CAIRNS, Australia — Standing at the side of a road, beside a fast-flowing river near Tully, in far north Queensland, I'm feeling a bit sheepish.
Around me are about 90 eager youngsters, the oldest of whom is probably half my age. Some are Australians and some are overseas visitors from Hong Kong, Japan, Europe and the United States. All are busily fitting rafting gear over their swimsuits, and are oblivious to the comic-opera appearance of the scene.
A few moments later, the group leader lets out a rallying cry and immediately I, too, have forgotten our strange appearance.
White-water rafting, popular for years in Canada and the United States, has suddenly become an exciting, increasingly popular pastime in Australia. The Raging Thunder company of Cairns is one of the leaders in this field, and is running white-water trips in the far north of Queensland between Cairns and Townsville, as well as in New Guinea.
While staying at Dunk Island, a lovely resort on the Whitsunday Passage opposite Mission Beach, a friend and I picked up a pamphlet on white-water rafting.
Disregarding our advancing ages, we booked on--and now, with adrenaline setting our blood pounding, we're listening carefully to our group's guide.
"We'll be going through 12 to 14 kilometers of river containing some pretty hairy rapids," he says, "and it will be critical that you memorize my commands. We'll have a practice run-through of these when we get onto the river."
While he is explaining this to his would-be crew (my party of two geriatrics, five young men who all seem to be built like Sylvester Stallone, and one strapping girl), the large rubber rafts, each costing almost $4,000 in U.S. funds, are being sent down the steep canyon wall on flying-fox wires.
Our group climbs awkwardly down the sharply angled river bank. Soon all the rafts are launched, we climb in, and the instructions begin in earnest.
"When I say row," says our guide, a fighting-fit young man from Innisfail, "you all row as hard as you can. The order 'back-left' means that those on the left side will back-paddle and those on the right will keep rowing."
Other commands and instructions follow, and he makes it clear that these have to be taken seriously. We are to squat, rather than sit, in the bottom of the boat when we hit the fast, boiling rapids. The barely submerged boulders over which our raft will be sliding can otherwise damage our spines. Paddles are to be kept outside the boat at all times so there's no risk of hurting the rowers.
Direction control will be maintained by a combined effort between our guide-controller, who is using a slightly bigger oar as a rudder at the stern, and the side instructed to row.
We set off in deceptively calm water, a string of eight boats following each other down the canyon of Tully River.
Noisy Disappearing Act
By this time it is 10 a.m. and a glorious, sunny day. The banks of the river have that untamed, rugged beauty typical of north Queensland. But before I can really concentrate on it, I notice a strange phenomenon. The noise level of the river gradually increases as we row downstream, and suddenly the eight boats in front of us change into seven, then six, then five and so on at regular intervals.
They don't just disappear. First, the body of the raft does, and for a moment you can only see the top torsos of the rowers above the waterline. Then another change in perspective and all you see is their heads and paddles.
Seconds later, these, too, are gone and the body of the next raft is disappearing. It's as if the whole string of our boats is heading down a giant escalator, but we have not yet seen any rapids from our position toward the end of the string.
With the noise level increasing noticeably, the smooth water we are in now is accelerating rapidly.
Suddenly a boiling, roaring, spray-laden vortex of rocks and angry-looking white water looms ahead. Now we know why those other boats seemed to disappear just a moment ago. There they are ahead of us, miraculously missing giant boulders, tossing like leaves down a huge, watery stairway.
We are most grateful to have an experienced boat guide in control. He barks out the commands that we have learned to obey only a few short minutes ago, and we are responding with an efficiency bred of fear. Miraculously, he seems to know exactly within which rocks to guide our boat, and where the best passage for our raft will be in that boiling caldron.
One by one our boats reach the bottom of this group of cascades. Suddenly the water seems to lose its anger as we reach a flat, tranquil stretch. This is an opportunity to look around and see the magnificent Queensland rain forest that surrounds the river.
Blue and black butterflies, for which this area is famous, flutter around the river banks. North Queensland has some of the most strikingly beautiful scenery of this type in the world, and even the most blase viewer must find it quite sensational.