This post has gone through a number of revisions, a useless piece of information unless someone actually reads this. In a sense this is good, as nobody would notice the typos and grammatical errors in the first few drafts. No two versions were the same after the first few days of posting, though from this obvious difficulty a memorable quote came to light: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” You may not know that this is a quote from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. You may not know its meaning. And if you’re still trying to figure out its relevance, here goes: “No two runs are the same at the CDO whitewater rafting.”
Scared to try whitewater rafting?
Cagayan de Oro River is not the only whitewater rafting venue in the Philippines, though it’s the most well-known. The river lies between Cagayan de Oro City, usually shortened to CDO (it can’t be shortened to Cagayan, as there’s Cagayan Province in northern Philippines; CDO is part of the province of Misamis Oriental) and the province of Bukidnon, home of the Del Monte Clubhouse steak, the Del Monte pineapple plantation, and Asia’s longest zipline found in Dahilayan.
You could (and you should) endeavor to visit these destinations in one trip, as they are contiguous. In the middle of the 2-hour trip from the whitewater rafting to the zipline lies the plantation and the steak. To save on hotel costs, take the first flight in (arrange for a package that includes rafting and zipline) so you’ll be there by 8 in the morning. Rest for the night. Check out the next day, and if you travel light, you could bring your bag around and still do some sightseeing after check out. Take the last flight out at around 6:50 p.m. [or see the alternative itinerary].
We took the early morning flight to CDO, a little over an hour from Manila. The rafting group, Kagay (which is a Malay word for “river”, we were told), met us at the airport and all of us proceeded directly to the starting point for the Basic Course. With a pre-arranged rafting group, we didn’t have to hire a car and there’s a feeling of safety — it’s hard to trust a bunch of total strangers in a place you don’t know. The good thing about going through the rapids, with the potential of disaster looming in every turn, is making fast friends with your “raft-mates”. Probably one of the reasons why CDO is also known as the City of Golden Friendship.
So we came to know the Kagay team. Joel, the primary guide, gave the order to paddle forward, paddle backward, or stop (the order “abandon ship” was never discussed). Matet, who also gave the brief introduction on the dos and don’ts of white water rafting, did the steering. She’s also a nurse, though it counts little because proficiency in first aid is one of the requirements to become an accredited guide. There’s Bryan, the cameraman. He’s a silent operator, shadowing the main raft with his single kayak, moving through the rapids while holding the camera and taking photos. With guides of that skill level, we had no fear of being thrown overboard or suffering an overturned raft.
White water rafting is unique not only because fail-safe mechanisms can’t be installed like in theme parks, but also because you pay for this “ride” and yet do some serious work: paddling. When the guide shouts “forward paddle!”, you may take your time and give a token of compliance. It’s an entirely different matter when the guide shouts “backward paddle”. That most probably means the raft is about to slam into a rock wall or a huge boulder. So better paddle backward really, really hard (besides, your photo will look silly if you’re just sitting there, without any paddle).
Then there’s the “high five”. Simply lift the blade of your paddle towards the middle of the raft, and hit it with that of the others. This is done, Matet explained during orientation, before hitting the rapids and after making it through. It’s like, “Here comes another rapid . . . high five! . . . . wooohooohhh . . . . that’s awesome . . . high five”.
Of course nobody said it that way. I guess that’s how it would look like with thought bubbles on the photos. Or when there’s a group, which is way more fun. A minimum of six in a group is required in a booking (pre-paid). There were six of us, except that four backed out at the last minute. Since our booking was confirmed and we’re already in CDO, they have to honor their commitment. We were treated with the same enthusiasm and level of service (truly appreciated, Kagay Team).
They have a name for each rapid. There was a “Paolo Santos Drop” (you guessed it, where Paolo Santos dropped, but it has been renamed). If I had to rank the 14 rapids, the top ones would include “Dan Drop”, “Brave’s Way” and “Surprise”. Spoiler alert: The guide sometimes shouts “high five” in the middle of the rapids. You raise your paddle, shout “high five”, then wham!, the raft slams into a solid “wave”. Keeps you alert, I suppose.
There’s an Expert Course, which does not require first going through a Basic Course. The rapids in the Expert Course are more difficult. And because we love adventure so much, the choice as to which course to take came easy. No-brainer, really. No, not the Expert Course. We started with the basic course. While we love adventure, sometimes it’s good to start with the basic, then go up in level of difficulty. (Sa presento ka na lang magpaliwanag, iho.)
Besides, we didn’t have the luxury of time. Basic course takes around 3 hours to complete (be sure to include lunch in the tour package). The duration depends on a number of factors. The river’s current is much stronger during rainy season (pushes you around faster and harder). Taking a dip in portions of the river with calmer waters takes up some time (the guides encourage you to swim). The Expert Course takes up more time and energy.
The anticipation before hitting a rapid is more pronounced than the actual splash. You see a maze of white waves in front, each one seeming to grab the raft and slam it into a rock or the wall. That’s not the exciting part — it’s looking at the entire thing and not knowing what comes after the visible river horizon. Is it a drop? How large are the waves?
I’m reminded of the scene in Lord of the Rings, the tree people attacking the tower of Saruman, with Treebeard shouting: “Break the dam. Release the river.” It’s like being on top of the dam before they release the river.
Of course you don’t get to deliberate what comes next. It happens so fast and all you hear are the waves, the instructions to paddle or to stop, and the shouts of your companions (and, while you may hate to admit it, your own shouts).
If you fall from the raft, don’t worry (we were assured). The heavy duty life vest will keep you afloat. There are rocks and huge boulders (which create the “waves”) so float on your back, feet facing downstream (step on boulders blocking the way). There’s a rope bag thrown at your direction if you’re far from the raft. Better listen to the safety instructions given at the start of the ride.
White water rafting is not totally safe. If you hate signing a waiver form and want something safe, try kayaking in a beach resort somewhere else. People have fallen off rafts, we were told, but no serious injuries resulted. And that is why, ladies and gentlemen, we had to wear safety gears: helmet and life vest, although these could not possibly defend against snakes. The cliff walls that are made up of cool limestone serve as favorite snake hangouts. You avoid hitting the rock walls, not so much to avoid injuries caused by the collision, but also due to fear of snakes who may want to “hitchhike” in your raft.
Rapids in other countries look much more dangerous, but you still have to respect the class 6 max in CDO. It gives a whole new meaning to rock ‘n roll. Roll off the raft and hit some rocks.
Good travel adventure, in my book, is a delicate mixture of mitigated risk, adrenaline-pumping excitement and endorphin-releasing fun. It’s like jumping from the diving board for the first time, or something of that sort — once you overcome the initial fear and take the jump, it’s like “Whoa, that’s fun . . . let’s do it again”. We’ll most probably go back and try the Expert Course of the CDO white water rafting. We strongly suggest you try it, too.
(Thanks to the Kagay staff: Joel, Matet and Bryan. Competent and professional, you all are. May the force be with you always!)