When Ben Stookesberry tells us that a trip was epic, we immediately pay attention. Stookesberry and fellow Eddie Bauer adventure kayaker Chris Korbulic have run some of the world’s most inaccessible rivers, from Bhutan and Brazil to Greenland and Africa. So his bar for epicness is calibrated a bit differently than the rest of us. When he calls the trip report a ‘mother of a tale’, we really have no idea what to expect. But after diving into the story of their recent trip to Papua New Guinea’s New Britain Island—complete with uninhabited world-war-II-era wilderness, mandatory helicopter access, armies of “Avatar” fruit bats and one of the largest underground river systems in the world—it rates as one of his most intense tales of all time. We really can’t do it justice, so you’ll have to read his report on what rates as class 6 adventure.
Words by Ben Stookesberry, Images by Chris Korbulic
“This is a really bad idea….”
I’ve said that before; mostly joking really, but this was no joke. Chris Korbulic, Pedro Oliva, and I were all concerned while setting up camp. Twelve hours of equatorial night were coming fast and we had no choice but to camp only a few feet above an extremely flash flood prone river with vertical walls still shivering from an earthquake that afternoon. That’s right, we had been scaling the canyon wall high above the river when our world came unglued and the whole show began to tremble and then shake. Even then we spent another eight hours attempting to see downstream, and still we could only speculate about what was around the corner; and with what we knew about this place, it was hard to be optimistic. The Nakanai Mountains of Papua New Guinea’s New Britain Island are world famous for river caves and waterfalls… both of which could be lethal if they were around the bend, hemmed in between smooth overhanging limestone walls.
When Chris, Pedro and I woke up the next morning, we all knew what had to be done: paddle downstream and deal with the consequences. After all, we had flown over this walled-in nightmare and had somehow deemed it good to go. It’s just that only now, 15 miles downstream of where the helicopter had dropped us a few days back, we were realizing that we hadn’t even come close to seeing all of this river from our scout.
By 10 a.m. that morning, we had paddled around the corner and we were still alive, careening through class 4 whitewater…actually laughing at ourselves for being too worried. But the walls remained, and before we could really get comfortable, we were all clinging to a nasty little eddy with no way out of the river and another terrifying bend in the river just downstream. Why did we always have to push ourselves into these f’d-up places…. I mean we could have just stayed in Australia, finished our filming for the TV show, and behaved like normal people.
Anzac to Nakani
Now that I think about it, it was Anzac Day 2013 in Cairns, Australia, when my mates Pedro Oliva, Chris Korbulic and I “got off the piss” and finally began to understand just what we had planned for ourselves up north. For those of you as naive to Australian lingo as I am, Anzac Day is something like July 4, Memorial Day, and St. Patrick’s Day all rolled into one. Of special importance to Anzac is World War II, where Australian, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea natives fought the Japanese in the still-roadless interior of the second largest island nation on earth. As a reminder, Anzac Day TVs across Australia flicker with black-and-white images of that dense, impenetrable jungle of the place commonly referred to as PNG where, at that time, there were still tribes yet to be contacted by the outside world. The TV in the pub where Pedro, Chris, and I spent the waning hours of our own April 24 was no different. My eyes wandered from the 70-year-old images back to 2013 and the latest satellite imagery available. Nearly three quarters of a century later and the majority of PNG is still roadless, one of earth’s true wildernesses. And that was enough to make us all put down our beers—aka “get off the piss”and realize we had no idea what we were getting into.
A week later, we were boarding an Airlines PNG flight from Cairns to Kimbe, the capital of New Britain. The land mass is a large (twice as big as New Jersey) island off the coast of New Guinea proper, which has one of the most extensive underground river systems on earth. With images of azure blue water spilling from massive cathedrals of rock in our minds, it was easy not to worry too much about how we were actually going to pull this off.
We began our ad hoc planning on the ground on day 1 on the ride from a remote airstrip to the main town of Kimbe. Swerving between roadside markets, strolling families, stray pets, and livestock, we struck up a conversation with a friendly fellow who immediately quadrupled our local IQ. New Britain is certainly one of the most fascinating places on earth, with this one of a kind mix of the karst limestone topography of Southeast Asia, thrust from the depths of the Coral Sea by the ring of fire and Pacific Rim tectonics. In fact, the island of New Britain has one of the more destructive histories of volcanism. Fifteen years ago, an erupting volcano buried and destroyed the former capital city of the island, Rabaul, with more than ten feet of ash. But as I told our new friend in the airport shuttle, we weren’t there for the volcanoes or the one-of-a-kind Coral Sea, we were there to explore the rivers of the Nakanai Mountains, a place made legendary by the jet set of international cave exploration. He gave us a single name: Riccard Reimann.
It doesn’t take long to find Riccard and tell him our story. I begin by telling him the bit about Pedro’s old world record, “Yeah, 130 feet in the Amazon!…” and then point out that our unassuming friend Chris had just made his second descent of arguably the most dangerous river on earth: the White Nile to Murchison Falls. By that point, anyone in a sound state of mind would have been pretty sure that we were completely nuts, so it’s good to point out that we can actually form proper sentences and are generally more interested in adventure and aesthetic than adrenaline and attitude. Luckily, Riccard seemed to think we sounded more interesting than insane and decided to help. But it’s Riccard’s story that’s the important one.
He is from one of the most respected families on the island. His dad came to New Britain from Germany in the early 1960s, when the only form of communication in PNG was telegraph. Since then, he has worked side by side with local tribesman developing the infrastructure of the island. Along the way, he married a local girl and along came Riccard. Riccard grew up swimming and fishing the rivers of New Britain and has since set up his own sport fishing lodge. And like his father, making a living in New Britain isn’t all about profit. He developed the resort with the help of local tribes, dedicating proceeds to school funding, health care, and promoting ecotourism in the local population as a sustainable alternative to clear-cut forestry and the ever-expanding palm oil industry.
Riccard has a few ideas about where we might go, but Chris has been doing research, sifting through countless reports from caving expeditions to figure out what could be the most spectacular river on the island, if not in the whole of the South Pacific. He points out a large river on Google Earth flowing through untracked wilderness. “Cavers call it the Iso Gorge,” Chris explains. “It has been a gateway to a number of international caving expeditions and most notably was the site of a NGS/ BBC photo shoot featuring unearthly underground waterfalls.” And this was a single opening in the gorge wall. According to Chris, outside of this cave, the gorge was still unexplored from source to sea.
Despite having spent his 40-some years on New Britain, Riccard had never been to where we would need to go: the remote southern slope of the Nakanai Mountains. Like the rest of PNG, there are very few roads, and none of those actually make the 80-mile traverse to the other side. We’d need plenty of extremely expensive helicopter time, and this is where Pedro makes the whole crazy trip a reality.
Since breaking that world record in 2009, Pedro has taken that momentum and focused it on funding some of, if not most of, the truly audacious kayaking expeditions of my career. In 2010, we went after the mighty Teles Pires in Brazil. In 2011, it was a 10-day expedition down the Caroni in Venezuela. 2012 found us riding bicycles 20 miles into the Zambian bush to access a remote headstream of the Congo, and later that same year we attempted to run waterfalls off the top of a massive glacial front into the Arctic Ocean. So when it turned out we needed a huge helicopter budget to access one of the most remote rivers in PNG, he knew how to make that happen too.
The Iso Gorge
So that’s basically how we ended up in that eddy. Somewhere down in the Iso Gorge, afraid to give into chance and paddle over an unknown horizon line and around another blind corner. So afraid, in fact, that we set up some sketchy midstream rope system to lower Pedro down to a ledge that was really just a place to get out of the river, catch our breath, and realize there was no other way out but downstream. Even the signal from our satellite communicator couldn’t get out of this place…. and even if it could help, rescue was not an option…the canyon was simply too narrow. Out of pure desperation, we made another sketchy and ultimately pointless midstream rope move to pull Chris back from the other side of the river. We made this call after he ferried to a small pile of boulders on the other side of the river to see around the next corner. His report was the story of this place: “no ledges, just walls and another corner.”
It was crazy, but I am reminded of playing golf as a kid. I feel like we are on the 18th green, lining up. We are all crouching down like we are lining up the winning putt just staring down the slope of the river. But this putt is going to last for many miles before we find out if we can actually make it. It made no sense really. We should have just gotten in our boats and gone for it with plenty of daylight left.
We spent night four in the Iso on that ledge just to delay the inevitable. There was no campfire, with frequent downpours and water really just pouring out of every crack in the wall. At first we didn’t talk much, but eventually Chris cracked a joke about how the good news was that it really couldn’t get much worse. We knew that was BS, but we all laughed. Actually, we were good for the moment. We had a nice, relatively dry spot to rest under our crappy little tarp. We had food, good friends, and we decided it would be a hell of a story if we made it out of there.
We spent another three nights replaying this same scenario: another blind corner, another uncomfortable yet cozy little camp drenched in rain and water falling off the gorge walls. Even scared and stressed out, none of us could get over the crazy beauty of the place. These massive limestone walls decorated by travertine sculptures, like stalactites that fluted together into something like a thousand-foot-tall Christmas tree. There were waterfalls that fire-hosed turquoise water into the river from dozens of still-unknown caves. More than a few times, giant fruit bats with six-foot wingspans flooded the narrow strip of sky overhead, seemingly out of nowhere. Pedro kept comparing it to Avatar but somehow that fiction didn’t seem to do this place justice in my mind.
At some point, the gorge opened up into a forest, where I mistook those same fruit bats as sea eagles until they landed and swung upside down into massive hardwoods. We made one last camp with our first campfire of the trip, and slept under the stars until a tropical downpour sent us running for our tarps. The next day we kayaked to within earshot of ocean surf before we saw our first village in over a week. From the depths of an un-run canyon we emerged, thankfully, unscathed. We had come out the other side of what was one of the most intense epics we’d undertaken. And that’s saying something.
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