Another Cairns morning, another hangover. This time however, the gremlins clawing at my booze-addled brain were the least of my worries… there was to be no lazing by the lagoon for me today, as I was heading for a day of rock-dodging, lung-busting whitewater rafting on the Tully River.

Many choose to base themselves in the much nearer Mission Beach for taking on mainland Australia’s best rafting river, but I’d decided to stay in Cairns.That decision had seemed like a good idea at about 3am in the Woolshed. Now, waiting for my pickup with my new-found fuzzy-headed comrades four hours later however, I was less sure.

But a quick couple of hours dozing on a bus can work wonders, so that by the time we arrived at our starting point in the jungle around 9am, we were raring to go. Soon kitted out with paddles and helmets, we were split into two groups, those doing the regular rafting day, and those doing the extreme rafting, which I was happily a part of.

Quickly segregated, we jumped aboard our smaller bus and headed for the boats. I was to be spending the day with two guys from Perth, a couple from Yorkshire and a girl from Melbourne. As a group, we soon decided that we all wanted to do whatever our guide could throw at us – no backing out. After all, what could really be that scary about whitewater rafting? I’m a decent swimmer and have plenty of experience of going down waterslides. That’s plenty of preparation, right? Wrong…

Arriving at the water we meet our guide Jonny. We quickly inform him that we will be taking on whatever challenges he can find for us. In hindsight, as a grinning Jonny assures us that we’ll be regretting telling him that by the end of the day, perhaps it wasn’t our best idea.

Minutes later, all seven of us are squeezing into our raft. I couldn’t believe how small it was. What we had was a boat about as big as the blowup toy I was given for my fourth birthday.

So there we were, sat on the outside, with our feet wedged in the boat as best we could, as we were quickly talked through how best to avoid knocking someone’s teeth out with an oar and what to do if we got stuck under a rock. And with that, we were off. Oh great…

We were straight into the first small rapid. Or at least what looked like a small rapid. It was in fact a quick lesson in the fact that what might look tame from the river banks is anything but when you’re racing through the middle of it at what feels like 80km/hr. We crashed down, smashing into rocks and trying not to fall out while still trying to maintain enough composure to steer the raft safely through to the next slow part.

We managed, just. But after that first bumpy ride quickly realised that whatever river swimming I had done before would count for nothing on this day. By now though, it didn’t matter. The adrenalin was pumping and I was ready for more. Which was lucky, as more was exactly what I got.

The next set of rapids were bigger, faster and longer than the first. We were told there was a good a chance the raft could flip here so we had to be on our toes (not literally), and ready.

As we went down we clattered into some massive rocks. Each time I was convinced that my face would smash into them, the raft would get sucked under, or I would get thrown out. Something just had to go wrong. But it didn’t (well, except an oar handle to the chin). Everything was about fighting to stay in the raft and out of the water. Eventually, we did make it through to the next pool area, where we rested, temporarily exhausted from the frantic paddling and rock avoiding.

“Well done,” Jonny said as we slowed down. “You didn’t flip it and you all stayed on board… until now.” And with that he leaned back and flipped the raft over.
I popped up above the water and had a look around. Three of the other five were also up but we were missing two – it turns out they had come up under the raft and were happily bobbing along beneath it.

We went down several more rapids and it was much the same, being thrown about the raft, just managing to hang on and avoid the rocks.

Amazingly by lunchtime, nobody had yet fallen overboard, with the exception of a few more of Jonny’s surprise flips. After we’d gobbled down our burgers and a few glasses of juice, we were ready to get back to it. The second half, we were told, boasted some genuinely dangerous moments, as well as longer rapids. So, if the first half of the day was anything to go by, it would be a bit exciting to say the least.

We started by going down a long rapid that needed the steering and rowing to be spot on to stop us going down the wrong route, which we did once and managed to get ourselves stuck on top of a rock. After that we were told we could all jump out and swim the next part. It was about 60 metres long, and had a volcanic bed, meaning no rocks sticking out to smash your knees against like I’d managed a few times earlier in the day. We were told to float down, carefully choosing when to take big breaths to avoid swallowing loads of water or getting stuck underwater and out of air.

Once we got to the end of the channel we then had to swim as hard as we could towards the bank to avoid getting sucked into a nasty rapid. The rapid they were talking about was a grade five re-circulating rapid. Basically a waterfall that drags you 30 feet underwater and rolls you around, again and again. People had died there, we were told, and if we were not sure we could reach the bank, we shouldn’t attempt the swim. Well, how could we say no? So, up we all walked and jumped in.

As we floated along it all felt rather peaceful, until you’re suddenly sucked underwater, only to pop up again and get a face full of water from the next part of the rapid. Before you know it you’re coming to the end, out of breath and exhausted from trying to stay upright, and that’s when you have to swim to the side. By the time I made it I was knackered and gasping for air, with my arms and legs feeling like they were about to drop off. There was no time to rest and recover, however, as it was back to the rafting.

A few rapids later and we came to the final stretch, one long continuous rapid, with no breaks and a lot of steering around rocks and down the safe parts of the rapids. But before that a quick spot of pirate games. Everyone on our raft had been planning a mutiny for some time. Jonny had flipped us once too many times and it was our turn to throw him overboard. But after dispatching our instructor to the deep cold water, we were hungry for more. As another raft drew up alongside us it was game on.

The battle raged on for several minutes but in the end we emerged victorious, having not only got rid of our captain, but also added another ship to our fleet. Once we relented and decided to let the other sailors back on the rafts it was back to the more serious fun, as we prepared to take on the last long rapid, and it didn’t disappoint.

The rocks, and the white water seemed to go on forever. We were being shouted directions from Jonny and it seemed that as soon as we had navigated our way around one set of rocks, there was another waiting for us. But eventually we did make it through. I would like to say I was unharmed but that would not be entirely true. I ended the day with a few bruises and a fat lip from a paddle to the face while we were attacking the other boat. Not that I felt any of it for a good while after.

All in all it was a fantastic experience. The only disappointment is that there are so few places as good for rafting as the Tully, as it’s something I can’t wait to do again.

The damage & the details: 
Full day Xtreme whitewater rafting on the Tully River with Raging Thunder (Ph: 07 4030 7990, costs from $215.