Ben Brown may be the bravest sporting Kiwi legend you’ve never heard of. Not only has he kayaked some of the world’s most ferocious waters, but, in Uganda, ones also alive with ferocious beasts like crocodiles and hippos. I ask him what goes through his mind when paddling past some of Africa’s most aggressive wildlife, and “get away from the crocs and hippos!” comes the succinct reply.
Must you always be focused on the water, or do you get chance to take in the scenery?
“It really depends on what I’m paddling. Kayaking hard water requires you to be extremely focused and all that really goes through your mind is what you have to do to hit your line and descend a rapid safely. Having said that, a lot of what draws me to kayaking is the places you go and obviously pausing to appreciate that magnificent scenery around you is a big part of that. I feel very privileged to have been able to experience the places that I have.”
The 39-year-old is based in Hamilton, but spends up nine months of the year seeking out some of the world’s most dangerous rapids and falls — and has claimed first ascents in numerous countries. His methods of discovering new rivers include Google Earth, postcards, internet searches and good old fashioned word of mouth. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling to discover a river, look at it on a map and then end up halfway around the world paddling it,” Ben says. “It doesn’t really worry me if a river has been paddled before or not, while it’s a unique thing to paddle a stretch of water that potentially hasn’t been run before what’s important is that it’s new to me.”
How do you know if the the whitewater is even possible, do you ever deem it too risky?
“That’s a decision that has to be made while you’re looking at the river. You draw on previous experience and make your decision based on a number of different variables. The most important thing I have found is that you always have to trust your gut and if it’s saying it’s no good then it’s better to walk away. And yep, I deemed many, many rapids to risky.”
Ben admits that he’s had a “few close years over the years” but luck has generally been on his side. “Every time you hop on a river, your life is a danger,” he says. “I grew up in and around the water as my father was a very accomplished open ocean sailor and we spent most of our family holidays away sailing. When we moved to Hamilton during my childhood the Waikato River seemed like a great place to explore and kayaking seemed like a great way to extend the adventures. During high school I was introduced to whitewater kayaking and it immediately struck a chord with me. The rest I guess is history.”
Ben Brown poses for a portrait during the Red Bull Flow Hunters in Kawarau, Queenstown, New Zealand on March 9th, 2012. Photo: Mike Holder
Were you an adventurous child?
“You’d have to ask my mum! If you did I think she’s say that I was. Both her and Dad encouraged us in whatever it was we liked to do and I think spending so much time on the water as a kid lit that fire to explore new places.”
A Huka Falls old hand, he describes Aotearoa’s whitewater as “absolutely world class”. “Because New Zealand is such a geologically young country many of the rivers are constantly changing which can make them very challenging, something that we’re renown for,” Ben adds. “Having been fortunate enough to paddle all over the world I still love coming home and basking on the amazing whitewater we have on offer here.”
He struggles to name the best of his myriad memorable experiences, but decides it would have to be the Murchison Falls section of the White Nile in Uganda: “Five days of massive rapids, African jungle and plenty of croc and hippo encounters!” The African continent is Ben’s favorite place paddle thanks to its enormous rapids and warm waters, and it was also his first overseas destination so holds a special place in his heart. I finish up by asking Ben what is that makes his feel so connected to water.
“I’m not sure what it is exactly that I love it. Sometimes I love it, but sometimes I don’t. It has given me some amazing adventures and I love playing in the river, but it is also a very unforgiving medium and always has to be treated with respect.”
Visit the Verve Facebook page to check out the incredible GoPro footage of Ben navigating the Zambia’s churning Zambezi River. “Social media has been fantastic!” he says. “I love being able to shoot my adventures with my GoPro and share them with world. I used to have to tell people wild and wonderful stories and always felt I wasn’t doing the experiences justice which led to me trying to film some of our missions with old handycams which were very cumbersome to transport in a kayak and they didn’t like water. Now I can film multiple angles with my GoPros, plug the footage into my Quikstories app on my phone and post them to my social media channels straight from the riverbank — what a time to be alive!”