Martin Chambers

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Kayaking the Watut River, PNG.

published: February 12th, 2017

The Watut is river running at its best, with fast, exhilarating rapids, overhanging jungle and towering mountains all around. The weather is hot and the water cool. It has small villages nestled in idyllic places, and locals whose enthusiasm us I still can’t believe.

It all began when we read an advertisement for adventure rafting. Phrases such as ‘regarded as one of the wildest rides in the world’, and ‘the best jungle whitewater in the world’, leapt from the page to out imaginations. The Watut descends 1000 metres from Wau in the central highlands, to the sea at Lae, through rain forest, steep gorges and flood plains. Over the first 90 kilometres it drops 900 metres. This was all in a country that held a fascination for us all. We had to go.

The main planning difficulty was in getting a reliable map. This was the early 1980’s and way before Google Earth. Eventually we settled on an illegally photocopied set of 1:250,000 maps, in black and white with entire areas whited out ‘obscured by cloud’! Contours and rivers alike were just a mass of squiggly dark lines. How hard can it be. Just get on the river at the top and you are bound to come out at the bottom.

Six of us arrived mid-March, the wet season. ‘It’s been a dry wet,’ we were told. No surprises there for drought stricken Australians who wish to kayak swollen rivers. Low rainfall has been following us for years.

We rode from Lae to Wau on a PMV- the local bus service which is in this case a truck. This was excellent fun in itself, but certainly not comfortable. We shared the truck with nine locals, some chooks, several bunches of bananas, half a ton of coconuts and of course, the kayaks that we had out of enthusiasm and insistence, loaded first. Now they were under that lot.

At Wau we saw our first crocodile, in a zoo. We asked the locals about crocodiles, as we intended to paddle through the mudflats and mangroves to the sea, and they laughed. I don’t know why they laughed but we never saw any other crocodiles. In fact for a country supposed to be the wild frontier things were remarkably mild so far. 

The good news was that the river was at it’s highest level for six months. Jim, Richard and Neil set off the next day. Glen, Trevor and I a day later. A group of three would not crowd the river and can stick close together, whereas six might get too crowded for safety. As it turned out, this was a good move. 

Within an hour of starting we had entered the Bulolo Gorge. We surveyed the first rapid as best we could, then it was 10km of fast, continuous grade three rapids with big waves, stoppers and no eddies. Water swept between rock walls rising sheer on either side, at one point only two metres apart and a hundred or more metres high. A baleout would mean a long swim and probably disaster. It was exhilarating but not good for the heart. Later we agreed we would not run it again. 

After the gorge, the river widens into the Bulolo Valley. The town of Bulolo, like all self-respecting frontier towns, began with a gold rush. Gold was dredged from the river with huge diggers that now lay derelict in the middle of the river. These were airlifted here after the war, piece by piece, in what was the largest ever airlift operation of the time. All that effort lies rusting but the river still washes silt, debris and itinerant kayakers past. 

Many people were still panning for gold in the shallows and they all stood to wave. As we went by, everyone would wave. At villages, riots seemed to start as crowd gathered to point and yell. From high up on the hills there would be a shout and crowds would rush to greet us. We would shake hands, often so many pointed at us that we were shaking three at once. Talking, smiling, laughing. I wish I knew what they said. Glen said he felt like a king, but I think it was more like god. 

Whenever we stopped at a village the people would touch the kayaks and the paddles with admiration and say ‘good.’ I think what impressed them most was my timber paddle. They dressed in our bright helmets, life vests and spraydecks, laughing and joking. All over New Guinea the people love to dress up and even in the cities men and women, young and old, wear bright clothes and hats. Eventually someone who spoke English would appear but really all the communication was with the eyes and the smile.   

The other three remained a day ahead of us. We called them our guinea pigs, testing the river before we did, but if they had got into trouble we would never have known until it we too were in trouble. They stayed in the villiages, but we elected to camp in the jungle, exploring side creeks and looking at vegetation and wildlife. We saw butterflies of every colour and every combination of colours, groups of small ones and large one on their own. Trees of enormous size and variety, the most impressive the giant bamboo and the vines used to make suspension bridges. At night, we were spooked by intense fireflies. We saw some blackbirds and eagles, but the bowerbird and bird of paradise eluded us. We saw no other animals, but they probably saw us.

After Bulolo the creek joins the Watut and then the Snake River joins that. The volume increases and with it the speed and size of the rapids. The larger Watut River now flows through a 40 kilometre ravine out onto the Watut flood plain. The ravine has many rapids, steep banks, a few villages and many campsites hidden in tropical jungle. It is the section of river that the rafting companies run. It is the best part of the river and the most inaccessible. At one spot where we stopped, there was a village on both banks but the villagers cannot get from one side to the other. The rapids are bigger but more clearly defined. They do not merge one into the next as earlier but the river is a wide sheet of fast flowing water punctuated by severe drops. Even so, a mistake would result in a long swim or a long, arduous walk out.

As the jungle flashed by we were tossed by a magnificent river in flood, slapped in the face by insulted waves and spun by big whirlpools. We portaged one rapid in this section. Shortly later we ran one rapid that we probably should have portaged. I don’t recall a lot about it, just climbing across the top of a precarious vine overhanging a steep drop trying to see the rapid. Water went in the top and came out the bottom, exactly what went on in the middle? The impossibility of the portage settled it, that, and our guinea pigs, well, we just assumed they had run it successfully. 

It started as a 2 metre waterfall and a river wide boil just below that. I remember a tree fallen dangerously draping branches into the flow on river left. I capsized in the attempt to avoid it. I rolled up, head spinning. I struggled to regain control as my kayak spun past rocks and eddies. I capsized twice more before I managed to eddy out and wait for the others. I felt like clothes must feel in a washing machine. I couldn’t see the other two who were having difficulties of their own. While I waited, I surveyed the river banks, rather river walls, for a path back upstream, but there was no way back. If the others were in trouble there was nothing I could do. It seemed an age but probably only a few minutes and they eddied out next to me. They had both capsized and survived, so I didn’t feel I‘d done too badly. So far on the trip I had capsized nine times, Trev seven, and Glen twice. I spent the rest of the trip trying to tip Glen in. 

After about 40 kilometres of this ravine, the river abruptly emerged onto the floodplain. All the silt, disturbed by the mining and suspended in the water, was deposited in great soft shifting mudbanks. The forest receded and there was no longer any shade. The heat was intense. There were more frequent villages and  plantations and suddenly the hills we had come through seemed like a far away curtain. The water flowed quickly here, but the sun was hot and the river meandering and there were no rapids. 

After an afternoon of the heat we had enough. We paddled until 7pm in the cool of evening. We camped only when it became too dark to paddle. The next morning we rose with the sun and were off into the chill of morning. We hitched a ride with the first dugout we came to. This dugout was carrying pigs, bananas, five people and then still had room for the three kayaks and us. Powered by a 25hp outboard, we sat in the glorious morning sun eating fresh bananas.

Far off to the south the mountains rose darkly, draped in early morning cloud. We had left a magical fantasy land that now seemed to be receding at twice the speed of the dugout, as if the mountains themselves, having let us through and then released us onto the flood plain, were now also travelling back to their own place and time.