Tag Archives: rafting

GANGWON-DO – the great outdoors, Korea

Everybody can climb this peak, and everybody does.I’ve clambered up a few mountain peaks, but this was the first time I’d had a cheer squad applaud my arrival at the top. And I’d never before conquered a mountain where a gentleman sits under an umbrella by the summit engraving medals for people as momentos of their achievement.

Koreans love the great outdoors and Gangwon-do province, or “heavenly blessed land” as it is described in the tourist brochures, is their adventure playground. But getting back to nature here means anything but being alone in the wilderness; this is a social activity to be shared with your family, friends and work colleagues. Strange Australians are welcome too and, as long as you’re not looking for peace and quiet, it’s great fun.

Inje County, a couple of hours’ drive east of Seoul, is a hot spot of Korean adventure tourism, with a range of simulated near-death experiences on offer year round. People are winched up a crane to Big Bungy, and play Inje Sudden Attack, a live version of a shoot-em-up computer game which I was told is massively popular (I’m not very up with such things, I’m afraid).

I settled for more sedate activities; a bone-jarring ride over rocks and through rivers in an amphibious Canadian army ATV (All Terrain Vehicle), followed by a drenching raft trip in wild rapids. Then to cap it off I climbed the aforementioned mountain.

Naturally I shared my fun with others. Beside the Naerincheon River, home of the 2007 World Whitewater Rafting Championships, rafting guides were preparing excited groups of families, workmates and corporate bonders to ride the rapids for a two-hour, six-kilometre trip downstream.

White water rafting for beginners

I was assigned to a raft with a family of four, and discovered that Mum and the 10-year-old daughter couldn’t swim. This would have disqualifed them from taking to the water in many countries, but apparently the rules aren’t so strict in Korea. We strapped on life-jackets and a young guide with a taut body and even tauter briefs gave us a quick floating lesson. Then we were on our way.

The river was gentle at first, winding between thickly forested hills, then picked up speed as we neared the rocky bits. Following the barked orders I added to my Korean vocabulary, building on ‘Hyundai’, ‘kimchi’ and ‘Samsung’ which, let’s face it, are of little use while shooting rapids. Now I speak fluent raft-paddling Korean; ‘Hana – dul! Hana – dul!’ (One – two! one – two!) and ‘Jeongchi!’ (Stop!). There’s also a handy phrase for ‘paddle backwards as hard as you can, you idiots, we’re going to hit that rock’, but I can’t exactly recall it.

Having survived our first rapids and reached a flatter section of water we swapped high fives and were feeling quite cocky. Until the guide lined us up on one side of the raft (we were used to taking orders now, so we did as we were told), then promptly shoved us overboard.

Much hilarity followed as we splashed him, he splashed us and other guides dunked the pretty girls till they squealed for mercy. When we came to a waterfall we took turns at being ritually held down under the freezing stream. It was all taken in good spirit, and it made me reflect on how laws about safety, insurance and harassment, necessary though they may be, have put a damper on such fun in other parts of the world.

Mt Seoraksan National Park

The next day I went for a walk. Seoraksan National Park can fairly claim to be Korea’s most beautiful natural area, with azaleas blooming in spring and leaves turning red and gold in autumn. I was there in summer – misty and sweaty, with the threat of showers. Nonetheless, the park’s rocky peaks, waterfalls and lakes are a magnet for Koreans, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone on Mt Gwongeumseong.

There was a queue for the cable car to take us half-way up the hill, with an hour and half to wait before our turn. That was no great problem; below the mountains was the lovely Sinheungsa Temple, with the World’s Largest Buddha statue – just a few years old, but nonetheless impressive.

The world's biggest Buddha

Then it was up on the cable car to join the line of ants scrambling up a rocky outcrop known as Gwongeumseong Fortress. My hiking boots gave me a good grip but some were attempting it in flip-flop sandals and even stiletto heels. It wasn’t technical rockclimbing, but it wasn’t so easy either and the last part of the climb was beside a seriously dangerous drop. Nobody seemed concerned. A father was carrying a toddler on his shoulders.

A well muscled climber swathed in ropes and carabiners had positioned himself between the death fall and us wannabe mountaineers and was directing traffic up the safest route. I seemed to be the only foreigner on the mountain that day so those waiting at the top gave me a rousing reception. The clouds completely blotted out any view, but no matter. I know how it was supposed to look – stalls were selling postcards of the mountain complete with snow, azaleas and autumn leaves.

Seoraksan has many kilometres of hiking trails leading to mountain huts and temples, and possibly I could have escaped the crowds by doing a longer walk, but why should I worry about not having the nature to myself? This was a great cultural experience.

The writer was a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Buses from Seoul to Sokcho near Seoraksan National Park leave every hour, take about 2.5 hours and cost 23,000won (about USD20) one way.
Staying there: Kensington Stars Hotel under Mt Seoraksan (with great views of the mountain) has double rooms from 116,045won. For other accommodation in Gangwon-do province, see visitkorea.or.kr.
Further information: Entry to Seoraksan National Park costs 3200won. Cable car up Mt Gwongeumseong costs 8500won. For a summary of adventure activities and guiding companies, see injejump.co.kr ( unfortunately in Korean only, but with good pictures) or english.visitkorea.or.kr.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under Hiking, Korea, Travel

LANDSBOROUGH RIVER – rafting in New Zealand wilderness


I’m glad there are no mirrors in the change-rooms at Queenstown Rafting HQ, where I’m being fitted with my wetsuit. ‘Fitted’ isn’t quite the right word; only people in James Bond films actually fit into wetsuits. I’m exhausted just from pulling it on, and once my body is shoehorned into the rubber, it bulges in all the wrong places.

Luckily not many people will see me, not where I’m going. The Landsborough River is remote and wild, cutting across New Zealand’s South Island on its way to the west coast. Few people have seen the Landsborough; just occasional hikers, deer hunters and rafters.

I prise my wetsuit off, and board a minibus for a 2½-hour drive north from Queenstown. On the way, I meet those who’ll be my companions for the next three days: Jim and Maurine from San Diego, Queenstown locals Rebecca and Matt, and Danish students Dorthe and Michael. Harold and Dave, teachers from Auckland, have just spent two weeks riding mountain bikes and hiking the demanding Rees-Dart Track. I’m impressed. Most Landsborough rafters are over 35, I’m told, though many are younger. No rafting experience is required, but it’s advisable to be active and confident in water.

Our guides Gabi, ‘KC’ and Roger give us a cheerful commentary on the landscape as we move into the lush forest of the west. It’s a lovely drive, along pristine lakes with mountains beckoning in the background.

At Clarke Bluff there’s a helicopter waiting to shuttle us to Top Camp, up the river. Hey, how cool does that sound? ‘They choppered us in and it took two days to raft out!’ The river snakes below us. It looks flat from above though, as we land, rain starts to fall steadily and the river looks grey and threatening. And beautiful.

Top Camp is already set up in a grassy clearing surrounded by beech forest. There are comfortable large tents with stretcher beds and air mats. While we make ourselves at home, our guides prepare an amazing dinner – spring rolls and perfect venison medallions, then butter chicken and vegetables on rice, all cooked on the campfire and gas stove. Beer and excellent New Zealand wine are all part of the service. To finish off there’s a superb chocolate pudding with lashings of whipped cream. ‘Wicked stuff, eh?’

Overnight the rain sets in and next morning the river is even higher. Out here, the river is the Boss, and the Boss says no rafting today. Water gushes past our camp at 150 tonnes a second. I’ll take KC’s word for that – no way am I getting in to test it.

The plan was to raft a few hours down to Bottom Camp, then paddle out the rest of the way tomorrow. But we’re stuck here for the night and if, as forecast, the rain stops and the river drops, we’ll raft the lot in one long day.

So for now we have time to kill, chatting, reading, enjoying nature, and explaining cricket to the Americans, as you do when you have them as a captive audience.

After lunch, the rain eases enough to hike through the drizzle for a few hours. We tramp through brilliant silver beech forest, tangled, mossy and dripping. We see hares, fantails and paradise ducks.

Now and then we come to streams tumbling out of the mountains, feeding the Landsborough. We rock-hop across the first couple, trying to keep our feet dry then, finding that impossible, we just slosh through regardless. As we turn for home the clouds lift, revealing the snow-capped mountains and rugged cliffs around us, promising magic for the morrow.

So it proves to be. Sunday dawns spectacularly. The clouds that rained on us have dumped fresh snow on the peaks above the dark forest, turning them a brilliant white against the clear blue sky.

After a massive breakfast we lever ourselves back into those wetsuits. ‘How’s it feel, Richard?’ asks Roger. ‘Fine,’ I squeak. I can see venison medallions and a bottle of Pinot Noir poking out of my navel, just below the mushrooms and scrambled eggs. Then yellow helmet and lifejacket are added, and I become a giant Playmobil man, my torso totally rigid. Good. Nobody will expect me to do any paddling work, and if I fall in I’ll just roll down the river bouncing off rocks.

Into the rubber rafts we tumble. KC gives us a quick safety lecture and our paddling instructions, ‘Forward! Back! Left! Right!’ Nothing too tricky. I quickly become expert at the ‘Hold on! Get down!’ manoeuvre we’re to use when hitting a rock. Nobody grips a safety rope tighter or crouches lower in a raft than me.

We push off and immediately snag on a submerged boulder. ‘Jump like kangaroos!’ yells KC. This is a new one. We bounce up and down as the raft spins in the current. ‘All left!’ We throw ourselves left and the raft lists. Swirling water tosses us off the rock and whips us downstream. We’re underway. ‘Whoo! Way to go, team!’

Gabi rides ahead in a little kayak. She was an Australian white water champion, so we trust her judgement. She signals the best way through the rapids and waits to scoop up any of us who topple overboard. ‘Gabi’s driving the Ferrari, we’re in the bus,’ says KC.

Most Landsborough River rapids are graded 3 or 4. ‘Grades go up to 6,’ KC tells us, ‘Niagara Falls is a 6.’ We rookies can manage a 4 without flipping, though we have some exhilarating close calls and we’re soon soaked through from the spray.

The nice thing about rafting is that the river does most of the work. We seldom need more than a few strokes to position ourselves to ride the current, and when the river slows down between the rapids we have plenty of time to admire the gorgeous passing scenery. Even a Playmobil man can do it.

Late in the afternoon we reach a little beach where the Landsborough meets the Haast River. It’s the end of our journey. We unload the gear, strip off our wetsuits and pull on dry clothes. We congratulate each other and thank our guides. They have been exceptionally good company, knowledgeable and considerate, not to mention talented five star chefs.

On the minibus back to Queenstown, Jim and Maurine arrange another quick rafting trip next morning before they fly out. ‘That’s sweet,’ says KC, ‘Bring your luggage and we’ll drive you straight from the river to the airport.’ If I could join them I would.

The writer was a guest of Queenstown Rafting.

TRIP NOTES

When to go: Trips to the Landsborough run Friday-Sunday in summer only (November-March)

Further information: Queenstown Rafting’s guided 3-day Landsborough Wilderness package costs $1495, including all equipment, transport, tent accommodation, meals and beverages. http://www.queenstownrafting.co.nz

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under New Zealand, Sport, Travel