Rafting The Padas River

I like rafting but I don’t like rafting enough to be picked up from my hotel at five fucking twenty in the morning to travel for a million hours to a river that I’ll only be spending about ninety minutes on. In order to avoid this we travelled to a little town called Beaufort, which is pronounced Byew-fort and not Bow-fort which is how I was saying it so that’s probably why it took a bit longer than necessary and a lot of pointing at signage to find the correct shared taxi to get us there from Kota Kinabalu.

I can’t get enough of rural Borneo despite the mosquitoes and the sweating.

It’s a nice enough town. Maybe don’t do what we did and check into a hotel right by the mosque because you know all that extra sleep you were looking forward to having before meeting the rest of your rafting group? Yeah, you can kiss that goodbye around 4am when the big mosque-shaped call to prayer alarm clock goes off. So we met our guide and the other humans we’d be hurtling down a fast river with at the slightly more respectable hour of 7.20am at Beaufort train station where we were loaded onto a very small rickety train.

Obligatory “head out of a moving train window because fuck health and safety” photo.

I love trains. I especially love trains that you can sit in the doorway of, or where you can hang out of the window like a dog, the wind in your hair and drool down your face. Sometimes tourists take this train as a scenic ride but it actually just gets the locals from A to B to the middle of bastard nowhere. We rattled through countryside, and that’s not some manner of romantic synonym for “travelled” that I plucked out of a thesaurus, it literally fucking rattled. We rattled alongside the Padas River for the most part, past palm oil plantations and forest, through tiny villages and random concrete platforms that served as stops built seemingly nowhere near anything.

A slightly stalky photo of a woman on a train platform in the middle of nowhere minding her own damn business.

I don’t think there are many roads in this region, I think it’s train or nothing, the river is too epic to get around by boat. I mean, you could try but you’d probably go through a lot of boats. We pulled into a town called Halogilat where we changed trains and continued onto Rayoh which is the end of the rafting which is where we offloaded spare clothes, phones, the general shit we’d rather not get waterlogged if it can at all be helped. The train waited for us as we faffed about then we all piled back on to Pangi, an old headhunter village where we’d be starting the trip.

Train views.

But first followed the most detailed safety briefing I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve done a lot of shit that requires a safety briefing. Seriously, Rio, our guide, took us through everything so clearly and so well that I felt he could just stay here and put his feet up and I could lead the tour. Based on that alone I’d recommend these guys. Once we were full of all the information we’d need to manoeuvre a large inflatable device down a river plus what to do should we fall in or capsize or lose a paddle we shuffled down to the river and were loaded into rafts.

In this photo we almost look like we know what we’re doing. Paddles are in sync, we’re all perfectly poised on the sides of the raft. In reality all of my core muscles were screaming at me to stop this foolishness and this was probably the only millisecond of the whole trip that we all managed to paddle at the same time.

We were a group of seven which meant one person would sit in the middle at the front and not paddle and instantly my shoulders decided that this would be awesome. I’ve no idea what’s wrong with them at the moment but my left shoulder is giving me a lot of grief, it could be anything from falling out of a kayak to sleeping on it funny. Patricia took first shift at the front middle and I sat on the left hand side because I could paddle on that side without my limbs seizing up and showing my age. So apparently, fun fact, padas means spicy and the river is so called on account of the fact it used to be more of a reddish colour until logging happened and turned everything brown. You’ll thank me when it comes up in the pub quiz.

This is a more accurate portrayal of our general rafting competence.

Anyway. We were off. Before we got anywhere near any rapids we all had to jump in and practice getting back onto the raft, or in my case practice being hauled back onto the raft by my life jacket. I don’t have the upper body strength for anything that involves me hauling myself anywhere beyond hauling myself to the sofa to binge watch Star Trek. The first rapid Rio referred to as a welcome rapid, easing us in gently. We floated up to it and paddled through it with relative ease. Then came our first major rapid. Holy fucking shit. The thing with rafting is you’re all meant to paddle in sync. Have you ever tried paddling when you’re being thrown around a washing machine? My paddling could probably be more accurately classed as semi-coordinated flailing with a blunt instrument.

Rio shouted that he needed more speed and we all just went for it. I swore a lot but to be fair swearing is my default state. Then, just as my upper body thought it might just give up, we were through. We congratulated ourselves on not drowning. I swapped into the front middle, brandishing my GoPro which I’m much better at than operating a paddle. We made our way down the river through small rapids and another huge one, and the thing with being on the river like this is time just goes. Maybe if I was doing a bit more work rather than taking selfies I’d think differently, but suddenly we were pulling over to the riverbank for a break.

Rest stop.

Rio showed us a few seeds that you get in the area which was actually quite interesting. There’s this heart shaped one which comes from trees that grow by the river. Apparently if you rub it it gets hot and you can use it to warm your hands. There was another seed, a black seed, and local people used to use it to preserve stuff. He told us that the people of Sabah used to be nomadic and in order to preserve their food as they travelled they would break open this seed, crush the contents into a powder and store their fish in it. I can’t remember the local name but he called it fish pickle. He said it made everything smell awful but it was really delicious and if you offered a local person the option of fried chicken or something in fish pickle they would opt for the latter. That’s fine, buddy, all the more fried chicken for tubs here.

This was my general view most of the time.

Right then. Back into the water for one more ridiculous rapid hell bent on removing us from the raft, then we were given the option of body rafting which is basically where you jump in and float through the rapids on your back and all without getting too much of the Padas River lodged in your lungs, please. Sounded fucking incredible! All of us went for it with varying degrees of success. We were meant to stay in the middle which is easier said than done. Me and Ozzy ended up way behind the others, by the time they were all back on the raft we were being swept away downstream.

I looked at Rio, he didn’t seem worried and to be honest this was actually way more fun than the actual rafting so I just relaxed and enjoyed it and waited for them to come and fetch me. The guy in the safety kayak paddled in front of me and just chuckled. He asked me if I was okay, I was having a cracking time so he just let me get on with it, laughing at me occasionally. I was eventually pulled back onto the raft where I took my turn paddling for all of a few minutes before we were back to Rayoh and a BBQ buffet lunch to replace all those calories I burned taking videos.

I’m not exactly sure how much of the Padas River I swallowed but it’s safe to say the levels will be slightly lower this evening.

I wanted this to be longer though I’m not sure my left shoulder would agree. It’s so much fun. Rio told us that we were lucky, the river was high for the time of year so the rapids were good. Sometimes it’s too low and there are too many exposed rocks so they can’t do the full course. It never even occurred to me to check the best time of year to do this, I just saw rafting and thought it might be fun, and it really is a lot of fun, but fuck coming here all the way from KK. When the train pulled back into Beaufort I was so fucking glad that we were staying here and didn’t have to travel another 90 minutes by van to get to something resembling a bed. Ask me again at 4am when call to prayer starts up, mind. I’ll probably be a lot less smug then.

Pangi to Rayoh, Padas River, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: Rainbow Hotel, Beaufort
Activity: White water rafting with Riverbug

Useful shit to know:

  • To get from Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort you can catch a shared taxi from Padang Merdeka for RM15 each. It’ll probably drop you at the train station but to be fair you can stand on one side of Beaufort and spit to the other so it doesn’t really matter where he drops you, you’ll not have far to walk.
  • To get back to Kota Kinabalu there are shared taxis outside the train station and also on the road down from it.
  • To get to Sipitang there’s a Sipitang Express bus stand outside the train station.
  • To get elsewhere there’s a small bus terminal by the mosque.
The terminal bas by the mosque. You can’t miss it.
  • We stayed at Rainbow Hotel which is right by the bus terminal and a 24 hour restaurant so it doesn’t matter what time you find yourself stalking the streets in search of a nasi goreng, you’ll not have to fight stray dogs for leftovers. The hotel is fine, it’s cheap, it’s got AC and hot showers and the staff speak just enough English to check you in. You’ll need earplugs though unless you wanted a large, mosque-shaped alarm clock.
The price list at Rainbow Hotel as of the time of writing. We weren’t charged the brand new tourist tax on this occasion but I would imagine that’s something they’ll be getting on board with soon enough.
  • If you meet the Riverbug crew at Beaufort train station instead of in KK they’ll knock a bit of the price. You just need to email them and ask them about it.

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