Enchanting Myanmar
  A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond

Vol.3  No.1  
October-December 2003
 

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The Impossible River

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THE Impossible River:
Raffting 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.

Two kayakers survey the rapidsClimbing 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.

Snow-capped 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 porters.

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.

Very 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 get there
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.

A lone kayaker battles the rapids A lone kayaker battles the rapids

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.

The 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
first. If the bridge holds then you are OK.

Mist shrouds the valleys where the Mayhkaflows15 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.

The trail 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 day.

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.

A waterfall thunders downThe 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 ridges.

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 feet.

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.

Rafters and their frail craft challange the seething watersDrums 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 eggs.

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.

A quiet moment drifting downstremWhen 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 Strand Hotel.

Villagers wait to see the whitemenIt 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 Yin. 

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).

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