The packrafting trip began long before we reached the put-in point on the Rio Bocay.
Crowded chicken buses from Somoto to Esteli and on to Jinotega. The inevitable sit-and-wait at bus stations. A hive if activity. If you enjoy people-watching, there is no better place than a central American, small town, bus station. People buy, sell, eat, sit, get on, get off, pack, unload, sweep,beg and for the time being, you are just one of the crowd. No-one cares that you are a foreigner. No-one cares what you are doing or where you are going. Except for the bus driver’s mate who collects your crumpled bills if you are going on his bus.
In Jinotega, a day shopping. For food and clothes. We also both agreed that knives would be a good idea… big, f?*k-off shiny ones. Or machetes, as they are called here.
Machete’s are carried by every rural, working man in central America. Especially in El Salvador, where the cowboy hat-wearing muscled men carry it sheathed in leather and slung over the shoulder. They are a tool. If we were going to wild camp, we didn’t want to be found. We would need a machete to make a clearing to pitch our tents on the bank. Machete’s also make good weapons. Drug-traffickers and river pirates were on our minds. Neither of us said anything, but I think we both wanted something at hand for protection. My mind wandered back to camping in Botswana and Namibia. Of crouching in my tent in the middle of the night listening intently to the sounds coming from outside, armed with only a pen-knife and bike pump against lions or hyena… But machete’s are big and heavy. So we just bought one. Lars took possession of the machete. So I bought a good knife instead. Not so good for clearing bush, but lighter. The reality is, I am no expert knife-wielding fighter, but it gives peace of mind and might come in handy for chopping food.
Having wandered Jinotega market, we finally found what we were looking for in a sports store. More or less. Turns out to be impossible to buy an already sharpened knife.
Now in possession of two blunt metal objects, we went in search of a way to sharpen them. The sports store sent us to the hardware store, who sent us to a bigger hardware store, who sent us to the market. At the market, we were taken to a shoe repair shack. And finally the search was over. The quiet man wearing a protective leather apron around his rather large midriff, would have looked quite at home in an Italian pizzeria. But he took the knives and with a lathe, slowly sharpened them as the sparks flew.
Deciding how much food to take was simple. Just calculate according to the following formula:
No. of days of food required = Distance to next place we can buy food / (Average speed x hours paddled per day)
Simple. Except we didn’t know where we could buy food next, had no idea of the river length and no idea how fast the river flowed or how fast we could paddle. Not so simple.
In fact, we didn’t really know if the river would be deep enough to paddle at all.
It was easy to find the length of the Rio Coco, it is central America’s longest, at 750km. But we would only be travelling part of it. Information on the Rio Bocay was harder to find. But with some imaginative internet searching, hidden well down the pages of Google’s rankings, obscured within a large pdf report, written by a scientist who wrote a lot but said little, I found out that the Rio Bocay is 115km. A journalistic instinct suggested one source is not sufficient proof. But seeing as it was the only source, and it did seem reasonable, we worked with it.
As a guideline, I used a paddle speed of 4kph as a slowest case. And assumed that any portaging and delays would be offset by river current.
Well, the sum of it was, we decided to take 10 days worth of food. Oats and rice, biscuits, chocolate and coffee made up the main part.
There were just so many unknowns for this trip. So when we finally glimpsed the Rio Bocay after a long, slow and bumpy ride, it was with relief and excitement that we realised the trip was on.
After lunch in Ayupal, we walked down to the river with our heavily laden packs and found a quiet spot to inflate the rafts. Watched by two curious young boys who came to help and from afar on the other side of the river by the rest of the village, we launched.
The first few metres were shallow and we were forced to walk over the gravel, but once round the first bend, the river deepened. And out of sight from locals, we floated quietly downstream and our fears drifted away too…