Rio Tabacal – Colombian optimism strikes again!

The plan we had made over ice creams was to kick off our time in Tobia with a paddle down the local rafting run on the Rio Negro with our new friends Victor, Alex and Ezequiel. The commercial section was a fun, bouncy grade 3 run with some great waves for attempting kick-flips.

Having finished this by midday the Colombians were keen to show us some more of their local runs and so we decided to head to the Rio Tabacal. Alex and Victor had confidently said it would take around two hours. Fran didn’t fancy paddling a second river that day and so leant out most of her kit for the locals to try – a wise decision, by the end of the day she had buyers for most of it! 

The Rio Tabacal was exhilarating right from the start, with steep, pushy, grade 4/4+ boulder gardens and very little break in between. The steep nature of the river and the heavily silt-laden black water, something we were still trying to get used to, meant that a lot of bank scouting was required and the expected two hours flew by.

The exuberant Alex, the youngster of the group, was often leading the charge, needing only a glance before jumping back in his boat and pelting off downstream. We were happy for him to ‘probe’ the lines.

After three and a half hours, and just as we were starting to get concerned about the amount of daylight we had left, the gradient eased a little, the rapids became more read and run and the group picked up speed.

We were just approaching the four and a half hour mark when we came around a corner and found a very relieved Fran waiting for us at a bridge. She reported that, with the water level rising and the hours of daylight slipping away, our driver had been getting pretty nervous about what had happened to us.

We happily shouldered our boats and started walking up to the jeep thinking we had at least reached the take out, if a little later than expected. Not so, the take out we had been aiming for was still another six or seven km downstream. Colombian optimism strikes again! Nevertheless, we rewarded ourselves for an epic day with an epic dinner!

Not wanting to leave a river unfinished, our adventures on the Tabacal were not over and the whole team went to finish it off a few days later, this time accompanied by Jared, an american chap we had befriended in San Gil.

We all got on where Dave, Lowri and Niamh had happily got off before, only this time the water was lower and not rising! The rest of the river was fun grade III/III+ with fantastic canyon scenery to look at and a beautiful corner where the whole river turned 180° and went back on itself.

Our get out was upstream of a 2km long portage where we were told ‘the whole river goes underneath the mountain’! A fairly extreme kind of siphon, but a testament to the amazing rock formations that Colombia has.  It did not take us long to do this upper section and we had loads of time left until dark so Victor suggested we do the lower section. He also said that it wasn’t a long walk down to the river. It may not have been a long walk (although it did take about 45mins), but it did turn out to be pretty traumatic, as we were to realise about 20mins after we got on…

Just after getting on, Fran’s legs could not stop itching, thinking that it was stings from the nettle-type plants they have in Colombia, she carried on. Then it seemed that everyone was needing a good scratch. As we paused at a really nice play wave on the way down, one by one we all got out of our boats and discovered the horror of being covered in tiny (and not so tiny) ticks!!!

What proceeded was – for Dave, who, because he was wearing thermal trousers, had none – a hilarious 30 minutes of everyone stripping off and washing, scrubbing, picking and inspecting to get the little buggers off us before they all got too attached. Suffice to say we all got to know some intimate parts of each other as there are certain places ticks are attracted to that one cannot see of oneself!

Once all bases had been thoroughly checked and then rechecked we gingerly got back on and carried on to the get out. Seeing as most of the river had been class II/III we were all questioning whether it had been worth the trauma! That night to take our minds off the ticks that we were sure were still burrowing in dark places, we went to play Tejo; a very Colombian game of throwing metal disks at a board covered in clay with sachets of gun powder stuck to it.

The aim is to make the sachets go BANG! We had varying levels of success and fluke but it was great fun – it could never get past health and safety laws in the UK though.Once we had won/lost Tejo (no one was all that sure) we went for some late night ice cream. Then four sleepy british kayakers crawled into their tents for some well earned sleep.


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