All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien


Adventure Travel

Jul 31, 2017

Discovering ‘Horizon’s End’ in India’s Whitewater at the Kynshi River

By sunset on the second day of our descent into the Kynshi River, two things were clear.


Joe Rea-Dickins

First, we discovered a true gem of a river with a variety of obstacles and some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere in the world. Second, this 30-kilometre section would take more than the anticipated two days, and our food supplies were running out fast.

Whitewater kayaking can be broken down into three different categories: Big volume, medium volume and low volume.

Big volume involves large features, such as waves and whirlpools. The moves kayakers have to make on such rivers require long, simple, slow and precise maneuvering to avoid the dangers and to keep on line as they paddle down the river. It’s certainly no place for beginner kayakers.

The classic medium volume feature is known as the “boulder garden,” a set of rapids flowing through large rocks where kayakers will have to find a line through and sometimes avoid dangerous boulders. At other times, they may use the more suitable boulders to help navigation and stay on course.

Finally, there’s low volume, also known as “creeking.” Low volume takes place on steep streams and creeks and takes the kayaker to high-paced waterfalls and rocky slides. Picture a rollercoaster set in a river, but with a paddle and boat replacing the seatbelt and rails.

Historically, India has been renowned for its exceptional Himalayan big and medium volume paddling. Many groups visiting India will warm up on the medium volume sections of the Beas (Himichal Pradesh) or Alaknandar (Uttarakhand) before heading to the famed big rivers, such as the Indus (Ladakh), Ganges (Uttarakhand) or Siang (Arunachal Pradesh).

Over the past few years, more kayakers have discovered India’s creeking potential. Kayakers have paddled a handful of tight Indian rivers, such as the upper stretches of the Teesta and Talung (Sikkim), the Kaveri (Karnataka) and the Nayyar and Bhilanga (Uttarakhand). And with the heaviest monsoon rains that fall on some of the most diverse mountain ranges in the world, India has much more waiting to be paddled.

I recently returned from a five-month trip to south Asia where a group of friends and I kayaked classic rivers and first descents in Pakistan, and then India and documented as much as we could (including videos). The plan was simple. Paddle some of the best big volume in the area famed for the best big rivers in world: The Himalayas.

We did learn, however, after ticking off some of the giants, such as the Gilgit in Pakistan and the Indus in India, that big volume can become quite repetitive. Therefore we decided on a change.

I had always wanted to visit northeast India. Having travelled around the country twice before, I had seen a great deal but had never ventured any farther east than Darjeeling or Sikkim. A trip to Nagaland was the plan, but when we found out we might have to spend a few days obtaining permits, we had a quick re-think and chose nearby Meghalaya. We only knew three things about it: 1) Meghalaya was famous for being the wettest place on earth. 2) No one had ever kayaked in the state before. 3) No permits were required. Perfect!

We chose to paddle the rivers flowing off the southern ridge of the Meghalayan mountain ranges because they’re steeper than those in the north. Coming from the U.K., we often search out the steepest sections because they usually hold all the great waterfalls and slides; applying this theory to Meghalaya made perfect sense to us.

What we didn’t consider was that things can get too crazy.

On day two of a descent of the Umngot river, we came to what kayakers refer to as a “horizon line,” a line across water where you cannot see any farther due to a dramatic loss of gradient.

This phenomenon isn’t uncommon when creeking, but this particular horizon line was bigger than any we had ever encountered. What followed was a set of backed-up waterfalls flowing through an inescapable canyon dropping 160 metres [525 feet] in gradient with no clear signs of letting up as it rounded the next corner out of sight. Because of the intensity and geology of the gorge, we were unable to find a route around the waterfalls and were forced to pull off the river. We spent the next two days dragging our 45-kilogram [100-pound] kayaks packed with camping gear and supplies through thick, steep jungle.

Lesson learned. We finished our trip to Meghalaya on a remote 30-kilometre [18.6-mile] stretch of the Kynshi River which drops at a more appropriate gradient than the Umngot. Our first descent of the Kynshi River was an incredible experience, but the water level was still too high in places, making many of the rapids too dangerous for kayaking. We completed the descent in three days, taking a day longer than anticipated due to slow walks around rapids. Fortunately, we arrived at the village of Ranikor just as we were getting hungry.

With no rain for two weeks, we decided to go back to the Kynshi River in hope of a lower water level. We were lucky enough to return to almost perfect conditions and we completed the full 30-kilometre [18.6-mile] stretch in three days (we had packed enough food for five days this time), only walking around four rapids.

All the kayakers on the trip decided the Kynshi River was the best river any of us had been on anywhere. It had everything from beautiful surroundings in an isolated area to rapids perfectly designed for top-level kayaking. To top it off, there was warm water and beaches with readily available firewood for camping, and virgin streams for drinking water.

Members of our group had kayaked from Venezuelan jungle rivers to the monster waterfalls of Norway, through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River in the United States, to the source of the White Nile in Uganda. We had also just spent the last five months doing nothing but kayaking across India and Pakistan. We knew the best river when we found it.

The Kynshi River was a great discovery for low volume whitewater kayaking in India, but the discoveries don’t end there. Groups of kayakers have started looking at India’s creeks, and with a growing number of talented kayakers from all over, there will no doubt be countless more finds over the next decade. It’s an exciting time for whitewater in India, and I know I’ll be back next year. I don’t want to miss out on the fun.

Craving some whitewater? Let us take you there at The Outdoor Voyage.

This article was featured in the very first print issue of The Outdoor Journal. Story and images by Joe Rea-Dickins.

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Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.



Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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