Apr 21 2010

A year of Stand Up (Paddling)

Having spent much of 2009 firmly planted on my buttocks I’m quite excited about this year’s upcoming adventures. Commercially, Stand Up Paddling is a growing sport boasting more potential than most, but beyond the obvious benefits of an activity that develops balance, core fitness and a general enjoyment of your watery surroundings, I’m rather interested in exploring the touring ability of Stand Up Boards.

You might have seen very un-Dave like images of me paddling along on a stand up board last year, dressed in a suit. Yes yes, shameless publicity-seeking, but with an aim! I’ve fallen in love with SUP, it’s such a super way to get around and if you’re a bit weedy like me you’ll appreciate anything that can make your shoulders bulge. I’d like to try and spread the word about Stand Up Paddling, and also plan on setting up a SUP in London, too. Last week my brother and I took some inflatable Red Air boards out on Regents Canal near Camden, see below:

Next year I plan on paddling quite far on a Stand Up board, but before that a couple of warm-ups are in order. Next week, assuming the European skies are ash-free, I’ll be joining my good friend Sebastian Terry in a 75km paddle across the deliciously scenic Lake Geneva. It’s just a little jaunt, but perfect to test out the kit-carrying ability of a Stand Up board as well as spending time - and making a documentary - with a man who is able to break 24 eggs with his big toes in thirty seconds. Seb and I will be raising money for the AV Foundation and Camp Quality, so any pennies would be very welcome and can be donated right here.

Then, in early June, I’ll be joined by the ever-salty Sarah Outen, who last year became the first lady to row across the Indian Ocean. We’ll hop on some Stand Up Boards and paddle over 150 miles between Bath and London, taking in the length of the Kennet & Avon Canal, a good deal of the Thames and also climbing over 100 obstacles - or ‘portages’, as they’re know in paddling terms - like locks and weirs.  Sarah and I are inviting members of the public to join us for a stretch between the 2nd and 8th June, and also to raise funds for the AV Foundation and CoppaFeel.

So, please tune into our lovely brand spanking new website @ www.thegreatbigpaddle.com and follow this year’s adventures, if you like. I’ll be reporting back in a week or so with news of the first ever Stand Up Paddling journey across Lake Geneva, I can’t wait!

Oct 11 2009

Out of the Woods

‘Up the Creek’ may well be a fitting title to the documentary about this expedition. I write this with icy fingers, aching back, blistered feet and not a small dose of humility. Let’s start with the positives, I found the Source of the Murray! And that’s no mean feat, I’ll have you know, with weeks of heavy rain and some timely snow prompting the original Source (the one marked with a less than exciting ‘if-it’s-not-on-the-highway-then-who-cares’ metal pole by surveyors) further uphill. There’s actually no way of exacting the Source in conditions like these, but I managed to find two creeks seeping through undergrowth and finally merging, so I chose the first spot that had about a foot of width and flow to it and there, that was my Murray Source. Filming a documentary about this expedition, and having trekked over 40km through mountains to find the trickle, I deemed it necessary to do some filming. This was limited, however, by some really inconsiderate snow, and rain, and more snow. It all served to put me off somewhat, and embarrassingly, being the only person around for at least 100km, there I was, walking in into shot, straddling a barely visible pool of rippling water, and then doing my David Attenborough impression. About twenty times.

The Source of the Murray

The Source of the Murray

So, the Source has been claimed! Up until then a pair of innate phobias had claimed my positive mental attitude. I hate walking, and I don’t like backtracking. Thus, even with a goal in sight as romantic as the Source of a mighty river, here I was hiking through mountains with a bag heavier than a car, and weighing even more so was the thought that as soon as I found the Source I’d have to walk back again. Quite miserable I was. Then it started to snow, so of course I was further polarised with a beanie hat full of cold, cussing ears, and a pair of eyes witnessing an ever-whitening wonderland.

It may have been pretty, but weather conditions that swing from sun to rain to snow blizzard in the space of half an hour serve to remind one that being alone in the mountains is not wise. I don’t recommend it at all, whoever you think you are, just look at the figures of people who have gone for a hike and never come back. No sense of adventure, no supposition of experience nor any given reason gives a pass for this kind of thing. Nobody cares how brave you were, how lucky, how prepared, what sights you saw. If your life is taken nobody cares, you just become stupid and irresponsible, and lost. As soon as the snow began to fall I began to tread more carefully, take more notice, appreciate the little things. It wasn’t quite touch and go, but the signs for a survival struggle were on, downhill comes very fast when you’re exposed to the elements so I wrapped up tight, kept the brolly up as an extra defence, and stayed warm as I trotted. This wasn’t some ramblers paradise, the last person to stay at the closest hut (Tin Mine) left on the 23rd September, so if I were to fall, break an ankle, wait for a passer-by. Well, they’d find a very still me.

Tin Mine Huts on Wednesday 7th October

Tin Mine Huts on Wednesday 7th October

When I set out from Dead Horse Gap, a low mountain pass not far from the Thredbo ski resort in the Australian Alps, the ground was dry. Rumours of snowfall were confirmed only by small patches of ice, which disappeared further up the path. Two days later, once I’d reached the Murray Source and then trekked back 16km to Tin Mine Huts, the snow was half a foot deep. A night of shivers awaited, staved off only by a roaring fire that could do little about the draft infiltrating the main hut.

The next morning was White Out. The snow had continued to fall overnight, and was still coming down. I went outside, and I sunk to my shins. Aching from the previous day’s 32km, I decided it was wise to stay put. The dark clouds were low, mist hung in the valley, if something happened to me here, beside a wide plain perfect for a helicopter landing, still no one would come. If I lost myself somewhere between here and Cascades Hut in the middle of the Wilderness, I’d be dead. I stayed. I slept. I remained in my sleeping bag for much of the day, slipping in and out of dreams.

Another night went by and the strength was back. The snow was still falling but the depth seemed to have changed little overnight, if I waited this could continue for days, weeks. I packed, and left. It was a slog. 15.8km took me nine hours, my boots saw nothing, they were submerged but for rare occasions. What beautiful mountains, and I wasn’t alone. Brumbies, these wild horses of the hills, dark and healthy with gleaming coats and a majestic command of the forests and plains, now and then I’d lift my head to see a horse stood there, staring back, all seventeen hands of it rippling with muscle. For a bloke who lives in the English countryside horses are not unnatural, but they’re kept. To see them out here living off the land, rulers of their own kind, it is energising. To some in Australia they’re pests, cutting up the ground with their wanton hooves, but I could have stared for hours, they’re magnetic, yet I still couldn’t quite grasp why I was now fascinated by these creatures, after all, a Brumby is just a horse without a postcode.

My day was finally done. Cascades Hut on Monday morning was dry, warm, surrounded by green and brown. Now it was white. Only 9.4km to go, but for now I would rest, tonight would be my last in the hills.

Cascades Hut on Monday 5th October, with Gemma and Carlee Dodds

Cascades Hut on Monday 5th October, with Gemma and Carlee Dodds

Cascades on Thursday 8th October

Cascades on Thursday 8th October

The Kosciusko Huts Association do an excellent job of maintaining a series of shelters throughout the region. They’re not intended for sleepovers, there’s no electricity or carpet for example, but when you need shelter nothing beats an earth floor, walls and a roof. For safety’s sake the fireplaces (always well stocked with wood and naturally supplemented by anyone who uses it) are wide, but this invites in the draft. Even Cascades Hut, 9ft by 13ft, was too large to feel the effects of the fire throughout, and small spaces around the wall planks and door were merciless against the blizzard which howled up outside. My night, as the previous three, was not straight-through. Constantly waking, shivering, slowly slipping in and out of delirium

As Shackleton had, I was dangerously close to hypothermia and fatigue was setting in to create the company of ‘The Fourth Person’, a presence commonly known when explorers/adventurers/anyone experiencing an element of hardship experiences the company of another who isn’t actually there. Like a lucid dream, The Fourth Person tends to be a guide through a particular, usually tricky experience. I had a few of my own Fourth Person moments this week, old friends, my girlfriend, brother, walking around in the hut offering my food, advice. At one point my Fourth Person was a horse who had kindly brought me not one, but two kayaks. How grateful I was to my equine friend, and how disappointed when the next morning I woke to find a kayak-less hut. That a horse had delivered them didn’t even cross my mind.

The 9km from Cascades Hut to Dead Horse Gap (freedom!) begins with a 4km steep haul to the track ‘summit’, Bob’s Ridge. The path was gone, the snow was knee-high much of the way, and with my pack back to full weight I was a shell of a man. Recent storms had scattered trees across the path, some at precarious angles and now, covered in snow, I was taking part in my very own endurance Krypton Factor to even move a few metres. It took four and a half hours to reach Bob’s Ridge and as I saw the sign my heart leapt. Ironically, with each step closer I sunk deeper in, until I was just stood there up to my waist, wondering just what the hell I was doing. Just four and half kilometres to go now, I zoned, and trudged.

A single pair of ski tracks hinted at the presence of someone else perhaps a day earlier, and they kept me on track with no other signs of the track remaining. The mind playing tricks, I kept seeing footprints, enormous foot-shaped holes 20 inches long. ‘Must be snowshoes’ I told myself, although there were no tracks in the opposite direction. Once the woods had opened up to a wide plain in the bed of the valley the snow became deeper and despite the lack of shelter I kept stopping and looking around, searching for a glimpse of the obviously giant monkey-like creature that had created the tracks. I needed to get to the car park, and did so at 3pm, some 8 hours after I’d left Cascades. Utter relief, and it didn’t take long for a car to pick me up and drop me in Thredbo. The best warm shower of my life.

Pictures and Expedition Details @ http://www.thegreatbigpaddle.com
Please donate @ http://www.justgiving.com/greatbigpaddle

Jul 22 2009

The Murray: Who wants to come?

It’s been a little while since I last posted, but that’s not to say a vacuum has taken hold. Planning for the Murray paddle is well underway, we’ve got a great kayak sponsor (can’t reveal this yet, couple of things to sort out) and several other brilliant companies have come on board, like Clic, who make brilliant sunglasses that connect above the bridge of the nose with magnets, and Extreme State clothing.

Also incredibly exciting is our partnership with the Blue Project. Blue’s aims are to promote and share a passion for the environment and a commitment to healthy living. On Friday 24th July I’m heading down to Plymouth for the launch of Blue’s latest initiative, The Blue Mile. A Blue Mile is a mile travelled on water, whether swimming, paddling, sailing, surfing, you name it. Now, on it’s own, a Blue Mile doesn’t mean much, but let’s imagine that during my Murray River kayak paddle (1500 Blue Miles) I’m joined along the way by 500 people in kayaks and on stand-up boards. If each of these 500 travel just 5 miles with me then already we have another 2500 Blue Miles added to the total, and on it goes… It’s a great scheme with the potential to provide a very tangible appreciation of how much participation we’ve encouraged, and it’s also a super tool we can use to raise money for our chosen charity, the AV Foundation. If you want to join me on the River Murray, or during the Stand-Up paddle journey next year, visit www.thegreatbigpaddle.com for more info.

An exciting email appeared in my inbox today, from Michael Haber. He’s based in New South Wales, Australia, and has developed an amazing product called a Solaray (below). It’s a kayak, powered by the sun, so you can enjoy the tranquility of water travel in peace and quiet, without exerting yourself. The Great Big Paddle has been offered a Solaray kayak for the duration of the Murray River paddle , which means great new perspectives for the documentary, as well as the obvious promotion of our environmental message. With this new factor in the mix, I’m now searching for the right people to be involved in the Murray journey. If you’re interested, get in touch on dave@davecornthwaite.co.uk

The Solaray support boat we've been offered for the Murray journey

The Solaray support boat we've been offered for the Murray journey

The Solaray support boat we’ve been offered for the Murray journey

Mar 8 2009

The Big Blue

You have to keep your wits about you when paddling in open water. Forty metres off the beach the water turns from inviting turquoise to a dark, eerie black. There’s a clear dividing line between The Shallow and The Deep, and there’s an unwritten rule: don’t cross the line. Two months ago, some four hundred metres along the coast from where the walkway joins the beach, a diver was taken. His son was with him, swimming ahead and scanning the bed for crabs, and when he turned around a dark shape shot up from the narrow channel that carves through the bay, and then his Dad was gone. It was the first shark attack in the bay for decades and the presence of a Great White in these usually friendly waters was reported around the world. Daily visitors swum closer to shore after that, if at all.

You can research shark attacks all you like but it doesn’t change anything. Theory suggests sharks attack out of surprise or curiosity, and they usually take a cursory nibble before swimming away, but that’s no consolation when you’re the unlikely blighter that the mouth-with-tail has chosen for lunch. There were no remains found after the attack on the diver, not even his flippers escaped, that’s almost unheard of. Nothing about a shark attack is relative or certain, you venture out into the ocean knowing what is there, you take your chances, you take a risk.

More surfers are attacked than kayakers. Perhaps kayakers look less like turtles, or seals. Perhaps surfers and their boards are simply smaller targets. I’m paddling a 16 foot kayak in the shallows, but I still get a chill when there’s movement below or my boat veers close to The Dark. People can wonder all they like about why a shark attacks, but something is becoming increasingly clear; restrictions on fishing now means there are more fish closer to the Australian coastline, which suggests there might be more sharks coming in to feed on them.

Shags or cormorants bob and dive, the splash gaining my attention and hastening my pulse until the long feathery neck pops up, now and then a flapping fish in the slender well-formed beak rounds off the cameo. Silver glinting shoals of tiny little fish scare easily and sprinkle the surface with mini-leaps, it’s like a small raincloud is hovering just ahead of me, letting go of its cargo now and then. Without GPS I’m finding it hard to judge my speed. I’m gliding just inside The Dark in about ten to fifteen foot of clear blue water and although I can clearly see the sandy bed it is clean and clear so nothing to mark myself by. I’m probably moving at between 4 and 5 miles per hour, slicking along in a borrowed sit-on-top, finally getting some colour to my pale, English legs and arms. My mind plays tricks on me, showing bulging biceps and defined muscle lines. I know I’m fooling myself, for now at least, but for a boy with eternally thin arms and a thirst for an open water paddle I am existing in a dream world of sorts; kayaking in the Indian Ocean, getting fit, and red, and redder…

I’ve been in Australia for two weeks. Em’s brother, Ben, is kayaking alongside. We’ve got the same complexion, similar white eyebrows glowing atop ruddy skin, but there the similarities end. Ben talks in a strong Aussie drawl, spotting wildlife and talking about his job as a pilot. And then about thirty metres to our left there’s a splash, and a fin, and my toes curl and eyes squint and fingers grip the paddle as every inch of me waits for another sign. The fin comes up again, no closer than before, but it’s arcing out of the water, not driving through straight and rising, like Jaws would have you believe. It’s a dolphin. No, it’s two of them.

They keep their distance first of all, mother and child, in and out of the water. My relief has turned to joy and amazement, I’ve seen dolphins in the wild before but never this close. There’s a sense of safety now, with dolphins around. They’re beautiful things, so healthy, so zen! Ben and I push through the water, ten to fifteen metres clear of the pair, and then all of a sudden there’s another one coming in from the other side, swooping under Ben’s boat, flipping over to reveal a flash of white and then spinning playfully at Ben’s bow, under and under, and then away to the mother and child. They stayed with us for 8 or 9 km before the morning winds picked up and chopped the surface, utterly delightful, and a very pleasant change to the simple birdlife and occasional dead mammal in the Kennet & Avon. One of the best experiences of my life.

Feb 21 2009

Back again…

In August 2006, when I first ventured into Australian airspace en route to Perth from Singapore, the sheer expanse of the Big Red was already a fairly stark reality for me. I’d been looking at maps and pictures of the country for over 18 months, preparing for a bit of an adventure, on a longboard. Knowing I had circa 6000km to skate between Western Australia and Queensland was all very well, but actually gliding over the place, all flat and beige and frankly terrifying in all of its wonderful bareness, well, that got the blood flowing. That time, when I landed in Perth, it was bucketing down. Roadside ditches, barely visible through the rain, were rushing gorges of water and mud. It could have been England.

But that was then, and this is now, and here we are landing in Perth with no board in hold and only the twinkling of a new mission in my veins. It was all rather relaxing. Roads are no longer the focus, I have my mind on rivers and oceans, but first thing’s first, it’s time to meet the parents. The Green Family, primary owners of the girl on my arm, their middle-born, my Emily. Three weeks of vacation spattered with book promoting lay ahead, but what got me, what really got me, was that the Green’s lived by the sea. The ocean, in fact. The Indian Ocean. I have two months until Mission One for The Great Big Paddle, a 125 mile dash from Devizes to Westminster, a paddle race that has been referred to as ‘the common man’s Everest.’ The route may not seem the most exotic (quite rightly) but the DW is world renowned for its ability to test even the most vociferous water-bound adventurers. If I’m not ready for it, I’m not going to finish, it’s that simple. It is recommended to start training for the DW in September. I started kayaking three weeks ago, I have some catching up to do. My aim for this little Australian jaunt is, quite simply, to spend sufficient time on the water to get my arms and shoulders prepared for a fairly intense period of training in the final weeks leading up to the DW. A two mile paddle two weeks ago left me aching all over for a week, it just won’t do. The Green’s have kindly procured a couple of kayaks in preparation and now, spurred on by a bit of time in the sun, it is time to start paddling in earnest.

I adore Western Australia. It just smells different to the East Coast, like a cross between an early summer morning and a walk in the woods. And the roads…well, they’re always going to bring back memories. I skated about 1600km through Western Australia but never south of Perth, yet the highway to Rockingham and chez Green may well have been the Great Eastern, without the water pipe. Leaving the airport the sky was a clear blue and the temperature rising from the early twenties, it’s not even 9am. Em and I were snowed in a fortnight ago, we’ve just landed in heaven.