Sharon goes back to school

After some great pointers from a short session with Mick Hopkinson, I signed up for a four day kayaking course, starting the following week. Having had an awesome experience with the Dusky dolphins at Kaikoura, we drove to Murchison and settled into the beautiful lodge at the Kayak School. It was wonderful to be able to relax in a place with a huge kitchen and comfy lounge area, surrounded by other kayakers.

Saturday morning, and the course started at 8am as it would every day – no lie-ins for a few days! There were several people from all over the world – 9 Australians made up the majority of the group, but there was a Californian, a German, a Kiwi and 2 English folk including myself amongst the medley. Three of these were on the beginner course having not done any paddling before, and the rest of us were on the Intermediate. After an introduction to students and staff, and a discussion of what we each wanted from the course, we headed down to the pool. The session began with each of us having our rolls videoed to see just how bad these were, and then we got onto the business of learning new more effective rolls. The verdict for me was that I had a very British roll! Apparently this isn't a particularly good thing… What it meant though was that I had an extra challenge as I needed to unlearn my bad habits and learn what was a much more simpler and effective roll. My main problem was that it took a few days to understand how something so easy could work so well, I'm still learning to trust it!

After the pool session, we went to the pond at the lodge and had some of our strokes videoed. These were all critiqued in a session, and then we headed to the 'Big Eddy' where we practised sweep strokes and learnt how to control the speed of turns effectively. Our last session of the day was a short section of the Buller river, after all the intense learning of the day, I was quite glad it was only a short section! We used the control turning strokes to glide across the river effectively and got to practise our rolls in the current.

Needless to say I was shattered after this first hectic day and ached in more places than I could've imagined. Muscles I've obviously not used paddling much, certainly were having a turn at being used and were definitely feeling it. I was very pleased that David was around to help cook!

The second day started with a pool session again, and it was with some shock that I found out that it was only 10am when we got back to the lodge. Another feedback session from the video taken was followed by a slalom session on the river. I'd been put in a different boat (a RPM) to help learn the turning strokes but it felt very different to what I was used to. I was struggling a little to understand some of the purposes of the strokes I was doing and so the slalom was a little frustrating for me, having to put aside what I'd learnt before and learn new techniques was pretty challenging. However Jess, my coach, was sympathetic to my cause thankfully! Comments about how British paddlers may not have the best technical skills (we don't have the rivers to really put them to use often) but are often the most determined and enthusiastic about boating despite some of the conditions they have to regularly deal with (cold, lack of water – this is usually the norm honest!) seemed to ring quite true. The time in the afternoon was spent on the Doctors Creek section of the Buller, using strokes to work across currents, rather than heading straight downstream – this effectively gives you more options when running rivers.

The third day, I got to return to using my Mamba again, I was surprised how weird it was to get back in my own boat! The pool session had an additional element today – the boats were attached to two ropes which were then dragged along by two volunteers, creating a current into which we could practise our rolling. This is something I've managed to avoid when our club plays this game at home, and I was a little – the difference though was that I had finally got a roll on both sides, even if they were still a little sketchy at the moment. Watching these performances on video in the feedback session was very enlightening and very entertaining. Some of the guys had been particularly mean to each other, but there were some pretty good rolling efforts. We headed straight out to the Earthquake section of the Buller after this, we had been usually going out after lunch and David had anticipated meeting me for food. So he'd headed out, unfortunately with my nice, dry, warm kit with him. Luckily Shannon (one of the boat slaves) helped kit me out with some spare thermals, and so it was to the river. We even passed David, but it was too late to beep at him, so I had to watch Kim go by with my kit. It may have been a blessing in disguise since I would've normally worn shorts but had borrowed some thermal trousers. The advantage of these was that they covered more of my legs leaving only my ankles to the mercy of the millions of sandflies in the area, which means I have a ring of extremely itchy red bits now.

The river was pretty high volume compared to some of the other stuff I'd paddled over here, and had some nice play waves – admittedly I didn't make too much use of these but did have a go at one wave. There was one rapid with some particularly large waves – the sort you only really appreciate when you're at the bottom of one looking up at the next. It was a lovely river with some interesting swirlies characteristic of a gorged run. My distinctly non dry top didn't mean I got out of rolling practise, but I was very glad of the many thermals Shannon had lent me!

This was the third night of the course, and so a barbecue was organised. David and Abi (the girlfriend of Sam who was on the beginner course) had made use of the lovely kitchen and spent the afternoon baking so we were treated to yummy banoffi pie, fudge brownies and rocky road for dessert. It was a great evening, with Ben Jackson (one of the coaches) showing a presentation on his recent trip to India. This was followed by some video of paddling in first California, then Washington. This was a great reminder of the places we'd been ourselves earlier this year. We recognised one of the guys on Ben's video as a guy we'd met in BC and paddled with on the Ashlu called David – to us he was Cal David. It was another reminder of how small the paddling community can be sometimes, even internationally it would seem.

Tuesday was the last day of the course, and again it started with a pool session. At one point when I was resting at the side, Mick came over and told me to practise bending back my wrists. He then jumped into the pool to help coach my roll and it finally struck me where I was losing the last little bit of elegance in the roll. Its not an especially easy thing to explain in a blog but its effects have been striking to me! Later he explained the others were going off to 'dice with death' but that he felt for the long term future of my paddling, it would be best if he and I headed to another easier section to practise what I'd been learning. I'm not one to turn down some one to one coaching, so I quite happily agreed. As it was, Lisa decided she would get more out of practising with us than joining the others, and so it was the three of us on the Middle Matakitaki. Its a beautiful river, with a gorge section and is snow melt fed so is freezing cold. However we worked the river hard making all the hard to catch eddies and such like, so we soon warmed up. Then it would be time to practise the rolls to cool down again! Instead of video feedback, Mick would demonstrate what I had done and why this meant the roll wasn't working effectively – its great to be able to see that since I'm someone who can get confused as to what went wrong why. This warming up and cooling down was repeated several times and by the time we'd got to the flat section, I felt we had really made the most of the river and was looking forward to heading back there with David.

All in all it was a fantastic course – I don't think any of us wanted to leave the lodge so we ended up staying there again after heading to the pub! It was very refreshing to be told that some of my strokes could be improved and shown how, particularly with my roll. I'm so pleased I can finally roll both sides! Its great to have learnt so much and feel now that I can head out to the rivers to put this to practise. Another great thing is that I can go along to pool sessions to ensure my roll isn't reverting to my old habits. Its such a great place to learn to kayak or improve, since there are so many intermediate rivers in the area, and I was so impressed with the coaching. Definitely a place to recommend to anyone heading out here! I think we're already planning more courses when we return…

David would like to say: We're slowly starting to organise the logistics for the rest of our trip. We've just booked on this trip from Kathmandu to Delhi , and we've set our flight home for the last possible date we could use on our tickets – on the 2nd May at about 1300 hours we'll be arriving into Heathrow. But we don't need to think about that yet. Still need to book our Aussie trips, plan our Nepalese itinerary and see if we can get a spaceship to take us from Sydney to Cairns. We'll update our calendar when we've got these things booked.

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