked out. Two helicopters were flying straight at me. Just as the choppers flew over my tent they peeled off and left the canyon.

I'm screwed!

A creek cascades into the Xe Bang Fai River.

I was convinced that some snooping villager had spotted me and notified the authorities that a white dude was paddling down the Xe Bang Fai. I was sure that his report had worked its way back to bureaucrats who enforced such laws. And I was sure they were after me.

The following morning I woke up at 4 a.m. If the government was gonna take me down, I knew exactly where they would be. There was only one town between me and the spot where the Xe Bang Fai disappeared into a cave. If they wanted to stop me from paddling through that cave, they were gonna make their stand at the village of Ban Kai. But if I could paddle past Ban Kai before they woke up, then I was scot-free. So, I was up at 4 a.m. and on the water by 5.

I paddled through the dark and it was day before I realized I was crazy. As wasteful as governments are, there's no way that they'd send helicopters to hunt me down. And there's no way that they'd dispatched some comrades to meet me at Ban Kai. The helicopters flying over my tent had been a coincidence, nothing more.

And I was right. Ban Kai came and Ban Kai went.

But fear still simmered in the background. And I couldn't rip myself out of the paddling frenzy that I'd been sucked into until I came across a big rapid. It took me an hour to scout the whole thing. The first half looked doable. The second half looked like a mess of white madness. But as long as I didn't flip, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't die.

Paddling through one of several canyons.

At first, everything went according to plan. I hugged the left bank of the river. Then I paddled to the right and threaded myself through two boulders. The moves were simple, but my packraft was filling up with water. It was getting harder to maneuver. I'd planned for this, though, when I was scouting the rapid, and there were a few eddies at the halfway point where I could pull over and empty out my boat.

I paused for a second, trying to figure out which eddy to paddle into. And that second was all it took: I was about to wrap on a boulder.

Wrapping is a funny experience. In the beginning you think you still have a chance. You stab the rock with your paddle to try to push it away. Or maybe you make a few desperate strokes. But that only takes a second. And then there's one more second in which you accept your fate. That second second is sort of peaceful. Your boat hasn't started taking on water yet but you also understand that shit's about to hit the fan. And you're okay with that.

That moment of peace vanishes when you realize that the upstream side of your raft is about to go below the waterline. Then it goes. And before you've grasped that this is the shit hitting the fan, you're already drowning.

I opened my eyes and saw white bubbles in brown water. I was holding onto my paddle with one hand and my packraft with the other. Then the current started sucking my paddle down and I lost hold of my packraft.

As I got pulled under with my paddle, my eyes were open and I saw the water go from brown to black. When the colors changed, the fear set in. I kicked my legs and clawed with my one free arm. My head bumped into something and I got pulled back down.

When I resurfaced with my paddle, I saw the packraft floating in front of my face. I grabbed it and kicked like a madman to get into an eddy. But the current was unrelenting and I was no match for its dumb strength. It dragged me out of the eddy. Then I clawed my way into another eddy and I squatted on a boulder and yanked my packraft towards me. But a wave lapped up and scooped me off the boulder.

That was it. There were no more eddies. I was heading straight into the second half of the rapid. The half that had looked like a chaotic mess of whiteness.

I leapt into my packraft. It was still half-full of water and my drybag was dangling to the side. I had no time to pull it in. I puffed out my chest and got ready to ragdoll my way through the rapid.

And then I was drifting upstream. An eddy?

My boat stopped moving and I leapt out and yanked everything onto a boulder. Hyperventilating, I collapsed.

When my breathing slowed, I lifted my head and looked around. I was worn out and shaky. A junkie strung way the hell out on adrenaline. But it wasn't time to whine. It was time to dump the water out of my packraft and keep paddling.

I boofed off the top of a rock, avoided a wrap, and slid down a little chute. Then the whole river coalesced into a narrow channel and plunged straight into white insanity. I had no clue what was happening. Just white and madness everywhere.

I popped out on the other side. My boat was full to the brim. I pulled it onto a beach and slept for two days.

Camp below the rapid that nearly drowned me.

On the sixth day of the trip, I paddled to the mouth of the Xe Bang Fai Cave. It was big. It was dark. And it was scary.

I camped out on a small beach a little ways upstream. That whole day and that whole night I was trying to let go of all the fear that was arising in my head. It wasn't working. But by that point there wasn't any other way out of the canyon. So, the following morning, I exhaled deeply and paddled into the void.

The Xe Bang Fai River drifts into the void.

The blackness crept up quickly. I was enveloped by it. But I kept it at bay with four shitty headlamps.

I drifted through a chamber that was full of stalactites and stalagmites. I was mixed up in terror and awe. I tried pouring all of the thoughts out of my head, but irrational fears kept bubbling up to the surface of my mind.

Then I heard a beast roaring in the dark. I approached it slowly and tactfully. When I finally saw it, I realized that it was a ripple. Amplified by a rocky tube, it had sounded like a waterfall. My packraft plooped and plopped its way through the ripply waves. Then I continued drifting into the black.

There were only a few more rapids. None of them over Class II. But surrounded in darkness and all alone, Class II is enough to make you shit your pants.

After three hours of paddling through the cave, I drifted around a bend in the river and saw light. A small dot on the horizon. I turned off my headlamp and inhaled. I lifted my paddle and dipped one of its blades into the cool water. And then I pulled. I dipped the opposite blade into the water and pulled again, slowly.

Nearing the cave's exit.

When I finally caught sight of the fiery glory of the big red sun, I got goosebumps.

After that, it took me two more days of paddling and walking to find a paved road. I waved down a truck and the driver pulled over and gave me a beer. He nodded towards the bed of his pickup. I climbed in and opened the beer.

–Eduardo Hazera wrote about packrafting in Malaysia in 2016.