Extraordinary tale of canoeists who battled one of the world’s deepest canyons and fought for Poland’s freedom from South America told in fascinating documentary
Forty years ago a group of students from Kraków became the first people to traverse one of the deepest canyons in the world before using their fame to fight for Poland’s freedom.
Calling themselves Canoandes, in 1977 at Kraków university’s kayaking club ‘Bystrze’, the students hatched a plan to slip under the Iron Curtain and head to South America to go white water rafting.
Originally intending to explore the rivers of Argentina, by the time they had finished they had survived the 3,400 m deep Colca canyon river in Peru in handmade canoes, battled malaria, become local celebrities, opened a Solidarity office in Lima and initiated numerous fundraising events to send money back to the movement in Poland.
Their extraordinary tale has now been turned into a fascinating documentary called ‘Godspeed, Los Polacos’.
Directed and produced by Adam Nawrot and Sonia Szczęsna, the feature is a mix of interviews, old photos and footage shot by the Canoandes, alongside animations and illustrations.
Nawrot told TFN: “One of the most exciting things about this film for us is the fact that we use the story of the Canoandes as a vehicle to tell the story of Poland’s Solidarity movement. 2021 is the 40th anniversary of the Canoandes’ first descent of the Colca Canyon and the declaration of Martial Law in Poland, and we’re honoured to be able to share this history with new audiences and new generations.”
The story began in 1977 with the group facing being drafted into the military or a lifetime of hard labour in a factory for holding a series of kayak parades at the same time as Communist party official parades.
Deciding to avoid both, they planned instead to make a white-water rafting expedition to Argentina.
Even though passports were hard to come by and they had little money, the team of 10 began navigating the bureaucratic maze, and with the help of the students’ union and later the Polish ambassador to Mexico, Józef Klasa, they managed to get travel permits and funding for six months.
Landing in Tampico, Mexico in 1979, their first challenge was the country’s Rio Pescados river. Far more demanding than the type of rafting they had practised in Europe, in the first 30 minutes the group lost five kayaks.
Making their way to America where they earned enough to continue, when they returned to Mexico the following year, their visas had expired and they were summoned back to Poland.
Five of the group returned, leaving just Yurek Majcherczyk, Andrzej Piętowski, Piotr Chmieliński, Zbigniew Bzdak and Jacek Bogucki to continue.
With the help of a group of Polish acrobats from Las Vegas who they had met on their way back to South America, they obtained a new vehicle and set about their mission once again, becoming local celebrities in the process.
Invited to the wedding of the Vice-President’s daughter’s, they then received 10,000 USD and a letter of endorsement from the Mexican government in exchange for information about the rivers in Mexico that they were traversing.
In the months that followed the group passed through Rio Amacuzac, Rio Mixteco, Rio, Atoyac, Rio Balsas and Rio Aguacapa before leaving the country. They travelled through Guatemala, appearing on TV, paddled through Nicaragua and were the first to run the river of the now famous Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica after misidentifying it for another river.
And then came the Colca Canyon.
The team’s leader, Andrzej Piętowski, said: “We found the canyon, it was our mount Everest. Nobody had done it before.
“At a half way point in the river we saw that the canyon was disappearing among the big boulders, Piotr kayaked to us and told us that he had good news and bad news, the bad news was that it was not one but three waterfalls, ok what is the good news I asked. At the end of the river I saw about fifty metres of flat water, so somewhere we will be safe.”
After 17 days they made it to the other side. Battered and bruised, exhausted and hungry with only two dollars between them they had made history.
But instead of returning to Poland, they decided to instead support the Solidarity movement.
Martial Law had just been declared and so, using their celebrity status, they set up a Solidarity office in the Peruvian capital, Lima, began raising money, and established a network of offices across South America to defy the communist regime from half a world away.
But, after beginning to fear for their safety the group fled to America, where eventually they were granted political asylum.
Since its initial release, film has gone on to win numerous awards at festivals around the world and will now see its premiere on 21st September on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play and Vimeo OnDemand.