Kayaking Africa: Down the Mysterious Rusizi River

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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.

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.

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.

Having grown up on the contentious border of South African controlled Namibia, Hendri knows all too well the very real dangers of a conflicted political boundary in Africa. He took the recommendation as a matter of course, but I was still dizzied by the comment.  Even after nearly a decade of expeditions to places like Zapatista-controlled Chiapas, interior Colombia, and Northern Pakistan I had never been confronted with a realization of this magnitude: we are kayaking in an active war zone in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Politics and Kayaking
Since leaving Uganda two weeks ago, we had shed every piece of non-essential gear, and went about the business of packing all possessions into our plastic kayaks. I felt numb, still thinking about dead bodies in the river as I mumbled something to that affect to Hendri. He lost his patience. “Bro, if you wanted a straight forward kayaking mission, you should have stayed in California or gone to Chile or Norway. You should have known how dangerous this was going to be!”  I could tell that he was frustrated.

“You have trusted me,” Hendri continued, “to be the trip-leader here, and I need you to trust me now. I have always planned that if we are going to attempt this skit we go from the Rwanda side because President Kigame has things under control over there. We now know the Burundi part of the Rusizi is a no-go because the government there is still fighting with opposition elements on the Rusizi plane above Tanganika. We are going to have to continue to base our decisions on up-to-the-minute geo-political information, or else this past month of effort and our six months of planning won't be worth F_ _k!” 

Back to Rwanda
On the crowded and crater strewn drive down main street Bukavu, DRC towards the border with Rwanda, I finally caught a deep breath. I realized that this was the first time in recent memory where I have not been the trip leader, and handing over control to Hendri was uncomfortable. However this was not just a kayaking trip in the general sense, but an expedition across the heart of Africa that required the instinct and savvy only Hendri's experience could provide. There was so much more to be considered than just the difficulty of the river. His instinct early in the planning to contact and partner with the IRC had already saved the expedition, and it seemed clear as we emerged from the last of the DRC's mid-highway craters onto the smooth road in Rwanda that he was right again. After eight days in the DRC, the calm on the Rwanda side of things seemed palpable.

But if that were all it took to put on the river, this wouldn't be a first descent. At our planned entrance river at a small aging hydroelectric facility, an armed Rwandan soldier greeted us, demanding official permission to enter the river. Even with Hendri explaining–first in Swahili then in slow English–that he had already kayaked on the country's other border with Tanzania when running the headwaters of the Nile River, the soldier was unconvinced, and wouldn't use his massive two-way radio to double-check. “Are you sure…” questioned a half joking Hendri. The now insistent armed guard redirected us into vehicle, and to my dismay away from the river. On the contrary Hendri beamed, saying, “And I was worried this was going to be easy.” 

Class V Permission

Even with a weeks worth of pleasant experience with Rwanda, I was apprehensive as we rolled into a remote village high on the canyon rim in order to scout the river.  Yet even in this remote, extremely poor village the entire village turned up to escort us to amazing views of the river below.

“The people want to tell you that they are so happy that you are here,” commented an English-speaking youth. “This means our country is safe when you come here.” Humbled by the people and awestruck by the mighty, thundering river below, we planned to enter the river the following day.

Enter the Rusizi

As we approached the top of the rapids, more than 150 excited locals were jumping out of their skin to see us take on the first rapid that had been assured to us as “too dangerous” and “not possible.” (See top photo.)

We cooled off, quickly rolling our kayaks in the cool, transparent flow, and the crowd went wild, doubling in size.  Right away the river fell into a succession of rapids that can only be compared to a bedrock strewn North Fork Payette. While Hendri probed the first truly massive rapid, the crowd synced into a rhythmic chant, really losing it when Hendri shot cleanly around the corner and out of site. Chris went next as the crowd scrambled up the casava and corn-quilted hillside for the best views. Again success: around the corner and out of site. Entering the rapid, I was out of control and backwards, actually just hanging on. When I came out the bottom, I had no idea where Chris and Hendri were, and I instinctively signalled to the crowd with the same hand signals that I use to communicate with fellow professionals. Just as I realized that they should have no idea what my flailing hand movements meant, they signaled back and pointed upstream. A few minutes later, the pair emerged, paddling hard through the bottom part of the drop. I was baffled by this perfect communication between me and a group of people with whom I shared no common language.

Over the following two days in the majestic crack in the earth, we synchronized with the river and the people, paddling from Rwanda to Congo and back again: scout, paddle, portage and repeat. The massive cataracts were sprinkled with farmers and fisherman. Children trekked along the bank, realizing a Huck Finn dream with fishing poles and friends. In the end, we hiked two thousand feet out of the river canyon to the same community that Chris and I had scouted days before. We wanted to avoid complications that were sure to arise at the well-guarded frontier of the three African nations and to continue our our expedition overland into Burundi and to the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

From Inflow to Outflow: Across Tanganyika

(IRC border pick-up.)

Finally arriving at the IRC base in beautiful Bujumbura, Burundi, we heard more incredible stories from the aid group's post-conflict operations in the region. With Burundi's peace still very much in the balance, the IRC is helping reestablish refugees, infrastructure, and small business in the second most densely populated country in Africa. Especially here on the banks of the second largest (by volume) lake on earth, clean water is a scarce commodity as the lake water is simply not potable without secondary treatment. Of course in Burundi where civil war only ended four years ago, creating the infrastructure to deliver clean water is still a lofty goal; like so many Africans, people here still rely on long journeys with the ubiquitous yellow plastic jerry can as the only option for water.

In just a few hours time, we will board a cargo vessel and cross 270 miles down and across Lake Tanganyika through Tanzania and to the massive lake's singular outlet at Kalemie, DRC: the beginning of the Lukuga River.

–Ben Stookesberry, with photos by Chris Korbulic

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