In recent years the Philippines has developed a reputation for grass-roots sporting surfing, boardsailing and mountain biking events which combine high levels of competition with serious fun. Now, with the success of the first whitewater kayaking competition ever held in the country, a new sport will be appearing on the events calendar.
Only a few years ago most experts would have thought it impossible. Conv¬entional wisdom held that the largely forested Visayan islands of the central Philippines had no rivers large enough or with consistent enough flow to make whitewater sports possible. Then Greg Hutchinson of Tribal Adventure Tours went exploring for mountain biking routes. Less than two hours drive from the popular beach destination of Boracay, Hutchinson found the Tibiao river, which plunges over just 20km down the slopes Nit. Madja-as, the highest peak on Panay Island. The lower stretches of the river offer consistent grade 3 and 4 rapids, so Hutchinson brought in some kayaks, built small, rustic inn near the remote village of Tuno, and organized the first Philippine Whitewater Kayaking Cup.
The thick jungle that surrounds the upper reaches of the Tibiao River mean that even a small event presents major logistical challenges. The Kayak Inn could be accommodate only a few of the competi¬tors. And many visitors and a sizeable media contingent had to stay in tents or nearby village. But outstanding operation from the local community helped make the event an overwhelming success. Participants included kayakers from Australia, the US and the UK, as well Ls a large number of Manila-based sea¬t/rakers, many of whom were getting their first taste of white water, and several local contestants.
Even the weather cooperated. When contestants arrived, a drought had seriously reduced the water level of the forcing the organizers to move the slalom course downstream. On the first morning of the event the first heat of the six kilometre wild water race was held: while narrow stretches kicked up rapids large enough to justify the name of the race, contestants often had to tur¬tle their way through shallow, rocky, sec¬tions. Fish traps and a small dam presented additional challenges to the skills of the kayakers: local fishermen had offered to remove them, but the organizers decided to leave things as they were. “We don’t ask people to work around us,” said Hutchinson, “we work around them”.
Then, just before lunch, the rain swept in, raising the water enough to make the first slalom heat a real thriller. Rain fell steadily overnight, and the rapids began to churn. The volunteer lifesavers Philippine Army soldiers from a nearby detachment even had to drag a few inexperienced kayakers Out of the water in the more difficult stretches. The last 50m of the wild water final became a real challenge, as it ended in a metre-wide chute under an overhanging rock and several contestants finished the race with¬out their boats.
The biggest surprise of the second day, though, arrived by foot. Lured by local radio coverage, hundreds of spectators turned up, many of them having walked five kilometres from the nearest road. During the final slalom heats, the entire course was lined with a cheering throng. “It felt like the Olympics!” quipped vet¬eran Australian kayaker Peter Hynes, who had flowon in to assist with the organiza¬tion of the event.
When the spray settled, Englishman Andy Gray had won first place in both the wild water and slalom competitions, dart¬ing through the slalom course in 2mins 12secs. Kayak Inn manager Gerlie Bautista took the women’s trophies.
It seems certain now that this ecologi¬cally sensitive sport has a future in the Philippines: the youngest racer, winner of a trophy for the best child kayaker, was nine-year-old Tibiao resident Diolito Patricio. During the awards ceremony, Patricio was asked if he expected to win an Olympic medal in whitewater kayaking some day. He paused to think about it for a brief moment, then replied “Yes, sir”.
Those who won medals weren’t the only winners in the Philippines’ first-ever whitewater kayaking cup: the construction of a whitewater centre on the Tibiao River means that the people of the nearby town have gained a new, environmentally-friendly tourist attraction
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