Disaster strikes on the rising rapids of the Yangtse River

Maghnus Collins

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Maghnus Collins

Limerick’s Maghnus Collins and Coleraine’s David Burns are in the midst of a 16,000km journey in aid of Self Help Africa - a three stage unsupported adventure taking them from Istanbul to Shanghai, by bicycle, on foot and by raft.

Limerick’s Maghnus Collins and Coleraine’s David Burns are in the midst of a 16,000km journey in aid of Self Help Africa - a three stage unsupported adventure taking them from Istanbul to Shanghai, by bicycle, on foot and by raft.

The latter is a descent down the longest river in Asia, the Yangtse, flowing for 6,000km. In an exclusive extract, Maghnus describes his recent brush with disaster during the rafting expedition.

For four weeks we had come within a stone’s throw of a bear, encountered numerous wolves, I had been thrown out of my raft twice and on three occasions I had found myself clutching a cliff-face knowing that a misstep would almost certainly be crippling if not fatal.

Unlike any previous expedition for past four weeks we had truly been on our own. The height and inaccessibility of the first 1000km of the river precludes any significant human settlement. We would be out of contact with the outside world, completely dependent on our ourselves. Excitement suppressed all but a smattering of anxiety.

We had a pack containing all our equipment and three weeks supply of food for the beginning of the river. I weighed approximately 70kg and my pack weighed the same.

We had we found ourselves one difficult continuous rapid from finishing the first stretch. Conscious of how close we were to success we scouted this final rapid carefully. Identifying two difficult sections in particular we made our way back to the rafts confident that we could get through it.

Burnsy passed through the first section dropping into a stopper but forcing his way through. Following a similar line I slipped through the same gap. A mixture of relief and adrenalin flooded through me as the main flow carried my raft through the remaining whitewater.

My concentration lapsed as I turned to move out of the main flow to the calm waters near the bank. Turning too abruptly the front of my raft caught the static water; the raft flipped in an instant and I was swimming. The water at this height is so cold that even in a dry suit it forces all air from your lungs. Struggling to swim out of the rapid with the rope attached to the raft in my mouth I swallowed water and the resulting cough saw the raft continue down river as I reached for a boulder and pulled myself from the water.

For the next three days we chased the raft. Burnsy on the river and me on the shore. Darkness fell soon-after my swim giving the raft a 10 hour start on us. It was a gap we would never bridge and a massive weir just before Yushu probably put paid to the raft, equipment and all.

For three days we chased. Finally, shivering and spent, it sank in; the raft and everything on it was gone.

Although dejected this realisation ended a period of constant hope and repeated deflation. Accepting that if we were continue it would only be by starting anew meant facing some harsh realities but at least I would not be throwing myself into a river merely hopeful of making it to the other side.

At times during previous expeditions and in the early stages of this one I have often killed some time during difficult periods trying to recite the words of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, as I cycled or ran:

If you can bear to see the work you gave your life to broken, And stoop and build it up again with worn out tools

If those words meant anything to me then here was an opportunity to give meaning to them personally. I write now stooping to see if we can put this expedition back together.

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