Messing about in boats — there’s nothing quite like it. I first got a taste for it when I was seven years old on Loch Lochy near Inverness. My father stationed me at the helm of the little motorised dinghy we’d hired and off we went, zig-zagging erratically across the water. My ashen-faced little brother nervously gripped the sides, while I struggled to keep control. My parents thought the whole thing was hilarious.
I am the first to admit that when it comes to propelling and navigating a craft through water, I am always more enthusiastic than I am skilful. Here are my five favourite water-based adventures* that have occurred over a lifetime of dangerous, amateurish boating.
*Not including that time my cousin lost her bikini bottoms after falling off a banana boat in Kos.
Rafting the Nile in Uganda
My first experience of white water rafting was on the Ottawa River in Canada. Video evidence suggests that during my inaugural rapid, rather than paddling hard into it as ordered, I did in fact duck low inside the raft, clutching onto the rope for dear life.
Two days of practise meant that when the time came to try something bigger, I was ready. Despite having my purse stolen that morning during breakfast at the Nile River Explorers Backpackers in Jinja, I was not going to let anything dissuade me from launching myself down the grade 5 rapids – some of which could more accurately be described as waterfalls. Down we went, time and again, mostly forwards, but sometimes sideways and even backwards. Out we fell, as women washing their clothes on the banks gazed on at us and naked children waved. The adrenalin rush from each plunge was so powerful that since that day, rollercoasters have done nothing for me.
The stress dreams I’d had the night before about having my teeth knocked out did fortunately not come true — although, in a weird half-twist of fate, one of our guides ended up with a chipped front peg that afternoon.
I reported my purse missing the following day after an evening spent with a beer bong and a bunch of Canadian medical students. The Jinja police seemed confused as to what I wanted and handwrote a police report that no insurer would ever have taken seriously. I went back to camp and sat looking out at the Bujagali Falls, wondering if I’d be brave enough to do it all again in a kayak.
Tipi hopping on the Wye
As we slid the second canoe gently down the bank and onto the Wye, the first half of our party were already in the water, having capsized only a few metres along. Like a rampaging Hiawatha, my uncle had jumped aboard the vessel and cast off in such haste that they had crashed into a bank and overturned.
Down the river we paddled, annoying fisherman with our tuneless shanties and attempts to race one another. We were a raucous band that passed through the sleepy Herefordshire countryside, but all that ended when we arrived at the campsite. We were alone in a field, with only our tipi for company and after a barbecue dinner, it was very suddenly lights out.
As I attempted to read by to torchlight, every spider in the county crawled along my sleeping bag and up the side of my futon towards my face. I quickly gave up, zipped myself in tight and went to sleep. It was for the best — I did, after all, have another whole day of very English swashbuckling ahead of me.
In search of Komodo dragons
I’m still baffled how, as I lay on the deck in the dark, sodden and shivering, while the tiny tugboat rocked precariously back and forth in the storm, I managed to keep my cool. I think it must have been the case that circumstances were so very beyond my control — what with being in the middle of the Flores Sea and being reliant upon a crew who spoke no English – I just sort of thought there was no point in panicking.
I was right not to freak out – I didn’t die (phew!) and I got to see more awesome sights on the way to Komodo than just the dragons themselves. As well as trekking through jungles to waterfalls, we swam over incredible reefs dotted with electric blue starfish, we chilled out on a pink sand beach and while we sailed, dolphins and flying fish kept us company. We passed islands that looked like they’d been untouched since prehistoric times, while overhead birds that looked like pterodactyls circled menacingly.
One night at sunset, we sat in silence, waiting until a flying fox set off from its perch and took to the sky. A second followed, and then gradually more and more, until there was a streak of black marring the fire-hued dusk like smoke. Travel through Indonesia was often like this — testing, but ultimately far more rewarding than anything I could have dreamt up beforehand.
Kayaking the Croatian coast
Our kayaking trip was led by a Croatian dreamboat who drove us up to a gorgeous sheltered bay on the Adriatic and led us between islands across lustrous turquoise seas. My mother and I shared a kayak and he paddled alongside us, regaling us with tales from his life. While she teased him and chastised him for not being nice enough to his own mother, I sat in the back quietly cringing like a teenager, and chastising her in turn (“you’re embarrassing me”, “stop hitting my paddle”, “eurgh!”) whenever he was out of earshot.
We waved at naturists and paused to snorkel, picking up sea caterpillars along the way, before breaking for lunch on a stony beach. When the time came for cliff jumping, I ignored my mother’s worrying about insurance coverage and headed up onto the rocks.
As a shy teenager, before I had words, I used to try and impress boys with athleticism and bravery. I’m not sure what caused the regression, but I was a slave to it. As I jumped, I gasped with fear in that way you do when you’re astounded by your own ability to be dangerous.
We paddled back to base and on the return drive to Dubrovnik, I was rewarded when the dreamboat invited me to sit up front with him.
Canoeing the Canadian wilderness
Three hours north east of Toronto, after the farmland has petered out and the wilderness begins, lies Algonquin Provincial Park. The oldest park of its kind in Canada and offering some of the country’s best canoeing, Algonquin is pristine – especially in the early fall – with glassy lakes and burnished forests.
With networks of lakes and short portages, Algonquin is ideal for multi-day canoeing trips. My abiding memory is of cutting through the still water at dawn with the horizon slicing through two symmetrical lines of trees ahead. The images had unfolded like the wings of a green hairstreak — both so clear that either could have been the reflection of the other.
I remember camping wild: hoisting our bear-proof barrel into the tree, only to be outwitted by chipmunks; lying on hot rocks in the late afternoon sun; showering under waterfalls; watching a fox encircle the camp by firelight – its shadow dancing between the tress — in the hope of scavenging scraps.
I also remember using the thunderbox. At night I would tiptoe through the undergrowth frantically shining the torch this way and that. I could barely bear to sit on the thing, exposed as it was, lest there BE a bear, headed in my direction, ready to pounce on me in my most vulnerable state.
As adventures go, it was one of the best.