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December 20, 2007
Filmmaker and professional kayaker Trip Jennings, 25, has been to the edge and back—repeatedly. He's claimed first descents of rivers on North America, South America, and Asia. In 2006, he shared a world record for kayaking over a 101-foot (31-meter) waterfall in Oregon.
Last fall, however, Jennings (who is a National Geographic Young Explorer grantee) set out on his greatest challenge yet: a first-of-its-kind expedition to explore the rivers, jungles, and caves of New Britain, a 370-mile-long (595-kilometer-long) hunk of karst limestone off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The group, which included geologist-caver John Lane and a crew of scientists, was tasked to help develop sustainable tourism to protect the untouched jungles. For Jennings and his team, this meant scouting and running the island's raging whitewater.
Over the 60-day expedition, the paddlers bushwhacked to places no Westerner had been before, including the Pandi River, a waterway deep in the Southern Hemisphere's largest cave system. To complete the source-to-sea first descent of the 40-mile (65-kilometer) river, Jennings, along with teammates Kyle Dickman, Brian Eustis, Scott Feindel, Matt Fields Johnson, and Andy Maser, first paddled blackwater in the Pandi's underground source. They then spent four days kayaking through churning Class V gorges to the sea. By the time they'd left New Britain, the crew had survived a crocodile attack and a plunge off a 55-foot (17-meter) waterfall. But for two of the crew, the adventure is still raging: They'd contracted malaria.
Adventure recruited expedition insider and writer Kyle Dickman to ask Jennings—now back at his home in Eugene, Oregon, and battling 105 degree temperature—a few burning questions about Papua New Guinea and his upcoming excursion to China.
Let's cut right to it: What was it like to run a 55-foot (17-meter) waterfall in New Britain?
Scott Feindel actually got the first descent on that, but it was one of the most committing big drops I've ever run. The waterfall pours from a canyon, but was obstructed at the bottom by a log. That raised the risk because if you missed your line, you could get sucked under it. If anything went wrong, we were days away from rescue. After I scouted the waterfall, set up safety precautions, and made the decision to run it, instinct took over. I cleared my mind, snapped my skirt over the rim of my kayak, then paddled over the lip and watched the pool race toward me. Midway down, I dropped my paddle—if I hadn't, the force of the impact at the bottom would have snapped it—and plunged into the water. When I surfaced, I could feel my heart pounding in my head. I have goose bumps just thinking about it. It's such a great drop.
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