How do you prepare for a month long trip on an unknown jungle river in the sub-tropics? We had no idea. So there was only one thing to do: Figure it out.
We started with gathering all the information we could get our hands on. That meant searching the web for hours, gathering reports from non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) working in the area, accessing scientific literature and in the end also talking with one of my old field biology professors.
By chance, I stumbled upon an assessment of hazards to the local people in Laos and decided that this was the way to go. We would need to figure out what would be the most pressing challenges, what equipment would be needed and how best to minimize our risks. So I started out doing a risk assessment of our adventure. I had never done anything thing like this before and the final product also ended up being an organized mess of facts and figures of the land and river and proposals of how best to handled different situations. But however the quality of the final risk assessment, the process of trying to imagine all the worst situations we could end in and reading about related accidents both gave us a grave sense of the possible threats and risk as well as imposing a feeling of this great adventure awaiting us.
White water ahead?
First of all, we needed to figure out what awaited us on the river while kayaking and on its bank while camping. A thorough web search revealed some old topographic maps (link) based on older maps from the Vietnam war of most of Laos. The maps covered all of the Nam Ou on 16 different maps with a high enough resolution to get an impression of steep and lowland areas. We thought this was important to predict which stretches of the river would hold the most difficult rapids. Comparing our old topographic maps with the satellite imagery from Google, we found that the stretch between Ban Tang (google maps link) and Phôngsali (google maps link) would definitely be the most challenging (see map).
Still, we had no way of knowing how potentially difficult and dangerous these rapids could be and if the satellite images would be at the same water levels as we would experience. This huge unknown potential risk (would the river be kayakable?) would end up playing with our thoughts the three months up to departure and even more so once we were on the river. It was the unknown parts of the trip that ended up taking a psychological tole on us. To be honest, we really did not know what we were planning to do. We had a pretty good idea, but still we had no way of knowing or testing our skill sets before.
Is that snake poisonous?
Another big challenges for us was what to expect of poisonous spiders, snakes and scorpions. Without really knowing how dangerous the undergrowth could be, we started looking for anti-venom kits, but the few kits available were expensive and needed to be stored cold. So that was really not a possibility, but we still had to know if we needed to take extra precautions when camping, though. So we contacted one of my former professors in field biology specializing in spiders, Prof. Nikolaj Scharff at the Danish Natural History Museum in Copenhagen. Over a coffee in the museum cantina Nikolai assured us that there was no need to be afraid of whatever poisonous creature we could conjure up in our mind. Almost all of the snakes would be scared if we scrambled enough and the spiders and scorpions were not poisonous enough to kill us (!). He told us a story of one time in an east African jungle, where he got so excited of finding a rare scorpion, that he was not careful enough and it ended up stinging him. He continued the field expedition with his right hand double the size of normal and in continuous pain for the next four days. But as Nikolaj told us: It didn’t kill me, I’m still here. So we decided to trust Nikolaj and be just as fearful as him when it came to poisonous creatures and whatever else was waiting for us in the Northern mountains of Laos.