As I licked my dry lips and carefully checked that my spray deck was on properly, I had the feeling I might be doing something I should not. I pushed through the doubt and when I finally shot out the bottom of the rapid I was happy I did. It was just paranoia after all.
Two nights later another doubt surfaced as I lay safely in my sleeping bag. This time about running a proposed ferry above Murchison falls, a move I thought I could do in my sleep. I put it down to too much coffee and ignored it.
The next morning, my mind occupied with logistical issues, I hardy gave the matter anymore thought and was just about to put in when Ben called me over to look at the line again. Either it had changed, or we had all misread it the day before. From a different angle it seemed near impossible. It is doubtful I would have made it and the consequences would have been fatal.
It is hard to know the difference between irrational fear and instinct, but fortunate is he who can . Often there is no clear right or wrong option, only the safest one. And if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home in Jinja. Too often when trying something no one has ever done, there are only 3 likely outcome: Success, quitting, or serious injury and beyond. The difference in the three, are often forces outside of your control. But this is the nature of the beast: Risk.
Anyone who is good at what they do, be it marketing, sports or hairdressing will tell you they trust their instincts. There are rational explanations for people making the right choices based on information they could not have known beforehand but only because we live in a rational world. If you chose this option and believe that all that all there is to know is already known, then that is your boring truth, keep me out of it. Whatever the real reason, I think we all agree that people who can go successfully beyond facts are the ones who excel in any, and all fields.
There are ways to sharpen these skills, such as practicing to trust your feelings. Personally I have found meditation extremely helpful but I am yet to find a definite answer on when to choose fact over instinct. But due to necessity I am often forced to choose none the less.
Never has this been more so than over the last week.
Our goal for the week was a first decent of the river that forms the border between the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Due to some recent rebel activity, we cut plans for the last 80km between Burundi and Congo (it was flat water anyway) and focused on the prize, 15km of what we believed could be some of the steepest, big volume creaking in Africa(meaning: more water going over more rocks at a faster speed). About the only thing going for us was that the left side of the river belonged to Rwanda. (African politics 101: Rwanda, size of Wales, densest population in Africa, relative fortress of stability in central Africa, army with lack of humor that kicks serious ass, when and too whom they see fit.)
After a frustrating morning trying to find the exact put in at the second of two hydro stations, we were halted by a soldier who refused to let us proceed without permission. Given where we were, a reasonable request. We would have loved to have had permission, but no one wanted to take responsibility for something they could not grasp. Being possibly the only country in Africa where a US bill can’t negotiate and will offend by trying, we got back in the car.
After trying several avenues, and two days of delay, we were no closer to knowing who was actually qualified to give such permission. Enough reason to walk away from the project, you would think. Unfortunately the goal of advancing river exploration in central Africa was always going to involve some bending of protocol and the line was looking as blurry as ever. With a new dam proposed to be built and the area likely to remain on a political knifes edge, we realized that this might be the last chance anyone gets... That and we really, really wanted to.
I knew as expedition leader that ‘want to’ was probably not enough and after being blown off by the mayor, I started to make alternative plans as I waited for the boys to return from a scouting mission with hired some motorbikes.
They reported that the locals seemed calm enough and after seeing photos taken from the rim of a truly spectacular canyon and monstrous rapids, desire took over common sense again. Ben was keen and Chris undecided.
As leader I would have the final say but for once it was a decision I did not want to take. We still had preciously little info on what we would find down there. Our greatest alley, the all mighty Rwandan army had become an obstacle to be avoided, their reaction to us found in a delicate area with bags full of cameras and no official papers was expected to be less than accommodating. If caught we would be on our own, unable to drag the names of our ‘friends’ into our mess. With all this on the table, and my mind made up, I was surprised that I still wanted to have a crack at it.
The river and the area would be enough challenge under any circumstances, with the added element of doing it without permission we all knew that we were on the line, possible past it, and we had not even started yet. We promised ourselves that if anymore complications arrived we would back down, pack up and go our way.
The plan was simple, we would go down, nice and slow and as far from the soldier who stopped us as possible. Unfortunately the only put in we could find was within sight of the dam; and as soon as we were on the water, we could see people watching us from there.
This really should have been the end of the trip, but I was again surprised on how easily we decided to run the first drop and then see what happened. The river was beautiful but I have walked away from beauty for a lot less and rationally should have done so again. My mind was spinning with the decision, the repercussions and the consequences but strangely inside it felt right.
So we went.
The first rapid lasted 5 minutes, we stuck around for a few minutes waiting for hell to break lose, when it didn’t, we did another rapid and then another and another. The whitewater was everything we had hoped for and more. The rapids flowing into one another in uninterrupted continuity.
Our suspicions of the locals lessened as an ever growing mob cheered and encouraged us down the river. Once they realized what those plastic boats were capable of they even started making suggestions on how to approach future obstacles.
I thought I had been to most of the big gorges in Africa but it turns out only to the known ones. To find myself in something of that scale, almost unknown, was worth every drop of sweat, every public bus ride, every fly infested nowhere border town I have invested time in, ever. Dwarfed by lush green mountains rising up to 3000ft above us, we were drawn in ever deeper with a constant eye on the banks for trouble, by the river with every foot of is relentless gradient.
Only one portage was required on day one, and the three of us quickly fell into our roles, leapfrogging, filming and scouting without instruction. Keeping an eye on each other, but hardly ever talking, the hush of the river static thick and comfortable over us in the narrow valley only occasionally broken by short sentences of appreciation.
We spent the night under a overhanging cliff, waking sporadically to stare at the full moon and the silhouette of the mountains overlapping in the cut behind us rising with the sun that signaled the start of another big day.
Below our camp, I changed my line to accommodate the camera, making the schoolboy error of not scouting around the corner for the variation and paid the price. Ahead of the boys and knowing that swimming was not an option, made the beating easier to handle, but being rag dolled in a fully loaded Creek-boat is an experience I found unpleasant.
More portages appeared on day two and I was struggling to get to grips with the unusual reactions of a heavy boat, being a bit too fast or to slow for the majority of the day, at times I was annoyed, at times I was scared, but most of the time I would be nowhere else.
To avoid detection from possible soldiers downstream, we took out at the last big rapid. An army of impromptu porters were eager to carry our boats out what seemed to me a challenging affair. ¾ up, the storm unleashed, dragging a curtain of water towards us through the warped valley. As hard, warm drops trashed at our little selves and a pair of goats,
we stood precariously on a unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed,
I would never live a better day.