THE Impossible River:
Down The Mayhka
By: David H.Allardice
In February and March of 2003 a team of
kayakers and rafters including members from the Tsangpo 2002 expedition
were invited into Northern Myanmar to explore the rivers of Kachin State.
These rivers are fed by the eastern-most Himalayan peaks high up near the
isolated border between Myanmar, India and Tibet. The team was searching
for potential commercial raft trips and hoped to complete the first
descent of the Maykha River, the Headwaters of the Ayeyarwady, literally
the lifeblood of Myanmar itself.
The Maykha means Mother river, but
the local Rawang people call it the Impossible River because the terrain
is so steep and convoluted that it is difficult to farm and very hard to
get anywhere. After several days in the extremely remote gorges hemmed in
by 12000-14,000 feet sheer granite peaks, running unrelenting class 5
rapids we are beginning to think it may be impossible for other reasons.
We are totally committed to going downstream.
Climbing out of the canyon would be near impossible and it would
take weeks to hike to the nearest road head assuming that we went in the
right direction. Despite long days we have been unable to average more
than 10 miles a day. The raft has been dragged across, around and under
huge boulders, I pulled past terminal drops, lined through slots on it's
side, unloaded and portaged. The kayakers have been walking back Up to
help run the raft through as additional paddling strength. Everyone is
exhausted. We sit around the campfire in the evening, glazed eyes staring
vacantly into the flames, eating the last of our food supplies and
thinking silently about what the next day might bring.
mountains tower above the runway as the Myanmar Airways F28 touches down
at Putao, the northern most airstrip in Kachin State. After months of
planning in conjunction with the Ministry of Hotels
and Tourism and
Brett Metzler of Balloons Over Bagan we are about to explore one of the
great rivers of Asia. We could not afford a helicopter so it is agreed
that another approach is required; it will involve a day on a truck, 2
bone-jolting days on tractors, and 6 days hard trekking with 30
With a small tight group it is possible to be adaptive in
changing situations and two hours later we find ourselves in the back of a
truck bouncing down a dirt road with a wad of cash in a backpack and
little idea of how we are actually going to get to the river.
early in the morning 30 porters filter into the headman's house at Ratbaw.
The smarter porters have already been outside in the dark trying to ferret
the lighter loads for themselves. No one shows any inclination to take the
raft or kayaks, they're a lot smarter than that. The trail from the road
end at Ratbaw to Dazungdam is about 75 miles, normally trekked in nine
days with loads, but we're pushing hard to get to the river and plan to
in six. An hour out of town all the porters drop their loads
and rush off into the jungle. This is not good, but it turns out they
weren't deserting us, just off chasing a small deer they've seen on the
other side of the river. With determination and some dumb directional
decisions by the deer they run it to the ground and are pretty happy with
the prospect of fresh meat in the pot. This is agreed to be an auspicious
start to the trek even though it has wasted an hour.
For the most part the trail winds through dense
sub-tropical forest with lush vines and creepers entwined in a forest of
huge, sculptured trees. From Gawle we climb all day to the pass that
separates us from the Maykha RiverValley. lt's a long day made even longer
by constant rain. The last of the porters cross the pass at 4 pm with five
hours of trek left and only three hours of light; they descend a steep
mudslide into the darkness. The last two hours are negotiated with candles
and we arrive exhausted, wet and muddy at Pang- namdim Village.
next morning dawns clear and we get our first views of the Maykha River
running at about 4,000 cfs, blue-green through verdant forest. For the
next four days we climb the river further into the isolated mountains.
Trekking in this remote part of Myanmar is not for the faint hearted.
Crossing dodgy looking bridges made entirely of bamboo and rattan takes
some nerve and it helps to let someone heavier than you go
the bridge holds then you are OK.
15 bamboo huts in a clearing mark Gawai Village, the entry point
to the National Park that surrounds Mt Hkakaborazi. The Park extends
another three days walk to the border of India and eight days to Tibet. It
is pristine wilderness rich in flora and fauna unlike any other area. The
night we arrive the local Rawang and Lisu people all talk about what the
new National Park means to them. They are concerned about their
traditional hunting and slash and burn agriculture. We explained that
there will be greater opportunities with developing tourism. It is hard
when you have lived your whole life surrounded by seemingly unlimited
jungle to imagine that it could one day disappear.
contours the river valley so we have good scouting most of the way up. The
river is pool drop with some steeper grade 4 sections; it all looks like
it will be clean and run-able. On arrival in Tazungdam, the whole village
is waiting to meet us in a handshaking line snaking around the corner.
Obviously the bush telegraph has been working well and news of strange
white men carrying an even more unusual cargo of kayaks and raft has
traveled fast and far. Sitting on animal skins around a smoky fire we
share a huge meal of deer meat in the village chief's house, then lay down
below the smoke level to sleep; tomorrow is going to be a big
Two tributaries meet atTazungdam Village and join forces to
become the Nam Tamai, the main artery of the Maykha. The Nam Tamai is
flowing at 1500 cfs of champagne blue. Curious villagers perch on smooth
boulders in anticipation of seeing the river runners in action. It is
obvious to them that this will all end in tears as no one in their right
mind would go near the cascading waves and chutes of foam.
The kayakers run a short warm up section of the northern
tributary into the Nam Tamai. Pat and David raft from the confluence. The
first rapids are a maze of boulders ending in steep chutes. The villagers
are surprised at the kayakers' skills and run down the river trying to
watch every move. It is amazing just how far and fast village boys can run
over slippery and jagged boulders while trying to figure out just what
you're doing, and why. Their enthusiasm lasts about three hours down the
river then they go back to whatever they were doing before we arrived. In
the shallows above each rapid we see phenomenal numbers of huge fish as we
drift through a living green corridor. The rest of the day is liquid
bliss; cataracts mile after mile with lush jungle clinging precariously to
canyon walls and surreal mountains suspended high above the forested
It rains heavily all night and is raining more as we put
onto the river in the morning. In an easy descent down to Bang Nam Dhim we
cover in seven hours what had taken four days to trek. It rains all day
and the main tributaries coming in are running really high, huge boulders
tumbling along the river bottom sound like giant billiard balls colliding.
Every valley brings in a powerful stream and there are countless valleys.
By afternoon the river is flowing brown with about 12,000 cfs. There is a
punch to the river and an innocuous looking rapid almost flips the raft
spilling everyone. This is Ah Yin's first swim and he is noticeably
quieter back in the raft. Overnight the river drops five
There is no feeling quite like being in the middle of
wilderness where every new rapid is a new game. Running an unknown river
focuses your concentration; from the moment you put on wet gear in the
morning until you drag yourself onto a beach at night the rest of your
life ceases to exist. Teamwork and communication are intense as we work
our way downstream. The kayakers are paddling hard and doing some big
routes. It is only when you see them in the middle of the river that you
get a feel for the size of everything out here. Our small Hyside raft is
heavily loaded with weight low. It makes a big difference. It seems we
have an ability to slice into holes scooping water and the momentum just
carries us through which is just as well when we hit so many. This is the
hardest water any of ! us have run in a raft and the idea of commercial
trips has gone right out the window.
Drums and dancers in brightly colored ceremonial clothing greet
us as we drift into Ridam Village. Men wearing hats decorated with wild
boar tusks swirl swords in a traditional welcome dance while the women
sing. We do a reasonable impersonation of a New Zealand Haka in reply. It
was the last thing we expected in the middle of nowhere and we are all
touched by the hospitality. Ah Yin explains that all the villagers around
had heard we were coming and had been waiting for two days for our
arrival, many bringing their children to see their first white foreigner.
They are surprised that we are planning to continue our descent of the
Maykha and warn us of dangerous rapids below. The men try their hand at
paddling on the raft then we head off downstream with a gift of a dozen
The canyon is breathtaking. Vertical walls of black bedrock
are covered with vines and creepers; waterfalls cascade down into the
river from dozens of side streams. It's the type of place that you keep
expecting to see a leopard eating something unlucky. The easier rapids
hold Zambezi style whitewater with some premiere play waves and holes. The
harder rapids are not unlike the Yarlung Tsangpo, Biblical in size and
closely resembling a toilet flushing into an industrial rot tiller. The
only consolation being that everything finishes in a pool, so you can
actually get out there amongst it all and run meaty lines. Sheer granite
walls are polished 60 feet above the river indicating the height of
monsoon flows and it is intimidating to even consider being here when the
river is running high. Contrary to human nature, don't try to convince
yourself that the rapids would wash out.
Frequent scouting is
mandatory, and portaging very difficult due to the constricted river
channel and conglomeration of housesized boulders.
When researching the river from maps it had been estimated that
we had about 85 miles with an average gradient of 12 ft/mile, and 60 miles
at 25 ft/mile. With these gradients we had been concerned that there
wouldn't be enough rapids, now we are thinking that the map must have
missed a couple of contour lines somewhere. The river has consistently
managed to store gradient for one to two miles then let it all go at once
with impressive results.
Day 18, 11 th March my diary reads the
following: "18 rapids including 4 raft portages, traveled 13.3 miles.
Started 8 am. camped 5.30 pm. Personally took 3 swims including a flip off
a huge wave. Ah Yin had a nasty swim off a ledge hole and recirculating
many times in the green room. Pat disappeared in some awful hole. Kayakers
ran everything and were a huge help with the raft. River relentless. It
can't go on like this forever otherwise it will wear us out.23.3 miles
left. Big day-knackered. Food pretty well finished except 6 tins of
mystery meat that no one will eat. Might be a hungry day tomorrow, still
good to be here."
The next day the river eases and spreads, and it
is with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that we paddle without
so much scouting. It is a novelty to be able to see the bottom of a rapid
from the top. There are still huge hydraulics but also space to move
around. As if the river appreciates our efforts a strong wind blows
downstream. We rig a tarp as a sail and made 5 knots downstream on flat
water. Looking back on the last week we have been lucky. It did not rain
the whole time we were in the gorges, in fact the river has dropped almost
eight feet since we had storms earlier. It could have been a lot harder
and rain would have made everything intrinsically more difficult. A lot
more water and it would have been impossible.
On the 19th day since
leaving Putao we arrived at Laugkhaung.lt has been 19 days since I Pat's
last beer -a record since he was about 13 years old. Loading all the gear
onto a couple of Toyota 4WDrives we head up to the first real village for
celebrations. From Laugkhang it is 12 hours and 70 miles to get to a real
road and in two days we'll be back in Yangon propping up the bar in the
It was a huge privilege to be the first paddlers allowed into
Myanmar and we are all looking forward to future missions. The expedition
surpassed all expectations -absolutely pristine jungle, great people and
surprisingly difficult whitewater. I doubt if anyone who visit this area
will fail to be impressed with it's incredible beauty. Once againwe would
specially like to thank all Government departments in Myanmar and
especially Brigadier General Thein law, the Minister for Hotels and
Tourism whose vision made this expedition possible.
The Maykha team
consisted of -David Allardice (Nl -team leader), Allan, Ellard (UK),
Dustin Knapp (USA), Steve Fischer (SA), Mike Abbott (Nl), and Pat O'Keefe
(AUS). On the ground in Myanmar the team was joined bya local guide Ah
Acknowledgements: The Editorial Board of Enchanting
Myanmar wishes to express their sincere thanks to MI: David H. Allardice
and his team of kayakers for this article. All the photos were graciously
provided by MI: David H. A/1ardice and MI: Brett Metzler of Shwe Lay Tagun
Tours (Balloons Over Bagan).