White water rafting: Riding the rapids at Padas

Rescuers on standby below a difficult rapid where a raft capsize is likely.
PHOTO: The Star/ANN

Thrill-seekers from all around the world can experience an adrenalin rush as they brave the rapids in the extreme sport of whitewater rafting. Do you dare?

When I went with a bunch of guy friends to climb Mount Kinabalu, we had a few days after the climb to explore Sabah. This was when one of them suggested going for whitewater rafting at the Padas River.

To get to Padas from Kota Kinabalu, we had to take a van to the railway station at Beaufort town, where we caught an ancient WWII diesel train to Pangi near Tenom. It took almost two hours to get there in the non-air-conditioned carriages as the train chugged along, with scant breeze coming through the open windows to relieve the afternoon heat.

When we arrived (literally, in the middle of nowhere!), we were then taken to Padas River for a safety briefing. After checking our belongings into lockers, we were given life-jackets.

We had to carry the raft on our shoulders and walk towards the river. Usually, there are six persons per raft, but there were only four of us this time, and I was relieved that the other three were big, strong guys because the raft was rather heavy.

The rapids were some 9km long. There were eight exciting Level 3 or 4 rapids that had unusual names like Headhunter, Lambada and Washing Machine.

Being the rainy season, the water levels were quite high, so a Level 4 rapid became a Level 5 wild ride!

The guide put the two heaviest guys at the front of the raft as the "anchors", and I and the remaining guy were seated at the back.

We were told that for Level 5 rapids, the raft had a 90 per cent chance of overturning and throwing everyone overboard. Bearing this in mind, we proceeded to anxiously paddle in unison. I have to admit that my friends were very well coordinated and it was quite smooth-going initially as the raft drifted down the muddy river.

Then the rapids hit and rocked the raft. Water kept flowing over the sides into the raft. Struggling to keep calm, we kept paddling, trying to keep the raft balanced as it rocked down the rapids.

By then, we were fully drenched and after what seemed like an eternity, we came to a stretch that seemed calmer. Somehow, we had not capsized because, according to the guide, our raft was quite well-balanced by the strong anchors and the paddling was synchronised.

The guide told us that since we had not experienced what it was like to be dunked into the water, we could all jump in and try "body rafting" (or rafting without the raft!) down the rest of the rapids. He told us to "turn turtle" - turn on our backs and curl up our arms and legs inwards to prevent them from being hit by any rocks.

So, all of us jumped out of the raft. But the minute we hit the water, before we could even take up the turtle position, the rough rapids pushed us downstream. I felt like I was drowning and I must have drunk litres of the muddy Padas water!

After a while, I managed to get into the correct position. The lifejackets kind of "protected" us from being hit by rocks or fallen branches. The water was too rough to swim to the river bank and we could only "go with the flow".

We finally reached calmer waters and tried to swim or float to the side. It was a terrifying yet exhilarating experience, especially for me, because I had a fear of water due to a bad experience as a kid and did not consider myself a good swimmer.

After showering and changing into dry clothes, we proceeded to a sumptuous lunch and then boarded the train back to Beaufort town.

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