Kayaking Africa: Down the Mysterious Rusizi River

Ben paddles below crowd
The following dispatch is from extreme kayaker, Ben Stookesberry, a member of the First Ascent kayak team. They are currently on an expedition in Africa to make a first descent of the Lukuga River.

Rusizi River: The Great Connection
Six months ago, when trip leader Hendri Coetzee first mentioned a "waterfall-strewn river that flows from Lake Kivu to Lake Tanganika" over a muddled Skype connection, Chris Korbulic and I became obsessed. This was the chance to be the first to navigate a major headstream of the Congo basin that joined two of Africa's Great Lakes. While the main goal of the expedition was to make the first descent of the 200 mile long Lukuga River that drains Lake Taganika into the Congo, making the first descent of the main inflow to Tanganika would be an amazing bonus.

Big ones on Rusisi
Google Maps/Earth is the number one tool of the modern expedition kayaker; not more than a minute after Hendri's intriguing suggestion, Chris and I were looking at high res satellite photos of the crux canyon of the Rusizi River. The images showed long white streaks locked into a deep canyon, indicating one to two-kilometer sections of cataracts that dropped over 700 meters--more than 2300 feet--between two of the deepest lakes on the African continent. (See image of the Rusizi above.)

But there was a problem. No matter how far we zoomed in, a pesky yellow line kept rendering and re-rendering the course of the river: an international border. And not just any international border, but the one that separates the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from Rwanda, and further south, the DRC from Burundi. Over the following months of planning, Hendri penciled, then erased, and then re-penciled the Rusizi onto the itinerary as information about crossing the border reached Hendri's home base on the White Nile in Uganda from the Upper Congo.

IRC Security Briefing: Bukavu, DRC
To be honest, I understood very little of the potential ramifications of an attempt on the Rusizi until a few days ago when I was in a security briefing from the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

"Last week at least 25 cadavers were pulled out of Rusizi river in Burundi" the IRC's Swiss-born security attaché said. "I would highly recommend that you avoid the Burundi section of river. If something happens out there, there is simply no recourse and no turning back." With that, he looked at us with a wide-eyed stare that seemed to probe us to make sure that what he said was understood.

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