Friday, January 24, 2020

Kyrgyzstan - Saryjaz Expedition 2017

Here is a short film made by the late Adrian Kiernan, show casing Kyrgyzstan and most notably the Saryjaz expedition that he, Ari Walker, Jakub Sedivy, Jordy Searle, Kristoff Stursa and Sam Grafton. 

Evan Moore was a late omission from the Saryjaz due to the health of his mother, but we supported his decision to leave and be there for her. He was missed throughout the trip but will get down this amazing river sometime in the near future. 

One of the best adventures any of us have been on and a true test of teamwork and character. 

The First Descent of the Baliem

It has been a couple of years since our cameo on the popular expedition show with British celebrity Steve Backshall, namely 'Down the Mighty River - with Steve Backshall'. It was a unique experience to see what a big production TV shoot was like, to be relied on so heavily for my experienced opinion and to help Steve and a skeleton TV crew down a full on river in the remote jungles of Papua, Indonesia.

The Baliem in all it's glory - David Bain
There is a lot of background detail that I could get bogged down in explaining how we came to have the role, but in short it was thanks to Patrick O'Keeffe for giving us the shoe in and several other key people for talking well of us. In addition to us completing two successful expeditions to Papua New Guinea in 2011 and 2013.

I (Jordy) was part of a reccy to Papua, Indonesia. The is the western side of the New Guinea landmass, where the eastern side is the more known Papua New Guinea. The focus of the trip was to assess the feasibility of a raft/kayaking trip down the 'unpaddled' Baliem River. I met up with Alexis Girardet, a renown producer from the BCC, and Joe Yaggi. Joe is an America ex-pat that has been in Indonesia for more than 20 years and has developed the fixing/logistics company 'Jungle Run'. We spent 6 days buzzing around in choppers, assessing the river environment, meeting with local interest groups and just acclimating to the region. After this, we presented our findings and recommendations to the BBC Exec and with some heavy persuasion from Steve himself, the BBC eventually gave us the green light. We were going back to attempt the Baliem.

Preparation is key, here Yanto, Alexis and Joe looking of anything and everything to give us
a better idea of the place we were going to - Jordy Searle

One of the coolest parts of this trip was I was fortunate to be able to hand pick the entire rafting/river safety team. And I definitely knew a lot of well qualified misfits that would be happy to come along. For raft guides I invited Nate Klema and Adrian Kiernan, both of whom had years of experience getting humpy dumpy's down serious whitewater in loaded rafts, on the Grand Canyon the the Franklin respectively. For the kayaking it was simple, Barny was my obvious choice as we've done all our expeditions together and the other would be David Bain. As recently I had been doing a lot of paddling with David and it would be useful to have a safety team member in the UK to go over preparatory plans with the rest of the production crew. After a couple of months of emails, deliberating about gear, risk management practices, contingencies, paperwork and all that fun stuff, the date was set and we were booked to fly to Wamena.

Never just a book by its cover, this crew may be young but there was a wealth
of experience taking care of the behind the scenes work - David Bain

To give an indication of the trip we were about to embark on, the flight there is actually a good start. We had to sign a waiver as we were taking a domestic flight on a carrier that did not meet the international aviation safety standards. All went well, and this gave us an indication of things to come. We had a couple of staging days, where the separate teams organsied their gear and Steve, Alexis, Joe and I planned and re planned and re planned our itineraries, until it was go time!

Gear and Helicopters, pretty much the entire trip revolved around this - Barny Young

Part one was flying to the alpine Lake Habema, then kayak/raft down to where the river goes underground and through a mountain range. This is where our first issue arose. Adrian fell sick in the first couple of days in Papua, and he wasn't in a state to be rafting. It was unfortunate for Adrian, but was a blessing in disguise in the end.

 If things weren't bad enough in Adrians world, Mr "Never miss a moment" Alexis 
was into it, building his story - Barny Young

We decided to continue with a light gear load and only one raft, putting in just downstream of the lake mouth. This was the first place we could genuinely float a boat, and insulated us from the potential trouble of people who lived/had interest in the lake and may have not been happy with our presence. At over 10,000ft, this was a high altitude put in and the fern covered alpine flat land was a surreal landscape to behold. In a region of the world people generally, and justifiably, associate with hot humid weather, the air was fresh and brisk. The river was tea coloured, from the tannins of the surrounding forests and before long the river's edges turned into walls and the whitewater began. Low and manky, kinda of to be expected but we bounced our way down to a beautiful camp in the middle of the river. Things were going well, but this was going to be short-lived.

 Entering the Upper Baliem gorge, it was crazy paddling at 10,000ft in the south pacific - Barny Young

An unconventional bivouac, a raft balanced on kayaks. But it served it's purpose - David Bain

Immediately downstream of camp the river constricted more, and the entrance to the next gorge was a nasty, coarse sieve pile. It was definitely a no go for the raft, which was fortunate as now Nate was struggling health wise, and after a scout downstream it was pretty obvious this river was no place for a raft at all. Steve was fired up to continue further down with Barny and myself, which was a conundrum for me. Any normal day I would not think twice about dropping into a blind gorge, but the fact of the matter was that Steve was my responsibility and this was at the top of his ability. Barny and I discussed the possibility of getting Steve down the gorge, but in the end the cons just out weighed the pros in this situation. Shitty, sharp, manky, rapidly steepening, locked in class IV or more and a guy that is so busy working on TV, environmental projects, climbing, diving, skiing, training, canyoning and anything you can imagine, that he struggles to find time to kayak as much as he once did... it was a hard yet simple decision. We would need to extracted.

The team deliberating early on day two in the Upper Baliem Gorge - Photo David Bain

We had to be relocated to a landing strip adjacent to our location, and then could be taken by vehicles back to Wamena to stage for part of the trip. In the mean time, Steve was off checking out the local Flora and Fauna, hoping to spot a bird of paradise or see some exotic plant life. To his credit he knew an astounding amount about the Papuan environment, it was quite impressive and we all learnt quite a bit.

Steve frequently used a light-sheet to attract critters during the nights - photo: Nate Klema

Due to some local politics we couldn't 'safely' put back on the river below the gorge where we had been extracted, which meant we'd have to put in just below where the river resurfaced after it came through the mountain range. The locals, flow and whitewater from here was much more suited to rafting. Adrian was back on the ledger but this time Nate and Baino were on the very sick list. Alexis was struggling a bit himself, but he is the personification of the saying 'the show must go on', and he did accordingly. Once back on the river we really felt like we were getting our first proper strokes. The day included some good class IV rapids, a crashed drone and a semi suitable campsite for all but poor Adrian who has several hammock malfunctions during a night of pouring rain. Perfect really.

Adrian back in the hot seat - Barny Young

Me leading Steve through some boogy, making TV - Barny Young

Glad Barny and I went for the tent option, considering Adrians shitty night - Barny Young

The next day we paddled the second part of this 'middle' gorge, more pushy rapids but just good fun really. We continued down into the Baliem or 'Grand' Valley, where we were invited by a local village to spend the night. It was a semi-traditional Papuan settlement, but with one notable difference to the villages I had been to in Papua New Guinea... there was a mummy! Legitimately the wrapped and smoked/petrified remains of a 200+ year old Papuan Elder, kept in a spiritual shelter/hut that only the men were allowed to enter. We were allowed to see it, but it was only Steve who was permitted to sleep in the spiritual house. In hindsight, however, it seems like that wasn't bad as Steve hardly slept as the locals chatted all night and when the choking smoke from the fire lessened, the mosquitoes did there best to ensure Steve got no rest whatsoever.

 Adrian taking some pretty valuable cargo down the river. Not only all the camera gear, but the production
crew and, most importantly, ALL of our food - Barny Young

Steve and I finally worked out this else was telling us story about how they used to hunt 
the birds in the area - Adrian Kiernan

He may have been small, and looked like there wasn't much to him, but he definitely commanded respect 
and keep our attention every time he was present - Adrian Kiernan
After a long night of sleep, for us, we continued down the river back to Wamena. We would have a few days to prepare to paddle the Lower Baliem Gorge, meanwhile Steve and the crew were going to try get into some caving exploration.

 Steve and an elder literally jumping with joy after coming to an agreement about
accessing a virgin cave system - David Bain

As with most things on the expedition, the caving team ran into issues at every turns. Lead by Stephen Jones who pioneered multiple cave systems in New Guinea in the 80s and 09s, the team had set out to identify a cave system that Steve could be the first to enter. Although there were several prospects, there would always be a last minute 'interest group' or 'issue' that would arise. But this seemed to be overcome with one particular site, so it was go time. David, Barny and I decided to go along and help with the rigging as it was a good excuse to get out of our rooms in Wamena and with a sly hope of getting to enter a virgin cave system.

Action-man Aldo Kane and Steve all smiles while rigging the ropes to access the cave - David Bain

There was quite a production involved in the rigging of the caves, Stephen had two other specialist cavers with him; then there was Steve and Aldo; Alexis and Parker (the soundy), Desak on behalf of Jungle Run and then Barny, David and myself. There was a truckload of gear, literally, and it was no small feat to get it down to the staging area. Luckily we had the help of locals, and soon the team had ropes in place. At the same time Justin, Stephens go to man, was rigging the redirect for the first rappel, I was told through Desak that we had to stop what we were doing immediately. What I thought was a cordial conversation turned out to be quite the opposite. Another 'landowner' had turned up and was not how about our activity. We left everything in place and all returned to the access area in hope of talking through it. But after lengthy talks, even with a respected elder talking on our behalf, there was no consensus and it was explained to us that to continue could lead to disagreements and violence between the different groups. In no way would we have wanted our presence to be the cause of any civil unrest or ill feeling, so we respectfully removed all our equipment and retreated back to Wamena.

Steve, with a heavy-heart, carrying out the heavy bags of climbing/caving equipment - David Bain

So it was onto plan E, or whatever we were up to. We had been given guaranteed access to a cave system that had seen some limited exploration before but the team was hoping for a virgin cave system. With most of our resources exhausted, Stephen Jones and Steve decided that it was now or never and that there was a good possibility the could push deeper into the cave than any previous trips. Alexis agreed, the show had to go on so the caving and production team set off for the cave, with David as the photographer.

The main chamber was as impressive as any that the team had seen before - David Bain

Cathy Jones, Stephen wife, pushing deeper into the unknown section of the save - David Bain

Steve observing the 'flowstone' like curtain formations in a remote chamber of the cave - David Bain

The team spent the night underground and resurfaced with some pretty cool stories. They had exhaustively explored the entire cave system but were reluctant to say they had been the first to discover any of the caverns. Although there is very little documentation about this cave, I guess there has been a lot of exploration in this area and it's better to find out for sure opposed to claiming something and then having mud on your face. Regardless, it sounded pretty special and something I am gutted I missed out on.

While this had been happening, the river crew and I had been going over film footage and we unanimously, yet reluctantly, decided that the 'monsoon/highwater' itinerary was the only plausible one for the river at its current flow. When we had arrived the river was quite low, and had looked ideal for rafting the majority of the lower gorge but ever since Adrians sleepless night in the rain/malfunctioning hammock the river had been progressively rising. To a point that it was near similar to the flow during the reccy, something the very few kayakers in the world would consider let alone two rafts full of kit and some folks that do not spend much time in the river environment. 

Simply too much water for an attempt on the first section of the Lower Baliem Gorge - Jordy Searle

The start of this itinerary involved a heli insertion about 40km downstream, this is the steepest and most continuous section of the river. It hurt Steve having to leave that section unpaddled, but it was the river crew that it really upset. Every member of the team is a renown expedition paddler and that section was going to be a proper test piece for us, but at this flow it would of been suicide. Even without the production crew and rafts, there were several kilometres of locked in continuous class V+/P (the highest grade of whitewater/P meaning portage as it unnavigable) and a very real chance of flush drowning if you had to exit your kayak. So we would be putting in at the first place possible below that section, and we would make our way down to another steep section and see if we could paddle it, walk around it or just anything really. 

We used a fixed wing to stage at a village near the insertion point, piloted by a crazy German - Barny Young
Then an even more crazy french chopper pilot put us right in the middle of it, literally - David Bain

The river was a LOT bigger than we expected, and I think we all felt we had made the right decision putting in where we had. We had 10km to camp, and a few isolated class IV rapids to deal with. Or so we thought. Rounding the first corner we had what can often be one of the harder river features to deal will... the entire river pounding straight into a wall and causing a huge pressure wave or buffer. These features are hard to avoid, as your fighting the flow and if you do end up in there the buffer creates an inconsistent seam that sometimes you lean into, and sometimes you lean away from and a lot of the time you end up upside down trying to roll in highly aerated water. Steve and I jumped out to have a scouted, as did the raft guides, and we all came to the same conclusion, "try and get right, and deal with it if you don't make it". Barny, Steve and I would go first in that order, as to have the kayakers downstream if the rafts flip and we needed to help collect any loose gear. Barny was first and Steve planned to follow his as closely as possible, but unfortunately got surged left and in doing so ended up essesntially at the wall but on the wrong side on the entire river. I paddled down and, before Steve could calculate the severity of his situation, asked Steve to follow me and put EVERYTHING into it. We charge into the current as hard and fast as we could, trying to ferry/traverse the river above the buffer. Neither of us make it but when I turned around I was astonished to see Steve not too far behind me. He flipped at one stage, but popped straight back up and continued to paddle with all his might. And it worked. Steve made it over to the eddy where we were sitting and erupted in exaltation. We all did, it was pretty special to see someone simultanously achieving their dream and overcoming big hurdles at one time. The raft came down and Adrian was very very lucky not to flip. After crashing into the wall head on, the buffer lifted the boat onto its edge but some how it sat back down and the team paddled into the eddy. We had another couple of rapids to deal with on our way getting down to a monstrous one that we didn't know if we could portage around. This would be camp for the night.

A very serious looking Alexis holding on to Nate as we attempted to scout a section - Adrian Kiernan

 Steve making it happen, paddling the goods and getting his first descent of the Baliem - David Bain

The kayaking crew for the Lower Baliem, we had to throw David in a raft for man power and as a contingency for if the whitewater got too hard for Steve, then David could jump in the kayak and Steve in the raft - David Bain

The night was wet, in the comfort of our hammocks it didn't feel too bad but I could see the river from my hammock and I am not sure whether it was real or my imagination, but the river looked higher every time I looked. In the morning we would refuel and assess our options for getting downstream. 

 The comfort of our hammocks, would be our sanctuary for longer than we thought - David Bain

In the morning we ate breakfast and finally absorbed the environment we were in. Dense jungle, massive river, ominous clouds that would squeeze out deafening amounts of rain and a group of surprisingly chipper adventurers. While I devoured 800cal of freeze-dried goodness I knew there was no way we could paddle any part of the rapid before me, and then gorge walls down stream did not look like there would be passage around. After breakfast Steve, Aldo and myself went for a quick scout to see, and very soon realised it wasn't going to happen. Our skeleton crew was almost our undoing as we had to heavily loaded 16foot NRS rafts, 3 full loaded kayaks and only 10 of us to move it all. Not to mention vertical walls to deal with and several kilometers of jungle for the next respite in the rivers ferocity. If we had unlimited time I am sure everyone would of rolled up their sleeves and committed to the multiple days portaging in the jungle but we only had a limited amount of time so called in the chopped to help us move downstream once again.

Eating a big breakfast, feeling very small - Nate Klema

 Everywhere we went, somehow Alexis and Parker went backwards, without looking, with all their 
equipment and happily - David Bain

The 'kitchen' and 'living room' - Nate Klema

We relocated down to a section of river that I had identified during the initial scout of the Baliem at high water, where it would be spicy but safe for the crew to move down the river. The river was wide down here and there were big waves and holes all over the place to deal with. We camped by a good section of whitewater and this would be the last night for the entire team together on the river. Steve spent the night looking at the rapids he'd have to paddle the next day, rapids right at the top of his ability, and he was completely and utterly excited! In this seemingly isolated location we were suddenly visited by a young hunting party. Initially there was some angst/hostility but this was quickly overcome and Aldo even went so far as to treat a wound on the hand of one of the hunters. Some of our crew even purchased a bow and arrows that were used to hunt birds and small crocodiles. Both parties parted was happy and smiling.

 Loaded up for the piggy-back down stream, only after two days of laying in a hammock 
listening to a thundering Baliem River - David Bain

Barny waiting for his ride - David Bain

 Expedition medic Aldo, helping to ease things over with the locals - Nate Klema

 The happiness of the children in developing nations is infectious and inspiring - David Bain

 Barny and his new found friend, after they spent some time shooting birds - David Bain

In the morning Steve was first to have eaten, pack up and in his gear waiting to go. The rest of the crew slowly went through the paces and were ready for another good day on the river. We started with some continuous class IV with some big holes for dodge. Steve followed me through the rapids and Barny would be on sweep. The lower gorge has impressive walls, coated in thick jungle. We glimpsed a few of the exotic birds and Steve told us all about them. It was actually impressive his knowledge of the flora and fauna of Papua. After 18km of rapids broken up by fast flowing pools, we came to South Gate. This is where the Baliem emerges from the Jayawijaya Mountain and pours into the delta. We paddled maybe 8 km down into the delta to where the first signs of develop in the last 80+km began. Soon we meet with some local banana boat owners who had driven 2 days up river to meet Steve and the crew, and this is where we would be relocated to a small airstrip and then return to Wamena.

 Steve getting ready for some serious whitewater - David Bain

 It was impressive to see Steve push himself on the white-water, pushing 
into the class IV-IV+ realm - David Bain

 More of Steve in action - David Bain

It was funny looking back and seeing this throughout the trip, but making 
TV was paying the bills! - David Bain

Barny and myself looking in dire need of a shower - David Bain

It was a mixture of feelings. We had completed the descent. Well, all of the sections that were possible. In the amount of time available. And we weren't going to be doing the last part of the journey. We had an epic journey with some incredible people, most notably Alexis, Steve, Aldo, Joe, Ingrid and Parker. But I felt, we felt, there was more left in there to be explored. That said, we were thankful for the opportunity to work with Steve and the BBC, to be exposed to the incredible environment that was Papua and felt reinvigorated to get out and explore.

The flight out, a fitting end to what was an epic trip. And a image that will stick with me forever, the late Adrian Kiernan looking out in wonder... what next, where and when? - Nate Klema

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How To: Laos - 4000 Islands section of the Mekong

The Mekong is the 12th largest river in the world and is navigable for the majority of it’s 4,350km length. Linking six ‘Mekong’ countries, namely China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, this waterway has served as an important trade route for local and international communities. A trade route that is interrupted only once, by ສີ່ພັນດອນ (Si Phan Don), which is Laotian for ‘4000 Islands’. A deserved name, as this area of the Mekong splits between a plethora of islands. A few larger ones with guesthouses and restaurants, some with huts, small agricultural patches or thick jungle and then thousands of smaller islands. 4000 Islands is where the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ trade routes meet and are briefly forced onto the Laotian mainland,​ ​resulting​ ​in​ ​the​ ​development​ ​of​ ​Nakasong​ ​and​ ​a​ ​series​ ​of​ ​small​ ​trade-based​ ​villages. 

In the late 19th century French colonialists made repeated attempts to navigate the falls in an effort to develop an unbroken trade-route, but their efforts failed. Though for different motivations, I guess these men were ahead of their time as it wasn’t until 2000 when Australian Mick O’Shea convinced Mikey Abbott, Alex Nicks, Tyler Curtis and mega crew to go and explore the region. This began what is and will continue to be a rich history of whitewater kayaking in 4000​ ​Islands. 

Easily accessible class IV-V whitewater, cheap food and accommodation, a good night life, a relaxed island vibe, smiling locals and the river pretty much to yourself. This destination is a suited to not only class V senders, but would be great for class IV to V kayakers looking for a little adventure and would be a great place for a paddler to take their non paddling partner. The goal of this article is to give people the fundamental information and a head start when planning a​ ​trip​ ​to​ ​Si​ ​Phon​ ​Don​ ​or​ ​the​ ​4000​ ​Islands. 

When​ ​to​ ​go: 

As with all kayaking trips, flow can make or break your trip. Fortunately at 4000 Islands there are numerous channels that can be paddled at a variety of flows. That said, the general consensus is to be there somewhere between December and the end of January. Australian Lachie Karracher was once there in September and experienced ‘biblical’ flows.The ‘Gradient & Water’ crew of Jordy Searle, Ari Walker, TT Cakekinson and Sam Ellis had near perfect flows from mid January, paddling all but two channels as the river dropped more than 3 metres in the big volume​ ​channels,​ ​during​ ​their​ ​two-week​ ​stint. 

What​ ​to​ ​take:

In short, you do not really need to take too much with you. That said there are some fundamental
​ ​things​ ​that​ ​will​ ​make​ ​things​ ​much​ ​easier​ ​and​ ​more​ ​comfortable​ ​for​ ​you.

- USD: This is always handy to have with you in Asia, particularly in smaller denominations. This will help with border crossings, avoiding ‘expensive’ transaction fees when getting local currency in laos and paying for transportation to and from 4000 Islands.

-  Good Shoes: Hot days, warm water and the short nature of the water water here might lead you to believe that you can just wear a light ‘mesh’ pair of water shoes and you’ll be fine. And you might be, but the rock in Laos is extremely sharp, abrasive and you will be walking​ ​on​ ​it​ ​a​ ​LOT.​ ​Something​ ​with​ ​a​ ​solid​ ​sole​ ​and​ ​is​ ​grippy,​ ​you​ ​will​ ​be​ ​thankful. 

-  Sun Protection: It might seem like a no-brainer to some, but if you forget to bring your own it will cost you. Sun-block is exuberantly expensive and after a few long days in the crispy sun, you’ll be wishing you’d brought what now seems like a cheap $30 bottle from home. A bucket hat is a good idea, especially if you’re planning on chasing the more isolated​ ​channels​ ​that​ ​take​ ​time​ ​to​ ​get​ ​to​ ​and​ ​from. 

-  Paddling kit: Obviously take your standard kit, but there are some things that become fundamental here that most crews omit. Bring a collared long sleeve shirt to paddle in, you cannot buy one there for some reason. Jordy Searle took shorty and almost ended​ ​up​ ​with​ ​heat​ ​stroke.​ ​Having​ ​a​ ​lifestraw​ ​in​ ​your​ ​PFD​ ​would​ ​be​ ​pretty​ ​handy​ ​too. 

-  Smartphone with waterproof case: Encouraging kayakers to take a smartphone on a kayaking trip may seem a little redundant but having one with a waterproof case will save you a lot of energy and time pulling yourself between spider-ridden bushy islands while swearing at your mates. Having google earth with you all the time will help you line up with the bigger islands so you drop down into the correct channels, and more so help with​ ​the​ ​big​ ​ferry’s​ ​back​ ​to​ ​Don​ ​Khon/Don​ ​Det. 

How​ ​to​ ​get​ ​there: 

Getting to the 4000 Islands section of the Mekong is not particularly easy. Ideally you would fly into Pakse in Southern Laos and then catch a bus to 4000 Islands, which is around 4 hours drive. Expensive flights and bad connections, however, has meant that most paddlers fly into larger airports in neighbouring countries and travel overland to 4000 Islands. Make sure you have that USD with you, it is $30 for the Laos visa and you pay $2 - $5 to leave Thailand and the same for an ‘administration’ fee to enter Laos. You pay that again when you leave too, USD is key. Keep all paperwork, tickets, receipts and check that have your departure location, destination​ ​and​ ​price​ ​paid​ ​noted.​ ​Here​ ​are​ ​some​ ​options​ ​for​ ​getting​ ​there:

- Bangkok: From the airport get a taxi to the Bangkok Bus Terminal, look for a provider that has a set price and be pushy about getting your boat in too. From there, get an overnight bus to Pakse that should cost you about $50. You’ll go through the Chong Mek Border Crossing, make sure you pay for your visa, get a stamp in your passport and you keep any paperwork that you’re given. Sam Ellis thought he’d found some form of hack during his commute, but nearly 3 hours or intense questioning on his way back to Bangkok proved him otherwise. Grab another bus down to Nakasong, which is the settlement/port that services Don Det and Don Khon, you’re there. Return is easier, a booking operator will get you from Don Det or Don Khon all the way to Bangkok with one booking. It might be a random assortment of rides, but as long as you have that physical ticket​ ​they’ll​ ​generally​ ​get​ ​you​ ​there.

-  Siam Reap: This is the major airport close to the Cambodian - Laotion border and might be appealing as you can couple the paddling trip with a visit to Angkor Wat and get some tailored suits made. You have to stay one night in Cambodia, so get some accommodation sorted beforehand and once you’ve stowed all your kit get to sorting a ride. It is Asia and it will take some bartering. You kind of want to show them your kayaks to make sure you can get them on, but at the same time you also kind of want to surprise them and just pressure them into taking them. The GW crew ended up chartering a van because there was 3 of them with kayaks. From Siam Seap to Nakasong was $200USD, which is kind of pricey but takes a 12 hour journey down to about 7, the ride will be more comfortable and you’ll have an easier time at the border. Mr Heng is based in Stung Treng (088 5 955 950) and speaks good enough English to make an agreement and really looks after clients. He helped the Kiwi crew after they had been hustled and left semi-stranded. Like coming from Bangkok, you’ll end up at Nakasong and you can paddle across or get a $2 ticket from the ‘office’ with the green roof to the right of the boat​ ​ramp.​ ​Either​ ​way​ ​you’re​ ​in​ ​Si​ ​Phan​ ​Don! 

-  Vientiane: Though more expensive than the other flight options, this option avoids the hassle of border crossings, visas and probably ends up costing similar overall. From the airport itself you’ll pay anywhere from $90-$150 for the twenty-two or so hour journey down to Pakse and then another $8 - $15 for the bus from Pakse to Nakasong. The first leg is in a sleeper bus that has 1.6m shared beds, not quite a double but a little more than a single. So if you’re travelling solo or you are the shunned 1 of a 3 pack travelling together, make sure to befriend someone small because you’re really going to get up close and personal with someone on that bus. This is probably a good option if you’re just​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​do​ ​a​ ​whirlwind​ ​trip​ ​and​ ​want​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​it​ ​simple. 

Accommodation​ ​and​ ​Food:

 Once you have made it to Nakasong you have two options for places to base yourself, that is Don Det and Don Khon. Don Khon is the bigger Island that has the waterfall park next to it and is where Mikey et al based for their exploratory trip in the early 2000s. More recently it has developed into the more expensive of the two islands and generally attracts an older and quieter crowd. Don Det is the smaller, cheaper and more ‘youthful’ island. For this reason the majority of​ ​crews​ ​nowadays​ ​have​ ​chosen​ ​Don​ ​Det,​ ​so​ ​all​ ​the​ ​beta​ ​from​ ​here​ ​is​ ​about​ ​Don​ ​Det:

- Accommodation: You’ll want to find yourself a place on the Sunset (west) side of the islands. There are a variety of places that you can stay at, from the plush Mama Luerth’s Guest House for about $10 a night, mid range places like Oi’s Place or Tena One for $5 a night and there are some cheaper options that have shared bathrooms and no hot water. The further south you go, the more ‘hippy’ or ‘rasta’ the demographic becomes, if those are the people you prefer to meet. One thing to keep in mind is that your Laotion family hosts may observe some traditions or beliefs that you do not, please be sensitive to these. Also, respect any house or island rules as the host family will also be punished by authorities for your behaviour. All that said, it is a pretty relaxed setup and I couldn’t imagine​ ​many​ ​kayakers​ ​behaving​ ​in​ ​a​ ​way​ ​that​ ​would​ ​cause​ ​trouble​ ​here.

- Food/Drinks: One thing that really makes this destination is how cheap the food and drinks are. Fresh spring rolls for $2, incredible Chicken Tikka Masala for $4 and $7 for a bucket of Gin & Tonic, just to give a measure. You’ll probably eat around a little bit but there are some reliable places to fall back on; for breakfast Dalom and 4000 Islands Bar are great; Oi’s Place and One More Bar are good for small meals; and all the Indian places, 4000 Islands and the Kebab place on the Sunrise side of the island have kayaker sized portions of tasty food. There a lots of option, most are pretty good. Except Lao Lao. Lao Lao is the cheapest liquor on earth is tastes like just that. You’ll try it anyway,​ ​proceed​ ​with​ ​caution. 

Getting​ ​your​ ​bearings:

Once you’re checked in and fed you’ll be fired up to get on the river. It is as simple as just paddling downstream, but when the river is 14 km wide things can initially feel a little confusing and complicated. You will have had a little look at google earth, may have even seen Alex Nicks’ “Jehovas Wetness” or some YouTube videos but nothing can substitute for seeing things personally to get a reference. The best idea is to hire a bike, for a massive $1 a day, and head down​ ​to​ ​Tat​ ​Somphamit​ ​Waterfall​ ​Park​ ​off​ ​the​ ​west​ ​side​ ​of​ ​Don​ ​Khon.

When you cross the bridge from Don Det to Don Khon you’ll be asked to buy a ticket to the waterfall park, pay the fee. A British crew avoided the fees and kayaking was temporarily banned in the area. The fee is 35,000kip ($4.30), not much to pay in any part of the world and to maintain an amicable relationship with locals and keep access open to one of the most unique kayaking areas in the world. Pay this fee EVERY time you enter the park. You might not have an opportunity to pay on the days you chase the more isolated channels but it may be worth buying​ ​an​ ​extra​ ​few​ ​tickets​ ​to​ ​have​ ​on​ ​hand​ ​just​ ​incase​ ​some​ ​official​ ​turns​ ​up​ ​and​ ​asks​ ​for​ ​one.

When you get down to the waterfall park you’ll see several channels, these will give you an indication of the power of the Mekong. You’ll also get a feel of the sharp rocks, how dense the jungle is, notice human-sized fish traps in some of the channels outflows, how warm the water is and the availability of water, tuk tuks and food at the park. Keep all these things in mind when you’re out exploring. There is even a bar at the takeout for you to get a can of coke (to kill waterborne bugs) and to leave your kayaks if you’re sessioning the waterfalls over a few days or hiking​ ​up​ ​river-right​ ​of​ ​the​ ​‘mega-slide’​ ​to​ ​access​ ​some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​central​ ​channels.

The bar is the take-out for pretty much all the whitewater you’ll paddle. You can hike back up the channels to pre organised boats to take you Don Det, but they’re not that cheap and it can be hard to establish exactly when/where to meet. When seeking out the goods over toward the cambodian side you can get a taxi back upstream and ferry back to Don Det. In 2015 Liam Kelly managed to sort one for $15 without much hassle but crews recently have been getting ‘out-bartered’, paying more like $30 and have been lucky not to get extorted at the checkpoint along the way. You can ferry and attain back across to the bottom of Don Det, to a different beach​ ​about​ ​2km​ ​from​ ​the​ ​waterfalls​ ​park​ ​and​ ​work​ ​it​ ​out​ ​from​ ​there.

The back channels are a bit more difficult and have a lot more fish traps. Construction has begun on a dam in one of the channels, so access to that area will probably become restricted or lost. But if you do head into the back channels you can flag down boats for a ride back to Don Khon or at the worst you can paddle to the Laos mainland and get tuk tuks back to Nakasong. That​ ​is​ ​the​ ​longest​ ​and​ ​most​ ​expensive​ ​option,​ ​so​ ​have​ ​plenty​ ​of​ ​kip.

Now you know where things are and how to get back, sort of, it is time to climb into your kayak the has been sitting outside you little bungalow and paddle down to some of the best whitewater in​ ​the​ ​world.

Note: if you’re taking a drone, which is an incredibly useful tool for scouting/navigating around the Mekong, do NOT use it where people can see you. People do know what they are, and officials have a very hard line on people using them without a permit. Be discreet and try refrain from​ ​buzzing​ ​the​ ​incredibly​ ​picturesque​ ​boats​ ​moving​ ​along​ ​the​ ​Mekong.


There are four general areas that you will paddle, each with their own character and hazards. Here​ ​is​ ​a​ ​bit​ ​of​ ​a​ ​breakdown.

-  Somphamit Waterfall Park: Definitely the easiest place to get bang-for-buck, and a good place to warm up for the other areas. ‘Morning Glory’ is 10’ footer or a stout hole lead in to a 25’ falls, it is also the best way to paddle into the waterfall park. “Gutter’ or ‘Easy Channel’ is a fast class IV-V chute to the right of Morning Glory that finishes in the same pool as Triple, a chossy set of drops that Brits strangely rave about. Then there is ‘Mega-Slide’, you’ll know it when you see it. Li Phi is the prize jewel in this area and most crews will build up to it. Tread lightly and be respectful in this area as the falls is believed to be a ‘spirit trap’, a result of the history of wars in the north and the resulting bodies that​ ​have​ ​floated​ ​down​ ​into​ ​Si​ ​Phan​ ​Don.

-  Central Channels: You cannot see these channels from any of the major islands or the mainlands but there is a worthy amount of whitewater out here. The two major channels are ‘Volume’ and ‘Deadcow’ and have a lot of other channels running into them. One to watch out for is ‘Gun-Barallel’ that runs in parallel to the top of ‘Volume’. What seems like a seemingly welcoming walled-in chute actually has a horrendous entry hole and the exit is super backed up a medium to higher flows, scout it thoroughly. Between ‘Volume’ and ‘Deadcow’ is another channel that requires higher flows and can be exited by climbing over the island on river left after you go through ‘Tricky’. There is plenty more out there to​ ​find,​ ​just​ ​do​ ​your​ ​homework​ ​on​ ​how​ ​to​ ​get​ ​there​ ​and​ ​check​ ​the​ ​outflow​ ​for​ ​fish​ ​traps!

-  Cambodian Side: Heading over to this area is a cool mini mission that most crews will do a couple of times. Definitely ferry upstream and towards river right for much longer than you’d think before you begin to drop down to the ledge. And do so with caution, as at higher flows you might paddle yourself into a place that forces you to paddle something you do NOT want to. The second channel in from the Cambodian mainland may be the most picturesque in the 14 km expanse, that is ‘Mr Clean’. First Descended by little Ali Marshall, this 20 - 30 foot falls is intimidating but plays out really well and is lappable. Ari Walker ran it 6 times in a row, on the most recent trip to the area in late January 2017. There is a very stout and consequential rapid against the Cambodian mainland, set adequate​ ​safety​ ​and​ ​keep​ ​boof​ ​it​ ​all.

-  Back Channels / Laos Side: This area is quite a bit of work, has a savage amount of fish traps, a dam is being built and is completely flow dependent. The first few channels east of Don Khon are smaller, therefore require higher flows and you MUST check the outflows as everything has fish traps. Oppositely, the furthest east channel from Don Det/Don Khon against the Laos mainland is the biggest channel in 4000 Islands. This is where ນໍ້າຕົກຕາດຄອນພະເພັງ or Khone Phapheng Falls thunders unrelentlessly. Also known as the “Big Falls”, it is the biggest waterfall in SE Asia. To date no one has paddled the main channels of these falls and it will probably take a marriage break-up or a drastic development of kayak technology before someone does attempt it. Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry had a dabble into some of the fringe drops but the main lines remain unpaddled,​ ​as​ ​far​ ​as​ ​we​ ​know. 

Si Phan Don has a incredible of whitewater and pretty much all of it goes, you might just have to wait a few days for some things to drop or to feel comfortable dropping in. You should be able to find and paddle everything in like 5 - 8 days paddling, so factor in a reccy, rest/hungover day(s) and a spot of sight-seeing if you happen to take your non-kayaking partner along for the journey. Sam Ellis’ advice sums it up nicely, “pound a couple of litres of water before your cheap breakfast, sun-block up, take 2 litres of water with you, send until you’re hungry, walk/bike/tuk tuk​ ​back​ ​for​ ​a​ ​feed​ ​then​ ​get​ ​into​ ​a​ ​few​ ​or​ ​more​ ​than​ ​a​ ​few​ ​cocktails.​ ​Then​ ​repeat”. 

- Jordy​ ​Searle​ ​(Gradient​ ​&​ ​Water)