“If we had known how dangerous these rapids were, we wouldn’t have taken them on,” says South African expedition leader Steve Fisher. Working with Americans Rush Sturges and Tyler Bradt and Canadian Benny Marr, Fisher spent four days in western Congo last October running the Congo River’s Inga Rapids, the world’s largest by volume. “It was easily the closest I’ve ever come to dying,” Fisher says.
With whirlpools 40 feet across, 20-foot waves (as big as the ones surfers ride at Maverick’s), and boils 15 feet high, this 50-mile stretch of rapids 150 miles from Kinshasa rages at 1.6 million cubic feet per second. That’s a torrent four times the volume of the Mississippi forced into a channel one-fifth as wide.
This part of the Congo has a long history of punishing people. A rattled Henry Morton Stanley completed a mellower section upstream in 1877 and called it “insanity.” A century later, famed British explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell refused to take on the Inga in a 40-foot motor raft. In 1985, the one party that did go for it, a seven-member group led by French adventure-TV personality Philippe de Dieuleveult, literally disappeared.
Fisher’s team originally included South African paddler Hendrik Coetzee, who was killed by a crocodile 11 months earlier on an upper section of the river (see “Consumed,” March 2011); Marr was recruited after Coetzee’s death. To handle the extreme conditions, Bradt, 25, designed special “chastity belts” to keep the paddlers’ spray skirts from imploding, and each man carried extra flotation devices and miniature emergency scuba tanks in their life vests. Fisher used his tank once, when he was dragged into a massive whirlpool and held down for more than a minute. “I was about to black out when I remembered I had it,” he says.
“We were all terrified pretty much the whole time,” adds Sturges, 27, who contracted malaria and then spent a week in a Portland, Oregon, hospital with flesh-eating bacteria gnawing at his elbow—an infection he has yet to fully recover from.
With the last piece of Congo River exploration now in the bag, Fisher says he’s proud but humbled by the accomplishment. “We’re certainly no greater than those other men,” he says. “We didn’t conquer the rapids. We survived them.”
Fisher’s hour-long documentary about the expedition, Congo—the Grand Inga Project, will be available from iTunes in June.