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Danger in the Clouds

The UK kayakers who took on the last uncharted tributary of the Amazon

by Ed Chipperfield


? Pete Caterall

The Amazon – wide, long and perilous. It’s attracted travellers and explorers for centuries, all eager to stake a claim to a great first. Not many seem to be left these days, at least at first glance. But in a remote corner of the high Andes, a churning, rolling river named the Rio Concevidayoc was one of the last. It’s the reason why three British kayakers took themselves to Peru this summer, braving snakes, rapids and heat, to ride the Concevidayoc: the final unexplored tributary of the mighty Amazon.

John ‘Spike’ Green, Pete Caterall and Adam Harmer are colleagues from the National Whitewater Centre in Wales. An expert team: Green has appeared on BBC 2, teaching Kate Silverton to paddle, while Caterall instructs the Team GB kayak squad. For the Rio Concevidayoc trip, they were joined by Paul Cripps, whose expert knowledge of the Andean terrain first led the crew to this area. Cripps lives in Cusco, and on a mountain trip he noticed the river – and realised that it was, as yet, unnavigated.

The uncharted river

The river is uncharted. No wonder: it runs through steep mountain passes and gorges, under dense jungle canopy. There’s just no reason why anyone should have bothered. It connects to the larger Urubamba River, a major local watercourse that runs north-west through the Inca’s Sacred Valley. The only thing that the paddling team knew about the Rio Concevidayoc was its gradient. From their put-in point to get-out, the measurements showed a very steep drop – judging from the distance to travel, it means rapids.

“The section of the Urubamba below Machu Picchu has already seen a few descents,” Harmer tells WideWorld. “Our secret river is a further six days into the jungle from there, and does indeed flow into the Urubamba eventually.”

Deeper than the Grand Canyon

From Cusco, it was a 20-hour drive, with two days of hiking with mules before the team of kayakers arrived at the secret put-in point. A few days before they took a warm-up run in the nearby Rio Cotahuasi. If you’ve never heard of it, you’d be forgiven. But just consider this  - the Cotahuasi has a gorge which is 3535m deep. That’s twice as deep at the Grand Canyon, and it’s thought to be the deepest gorge in the world.

After the Cotahuasi, the team set sights on the Concevidayoc. With no trails running next to the river up there, and thick cover overhead, danger is doubled. Casualties would need airlifting, if it was possible to find them. If the team meets with a section too suicidal to paddle, they have to hike round it: through the crowded jungle undergrowth that festoons the riverbanks. That came sooner than they thought.

Riding blind

“The river started off quiet,” remembers Caterall. “Class III or IV for the first hundred metres. After we rounded the first bend, it dropped into a IV or V with the odd bit that was even harder, all in a very steep, jungle-covered gorge. When you’re in it, it’s inescapable most of the time. You’re committed to the constant rapids, in a very serious place to be. You’re practically going down there blind, because there aren’t that many places to stop and check what’s ahead.”

The team had to pick up their gear and hike back through the jungle to find their muleteers again; it took 36 hours to retrace on land the four miles they had gone by river. Once back with the mules, a detour around the worst part of the gorge took them 7km further down, where they could climb back in.

“The river’s never been navigated before,” says Green, “So we were the first people to go down. We have some maps of the area, and while the river is on there they are very inaccurate. Espiritu Pampa, which is the last Inca city to be taken by the Spanish, was about 10K in the wrong direction according to the maps!”

Hard and committing

“The river course is also very blind, so you can’t see what’s coming all the time,” Caterall explains. ”You’re always getting out to climb on boulders to try and find where the safe – if you can call it safe – path down the river is. It’s certainly the most continuously hard and committing white water I’ve ever done anywhere in the world.”

The paddlers ran the Concevidayoc for another three days, stopping at the ruins of Espiritu Pampa – a place that wasn’t uncovered by archaeologists until 1964, and even now offers anyone who can reach it the chance to hack back the undergrowth and reveal buildings never seen for 500 years.

The Concevidayoc led them to their destination, Kitani, where it joins the Urumbamba. That river, in its turn, leads to the Amazon. “This is one of the highest reaches of any river that goes to the Amazon,” Cripps reveals. “And the last tributary of the Urumbamba to be explored.”

With thanks to Predator cameras, whose VX360 action camera (£556.99, kitted out the canoists on their mission.

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