[Steve] Even in the 21st century, there are parts of our world still waiting to be discovered.
There's just that incredible sense of anticipation, of not knowing what's gonna be around the next corner.
I'm Steve Backshall, a naturalist and an explorer.
[laughing] In this pioneering expedition, I'm heading into one of the toughest and most inaccessible jungles on Earth.
Deep in South America, I'm leading an expert team into the unknown.
Finally, I'm going to an area that I have never, never ever been before.
[Steve] Uh, it's taken us nearly an hour to go about 100 meters.
[Steve] Taking on white water and river monsters.
This hostile environment... Whoa!
...will push us to breaking point.
But the rewards will be worth it.
[cheering] The whole planet has been photographed by satellites from space.
But real exploration and discovery can only happen down on the surface.
I first heard about Suriname in the late 1990s and I've been trying to get an expedition here off the ground ever since.
So to finally get here and be in these forests and know there are places here that have never seen a human foot... it's beyond exciting.
Suriname sits in a little-known corner of South America.
It's four times the size of the Netherlands, but home to just 600,000 people.
Most of them live along the coast.
Inland is one of the largest pristine jungles on the planet, so vast it could conceal some of the greatest natural wonders yet to be discovered.
My goal is to lead an expedition deep into its heart.
To navigate a river that runs through a landscape unchanged for millions of years.
I'm bringing together an expert team of adventure filmmakers... and seasoned jungle explorers.
[chattering] Aldo Kane has a military background and is our expedition medic.
[Aldo] Ultimately, if something does happen, we do need the ability to, if we do have a casualty, is to find somewhere that we can, potentially, winch them out.
-Michel, that's an awful lot of green.
-[Michel] Yes, it is.
I think it's the country with the most tropical rainforest, in percentage, in the world.
[Steve] Michel Boeijen is an adventure kayaker.
Together with his old friend, Ile Opodi, they've spent 20 years mapping Suriname's rivers.
Are we heading up into the, kind of, the foothills of these mountains?
[Michel] Yes, and the nice thing is that the river that we are going to do you can give it a name.
-Give it a name?
Can we call it "Ghost River"?
[Michel] Yeah, you can, yeah.
What is ghost in Saramaccan language?
Yey Yey River!
I love it.
I love it!
Yey Yey River?
[Steve] Knowledge of this area is sketchy at best.
Most maps were made by Dutch explorers during colonial times.
So we'll use satellite imagery to help guide us.
The terrain we're heading for is part of the Guiana Shield, an ancient rock formation riddled with faults and fissures capable of swallowing whole rivers underground.
It also produces spectacular waterfalls.
But satellite images offer few clues of what we might find.
Before we can head into the unknown, there's an important visit to make.
From our starting point at Brokopondo Lake, we'll travel to the village of Djumu.
It's home to the Maroon people, who, remarkably, have African ancestry.
They hold the forest sacred and without their permission we won't be going anywhere.
The people in Djumu are the descendants of escaped slaves, well over 100 years ago.
And from what I've heard their culture is still very, very West African.
There's a lot of anthropologists that will go there and study the people there because they've stayed more true to West African culture than people in West Africa have.
The Maroons found sanctuary in these forests, hiding away from their Dutch colonial masters.
They've fiercely protected these lands and their way of life ever since.
Ile lives in Djumu.
As a Maroon elder, he holds a position of respect.
The Basia means the boss of the village.
And you need to pay respect and introduce yourself and Ile is going to help us with that.
[Steve] No roads reach Djumu.
It's an 80-kilometer boat ride.
But it's the dry season and river levels are low.
Well, that's a bit of an obstacle.
A rocky step spanning the river has been exposed.
There's no way we can lug a ton of kit, including our boats, over it.
What do you think?
I mean, some of these channels here look like you could drag the boat up them?
[Aldo] The thing is, if this goes over with the kit in it and none of it's tied in because there's quite a lot of it.
You'd lose everything.
And our expedition would be over right now.
Our best option is a channel where the water's deeper.
But it's being forced through a narrow gap and running fast.
We have to pull the boats through the rapids.
There is no way we can do it with an engine, so we have to pull it.
It's all by hand power.
[Michel] The biggest risk is your fingers and your legs.
If they come between the boats, they snap so easy.
[Steve] But being crushed is not the only danger.
[Steve] Through here?
These rivers are full of piranhas, stingrays, electric eels, and a dozen other potentially dangerous predators.
The floor flattens out to this side, but the only way to get up it is to do a big dog leg and a boat this long just doesn't do that well.
Turning it's almost impossible.
It's got the turning circle of a cross-Channel ferry.
It's fully loaded with the camera crew, who have to keep their filming kit dry.
[Aldo] Watch your legs, Steve-o!
Watch your legs there.
I wasn't planning on swimming there.
You all right there, Aldo?
I'm not touching the ground here, God, help me.
[grunts] [Steve] We're barely inching forward.
Everyone needs to throw their weight behind the boat, including spare members of the camera crew.
[man] Push, push, push!
[second man] Let's go, let's go, let's go!
[Steve] After an hour-long haul, we get both boats to the top.
Nice work, team!
Two boats up, no casualties.
That's a good day in my book.
We motor eight hours upriver.
And, next morning, we reach the remote outpost of Djumu.
[laughter] I've spent a lot of time in South America and... it's just not usually like this, it doesn't have this feel.
It feels more like we've... rocked up on the banks of the Congo in West Africa.
It still has that very, very distinctly African flavor about it.
We've got some negotiations going on.
We need the blessing of the local Basia.
If it doesn't work, we are stopped dead, 'cos we can't go any further than this.
While Ile tries to track him down, I'm taking a look around.
There are signs of the ancient beliefs the Maroons' ancestors brought with them from Africa.
The people here in this village are what's known as animists.
Animist means that they believe there is a spirit in everything.
There's a spirit in the trees, in the rocks, in the animals.
And they make offerings to those spirits whenever they need something and that's what this is here.
So, animism, which, essentially, is a kind of paganism, is a way of expressing your unity with the land around you, with the environment around you.
And if you have that kind of sense about a place, then automatically you're intertwined with the land and with the forest in a way that's deeper than us westerners will ever understand.
They've resisted, you know, so much of the outside world here.
It's one of the reasons why Suriname is now the most forested nation on Earth.
We still need local permission to explore.
And the Basia has agreed to meet us.
[speaking Saramaccan] Hello.
[Ile] This the Basia.
-[Ile introduces Steve] -Aldo.
-[Ile introduces Aldo] [speaking Saramaccan] [Steve] Ile outlines our plans and promises to respect the forest.
After an hour of nervous anticipation, the Basia finally gives us his decision.
[Michel] He is really thankful for our visit and to listen to what he had to say, and he wishes all the best on the trip.
-Thank you very much.
[Laughter] That went well.
Our expedition can now properly get under way.
We're flying to a remote jungle airstrip at the edge of the region we want to explore.
It's a bit like a brick hitting a bowling green but we're down.
This is just a staging post.
The next phase will be to helidrop onto the river.
Satellite images show a potential landing site south of the river's source.
From here, we estimate it will take six days to paddle 30 kilometers and we'll drop 150 meters in elevation to reach a known exit point at the junction with Zand Kreek.
It's all about to kick off.
This tiny little helicopter behind us here is carrying us and half a ton of gear off into the middle of the forest.
Which is incredibly exciting but at the same time pretty nerve racking.
Have we got everything we need to make sure we get down this thing safely?
The crew make final preparations.
I'm gonna stay with me arse on a seat, I think.
[Aldo] Let me just, so that's gonna be in there, mate, so that's attached.
So, just remember when you jump out that that's attached.
These guys need to put their... [Steve] Aldo is drawing on years of military experience to coordinate three personnel flights and five sling-load drops.
It's a logistical nightmare.
Before you go in, have it set.
[Steve] Once fully loaded, this helicopter will be on the edge of its capabilities.
There's no margin for error.
-Is that coming back?
Steve, Michel and Graham, you're gonna go out first and clear the landing site so that we can then get the rest of the nets and the cargo and then us.
If something bad does happen, you need to be able to cut out of your harness.
Worst case scenario, you might be out there on your own.
I'm, I'm doing this already for 30 years and now, finally, I'm going to an area that I have never, never ever been before.
It's gonna be a major challenge and a major adventure.
So, yeah, I'm looking forward to it.
Here we go!
And the second we break away from this airstrip, we are over pristine forest.
You can instantly see as soon as you start travelling down one of these rivers why an expedition here has to be on one of these waterways.
Traveling through the forest would be nearly impossible.
You'd be making only a couple of 100 meters a day.
[laughs] Lifting up above the canopy.
And suddenly all you can see is green.
Every meter we now travel takes us deeper into the unknown and jungles that could have lain unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs.
This is one of the most exciting places for exploration left on the planet.
And to be here now about to set down in this wonderland is one of the most special things I've ever done.
I'm...I'm beside myself.
Yeah, 1.5 kilometers.
[Steve] The jungle is so dense the landing site Michel has identified could be the only place for us to set down.
We getting out here.
Just down there?
-Yeah, 300 meters.
I just hope he's done his homework properly.
The approach is tight.
The pilot has just three meters clearance between the trees and his tail rotors.
It's taken seven days travel to get here.
But I've been waiting 20 years to set foot in Suriname's remote jungles.
-Oh, my God.
The hard work is only just beginning.
One drop down.
Six to go.
Each load takes 40 minutes to complete.
It's a race to get everything in before dark.
The first to be dropped are the inflatable kayaks.
-[Michel] You do the nets.
These will be our only way out of here.
I've chosen them because they're tough but lightweight enough to be carried over obstacles.
[pump squeaking] -I am on fire.
-[laughs] [helicopter blades whirring] I reckon we got people this time.
Here he is.
Look at that, this is the start of our river.
Look at this!
What'd you think of that!
Ile is on the last flight.
With him is a new member of the team, Amerindian expert paddler Keiran Samuels.
I think that is my favorite moment ever.
It's that second when the last heli just starts to disappear off into the distance and gets replaced with the cicadas and the birds and the frogs and it's just you and the jungle.
We're now totally on our own.
This sandbar is the only place to set down a helicopter for hundreds of square kilometers.
Once we head downstream, we'll be beyond rescue.
[birdsong] Jungle environments are regarded by the armed forces as one of the toughest places on the planet to operate.
Aldo has come prepared for all the worst case scenarios.
We've got all the basics for advanced life support.
And then all the other stuff associated with the jungle, like, anaphylaxis.
Wound closure stuff.
We're using machetes quite a lot.
And that's, you know...
The same as all these expeditions.
It's self-rescue, first.
We can't reply on other people to get us out of here.
[Steve] Finally, we're on Ghost River.
[bird caws] There's just that incredible sense of anticipation of not knowing what's gonna be around the next corner.
It could be a thundering rapid.
All we do know is before the river meets known territory we have 150 meters in elevation to lose.
And that means rapids.
For now the river's flat and slow.
But not without its challenges.
We can probably get the boats over there.
We cut down, we have to cut down.
Here the upper ones, pull it over and take that one away.
And then, yes, we can haul the boats over it.
Fallen trees are blocking the way forward.
The banks are too high to go around.
We have to go through them.
[Michel laughs] Hey!
That's my man!
[Steve] After a punishing machete hack, we cut a hole just big enough for the team to squeeze through.
Looks like we got another obstacle.
The river's choked with years of backed-up debris.
Can't feel what it is that's holding me back.
Are you in the water?
It's like paddling through a thick vegetable soup.
Machetes and inflatable boats.
What could possibly go wrong?
We're continually hitting obstacles like these.
Fallen trees which are right down over the river and they're quite a pain to navigate.
[Steve] So far, we're measuring our progress in meters per hour rather than kilometers.
[bird call] As the day continues, the jungle environment is relentlessly unforgiving.
The midday temperatures are rocketing.
It's like paddling a kayak in a steam room.
Super-hot in the sun all day, no cover.
[Aldo] The biggest issue that we face here is, erm, is probably dehydration.
Just trying to get some fresh water.
It still needs filter even though we're so remote.
There can still be some bacteria and things in here.
And that... is fresh filtered water, good to go.
[Steve] We all need to drink four liters of water a day to keep hydrated and stave off the lethal effects of heatstroke.
That's the good thing about here-- no shortage of water.
We've struggled here for hours and hours with fallen trees.
Tomorrow we do better.
[Steve] After a tough first day, we've managed to paddle eight kilometers.
But we've only lost ten meters in altitude.
There's clearly a lot of elevation still to lose down river.
We're tired and need somewhere to camp.
It's all right.
There's some reasonably flat space here for people who've got tents.
Lots and lots of space for folks who've got hammocks.
Whilst we set up camp, Michel, Ile, and Keiran start thinking about their dinner.
We catch aimara today.
Pepper water is the traditional Suriname fish soup.
[Steve] For millennia, these rivers have provided local people with everything they need.
Suriname's rivers are notorious for huge predatory fish that attack anything that falls into the water.
[Keiran] Monster, monster fish!
[Steve] These waters are filled with so many ferocious predators.
Piranhas, electric eels, caimans, but... surely, this has to be top of the list.
It's called the wolf fish or aimara.
Keiran, do you mind just showing off those teeth?
Look at that!
You are a brave man, sir.
Obviously, as human beings, they don't intentionally go for us but lots of people do get bitten because you wade around in the water and your toes or your fingers look suspiciously like the kind of little fish that they like to prey on.
And they are everywhere.
[Steve] Keiran takes just what they need for dinner and nothing else.
It makes bath-time for the crew less than relaxing.
I don't think there's one in here.
It would very definitely take a chunk out of you.
Might make you think twice.
Definitely wouldn't take my boxers off and get in.
[Steve] It's been a grueling day.
Everyone's in need of food and sleep.
Oh, that's hot.
[Steve] With no idea what challenges the river will throw at us tomorrow... we need to be ready for anything.
This morning, the river is wide and clear.
It gives us a moment's breathing space to take in this lost world.
Look at that!
There's a troop of brown capuchin monkeys.
And they're incredibly curious.
As if to say, "What on earth are you?"
[Aldo] What was he doing when we was doing that?
Jumping up and down and shaking the trees like that is a threat display.
It's a symbol to us to back off.
We push further on down river.
Capybara, the world's largest rodent.
About the size of an Alsatian dog.
Unusually, for a rodent, the eyes and the nostrils are right on top of the head.
Exactly as you'd expect in a crocodile.
And phenomenal swimmers, able to duck below the surface for several minutes at a time.
And once they're under, they're gone.
The wildlife we are seeing, erm, has absolutely no fear of humans.
No fear of this team.
I guess it's because they've just never had any human contact before.
That is a bit of a privilege to be able to see that firsthand.
[birds cawing] I hear running water.
I think we might have... a bit faster flow ahead of us.
Just pull out here and check it out, shall we?
Look down there, Steve.
We can get out there and then we have a better view.
So, this is our first substantial obstacle.
Any rapids need to be scoped out to find the safest route through.
I'm guessing if we stick between this patch of rocks here and the next little small island.
My best guess is to avoid that tree and the one over there.
[Steve] I've paddled white water all over the world.
-Wanna guide me down, Michel?
[Steve] But our kayaks are more packhorse than maneuverable rapid runners.
It's shallow over there.
Too many rocks on that side.
[Steve] Even in these small rapids, it will be a challenge to keep them in a straight line and upright.
[Michel] OK. [laughs] [Steve] I'm down without much difficulty.
[Michel] You can come here, Aldo.
It's deep enough there.
[Steve] And with Michel's help, Aldo threads a route.
At full speed, huh?
OK, if you guys are happy.
The camera boats are more stable but unwieldy.
And even Ile struggles to control them.
Last down is Michel.
[Michel laughs] What?
[laughs] Poor Michel.
He's just helped everyone down that set of rapids and then got pinned himself.
[Michel laughs] A shame!
Could happen to anyone.
I still can't believe it.
This is a beginner's mistake, to do it too fast.
[Steve] This time, nothing more than Michel's pride is hurt.
But the outcome would be more serious in a bigger rapid.
By midday, the river's becoming shallower and increasingly difficult to navigate.
The river's braided out into several different channels.
Looks like we might be able to paddle it through up there.
Each of us picks our best route.
What happens in these areas is you really have to find your way, every step.
I'm, kind of, favoring... just pulling my boat down through the middle.
It's not flashy but sometimes you have to err on the side of caution.
[Michel] You stand up, you choose and sometimes you're walking a lot and it takes a lot, a lot of time.
[Steve] Soon, the water becomes so shallow... paddling is no longer an option.
The boats and kit weigh close to 100 kilos.
And every meter saps our energy reserves.
It's taken us...nearly an hour to go about 100 meters.
We make a long line of persons and bring all the boats down and we park them here.
[Michel] If you send it to me, I get it here.
It's gonna be slow going, isn't it?
The GPS data reveals that today we've averaged just 500 meters an hour, and lost just 15 meters in altitude.
With so much height still to lose, it seems that at some point our descent will become more extreme.
With no way back, nowhere to land a helicopter to rescue us, we have no choice but to keep pushing forward into the unknown.
[Michel] OK, then I go down there.
Let it go, Steve.
[Steve] As night falls on Ghost River, I'm keen to hear from Ile how this compares to his other explorations.
What are the first questions that your friends in the village will ask you?
[Steve] Aimara are not the only formidable creatures in this river.
Fast flowing white water, like this, is absolutely perfect terrain for caiman-- they're a kind of crocodile.
In the daytime, the only thing you see is really when the water explodes with motion as you get too close; you haven't seen them.
But at night you can have the jump on them.
It's the smooth-fronted caiman.
I'm gonna handle him very carefully because... they are, pound for pound, one of the strongest of all crocodilians.
Really, really powerful, and at the back of the neck are special scales called scoots, which are just like armor, and they're really, really tough.
They're cutting into my thumb right now.
But this is a very specialized animal indeed.
Most of the time, they sit in this exact position with their head facing upstream waiting for small fish to be flushed near to their mouths.
And running down the lengths of their lips are tiny cone-shaped scales which are incredibly sensitive to vibrations.
And the second anything gets nearby, snap.
It grabs ahold of it and it's history.
I've been bitten by a caiman before and it needed ten stitches.
We need to be careful as we head down river.
He's a beauty.
Let's let him go.
[thunder rumbles] Er, this is a bit of a change, isn't it?
Very, very different this morning.
I have to admit, I did not want to get out of bed.
Just lay there with the rain drumming on the top of the tent.
Just thinking, "I think I'll just stay here."
It can completely change the complexion of a jungle expedition when it starts raining, when everything is soaking wet, when you've got no dry clothes to get into at the end of the day.
So, I guess, we're hoping that this doesn't last too long.
I'll be happy when I've got my first coffee inside me.
The rain doesn't just make for uncomfortable living conditions.
If it continues raining like this, yes, then we have a challenge in the rapids.
They will get more rough, they're getting bigger, more dangerous.
Everything changes in the river.
[Steve] Fortunately, the rain is short-lived.
And by mid-morning, we're back on the river.
These rains signal the end of the dry season.
And the forest has a very different feel this morning.
Green forests like this really have a sense of timelessness about them.
Of deep time.
Maybe 220 million years ago, almost all of the planet would have been like this.
And there is something really prehistoric about it.
I guess it's all the dragonflies and butterflies and plants.
But I can see why so many people that make their lives in the forest have animist beliefs.
The plants, the rocks... all have a spirit and it makes total sense.
There's an energy here that you can really feel.
And today, the river spirits must be smiling on us.
The river's really changed today.
It's...much deeper, broader, slower running.
This really isn't what I expected at all.
The rapids we were anticipating haven't materialized.
We paddle on for another six hours and make camp.
I got anted in the middle of the night.
Leaf cutter ants came in.
Look what they did to my carpet.
They cut away really neatly sections of leaf, carry it back to the nest, and then they grow a fungus on it, which they feed to their youngsters.
I was kind of concerned that they'd be making off with my toothbrush and everything else as well.
Just carrying them off into nowhere.
Sleepless nights, freeze-dried food, and wet clothes are starting to take their toll.
We're all physically tired but doing our best to keep up our spirits.
I was having a really bad day yesterday and I got to the end of the day and I had my one pair of dry pants, like, my prize, my treasure, and I was putting them on, hopping on one leg, and I fired them, like a catapult, off my leg and into the river.
[laughter] Where they just sank down to the bottom.
We're preparing for a challenging day on the river.
We've covered most of the distance but very little of the vertical descent.
From the looks of things from the satellite imagery, we've got quite a lot of, er, altitude to lose today.
Which means it's steep, which means there'll be lots and lots of rapids.
In fact, pretty much constant.
Er, so, yeah, it's gonna be physical stuff.
We need to take all of these really conservatively and carefully.
Any kind of accident out here is unthinkable.
The river's dropping in elevation fast, creating challenging white water.
In the kit rafts, Ile and Keiran are first down.
I'm next in the lightweight but unstable kayak.
Ah, there's a big rock right in the middle of the river.
Avoid this one.
I've got back to the boat but I'm being sucked into the next set of rapids.
Ile, it's good.
I'll float down to the center here.
That was a hell of a ride.
[sighs] That came out of nowhere.
Let the other guys know, jackets!
The rest of the team make their way down, carefully avoiding the submerged rock that flipped my boat.
[Steve] Paddle, paddle!
Hard, hard, hard!
We regroup at the bottom to take a breather.
Little bit annoyed with myself.
To be the one who takes a swim is not really acceptable.
Or to be the one who goes down it without a life jacket.
Also not ideal.
I feel pretty beat up today, actually.
Feel like I've had a bit of a hammering.
But we're not out of the woods yet.
The rapids have sped us to within striking distance of our exit point.
But the satellite data also shows we still have a long way to drop.
[Steve] We all wade downstream, hoping to see what we're up against.
Do you think down at the far end of this little island bit might have a good view down and out?
[Steve] The figures are confusing.
Around the corner and out of sight, it's as if the river falls off the face of the Earth.
Is it big?
[Steve] We leave our boats and hack down the riverbank to get a better view.
What we discover is beyond our wildest dreams.
This is absolutely immense.
What a place.
This is a waterfall that is not mapped, Steve!
I don't believe it.
This is completely new.
We haven't seen these falls marked on any maps.
All of that sweat, all that hard work, all of the pain to get here and see this.
That's what it's all about, isn't it?
You think you would see it from flying over.
[Steve] Having dedicated his life to exploring his country, it's only right to let Ile do the honors.
Do we have a name, a name that we can give the falls?
[speaks Saramaccan] -What does that mean?
The biggest falls.
It really is surprise for me.
It really is.
[Steve] The falls cascade over 200 meters and, from top to bottom, are 80 meters high.
It will now take its place as one of the largest waterfalls in Suriname.
Anyone who doubts that real exploration can still happen now.
Here's the proof.
It doesn't exist.
It isn't even on the maps.
Now we just have to get down it.
It takes a day to carry all our kit through the forest.
And after half a day's paddle, we reach the exit with Zand Kreek.
And we're back in known territory.
Nice one, buddy.
Nice one, Keiran.
What we've achieved is still sinking in.
There were meters of altitude drop that were missing.
And no one expected it all to come in one go.
To walk round the corner and see the river just dropping off the face of the Earth is a moment I'll never forget.
Even now, in our hi-tech age of satellite imagery, there are still discovers to be made.
And we've just put a waterfall on the map.
The whole team has agreed to call it Ile Falls.
[Steve] Finding something unique in the middle of the forest is every explorer's dream.
It's genuinely a new, unnamed waterfall.
It's the highlight of my career in expeditions and one of the proudest moments of my life.
♪♪ TO ORDER THIS PROGRAM ON DVD.
VISIT SHOPPBS.ORG OR CALL 1-800-PLAY-PBS ALSO AVAILABLE ON AMAZON PRIME VIDEO ♪♪