CAP’s whitewater trips are an experience, as if some crazy dream has escaped from the recesses of Mike’s fevered imagination, grabbed a paddle and a pint glass, and run amok in the UK’s rivers and vales. Take a mixed bunch of paddlers–some experienced, some enthusiastic, and some green as the mountains–add in a bunkhouse, a banquet of food and alcohol, throw in a gallon of chaos, and finally add some rivers, ideally ones containing water, and shazam, you have something as full of magic as Harry Potter’s left testicle, or, at a push, Tom’s.
Very much like the best of rivers, the Welsh October trip meandered, twisted and turned in odd ways, making it unclear for all concerned if the weekend was really a paddling trip, a sightseeing tour round the Brecon Beacons, an extended drinking session, or a group suicide in a gnarly, tree-infested gorge.
Meeting Friday midday at the River Ogmore, the day was feted as a pleasant introduction to white water, and for the chocolate box assortment of CAP old timers–Mike, Gary, Allie, Jay, Remy, Ivan, Adrian, Sarah, Will, Rob, and Mark–the day was pleasantly reminiscent of previous trips from years gone past. Of course, to live up to its name, a beginners trip also needs some fresher meat, and joining the ricketty members of the group were Tom, Thomas, Tamsin, Becky, Caroline, Ian, Ruben, and Kris. Finally, there was incomparable Jen, who was in the unique position of not only being an old time member, but also being recently returned back into the fold. Now for reasons of sanity and self preservation it’s not often old members return to the mix, but when they do it’s a sure sign that our paddling endeavours have tickled the river gods in just the right spot.
Breaking into three groups, we set off surprisingly on time. The water was fresh without being cold, the chat excitable, and the flow just enough to practice breaking in, breaking out, and ferry gliding, without being strong enough to drench the group in fear, uncertainty, and doubt. We paddled along at a good pace, taking the river very much in its stride, and aside from a minor upset when a gaggle of bong-smoking locals rained down clods of earth on us, the day served as a perfect entree for the weekend ahead of paddling.
Afterwards we drove to the bunkhouse, and in striking contrast to the rigours of the day’s paddling, we settled in for the evening’s entertainment. As Golem is to Frodo Baggins, as Bruce is to a Kangaroo, and as eddies are to flow, Friday evening was a perfect counterpoint to the day’s healthy river running. It was a chance to get warm and dry by the fire that Remy so lovingly stoked; a chance to gorge ourselves on the sumptuous meal cooked for us by Rob and Gary; and a chance for the elder members of the group to drink themselves merry on a concoction of odd tasting gin, whisky, and a vast collection of beverages that Ivan was under strict instructions to finish. Sometime after the spirits had been finished, the evening descended into the seven pits of hell, dragged down under the fiendish but charming leadership of Tamsin and Becky.
Now describing a game of Super Charades is like like trying to describe JFK’s assassination: it’s nigh on impossible to explain it to anyone who wasn’t there, and, even for those who were there, it’s nigh on impossible to understand what actually happened. A game of Super Charades is like melting your darkest thoughts in a crucible of fear, throwing in a toy sheep for luck, and then using that murky concotion to craft a game of chess-like precision. It was as if the bunkhouse was teetering on the event horizon of a black hole, the game warping the evening in all manner of strange and quite unfathomable ways. In little time the bunkhouse was filled with shouting, cavorting, and an assortment of deranged hi-jinks. At some point the game finished, only to be replaced with the cereal box game, which quickly became a tangle of young things and Rob, all of them doing the splits until finally Rob and Becky were forced to lick the carpet to prove their extreme suppleness. And while nothing was damaged during the games except for the cereal box, Mike was extremely lucky not to put an eye out of joint. The end of the evening was nebulous. Jen demonstrated her martial prowess by decimating the bunkhouse’s furniture, the drinks flowed wildly, polite conversation was dashed against the rocks of profanity, people fell in and out of love, and it was only when the lateness of the night finally struck home that the final revellers traipsed off to fall into their own rotten stupors.
Saturday morning started early, some might say too early. Early enough for some of the group to be spritely, early enough for some to be hungover, and early enough for many to still be drunk. The breakfast crew sauntered around the kitchen prodding at sausages, guzzling coffee, but dreaming of bed. Meanwhile Gary, Rob and Adrian heroically headed off to the River Tywi to clear fallen trees, saws in one hand and their heads clasped firmly in the other.
After breakfast the main group headed off to the river to wait for the advance party. The morning was all set to be uneventful, when the main group chanced upon an entertaining local farmer, who, knowing that paddling can involve a lot of waiting, put on an enthusiastic song and a dance to entertain us. He danced between the cars, ridiculed the universe and chanted about the art of confrontation in times of peace. We laughed and applauded, and while we’d happily have paid him good money, in lieu of payment he asked us to think a little on the human condition, and departed with a wave of his big, farmer’s hand.
Shortly afterwards the main group hooked up with the advance party, and we descended on the river like a haggis in a herb garden. Once again splitting into three groups, we set off, paddles in hand, and our heads full of contemplation. In comparison to Friday, the water was a touch more frisky, the features a touch steeper, and the paddling a touch more frenetic. Slipping past the tree cleared by the advance party, we were quickly surrounded by an ageless landscape barely touched by human hand. With water lapping gently against the hulls of our boats, we paddled along and silently meditated on the joys of being human. Against the hungry pull of the river we were all so small, and thinking back to the dancing farmer, reminded us how small minded we all are. But watching the sunlight shimmying across the river, and being overwhelmed by the vast wonder of nature was a great reminder that the secret to good living is to not let the smallness of our minds constrain our thinking. Small minds can think gigantic thoughts, just as puny bodies can work the flow of even the mighties rivers.
After a solid day’s paddling we headed back to the bunkhouse, and then on to the Glynn Arms for supper. Now as lovely as it always is, dinner at the Glynn Arms is always a touch strange, and when we turned up the inn keeper seemed as surprised to have visitors on a Saturday night as he would have been if Kate Winslet had turned up dressed like a hooker, beer bottle in one hand, jammie dodger in the other, and wearing nothing but a spray deck and a pair of snow shoes. But alas, instead of Kate Winslet, he got us: twenty tired, bedraggled paddlers, excitable, but without a jammie dodger between us. A few drinks later and Ruben was forced to watch another episode of adults behaving badly, perhaps made slighly more tolerable when the food was delivered with the speed of Usain Bolt, and the plates being piled high enough to scrape the ceiling.
After a decidely blurry night, and haunting dreams of George Bush and Thomas’ left tricep, Sunday morning started with a buzz. Rob served up his speciality of bacon, sausage and eggs, and the bunkhouse came alive with a flurry of excited movement. Floors were swept clean, bags were quickly packed, and before you could fritter a pineapple the group was lining up for a group photo and then squeezing back into our cars for a final day on the river Ogmore.
With Remy eschewing his boat and taking on the role of official photographer, the group got on the river a couple of miles up from Friday’s paddle. Taking in a mammoth portage that was as gritty as a pair of Donald Trump’s underpants, and then tackling a number of bigger features, the morning proved the perfect practice ground for nail biting and endless eskimo rescues. The highlight of the day was the ever smiling Tamsin, sitting in her boat, pinned neatly between two rocks in the middle of a noisy feature, while three coaches noisily argued about how best to get the boat back. The afternoon then ran as fast as armadillo on a mountain bike, the group hammering the section from Friday with panache, style, and only the occasional yelp of fear.
The weekend ended as it began, the 20 of us huddled on the bank of the River Ogmore. We chatted nosily, fumbled with our boats and our kit, and pulled weeds and duck poo from our hair. As a group we’d achieved an experiential gravity, and no one wanted to be the first to leave the shared experience behind. But leave we must, and after some farewell hugs, we started trailing off in our various directions, off down the meandering rivers of our everyday lives. Above all else, a CAP weekend is an experience. A chance to meet new people, to meet old friends, to fight and frolic in the water, and help our small minds think of bigger things. While the trip was slightly more Jackson Pollock than it was Dane Jackson, it was a perfect weekend for everyone to push themselves on the river, and to revel in the sacred joys of playing in boats and indulging in white water wetness.