Episode 2 Down the Mighty River with Steve Backshall


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Episode 2

Steve and his crew explore the mighty Baliem River in New Guinea, kayaking down Baliem's lower gorge, one of the most extreme stretches of white water on the planet.


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Look at this place! Simply breathtaking.

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Welcome to New Guinea, the world's largest jungle island.

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One of the most remote and unexplored parts of our world.

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It's very intimidating, potentially very dangerous.

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But also one of the most exciting places on the planet.

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Running from its mountainous heart, over 500km,

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through pristine wilderness,

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wild gorges and tropical jungle out to the sea...

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..is the mighty Baliem River.

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I was expecting it to be big...

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..but I wasn't expecting that.

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No-one's ever travelled the full length of this untamed river before.

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We've managed to turn a simple side trip into an absolute epic.

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I'm Steve Backshall. I'm a naturalist and an adventurer.

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It just looks like there should be dinosaurs everywhere.

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I want to explore the river and discover more about the remarkable

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variety of worlds through which it travels.

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Ow! Shoot!

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It's home to ancient tribes.

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'I want to see how they're coping with the modern world.'

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When they're in mourning,

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they will cut off their own fingers as a sign of grief.

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'I'll be searching for some of the world's scariest animals.'

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It was basically eating its way through the village.

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'And exploring a vast, uncharted, underground world.'

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Now, that is impressive!

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'But the Baliem is so inaccessible,

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'the only way to uncover its secrets is to travel its length from source

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'to sea...'

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We are committed now.

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'..by any means possible.

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'It could give us a unique insight into one of the last truly

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'wild places on earth.' Where the hell are you taking us, Aldo?

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-Oh, mate.

-'Or it could be a journey too far.'

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Jordy!

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'We are halfway through our five- week expedition into the heart

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'of New Guinea.'

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This bit's really slippy.

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'Expedition safety expert

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'Aldo Kane and I are scouting out the next section of our journey.

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'The toughest and most dangerous part of our trip...

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'the dreaded Lower Gorge.'

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This is very much the crux of the expedition.

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If we're going to be able to travel the Baliem from source to sea,

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this is the breaking point.

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'Our expedition has brought us to Papua,

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'a province of Indonesia that makes up the western half of New Guinea.

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'Our plan is to travel by boat from here to the sea.'

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The river drops down...

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..a vertical mile in the space of less than 100km.

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Oh, crap.

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That gives me the willies.

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'This was supposed to be the dry season, but we've had

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'unseasonal rains and we're worried the river will be in full flood.'

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This part, the gorge, just fills me with terror.

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'Our aim is to kayak the Baliem's Lower Gorge -

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'80km of death-defying white water.'

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Crashing down through impenetrable rainforest before it reaches

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South Gap, the end of the Gorge.

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From here, the river winds 200km through lowland jungle into the land

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of the Asmat, a tribe famous for their recent history of headhunting

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and cannibalism.

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Finally, our expedition will end at the Pacific Ocean.

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'We are hoping to meet remote and potentially hostile tribes

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'and to see some of the extraordinary wildlife

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'that lives along the banks of the isolated Lower Gorge.'

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I was expecting it to be big...

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..but I wasn't expecting that.

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That's impossible.

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Once you get further down into that gorge, for the next however,

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80-odd kilometres that it is, there's no way of getting out.

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You can see behind us where the gorge actually starts.

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And the rock walls come in, they get tighter and tighter,

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the river constricts and all of that volume of water is intensified.

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And so it is flowing at a steeper gradient with an increased volume

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and it is going to be even more challenging than this.

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If you paddle into that, you would definitely die.

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'It's clear we can't begin here.

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'We'll have to hop over this section and begin deep inside the Gorge.

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'Which means resorting to a helicopter.

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'It's a compromise to the pure expedition I wanted,

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'but with hundreds of kilometres of river left,

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'there's still plenty of exploration ahead.'

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Going down through here seems somewhere so extraordinary,

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so beautiful and thinking we can be the first people ever

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to come down here is mind-blowing.

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'We are scanning the banks for a place we can land

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'and finally start kayaking.'

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This section of the gorge we were going into before,

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no-one's ever attempted it.

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There is no decent map.

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'The river is one of the wildest, most potentially lethal on earth.

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'But we've got a world-class kayaking team led by New Zealander,

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'Jordy Searle.'

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Down here, I would say it's by far the most isolated I've ever been.

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'10km downstream, we finally find what we are looking for.'

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So from here on in, the water is epic, it's massive.

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But it looks doable.

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'Our team is four kayakers and a camera crew,

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'plus hundreds of kilos of camping and filming gear packed into two

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'inflatable rafts.

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'And now, we're on our own.'

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Row with nice big, positive strokes.

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'Our first paddle strokes on the Lower Gorge.

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'It's as exciting as it is daunting.'

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This river has so many different changing faces,

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even here in the gorge, it's changed completely.

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Now we're heading down into this fantastic gully.

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There are creepers and vines covering all the trees.

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It just looks like there should be dinosaurs everywhere.

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But instead of pterodactyls flying overhead,

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we have hornbills and parakeets.

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This is one of the most extraordinary places I've ever seen.

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'The rampaging river makes much of the gorge completely inaccessible.

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'The surrounding forests are doubtless filled with

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'unknown animals and remote tribes.

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'It's incredible to think we are the first outsiders ever to kayak here.

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'Maybe even to see this place.

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'But as we head around the next corner,

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'the river changes character.'

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This looks massive.

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'Ahead - the biggest rapid we've yet faced on the Baliem.

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'As the river carves its way down the canyon,

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'it hits a wall of limestone,

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'forcing it to turn right.

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'Getting trapped in that would be very bad indeed.'

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So this is it.

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This is bigger than anything I thought I'd be taking on

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on this river.

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And if I pick the right line, it'll be great.

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If I mess it up, it's going to be horrific.

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I've got this zing of adrenaline, I'm just...

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..shaking, my hands are kind of...

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going.

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Barney, Steve, me.

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'Kayaker Barney Young is going first to pick the route.

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'Jordy and I will follow.'

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On his tail, Steve.

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'Barney's paddling straight into the middle of the river, trying to keep

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'the small gravel island on his left...

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'..to give him a fighting chance of keeping clear of smashing

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'into that wall.

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'He makes it, but I've been caught out and I'm heading

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'completely off course.'

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Dammit!

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'Jordy steps in.'

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Big line.

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-Right.

-Watch your speed.

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Yeah.

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We power back into the main current, paddling frantically,

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'trying to avoid the horror of the wall.

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'But the colossal volume of water hurtles me towards the rock,

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'threatening to crush me, then suck me down into the whirlpool.'

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HE SCREAMS

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Paddle, paddle, paddle!

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'The wave hits me side-on.

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'I'm capsized.

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'Battling to roll back up.'

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Paddle, paddle, paddle!

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Yes!

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Paddle. All the way to Barney.

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'There's no let-up.

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'I still have to get across the river to Barney.'

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Steve, paddle. Lean forward and paddle.

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'If I don't make it, I could end up being swept downstream into the next

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'set of rapids.'

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Aghh!

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Holy crap!

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Aghh!

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Oh, my God.

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-Oh, my God.

-Bro, I'm not going to lie,

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I thought you were going to swim in there, man.

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I'm going to remember that for the rest of my life.

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I've just taken the biggest hit of adrenaline.

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My entire body is shaking.

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There was a moment there where I hit that wave,

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bouncing back off the wall and it flipped me instantly.

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I was under water thinking, "Do not come out of your boat here."

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To be pinned against that wall with all this water,

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you wouldn't stand a chance.

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'It was a close call.

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'Now it's the turn of the rafts carrying the camera team

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'and all our gear to brave the rapids.

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'They need to follow our route and keep well away from the wall.

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'Flipping here would be disastrous.

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'The first raft just misses the wall.

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'But the second one hits it head-on...

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'..before flushing them clear, battered and shaking.'

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'The rapids are endless.

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'An island midstream is a chance to regroup.'

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This actually isn't supposed to be an island,

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we are supposed to be joined up with the river bank here,

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but because the flow is so high, there's a river flowing both sides of it.

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There's a stump that should be on dry land

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and is completely overwhelmed.

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'Barney's pushing ahead to scout the next bend

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'and what lies beyond it.'

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So far, we've managed to handle everything the river has thrown at us.

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But you just never know what's around the next corner.

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'And his radio report brings bad news.'

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-WALKIE TALKIE:

-All pumping to the centre and then it just looks

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like it drops off the face of this earth.

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'Up ahead is the wildest white water any of us have ever seen.'

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That's horrific.

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This river is just not going to give it up easy.

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Totally un-paddleable, not a chance of getting down that.

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The river just drops into a huge maelstrom of like big holes,

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big crashing waves, dwarfing anything we've seen so far.

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And if one small mistake is made in here, there's no way to recover,

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you're going straight into that next section.

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'Once again, we've hit a section that we can't kayak.

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'We are trapped.

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'But flood levels like this do at least give an insight into the

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'river's destructive power.'

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It could just take away these mountainsides.

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And that of course is what's created the Baliem Gorge.

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'The sheer force of the water tumbles rocks downstream,

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'grinding away at the bedrock, scouring out the river camp.

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'It's erosion at its most powerful.'

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When it's in full flood,

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it has the power to move along boulders that are the size of cars.

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'It's a mighty, yet sobering spectacle.

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'Dusk is starting to fall.

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'We are exhausted, beaten and bruised.

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'Decisions on what to do next will have to wait until tomorrow.'

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'At night, the jungle comes alive.'

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The animal life here in New Guinea

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is very much Australasian.

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Until the last ice age,

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New Guinea and Australia would have been linked up and there would have

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been land bridges allowing animals to move freely.

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'That was over 10,000 years ago,

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'but the forests of Papua are still home to marsupials,

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'wallabies and kangaroos.

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'Though here, they live up in the trees.

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'There are also giant, flightless cassowaries

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'and of course, reptiles.'

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It is an absolute little beauty.

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It's a water dragon.

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They are a kind of agamid lizard.

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In some kinds of lizards like this, the tail can be used as a weapon,

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lashed from side to side and these spines could be used as a sort of

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lacerating protective tool.

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Despite the fact he has a fairly menacing appearance,

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he is totally and utterly harmless to us.

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They can move surprisingly fast over the land. Living this close

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to the water gives them a great defence against predators.

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Anything that comes up, they can just leap into the water.

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When they swim, these legs come back to lie along the base of the tail

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like that and the tail is whipped side to side using the musculature

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here to give them propulsion.

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So these particular lizards are found all the way through New Guinea

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and down into the north of Australia.

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And they are conclusive proof of the fact that the two land masses were,

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as recently as the last ice age, joined together.

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He is absolutely fantastic.

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And the tail goes on forever.

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Look at that!

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So I have just aimed him away from camp and I'm sure he'll scamper off.

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THUNDER ROLLS AND RAINDROPS PATTER

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It has been raining for six solid hours, quite heavily.

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The river's come up by another metre.

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-Maybe more.

-And not only can't we continue downstream,

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we can't get out of here either.

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What was solid, some of the craziest white water in the world...

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..has got bigger and crazier.

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So we are stuck.

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'The bad weather means we can't call for a helicopter,

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'so for the next day at least, we are trapped here.

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'But it does mean I get a chance to have a proper look around.'

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I have to say, this is one of the prettiest patches of forest

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I've ever spent any time in.

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All these splashes of colour, these blooms like this,

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seem even more fragile when they are alongside that massive,

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torrential river.

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'Orchids like these thrive at the riverside.'

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You get these incredible displays of colour and that, very much,

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is designed to attract the pollinators.

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Just in here is a paper nest,

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which has been made from chewed-up tree bark and wasp spit,

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essentially. And gathered around it are a whole host of wasps.

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So a fair few times, working in forests like these,

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I've brushed into nests like this and got stung a couple of times

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and then just kind of swatted the wasps.

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And when you do that, they release a pheromone which smells

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like ripe bananas. And it's an attack pheromone -

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it convinces all the others to start stinging too.

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You end up charging for the nearest body of water with your arms

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flailing around all over.

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Ow! Shoot!

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I just seriously went against

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working with wasps and bees

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rule one!

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I must spend so much of my life telling people,

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"If you are near wasps and bees, don't swing your arms around

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"all over the place because it agitates them."

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And that's really spicy.

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Ow!

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HE LAUGHS

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'With no sign of the weather improving,

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'Aldo and I decide to make the most of it and try and find one

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'of the elusive tribes that live out here.'

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Ah! 'And the signs are promising.'

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Look at this.

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It's a hunter's hut and I can still smell that damp ember smell,

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which means this fire is relatively recent.

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'The dominant tribe in this part of Papua are the Yali.

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'Their villages abound in the wild lands

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'that surround the Baliem Gorge.

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'If we can find one of their villages, it would be a real coup.'

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So if we look around here, there's bound to be a trail that heads up

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there and I bet anything there's a village somewhere

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on the hillsides above us.

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'With their own distinct language and culture,

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'many of the Yali live their lives shut away from the outside world.

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'Finding a trail to their village is easier said than done.'

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-Is that yes?

-Yeah.

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Certainly not as well used as the stuff we've just come through.

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It's maybe not used that frequently, but it's definitely a walkway.

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I'm not convinced, if I'm honest, mate.

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No.

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T-shirt or something there.

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Rag.

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Well, this is the path.

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I'd imagine we'd zigzag up onto this ridgeline here.

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'This old hunter's trail is overgrown and little used.

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'It's a struggle to cover any distance and painfully slow.'

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Thick, isn't it?

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Cheers.

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'The occasional chopped-down tree is another trail marker.'

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That's been covered. 'Signs the Yali have been here.

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'The terrain gets steeper and steeper.

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'It's humid, sweaty and slippery.

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'Even the wildlife seems to be taunting us.'

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I just walked into the mother of all spider's webs.

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And this is the culprit.

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She is Nephila.

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A golden silk orb-web-weaving spider.

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She is a reasonable size, but they can get to be enormous.

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This incredible spider, although I guess it looks extremely creepy,

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is harmless to us as human beings.

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'The webs are strung across the open paths to target flying insects,

0:24:130:24:17

'but have been known to catch small birds and even bats.

0:24:170:24:21

'She'll inject them with enzymes that liquefy their insides

0:24:210:24:24

'and then suck out the meat soup.'

0:24:240:24:26

Right, I'm going to put her back on this leaf here.

0:24:260:24:29

See that long thread of golden silk.

0:24:300:24:34

For its size and its diameter, it's stronger than steel.

0:24:340:24:38

'As I'm out front, I'm the one walking into all the webs.'

0:24:400:24:43

And I am trussed up in it properly.

0:24:450:24:48

It's all in my hair.

0:24:490:24:50

Ugh. Grim.

0:24:510:24:53

'After hours of struggling uphill, we break out of the trees.

0:25:060:25:10

'But it's not the Yali village we were hoping for.'

0:25:100:25:12

Now that is a view!

0:25:150:25:16

-Wow!

-Stunning.

0:25:180:25:20

It's not often in the rainforest you pop out and get a view like that.

0:25:210:25:25

Usually you are just completely encased in this dark green cavern

0:25:250:25:29

and all of a sudden, seeing this.

0:25:290:25:32

'It's amazing to think this was once a seabed.

0:25:320:25:35

'Marine fossils in the rock prove it.

0:25:350:25:38

'Over the last 5 million years,

0:25:380:25:39

'these layers of ocean floor were lifted up to form mountains.

0:25:390:25:43

'Then rivers like the Baliem got to work, carving out deep valleys.'

0:25:430:25:47

Being here

0:25:480:25:50

gives you a real sense of quite what it is we've taken on here, you know.

0:25:500:25:55

The river is an absolute beast, but the second you come away from it,

0:25:550:26:00

the forest is even harder.

0:26:000:26:01

We've taken...

0:26:030:26:04

..three and a half hours to get here and we are...

0:26:050:26:10

..about a kilometre away from where we started.

0:26:120:26:14

Only 200 metres in height.

0:26:140:26:16

Only 200 metres in height.

0:26:160:26:18

Massive mosquitoes.

0:26:180:26:19

Massive, massive mosquitoes.

0:26:190:26:21

It's 4.30 now, so it's going to be dark in just over an hour or so.

0:26:230:26:28

I don't think we're going to get to that village, do you?

0:26:280:26:31

No, there's no way.

0:26:310:26:33

'We may have utterly failed to find the elusive Yali village on the

0:26:330:26:36

'ridgeline, but it's given us a different perspective on the river

0:26:360:26:39

'and the landscape that it's shaped.'

0:26:390:26:41

There's no water up here.

0:26:420:26:44

We can't really camp up here comfortably,

0:26:440:26:46

so we are going to have to head down and fast otherwise we will be

0:26:460:26:50

sliding down the slopes in the dark, and that would be very unwise.

0:26:500:26:55

I think we'll end up in the dark anyway.

0:26:550:26:57

'Sure enough, as soon as we drop back under the dense canopy,

0:27:000:27:04

'the light fades.'

0:27:040:27:05

The jungle is so difficult to navigate in daylight...

0:27:130:27:17

..never mind night-time.

0:27:180:27:19

Keep your wits about you.

0:27:210:27:23

'The trail was tricky to find before. Now, in the dark,

0:27:250:27:29

'we quickly lose our bearings.'

0:27:290:27:30

First thing you learn about being in the jungle

0:27:330:27:35

is don't fight the forest.

0:27:350:27:37

Move as slowly, carefully and easily as you can...

0:27:380:27:42

..because otherwise you are going to come a cropper.

0:27:430:27:46

'The only way on is to head down towards the roar of the river.'

0:27:500:27:53

Right, nice and gently, guys, really gently.

0:27:570:27:59

If you fall, shout.

0:28:000:28:02

Keep your legs together.

0:28:020:28:04

Everyone just be super careful.

0:28:070:28:09

That's a big drop so maybe push round to the left.

0:28:090:28:13

We are in a nightmare scenario now.

0:28:150:28:16

Can't see the track.

0:28:160:28:18

Nothing really to hold on to.

0:28:180:28:20

Careful, mate. Careful.

0:28:230:28:24

-Where the hell are you taking us, Aldo?

-Oh, mate.

0:28:250:28:29

We've managed to turn a simple side trip into an absolute epic.

0:28:290:28:34

Everyone's exhausted.

0:28:370:28:39

We've been going for much too long.

0:28:390:28:42

Be super careful. I can't see how steep it is here.

0:28:460:28:49

The river's getting louder as we get closer.

0:28:520:28:55

'But we've no idea if we're about to walk into our camp or the rapids.'

0:28:550:28:59

I can see the water now.

0:29:010:29:02

Thank God for that.

0:29:040:29:05

Yeah, sorry.

0:29:050:29:07

It's always an epic moving at night in the jungle.

0:29:070:29:10

'It's been a huge, physically draining day.'

0:29:130:29:15

Oh, I am beat.

0:29:220:29:24

At first light, the cloud cover is still hanging over the valley.

0:29:360:29:39

The chance of a helicopter rescue is looking unlikely.

0:29:420:29:45

The weather doesn't look particularly good for it,

0:29:460:29:48

but everything kind of hinges on us getting out of here this morning.

0:29:480:29:53

'Low cloud and rain is not on our side.

0:29:530:29:56

'But then we get word - the chopper is on its way.

0:30:010:30:04

'The daredevil pilot has ducked in beneath the clouds.

0:30:150:30:18

'We only have only minutes to tear down camp and load the gear

0:30:180:30:21

'in case the clouds close in again.'

0:30:210:30:23

Cannot believe I'm back in a helicopter again.

0:30:260:30:30

'Our aim is to make a short hop over this impassable section.

0:30:340:30:37

'But below us, the river has risen again.

0:30:430:30:46

'Every minute we are in the air, we're flying over more of the river

0:30:520:30:55

'we'd like to paddle and explore.

0:30:550:30:57

'We scan the gorge, desperate for water we can actually paddle.

0:30:570:31:00

'Nearly 15km pass below us before we find a place the heli can set down.

0:31:050:31:09

'The river is still a raging torrent,

0:31:130:31:15

'but the hope is that we can paddle from here to the end of the gorge

0:31:150:31:18

'at South Gap.

0:31:180:31:19

'We are just very, very lucky'

0:31:240:31:25

the helicopter can come to our aid

0:31:250:31:27

and bring us down here, cos where we are now, we can start again.

0:31:270:31:30

There is still a lot of river left, a lot of river,

0:31:320:31:35

like probably 300km of river left.

0:31:350:31:38

From its source in the mountains,

0:31:450:31:47

the Baliem has already dropped two vertical miles in height.

0:31:470:31:51

Massively swollen from the extra rain...

0:31:510:31:54

..this is the Baliem at its mightiest.

0:31:550:31:57

But whatever the river has left to throw at us, we are ready.

0:32:020:32:07

Despite frustrations and false starts, we are feeling

0:32:070:32:10

battle-hardened, thirsty for big water.

0:32:100:32:12

Stay on my tail, mate.

0:32:150:32:17

'We hurtle through virtually nonstop rapids...

0:32:200:32:22

'..and spectacular white water.

0:32:240:32:26

'On this journey from the very source of the Baliem,

0:32:460:32:48

'we've been hit by constant challenges.

0:32:480:32:51

'The river's character has been ever-changing.

0:32:510:32:53

'Sometimes gentle.

0:32:540:32:56

'Sometimes a wild, tumultuous, thundering beast.

0:32:580:33:02

'This is what we came here for.'

0:33:130:33:15

You're mine!

0:33:200:33:22

Nice, Steve.

0:33:220:33:24

Oh!

0:33:320:33:33

Sticking with the boys is really tough.

0:33:500:33:53

It's not just that they are younger and fitter than I am,

0:33:530:33:55

although that obviously helps,

0:33:550:33:57

but they just... This is what they do.

0:33:570:34:00

They don't get intimidated by the big stuff.

0:34:000:34:03

And it's starting to get to me.

0:34:030:34:05

I'm knackered.

0:34:050:34:07

'As we stop to make camp, faces emerge from the forest.'

0:34:220:34:25

'They are a Yali hunting party that has been following our progress

0:34:370:34:40

'from a distance.'

0:34:400:34:41

I think it's the village we tried to walk to yesterday

0:34:430:34:47

and failed dismally. But they've come to us.

0:34:470:34:51

'Their hunting trips can last weeks,

0:34:520:34:55

'but it hasn't taken them that long to find us.'

0:34:550:34:57

'At last, we've come face-to-face with the elusive Yali.'

0:35:140:35:17

They are all intrigued, I think is the word,

0:35:310:35:34

intrigued and interested as to what we are up to and what we

0:35:340:35:36

are doing here.

0:35:360:35:38

'But then more Yali arrive, this time with weapons drawn.'

0:35:390:35:43

'New Guinea has huge mineral reserves.

0:36:190:36:21

'It's home to the world's largest gold mine and the third largest

0:36:210:36:25

'copper mine. But the exploitation of these resources has often been

0:36:250:36:29

'at the expense of indigenous people and their lands.'

0:36:290:36:33

The first 20 seconds when he came striding over here

0:36:330:36:36

with his bow drawn and a look on his face like thunder

0:36:360:36:40

was genuinely scary.

0:36:400:36:42

'Once they realise we aren't here to steal from them or from their land,

0:36:440:36:47

'the mood lifts.'

0:36:470:36:49

It has an incredible spiral thread running down the length of it.

0:36:540:36:58

Wow, that's beaten out of a kind of thing of fuel.

0:37:050:37:11

It is basically a fuel can that's been beaten into an arrow head.

0:37:110:37:14

But there aren't supposed to be any crocodiles here.

0:37:240:37:27

OK, so another 10km or so downstream,

0:37:340:37:36

we are going to hit crocodile country.

0:37:360:37:38

'The hunters live a hand-to-mouth existence,

0:37:380:37:41

'catching what they need from the jungle and the river to survive.

0:37:410:37:44

'It's a tough life.'

0:37:500:37:52

Isam has a nasty machete wound to his hand -

0:37:520:37:56

-do you think you can do anything with it?

-I'll have a look, yeah.

0:37:560:38:00

'Expedition medic Aldo

0:38:000:38:02

'strips away the old rags and moss they've used as a dressing.'

0:38:020:38:05

You can see there...

0:38:110:38:12

..it's actually just the skin,

0:38:140:38:16

it doesn't look like it's gone down into the tendon.

0:38:160:38:19

The main thing is to clean it up and dress it.

0:38:190:38:22

'The nearest medical help is many days away.'

0:38:220:38:25

It may sound like an exaggeration,

0:38:250:38:27

but a wound like this out here would definitely get infected.

0:38:270:38:30

So Aldo, with just a little bit of modern antiseptic and cleaning

0:38:300:38:35

and dressing, could actually have saved this guy's hand.

0:38:350:38:39

'These Yali hunters don't seem interested in heading for a new life

0:38:410:38:45

'in the towns or working in the mines.

0:38:450:38:47

'These jungles are home.

0:38:480:38:49

'The next morning is potentially our last in the Lower Gorge.'

0:38:570:39:00

This felt like the finest king-sized bed in history.

0:39:100:39:15

Look at that, breakfast in bed.

0:39:150:39:17

The butterflies here are some of the most exquisite you'll see

0:39:210:39:24

in the whole world, and the biggest as well.

0:39:240:39:27

The butterflies are being drawn in by our clothing we've got hanging

0:39:270:39:31

out to dry. They are landing on it and extending that long proboscis

0:39:310:39:35

or tongue and lapping up the minerals that's coming out of our

0:39:350:39:39

crusty old sweat.

0:39:390:39:41

If you watch carefully, you can see the excess fluid like that

0:39:410:39:45

being excreted from the back end of the abdomen.

0:39:450:39:47

The only thing they want is the salt.

0:39:470:39:50

'We are now on the final stretch of the Lower Gorge.

0:39:550:39:58

'We start early.

0:40:050:40:06

'The river gets wider and slows.

0:40:110:40:14

'We are leaving the mountains behind.

0:40:140:40:16

'And then ahead, we can just make out the smoke of a fire - South Gap.

0:40:180:40:23

'We've arranged for motorised longboats to meet us here

0:40:250:40:28

'to take us on to the coast.'

0:40:280:40:30

When I think about what we've done over the last three weeks,

0:40:430:40:47

the territory we've been through,

0:40:470:40:49

the amount of distance we've covered,

0:40:490:40:52

it's epic.

0:40:520:40:54

You know, we've already done something massive.

0:40:540:40:56

The clouds are rolling in...

0:40:580:41:00

..and the mountains are going to disappear pretty soon.

0:41:010:41:05

Just one last look.

0:41:050:41:06

'The long stretch to the coast would take weeks in kayaks and there's

0:41:110:41:14

'the small matter of the monster crocs.

0:41:140:41:17

'Only Aldo and I will continue south to the sea.

0:41:170:41:19

'The river team will be heading back to civilisation.'

0:41:210:41:25

# I go down to the river tonight... #

0:41:250:41:31

'We got through the wild water in one piece.

0:41:310:41:33

'As did a guitar, which they smuggled all this way.'

0:41:360:41:41

# Down to the river we'd ride... #

0:41:410:41:47

This is probably the last chance I'll have to splash around in the

0:42:020:42:05

river like this. Much downstream of here and we are in croc country.

0:42:050:42:09

'This is the last leg of our journey.

0:42:140:42:17

'We've 200km ahead of us through croc-infested swamp,

0:42:200:42:24

'home to the Asmat people,

0:42:240:42:26

'renowned warriors and once famous for being headhunting cannibals,

0:42:260:42:30

'before we reach our goal - the Pacific Ocean.

0:42:300:42:33

'As we travel further downstream...

0:42:360:42:38

'..the landscape and the river change.

0:42:390:42:41

'We are now meandering through lowland jungle.'

0:42:430:42:46

These trees are mangroves and a lot of these plants

0:42:550:42:58

are tremendously saltwater tolerant.

0:42:580:43:01

They have to deal with the fact that the water level here is going up

0:43:010:43:04

and down twice a day.

0:43:040:43:06

Because we are now in the tidal reaches of the Baliem.

0:43:060:43:10

This is one of the last huge, unspoiled rainforests left on Earth.

0:43:120:43:19

It is one of the most biodiverse forests there is on the entire planet.

0:43:200:43:24

The amount of species living here is extraordinary.

0:43:240:43:28

It's a massive colony of flying foxes,

0:43:350:43:39

giant fruit bats, and they are truly giant -

0:43:390:43:43

the wingspan is well over a metre.

0:43:430:43:46

'These bats are the largest in the world.'

0:43:460:43:48

There must be 4,000 or 5,000 bats in this colony.

0:43:510:43:55

It's absolutely huge, it goes all the way back into the forest.

0:43:550:43:59

And although they look like giant vampire bats,

0:43:590:44:03

actually they're feeding on fruit.

0:44:030:44:04

And these are incredibly important animals,

0:44:040:44:07

they're one of the most vital dispersers of seed in the rainforest,

0:44:070:44:12

so much of the trees and the forest that we're seeing around us is made

0:44:120:44:16

possible because of bats like this.

0:44:160:44:18

And they have remarkable mechanisms in their feet.

0:44:200:44:23

When we relax, our hands fall open.

0:44:230:44:27

But when they relax, they come closed like this, so they are

0:44:270:44:30

always gripping. They have long claws at the end of each one

0:44:300:44:33

of their toes and just one of those is enough to hook on to the branch

0:44:330:44:37

and they can just hang there all day long with no effort whatsoever.

0:44:370:44:41

'After two days travelling through jungle,

0:44:430:44:46

'we get our first glimpses of people living by the river.

0:44:460:44:48

'We are in the land of the Asmat.

0:44:510:44:52

'Many of the Asmat remained uncontacted

0:44:560:44:58

'at the end of the 20th century.

0:44:580:45:00

'There are probably wild corners that have yet to meet the modern world.

0:45:000:45:03

'They have lived here for a staggering 30,000 years.

0:45:040:45:08

'But how are they coping with the 21st century?

0:45:080:45:11

'What impact is it having on their ancient traditions?'

0:45:110:45:14

We are just pulling in to a village called Yaosakor.

0:45:140:45:18

This is the first settlement we've actually seen marked on a map

0:45:180:45:22

for about ten days, since we left the highlands.

0:45:220:45:25

This looks like the traditional long house up ahead.

0:45:250:45:28

'There are Asmat villages scattered all through the jungle,

0:45:310:45:34

'but Yaosakor is one of the largest.'

0:45:340:45:36

THEY SPEAK LOCAL LANGUAGE

0:45:390:45:41

No prizes for guessing how the people of this village

0:45:440:45:47

make their living,

0:45:470:45:49

or what the main food source is here.

0:45:490:45:53

'The village is built on two metre-high stilts to protect

0:45:530:45:56

'the houses from river floods, with raised walkways connecting

0:45:560:46:00

'private dwellings and communal buildings.

0:46:000:46:03

'The long house is the traditional centre of the village

0:46:030:46:06

'where the elders hold important meetings.

0:46:060:46:08

'As we've seen throughout Papua,

0:46:100:46:13

'elders are the most respected members of the community,

0:46:130:46:15

'guardians of their culture.

0:46:150:46:18

'Ernes is one of the village elders.'

0:46:180:46:20

The river is at the heart of everything they do.

0:46:590:47:03

They come from the river and when they die,

0:47:030:47:05

they go back to its source.

0:47:050:47:07

'The river may be a vital part of Asmat life and culture,

0:47:080:47:12

'but its murky waters hide real-life monsters.

0:47:120:47:15

'The saltwater crocodiles that live here

0:47:160:47:18

'are the largest reptiles on earth.'

0:47:180:47:20

Quite often actually, crocodiles are seen as a symbol of great power

0:48:000:48:04

and there's a lot of respect for them.

0:48:040:48:06

Here in this village, that's definitely not the case -

0:48:060:48:09

the crocodile is pure evil.

0:48:090:48:11

'Just seven years ago, the village was terrorised by a huge crocodile.'

0:48:140:48:18

Oh, my goodness.

0:48:200:48:22

It's the biggest croc skull I've ever seen in my life.

0:48:230:48:26

This is from a saltwater crocodile,

0:48:340:48:37

which is the biggest species of reptile, the biggest species of crocodilian.

0:48:370:48:41

Look at the size of those teeth there.

0:48:410:48:43

This was a nearly five-metre long crocodile.

0:48:430:48:48

I kind of quite struggle to lift it with my hands,

0:48:480:48:52

but look how broad the skull is.

0:48:520:48:56

A crocodile like this could weigh three-quarters of a tonne.

0:48:560:49:00

It's often said these rivers in New Guinea have the largest crocodiles

0:49:000:49:03

in the world and this proves that is absolutely true.

0:49:030:49:07

17 people and then one

0:49:190:49:21

of the people here killed it with a spear, just like that one.

0:49:210:49:25

It was basically eating its way through the village.

0:49:250:49:28

When it was alive, this would have been a true monster.

0:49:280:49:32

It really does bring home how difficult life must be

0:49:320:49:35

in a village like this.

0:49:350:49:37

Knowing that every time you go down to the water's edge,

0:49:370:49:39

there could be something like this waiting.

0:49:390:49:42

'Although saltwater crocodiles are legally protected here,

0:49:470:49:51

'the Asmat are allowed to hunt and trade them in small numbers.

0:49:510:49:54

Just a few days ago,

0:49:590:50:00

'the villagers caught another one and it's still fresh.

0:50:000:50:03

'Well, nearly.'

0:50:030:50:04

Ugh.

0:50:070:50:08

'Three days festering in the hot,

0:50:110:50:13

'humid Papuan climate, and the carcass reeks.

0:50:130:50:16

'I've been an animal lover all my life and I'm particularly fascinated

0:50:190:50:22

'by reptiles like crocodiles,

0:50:220:50:24

'so seeing this skin and rotting skull

0:50:240:50:26

'is difficult for me to stomach.'

0:50:260:50:28

'It may not have been a man-eater,

0:50:430:50:44

'but a crocodile this size will provide the Asmat with fresh meat

0:50:440:50:48

'to feed the village and its skin can be traded for hard currency.'

0:50:480:50:52

'My ideals of animal welfare and conservation seem

0:51:120:51:15

'pretty out of place here, where people live their lives

0:51:150:51:19

'alongside predators with such lethal potential.'

0:51:190:51:22

Obviously it's sad that an animal of that size has been killed,

0:51:230:51:29

but at the same time, if you live in a place like this and an animal

0:51:290:51:34

takes 17 of your friends and family from the river then, you know,

0:51:340:51:40

obviously you're going to kill it.

0:51:400:51:42

THUNDER

0:51:440:51:46

'As the heavens open, the Asmat all come together.

0:51:530:51:57

'Normally the long house is men only.

0:52:040:52:06

'But today the whole village is here to sing,

0:52:070:52:10

'dance and share their ancient tales.

0:52:100:52:13

'To help celebrate the village gathering,

0:52:180:52:20

'a feast is being prepared.

0:52:200:52:21

'And this time it's not crocodile,

0:52:230:52:26

'but one of the village's own pigs that's about to be slaughtered.'

0:52:260:52:29

THEY CHANT

0:52:350:52:37

PIG SQUEALS

0:52:390:52:40

'The pig will provide enough food for all 12 of the village clans

0:52:460:52:49

'and Aldo and I are honoured to be included.

0:52:490:52:52

'Before the feast begins, somewhat incongruously,

0:52:570:53:00

'the village head says prayers.'

0:53:000:53:02

'Missionaries have been converting the Asmat and other Papuan tribes

0:53:150:53:18

'to Christianity since the 1950s.

0:53:180:53:21

'The missionaries persuaded many tribes to leave behind headhunting

0:53:210:53:25

'and cannibalism.'

0:53:250:53:26

'Although much of Yaosakor is nominally Christian,

0:53:380:53:41

'traditional animist beliefs are still the dominant force.'

0:53:410:53:44

Mmm.

0:53:450:53:46

-Is it good?

-Mmm.

0:53:480:53:49

'Their traditions run deep.

0:53:530:53:55

'Often Christianity has simply been incorporated into their older beliefs,

0:53:550:53:59

'beliefs that everything in nature possesses a spiritual force.

0:53:590:54:03

'The drumming continues late into the night,

0:54:090:54:11

'the elders singing ancient Asmat poems which can last for many days.'

0:54:110:54:16

It's quite late now in the long house and the drumming finished

0:54:200:54:25

a little while ago.

0:54:250:54:26

But there's still lots of people milling around, sitting,

0:54:260:54:29

chatting, sitting around fires and this will go on all night long.

0:54:290:54:34

I guess I'm probably not going to get

0:54:340:54:36

an enormous amount of sleep here.

0:54:360:54:38

But it's one night in a lifetime so I'm just going to enjoy it.

0:54:380:54:43

The Asmat's main contact with the outside world has been through art.

0:54:560:55:00

Their carvings are treasured by anthropologists and collectors.

0:55:000:55:04

Beyond Yaosakor, the Asmat region is a morass of tangled forests.

0:55:060:55:10

Most settlements are just a few shacks.

0:55:110:55:14

If the modern world was going to change the Asmat anywhere,

0:55:140:55:17

it would be here.

0:55:170:55:18

But life in Yaosakor continues as it has done for generations.

0:55:190:55:23

You'd have to travel 100km to get any signal for that phone.

0:55:230:55:27

'It seems to me, a few tin roofs aside,

0:55:280:55:31

'the modernity hasn't got much appeal.

0:55:310:55:33

'My new friends say they like things just the way they've always been.'

0:55:330:55:36

'We are now just hours away from completing our month-long,

0:55:490:55:53

'500km expedition from the central highlands to the Pacific Ocean.'

0:55:530:55:58

Four weeks ago, we were stood up at Habema,

0:56:020:56:04

the source of the Baliem and it was a trickle,

0:56:040:56:08

a hop, skip and a jump across it.

0:56:080:56:10

And now coming to the sea at the end of the journey some four weeks later

0:56:100:56:14

and it's 4km or 5km wide.

0:56:140:56:18

Look at the size of it.

0:56:180:56:19

'There's no doubt our journey has been a challenging one.

0:56:210:56:24

'It's proved to be much tougher than I ever imagined

0:56:240:56:27

'and things have rarely gone according to plan.'

0:56:270:56:29

The history of exploration and expeditions

0:56:310:56:34

is a history of cataclysmic failures.

0:56:340:56:37

Even the very greatest of explorers had impossible challenges.

0:56:370:56:43

You know, Shackleton and Scott,

0:56:430:56:45

probably the two best-known British adventurers,

0:56:450:56:48

are best known for their failures and...

0:56:480:56:51

..in those terms, actually this has been a success.

0:56:530:56:57

We have travelled from the source to the sea and been the first people

0:56:580:57:01

ever to do it.

0:57:010:57:03

Admittedly, more of that has been done in motorboats and helicopters

0:57:030:57:07

than I would have chosen.

0:57:070:57:08

But, I think it's the nature of expeditions that...

0:57:100:57:13

..there are going to be challenges. And if there aren't,

0:57:140:57:17

then it probably doesn't qualify as an expedition.

0:57:170:57:20

'Finally, our goal is in sight.'

0:57:250:57:27

It's the sea!

0:57:350:57:36

'After everything we've been through, all the challenges we've had,

0:57:390:57:43

'to come down here,'

0:57:430:57:45

all of a sudden it feels like every single bit of it

0:57:450:57:47

has been worthwhile.

0:57:470:57:48

This was all about doing the first ever source to sea

0:57:500:57:52

of the Baliem River, it was all about the challenge.

0:57:520:57:55

But it's just become so much more than that.

0:57:550:57:58

It's been truly remarkable to get an understanding of just how

0:57:590:58:03

this mighty river has breathed life into this corner of the world.

0:58:030:58:08

To see how it shaped the landscape,

0:58:080:58:10

created a habitat for unique wildlife

0:58:100:58:13

and how it's made a home for the ancient tribes who thrive

0:58:130:58:16

along its banks.

0:58:160:58:18

This place is always going to have a really special part of my heart.

0:58:190:58:24

And look at that!

0:58:250:58:26

Adventurer and naturalist Steve Backshall sets out to explore one of the wildest rivers in the world, the mighty Baliem River in the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia. He is on a mission to discover the ancient tribes that live along its banks, explore unknown caves and meet the dangerous animals lurking in the river and surrounding jungle. But the only way to discover these hidden worlds is to travel the river from source to sea - a feat that has never been achieved before.

In this second episode, Steve and his crew kayak Baliem's lower gorge, one of the most extreme stretches of white water on the planet. With jagged rock walls looming overhead and crashing currents bearing down on the kayaks, the risk of capsizing is constant. Battling wild weather and dense jungle, Steve's explorations of the surrounding valley prove equally as challenging. Steve encounters large spiders, fierce wasp nests and a local tribe who have little contact with the outside world.

Finally entering the tidal reaches of the Baliem River, Steve has to reconcile his passionate belief in conservation with a local tribe's determination to hunt crocodiles in the region.