Alps Roadtrip!

Succeeding a trip to the French Alps two summers ago as a beginner, and a trip to Uganda the following summer, it seemed time to head back to the Alps to conquer some white water kayaking that I was not previously capable of. On the afternoon after Max’s last exam in May, the big VW T4 packed to bursting with 3 kayaks, kit and food, we left Edinburgh and drove down to Newcastle Quay to catch our overnight ferry to Amsterdam! This part of the journey was great fun and saved us some hours of driving (though not without expense!). Sadly, however, my camera was stolen on my second day in Germany and hence I have no photos from the start of our trip. From Amsterdam it was a 5 hour journey to Max’s house in Germany. The gear stick in the car seemed to loosen more and more and by the time we had a reached our destination it caused enough concern for us to take the car to a garage. The fault could not be fixed in the time span of the three days we had available at Max’s place and we successfully completed the rest of our trip (7000 km!!) without a 5th gear!

Well fed and rested at the farm, we continued south and stopped in Munich to pick up Max’s American friend, Dan, from the airport. With an extra boat and person, we slowly made our way to our first river – the Loisach in southern Germany. This was a great little class 3 run bolder-filled run which we repeated a couple of times. The river was a perfect warm up for things to come, and a nice introduction for Dan to kayaking in Europe. We even found a shuttle buddy on the river which was handy.

Preparing for the Loisach!

Preparing for the Loisach!

As Max’s parents own a chicken farm, we were able to take many eggs with us to have for breakfast (or lunch or dinner!) – 180 eggs in fact! This was a luxury that also cut down on food bills.

Yes - 180 eggs!

Yes – 180 eggs!

Before I knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Germany and head further into the Austrian Alps. Had more time permitted then I would have like to stay longer in Austria and find some good white water there, but we planned to meet Edinburgh Uni Canoe Club (EUCC) in the French Alps and hence had a schedule to stick to! We drove over the high alpine passes, marvelling at the wee traditional Austrian villages with their green pastures on the side on mountains that seemed to have no road access. With the primary drivers permission, we stopped in Innsbruck for a couple of hours – the old town was particularly beautiful.

Standing on die Brücke over the Inn in Innsbruck

Standing auf der Brücke over the Inn in Innsbruck

At night the three of us slept in the car, which became fairly routine. When we reached the town of Bovec in Slovenia, we were able to set up camp and sleep in tents which was more spacious to say the least. Bovec is a gorgeous, provincial town in Julian Alps, surrounded by green hills and bigger mountains beyond. The town has a population of roughly 1600 but it is a popular destination for kayakers due to its primary location for the Soča river. This river is famous for it’s crystal clear blue waters and stunning scenery, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. When the sun came out it was particularly stunning, and it felt even better to be sitting on the surprising warm water. I have very few photos of the river as we were usually kayaking, although I doubt any photo could do the beauty justice.

Bovec, Slovenia

Bovec, Slovenia

The Soča

The Soča

The local bakery became a particular favourite and the friendly baker knew he could tempt us with his freshly baked cheese rolls. The ice cream in town was also some of the best I’ve ever had. The locals seemed accustomed to the passing of kayakers in the summer and were generally very friendly, and the campsite itself (one of several in the area) was littered with boaters of all types. A couple of German guys recognised the German number plate of Max’s car and came over to introduce themselves. Although a rather eccentric pair, they were friendly and we paddled together on the first day on the gentle upper section, happy to enjoy the weather and have a shuttle in exchange for some cheap beers. These guys also provided us with shuttles for sections they were not keen on paddling which was an amazing help. On our first day we also bumped in a lively group from the University of Limerick in Ireland who were good fun and successfully got their gaggle of 25+ kayakers down the river in one piece. With a quick heads up on what other sections were worth our time, we carried on down, though it wasn’t to be the last we saw of them on our roadtrip.

Following Irish advice, the second day we paddled 3 sections: The Graveyard, The Slalom Course, and Abseil Section. A great mix of  grade 4 rapids, it was a fantastic day with the Abseil section being a new favourite,  even though the walk in down a steep never-ending staircase on the side of a cliff was less than desirable! We paddles with Abseil section again the second day in glorious sunshine, and for me it was one of the best days of the road trip. That afternoon we decided to explore more of the area and hiked up to Boca falls, an impressive waterfall along an easily accessible local hiking path.

Boca Falls

Boca Falls

 

Max on the Hike

Max on the Hike with Bovec behind

On the morning of the 2nd of June, we waved goodbye to Slovenia and our comfortable life there and drove west into Italy. That day we also took a break from kayaking and spent a wonderful day in Venice! Max and I politely ditched Dan to wonder around the city ourselves and get lost in the small alleyways and enchanting old buildings of the sinking city.

Good morning sunny Venezia!

Good morning sunny Venezia!

Docked Boats

Docked Boats

A romantic day out

A romantic day out

Alleyway

Alleyway

We wandered around for hours, stopping for pictures, delicious ice cream and to simply lounge by the waterside and the Grande Canal. The city was busy, but not unbearably so for it was a week day and still early in summer. We were fortunate with the weather and only as the sun lowered did the rain come in. We hunted down a good looking (and affordable) pizzeria, which was not as easy to find in Venice as one might have expected, and we feasted there and let the rain pass.

Venice at night was almost as beautiful as by day and we slowly walked around the emptying city a little longer before heading back to our campsite on the mainland.

Night in Venice

Max

Night in Venice

Night in Venice

With kayaking back on the agenda, we drove further west towards the region of Val Sesia, west of Milan. With a quick tent pitch at Campertogno, we hopped onto the Lower Sesia to stretch our legs! The following morning we tried to suss out the water levels from other kayakers there. Once again, we bumped into our Irish friends who said the water levels (which are rain dependent as they are in Scotland) were a fair medium on most parts of the Sesia river but that they were heading up the the Egua – a bumpy steep class 4+ run with rocky drops. We made up our minds to paddle the Middle Sesia section whilst the levels were good for us and decided to check out the Egua later.

The Middle section was great fun! It’s a Grade 4 run with two more technical drops in there that are often portaged. Dan ran the first of these, Piode, and some how got down it backwards unscathed. The second drop/slot is more consequential and none of the paddlers we encounter on the river that day ran it. Everything else we made it down without consequence or scouting and as such we were a little too complacent as we unknowingly approached Hugo’s hole – a sticky drop without obvious horizon line to let you know it is there. Dan went down first and I came in fast behind him, hitting a poor line and possibly Dan’s boat as well which resulted in a nasty thumb jarring and some scrapes. Max wasn’t far behind and the three of us struggled for a few seconds in the recirculating eddy on river right, before finally breaking back into the follow and gathering ourselves down stream. With the hilarity over and our heads wet we carried down stream and made the most of what was left, with a nice grade 4 rapid to finish.

I was tired after that river but we decided to drive up to the Egua just to check it out. Although the first and last drops were runnable, we didn’t feel confident with the water levels so low and scrapy and decided that maybe this would be left for another time. That river, along with the Mastallone and the Alpine Sprint, are still on my “To Do” list for the area.

The next morning we drove up to the Sorba slides – a collection of rock-bed slides with relatively easy lines that give a good adrenaline rush – and I managed to pluck up the courage to paddle.

First of the Sorba slides

First of the Sorba slides (Dan waiting at the bottom)

Second of the Sorba slides

Second of the Sorba slides

Third of the Sorba slides

Third of the Sorba slides

So much fun! That afternoon, instead of staying another night in Italy, we thought it would be better to get to the l’Argentiere in the French Alps a day early to surprise the others, so we packed up once again and started the drive to France. It was a great experience for me to arrive in the region I had visited for the first time two years early. It brought back so many fond memories and I was very keen to get on the water as soon as possible to see how I faired two years on. Although it was 8pm, we stopped at the Gyronde on our way to l’Argentiere and paddled the racy class 3+/4 section down onto the Slalom course at the campsite. As I said, it had been two years since Max and I had been here, and I hadn’t ever paddled this section so we were just working from Max’s memory and picking our way down. Though there was nothing in particular (other than tree hazards) that we needed to be wary off, he had forgotten that the level picks up considerably throughout the day due to snow-melt and is highest in the evening: it was brilliant! We rocketed down and were at the campsite in no time, surprising EUCC as planned!

Although travelling had been amazing, it was pretty nice to have a more permanent residence for a while. We stayed on the campsite for over a week, paddling with the Canoe Club when we could, and getting our own quests done in between. The first day there I paddled the Briancon Gorge followed by the Lower Guisane and then the Durance Gorge, the latter two of which I hadn’t been capable of on my previous visit there.

Briançon Gorge

Briançon Gorge

As well as conquering my own challenges it was really rewarding to lead people down sections of river that I had previously found daunting. Hands on teaching and rescuing is how uni canoe clubs work best, and it always feels good to give back time to those that taught you.

Watching Becca aceing the Upper Guil Gorge section

Watching Becca aceing the Upper Guil Gorge section

The Upper Guil on the second day was a full club outing in beautiful sunshine which made the ice cold water a little more pleasant. This also presented the opportunity for another new run for me as the section ends at the Chateau Queyras section, where the river channels into a very very narrow gorge. Blasting down the section, it only lasted 2 minutes or so in total but was exhilarating.

It would take me far too long to give an account of all the rivers we paddled but a something must be said of the Middle Guil. This 4/5 run was certainly one of the kayaking highlights of the trip, and one of the hardest rivers I’ve paddled. The first time I ran it, we put on just below triple step at 4pm having already paddled the upper section that morning with the canoe club. I was pretty nervous, and justly so. The level, I was told, was a solid high (‘extremely high’ in Max’s opinion so he opted to be photographer). We were a good sized group of maybe 10 paddlers which was nice for safety but made me rather uncomfortable as we were quite close together. There were several more experienced paddlers in our group including Joe, Dom and Callum, and I followed one of these three boys as often as I could. I kept my head dry, portaging the Staircase rapid and jumping back on after to enjoy the big wave train wash-out.

Bottom of staircase rapid

Bottom of staircase rapid with Erik

Bottom of staircase (middle guil)

Bottom of staircase (Middle Guil)

Nerves and fatigue became too much though and at the tunnel rapid I walked off. I was disappointed with myself for not completing the last third of the river but knew it was the safe decision. Later on in the trip, I tackled the Middle Guil again, this time with the water a couple of feet lower, and successfully completed the entire section including triple step, staircase, the tunnel rapid and the final rapids!

Triple Step 1

Triple Step 1 – (after the first step)

Triple Step 2

Triple Step 2 – (flying over the second)

Triple Step 3

Triple Step 3 – (I’m upright I promise)

Triple Step 4

Triple Step 4 – (yes, I made it)

On the 10th of June, with still 2 weeks left until our return ferry to Britain, I joined the Canoe Club on a trip to the Upper Ubaye to help rescue and I was excited to paddle the Ubaye racecourse in the afternoon. However, a ridiculous incident changed the fate of our trip. In messing around on a relatively flat section, I brought my elbow down very hard onto the edge around my cockpit, directly onto the Ulnar nerve (the funny bone). Usually bashing the funny bone just causes mild discomfort for a little while but I’d really given it a whack. I paddled the rest of the section, keeping my hand in the cold water, but when I got off I realised it was a little more serious than I had first thought as the pain was severe with very strong “pin and needles”. This abruptly ended my paddling for the next few days. Max and I then decided to take to the mountains, making the most of everything else that the French Alps have to offer. We hiked to Glacier Blanc and had Marmot encounter, and to lac d’Ascension (a very long hike with sun, rain and hail along the way).

Max on the hike to Glacier Blanc

Max on the hike to Glacier Blanc

Us with the Glacier

Us with the Glacier

Marmot licking!

Marmot licking!

Dan headed back to America so Max and I decided that, to give my hand some more time to recover, we would drive from the French Alps down to the Cote d’Azur! We spent an evening in Monaco checking out all the expensive yachts and then drove further east along the coast past Nice in search of our perfect beach. Our chosen beach was at Anthéor, near Agay, and we almost had it to ourselves – bliss. After 3 nights we drove back to l’Argentiere.

My yacht collection

My yacht collection

Monaco by night

Monaco by night

Me and my new wheels

Me and my new wheels

Monaco

Monaco by Dusk

Swimming in the med

Swimming in the Med

Back in the Alps we paddled our favourite sections a couple more time (though my hand took a month to recover), and enjoyed our last evenings with good food and good company in France. With our souvenirs purchased in the beautiful old town of Briancon, we packed up for the last time and started our long drive back to Edinburgh, 34 days after we left. Now the count down has begun for next summers kayaking road trip!

Sacha

*Thanks to Dan, Amy and Max for photographs.

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A snippet from Uganda…

One of the brilliant assests to Edinburgh University Canoe Club is the vast range in abilities of the members. Coming to the sport of kayaking as a complete beginner without even the skill to paddle forwards on flat water, I benefited hugely from the wealth of knowledge of more experienced members of the group. Pushed and encouraged to try things even if that resulted in a swim (exiting my boat after an unintentional capsize – which was often the case at the beginning!). I joined the Club summer trip to the French Alps at the end of my first year which helped me improve greatly but left me with a thirst for more.

In Summer 2013, I followed in the footsteps of many and voyaged to the White Nile in Uganda for a new adventure.

Arriving in Kampala at 3am with boats and luggage

Arriving in Kampala at 3am with boats and luggage

The first week we had coaching from Sam Ward with his company, Love It Live It. It was absolutely incredible! The rapids are big and bouncy and I tried out surfing for the first time. At first, Superhole seemed very daunting but by the end of 6 weeks there, I managed a few surfs on the infamous Nile Special even got the hang of some flat-spins. I’m very eager to go back to the White Nile to improve on my playboating and master using the rope to get on the wave.

Surfing on Superhole

Surfing on Superhole (photo: Max Nolte)

Sam leading the group (photo: Sim Davis)

Sam leading the group (photo: Sim Davis)

Sam showing us how it's done (photo: Sim Davis)

Sam showing us how it’s done (photo: Sim Davis)

My first attempt on Nile Special (photo: Sim Davis)

My first attempt on Nile Special (photo: Sim Davis)

Playing King of the Wave on Superhole (photo: Max Nolte)

Playing King of the Wave on Superhole (photo: Max Nolte)

Finally getting a decent surf on Nile Special (photo: Adam Herring)

Finally getting a decent surf on Nile Special (photo: Adam Herring)

I could go on forever about the kayaking that summer but I shant. If anyone has any questions about it, particularly if planning a trip out there then please get in touch.

Uganda is an amazing country. We spent most of our time chilling out at the Nile River Explorer campsite and spent ten days living with a local woman who provided us with a nice room, chapati breakfast and simple dinner for the reasonable price of 10,000 Ugandan shillings a night (that’s about £2.50). We often took group trips into the town of Jinja, visiting the market or eating out at our favourite restaurants. I’d recommend staying for a good length of time so that you can really experience the area. 6 weeks went by so quickly and I cannot wait to return for longer.

To make the most of our time, Max and I decided to go on a safari in the Murchison National Park. A 7 hour drive from Jinja along a mixture of dirt and tarmac roads, the journey is long but well worth it. We were fortunate enough to spot elephants, giraffes, warthogs, buffalo, hippos, crocodiles, and even a lion (the ears anyway!), as well as many other monkeys and birds.

Lonely old elephant

Lonely old elephant

 

Max's favourtie spot - the warthog

Max’s favourtie spot – the warthog

A young elephant exploring

A young elephant exploring

Snoozing Rhino

Snoozing Rhino

Max and Myself with the Giraffes

Max and Myself with the Giraffes

The most expensive part of the trip was the flights out there. Living in Uganda is easy and affordable and can be tailored to any budget. As students, going on safari was spashing out a little but was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. I would recommend a visit to the Heart of Africa to anybody, keen paddler or otherwise. It was a wonderfully trip and I can’t wait to return.

Sacha

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USA Roadtrip

In the academic year 2012-13 Max did a year abroad as part of his University degree and went to the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. It was a great opportunity for him and he had a great trip, although the distance was hard at times. I kept myself busy with uni work and kayaking here in Scotland until the 27th of December, just after Christmas with my family, when I flew out to San Diego to meet Max. My first long-hall flight was a rather intimidating experience but knowing I would be met at the other side was reassuring. There was an 8 hour time difference so the jet lag was pretty bad initially but I recall vividly my surprise at the heat at 9pm in the middle of winter when walking out of the airport!

Max had with him two friends, Chris and Mathias, who had journeyed with Max from Seattle on their own road trip to Las Vegas, Yosemite and Mexico, arriving in San Diego in time to pick me up.

Max, Mathias and Chris at the beach

Max, Mathias and Chris at the beach

We didn’t stay long in San Diego and the next morning headed north along the coast of California to Long Beach in Los Angeles. We ventured into Hollywood to do the tourist site-seeing.

The Hollywood sign

The Hollywood sign

View of down town LA

View of down town LA

 

 

 

 

 

It was great to wonder round but the city itself didn’t hold much appeal to me and I was happy when we moved on to Santa Monica, Malibu and Santa Barbara – beaches!

A beach near Malibu

A beach near Malibu

Santa Barbara Pier

Santa Barbara Pier

 

 

 

Silly Faces at Santa Barbara Pier

Silly Faces at Santa Barbara Pier

Oh and it was Christmas time!

Oh and it was Christmas time!

Big Sur was the next destination. As we were students, we mostly slept in the car (Peter – a 1998 Ford Windstar) that Max had purchased earlier in the year. Occasionally we forked out on the cheapest motel room we could find (within sanitary reason), but on this particular night I slept in the passenger seat, Mathias and Chris slept on the back seats and Max slept outside on a roll mat. And it was freezing cold! Okay, well 3 degrees anyway, and that didn’t make for a pleasant night. In fact, Max had the best sleep of all simply because his sleeping bag was so good. However, the views the following morning definitely made the unpleasant night worth it.

Snoozing Max

Snoozing Max around 6am

Waterfall into the Sea

Waterfall into the Sea

 

The Pacific

The Pacific

San Francisco was one of my favourite places that we visited! We were there for New Years Eve and New Years Day which was amazing. The weather was wonderfully sunny (it must be very hot in summer time!) and the firework display was a fair rival to those from Edinburgh castle at Hogmanay!

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

Under the Bridge

Under the Bridge

San Francisco Pier

San Francisco Pier

 

Big hills in San Fran? No, just squint houses!

In San Francisco we said goodbye to Mathias and Chris and continued on our way. We stopped at the University of Berkley, visited more Californian beaches and then headed to the Redwood National Park – which has to be one of the most fantastic places on Earth!

Giant Redwoods

Giant Redwoods

Messing around at UC Berkley

Messing around at UC Berkley

Drive-thru tree

Drive-thru tree

The empty road

The empty road

After the Redwoods and Cresent City, we drove through Oregon to Portland to buy some Voodoo donuts (honestly, try them!) and them into Washington and to Max’s place in Seattle. Max had uni classes the following week which gave me some free time to wander around the city, but we also managed to head out to Lake 22 and hike through the snow! We even found the time to go white water kayaking so that I could try out my new drysuit!

Snow!

Snow!

Snowy trees at the top of the hike to Lake 22, WA

Snowy trees at the top of the hike to Lake 22, WA

Kayaking time! Skykomish river, WA (Max Nolte)

Kayaking time! Skykomish river, WA (Max Nolte)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I knew it, it was time to leave Max again and fly back to Edinburgh for the start of the new semester. Though it has taken me a long time to get round to writing this entry, I’ll never forget that trip and look forward to heading back to the Pacific North-West when I finish at University.

Sacha

North California

North California

Max and the Seattle skyline

Max and the Seattle skyline

Ocean Sunset

Ocean Sunset

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