31 May 2013

Kayakers conquer the white waters of PNG's Chimbu River

3:53 pm on 31 May 2013

It's third time lucky for four adventurers from New Zealand, who've been the first to kayak the treacherous canyons of a remote Papua New Guinea River.

The kayakers spent two years preparing for the 50km expedition along the Chimbu River in PNG's Simbu province.

The team leader Jordan Searle says he has tried to kayak the Chimbu twice before and failed.

He told Sally Round one of the main challenges of the trip was the river's isolation.

JORDAN SEARLE: There's several sections of hard class-5 whitewater, which is the hardest realm of whitewater people paddle. Also, there's always a sense of the unknown, the jungle... You do a lot of research into the sort of animals and plant life, but you don't know exactly what's going to be there and how you're going to interact with it. It's definitely one of those more challenging trips.

SALLY ROUND: And you had one or two close calls while on the river?

JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You expose yourself to a certain amount of hazards. Our friend Ari became pinned on rocks, where water was pushing him on to his boat on to rocks. Fortunately Barny was able to react quickly and got a safety line to him and was able to pull him away before he had to exit his kayak. And then, other than that, we used our commonsense to avoid a lot of issues.

SR: And you also had to navigate around areas where the river went underground, and that caused a few challenges, did it?

JS: Yeah, the old limestone geology causes a few parts of the river to disappear. And you sort of just have to get out and manoeuvre around. There was one gorge - high up around some gorge walls, which was quite gruelling.

SR: And you had to carry the kayaks as you went?

JS: Yeah, you've got a 20-kilo kayak, plus safety gear and all that. Fortunately, the people of Papua New Guinea congregate around rivers - it's their life source. We actually had two local men come give us a hand for a good part of it.

SR: And at one point you fell. The cliff gave away beneath you as you were navigating around one of these gorges.

JS: That was I was trying to gaze in to see if we could actually kayak through it. It was eroded out underneath. It just looked like another step as I was climbing up and it sort of fell away. And I tumbled over, landed on my back and tumbled over. Luckily, I landed in the right place in the riverbed. I was lucky I didn't even twist an ankle or something.

SR: What was the reaction of local people, seeing you navigating the churning waters of this river, which they probably would never go in themselves, would they?

JS: No, there's definitely sections that they'd yell out positively to the side of the river because they figured we were going to die. Actually, that was a pretty good indication that we were in the right place, 'cause if they thought we were going to die it was probably class 4 or 5, which was what we wanted. People, they'd be smiling, children running down the banks, arms in the air, yelling out, 'White man, white man'. People always wanted to give you information, they wanted to help you. We took a lot of time to pull over and shake people's hands and introduce ourselves and tell them what we were up to because we felt that we were ambassadors for, hopefully, a new type of visitor to those areas.