Expert Tom McLay's Rafting Recommendations

At 25, Tom McLay can still say he's been kayaking for 18 years.   Tom's been a commercial rafting guide since he was 18 and has now kayaked and/ or rafted in Wales, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Nepal, India, China, Tibet, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, California/Oregon/Washington/BC, Laos, Southern Africa.  And he's currently the National Whitewater Centre's Head Guide.  So, yeah, this man knows a thing or two about kayaking and rafting.  Which is why we're so keen to talk to him about his rafting experiences and what he'd recommend the rest of us try.

Can you remember the first time you went kayaking? Where did you go and what was it like?

It was ace! I was 7 years old at White sands beach, St.Davids in Pembrokeshire under the watchful eye of my Dad.  I fell out a bunch and drunk a lot of sea water but had a blast.

And what was the last paddling trip you took, and what was that like?

Firstly, my last paddling trip is always my best! My last trip was to Sichuan province, South West China. We were exploring new river systems and repeating a 300km section of Asia’s longest river; the Yangtze, that had been attempted by an ill fated Sino-USA team in ’86.

We spent a number of days on the river ‘self-supporting’ which is by far my favourite way to travel.

The rivers proved to be world class; abundant with fantastic white water cutting its way through 5000m snowy peaks in the heart of ancient Tibeaten land.

So how long have you been paddling? And what would you say your relationship with this sport/ hobby/ passion is now?

I'm 25 years old now, so that makes it 18 years in total. I think as other interests or sports have entered and left my life kayaking has remained a constant fascination, I very rarely don’t feel like kayaking.  If I’ve had a bad day at work I want to go kayaking afterwards to lift my mood and lay to rest any anxieties of daily life.  If I’ve had a great day at work I just want to keep the ball rolling and go paddle something that keeps me grinning! 

When did you decide that you wanted to make rafting more than just an out-of-hours activity and what inspired you to do so?

As a junior raft guide I met a whole host of crazy characters who opened my eyes to a number of exciting things and prospects around the globe. Many young people want to travel extensively (to which I am no exception) and end up spending a fortune doing so. Becoming a raft guide enabled me to find employment in an industry which is pretty universal and made world travel affordable. I’ve never been motivated by financial gain so if I can go to a world class kayaking destination for the summer, do some commercial rafting and in my spare time go on kayaking missions with my buddies then I’m laughing. All I aim for is to cover my costs. 

Did you ever imagine that this is what you'd be doing when you 'grew up'?

I’ll let you know when I grow up. 

What are the top three rafting trips you've taken and why do these ones make the cut?  

1.     Tamur River, Eastern Nepal

An excellent combination of one of the best short Himalayan treks (3 days) with amazing mountain views of the eastern Himalayan Range including Mt. Kanchanjunga, Mt. Makalu with an exhilarating river trip 5 days long with non stop white water action! A true rafting expedition through this less visited area of Nepal.

2.     Futaleufu, Chile

Spectacular trips in Chilean Patagonia on the Rio Futaleufu will blow your mind! With a number of sections to raft, each day will gurantee crystal clear water, fantastic scenary and awesome big volume rapids with names like ‘Inferno Canyon’ and ‘Terminator’ that will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

3.     Grand Canyon, Colorado

Grand Canyon river rafting combines world-class whitewater with breathtaking scenery to make one truly unforgettable river experience. The canyon is filled not only with exhilarating whitewater rapids, but with side canyons and ancient indian ruins accessable only by river. 

Where has rafting taken you that you wouldn't ordinarily have been?

Quite a lot of the places kayakers and rafters find themselves are places only accessible by boat, its part of what makes the sport so unique.     

Is there anywhere you’d still love to explore?

Both Afghanistan and Northern Iraq have huge potential for white water exploration, I hope in my lifetime it is viable to visit these countries in order to do so. 

If a friend of a friend asked for your advice while planning a big paddling trip as a beginner, where would you recommend they go and what tips would you give them to have fun and stay safe?

  • Ensure you are properly equipped (for safety and weather conditions)
  • Never paddle alone.
  • Seek professional coaching.
  • Paddle within your capabilities.
  • Go somewhere warm! 

What sort of experiences can people expect to come away from a rafting trip with? And what's been your favourite rafting experience story to tell others?

The great thing about rafting is that it’s an all inclusive sport so under the instruction of a professional raft guide everyone is able to enjoy the thrills of whitewater. It gives people the opportunity to experience rivers from a different perspective with minimal environmental impact.

My favourite story to tell is from a kayaking trip to Laos, where we were exploring the various channels of the Mekong river near the Cambodian border. Whilst we daily strayed into Cambodia where we were told ‘no visa, no problem’ by locals, some of the Laos authorities disapproved of our ‘waterfall jumping’ antics in the kayaks. Although we persistently re-assured them that we were competent and experienced in ‘waterfall jumping’ they decided to impound our kayaks and hastily began questioning us in a hostile manner.

When I offered to paddle across to the next island (approx 100m away) in order to fetch our Laos friend to translate my request fell on deaf ears so I got in my kayak and was just sliding into the river when I felt the cold hard steel of a gun against my head. I looked back into the police HQ to see passports being hurriedly snatched from my friends and guns drawn!

The tense standoff was dissolved and were allowed our kayaks back on agreement to leave the island and cease our waterfall jumping. Not even a bottle of Johnny Walker and a cash ‘admin fee’ would resolve our situation. So, we left on a boat and headed over the border to Cambodia and stayed with new friends, sneaking back in pin tail motor boats to continue jumping them waterfalls on a daily basis!

And one more thing: where would you like to paddle next and why?

It would amazing to go back to western China to find new rivers before the hydro companies do.

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