Rafting Bali: Big Thrills, Gorgeous Scenery, and a Dislocated Thumb on the Telaga Waja River

My first experience with white-water rafting was in Bali, and it was incredible.

We chose the reputable company Sobek (foreshadowing: you’ll want to choose a reputable, well-established, and insured adventure outlet if you do this) and selected the class-3/4 Telaga Waja River in the foothills of Mount Agung for our outing. Of the rafting options, it was described as the more challenging (spoiler alert: harrowing), versus the more family-friendly (though closer to Ubud) Ayun River.

Rafting the Telaga Waja River With Sobek, Bali

Rafting the Telaga Waja River with Sobek, Bali

After an hour drive through rice terraces, superlative volcano views, and the obligatory commerce stop (this time at a Bali coffee-tasting place, where we totally paid the extra 500,000 rupiah for the animal-poop coffee, because why not?), we arrived at the starting point, drank some water from banana leaves fashioned into crude cups (this was not Disneyland), and suited up in the provided gear: helmets and life jackets. These would be totally necessary.

Husband and I learned we’d be rafting with a group of Indonesian kids, all about 20 years old, and all the girls wearing shirts that said “I Love Happy Endings” in English. They were so sweet and innocent seeming that I don’t think they could have possibly been in on the popular meaning.

Just before we headed down to the river, we were joined by James, a British guy living in Seoul, and Lama, a Syrian girl living in Dubai. They’d be sharing the raft with us, to make five with our guide.

Our guide spoke English to the group, and gave us what I’d characterize as a quick but thorough lesson on how to do this thing. Sit this way, hold the oar that way, when I yell “duck,” then you duck like this, and when I yell, “boom boom,” that means watch out.

Off we go! It was rapids from the very beginning, with the water level as high as it gets, it being the tail end of the rainy season — and an epic (destructive) season it had been at that.

What a thrill! The scenery to my mind most evoked Indiana Jones, and James suggested Apocalypse Now. Lush jungle, spurting waterfalls, a few ominous-looking unattended shrines and temples, and once, a naked family bathing by the banks.

But getting back to: “boom boom!” We heard that a lot. David and I were sitting in the front of the raft, and periodically we’d slam ruthlessly into a rock wall head on. After a while, I’d just close my eyes, knowing that A) there was nothing stopping that impending collision and B) the raft was actually serving, as it’s supposed to, as one giant airbag.

“Duck!” also came into play often, and our guide did not yell it as a way to add drama for the tourists, or as a mere suggestion. It was more like, you may lower your head and body into the raft with haste, or you may find yourself decapitated by a tree or crude log bridge. We obeyed. We hooted and hollered. It was awesome.

Rafting the Telaga Waja River Bali

Doused by one of many pristine waterfalls

We stopped on some rocks on the banks at a halfway point, maybe about an hour down river after getting utterly doused by a thundering waterfall. David bought some unidentifiable canned beverage from some enterprising Indonesian kids who had a good racket going (2,500 rupiah for a can, or about the cost of a delicious meal in Ubud). After a few minutes, we were back on our way.

Shortly after getting back into the river, something happened (can’t remember now — hit a rock? slipped?) and as I clutched the raft, I felt my thumb bend back until it popped. Um.

I brought my oar in the raft and sat for a minute on the floor in shock, grasping right hand with left. Since I was speechless, David was left guessing: “What is it? Did you hurt your foot? Leg? Head? Are you OK? What’s going on?” Finally I blurted out that, although I have no precedent for the feeling, I think I dislocated my thumb.

I had a flash of spending a full day in an Indonesian hospital, which is not what I had in mind as part of our too-short stint in Bali. I don’t remember this, but evidently the group pulled the raft over. I managed to communicate to our guide that I’d dislocated the thumb, which is pretty amazing because “dislocated” is not really in the English language 101 course material, is it? Maybe if you’re a rafting guide it is.

Anyway, dude took my hand and I swear to you he yanked the thumb until I felt it pop, rather dramatically, twice. Oh my gosh. I knew I’d be in pain going forward, but wasn’t worried anymore about some hand deformity that would require hospital time, and felt relieved as hell. My immediate reaction was to cackle like a hyena. It was like, “Holy [redacted], a 19-year-old stranger just performed minor surgery on me in the middle of an Indonesian jungle. So that just happened.”

And it was back on the river! The rest of the gang paddled for the second half, while I remained protective of my hand, and it was a great ride. At some point, the rain started coming down in massive, differentiable drops that further dramatized the dreamlike landscape.

Rafting the Telaga Waja River Bali

Headed over the dam…

As we got close to the finish point, we understood we’d be going over a dam (that diverts water to nearby rice terraces) of four meters, or 12 feet, in height. It was billed as a 45-degree grade, but I can tell you right now it was 80 to 90 in fact.

Our guide advised us that the two women needed to be in front to better distribute the weight. I was already in front, and Lama swapped places with David to join me. We assumed the designated protective position, which kind of looked like we were lounging back against a hot tub, with our feet up over the front of the raft. Our guide advised us to “control our legs” when we went over, to avoid them sailing over our heads and — causing us to tumble out? Or kick ourselves in the face? I don’t know what.

When we went over the dam, I felt my stomach drop out, and I screamed like I was on a roller coaster. I thought, “control your legs, whatever that means.” Evidently we all made crazy faces for a canoeing photographer. And I don’t remember much else, but it was awesome.

Shortly there after, and about 14 kilometers, or close to nine miles, from where we started, came the ending point. We got out of the raft, where three poor kids, one of the boys barely older than my nephew, gave us frangipani flowers in the hopes for a few rupiah. I gave one of the kids 5,000 ($0.50) but couldn’t get them out of my mind.

Anyway, we ascended 280 steep stairs through the jungle in the hot, driving rain.

Under an open-walled shelter, we had an Indonesian buffet lunch, from which I found plenty of veggie options like mie goreng (the Indonesian equivalent of Pad Thai, say), sweet soya cakes, and rice. There were showers and a place to change into dry clothes, though my gimpy right hand necessitated David’s help for totally basic stuff like buttoning. You don’t realize how useful opposable thumbs are until…

Anyway, I totally bought the photo CD (again a racket, but worth every penny to memorialize one of the most phenomenal travel days ever) and we headed back to the Viceroy Bali for a fancy massage and candlelight dinner in direct (but welcome) counterpoint to our rugged day on the Telaga Waja River.

Rafting the Telaga Waja River Bali With Sobek, Bali

Did it!

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  • Reply sharon January 28, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    exciting!!! and holy dislocated thumb. glad it popped back in!

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    […] While in Bali, I had my first white-water rafting experience ever—and it was totally unforgettable, beyond words. We chose the reputable company Sobek (foreshadowing: you’ll want to choose a reputable, well-established, and insured adventure outlet if you do this) and selected the class-3/4 Telaga Waja River in the foothills of Mount Agung for our outing. Of the rafting options, it was described as the more challenging (spoiler alert: harrowing), versus the more family-friendly (though closer to Ubud) Ayun River. Yes, I dislocated my thumb, and it didn’t feel right for a year after. And yes, it was nevertheless among my top three adventure travel days ever. […]

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