I climb into my raft for the first time, wedging myself at the back, my legs straddling my load as I force my oar tip into the sand bank and push off into the current. An immediate sharpening of the senses follows. A hyper awareness to every ripple, ruffle, sight and sound coupled with an overwhelming sense of total freedom. I was on my own and precisely where I wanted to be.
Soloing on big expeditions can be very daunting. I had not had an enjoyable experience alone on the second leg of the Trans-Papua last spring, but already this project felt different. I had gotten off to a near-perfect start with good people helping me at every stage and vital support from the government, my kit was in great condition, I was physically fit and psychologically up for it.
The river was perfect too; no signs of the whitewater, rumbling cataracts or raft swallowing whirlpools that had hindered progress on previous packraft journeys. It was just deep enough to carry the load and me, and just quick enough to offer assistance without being overwhelmingly fast. It seemed I had timed my descent (just before the rains and at the end of the dry season) to absolute perfection.
I screwed my GoPro camera to the nose of the raft and wedged Dr Hiller’s Primate identification card under a bungee cord. I didn’t know how long it would take to get to the sea, or even if I would make it at all, but I didn’t care, for now all that mattered was the task at hand. I counted in my strokes and concentrated on keeping the nose of my boat nail straight.
That first day was truly glorious. In one afternoon paddling I saw more wildlife than I had in my entire first two weeks in country. The forest was alive with activity: dragonflies’ hunted insects on the wing, innumerous butterflies danced on the riverbanks, egrets and herons stalked the shallows and large striped tigerfish hunted the slacks. The river provides fresh water, a food source, and a home to thousands of creatures: for me it was the perfect transport network, free of forest detritus and a natural break in the landscape that allowed a glimpse into this most complete of ecosystems. Quite simply, it was a storybook rainforest.
As the sun set on my first day the sky filled with thousands of swallows and blue-cheeked bee-eaters, skimming and dive-bombing the surface of the river, drinking, eating and socializing before returning to roost. I set up my camp on a large rocky island in the centre of the river, erected a tarp tight to the bushes and unfurled my mossy net for my first night alone.
Catch up on the first episode of Will’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z and tune on for the second at 11am on the 20th September on BBC Radio 4.
Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for the charity Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/