Twenty-five days after departing for Papua New Guinea we have returned unscathed, healthy and stoked with what we've achieved... the First Descent of the Grand Canyons of the Chimbu. An amazing feat considering the potential pitfalls of executing such a trip, and now I will attempt to tell the tale of the second 'Gradient and Water' expedition. I think its important to start from the very beginning to paint the picture for those who do not know the history, crew and plan of the expedition. After quickly filling this little contextual void I will take you from Christchurch to Kundiawa, driving from the West Coast of New Zealand, three flights, nine hours driving into the highlands, some paddling, a little conflict and then some last minute preparation for our attempt on the Chimbu.
In 2011 Barny Young, Shannon Mast and Myself (Jordan Searle) completed the first 'Gradient and Water' kayaking expedition to Papua New Guinea. For a country with endless whitewater potential, considering topography and climate, there had been little previous whitewater exploration. We'd heard rumours of failed expedition from a UK group and a German group that achieved a few things but no one had really done PNG justice. A National Geographic funded group had a successful trip to West New Britain, an island off the coast of the PNG mainland. It was the Highlands, however, that had our attention and that was where we'd be going. Well, that's where we went after exhausting all our options in the Morobe province (3 First Descents) and had no other plausible option but to strap on the back of the truck and head into the Highlands. During this risky 2 week probe into the Highlands, we achieved great things but one thing that we didn't achieve was a descent of the Chimbu River. Our first attempt we went in haphazardly as we'd heard that some rafts had done the river in the past. This was true, sort of. A rafting attempt was foiled as the whitewater was too full on and they were eventually carried out. So after some full on paddling, brutal portaging and then arriving at another box canyon we had to hike out of the river. Broken and defeated. To make things hurt even more, we came back a few days later and committed to the Sikewage Gorge but Barny ended up swimming and losing his kayak, once again forcing us off the river and leaving a metaphorical thorn in our sides. This thorn, however, would be the motivation for our 2013 expedition.
Barny coming undone in 2011
Barny routing 'Kick-Right Falls' in 2011
So when initially planning our return to Papua New Guinea I really wanted to take the original crew of Barny Young, Shannon Mast and Myself. This, unfortunately, was not to be as Shannon was unable to commit to the trip which left a big void in the team. The show had to go on, so after racking our minds for a while for who would be a suitable replacement for Shannon we extended some invitations to our good friends. And we got more than we bargained for. Matt Coles, pretty much Shannon's understudy, threw his hat in the ring almost immediately but had to wait and see when he would be beginning his helicopter license. Not too long after this I was chatting to Ari Walker about his plans and with almost not arm twisting he committed to the trip, transferring his contribution pretty much the next day. Shannon's spot was now filled and we could now move on with our planning. THEN, only days later, Matt found out he was able to start his training in October which meant he would be able to come. After a considering the logistical difference of taking another paddler we figured, 'why not'. So our team was set, 4 instead of 3 and it would be Matt and Ari's first experience of expedition kayaking.
The plan was simple. Get as far up the Chimbu River as possible/permitted and have a safe descent down through the numerous canyons to Kundiawa. Obviously there was a lot more to it than that, and that is what you're about to read.
Watching the boats be loaded, we did this for every flight.
Our team was flying out of Christchurch on May 3rd, so I made my way over a day or so earlier just to ensure everything was sorted. Barny and Ari had the same idea, so went spent the last day or so working through the last little things. Two things were off, one I had forgotten to bring the Back Country meals for the trip and where was Matt? My flat mate, Jon Slater, sorted out the forgotten meals with a same day courier and at about the time the meals arrived we received a txt from Matt... he'd been on a multi-day paddling trip on the West Coast and had just got off the river. 5pm, wet gear, 5 or so hours driving. Would he make it, we hoped so but weren't to sure. So the night before our 6am flight we went to sleep with the alarm set for 3:15am and Colesy had a long night ahead. Which he pulled off. We arrived at the airport around 3:45am and Matt was there waiting with no other than Shannon Mast, which was quite fitting. We checked in our luggage, four 32kg kayaks (full of gear) at $80 each and two bags, and we were on the mission. A flight through Brisbane, expensive food to say the least, then onto Port Moresby.
Thankfully Slate got these too us.
Even though we knew it was coming, the heat and humidity was a shock to the system once we got off the aeroplane. Its always around 30-32 degrees celcius and 2000% percent humidity, well not that much humidity but you know what im saying. Once we arrived we were straight into it, almost getting hustled for 100Kina (about $50NZD) at the cellphone retailer and then waiting in the domestic terminal for a couple of hours. Much to our surprise, our flight did depart on time and our boats were loaded, we were definitely watching. Our flight was good, the complementary shortbread tasted great and after the forty-five minute flight over the Owen Stanley Range we landed safely at Nadzap - Lae International Airport. A modest airport, about the same size as the Hokitika Airport, surrounded in the typical razor-wire and security guards that are uniform around most structures in PNG. Our gear all arrived, our pick-up was prompt thanks to our friend Murrey Fletcher (a bad-ass ex-pat Australian come PNG National who hooks it up) and we were soon cruising back to Lae in the all too familiar situation of sitting on the back of the truck. Its funny, it had been more than two years since our last expedition but once we were there it felt like we had never left. Almost felt as if Barny and I had just gone to pick up Ari and Matt and we were just continuing our last expedition. Just under and hour later we arrived back to Murrey's house, in the dodgy Chinatown suburb, and unloaded. Reacquainting ourselves with the 6m x 3m room that we based ourselves out of in 2011. That night someone had the typical first night in PNG freak-out in their sleep, Ari I think, but we all slept well and awoke with great enthusiasm... time to get on the mission!
Well that's what everyone else thought, but I knew/thought the process of lining up a vehicle would take some time so was ready to just take it easy for a few days while things work themselves out. Arriving on a Friday wasn't the best idea as it quickly became apparent that things would be much harder to work out over the weekend. We got the balling rolling though, meeting with our well connected national friend Reuben Mete. Who then introduced us to Papi, even equally or even more connect man is Lae. We chatted for a while, blew off the extortion like price that was first suggested and told Papi what we paid and done last time. He said he would sort it, so we left it at that. Nothing definitive but it is PNG. Walking home we found an actual car hire place where we got a quote, which would be good for negotiating the price of a vehicle with Papi and co. Come Monday 9am however, after a few prompting phone calls, Papi pulled through by lining us up a Hilux for a pleasing price. Not to mention, the price was set. No last minute this, or the rate is actually that. It was set. Also, Barny noticed one tyre was particularly worn and they replaced it immediately. All too good to be true, nope! By noon that day we were on our way towards Kundiawa, three days ahead of what I thought would be our schedule and with Tony, our driver for the trip. A little more timid that Graham from 2011, but Tony would turn out to be a clutch member of our expedition. With some extra time in hand I thought it would make sense to get some time on the water and there just happened to be an amazing section of river on the way, the Mai River. First though, we had about 6 or 7 hours of sitting on the back of a truck while Tony ripped along the pot-hole ridden road and even had a shower of rain to contend with. All good though, that's what an expedition is all about.
Loaded up and ready for the mission, picking up supplies from Food Mart.
Local markets that border the road.
Matt being an ambassador.
Caught out in the rain!
We arrived to the Chuave area in the evening so decided to stay at the Tama Siane guest house, where we spent a few nights last time with John and Hanna. They were stoked to see we were back and gave us a great rate for accommodating five guys. We ate well, slept even better and were fired up to be paddling the next day.
- Matt woke up...
Arriving at the confluence of Koningi Creek and the Mai River, we were greeted by numerous people that remembered us being there two years earlier. Smiles and adoration, it was nice to be back. We didn't take long to get ready though, our eagerness was uncontrollable. Barny and I put on knowing what to expect, but Ari and Matt were in for a surprise. From the outset is it class IV-V with the warming cheer of children running down the river bank trying to get a peak at these 'long-long' or crazy whiteman. What a good way to prepare for the Chimbu. But Barny and myself had other things in mind. The cherry on top for the Mai River is a technical waterfall at the end of the run called 'Kick-Right Falls', aptly named by Barny after we all paddled it in 2011. Once we got down to it, however, our hears sunk a little as the lower flow meant that the line was a lot tighter AND there was now a log across the entrance that would of been submerged at a higher flow. So we all decided that it wasn't to be on this trip and decided to hike back up to the bridge, but not before running into an old friend Joseph. I'm not too sure if it the same boy, but Barny thinks is the same boy that told him, "I am your friend, please don't die" before Barny paddled Kick-Right in 2011. Anyway, Joseph set to telling us about a recent incident where 3 women accused of Sorcery were thrown from the bridge with stones attached to their ankles and then went on to point to the area that police recovered their bodies. This was okay though as he reassured us that this meant that there were no witches in the area. This is a sad reality for some places in PNG as people do not understand why young people die even though aids and other diseases are prevalent in the area, so it is blamed on sorcery which sets of a series of killings and retributions. We shock this off and had to get on with it, you've got to have a thick skin in PNG.
Barny and Ari relaxing.
Morning view at Tama Siane
Matt on the initial rapids of the Mai.
The people of PNG live by and along the river.
A massive cylinder making some of the whitewater.
A solitary fisherman wondering what the hell is going on.
Typical lower Mai backdrop.
Oh Mai Mai
We walked back to the truck and began to load our gear with no real direction, and soon a small group of people around us grew into a bigger group. Then out of nowhere Joseph reluctantly said that we are required to pay a fee for experiencing the area. I took then initiative and asked who was this fee to go to, to which Joseph introduced me to a man called Hitler. I didn't want any money to pass hands as this sets a bad precedent and makes it harder for anyone else who visits the area and I needed to explain this. I done this by explaining that if this is the only river in PNG where people are charged to 'experience' it, then no one else will come there. But if we leave with a good story about the hospitality of this place, the amazing whitewater, people and scenery then more people will come and spend money in the local markets, stay in their guesthouses and even hire local guides if they are so required. Hitler, however, was insistent about the money and the group was continually growing around us. So I stepped Hitler and Joseph to the side and Barny coerced everyone else away with the idea of getting a group photo. Ari and Matt were concerned about this situation, but I felt it was under control and eventually my persistence paid off and we can to somewhat of an understanding. We gave him and his friends a ride back up to the town ship of Chuave where I reiterated to Hitler why we hadn't given any money and he was happy with that. We then carried on our way to Kundiawa, about a one hour drive, from where we would launch our assault on the Grand Canyons of the Chimbu!
Barny attempting to distract the locals at Chuave.
People just walk out of nowhere to have a yarn.
The next post will detail from Kundiawa to Kundiawa, and our First Descent of the Grand Canyons of the Chimbu.