During my ride through Africa, I also spent two weeks paddling down the upper reaches of the Niger River in Guinea in a wooden pirogue with fellow cyclist Lars Bengtsson. This was definitely one of the highlights of the journey and a truly amazing experience. It opened my eyes to an alternative way to travel and explore more remote regions, not accessible by bike.
It was also incredibly hard work. Trying to manoeuvre a 6-metre wooden boat with a wooden oar, while fully loaded with two people, two bikes, eight panniers and two weeks of food is no easy task. It didn’t help that we were late in the season and the water level was low, but life would have been much easier in a more portable craft. At that time, I was thinking Canadian canoe or kayak.
But since then I’ve heard of the ultra-portable ‘packraft’. Think small inflatable raft/dinghy and then make that really tough that you can safely descend white-water rapids and head off into the wilderness unsupported… and the result is an Alpacka packraft.
It was only a matter of time before I got one, thanks to Avanza Kayak in Sweden …
When I first saw the packaged box and then picked it up, I thought, how the hell am I going to carry this on an already loaded bike? But inside the box was mostly packaging and the actual raft itself didn’t seem so bad. It came rolled up in a thin lightweight bag, and was a similar size and weight to a two-man tent. Now, that’s not so bad. But then I unrolled it and in the large office it looked really rather small. Is that really going to carry me and my bike downriver? But I guess it will look better once it’s inflated…
When I got home, I inflated the raft in my room. This was surprisingly quick and easy using the inflation bag provided. And in just a few minutes, my raft was ready to use… I put my bike frame on top of the bow and the wheels placed on top, jumped in, secured the spray deck around my torso and grabbed the paddle. Now I just needed water…
So on Saturday, I packed my Alpacka raft together with the 4-piece paddle and buoyancy aid into a daysack and strapped it to my bike rack. And off I cycled to Marlow with my flatmate, Werty. I barely noticed I was carrying it.
We headed straight to the Two Brewers pub close to the river and started our search for a boat for Werty to hire. There was nothing right beside the river so Werty enquired at the bar, but to no avail.
On returning through the car park however, he spotted a canoe parked in the corner, with 2 life jackets, two paddles and a dry bag inside. Along the side of the canoe was stencilled, ‘Rent me from Thames Canoes’. Ok then… Two phonecalls and a pint later and we were carrying the canoe out of the car park and down to the river. And a few minutes later I had inflated my raft and we were both afloat on the Thames.
We paddled up to Temple Lock, stopped for a picnic when another friend joined us, and then paddled with the flow back to the pub. It was a short trip, but perfectly pleasant in the afternoon sun. I got a chance to try out my packraft without it loaded up and see how it manoeuvres in calm water.
The raft did swing from side-to-side a lot when I paddled. I think a slightly shorter paddle may help, but more significantly is that when there is no load, the bow sits very high out of the water. I am confident that when I put a pack on the front of the raft, the bow will sit lower in the water and that will help it move in a straight line. And that is exactly how the packraft is designed to be used.
When I initially inflated the raft, I wondered if I should have ordered the next size up. But now I am confident, that following the sizing guide, I have the right one for me. It’s the Yukon Yak, which is one up in size for someone like me who is only 5’4 but wants to carry lots of gear.
I just can’t wait to get onto some faster flowing water… that will be next weekend when I head over to the Brecon Beacons. So I’ll let you know how it goes.
Realising I know very little about packrafting, I’ve also just downloaded Roman Dial’s book ‘Packrafting! An Introduction and How-To Guide’ onto my Kindle. I have only read a couple of chapters so far, but this looks to be the bible for anyone wanting to give pack-rafting a go.