Tracing a New River:
Doi Saket, Thailand
by Antonio Graceffo
Ask any of today's great adventure writers: Tim Cahill, Paul Theroux, or Robert Young Pelton, and they all agree on one point. "It's been done."
Basically everything on this planet which can be done has been. And even more extreme is that with package tour operators making the most remote corners of the globe accessible to everyday people, even formidable obstacles, like climbing The Himalayas are options for the average tourist
(more accurately, the average tourist with $60,000, the price of a guided ascent up Everest).
An Opportunity by Email
On one of those sleepy, dull Chiang mai mornings, when you drink a
three-in-one coffee and feel you couldn't possibly even look at another
elephant ride or bungee jump, I opened my email, and found a message from
my good friend, and in this case savior, Kevin Shane Barry, owner of Track
of the Tiger Tours, asking me if I would like to go, as part of a two man
team, to be the first people ever to trace the river at Doi Saket.
at the chance. Not only would the project renew my interest in life, I had
been considering hanging myself just as a change of pace, but it would team
me up with Shane's right hand man, Reinier, who had been my adventure
partner in an infamous canoe trip on the Maekok River, and who will be
accompanying me on an even more infamous trip down the entire Mekong, as
soon as we can find someone foolish enough to pay our way.
Although river tracing is a fairly new sport, in Thailand, it has been known
for years in Europe and the USA. Most people confuse river tracing with
white water rafting, or they at least assume that their is some sort of a
boat involved. But they couldn't be further from the truth.
To understand the phenomenon of river tracing is to understand the mechanics
of insanity. Everyone has heard the stories about that maniac Captain Webb,
who rode over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Outwardly, we say he is crazy. But
down deep, doesn't plunging down all that white water sound like a good
Going UP a Waterfall
But have you ever considered going up a waterfall?
River tracing, is a new sport, where, not only do you climb up the
waterfalls, but you climb up and over every rock and obstacle in the river,
tracing it to its source.
Once you have donned your equipment, consisting of a swimsuit, life jacket,
helmet, kneepads, rubber boots, and a rappelling harness, it's time to get
wet. The best way to get into a cold river is to simply jump off of a
bridge. You're going to get soaked head to toe, anyway, so you might as well
just go for it. Taking that first step is a bit counterintuitive, but like
any other controlled fright, it is a rush, and once you hit that ice-cold
water, you'll feel energized.
Reinier and I entered the river during the dry season, so we weren't exactly
inundated with water. There was no swimming involved, but the low river
presented other problems, as we had to scale, rather than swim over even the
Spending long periods of time in the jungle can be a bit
depressing because you can see neither the sun nor the sky, because of the
canopy of dense foliage over head.
Tracing wide rivers has the benefit of
being able to see the sky. Tracing a narrow river, like the one at Doi
Saket, and running through a typically overgrown Thai jungle, you quickly
realize that the river is the only way to go. Attempts to walk beside, or
even to get out of, the river will be thwarted by a thick tangle of jungle
Hacking their Way Up River
In addition to our normal river tracing gear: life vest, helmet, boots, and
rappelling harnesses, we also needed to carry machetes. We felt like real
Tarzan's as we hacked our way up the river. Every river has it's own
personality, and progress is very slow. In most rivers the lack of speed is
attributed to the constant force of water impeding your forward movement.
But at Doi Saket, the problem was the vegetation, which hung down, from
above. We were constantly getting tangled in thorns, vines, and spider webs.
And, of course, in Thailand, before grabbing or cutting a vine you want to
make sure that it isn't a man eating snake. The vines themselves can be
fairly formidable, as almost every living thing in Thailand is covered with
thorns. Gloves would probably have been a good addition to our gear.
The best part of river tracing is climbing up the waterfalls. Clinging to
the slippery rocks, making your precarious way, up a vertical slope, with
countless gallons of water rushing by you, threatening to tear you off is
one of the most exciting activities you could ever engage in. At Doi Saket,
however, we came to a huge waterfall, probably over a hundred feet. Since we
had no back-up team, we decided to play it safe, and hike up the back side
of the fall, then climb down, and back up with direct assist (climbing the
rope, instead of the rock).
In normal rock climbing, you are only supposed to put your weight on the
rock face. The rope is there for safety, not to help you climb. But in river
tracing, it is perfectly legal to use the rope to pull yourself up. Reinier
and I used a basic climbing technique, called stirrups, where by we first
anchored one end of the rope to a tree. Next, we tied loops in the rope, at
eight foot intervals, until we ran out of rope. When we finished, we threw
the rope over the side.
"I'll Go First."
"I'll go first." I volunteered, as we peered down the cliff. There was a bit
of an outcropping which prevented us from seeing the end.
"What if the rope didn't reach the bottom?" Asked Reinier. "We could slip
right off the end."
"Good point." I agreed. "You'd better go first."
"You're not scared are you?" asked Reinier.
"At my age I could break a hip." I answered.
In this type of climbing, you use carabineers tied to your rappelling
harness, to clip into the loops, working your way down the rope, and back
up. Once I saw that Reinier made it back to the top safely, I felt it would
be repetitive for me to complete the climb. So, I went down far enough to
make the photos look exciting.
By the time we finished with the waterfall, shadows began to grow long.
Although we hadn't reached the source of the river, we decided that it might
be prudent to turn back. Both being experienced woodsmen, we didn't bother
with a compass or a map. Of course this meant that we walked in circles for
several hours. But this was OK with me, because I really need to loose
weight, and I hate the stair-master at the gym. It's too repetitive.
"Well, we did it!" I said, triumphantly, when we finally reached the car,
seconds before the last light would have left the evening sky, obliging us
to spend a very uncomfortable night in the jungle, with no equipment.
"Did what?" Asked Reinier.
"We were the first people to have the opportunity to trace the river at Doi
Saket to its source."
"But we didn't find the source." Said Reinier, dejectedly.
"Yes, but we were the first people to HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY."
When it comes to adventure, I'll take any first I can get.
If you want to go river tracing, it is best to go with an organized tour
group, because they will have proper equipment, and knowledge, and they
won't get lost. Reinier and Shane promised that they'd take good care of
Originally from New York City, Antonio spent much of his childhood in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. He spent seven years in the United States Military, in both the Army NG and the US Merchant Marines. He works as a full time adventurer and writer, and currently lives in Taiwan.
Antonio's book about his studies at the Shaolin Temple, "The Monk From Brooklyn," was published in 2004. His book, "Adventures in Formosa," was published in Taiwan. Contact the author.