The sun is beating down fiercely, but it does nothing to lessen the freezing-cold water of the Colorado river as it splashes over the sides of the raft. Ahead lies yet another rapid; this one is called Bedrock.
We’re in the Grand Canyon, and my inflatable raft holds a motley band of four companions brought together by the allure of a great river. We’ve been rowing for five hours already today and the blisters are beginning to show on our hands. We’ve conquered numerous cascades, but I’m nervous about this one. The boat veers left. “Go right,” we shout in unison at poor Bobby, who’s haplessly pulling against the powerful current.
It’s no use, we are quickly being drawn by the unstoppable undercurrents towards a rock the size of a bus. We frantically take up the side paddles and thrust them into the swirling waters of the Colorado, but it’s to no avail. The boat is sucked around the left-hand side of the boulder and into an eddy. Bobby is struggling to control the oars, which are now being bashed against the side of the rock.
“Go for the channel!” I yell, pointing towards a narrow opening between the black stones that jut from the water like gigantic shark’s fins. We’ve done it now, I thought. The book said that this side was “un-runnable” and we were about to find out...
To make matters worse, I remembered that my bag wasn’t strapped down. After a week on the river we’d become complacent, and now, as we were getting sucked through a gorge, I felt the boat twisting into a whirlpool. I knew we were about to flip. We were hours from civilisation, or any prospect of rescue.
As I prayed that I could hold my breath long enough to survive being pulled underwater, I vainly attempted to draw my legs to my chest so they wouldn’t smash into the rocks. I looked at Alberto, who was holding on to his camera for dear life as he got hurled into the crashing waves. Suddenly I too was flung headfirst into the water: it was freezing cold.
Thoughts of hypothermia and drowning filled my mind, and of the dozens of explorers who had died trying to navigate the perilous canyon. Even if I did survive this one, I remembered, we weren’t even halfway yet and the biggest rapid — Lava Falls — was yet to come.
Bedrock was meant to be an easy rapid, but the truth was none of us were pro rafters. In fact, most of the group had never held a paddle in their life. I’d done a couple of days on the Nile, but never in rapids like these.
The trip had been in the planning for a long time. Adrian, an old Army friend, was a keen paddler and had repeatedly entered the annual lottery for the one private trip that the US National Park Service allows to set off down the canyon each day, and after six years he had finally won a coveted permit. It allows a maximum of 16 people, and up to 25 days to complete the journey, which gives you time to take in the majestic panorama.
We’d assembled a team of friends. Some old, some new. There were corporate financiers, doctors and photographers. Most had done a bit of adventure travel before, and what drew us together was a sense of curiosity about what lay ahead.
For the next two-and-a-half weeks we’d see few other humans; the canyon may be one of the world’s biggest attractions, but it’s also one of the most remote and inaccessible places in the US and is usually only seen from above. In all, we negotiated nearly 90 major rapids and only flipped once.
However, several of us were hurled into the raging torrents. The river also swallowed a dozen oranges, several pairs of sunglasses and my Amazon Kindle.
As we progressed the canyon grew grander in scale; cutting a deep gorge, as far as a mile deep in parts. It’s a geologist’s dream, with layers of rock dating back almost two billion years and ancient lava fields that are some of the oldest exposed rock on earth.
Bighorn sheep watched as we floated by. Tales of past explorers fill the guidebooks and the occasional inscription reminds modern visitors of the poor souls who drowned trying to raft it before the advent of buoyancy aids. One brass plaque screwed to a cliff face commemorates the first expedition in 1869. Three of its members lost the plot and decided to abandon the journey just a day before the finish by walking out. They were never seen again and were assumed to have been killed by a local tribe.
It was a reminder that, long before the tourists came, this was the land of the Navajo and Hualapai American Indians. Their ancestors left rough buildings carved into the cliff faces, and their forefathers left a wealth of prehistoric stone engravings in the warren of caves and gorges accessible only from the river.
We’d fish for trout off the back of the boats and play Frisbee on the beach. At night there was music and jokes and storytelling. It wasn’t long before everyone reconnected with their inner child.
The days were halcyon and carefree. Watches were abandoned and all notion of time forgotten. The internet became a distant memory as the canyon closed in and signal disappeared. It was a digital detox to the extreme. For 17 days we went so full cold turkey that we had no idea what was going on in the world; Trump could have pressed the big red button on North Korea and we would have been none the wiser.
Life became simple. We woke at dawn to clear blue skies and the smell of fresh coffee — whoever was on cooking duty would get up half an hour early and prepare breakfast while the rest of us enjoyed the cool morning breeze. And we slept at dusk on inflatable mattresses under a firmament of stars.
We watched as the moon became fuller over the course of the month until it was so bright we could see the bats dance across the waves.
It wasn’t all play though. Our hands and feet were soon cracked from the constant exposure to water and the dry desert air. Our lips were chapped, our nails broken, and the team doctor was widely employed picking cactus spines out of toes.
After the raft had flipped at Bedrock Falls, we’d remained vigilant every time we encountered a rapid bigger than a 4/10 (listed according to the American grading system). We’d don our helmets and fasten our life jackets, but even the rafting guides were nervous as we approached the infamous Lava Falls, which is a terrifying 9/10. We stopped short of the cascades and looked down from a nearby cliff at the crashing roar of white water. The two Toms pointed out lines to take and “laterals” to avoid.
I was steering this time and Bobby patted me on the shoulder. “Try not to flip it,” he laughed. Nervously, we let the waters pull us towards the boiling foam, and one by one the four rafts entered the fray. There was no going back now. Hearts pounding, our team paddled into the frothing turbulence. The raft rocked and creaked and smashed through waves the size of a car; at one point the boat was almost vertical, its nose pointing towards the heavens as we held on.
Twenty seconds of sheer terror and exhilaration as the water crashed in on us from all sides, and then, as soon as it had begun, it was all over. There were whoops of joy and relieved high fives. We were soaked — but we’d survived.
There were still a couple more days to go, but after Lava nothing could defeat us. We were a team, united by a river, and the sense of accomplishment of achieving a great journey. The final night we lashed our rafts together and floated 64km down the serene waters towards Pearce Ferry, the end of the Grand Canyon. We’d planned to sleep on the bobbing rafts, but most of us stayed awake all night, enjoying the majesty of the night sky.
As dawn broke and we saw the first roads in almost three weeks, we all agreed that even the prospect of a hotel room in Las Vegas couldn’t compare to the euphoria of those glorious days.