as Neil posted this last minute Warning order! on Friday 25th March “River Test possibly unsuitable due to fly fishing and lack of water depth. Change in location likely. Standby for new coordinates later tonight…”
Our expedition leaders had intended getting both teams together for a medium length paddle punctuated with a bit of overnight wild camping. This training session was designed to give us all an opportunity to test some of the equipment we’re planning to take to the jungle.
Packing and transporting the kit, on the boards with cooking equipment, hammocks, sleeping bags and anything else we needed was a novel concept to many, but we were all up for it… and we now found ourselves waiting eagerly for the next message to arrive, wondering whether it was actually going to happen.
We needn’t have worried as just a couple of hours later and true to form, Neil pinged through the new plan… River Hamble. 09:30hours. Meet & park at Mercury Yacht Harbour by the Gaff Rigger restaurant.
This was closely followed by an itinerary with approximate timings;
Sunday (clocks change)
In summary circa 5 hours paddling Saturday & 3 on Sunday, with an overnight adventure thrown in… The scene was set!
as the team rocked up at the Gaff Rigger cafe.
Jeff & Mark were first on the scene, closely followed by Ant, Chris & Giles. The glass covered room upstairs was getting hot as the suns heat grew stronger and when Will and Neil walked in the party decided to move outside to the balcony area looking out to the harbour. Kaylum and Maddy arrived next with Maddie DW close behind and the coffees and teas were flowing while we waited for JB to turn up. Before long the roar of his off-road beast of a motor could be heard pulling into the car park. The team for this weekend was now assembled as the remaining 5 (for a variety of reasons like “I’m out the country”) were unable to make it.
After a hearty breakfast, and a quick run through the plan, we made our way back to the car park and inflated the boards. JB’s team were introduced to BIG BERTHA, one of the two ten man paddle boards they’ll be taking to Peru. This paddle today would be a first for many of them on a board like this.
were the order of the day, filled with hammocks, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, change of clothes, and a variety of lightweight food items. The Red voyagers that were ridden by some were well balanced as they had strapping areas at both the front and back of the boards.
Other makes of board had just the one area for storage at the front but this was easily counter balanced by simply standing a minor fraction further back than you ordinarily would.
The single boarders in Neil’s team made their way through a narrow road past the boat houses and along the Jetty where they joined JB’s BIG BERTHA gang who had chosen to enter the water just down in front of the cafe itself.
The wind was straight into our faces as we set off upstream. The BIG BERTHA crew tried a number of different approaches, though it was clear that if all 5 of them on the board stood up in the strong headwind it was like someone throwing an anchor in.
After a while they settled into a rhythm with 4 of them opting to kneel and paddle… Two at the back on either side and two just ahead of the mid section. JB was front and centre, oar in hand, and when they changed positions it was reminiscent of the iwo jima flag raising statue.
On the initial stretch of the river Hamble between Mercury Yacht Harbour and Swanwick Marina, there are a number of pontoons with motor boats and yachts moored in a line. Neils team shot up one of these channels as it seemed to provide some respite from the wind.
All the single riders were standing with the exception of Ant who also opted to kneel or sit, so he could move around at greater speed and take a few pics.
The river meanders to the northwest, as you head through the marina, and then as you pass “The Jolly Sailor” (riverside pub) and Elephant Boatyard, it winds back to the northeast and under Bridge Rd. This whole area is littered with boats moored on jetty’s and pontoons, or stacked high on multi storey dry dock racks and it’s not until you pass under the M27 that you start to escape into the countryside.
The river here is surrounded by woodland, with a number of fallen trees on the waters edge and some fabulous riverside walks. We continued on for another mile or so before grouping the boards together and attaching ourselves to a pole sticking up out the water.
After a short break to take on some water and home made brownies (thanks Maddie), we set off towards Botley.
The river starts to narrow on this stretch and we seemed to be ahead of the tide as the water in many parts was incredibly low.
This led to some of the fins grounding, so the crew had to hop off and drag or lift their boards through ankle deep stretches and back into deeper waters.
Whilst the distance covered wasn’t vast the briskness of the headwind on the open stretches had made it feel like we’d covered double the distance, and in terms of the plan we’d reached our 1st goal.
It was time to haul the boards out and head to the pub for some light refreshment at the Botley Brewery Hidden Tap.
After a couple of swift ones it was time to move on and find a safe woodland location to set up camp for the night. The team regrouped on their boards just up from the pub on the man made waterway that seemed to feed the old mill. It resembled a canal.
Before setting off Neil provided the equivalent of a special forces briefing. He told us the type and classification of the briefing, and the purpose and scope of our mission. He then described the environment and situation we were in and the types of things we may encounter.
He stressed that we should move forward quietly but at pace if we are to set up camp before the light fades.
The waters were still and the earlier brisk wind we’d encountered had dropped as the single paddlers in the party passed under the bridge and past a couple of beautiful houses on the left hand side of the bank heading northwards.
Shortly after when the BIG BERTHA gang came under the same bridge a couple of the locals came out the houses to greet them and advised we’d strayed into private property and this particular stretch of water is actually a privately owned mill pond with no public access.
There were no signs to show this, that we’d seen, and nor was it marked on the map, however we trusted their local knowledge, respected their request to leave the area, and headed back into Botley.
It was another useful lesson for us all i.e. when heading into unfamiliar waterways make sure you check which areas are open to the public!
We now found ourselves heading southwards and checking out the offshoots and channels that led off from the main river. The waters were much fuller now and all the spots in the river we’d previously had to wade through were now passable on the boards.
The sun was setting rapidly as we made our way up Curbridge Creek and into the surrounding woods.
Getting out of the river was tricky. The mud was deep and sticky and at least one of the crew almost lost their footwear when their leg got stuck up to the knee in the river bed, taking circa 10mins to dig themselves out.
The brambles and nettles were unforgiving as we dragged our boards into the bush and away from public view.
At dusk we got the stoves going, to boil water and cook food and the team began to scout around for a suitable place to hang the hammocks.
Under cover of darkness
By the time we’d finished eating most had identified the trees they’d use to bunk down. Giles opted for a bivvy set up on the floor. Because of the fading light we each used head torches set to red as we tethered the hammocks to the trees.The bright white lights may have upset the locals and we weren’t looking to draw any un-necessary attention to ourselves.
Many of us had our jungle snugpak sleeping bags… but this was England, and MARCH.
We were given a top tip which seemed counter intuitive; “when you bunk down try to wear as little as possible, your natural body heat will warm the down in your bags up to 37.5degrees”.
If we’d had a layer of insulation between the bottom of the sleeping bag and the hammock itself, this may well have worked but for most of us we were clearly ill prepared and it didn’t! Another valuable lesson for many… it was bloody freezing.
Jeff & Maddie DW were the first to stir, and as Ant peeped out from his hammock, the sun was rising through the trees above the camouflaged lump on the ground (which was Giles curled up in his bivvy).
One by one the team arose with tales of how cold they’d been and how disturbed or even sleepless the night was. The distant sound of a rave elsewhere in the woods, the sound of the owls hooting, and as the morning came the tapping of the woodpeckers overhead.
Sure we were all tired… but we really felt alive.
JB was the last to stir… he was wrapped up like a caterpiller in it’s crysalis, when Ant informed him the team were ready to leave.
The final stretch…
It was a beautiful morning, and the water was a little deeper by the time we headed back in, so there were none of the traumas we’d experienced the night before with people getting stuck in the mud.
The wind was non existent and the team were full of smiles… it was a gentle paddle back to the Gaff Rigger Cafe, where we all got changed and had a final breakfast/brunch before saying our farewells and heading off home. This is potentially our last full team training session before the main event in just two months time.
We’d survived, and learnt a lot… bring on the Amazon!!