Kayakers Make First-Ever Descent of Massive Gorge

How do you get nominated for Adventurer of the Year? Go where no man has gone before. And come back.
A helicopter drops off kayakers at the Beriman Gorge
The only way to get in? By heli drop-off © Bryan Smith/Red Bull Content Pool
By Josh Sampiero

Chances are you've never heard of the island of New Britain, and despite its familiar-sounding name, it’s nowhere near its namesake. The island sits off the east coast of Papa New Guinea in the South Pacific. It's a relatively large island at 6,971 square miles, 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, it was one that got them nominated for a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award.

So why do they deserve this award, you ask? They took on 12.5 miles of unscoutable, never-before-descended whitewater hidden at the bottom of a gorge that rivals the size of the Grand Canyon, with soaring walls of nearly 1,000 feet and pummeling rapids. To enter was an unquestionable risk of life, and to exit was the achievement of a lifetime.

See the first images from the trip in the video below and scroll down to read our exclusive interview with Ben Stookesbury.

RedBull.com: First things first — what do you call this place?

Ben Stookesbury: The river is called Beriman — 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 31 miles to the take-out at the Solomon Sea.

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 runs. 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 monthlong paddle and portage — we’re willing to carry our boats 50 miles and paddle 100 — but this is an impenetrable jungle.

What makes you compare it to the Grand Canyon?

At its deepest point, where it cuts into the Nakani Mountains, it’s 5,000 feet deep and there’s just these massive red walls. It really looks like the Grand Canyon. But what we didn’t realize is that at the bottom of this huge gash in the earth is a deep, narrow ditch. Sometimes the river cuts through almost 1,000 feet below. There are parts of the river you can’t even see from a helicopter.

Sometimes the water is calm ...

Kayakers paddle down the Beriman Gorge
This blue water looks like paradise... © Ben Marr/Red Bull Content Pool

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 were over 12 miles of river where we quite literally wouldn’t have even been able to be pulled out with a helicopter.

Sometimes you get wet

A kayaker gets in deep in the whitewater
Warning: this ride may get you wet © Bryan Smith/Red Bull Content Pool

What was the biggest drop?

There was a 59-foot drop at the entrance to Canyon 2, and a 72-foot double drop we named Travartine Falls. There are obviously no "guidebook" names because, well, there’s no guidebook.

The double-drop Travartine Falls

The double-drop Travartine Falls
That's one heck of a double-drop © Ben Marr/Red Bull Content Pool

How about the riskiest situation?

At Canyon 7, we had to choose between going back to river level, scaling the canyon walls or trying 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 over 300 feet above the river.

We sent Pedro down in first, with one end of the rope slipping free through a carabiner on the back of the boat. We’re running out of time, the rope got tangled, and 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 [then we see] it’s just a frayed end. By pure luck he had cut it. Our comms system wouldn’t work. 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 6-and-a-half feet. 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 and you’d hear 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.

The crew gets spit out at the Solomon Sea
Arriving at the Solomon Sea © Bryan Smith/Red Bull Content Pool

How long did it take you?

The whole trip took us 13 days to go about 31 miles. The first 12 or so miles of these crazy enclosed canyons took us 12-and-a-half days, then we ran out the remaining 19 miles to the Salomon Sea in about three 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 that the river can become lethal at any moment. We lucked out.

Which kayak photo below are you more stoked on?

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