Rafting in Bulgaria

15 Apr

The best way to see the Bulgarian Kresna Gorge is by looking up at it, not down, from a raft on an epic journey down the Struma river.


“Just two rules!” our guide Ivan shouted as we glided towards Kresna Gorge, where towering waves collapsed upon themselves into a maelstrom of churning froth. “Rule Number One – stay in the boat! Rule Number Two – stay in the boat!”

“What if we fall out?”,  I asked.

“Don’t,” said Ivan bluntly.

It was early September, and we (me, my father and three other men) were in the middle of a 15-km trip down the Struma river through the Kresna Gorge with Bulgarian Raft Adventures.  Rafting the rapid waters of the river Struma, and upper course of the river Arda in the Rhodope Mountains, are the best places in wild Bulgaria suitable for our outdoor adventure.  The adrenalin arises, and the rock monsters become scenery for the water action, where you are the main actor.

On the first day, all of  us stood at the starting point: a long line of 6m rafts, masses of gear, an army of river guides scurrying about. This would be our world for the next two weeks.


There was no time for shyness. You can’t be shy on a Struma river trip. Not when you are spending two weeks with strangers, floating down on the biggest rivers in South Western Bulgaria.  It’s the ultimate 24/7 experience:  you’re on the water for five to eight hours every day, and when you’re off the water, you’re eating, sleeping, and bathing together.  Don’t get me wrong, there are ample opportunities for meditative moments, but it’s a communal trip, in one of the most spectacular environments on earth.


Our party filled five inflatable rafts, each rowed by a guide and four or six passengers. All the gear we could possibly need was strapped into these boats: giant coolers of food, folding tables, cans of propane, pots and pans and medical supplies, a tidy toilet system, plus enough beer and soft drinks to keep everyone happy. It’s the tightest packing system I’ve ever seen, so tight that passengers ride perched on the side tubes – prime seats, after all, with padding and great views.

Few people pitched tents; most just laid a mat on the beach and slept under a sheet. At dawn, the mournful call of a conch shell signalled that coffee was ready. It would have been nice to linger over the hearty breakfasts (eggs, French toast, pancakes and lots of fresh fruit) but the guides always wanted to put in some river miles, and soon we were pushing off, back out into the current of bubbles, dwarfed by the massive rock walls.

Indeed, dear readers riding the rapids of Bulgarian Struma river   is a Disneyland-ish experience – one second you’re plunging straight down into the trough of a wave, the next you’re getting drenched with cold spray as the boat shoots up and over the crest. It’s a  roller-coaster ride that can make even an  anxious father  like mine to  forget to fret about his daughter during the adrenaline-fuelled ride. Only at the bottom of each rapid did I turn around to make sure I was safe.

Was I scared? A little.

Exhilarated? More than I’ve ever been, and my main wish was to go back and do it again.

By the time we rowed the last stretch, our clothes and hair held about a pound of silt each, but nobody cared. Some people were ready to return to civilization; others, like me and my father, wanted to drive back to the start and do it all over again. I welcomed the chance for a shower, but the trip left me with a desire to run away and become a river guide.

“There are just two rules,” I imagined saying to my passengers. “Rule number one …”

Mmmmm maybe some day.


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