The ferry pulled into Uehara port after a fierce battle with the seas, contrasting vastly with the sunny skies of Ishigaki I’d just left. The rain poured in buckets as the staff shuttled me to my room at the guesthouse. Perhaps this rain were an omen of things to come.
I spent the few remaining hours before dinner examining maps and asking the staff loads of questions about possible routes. With so many possibilities, I decided to take it one step at a time and start the proceedings with some river kayaking.
Early the next morning, Masato drove me to the river bank, pulled my rented kayak into the waters, and bade farewell. Armed with a hand-drawn map of the area, I was to maneuver through the mangroves until reaching the trailhead for Pinaisaara waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Okinawa. I set off in good spirits upstream, trying to get the hang of the most efficient paddling motions. The trees hung near inches from the surface of the tidal waters, as I fought both the wind and the current for momentum. All alone I crested, looking for other kayaks to guide me. Perhaps they’d start after me?
Alas I reached what I think is the correct boat landing: a series of small wooden steps with metal rings embedded. As I disembarked the vessel I somehow jostled the edge of my secured backpack, sending my rather pricey and barely 6-month old compact digital camera straight into the murky waters. I froze in horror – all silent including my heartbeat, before reflexively diving my right arm into the meter deep river to retrieve it. Salvaged but surely the damage was done.
I hung my new paperweight off the chest strap of my pack in hopes that some of the electronics would start to dry before short-circuiting. I set off to climb to the top of the waterfall with nothing to shoot with save my 2 megapixel cell phone camera. I shot away as best I could, as I needed the photos to help me with the write-up of the hike on my other site.
Soon I reached the edge of the river bank above the waterfall, and waited, for I knew not the best way of fording the river. After 20 minutes, a guided tour showed up, so I simply sat back and naturally observed the footwork of the guide. Shortly after the clients safely crossed I too had followed in their footsteps and sat atop the might 60-meter vertical drop. Clouds prevented a clear view of the East China Sea beyond, but at least I could have a bird’s-eye view of the vast jungle spread out before me.
After re-crossing the river, I opted to put on my trekking shoes, since I’d made the steep ascent and river crossing in my sandals. The extra foot protection made the tricky descent more manageable until I’d once again reached the river flats. From here it was simply a matter of rock hopping and trying to pick up the unmarked trail to the base of the falls. Even though this is one of the most popular day excursions on Iriomote, absolutely no signposts or tape marked the trail. Perhaps this was a deliberate effort by the guides in order to not make their jobs obsolete. Indeed, on this particular day I rain into 4 other groups, all of whom had guides. I was the only one going solo, but my vast mountaineering experience and path prediction skills proved worthy for, after a creative 20-minute venture, I too found myself bathing in the mist of the roaring aquatic whirlpool.
Retracing my steps back to the kayak, I slipped on a moss-covered rock and bounced once again on my bruised buttocks and opened up a gash in my left shin that had me winching in pain. The ghosts of Ishigaki certainly followed me on the ferry over to Iriomote.
Once back at the river bank, I struggled to locate my kayak. Apparently, the smart thing to do is to hang your life jacket in a tree adjacent to your kayak to make it easy to find. What was my life jacket doing in my kayak?
Eventually I did locate what I thought was my correct kayak, and started the 30-minute cruise back to my starting point. Despite my troubles with the camera and the open wounds, things couldn’t be better. Indeed, less than 10 meters in front of me, a crested serpent eagle swooped down across the river and perched itself in a neighboring mangrove. I pulled the kayak to a halt, sat quietly, and observed. What couldn’t be documented with a camera would have to stay with me in memory.