You have most likely never heard of the island of New Britain. Despite its familiar-sounding name, it’s nowhere near its namesake – the island sits off the east side of Papua New Guinea, of which it is a province.
It is a relatively large island at 15,724 sq km, and surely one of the least explored places in the world. It’s the perfect place to undertake an adventure – and for Ben Stookesbury, Chris Korbulic, Pedro Oliva and Ben Marr, one that got them nominated for the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year award.
Watch the first images from the trip in the player above and read our exclusive interview with Ben Stookesbury below.
So why do they deserve this award, you ask? 20km of unscoutable, never-descended whitewater hidden at the bottom of a gorge that rivals the size of the Grand Canyon, with soaring 300m walls and pummelling rapids. To enter was an unquestionable risk of life – to exit was the achievement of a lifetime.
Read our exclusive interview below.
First – what do you call this place?
Ben Stookesbury: The river is called Beriman, and it’s named after the first village downstream of this gorge, but we started calling it the ‘Grand Canyon of the South Pacific’. From the put-in above the Nakani Mountains, it’s about 50km to the take-out at the Solomon sea.
This is the only way in
Why are you qualified to run it?
Chris, Pedro and myself have done more first descents than any other team in the last few years. We’ve hit six continents going after first descents – from roadside waterfalls to super-remote. We’ve run the tallest waterfalls on Earth outside of Palouse. But this was so different from anything else we’d done – there was no way to get to the put-in without a helicopter. The last expedition we did was a month-long paddle and portage – we’re willing to carry our boats 50 miles, paddle a hundred – but this is an impenetrable jungle.
You’ve compared this gorge to the Grand Canyon.
At it’s deepest point it’s 5,000ft [1524m] deep where it cuts into the Nakani Mountains, and there’s just these massive red walls. It really looks like the Grand. But what we didn’t realise is at the bottom of these huge gash in the earth is a deep, narrow ditch – sometimes the river cut through 300m+ below. There’s parts of the river you can’t even see from a helicopter.
Sometimes the water is calm...
How’d you find it?
We spotted in on a flight out of PNG two years prior. It’s a place that’s known for super-vertical, if not subterranean rivers, in a sparse region of PNG. Tons of caves, tons of limestone. So we knew we had to go back.
Did you know what you were in for?
Honestly – no. It wasn’t until the first proper heli scout that we knew what we were getting into. 13 box canyons in a row. So many places where you have to throw caution to the wind, and there’s no other way out. There was 20km of river where we quite literally wouldn’t even be able to be pulled out with a helicopter.
Sometimes you get wet
What was the biggest drop?
There was am 18m drop at the entrance to Canyon Two, and a 22m double drop we named Travartine Falls. There’s obviously no ‘guidebook’ names, because, well, there’s no guidebook.
The double-drop Travartine Falls
At Canyon 7, we had to choose between going back to river level, scaling the canyon walls, or try to find a portage. We had no idea how to move downstream. We cliffed out river left, sent Chris up-river right, and he found a route into a super vertical ravine that appeared to lead back into the gorge below a problem spot. A day and a half later we were hanging off the side of the wall 100m above the river.
We sent Pedro down in first. One end of the rope was suppsoed to slip free through a carabiner on the back of the boat. We’re running out of time, and the rope got tangled. He’s getting pulled underwater. We can’t see him. All we know is the rope is taut, and that’s not what we thought would happen. We figure he’s holding on for dear life, and it’s just a frayed end. By pure luck he had a knife and cut it. It was scary. I thought there was a good chance Pedro was out of his boat.
What about the wildlife?
Tons of big gnarly-looking spiders, and giant fruit bats. the biggest bat on earth. They have wingspans of nearly 2m. The whole sky would be black with bats, just covered with their wings. Not attacking. Just flying. Every once in a while we’d get far enough away from the river, you’d hear a tons of birds and other animals. But we were so close to this loud, rowdy river we didn’t hear and see half of what’s probably down there.
Almost to the ocean
How long did it take you?
The whole trip took us 13 days to go about 50km. The first 20km of these crazy enclosed canyons took us 12.5 days. Then we ran out the remaining 30km to the Salomon Sea in about 3 hours.
Would you call yourselves lucky?
The day after we left, it rained for two days straight, total tropical rain, and the river went crazy. It’s so remote, with such high walls, and so tight – the river can become lethal at any moment. We lucked out.