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Working on a Film Shoot

The season was drawing to an end in Austria, and I was facing a choice between lockdown in the UK or lockdown in Austria when I received an Instagram message from Josh at Bali productions.

The tourism board was filming a new tourism campaign based around action sports and were in need of a kayaker.

A week later I was on the plane, negative covid test and work permit in hand, travelling to Indonesia to film with a very talented crew. It’s the sort of thing that my childhood self dreamed of; sick kayaking combined with sick filming in an epic location. I stopped my inner child from skipping through the airport, less I got hot and sweaty and scared the other passengers.

Getting off the plane and meeting the team, the producer told me he had guessed that I would probably want to head straight to the river rather than relax at the hotel and that there was a car ready to take me to the Asahan River. This river will sadly soon be damned and I could not believe my luck at having the opportunity to kayak down it.

I thought I was going to be kayaking it solo, which I don’t mind and actually enjoy, but when I arrived at the put-in I was met by a young local kayaker, Restu, who the producer had arranged to show me down. Fine by me, kayaking is more fun with other people, and myself and Restu blasted down miles and miles of powerful whitewater together. Flying over wave trains, weaving around holes, the Asahan River was better than I had ever imagined and we were only getting started. The upper section eased off and we cruised the rafting section together. Stopping under a bridge, Restu informed me that he wasn’t going to kayak any further today as the section below was a bit much for him. Thanking him for the lines, I took off down the next section with some beta from him, keen to see what the next section of the Asahan had in store.

I love reading and running rivers, with some strategic eddies, kayak scouting, and confidence you can make it down a lot of rivers without getting out of your kayak. However, both Restu and the assistant producer had been very clear on needing to stop before the biggest rapid on the river, and a few times I had seen the gradient dropping, scrambled to make an eddy, and crawled around the jungle to get a better peek around the corner. Eventually, getting it right, I was greeted with the “Nightmare” rapid on the Asahan. Different viewpoints give you different perspectives on rapids, I could only see it from the side of the jungle and what I saw looked like a fairly closed outline above a massive hole. From experience, there is usually more space and the line is usually more open than it looks from this angle. The only question is whether you want to commit to finding out.

The assistant watching through his fingers as I rolled up to the start of the rapid. Just as I had hoped, the line was more open than it looked from the bank. It was a classic, late-charge move and I had to keep calm and wait on the right-hand side as long as I dared before pushing hard over to the left and getting over the hole.

The Asahan was just one of the film locations, and we loaded up in the car and drove ten hours to check out the next one.

The Katassa waterfall, the first descent of this waterfall was done by Galen Volkhausen and Nouria Newman a year earlier, and I had loved the look of it. A tight lead-in section through a gorge before dropping 70ft plus. The day I scouted it, the river was low, giving me a perfect view of the hideous cave I would end up in if I made a mistake. The cave made me feel a little bit uneasy, but not having my crew with me made me feel downright vulnerable. Kayaking hard whitewater is a team sport.

Looking at the line I felt confident though, and I made my call; I was in. The producer scheduled the safety team and locked it into the schedule. I was personally hoping for more water for the film day.

I guess you have to be careful what you wish for. The night before the waterfall shoot there was a huge rainstorm and arriving there the next day the river was three times higher than when I scouted it. It was a beautiful display of nature’s force as the water thundered through the canyon and over the lip of the waterfall. It was rowdier, much rowdier, but so sick! I had been in Indonesia on a previous trip and knew how quickly the rivers rise and fall here. I told the producer we had to move quickly and I watched as he rallied a massive film crew and safety team into position three hours ahead of schedule. It was a stressful morning for everyone one. I was afraid the water would drop and the wave on the lip of the waterfall would closeout and make my descent a lot harder. I was expecting the river to drop dramatically as I had seen happen on numerous rivers in Indonesia, but somehow the level held up, the crew took their positions, and I was given the signal to go.

News had reached the local villages, and thousands of people lined the side of the river to watch. I scrambled to a secluded spot and took a few moments away from everyone to collect myself. I always distil a line down to a few core points and go through my Plan B scenarios so I can move quickly if things go wrong, but I had no Plan B on this waterfall. There was no possibility for me to fix things if they went wrong. I had to get it right and not end up in the cave.

Getting into my kayak, I had that wonderful feeling I am always looking for at the top of waterfalls; confident and calm, but slightly excited. The walkie talkie echoed back that the film crew was ready, and I launched into the river. I was immediately moving quickly though the gorge and feeling time slow down. The brain does weird, magical things in these sorts of situations, and all of a sudden I was at the lip of the waterfall, the nose of the kayak pointing slightly away from the cave, letting myself roll over the lip and the kayak settle before pulling hard on a stroke and tucking up as tight as I can. I went deep but could feel myself being pushed downstream away from the cave, I resurfaced to cheers from the thousands of people that had come out to watch, eventually becoming aware that I was also cheering with them. I only ever claim or cheer about a line if it was really good and if I had been nervous about it. My line down the Katassa waterfall had been both, and I was stoked as I was mobbed by the film crew who had all been nervous for me.

I spent the rest of the trip filming various other scenes, some in a kayak, some not, and having a great time working with the mega-talented Bali Productions team.

Working on film shoots is intensive. Nobody gets very much sleep, everyone works incredibly hard, but it’s all worth it at the end when the director’s vision comes to fruition and you know you played your part in making that happen to the best of your abilities.

Cheers to everyone involved!