First Kayak Descent in Afghanistan: The Panjshir Gorge by willvdb, Aug 22 2005, 6:36 GMT
The Panjshir River is the most infamous river in all of Afghanistan, being the home of Ahmed Shah Masood and the location of some of the Soviet-Afghan War's largest battles. Environmental Anthropologist Will Van De Berg of the UN Environment Programme just completed the first kayak descent of the Panjshir Gorge (solo) and what may have also been the first ever kayak descent of any river in Afghanistan (see post-script). The run was done for the purpose of scouting out the potential for whitewater tourism in the future of Afghanistan and it was a major success, with solid class 4 rapids throughout the 20 KM section of river that was run separated by flat water with awesome scenery. Plans are on for a return to the gorge to run sections above and below that which was run on this trip...
While working for the UN Environment Programme on setting up Community-Based Natural Resource Management Projects (CBNRM) in Afghanistan, I was scouting out the potential to develop a potential project that will attempt to DDR (Disarm, Demobilize and Re-integrate) Afghan Mujahideen soldiers and re-train them for an activity that will both earn them money in the future and allow them to work in an activity that is nearly has high adrenalin as their previous occupations, principally as rafting, trekking and mountaineering guides and liaisons. The scouting for this project (it has not been funded yet) has allowed me to conduct what was potentially the first-ever kayak descent of a river (the Daryo-i Panjshir AKA Panjshir River) in Afghanistan for the purposes of scouting out its potential for future whitewater rafting opportunities. The run was done solo by myself, Will Van De Berg, with the support of my wife Lelania (video and camera woman), my UN drivers Anwar and Latif, and the local Panjshiri military commanders, one of whom was a recent graduate of the guide training programme supported by UNEP and USAID.
It all started with a move to Afghanistan for a job with UNEP. I was tasked with setting up CBNRM projects across Afghanistan that would assist local populations in setting up locally managed systems of natural resource management. This has allowed me to travel across the country and in the process, learn that Afghanistan has an unreal amount of high quality whitewater. The country is dominated by the Hindu Kush Mountains, which virtually encompass the entire central and northeastern part of the country. These mountains get loaded with snow in the winter and the water flows hard during the spring and summer, filling up dried creek beds and creating a virtual playground for the whitewater boater. I made it my plan to get some of my boats and gear down from my previous home in Tajikistan, where my wife still lived and where the majority of my belongings were still located at the time.
After flying some of my gear down to Afghanistan as excess cargo on the UN Humanitarian Air Service flights (and paying handsomely to do so), I finally had the means to get on the water (although I had to bring my shortest boat since the UN flight had a very small cargo space). Having scoped out some of the rivers in the area on previous fieldsite visits, I made it my plan to get on the Panjshir River (or Daryo-i Panjshir in the Afghan language of Dari), which was the legendary home of Ahmed Shah Masood, the lion of the Panjshir. Masood was a Mujahideen commander that had repeatedly fought off both the Soviet Army and the Taliban, neither of which were ever successful in taking the valley and holding it for any substantial period of time. The Panjshir is a kayaker's dream river, with super clean bright blue water, amazing scenery, long challenging rapids and a unique cultural and historical legacy. The river has flat-water sections broken up by kilometer long rapids and the farther up you go, the shorter the flat water and longer the rapids. However, the run ends with a bang, giving up the biggest and best rapids at the mouth of the gorge so that you see some of the most challenging rapids as you drive into the valley. To make things interesting, due to a history of nearly 25 years of continuous war, the river and valley is littered with the remains of tanks, armored personnel carriers, jeeps, and armored cars. To make things a bit TOO interesting, the valley is still heavily mined, although clearance teams are actively clearing the fields as fast as they can and I was assured that the mines along the river bed had been cleared already, with the remaining mines being up in the mountain passes and along some sections of the road.
After having perused the valley on numerous occasions but not having had a chance to actually get my boat up with me owing to the work-related trips I was on at the time, I finally got my break in the form of a chance to travel to the valley to scope out its potential for whitewater tourism and to discuss the concept with the governor and mujahideen commanders of the valley. I couldn't say no.
A central problem in the stabilization of Afghanistan is what is known as DDR, or the Disarming, Demobilizing, and Re-integration ex-combatants back into a non-conflict based society. Several US and UN funded organizations have been taking the lead in trying to integrate these fighters back into society using a variety of means. One novel concept that will potentially be pioneered by UNEP has been to do so by re-training these soldiers in other forms of high-intensity activities, such as mountaineering and raft guiding. As these soldiers know every nook and cranny of the valley, as well as the location of the mine fields and the military history of all of the battlefields, etc., they are perfectly suited to guiding future tourists through the area safely. A pilot project was launched in July to train a selection of ex-combatants in mountaineering and guiding basics for the purposes of guiding and liaison work with future tourist groups. This project sponsored by USAID, UNEP and Mountain Wilderness International (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4748989.stm
for more info on this project) trained 22 Afghanis to be mountain guides and it was conducted in the Panjshir Valley. However, since this pilot project was very successful, a more in-depth project is now being planned. This was my reason for going up to the Panjshir for this scouting trip. UNEP is looking into the potential of training not only mountaineering and trekking guides, but also whitewater rafting guides and helping them to establish a basic raft guiding service in the valley if the cultural and environmental conditions are appropriate. Our mission on this trip was to discuss the concept with local leaders and for me to boat down the run to assess its viability for future Afghani-run commercial operations. Since I both speak Dari and have kayaked in several places in South and Central Asia (Nepal, Tajikistan), I was uniquely qualified for the job.
Although the security situation in Afghanistan is highly variable depending on where you are (with the north and west being generally stable and the south east being more unstable), the Panjshir Valley is very secure and a safe location for such an adventure. In fact, several other ex-pats that live in Kabul have made forays into the valley to try their hand at climbing the great rock that closes the river for 100 or so kilometers of the valley's length.
Upon arriving in the valley, we saw that the river was at a great level and everything looked good to go from what we could see from the road. The Panjshir snakes its way alongside the road for several kilometers only to then separate for 4-5 KM and then to rejoin the road, following this pattern as you go up the valley. Many of the sections of rapids that we could see from the road looked like great Class 4 with some of the rapids at the mouth of the valley hitting class 5 in intensity. We drove up the valley slowly, scouting out what we could and just taking it all in, pausing in places while a Turkish road building crew re-built sections of the road in front of us, tossing boulders down into the river to make for more interesting boating later in the season as the water drops.
We finally arrived at our destination, which was upriver of the village of Rokha, where the Governor of the valley and the local military and police leaders had a base that was to be our meeting point. After unpacking the gear and having a tasty lunch of MREs (meals ready to eat- US Military food rations), we sat down with the leaders and began to ask them what they thought of the both the previous training program and the future guide training/rafting project that we were proposing. This discussion was very interesting; as the Mujahideen expressed a desire to have new occupational outlets and that they thoroughly enjoyed the previous training program and looked forward to an enlargement of the plan in the future. As far as rafting and kayaking went, none of them had ever seen such a thing on their river and didn't know what to think of it. This was where I came in. After discussing the idea of boating from upstream to the section of river in front of the base that afternoon, they became concerned that since the people in the valley were not used to such a thing, the men of some of the villages may be angry if I paddled past their women who could be in the middle of bathing or washing clothes by the banks of the river. In Afghanistan, the men of their families jealously protect women and any insult to a woman such has seeing them unclothed (or in some cases out of the all encompassing burqa) can lead to an insult that can only be settled by a bullet. As such, the commanders recommended that I paddle a short stretch in front of the base so that both they and the local villagers could see what I was up to and let word spread up and down the valley for the next day's run. I agreed and decided to run a short stretch, paddling it over and over to the amazement of the local villagers and children, who regularly float mellow stretches of river in inflated inner tubes.
This warming up run let the commanders and the locals see what kayaking was all about and to let them know that it was not a form of military transport, but just a way to enjoy the river as their children do in inner tubes and it went a long way towards mellowing the community out in regards to strangers floating down their valley. This was very important as the only outsiders aside from aid workers that have been in the valley in about 25 years have been invaders looking for military conquest (first the Soviets and then the Taliban), not recreation. In fact, it was the Panjshir Valley that Alexander the Great used to cross from the south of Afghanistan to the north of Afghanistan on his quest to conquer the emirates of Central Asia north of the river Oxus (today's Amu Darya). However, I was doing the inverse, going from upriver to downriver in an attempt to play on the river and potentially bring in an activity that can lead to economic enhancement and demilitarization of the valley instead.
The next day, I was paired up with my armed escort of Mujahideen and one of the graduates of the pilot guide-training project (Muj. Kunawar) for my descent down the uncharted stretches of the mighty Panjshir River. Kunawar was along to ensure that any questions by local villagers about my trip could be answered on shore as I paddled downstream (his first job as a liaison!). I put on above the village of Rokha and finally got my first taste of Afghani whitewater after having driven up and down the valley on numerous trips over the past 3 months. Oh how sweet it was!!! After putting on and paddling through my first rapid, I came nearly immediately to a blown up armored truck sitting partially submerged in the middle of the river, which after a bit of sightseeing, proved to be a quite fun item to seal launch off of. After the armored truck, the river took a turn away from the road and I was all alone floating down a valley that I have read about and been interested in for the past 20 years. After some great class 3 warm up rapids, I floated through my first village and caught a great surf wave in front of a school of about 100 children, all of whom were stoked to see some random float past their outdoors UNHCR-tented classroom. After a bit of surfing in the village, I peeled out and headed downstream to encounter the much bigger and better water that was to come.
After several sections of great whitewater, I came to a bridge that had an obviously large rapid immediately behind it. I jumped out to do a quick scout of it with the assistance of one of the local community members that were standing long the riverbank. After a very brief scout (cur short by the liaison yelling at me to get back in the boat because he was afraid that the community members might not understand what I was doing), I got in and ran a section of rapids that was solid class 4+ and about 1 KM long, not bad stuff and quite nice to have just had to boat scouted it. Thanks for pushing me to run it blind Kunawar! However, his fears were unfounded as I had a bridge load of people cheering me on as I plowed into the run, with hoots of encouragement following me downriver as I made my way through this section of water.
After a quick break alongside the river to drink some water, check the safety situation of my gear, and to warm up a bit from the chilly water, I proceeded on downriver to run the remaining sections of the run. More solid class 4 followed and I finally made it to our agreed upon meeting point, the Panjshir Kabob stand. Although I was anxious to run more of the river and hit the last section of water which appeared to be the most difficult stuff on the run, its proximity to the military checkpoint made the liaison nervous and he said that I should return to run it after he has had a chance to fully brief the military on what I was up to. Following his advice, I acquiesced and decided that 20 KM of Afghani river was not bad for a first run and proceeded to load my gear up and chat with the throng of local Panjshiris that had coalesced alongside our vehicles at the takeout. After drying off, loading up and chatting the locals up, we celebrated the first descent with a meal of Kabobs, Kabuli Paloa (a rice, vegetable and meat dish) and some piping hot green tea. A suitable way to end a great day.
After scarfing down the Afghani feast, we said our goodbyes, thanked our liaison for his help (and gave him his first ever pay for his newly acquired liaison training), we loaded up and made our way back to Kabul, stoked that we had made minor history in Afghanistan and proven that the country has the capacity and geography for future tourists to come and play on its gorgeous mountains.
For their support of this expedition and that of other first descents that have been done recently up in Tajikistan, I would like to thank the following sponsors:
AT Paddles, Liquid Logic Kayaks (sorry that I couldn't take the Gus down the Panjshir, just couldn't fit it on the UN plane!), Immersion Research, Orosi Sunglasses, Chaco Sandals, Thrown Out Throwbags, Watershed Drybags, Eric Princen from Boater Talk, and Gexar Camera Cases. Your gear rocks and I thank you for all the support that you have shown me in these adventures.
Patronize these companies, as they support boaters that are out there getting on it!!!
Note: I recognize that the Pics are not the most exciting whitewater shots ever seen, but hopefully I will have the video up soon and it will feature a bit more action. Since I had only one person shooting shots, we focused on video and so there will be more boating to be seen on the vid. Once it is edited, I will post it here.
Stay tuned for more Afghani and Central Asian boating here on BT!!!
Post-Script: If anyone has any confirmed information on previous kayak descents in Afghanistan, please email me at: [email protected]
In preparation for this run, I contacted everyone that I could think of that would have any knowledge of previous runs in Afghanistan and was unable to locate any confirmed previous descents. I would love to know of any earlier accounts of boating here if they exist, so send them on if you have any photos or historical accounts.