Kayaking Africa: Hippos, Crocs and the LRA

Nov 1, 2010
Outside Magazine

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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, running out of Lake Tanganyika and into the Congo basin. The kayakers began their journey on the Nile in Uganda and will follow Stanley's Route over land through Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and into the Congo via Kalemie. Then they will tackle the Lukuga.

Hendri Coetzee (pr. Coat-zee-a) is extremely blunt. Especially when it comes to setting up protocol on the White Nile: "Stay out of eddies…especially the small BS ones because there are three-ton hippos that will bite you in half. Stay off the banks because the crocs are having a bake and might fancy you for lunch. Basically, stay close behind me and follow my lead. Any questions?" Chris Korbulic and I had never been given instructions like this, but we knew this was Hendri's place to lead. The day before, Jesse and Darin bowed out of the descent due to concerns over the area's unmatched wildlife hazards. I was trembling with anxiety.

CK_Africa  019 In 1862, John Hanning Speke first saw the put-in for the White Nile at Karuma Falls. Two years later Samuel Baker and his wife nearly drowned in a hippo attack below 130-foot Murchison Falls, which Baker named after the Royal Geographic Society President at the time. It took another 130 years for the 50 miles of the Nile between these two landmarks to be successfully navigated. Over 10 harrowing days, Cam McClay and a team of White Nile rafting pioneers floated, portaged, and lined their way down the river, facing massive rapids and abundant wildlife. 

Hendri was a member of the second descent of this treacherous stretch of the Nile river. Like on many second descents, the team ran more of the river in about half the time. But like the first descent, there were too many hippo and croc encounters for real comfort. Unlike nearly everyone else who has attempted this river, Hendri was hooked, and returned to Uganda specifically to run his river as much as possible. In total, there have been nine known descents of this section of the White Nile River and Hendri has led five of them, including the only solo descent.

Congo Embassy
In 2004, when Hendri first ran the stretch that he affectionately calls "Murch," crocs, hippos, and class V were not the only objective hazards. Until 2007, this east-to-west trending dogleg of the Nile was the front line of a particularly nasty conflict between the Ugandan Government and the infamous LRA (Lord's Resistance Army). Nearly every local in the area has a horrific story from the humanitarian crisis that has just seen reprieve in the last three years, and many include kidnapping, mutilation, turning children into soldiers, and mass murder.

According to a native Ugandan named Charles, who is a field operative for the International Rescue Committee, (IRC) "The worst elements of the LRA are neutralized, and the people are only now returning home from the refugee camps. We are faced with new challenges every day." Again, clean water tops these concerns as the families return to communities where water supplies have been compromised after many years of conflict. 

Ben Stookesberry The IRC will be the key in shepherding our expedition through the most remote portions of the Congo and it is here, on the edge of post-conflict northern Uganda, where we make our first contact with the group. Founded by Albert Einstein to rescue and respond to the Nazi genocide, the IRC is the front line NGO when it comes to responding to the continent's many humanitarian crises. 

After a first hand account from Paulo, a local who was taken prisoner by the LRA, and many other stories from long time IRC field operator Charles, we expected a depressing scene at put-in, but just the opposite was true. There was something very positive about the fact that millions people had persevered despite experiencing horror beyond our comprehension. It put the river and its associated risks in perspective--nothing we were about to experience could compare to what these local Ugandans had been subjected to over the last two decades. In a few hours, my perspective of kayaking "Murch" changed from a risky, potentially lethal endeavor to an amazing opportunity to experience such a wild place, only recently freed from the shackles of human conflict.

  36 Hours in the River--Hippos and More Hippos
CK_Africa  029One of the main challenges in our upcoming Congo attempt will be military check points. We get a taste of this at the military controlled bridge at Karuma falls.  This is just another reason we are happy to be with Hendri: after an hour of heated discussion over our permits, the soldiers are all smiles and well wishing.

"You're not really going in that river?" A man in fatigues asked and then said, "They are relocating the big man eating crocs from Lake Victoria here so, you must be crazy!"

I silently agree with butterflies now ready to burst out of my gut.

The first rapid is one of the biggest I have ever run. A few hundred meters downstream, Chris says, "Wow, there really are a lot of hippos in here." I have not seen a single one. Just then a four-foot-long, prehistoric head lifts out of the water like some creepy Disney ride. I concentrate on Hendri and try not to freak out.  Over the next several hours, he leads us through a labyrinth of meandering channels where hippos emerge in every other eddy. 

There are more rapids, and many more hippos than I thought possible. Hendri comments casually that there are relatively few today and he expected hundreds more. I can only nod. The three of us spin in tight order towards the right bank. Two strokes in and Hendri is coming right back at me saying, "Time to go. Big croc coming." The river is like this for a while: continuous rapids confused by many channels and even more hippos. 

CK_Africa  022 After 20 minutes of lunch on a relatively safe midstream island, the hippos approach, and bully us on our way.  An hour later, the whitewater is back at full boar, and we are forced to eddie hop through extended bouts of serious class V. There was a rhythm emerging amidst the chaos of hippos and class V, and I could feel us all settle in, passing nearly 35 miles downstream in just 8 hours. As a grand finale to the day, we followed hippo-sized trails in the jungle to portage an unseen cascade. Hendri notes that hippos kill more people than any other animal, and that we should climb the nearest tree in the event of an encounter. Pulling his boat along a path as worn as the most trodden trail in Yosemite or Yellowstone, he calls to the animals like he is searching for a lost dog or wandering into a stranger's house: "hello…hello…here hippo hippo hippo." 

CK_Africa  024 Finding a hippo-free camp can be an issue, but after only a few attempts at hippo crowded beaches, we spot a beach on the opposite bank with no wiggling ears, blinking eyes, or sprays of water in sight. Half way there, a monster surfaces  one hundred feet to the left and I call to Hendri to make sure he's seen it. Of course he has, and probably many others that I missed. He charges for the beach. It's an incredible evening with an agitated mother and child lingering just off shore, followed by a sleepless night with the thought that they might storm the beach at any time. 

This close to the equator, dawn becomes the heat of the day in a matter of hours, and Hendri is quick to scold Chris and me for being slow out of our bivies. Right out of camp we tiptoe our way into an eddy where the river roars out of view. "It's the biggest pool drop on earth," Hendri says, "but the pools are the most common place to get chased by a croc." Downstream the river drops 60 -70 feet over a quarter mile through a series of incredible drops. Baboons dance through the trees along the bank and we pass a huge croc with it's mouth agape. We paddle in tight formation with few stops. The final stretch of huge rapids to our take out lasts for over a mile.  Within site of the take out, Hendri pulls into an eddy below a falls and has a close encounter with a massive hippo. It's close, but he's near enough to the bank to get up and away. The river is shallow here and it takes 15 minutes for the angry swimming bull to clear out down stream, but still we are forced to pass dangerously close.

The Falls
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We stop right where the Nile hits it's most spectacular falls on it's way to Sudan, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. In a brilliant display of perfect upstream erosion, the Nile goes from a quarter-mile wide rapid with 15-to-20- foot waves and spray, to a 20-foot-wide crack where the river drops over 130 feet into the Albertine Valley of the East African Rift. The force of water sends it 40 feet down and then 40 feet back up before roiling into a pool that writhes like the angry sea for a half-mile beyond the base of the drop. 

Alive and to the Congo
Someday I might try Murch again, but I am not really sure. I know we are all happy to rejoin with Jesse and Darin for our last stop in the Nile basin for a 10-day creeking mission in the Rwenzori Mountains.  This will be a historic attempt to be the first team to kayak in Africa's highest most mysterious mountain range: the Mountains of the Moon

--Ben Stookesberry
Photos courtesy of Chris Korbulic

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