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Fast-moving rivers, mist-shrouded cliffs and ancient temples clinging to the rock face – the land of the thunder dragon isn’t the easiest landscape within which to attempt a record-breaking adventure. But that’s exactly what 11 women from Singapore and Dubai did – they chose to be the first women to attempt an expedition by SUP along the Bhutanese rivers.
The women are part of the charity adventure team Women On A Mission. Each year they set themselves a challenge that will help push themselves to the limit and raise funds for abused women at the same time. Previously they have trekked across the desolate Lut desert in Iran, cycled across Cambodia and joined the reindeer herders to cross the Gulf of Ob in Siberia.
The Women On A Mission team decided that as they had tackled several land-based adventures, their next expedition should involve water. So when WOAM co-founder Christine Amour-Levar met stand up paddleboard (SUP) instructor Celine Hivet at a party, she knew they had found their next adventure. They started brainstorming about places where SUP had never been done before and Hivet said that she’d heard that an experienced SUP instructor and guide, Anthony Eddies-Davies, was about to take SUP equipment into the Himalayan Kingdom for the first time, so they immediately contacted Eddies-Davies, and within a matter of days the women had their next challenge and their guide.
As it was the first time that the team had travelled to the country they also contacted the Bhutanese travel experts Lightfoot Travel to help them coordinate the seven-day trip that would see them SUP down the rivers, as well as hike and bike in the Himalayas and most importantly, meet the charity that they wanted to raise the money for – RENEW, which was founded by the Queen Mother. “Many of us when we think of Bhutan we imagine a peaceful and stunning land nestled in the Himalayas, however, Bhutan has its fair share of problems,” says Amour-Levar. “RENEW gives survivors of domestic violence shelter and care, as well as the life skills training for future financial independence.”
As soon as the WOAM team touched down in Thimphu they went to visit the centre and held workshops for the women. They then hiked through the rice fields of the Punakha valley to acclimatise before they took on their aquatic challenge.
Prior to departure, the WOAM team spent five months learning how to master SUPing. Hivet organised training sessions for the women in Singapore and sent tips to the women in Dubai via WhatsApp. However, when they arrived in Bhutan, they soon learnt that riding SUPs on the sea was entirely different to tackling the fast-flowing Himalayan rivers.
However, Eddies-Davies, who had spent 20 years mapping the Bhutanese rivers for the royal family, was the perfect person to guide them through the waterways and gave them a crash course on how rivers behave. “The currents and rapids in the rivers were very different from what we had experienced at sea. Tackling a river environment was very challenging,” says Amour-Levar. Most people assume a river follows the curves of its banks, but in fact, a river flows in a straight line. This means that when a paddler approaches a turn in the river, he or she has to be very careful not to be thrown against the sides and crash into the rocky, riverbanks. The key is to try to remain in the central part of the river, which is usually the deepest and safest place to be.”
They then started their journey along the Punakha River and paddled from Puna Tsang Chu to Wangdue Bridge. After a night on shore, they set off again to paddle to Punakha Dzong, which is a temple at the confluence between the mighty Phochu and Mochu rivers.
“We also became very good at going from the standing position to the kneeling position at lightning speed, when things would start to get very choppy because when you lower your centre of gravity, you are more stable and reduce your chances of falling off the board,” says Amour-Levar. “One of our teammates got stuck in a large rapid, where huge tree trucks were jutting out of the water. She couldn’t pull her catch and release strap to free her board that was pinning her to the rocks. She got a massive bruise and scratch that pierced her wetsuit and a bit of a fright, but luckily, our two safety kayakers were able to come to her rescue.”
Day two proved to be the most challenging day for the whole team. “It was the longest day on the water. We paddled down a 25km stretch of the Mo Chhu River, navigating sharp rapid bends and fighting against strong afternoon headwinds till sunset,” says Amour-Levar. “At the end of the day, we were exhausted, sore and cold, but we were overjoyed that we had completed the first descent of one of the major rivers of Bhutan on SUP.”
They then camped overnight by the river before they had to switch their SUPs for rafts to tackle the powerful white water rapids that were on the next section. “Unless you are a highly trained professional, it’s difficult to stay in the standing position in class 3 or 4 rapids, so we chose to do these by a raft before switching back to the SUPs once the rapids were calmer,” says Amour-Levar.
As challenging as the trip was when it came to an end the team were reluctant to leave the water. “The sky was blue, the birds were chirping and the water was clear,” says Amour-Levar. “The team was moving really well together and navigating the rapids with ease. We were even a little sad to get out of the water that day when it was time to stop and get back on the bus to continue our journey back to Thimphu.”
The team managed to raise SGD$20,000 for RENEW and they are now busy organising their next fundraising journey. The team are now planning to travel to one of the most inhospitable places on Earth – Afar in Ethiopia. “We will be cycling between 30km to 50km a day, crossing sulphur lakes, thermoactive springs, camping on the crater rims of volcanoes, and travelling along sections used by the salt caravans,” says Amour-Levar. For more information on their next adventure visit www.womenmission.com
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