Our daydream had morphed into a decision and we'd set a date. As far as planning went; our very decision to Kayak the Arun was pretty much the extent of it. Aaron has been my friend for as long as I can remember, he has two sit-on-kayaks and lived in Littlehampton so there seemed little need for any further planning. He'd met other kayakers locally and talked through the idea with various people. What more could we possibly need to know?
Some pretty basic research – more curious musings than any genuine attempt to build a basis of knowledge – had informed me that The Arun river, being one of Britain's fastest flowing rivers, was tidal from Arundel. The river itself is in fact navigable from Pullborough but to hit high tide at the necessary point this would involve 'putting in' at an unreasonable hour and neither of us were prepared to kayak by torch light. Aaron had met some like minded kayakers who'd shared their 'put in' point at the Black Rabbit Pub (just north of Arundel).
From conversations with these kayakers Aaron now knew that the lapse between the coastal high tide and the turn in the river was two hours. This saw us up and at it far too early for comfort. High tide was at 0500 so at the latest we planned to be in the water by 0700. Aaron's girlfriend, Carmen, graciously volunteered to chauffeur us to the put in for this ungodly hour with the bright yellow kayaks strapped to the roof of her tiny Ford Fiesta. I'm not sure I'd have been able to muster the same level of enthusiasm for such an early start had I not been participating to be honest so I'm incredibly grateful for that.
At the pub the actual point of entry was a little less clear but Aaron picked a point and seemed confident enough about it to convince me that it would work. The bank looked relatively steep and, being a muddy river bank, offered little purchase under foot. We pushed the first kayak down into the still water and I clumsily scampered down the bank and tried to decant myself into the boat. My nerves were eased slightly by the serenity of the river. The low sun glinted on the mirror still water and the only sound was the dawn chorus of the birds. Not another soul was around – thankfully. I paddled around a bit, trying to get a feel for the kayak and settle any residual nerves whilst Aaron ran off into the bushes for his morning ablutions.
The previous night's conversations had digressed onto the subject of bodily functions and there had been some mention of packing a toilet roll in a waterproof bag. At the time I had assumed it was a lighthearted jovial suggestion but now I couldn't help wondering if we were going to be joined by an unpleasant floater. Fortunately it turned out that Aaron just needed to water the reeds – all the same, quite a fete in a wet suit (if you're planning to sit in a plastic bucket for a few hours, urinating in your wetsuit is not a very appealing solution).
Aaron's entrance into The Arun was considerably more graceful than my own and he was soon demonstrating his ease on the water, zipping around with an effortless grace and surprising speed. I voiced some concerns about the amount of water I appeared to be taking on-board, even going so far as to point out the bubbles that were now appearing from the hull,
"It's just the ballast thing-a-me-bob equalising." Aaron assured me.
from this I had to assume that it was just my massive weight difference that saw me lying so much lower in the water than my featherweight companion. We bid Carmen farewell and started our journey south.
Phobias are an odd thing. To feel any level of empathy with somebody else over the subject will remain an impossibility. As anxiety disorders go it's a pretty personal one described as "a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding". Quite inexplicably, mine is birds. My long standing fear of these avian foes stretches back for as long as I can recall yet it remains a source of much mirth and merriment to Aaron. As you can imagine, other than fish, the main inhabitants of a British river tend to be feathered. Growing up, Aaron had owned many animals including geese, peacocks and even a kestrel. So, as you can imagine, he remained blissfully unaffected by our present company.
It was far from a great surprise and I knew it was something I was just going to have to face but it made for an awkward nerve-racking start to the journey for me. We hadn't even gotten as far as the Castle at Arundel before I found myself cowering behind Aaron's kayak trying to circumnavigate this massive beaked nemesis. We'd had to pass three mating couples on a pretty wide part of the river but I hadn't felt this confined since a pigeon flew in through a toilet window once whilst I was on the throne! Once past them I could enjoy the river in it's true form once more. At this point it was quite wide. The stillness of the water made for a picture perfect environment as gently weaving reeds hugged the banks.
A number of private moorings seemed to be the precursor to the picturesque market town of Arundel. Passing the imposing castle set a fabulous scene. I couldn't escape the feeling of being incredibly tiny as we bobbed and meandered past the stunning riverside houses of this obviously affluent area. It was still early with few people around. As we quietly cruised through, under the bridges (road and rail) and past more privately moored pleasure cruisers I was put in mind of Cambridge – albeit without the punting, strawberries or champagne.
After Arundel we were into a rural wilderness. As the properties faded away and were replaced with open fields. The river banks were long, steep sloped mud flats topped with more reeds – perfect nesting for yet more swans. The ubiquitous nature of these terrifying monsters now meaning that I was left with the option; face my fear or let my fear beat me. Nonetheless, it didn't make it any less scary and the cold sweats that were freezing in my wetsuit were not from any exertion.
Troubled as I may have been it would seem that Aaron was to be plagued by a far more troubling woe as his own bladder turned on him. Mooring points here were few and far between, but when nature calls man will find a way. Whilst I tried to hold his kayak at the bank he disembarked and scampered up the muddy bank into the reeds. As Aaron squirmed and struggled out of his wet suit any tentative hold I may have had on the bank eluded me and I soon found myself and the two kayaks drifting helplessly backwards down river. Rowing back up river, against a strong current, would be extremely tough. But holding his ore and kayak at the same time meant that it was impossible.
By this stage I would expect to have seen Aaron panic. At least a little. But that's just not Aaron, he was more concerned that he might accidentally empty his bladder into the neck of his wetsuit whilst he stood bearing all for the world to see and spraying the bank.
"Urm… Aaaaaron….. "
"… be there in a minute Steve."
– 'Just shaking' I imagine!
By a stroke of luck the current swept me and the crippled vessels in towards the bank where I caught in some weeds long enough for Pepé le Pee to re-dress and join me. Now caked in several kilo's of sticky mud and piss Aaron nimbly jumped back on board and zipped away whilst I tried to gather my thoughts, disentangle myself and rejoin the river. With a freshly emptied bladder he seemed to find his pace again and was off like a rocket as I endeavored to catch up.
The tranquility of the river and the repetitive nature of rowing soon lulled us into a hypnotic rhythm. My pace crept up and I even managed to pass Aaron whom I think paused to admire some wildlife. I, too, had started to appreciate the amazing diversity of wildlife we shared the river with. Beyond my fear I could see the grace and beauty of these magnificent creatures. As well as the swans were herons, ducks, moorhens and a plethora of other birds. We even saw a kestrel and Aaron was lucky enough to glimpse a Kingfisher.
A country trail now shouldered the river bank, hosting a couple of dog walkers and ramblers,
"Great day for it!"
I was almost taken aback by the friendliness but I remind myself that it's the effect of beautiful surroundings. This is my theory on why complete strangers will always say hello whilst rambling in the countryside but the same people would avoid eye contact in a city at all costs. Aaron is so sociable though I thought he was going to moor up and share a sandwich over tips on urinating in wetsuits! I offered a simple greeting and rowed on – enjoying the simple pleasure of physical effort and the river itself.
Whilst I may have been slowly coming to terms with the ever present swans Aaron was not faring so well with his own demons. He soon needed yet another pit-stop. Practice makes perfect though and the transition from water to terra firma was noticeably more fluid. Paddling hard at a low sloping bank, grounding the kayak, essentially proved to be the kayaking version of parallel parking. I about-turned and paddled gently against the current just holding my position in the river whilst Aaron went through his stripping procedure for a third time that day. Although muddy, the transition back onto the water seemed much smoother too.
Before long we found ourselves approaching another rail bridge (a train was going over it at the time and Aaron was enjoying waving to the passengers). Although any research or preparation had been erring on the side of lackadaisical I had taken the time to review the route on Google Maps, making a point of using the satellite view option in an attempt to familiarise myself with what was to come. The sparsity of bridges along the route had made them the perfect instruments for mental way-marks.
"I don't know if I'm right Aaron, but if my memory serves this bridge would have us at or around the half way point."
Aaron's previous estimation had been that the trip would take us six to eight hours. Vague as that sounds it had left us with a genuine concern that we may struggle to beat the tide turning at Little Hampton. I'd already tried paddling against the current and knew that over a significant distance it would prove a serious challenge – imagine treading water in treacle and you have some idea what I'm talking about. But an hour and a half into the route this seemed quite unfeasible that we'd covered half the distance already though.
The fact remains that we were enjoying it though. We were in a happy flow, metaphorically and literally. Paddling felt effortless (although the aches were to kick in later) and we were skipping along the water happily soaking it all in with the sun on our faces, chatting like a couple of little old ladies at a bus stop. I felt like I'd really found my form, I could dig deep and really pull myself along in comparison to a mere hour or so ago when I'd nervously splashed along desperately trying to keep up with my friend.
The river meandered on, sweeping in large curves through the Sussex countryside. Endless fields of rape seed or cattle – the cows watching on nonplussed at our nautical intrusion. At points where the river narrowed the current was a tangible force pulling at the underside of the bright plastic. The moments of extra speed were exhilarating and great fun. As the river opened back up after these it almost felt like brakes were being applied and hard rows were required again to maintain the momentum.
Rounding one curve the river's temperament changed dramatically. Bobbing waves jostled the kayak's nose and slapped the hull. The change was immediate and perceivable – perfectly still and mirror flat water was replaced with a miniature 'chop'. Although not taxing and no where near as choppy as my previous (and only other) outing in the sea it added a new dimension to the kayaking. I actually found it quite exciting as the waves splashed and frothed over me. It felt like 'battling through' something. It was short lived though and almost as quickly as it started the calm serenity of the river returned. Half an hour of sea-like waves one minute serenity the next – our mistress, the river, was a fickle little lady.
Driven on by our apparent superhuman progress we pushed on. The pace felt comfortable yet focused. Both of us were starting to genuinely believe that we could surpass our own expectations and then it was there – the other bridge. The last bridge. Even Aaron had to accept that my knowledge of the bridges of Arun was unsurpassed and he finally accepted that we had made it much faster than any preconcieved expectations. This bridge marked the start of the harbour at Little Hampton. This was the point I'd been picturing in my mind – the triumphant finale. Bunting and fan-fares!
Instead our only welcome were a couple of drunks in a tiny motorboat veering wildly across the river in an erratic zig-zag. Slurring a boisterous welcome we returned the sentiment before bracing ourselves for the wake. Fortunately that was the only traffic we encountered – I'd kind of expected to see more pleasure boats or fishing vessels milling about in the harbor but as it happens we had the whole thing to ourselves. We did have an audience though; kids cheered hello as we paddled past and other people waved and shouted greetings. A wooden post had a huge carved owl on top of it which we debated for some time whether was actually real or not before concluding that it was merely a unique and rather nice characteristic of the harbor.
Relishing the moment we edged toward the harbor mouth and the English Channel. One particular couple of 'supporters' seemed to be incredibly vocal in their excitement for our endeavors.
"what's that swimming across there", Aaron asked before joking,
I must admit that I assumed it was just a log or some other debris until I pieced it together with what our 'supporters' were saying. This also went some way to explaining how this log was putting up such a valiant fight against a very determined current. A woman's dog had gone in and was being dragged out to sea! It must have chased some bird or something before being overcome by the outward tide. The poor pooch had already been dragged a good hundred meters before it had managed to secure sanctuary on a small pebble groin foot at the far end of the harbor mouth wall. I rode my kayak up the pebbled bank in the same style that I had seen Aaron do for his last call of nature, stepped off and dragged up the nose. Our canine friend was quite distressed by now and was not sure what to make of this strange neoprene coated creature trying to befriend her. I managed to comfort her slightly but when she saw her owner on the far bank looking as equally distressed she freaked out again.
Being a country boy and avid animal lover I knew we needed Aaron's Dr Doolittle skills on the job and beckoned him to join me. I helped him haul the second kayak up onto the pebble bank and he soon had hold of the canine. Getting her into the kayak with him was a two man job: Aaron had to hold the collar until he was adrift at which point the dog, although visually nervous, was secured on board and I could pass him his ore and give them a healthy shove off. That said, from this point, paddling back into the mouth was an obvious challenge. It took an immense effort on behalf of Aaron who really demonstrated his kayaking skills to return the dog to her fretful owner.
It was an exciting and fun end to a great journey and so to celebrate we exited the harbor into the sea and headed right, over to West Beach. A grand and desolate beach, perfect for a spot of lunch. We rode the kayaks up the soft sand and unwrapped our snacks. By now our beautiful sunny day had taken a turn for the worse. I'd noticed it becoming overcast as we'd entered the harbor but with the excitement of our dog rescue hadn't realised just how cold it had gotten. If it weren't for the shivering I think we would have gone for a bit of a play in the sea but we just weren't offered the waves so we decided to kayak back instead. Before relaunching my kayak I noticed that the threaded large cap in the hull was cross-threaded and essentially open. "Ballast equalising thing-a-me-bob" my arse, I'd taken on about a gallon of water and had lugged that extra ballast the whole way. As we opened the drain plugs and tilted the kayak up to fully empty it Aaron couldn't help but remark,
"I'm actually a bit surprised at how much water was in there Steve!"
He was surprised? I was astonished!
Across the mouth once more, over to East Beach and Aaron's flat. As we approached the shore we got our welcoming committee: A thankful dog owner was there to great us with offers of coffee and a bacon butty. As it transpired Midge was a rescue dog from Gosport and her owner was incredibly relieved to have her back. Aaron's razor quick wit was impressive,
"Rescue dog? So that's the second time she's been rescued then? You might want to take better care of her!"
Brilliant. After warm showers and hot brews we headed into town to toast Midge. Aaron's problematic bladder persisted and the local birds still scared me but we both agreed it was an amazing trip, worth every glorious moment.