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Canoeing: Wild ride into the unknown

Fresh from 10th at the Rio Olympics, slalom canoeist Mike Dawson decided to navigate the Indus River in Pakistan because he felt like it, writes Andrew Alderson.
Olympic slalom canoeist Mike Dawson kayaking the Indus River on his expedition in the militarised zone of Pakistan. Photo / Supplied
Olympic slalom canoeist Mike Dawson kayaking the Indus River on his expedition in the militarised zone of Pakistan. Photo / Supplied

Not everyone wakes up one day and decides they fancy paddling through the militarised zone of Kashmir. Mike Dawson did. Armed with a special Pakistani government permit, the two-time Olympian kayaked a portion of the 3180km Indus River in Gilgit-Baltistan, part of a wider region under dispute since the partition of India in 1947.

Yet the only place Dawson felt unsafe was on the water. He spent eight days navigating 150km between Skardu and the Gilgit Confluence. The Karakoram mountain range shadowed him on one side; Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth highest peak at 8126m, kept watch on the other.

The 30-year-old planned and executed the trip with Spaniard Aniol Serrasolses and Frenchman Ciaran Heurteau. Dawson began the expedition with an open but wary mind. He exited his journey convinced the area is subject to misconceptions.

"I left New Zealand with a fear of the unknown but the coolest thing was discovering everything we'd heard about life off the river in Pakistan was wrong.

"It wasn't dangerous, chaotic or a threat to our security. It was an amazing part of the world and the people were incredibly friendly, generous and kind.

"Since September 11, the region has had a 95 per cent decrease in tourism, and basically no foreign tourism. They were eager to show how amazing the place was in contrast to the bad press you usually hear about Pakistan."

That was highlighted by a group of schoolchildren scrambling down to
the river to meet them.

"Word had spread that three foreigners were kayaking these rapids they usually steer clear of. "On the fourth day, we kayaked around a corner and there they were, waiting with a sign which said, 'Welcome to the Indus'. That was special. They had run down this crazy bank to be there, so we pulled in, took photos, had plenty of high fives and put some kids in kayaks to paddle around the flatwater next to the beach."

Once the trio were convinced of their safety in the communities, the main purpose of the trip - negotiating whitewater - became clearer. "We planned to stay in the gorge but ended up getting invited into people's homes each evening.

"That allowed us to genuinely enjoy the most dangerous part of the trip - running the biggest, gnarliest river I've been on. You're physically and mentally exhausted by the end.
"Most people who go [to the area] are climbers. They get flown in as part of
big teams and don't see many people in the militarised zone.

"I felt we shed a bit of light on that part of the world. We wanted to showcase Pakistan for better or worse." While the locals were friendly, the mountains were less co-operative. A landslide on the river cut off Dawson's group from their guide and a rescue team following them along the Kara-koram Highway.

"It was like a scene out of that TV show The World's Most Dangerous Roads. We saw a cloud of dust and thought a sandstorm was coming. Next day, we came to a rapid and paddled through the remains of a landslide. They were blasting the road [above us] to clear the way for military trucks to get through.

"Our guide, Tajammul, ended up climbing over the landslide and hitching a ride with the local government rescue service to follow us down river." Dawson is no stranger to intrepid travel. Last year, he faced a dilemma of whether to risk paddling over a 35m waterfall or confront a machete-armed bloke running towards him down an embankment on the Cuanza River in Angola, a waterway he thought looked "a curious place to explore" after browsing an encyclopedia.

He opted to confront the knife-wielding local, who was trying to warn him of the impending danger. It wasn't David-Livingstone-meets-Henry-Stanley, but effective nonetheless.

In Kashmir, the risk was more about getting scythed by water. "The overall experience was off the chart, especially with such a volume powering through a narrow canyon. The style of river was unique because everything is so vast.

"We'd ask locals about the names of mountains and they'd say, 'oh, it doesn't have a name because it's only 6000m'."

Planning for the trip saw them become an "airline nightmare", checking in emergency responder beacons, first aid, ropes, rescue equipment, food and kayaks. The desire to make a documentary meant their guide also became paramount.

"Tajammul helped to translate for us, otherwise we would have got stuck at blockades. He also knew some good access points to film from, where we could go, who to talk to . . . and avoid.
"We had to be a bit careful [with our food] in the backblocks at such high altitude. A 2008 expedition had been written off because too many team members got sick.

"It was a big honour for Tajammul to be involved. He'd never seen kayaking and was a bit nervous. If something went wrong, it'd be on him. At the end, the local government held a ceremony to celebrate the achievement because they were humbled by the fact we'd chosen to come to Pakistan. They also used the occasion to talk cricket, issuing invitations for Black Caps Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson to visit."
This week is Dawson's turn to offer hospitality. Manukau's Vector Wero park hosts the inaugural Whitewater XL competition which offers more than $100,000 in prizemoney.
Canoe slalom has never had a higher profile in New Zealand after Luuka Jones' pioneering silver medal at the Rio Olympics.

"The coolest thing is that, with some support, the right attitude and a dedication to training, we can beat the best in the world," Dawson says. "A few years ago, that would've been unheard of. "I've shown off our rivers to a few visitors, but have never been able to offer them a world-class venue and racing. Hopefully we can show them
a wicked time."

If it's anything like Dawson's Kashmir experience, the goodwill will be undisputed.

- Herald on Sunday

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