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Claim it!

The kayaking world isn’t like the mountaineering world. Traditionally being gentlemen of high regard, mountaineers have always kept accurate records of their achievements. Kayakers, traditionally being scumbags, have not.

This has led to much pub (and internet) based based banter over who ran what first. It’s getting more and more difficult to find that elusive first descent, usually having to go harder, go more obscure, or go more remote to be able to conclusively “Claim it” – if that’s your thing.

I came back a couple of months ago from a trip where we took the latter option – go remote!

Our chartered Cessna plane (costing 31,000,000 Indonesian Rupiah!) unloading at Sugapa airstrip, from where our Jungle hike-in began.
Cessna at Sugapa airstrip. Photo: Pete Woods

The trip in question was a month long expedition to one of the remotest and inaccessible parts of the world – Indonesian Papua. We’d heard stories before going about previous trips to Papua New Guinea (the other side of the island) and how they were fraught with logistical difficulties, and we accepted that we would have to deal with a number of these ourselves. The Indonesian side of the island is even less developed than PNG, and less politically stable, with many Papuan’s wanting independence from Indonesia. More obscure? Yep! More remote? Yep! We were on to a winner!

The Jungle trek-in would have been exciting enough without having to carry in un-weildy boats (as the porters refused to carry them).
Negotiating one of the many obstacles on the jungle walk-in

As such, using the well accepted approach of “if I can’t find evidence of it on the internet, no-one’s paddled it before” we bigged it up as a first descent expedition and raked in generous amounts of cash and kit from our awesome sponsors.

Rawcut TV lent us a camera for the trip on the proviso they could use the footage to make a TV program of the expedition when we got back. Here is Chris doing some diary cam
Chris’s diary cam

Unfortunately the expedition itself was not the very model of success as a catalogue of unlucky events saw us off the river only 2.5 days into what we’d planned to be an 8 day descent. Separated from our boats, with food and equipment stolen (do not underestimate the importance of shoes in the jungle), and police reluctant to let us even leave the police station for fear of capture by Papuan Separatists, we were forced to abandon our kayaks and return to civilisation.

Tim and Pete get their first taste of the power of the river.
First rapid of the expedition


A traditionally dressed papuan helping us carry some of our equipment - most people we met were incredibly helpful and friendly. Unfortunately a minority really screwed us over.
Kayak fashion vs Papuan fashion, Photo: Pete Woods

Still, we consoled ourselves that we can at least claim that coveted First D title for the section of river we did manage to paddle! 🙂 Awesome.

Or could we…

Whilst on the trip we discovered that the name the locals use for the river is Kemabu, rather than Derewo as we had been using.  Now back home, I decided to stick Kemabu into Google and see what appears.

It turns out that back in 1995, a Russian chap, Vladimir Lysenko set himself the challenge of rafting down the highest peak of every continent. His last peak to raft from was Puncak Jaya, the highest mountain in Oceania, and the source of the Kemabu/Derewo river.

Interestingly, it seems he shared many of the same experiences we did, on our trip fifteen years later… except that he generally had it worse – and was paddling solo, so had no one to complain to! Whilst some of our food was stolen, all of his was stolen (he survived off scrounged potatoes and tea). Whilst my shoes were stolen, all his rafting clothes were stolen (he still manned-up and got on), we both had issues finding a plane which would take us to the correct airstrip in the interior, Pete got ill as a result of infected cuts on his hands, Vladimir also got ill from infected cuts picked up on his walk-in. In short, I think we were schooled in the art of manliness.

Here are a few of Vladimir’s photos of his solo descent:

Vladimir Lysenko's 1995 trip - a self-portrait

Vladimir Lysenko's 1995 trip - Papuan fashion hasn't changed much!

Vladimir Lysenko's 1995 trip - Goodness knows who he got to take this one, and how he knew they weren't going to steal his camera!

Brilliantly this isn’t even the first time I’ve claimed a remote first descent, only to later find that we’d been beaten to it (again, by Russians). I guess the moral of the story is: no matter how remote your venture, no matter how unique your idea, no matter how gnarly the rapid; someone (undoubtedly a Russian) has been there before you and solo’d it in his one-man raft and homemade kit.

Respect is most definitely due to the pioneers of our sport!

Many thanks to the following generous organisations, without whom we’d not even have got anywhere near the river: Transglobe Expedition Trust, Welsh Sports Association, Canoe England, RawCut TV, Pyranha Kayaks and Palm Equipment.