Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Part 1 of 2: First Descent of the Grand Canyons of the Chimbu - Papua New Guinea.

So after what I would call a pretty smooth start to the trip it was time to make our way to Kundiawa and begin the meat of our expedition. Our first hurdle was a small one, where exactly was Gom Yomba Guesthouse. We arrived in Kundiawa late afternoon and absorbed the always unsettling feeling of being the new 'whiteys' in town. Don't get me wrong we were almost always warmly welcomed into areas we went, but there is always a certain amount of apprehension in the local community when it comes to white people being there and when you roll into a 'city' like Kundiawa it is impossible to get across the message that we're just some kiwi's trying to go for a paddle, that is all! We grabbed some supplies from the supermarket, there is a very limited selection in Kundiawa's supermarket, and then Barny and I jogged our memories while we drove around the back-roads of Kundiawa looking for our safe and warm place to sleep. Fortunately we worked it out, more like stumbled upon, and were soon unpacking our gear and relaxing. Well, relaxing as much as you do in PNG. After hanging out our gear we were reminded that we were idiots, and then moved all our gear to a secluded clothes line where people passing by couldn't see it. We then introduced ourselves to the other occupants of the guesthouse, which were a group of hand-selected anti-corruption police officers that were carrying out an investigation in the neighbouring province of Giwaka. To top this off, they were staying in Kundiawa so there was LESS chance of retribution attacks from the 'won-toks' (like an extended family that you're obligated to) of those being investigated and those arrested. Less likely, but they still slept with their machine-guns in their rooms. We had other things to think of so set to the task of feeding our growling stomachs and making sure we got our gear sorted before getting as much sleep as possible, tomorrow was going to be a big day.

Casual waiting to leave the guesthouse

Local kids are awesome!

Woken up by the infuriating crow of roosters, you never become accustomed to it while you're there, we quickly had some breakfast and loaded the truck. Food, paddling & camping gear and bottled water... keeping it simple. I jokingly told the cops that were also staying at the guesthouse that if we were not back in like 5 days to come up the Chimbu guns 'a' blazing, and Mattieu quiet seriously assured me that they would. Somewhat reassuring I guess. Our plan was to drive up the valley and let the people in the area know what our plan was, identify places where we would get out for the night and arrange a place to stay in the vicinity and also to identify places where the road intersects the river so we could let Tony, our driver, know we were okay and whether we would continue or get out. Barny and I were somewhat familiar with the road and area up to Banana Market Bridge, so we didn't take too much time to inspect the river while driving up. We did, however, notice that current road development had blasted a huge amount of rock to the exit of Sikewage Gorge. The same gorge that Barny swam and lost his kayak in last time and also the same gorge that we knew went underground at the end. We figured we had a few days paddling above this to think about first, and decided we would try inspect the gorge when we came to it since we were planning to take out and stay with the villagers above the gorge. 

Looking at the changes to the exit of Sikewage Gorge

The road is always littered with people. People walking to and from the market. People manning little stalls selling vegetables, bettle-nut (which has a doping like effect), crackers, oreos and sometimes can's of coke or even SP Beer. And in most instances, people smiling and cheering as our loaded truck bounced up the often rough 4wd road. The drive was broken up by several groups of villagers working on parts of the road that were in dire need of attention, well mostly. Two of the occasions we were stopped we were asked to pay a fee towards the work the group were doing. This wasn't something mandatory and there original request was way to much, morally more than monetary wise, so we offered them $10K and $20K ($5 and $10 NZD) respectively which they accepted happily. There was one instance, disappointingly, where some young men stopped us and demanded some money. This was obviously a bit of a have but before we could get into proper negotiations $5K passed hands, much to the dislike of an approaching elder from the area. He reiterated what we already knew, this would set a bad precedent but Tony, thinking he was taking the initiative for a good price, had made a mistake. Lesson learned and for a small price, so we carried on a bit wiser. But I must stress, pretty much everyone who seen us travelling up the Chimbu was happy to see us, waving and cheering.

Ari and myself trying to capture the awesome Sikewage Gorge

Sort of got it...

By cutting through this fellas land... angry locals they said, yeah right.

Our goal was to drive to a 'Lake', it's size and the time to get there very much unknown. You very rarely get a concise or definitive answer in PNG, but this lake really took the cake. Between 2-4 hours drive from Kundiawa, only 2 hours walk from here, only 1 hour walk from there,  its just around the corner, its like another 3 hours drive from here... You get the picture. No idea whatsoever. We trudged on, continuing our process of meet, greet and look for a place to stay etc. I guess it was about 4 or more hours into our drive we came across the stunning high-alpine settlement of Gembogl Station. This was where I thought we'd be putting on in my original planning, but the size of the river definitely encouraged us to continue up the river. The road continued, and so did we. Another road block was negotiated and then we noticed a sizable tributary branch off with much needed water. With another promise of the 'Lake' being not too far we carried on to Gembugl Bridge, just before Denglagu Mission. By this stage the river was reduced to a very small creek, still navigable but it would be some definite boat-abuse. No local information was helpful, we got told it was only like 2km to the 'Lake' but then were told it would take another hour or so to drive there, then got told it was hours away. We really wanted to put on at this lake, but also had to take into the consideration whether we would find a safe place to stay for us, our gear and even the truck. We figured we had a good chance of securing that at Gembogl Station just a few kilometres downstream, but should we go to the lake. After thinking through numerous possibilities we finally decided this would be a good place to put on our expedition. From the sounds of things the river flattened just above into a even lower volume braided section and our entire crews safety was the primary concern. So this would be it, we were putting on for the First Descent of the Grand Canyons of the Chimbu.

More cutting through land and no hostility, such an amazing
river and landscape

Another land owner quite happy for us to go through his land
to put on the Chimbu River

We hastily got our gear together, as the longer you take the larger the crowd becomes, and prepared to put on the river. Toni, our driver, would see us off then drive back down to Gembogl Station and try and organise some accommodation. He had to go back through a couple of the road-blocks previously mentioned which concerned us as he would be by himself with a lot of our gear. We had other things to focus on though, uncharted class III - V in the remote Papua New Guinea Highlands. Not to mention whether we'd be accepted by the locals or not. We were optimistic and had a good feeling, so before long we pushed off the bank and set off on what would be a trip of a life time.

Colesy getting wet for the first time on the Chimbu

Things felt right, logistics were working out pretty well and more amazingly we were on the river about 5 days ahead of when I thought we would be.  The creek was very low volume but luckily it remained relatively constricted so we had use of most the water. Many of the locals who waved us off at Gembugl Bridge tried their best to keep up with our progress downstream but soon no familiar faces were there. Instead we could hear a communal cheer echoing down the valley, and once people heard it they would flock to the river. Doing anything and everything to get a view of the 'long-long (crazy) white-man'. This even drew the people away from the road-blocks which left Toni with the road to himself, so he comfortably made his way to Gembogl Station and set about finding us somewhere secure to spend the night. For us it was all warm waves and smiles, truly unbelievable. The white-water wasn't too bad either, consistent class III+ with a few harder things here and there. We took full advantage of this warm-up section, reacquainting ourselves with out kayaks and our beloved white-water. After a couple of kilometres we made it down to a small wooden foot-bridge, a good vantage point for a photo I thought.

 Cruisy but some goods for sure

Barny keeping up relations (p. Ari Walker NOT Matt Coles)

So I eddied out and walked up into a very well-kept garden and was greeted by familiar grin of Toni. He was just talking to the owner, whom ill introduce later, about accommodating us for the evening. Thing's seemed to be going well but I definitely was keen to paddle some more, even if it meant driving back to stay at this place. I asked how far was it to the Gembogl Station Bridge and they said it was about another kilometre. I had noted from the drive up the primary school right next to the main bridge in the village and thought it would be a cool place to finish the day... by stirring up all the village children. We'd get that AND a whole lot more. The boys shared my enthusiasm so we carried on down a bit further, which would turn out to be one of the highlights of the trip. 

 Colesy keen to carry on down

 Ari leading... surely not!

It's true!

We carried on, and things just got better and better. Almost immediately downstream of the bridge that large trib we seen earlier came in almost doubling the flow and the river stepped up a bit to mainly class IV. The best thing, however, would be our reception to Gembogl Station itself. I fell slightly behind with Ari as I done some filming and tried to give a kid a ride on my kayak, but when we rounded the final corner before the bridge I couldn't believe my eyes. The banks of the river were literally full of people, I am talking close to 1,000 people. The news of our presence had passed us while we stopped at the small bridge and the town was buzzing with anticipation. The school had emptied and the cheering was almost deafening. We knew there was a low log-bridge downstream and thought we'd be taking out above it, but getting caught up in the moment I thought about flipping over and floating under it then rolling up downstream. I bounced the idea off Matt who was sitting on the opposite side of the river, with a better vantage point I was hoping. He gave me a 'shrug/nod', I took this as a 'solid yes' and pulled back out into the current. Floating down children were cheering while they chased me and concerned adults urged me to come to the side. As I approached the log there was plenty of room to float under so I tucked up and flipped upside down. I gave myself plenty of time to clear the log, but just before I was about to roll I smashed into some submerged rocks. I rolled up all good and the pain in my shoulder wained to the overwhelming excitement and adoration that the locals were showering us in. Matt and Barny followed suit, both hitting the rocks but were un-phased as the whole experience was so awesome. That said, none of us were that keen on doing it again.

Ducking under the log, this is actually from the next day where we didn't
completely turn over. Didnt want to hit the rocks again!
Again the next day, still a lot of people on the banks but
nothing compared to the first day.

We had to keep our guard up though, so once we took off the river we quickly jammed our gear onto the Hilux and drove back towards to where we met Toni earlier, to the Gembogl Orphans Resource Centre. This was a facility managed by Willie and his partner Pat, which provides shelter, funding, support and anything else they could to help support the numerous orphans in the area as a result of aids. This place was beautiful, like a piece of paradise tucked up in the PNG Highlands. We were assured that our gear wouldn't be messed with and we were free to explore the area. Toni had pulled through and then some! So we hung out our gear and then spent the afternoon hanging out in probably the most relaxed fashion of the whole trip. Matt, Ari and myself walked across and hung out with some children at the neighbouring school and Barny talked the afternoon away with Willie and some other interested people. 

 Just a few of the spectators, they love New Zealand

 This hoard of children chased us for like a kilometre

 Throwing the local kids around

So we hung out our gear and then spent the afternoon hanging out in probably the most relaxed fashion of the whole trip. Matt, Ari and myself walked across and hung out with some children at the neighbouring school and Barny talked the afternoon away with Willie and some other interested people. 

 You don't need much to live and even have fun, a constant reminder while you're in
 Ari trying to make the kids laught to death?

New toy for the kids

 Stock standard tourist photo?

We were sharing a dorm-style room with some other guests, BSP (Bank of the South Pacific) rural managers, who were very interested in our impression of their area and country. All positive although we both agreed that PNG wasn't for the faint hearted. Next our dinner was served, yes served even though we repeatedly insisted on cooking but Pat (very motherly figure) wouldn't have a bar of it. The meal was great, back-country's with roast potato, rice and something else I'm pretty sure but something wasn't quite right. Where was EVERYONE else. It felt almost like eating in lunch-time detention, not another soul was even audible. So after we crushed the huge amount of food before us, Wild Bill leading the eating charge, I took the dishes with the intention of making sure I done them. I found everyone out the back it an thatched hut where they were cooking on a open fire. Much more our style, but before I would settle it I would do the dishes... Again I failed, Pat dismissing my good intentions like it wasn't even an option. So I sat down for what would be an long evening of cups of tea and talking around the open fire, only interrupted every now and again by someone 'shhhhhhhhh' ing a dog out. The dark slowly crept in and the fire eventually burnt down to an amber glow, it was time to get some much needed sleep as we were hoping to get all the way to Banana Market the next day. The boys went up to the dorm but I decided to sleep in my tent, trading the orchestra of snores for the sounds of the jungle and the calming sound of the river. 

Gembogl Orphanes Resourse Centre - an amazing place where all are welcome

Tomorrow was going to be good... 

Part Two coming soon.

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