Lost in Sumatra. A typical Whitewater Kayak Expedition [Video]

by seth-ashworth
Thursday, April 09, 2020
Thursday, April 09, 2020
I had heard of Indonesia before, I knew it was some islands in Asia. I knew there was some fun kayaking to be had there. But that is it, I would have struggled to point it out on a map, I could not tell you anything about the culture, the language, nada, zip, zilch.
Seth Ashworth
by Seth Ashworth

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So when my friend and fellow kayaker David Silk suggested some first descents there combined with a trip to the Asahan river festival first I was like heck yes. He said it was in Northern Sumatra, and ignorantly I said, Is that close to Indonesia? Little did I know is that Indonesia is a chain of islands and Sumatra is one of the bigger ones. Indonesia’s Island chain is just north of Australia and took a really long time to get to from Canada. After almost 70 hours of travel I met David on day one of the Asahan river festival. We got our bearings on Sumatra, paddled with a lot of fun people and got ready to go do some exploring.

Sumatra’s varied geography goes from flat rice paddies to big jungle mountains give it plenty of potential for epic kayaking. Once the festival wound up, David, myself and fellow Ottawa River local Ben Sandeman mounted up and started out on our first descent mission. David had picked out a bunch of rivers and waterfalls he thought would be interesting for us to check out all of which were clustered around the west side of Lake Toba, which is the largest volcanic lake in the world.

Getting around in Sumatra turned out to be more challenging than we expected and we had to take some taxi’s and some ferries, followed by some hitchhiking before we got to the tiny town of Bakara, where we would be based out of. We rented a small rental cabin where we would base out of for about ten days, and then headed out to check out some nearby waterfalls.

After our first night in Bakara, we headed out to check the first set of waterfalls David had found on Google Earth. After a promising drone scout, David and Ben trekked up the riverbed to the base of the main canyon. Though the drops looked incredible, they found a shallow landing on the final drop, with no way to get out above it after running the drops above.

A first stroke of bad luck.

Checking out the first waterfall was also the start of where things going wrong in terms of health. Sickness including but not limited to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, a hacking cough, weird rash pretty much ran through Ben and I like it was its job. In between taking turns being sick, Ben and I managed to accompany David to check out a bunch of spots but things were tough, with only a few small and easy sections of whiteater. We never wanted to be too far from a bathroom. Our sickness ebbed and flowed and there were better days and worse days. Worse days we were just holed up at the cabin.

But one of the better days, and after a night of rain, all of us were able to head to the next drainage over, on the hopes that the Simamora river would provide us with some much needed classic creeking. After a lot of getting turned around and lost, and miscommunication with our driver, we arrived at the hike in. We hopped out of the truck, and started walking up the irrigation ditches that were fed by the river itself, followed by a curious group of school kids who wanted to figure out what the people in lifejackets, skirts, and helmets were planning on doing. Arriving at the first rapid, it seemed like there was indeed enough water, but the rapid itself was a bad combination of siphons and bad lines. After a drone scout revealed what looked like cleaner rapids downstream, as well as some waterfalls that were currently too high to run upstream, David and I decided to put on. David was the only one to run that first rapid, resulting in an unpleasant looking line that didn’t exactly inspire confidence. After that, however, things cleaned up. Long sets of clean boofs and fun boulder garden moves had both David and I smiling and pumped on the section. Once we took off, Ben and David went for a second run, although this time both skipping the first rapid. Finally, the trip was paying off. A few days later, most without any rain, David was able to pull me from my sickness to go back for the waterfalls above the section of the Simamora we’d run. The waterfalls were much steeper than we were expecting and although we could see an impressive set on the drone footage, without a bunch more climbing gear we wouldn’t be able to check all of them out.

Energy was additionally pretty low on my part after so much sickness, so possibilities of me firing up stouts or getting creative with safety was low. However, after scouting the last few drops, David was fired up on the last of the set, a multi-tiered sliding drop finishing close to some gnar looking rocks. After awhile scouting and debating how bad getting slammed into a rock wall at the bottom would be, he geared up, putting down a first run that, though not pretty, resulted in a clean finish. Not happy with that though, as glory doesn’t come from dirty lines, he walked back up to clean up his run of the set, ending the majority of the Sumatran trip on a good note. Overall (except for the sickness) our time in Sumatra was awesome. The people were overwhelmingly friendly, and helped us with transport and logistics a ton. The town of Bakara hadn’t seen much tourism and we were quite a spectacle with people frequently stopping their cars to come chat with us (and take selfies). Delicious food is abundant, fresh fruits (although admittedly challenging to find grocery stores near us), was of the top quality, and we’d truly never felt more welcomed at a place before. Though logistically difficult, now that we know more about the place, I think we’re all just awaiting a return to see more of what Indonesia has to offer.