NOTE: This article was originally published in the Outdoor Adventure Guide.
The idea was a simple one. My friend Izzy and I would drive to Horsham, find the source of the River Arun and follow it by foot and inflatable dinghy 25 meandering miles to Littlehampton on the south coast, where it spills out into the English Channel.
One hour into the journey and we had made it less than half a mile through thick, wild forest that felt more like the Amazon than the Sussex countryside.
This was going to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated.
We crawled, we climbed, we slipped and we fell. We crossed bridges and we built bridges. The river was either too small to float on or on the rare occasion that it was big enough, there were fallen trees and obstacles blocking our path.
We had anticipated a short stroll followed by a long paddle. We would effortlessly float in the sunshine all the way to Littlehampton, waving at delighted picnickers and fishermen all the way. After two glorious sun drenched days we would arrive victorious, stepping from our dinghy straight into the pub for a pint and some fish and chips. The locals would beg us to tell them more about the wondrous adventure we had just partaken in.
By 8pm on the first evening we had not even entertained the idea of inflating the boat.
As we entered a cow field, Izzy told me that she had been chased by a herd of cows in New Zealand and as such was now terrified of them. I told her not to be so silly and strolled into the field.
The cows approached and I looked around for Izzy, she was already hiding in a bush. The herd closed in around me and I was forced to retreat to the muddy banks of the river where Izzy was now cowering.
The cows kept pushing forwards.
Maybe they were being curious. Maybe they thought we were going to feed them. Maybe they did, in fact, want to kill us.
Before I had time to ponder for too long I heard Izzy yell an expletive and throw herself off of the river bank into the water about 6 feet below us, pack still on her back. It was deep.
I froze in a stand off with a herd of 30 cows while Izzy floundered in the water below. They edged further forward still. A chorus of angry sounding ‘moos’ began.
“JACK! YOU NEED TO JUMP NOW!!!” Screamed a freezing cold, terrified Izzy.
So I did.
We both flopped out onto the bank on the other side, drenched.
This was our cue to make camp for the night. The boat finally came out of the bag, but only as acting ground sheet.
We slept in bivvy bags on the bank of the river and woke early the next morning.
We stuck to the road for the first part of the day, trying to make up for lost time.
When we finally did head back into the fields, Izzy soon noticed a cow pat on the ground.
I watched the colour drain from her cheeks.
“I think it’s time to get in the river.” She said.
Thankfully, this time, at last, it would be in the boat.
It felt great to finally be floating on the river rather than battling through the forest beside it and not using it as refuge from angry cattle.
This was what it was all about.
It wasn’t plain sailing. Parts of the river were impassable. We had to get out many times and pass the boat to each other ‘Chuckle brother style’ through walls of nettles. “To me… to you.” Sometimes it was easier to let the boat drift beneath us while we climbed through the trees above before lowering ourselves down and dropping back down into it.
We got a puncture. We fixed it.
We made friends with a couple of swans and found hundreds of baby frogs.
Late in the afternoon it became very clear that we were not going to make it to the sea.
We were ok with this – it was an incredible weekend.
We came to another blockage in the river. The biggest we had yet encountered.
“Pub?” said Izzy.
I’d already pulled the valve out of the dinghy.
A while later, after a Sunday roast and a couple of pints we got a lift back to the source of the River Arun, where we had left the car two long days ago.
The drive back took 25 minutes.