Camanducaia River

By Jesse Coombs

Location: Brazil
Class: V - V+
Gradient: Very high


Copyright © 2006, Oregon Kayaking and Jesse Coombs. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking webmaster and Jesse Coombs.
Many of the photos on this page were shot by Ben Zupo. Check out more of Ben's paddling photos at:

This and all of our other South American kayaking adventures are featured in the film: Hotel Charley: No Big Names 4
( You can view the trailer for Hotel Charley here ).

February, 2006 - Rio Camanducaia

As our Brazil trip wore on, I continued to pay the price for drinking the fresh local juice in Colombia. I had now been battling a three-week case of Montezuma's revenge that was only tolerable when I ate soup and crackers and absolutely miserable when I ate anything of substance.

After two days rest I was feeling much better ( this turned out to only be temporary relief and true resolution would only come at the hands of a full course of antibiotics a week later ) and the group had made plans to search out some steep first descents with a local Aqua Ride expert named Champion.

Aqua Ride is a home-grown Brazilian whitewater sport. Originally, Aqua Riders would tie a rope around a truck tire tube so that it has pointed ends, put on all the padding they could find, and run rivers. These days there is a factory that produces custom tubes and protective gear. The sport has evolved to the point where Brazilians are running class four and five rapids with amazingly clean lines. ( Incidentally, portaging is a lot easier with a 20 pound tube vs. a 50 pound kayak.. )

We met Champion in the morning, and he said there was a short but extremely steep section on the Rio Camanducaia that we might be interested in. The six of us piled into the Jeep with four kayaks on top and drove off with high hopes and anticipation.

The author at the put in for the Camanducaia.
photo by Ben Zupo

The mile or so of rapids above the big falls included a couple of class three and four rapids with some flat water in between.

When we arrived at the steep section of the Camanducaia we spent a significant amount of time scouting the crux section, which consisted of an extraordinarily complex 110 foot tall multi-tiered waterfall.

The first falls was a 30-footer consisting of a steep fifteen foot slide into a fifteen foot freefall.

The second waterfall was a 30-footer consisting of some short slides into a twenty-five foot freefall with a thin line that required a boof with right pointing nose to have a clean exit to the right into a small one boat eddy above the third falls.

The third falls was a monster, consisting of a fifty foot, six-tiered cascade with each tier falling onto the next.

I was immediately intrigued by this bottom falls, but the best view was from a rocky island in the middle of the river. It wasn't possible to get to the island, except for a very enticing yet marginal looking tree that grew sideways over the falls and toward the island. While everybody else opted to hike through the jungle, I opted for the sketchy tree traverse out to the island.

If the tree fell or broke the results would be disastrous because the tree was directly above the falls, so I knew I would have to be very careful.

The bottom fifty-foot cascade on the on the Camanducaia waterfall run.

Unfortunately for me, the tree provided a growing spot for three fern type plants with a base the size of a basketball, and to allow safe passage I had to push these plants off their high perch so that they were hanging from the horizontal trunk.

About one third of the way across the down-sloping trunk, I realized a troop of ants were using the tree as a crossing bridge and I had to employ a pre-emptive strike on these ants, sweeping them with my hands off the tree as the ones who found my body attempted to exact a some tax on me for disrupting their normal course of business: Agricultural Transport.

Soon the tree tapered off to a limb that forked out over the rocky island, and I had to engage in some serious monkey business to reach the rocks. I tried to ignore the thundering falls below me as I scrambled across the swaying limb, and then I was on the island, covered with moss, mud, and angry ants.

I scrambled though the foliage and slippery rocks to the top of the island and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the fifty-foot falls. After careful scouting and line selection I determined these falls might just be doable if some solid safety was set just right, and now I had to get back across the river.

My heart was racing as I considered the tree crossing. From this side it looked much worse, because I would have to start off with the limb moves. The tree limb I had monkeyed across just minutes before was now looking horribly inadequate, so I cast about for alternative routes to no avail.

Finally, I was back at the limb. I steeled my nerves and swung out into space, the limb swaying crazily as I monkeyed my way across to the main trunk. Careful not to slip being so close to back to safe ground I again straddled the moss covered trunk, swiped away the train of ants and scooted and pulled myself up the trunk to safety at the far bank.

The author makes the sketchy trip back across the scouting tree. The bottom limb is the one I 'monkeyed' my way across both ways..
photo by Ben Zupo

At this point everybody else had decided not to run the falls, but I thought it looked good. Ben S, Ben Z, Ryan Mac, and Champion spread out along the falls with ropes as I got ready.

With thumbs up all around I set off and ran the first drop nicely hitting my line as planned, which left me in a good position to run the next one. In my opinion the second falls was the toughest of the three as I needed to hit the lead-in slide just right to set myself up to run the twenty-five foot freefall as well as possible, because there was almost no recovery above the final fifty footer.

The author probes the huge and complex crux falls on the Camanducaia.
photo by Ben Zupo

I could not have asked for a better line as I negotiated the entry slide exactly as planned. I nailed the two boofs above the 25-foot freefall and then adjusted my boat angle to the right as I sailed over the 25-footer landing at a great 45-degree angle.

I surfaced upright and pointed in the direction I needed to hit the eddy. Everyone whooped and hollered as we breathed a collective sigh of relief and excitement when caught the eddy. With the second falls complete it was time to focus on the third falls, the huge and complex fifty foot cascade.

The author probes the middle of the crux falls.
photo by Ben Zupo

Ben Zupo, Ben Stookesberry and Champion got into position and I was ready to go. I absolutely did not want to get too far left as the water fell directly onto rock in a very unfriendly way and there was no slack water for recovery before heading off into the unknown. I decided to try and get another look at the falls from a rock in the middle of the river.

I ferried my boat across the top of the drop through a tough line and was able to pull myself on a shelf near the top of the drop. Luckily the water was just shallow enough to the left of where I wanted to run, so I was able to walk right up to the lead in rapid. Great news, the lead-in would channel me exactly where I wanted to go given that I made the correct entrance move for the falls.

With thumbs up all around to indicate everyone was ready I got back in my boat and paddled through the entrance move and quickly began to accelerate into the falls. Everything was going smoothly and feeling right until I landed on the fourth tier, which held a sharply right sloping rock that had been hidden from view by the whitewater when I scouted.

I was moving at a very high rate of speed, nearly free-falling at this point. My boat struck the hidden rock and it was like a booby trap springing as my boat was pitched to the right like a spring-loaded Jack-In-The-Box. I instinctively put up my right paddle and blade to brace into the rock as I felt myself turn upside down in the air and plunge into the unknown.

I would like to think that I tucked my face into my shoulder to protect it, but I am not really sure if I had time. I felt a violent impact on the rock with my right elbow, shoulder and face as I slammed into the rock. I felt my right cheek bone smack the rock smartly and I knew this was going to be more than a scratch.

I played Ice Hockey at Rutgers, and blows to the head were part of the game. I still play to this day, and I have continued to drive down the ice many times with my head ringing. The river wasn't going to stop playing just because I was hurt, and neither was I..

The author takes a big hit on the final tier of the crux falls..
photos by Ben Zupo

My head was ringing from the impact and I struggled to maintain focus as I continued to plunge downstream towards the final tier. I was now somewhat off line due to the impact, but I made the best of it. I sailed toward the sixth and final tier sideways, leaning towards the left. I landed with a bad angle and immediately flipped, quickly rolling up in the small recovery pool.

I turned to look at Champion and he smiling but obviously concerned. I gave him the universal head pat signal and he seemed relieved. He called me 'Superman' in his broken English and told me the mark on my face was nothing! I smiled but felt a little light headed.

I turned to look across the river and the two Ben's faces told a different story. I knew there must be some pretty significant swelling because they were twenty-five feet away, on the other side of the river.

The impact of my face was so severe that when it happened I was convinced the damage would be more than superficial, but somehow my face hurt very little. The swelling I could feel was large, but was pretty much only where I hit and not spreading significantly. This gave me optimism about the prospects of quick healing. One of the lessons I have learned in my kayaking endeavors is that when I run a rapid because I think it looks fun, then I have always been happy and accept the results.

While in the case of Camanducaia I would have preferred to not hit my face, I ran these drops because they looked fun to me and I liked the lines. I was excited to have made the first known descent of one of the more challenging waterfalls I have ever attempted, and having run it well in spite of taking a hit. In the end, that's all part of this game we play with the rivers.

We packed up our stuff and headed off to dinner with the satisfaction of a truly great day on the water, in the outdoors and in Brazil.

The bottom fifty-foot cascade on the on the Camanducaia, with an arrow indicating the rock that struck my face.