Descending into the Unknown in Papua New Guinea

There are few places left in the world where whitewater kayaks haven’t been. Until we arrived on New Britain, an island off Papua New Guinea, it was one of these places. It’s a landscape of tortured terrain—forested mountaintops divided by dozens of high volume rivers in slot canyons a raft could plug.

We’re on one such river right now. Our crew of kayakers has just completed an entrance rapid into a vertical limestone gorge. I know from our airplane scout a month before that somewhere downstream the river pours over a three-tiered waterfall. Three of us are sharing an eddy on river right and two more are on river left. We’re all watching lead kayaker Scott Fiendel eddy hop his way downstream toward a rapid that is filling the gorge with a cacophonous white roar.

On the banks, dark-skinned Kol people are scurrying along to watch us paddle the river that flows beneath their village. A hundred yards below me, four Kol men are watching Scott hit a small but attainable eddy an arm’s length from the rocky outcrop they are standing on. I take my eyes off Scott for a moment, and when I look back, the eddy is empty. I assume he’s proceeded downstream, and so we wait, expecting him to appear on the bank and give us directions.

A few minutes later, we still haven’t heard from Scott, and Brian Eustis is out of his boat and running along the bank. He squeezes past a couple of giggling Kol kids. When he reaches the eddy where we last saw Scott, he sends three whistle blasts into the canyon. They hang in the air like red flags. No answer. Now I’m standing beside the four Kol men with my heartbeat pulsing in my ears. Below, the river rolls off a 20-foot ledge into a massive sieve that boils into a 30-foot vertical slot and lands in an undercut wall, banks onto a slide and froths into a short pool above another rapid. Scott is gone.

Scott, Brian, and I are part of an unusual expedition—a nine-person entourage with the goal of discovering the Pandi River’s source deep within a vast cave system then paddling it to its terminus in the South Pacific 45 miles away. In doing so, we’d become the first crew to kayak on New Britain. But more importantly, we hoped to use media attention from our expedition to advocate for conservation in a region just now opening to logging.

We’d hatched the expedition seven months earlier when we met American geologist and cave explorer John Lane, 43, at a film festival in Nevada City, California. John’s earlier work had led to the creation of a national park in Sarawak, Malaysia and the preservation of large tracts of land in Sumatra thanks to the exposure received when National Geographic produced several television specials and feature articles about his expeditions. Beer in hand, John was dishing stories about his third trip to New Britain—in particular one in which a local bit the head off a live bat. He was planning his fourth mission to the region, and when I asked if there was whitewater, he laughed. “You couldn’t swing a dead bat without hitting a rapid.”

The geology of New Britain, slightly larger than Vermont, is divided roughly in half with a strip of limestone on the south and half a dozen erupting volcanoes to the north. The limestone massif of the Nakanai Mountains, the source of the Pandi, rises 6,000 feet over the sea, and in the past 200,000 years dozens of large rivers fed by 19 feet of annual rainfall have carved a web of slot canyons into a landscape defined by knife-edge ridges, gullies, and caves. Overlaying this are some of the world’s most bio-diverse jungles, and a human culture that consists of 50 distinct languages. Over the past 35,000 years, waves of island-hopping migrants from Papua New Guinea’s mainland pushed successive tribes into an interior so rugged that new languages developed in near isolation. First contact with the western world came in the 1880s when Catholic missionaries attempted to convert coastal tribes. Their first year they reported more missionaries eaten than souls saved (cannibalism has a rich history in the South Pacific). Since then, three colonial powers have vied for control of the island, but much of New Britain remained pristine until the 1950s, when the expansion of logging and oil palm industries began effecting widespread and lasting change.

The limestone massif of the Nakanai Mountains, the source of the Pandi, rises 6,000 feet over the sea, and in the past 200,000 years dozens of large rivers fed by 19 feet of annual rainfall have carved a web of slot canyons into a landscape defined by knife-edge ridges, gullies, and caves.

For our group of kayakers—expedition leader Trip Jennings, me, photographer Matt Fields-Johnson, and videographers Brian Eustis, Andy Maser, and Scott Feindel—exploring the undeveloped country surrounding the Pandi River was a month-long process that began with two recon flights in early August. After we noted the Pandi flowed from caves nearby a collection of huts called Tuke, we made the decision to use the village as our expedition base. Trip Jennings and Andy Maser hiked 13 miles from the end of a logging road into Tuke to negotiate our operation with the resident Kol tribe.

A week later, the caving team—John Lane, Mike Lane, and Haley Cutter—joined the kayak crew on the two-day hike to the village to lead the search for the Pandi’s underground source. Later, one of us would hike back out to meet a helicopter and fly our kayaks in. The final stage in the expedition would be the river portion, beginning with an upstream paddle into the cave from which the Pandi emerged.

When I hiked into the village for the first time, the rain had finally abated but I could hear Haley and Brian’s footsteps plucking from mud behind me. Heads emerged from smoky doors and people young and old smiled shyly before launching into a string of observations in Kol. The huts were one to two rooms constructed from bushy materials; a cooking fire crackled inside each one. The people wore torn T-shirts and shorts shipped from the developed world and bought in bails from dealers along the coastline.

The village’s history began when an Australian government official who had hiked across the island ran into the then-nomadic Kol. As was the trend, he consolidated the subsistence gardeners into a village to administer taxes, count heads, and pool the men so recruiters from the lowland’s plantations could sign them up as indentured laborers.

“Apanoon! Apanoon!” A few cried to me in Tok Pison, Papua New Guinea’s blend of Pigeon English. “Apanoon,” I called back and took an outstretched hand in mine. The crowd surged with laughter. John Lane and his brother Mike had already dropped packs inside a tin-roofed, apparently unused, church that was surrounded by a growing crowd. Mike was spreading anti-bacterial cream on an infected wound on his leg and John was beginning to cook around the lectern. Trip, who was changing, had his shorts around his ankles and stood unabashedly nude in front of a captive audience while more people crowded in to fill the pews.

“Kyle! Welcome to church,”Trip said. “But please, take off your hat.”

After dinner, a Kol man assured us he knew of a big cave close by, a half-hour hike, maybe an hour at most, and tomorrow he’d take us there. It would be our portal into a system John Lane calls the “Everest of Caves”in deference to its size and the siege-style tactics of expeditions there—most of which take more than three months and require upwards of three miles of rope. Our own exploration would be far shorter, but would form an important link in the source-to-sea exploration of the Pandi.

The following morning Haley was too ill to make the trip and stayed behind. After two hours on the hike, that same sickness got the best of me, too, and when Andy Maser fell and sprained his ankle, he and I grudgingly opted to return to the village while the other six marched over three more ridges and into a jungle-shrouded ravine. At last, they followed a dry creek downstream until it dropped into a 600-foot-deep sinkhole. Beside a pile of driftwood and a bank of sand was the entrance of Gimbe Cave. John, Trip, and the crew unfurled the rope, flicked it off the edge and rappelled into an entrance that centuries of runoff has eroded into a vaulted and polished limestone drain. Thousands of bats flocked from the cave in mass exodus and the team picked its way through a passage choked by limestone chock blocks that had fallen from the cave’s ceilings. The tunnels stair-stepped over 80-foot slides and 200-foot dry waterfalls. For 10 hours, the crew rappelled onto ledges and down-climbed to pools of stagnant water that squirmed with blackwater eels.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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