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WHITE WATER RAFTING & RIVER GUIDE TRAINING IN BALI

Posted by Andrew Stuart on

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WHITE WATER RAFTING & RIVER GUIDE TRAINING IN BALI

(This post is part of a continued discussion on safety & risk management rafting practices on the Island of Bali, Indonesia)

Earlier on this year, we spoke to several Balinese Rafting River Guides on our annual holiday trip to Bali. Included in our notes below, are some of their own personal thoughts and comments to us:

*  "Business is a little funny here in Indonesia and very unorganised. There are no National standards and no control whatsoever."

*  "The government in Bali does not care about it (rafting), because a lot of government officials open businesses here."

*  "At the moment there are over 20 (actually 22) rafting operators on the Ayung River (alone, not including the Talaga River) and every few months another one opens."

*  "They all hardly have any staff and use only freelance guides which are of course not properly trained because they work for different (many) operators."

*  "We have been trying to upgrade the rafting standards and are Nationally acknowledged as the most professional rafting company in the country."

*  "As long as the price is low enough, they will be able to attract customers. Directly, or though agents."

*  "Some rafting companies in Bali, seem to have more accidents (often called this, but they mean drownings) than other companies."

*  "Anybody can open a rafting company, buy some rafts and start selling!"

*  "It is hard to survive now because the new companies have very low cost and sell very cheap."

*  “On-going training and development of the rafting industry in Bali seems to be very ad-hoc and also appears to be mostly driven by each individual Balinese white water rafting company.”

In order to support their own professional development and also comply with their employer’s prerequisites of on-going training for continued work, many of the Bali Raft Guides that we spoke with, had undertaken higher levels of training and were also skilled in swift water rescue and some also in advanced first aid training. Generally speaking, sadly, this did NOT seem to be the case with ALL rafting river guides in Bali!

However, from our own observations and our discussions with these guys (yes, 'guys' for there is only one female guide in Bali & we never met her) there are obviously many more Balinese rafting river guides who possessed relatively little swift water training experience, let alone any formal accredited training qualifications. In our opinion, this type of high quality training seems to be very rare in Bali and at best only available to a very select few professional guides in Bali.

One such high-quality rafting company in Bali is the Sobek Rafting Bali. This company only employs both experienced and highly skilled rafting river guides for all of their operations on two rivers in Bali. According to Sobek management, "Many of their Sobek Guides have also undertaken a variety of training courses in skill development, group management and rescue techniques."

In our opinion, while the level of accredited training achieved by the Sobek Rafting Bali company is commendable, much of their guides training was conducted for personal interest and is unrelated to their employability in Bali in any other industry except river rafting (eg. it is entirely for their on-going professional development in rafting river guiding). They do not 'multi-skill' the guides that they employ for their role with Sobek, as they train them to be job-specific (rafting) and they do not employ many casual Balinese workers (like numerous other rafting companies do). Their river guides all work on each & every day that they are employed on a shift.

Naturally, this costs the company more in the long run, but they also have a much more reliable working team. As another retired guide told us, "Many other Bali rafting companies think that by having a board up on their wall with 'all' of their river guides photo's up on it, that this makes them look like (appear) to be a big shot operator...but they're mostly all casual staff!"

Another ex-river guide told us, "I moved away from the Bali rafting because I would only get casual work a few days per week and sometimes only on a morning or an afternoon shift only. It wasn't enough work to keep me working, as I had family responsibilities, you know!"

Understandably, there is very little ‘on-going’ demand for swift water rescue nor wilderness first aid in the Balinese tourism industry, even though the Bali outdoor adventure environment certainly warrants this level of expertise and training, very few Balinese rafting guides can afford this level of expertise in training either, let alone the ongoing costs of re-certification each and every year.

The extent of a rafting guide’s training needs to also be put into perspective. Not all employment takes place in wilderness environments, nor involves highly demanding levels of group management. In fact, most rafting adventure tours are presented by the tourism companies in Bali at such a basic skill levels of English so that they are simply manageable and accessible to the HUGE influx of International tourists who now come to Bali, all searching for cheap holiday adventures.

Sadly, many Balinese rafting companies now cater for this ‘cheap’ fast demand, and sadly some tourists have also lost their lives whilst rafting with cheap operators in Bali, whose rafting safety and risk management practices are less than favourable (see further posts below). Even those working in the Bali industry over there all agree.

Eelco (who operates the Sobek Rafting Bali company) stated the following, “It was not always necessary for instructors to be highly technically skilled in adventure activity areas and it was possible to operate effectively, in some circumstances, with limited training. At times, instructors were required to have only basic knowledge and competency in several activity skills.”

However, because so many adventure experiences are designed to be highly marketed as ‘accessible’ tourism work, this often can lead to another problem: the perception that anyone can do the job of a Rafting Guide, and with the associated general industry complacency regarding raft guide qualifications, training and experience. This problem was discussed by several of the Rafting Guides that we interviewed.

There was a great deal of tension between the perception that "anyone can do the job" and the high expectations of Raft Guide competency. The primary cause of this tension is lack of understanding of the different levels of risk management associated with different adventure recreation companies in Bali. The Balinese men believed that there was a need to recognise appropriate levels of instructor competency to ensure the safety of all tourists participating in adventure recreation rafting trips in Bali. Sadly, this was not the general perception of these men, of the companies they worked for!

Then all of a sudden, the men look around to see 'who' was listening in on our conversation, as if to seem a little bit cautious as to who could hear their opinions, or was it to not come across as appearing disloyal to the 'bad' companies to which they belonged.

All these Balinese men all agreed upon several main points, "Understanding the level of risks involved and being competent in the skills presented is essential, as appropriate risk management was a key element in any potential rafting company’s ongoing success." One man eluded to the concept of 'repeat business', at least that is what one of the other Balinese guides translated it to mean for us.

One Rafting Guide (who does not wish to be named) stated, “Many rafting companies have come and gone in Bali. Big dreams fade fast, especially when a big rafting accident occurs or tourists get hurt or nearly drown and they blame our company.” (that's interesting that they would use the word 'blame').

Taking people ‘off the streets’ to work on adventure rafting trips is not as unusual as it sounds. Most of the Balinese men that we spoke too, began their working experience in the adventure tourism industry as volunteers. This aspect of the management of the industry initiated the expression of VERY strong opinions regarding the value of their level of training, competency and experience, and how that was translated into payment or compensation for work done.

There was a general feeling that the Bali adventure tourism industry pays very poorly and that the acquisition of skills and experience is not adequately recognised nor financially compensated very well at all. For example, according to one River Guide, he told us that, “a rafting guide will only get paid about AU$4 for a half-day river trip. If we are lucky enough to get another trip in the afternoon, then we might another AU$4, a total of $8 for the whole day on the river. Some days, more often than not we only get one trip.”

Climbing back up the 400 plus stairs at the completion of the rafting trip, we pass an elderly Balinese lady (apparently she’s 70) who is literally carrying a folded-up/deflated raft on her head. The raft bundle weighs between 60 – 65kg’s, and up the concrete stairs she struggles. We are informed by one of the Rafting Guides, that "she only gets paid $2 to carry each raft up these stairs at the end of each trip". As you can well imagine, understandably, it is a very slow process for her!

The statement, “that if you don't do it, someone else will" is often used against adventure tourism employees when they raise the issue of inadequate financial compensation. This is just one of a number of reasons used to justify low pay scales. The most common reasons given are that adventure raft guides "do it for love" (eg. very little wage) or that "it's a lifestyle choice" and therefore, not really a serious occupation.

Several of the Balinese men commented that the Balinese adventure rafting industry and the companies they worked for, were not the best that it could be. Some even felt that most bali rafting companies exploited its employees! But what can they do, given that they most likely don’t have many other skills (they’re mostly labourers) they all needed the adventure tourism jobs as this was their main income for their family.

Whilst in Bali this year, we also went rafting with Mason Adventures and that was a very interesting experience! Likewise, we also corresponded with them (on TripAdvisor) and it took a few months before they felt the need to respond to our genuine questions.  Our next blog will cover some of our professional 'feedback' offered to Mason Adventures, following their company representative subsequently posting (on an International forum) a copy of their recent company 'Rafting Safety Audit' completed by Argent Health & Safety Ltd. (UK), subsequently just two months following our first public forum questions raised on TripAdvisor prior to their reply. Interesting timing? 

Worthy of note, was that interestingly enough, several of the very same questions and concerns that we initially raised, were indeed also mentioned in Argent's professional Safety Audit and feedback, as ongoing safety & risk management concerns of their own.  Fascinating stuff!  Maybe they needed to hear it in stereo?  LoL

So, this is just 'Part One' of our ongoing discussion about white water rafting safety & risk management practices within Bali - stay tuned for more...

[Readers: If you would like us to send you a copy of MASON ADVENTURE's recent "Rafting Safety Audit" (June '18) compiled by the International safety auditor - Argent Health & Safety Ltd. (UK), please send a PM to us and we'll e-mail it through to you]


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Correspondence with a Balinese Rafting Company (Sobek Manager - Eelco)

Andrew Stuart  writes: >> "Our concerns - in a nut shell - simple logic tells us that there is NO SUCH THING as ‘safe’ white water rafting in a dynamic swift water river system…anywhere in the world, let alone Bali. Several deaths (drownings) and also numerous injuries have occurred on the Ayung River from 1989 onwards. Which is why we simply can’t quite understand the use of the word ‘SAFE’ in several of the Bali rafting company's websites and their marketing material, in reference to rafting on white water rivers in Bali."

"It seems that nobody could explain to us, how any legitimate Balinese rafting company could accept somebody on a rafting trip that CANNOT EVEN SWIM? Surely this topic of conversation is very important to the potential health and welfare and also the safety of ALL tourists and river guides engaged in the Balinese rafting Industry."

"Surely, each Balinese rafting company also have a duty of care to their own customers. However, sadly this did not seem to be the case with several customers of whom have responded to us (on ‘TripAdvisor’), that we have also been in contact with. All of whom DID NOT have a positive experience on their own rafting misadventure in Bali. Many other participants of course have, however numerous have NOT, several have died, and the list seemingly keeps growing. Continued drownings (and injuries) on Bali rivers is neither professionally acceptable, or is it 'ok', nor is it an acceptable risk management practice!"

>> Eelco K. (Owner of Bali Sobek) writes:

“Unfortunately in Bali there are only 1-2 hour trips available. We have another operation on the Telaga Waja River which we stopped temporarily because of the Mt. Agung eruptions. We hope it will be in operation again in a couple of month. After the changes in the river bed caused by cold lava floods we should be able to do up to 3 hour trips.”

“We have only one female rafting guide, she has been with us for a long time. Her name is Warni. As far as I know there are no other female rafting guides in Bali. Sobek is the Oldest Rafting Company in Bali, it was started under supervision of Sobek, California in 1989, and all guides were trained by professional Instructors from Sobek International. Up until now, we have been able to keep those standards up, which include a minimum of 6 months intensive training for new river guides, regular rescue training, over 10 evacuation points on the river and a strict SOP.”

“Basically, SOBEK sets the standard for rafting in Indonesia, but unfortunately very few rafting companies are following our standard. Outside Bali its sister company Caldera, is setting the standard for safety and quality." Best regards, Eelco

Andrew Stuart  writes: >> "We also were intrigued with the Mason Adventures company in Bali, and in particular the HUGE number of participants both in our morning group (& so many boats) as well as ALL THE OTHER rafting companies all barging down the river all at the same time! Not enjoyable to say the least, and certainly much anxiety producing for our whole experience."

[Readers: If you would like us to send you a copy of Mason Adventure's recent "Rafting Safety Audit" (June '18), please send a PM to us and we'll e-mail it through to you]

"We were VERY confused & intrigued by the very short safety 'briefing' and the safety standards in general in Bali, as personally I observed that they have seemed to have gone backwards (not progressively forwards) with several of the 'other' companies also on the river. We had one guy (Indian) in our raft - who stated that he could NOT SWIM!"

"We have also read several really bad reviews on both Google Maps as well as TripAdvisor by other customers on 'other' rafting company experiences in Bali and we are a little concerned with some of the safety procedures that simply were, well shall we say, 'missing-in-action'?"

EELCO WRITES: "Basically Sobek sets the standard for rafting in Indonesia, but unfortunately very few rafting companies are following our standard."

We were most intrigued by this bit in your message (above) how can that be? Is not the rafting tourism industry authorised/governed by some form of a Bali Government Department? How does/can any company get their own permit? (Licences)

You mentioned "Sobek sets the standard for rafting" ... but how are Safety Standards monitored in Bali?

We would be most interested to learn more of the Rafting Industry within Bali and especially safety procedures on the river, is there a Bali website/Department that monitors all this type of eco-tourism within Bali?

We have noticed a few times now, that 'other' rafting companies in Bali seem to lack a lot of the professionalism that SOBEK does seem to have? How is this possible? Kind regards... Andrew

>> Eelco K. (Owner of Bali Sobek) writes:

“Yes, business is a little funny here in Indonesia and very unorganised. There are no national standards and no control whatsoever. Everybody can open a rafting company, buy some rafts and start selling. As long as the price is low enough they will be able to attract customers. Directly or through agents."

“The Government in Bali does not care about it, because a lot of Government Officials open businesses here also. We have been trying to upgrade the rafting standards and are nationally acknowledged as the most professional rafting company in the country.”

“At the moment there are over 20 rafting operators on the Ayung River and every few months another one opens. They all hardly have any staff and use only freelance guides which are of course not properly trained because the work for different operators. A very confusing situation and most of them don’t have a business license or pay taxes, that’s why there are so many rafts on one river."

“We were the first rafting company in 1989, but when more companies got on the river it became messy. It is hard to survive now because the new companies have very low cost and sell very cheap." Cheers, Eelco

Andrew Stuart writes >> Hi Eelco (owner of Sobek Bali), We have recently been having a 'poke' at Mason Adventures (Shan) and an ongoing discussion with them on TripAdvisor about some of their safety practices and also some of their poor group management techniques (sadly lacking), and other safety warnings 'missing-in-action' on our last rafting trip with them in March.

Would you like to see a 'copy' of their recent Safety Audit (we believe as a direct result of our repeated enquiries with them on their TripAdvisor Q&A social media platform) that was performed by an International Safety Audit company (Argent - from the UK). An interesting eye-opener!

They have recently taken it down of the TripAdvisor website (so it's now not available 'on-line', but we managed to save a copy in PDF format. Happy to send you a copy 'if' you are interested?

I hear you guys don't participate in the 'Ayung River Clean-up Campaign' anymore? Does anyone? Can't imagine why?...I am sure it must have something to do with the host rafting company that organises it, perhaps?

Keep up the great work! Chat soon.  

With kind regards...  Andrew & Jenny Stuart  Perth, Western Australia

P.S. Just by way of interest, we have mentioned your company for a 'High Recommendation' (for SOBEK) on our Facebook page! https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001315977306

Website: Sobek Rafting Bali