Martin Chambers

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Early days, Rafting

If travel involves stepping outside your comfort zone and the stories we take home are what make it worth the discomfort, adventure travel evokes even greater stories because the discomfort is potentially greater. For every participant in an adventure there are those who run it for whom the adventure is routine. But we still get great stories and here are a couple of mine.

A friend who runs an adventure training organization defines Adventure as ‘creating unexpected outcomes’ This definition may be adequate for the participants, who enroll in adventure activities expecting a little of the unexpected but without too great discomfort or risk. From the point of view of the operator, there should be nothing unexpected. You might be surprised but the business will have to have pretty much planned for it- that rafting capsize was expected! The abseil tears of fears conquered flow every week. ‘Lost’ just means we are not there yet and have time to spare. 

My life of adventure began at high school when I joined the kayak club and suffered what might be ‘unexpected outcomes’. Every rapid I shot was with the expectation that I would get to the bottom intact. But the outcome was just that- I came out! Despite all the bruised shins and cold swims, spending every weekday night with a pot of resin and glass repairing for the weekend in time to smash myself and my kayak again, I loved it. I loved being in the forest, on a river, remote, by a fire at night, cold, scared in my tent at night while outside the rapids roared. 

I got so good at repairing kayaks that eventually I started making them. I started a little shop selling kayaks and importing gear and spent all the profit making more kayaks for me to smash up on the weekends.  

I traveled to new and exotic rivers to smash kayaks in new and exotic locations. I ran first descents in New Guinea and when the Franklin Dam protest was in full swing and I, along with thousands of others, rafted the river to join the protest. This was my first rafting experience.

The next year, at work in my shop selling specialist kayaks, I came to realize how many people just wanted to experience rapids but did not have the skills to tackle them in a kayak. The interest in the Franklin as a wild river trip proved that other people enjoyed what I did. Perhaps a little raft on our rivers could run a few tours. After all, I needed to expand the profit base to pay for my new tastes in exotic overseas unexpected outcomes.

The responsible outdoor professional or astute business person would research the market, find trained staff, create an operations manual and have safety procedures. They would probably need insurance and some sort of permit. I didn’t have time for all that. I just put an ad in the paper. 

The phone rang hot, and within days I had two weekends fully booked. I still didn’t have a raft, but if bookings kept coming in like this I would soon be able to afford one! One day a chap who had been guiding rafts in NZ rang the shop looking for work as a raft guide. He had moved to Perth to marry his girlfriend, thus verifying the greatest risk inherent in running adventure tours. (The intense emotions of adventure make for powerful holiday romance, but those are a whole set of other stories.)  

‘Come and talk’ I said. That afternoon we drove around to a boat shop and bought a raft and some paddles on credit, half each. I took helmets and buoyancy vests out of my kayak shop stock. That weekend we ran out first trip. Paul had never seen the river before and I had never guided a six person raft before, but we had a lot of fun including quite a few ‘unexpected outcomes’. 

Next week I placed more ads, I took more bookings, and I called the insurance company.

“I’m running rafting trips on the Avon River. Anything might happen. I need insurance.’

‘Sure,’ they said. “$200 premium for 12 months’. It sounded as though they thought this was expensive and the only details they wanted seemed to be the bank deposit.  

I also called various government departments who all agreed there must be some sort of permit, but couldn’t say exactly what. The best one was the Department of Transport who eventually wrote to me that the rafts would be exempt from annual survey requirements subject to annual survey and inflation test! 

Business went well. Paul ran the trips and I ran the office, we bought two more rafts and discovered how many ex rafting guides lived domestic lives in suburban Perth. I made friends with other adventure tour operators, a hot air balloon company, sky divers, horse riding companies and bushwalking guides. 

To keep the business running during the dry season we started sea kayaking tours, the first in WA. We also had hire canoes, canoe trips and ran school adventure camps. This was a whole lot more fun than retailing kayaks so I sold that business and ran the adventure trips full time. 

A friend summed up the business sense of it all like this- ‘when you sell something, the customer gives you some money and takes the product, but when you hire or run a tour they give you some money and at the end of the day they also give you the product back!’ 

Now that I am older and slowing down a bit, I am back in a retail shop and running a few trips on the side. I am now one of all those ex rafting guides we discovered living quiet suburban lives while dreaming of one last great trip. Spending weekends at home, dining out on stories of excellent adventures and the excellent people we met. Although perhaps the waves really weren’t bigger then and the rivers no wilder at least wilderness did mean more than out of mobile range. Perhaps we were cowboys, but I don’t think it was ever less safe than anything now, other than in our stories.