Take to the river for adventure amidst the mammoth rocky cliffs of the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

The guide’s instructions were clear: “Whatever happens, do not go in the hole.”

We’re in the hole.

A wall of water engulfs the kayak and flips it around. We’re pointing the wrong way and being sucked backwards. My companion gets washed out but manages to grab the rope at the back. He hauls himself back in and we paddle like madmen, crashing through a series of waves to calmer water.

The guide is waiting there, smiling and shaking his head. “I told you not to go in the hole.”

The rapid at mile marker 209 might only be a grade five on the Colorado River’s white water rating system of one to 10, but I feel as though I’ve just paddled through Victoria Falls. It’s quite simply one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever done.

Rafting through the Grand Canyon has become one of those life-changing, bucket-list travel experiences. The number of commercial operators is strictly regulated and they’ll be busier than ever next year when the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday.

The rafts are launched at Lees Ferry – mile marker 0 – and make their way over two weeks through 362 kilometres of some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Most companies split the trip into three segments, each of which has its own unique appeal.

The initial 141-kilometre section from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch is generally regarded as having the most impressive scenery. The downside is you have an arduous 15-kilometre hike up Bright Angel trail to get out when you finish.

Those looking for the wildest white water opt for the 160-kilometre Phantom Ranch to Whitmore Wash section. You have to hike in at Phantom, but a helicopter flies you out of Whitmore.

We’re on the final section – the 61 kilometres from Whitmore Wash to Diamond Creek. It’s tamer than the other two sections and only involves two nights’ camping on the riverbank. The plus side is you can tackle some of the rapids in an inflatable two-man kayak.

Whichever option you choose, it’s impossible not to be humbled by this spectacular natural phenomenon. Created by a combination of tectonic plate activity and erosion by the Colorado River, the canyon’s ochre-coloured walls provide one of the most comprehensive pages of the planet’s geological history anywhere in the world.

Each night camp is setup on a sandy beach. While we relax around the campfire with a cold beer, the guides conjure up delicious three-course feasts from the depths of the rafts. Tents are provided, but most people choose to sleep on cushioned mats underneath a sky crammed with stars.

During the final few kilometres of the trip, the river narrows and we find ourselves hemmed in by a natural amphitheatre of towering rock. While we drift silently downstream, one of the guides sings a slow, haunting rendition of Amazing Grace, her voice echoing off the canyon walls. It is a poignant end to a magical trip.

Words: Rob McFarland

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