Testing Boundaries

The Last Canyon

This story is featured in the August 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.

Words: Hendri Coetzee
Photos: Greg Von Doersten, Chris Korbulic

Jaren Meehan

Jaren Meehan in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Our goal for the week was a first descent of the Ruzizi River, which forms the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. Due to some recent rebel activity, we cut plans to run the lower section which divides Burundi and Congo—it was flatwater anyway—and focused on the prize: 15 kilometers of what could be some of the steepest big-volume creeking in Africa.

About the only thing going for us was that the left side of the river belonged to Rwanda. A relative fortress of stability in central Africa, Rwanda’s army lacks humor and kicks ass, whenever and to whomever it sees fit. The other side of the river belongs to Congo. It’s a tense border, made more so by the presence of two strategic hydro stations. We were looking for a place to put in near the base of the second dam when a Rwandan soldier halted us. He refused to let us proceed without permission. We didn’t have permission because no one in authority wanted to take responsibility for something that made no sense to them. Being that we were in Rwanda, possibly the only country in Africa where a U.S. bill can’t negotiate and will offend if offered, we turned around.

After numerous dead ends and two days of delay, we were no closer to knowing who was qualified to give such permission. You might think that was reason enough to walk away from the project, but the goal of advancing river exploration in central Africa is always going to involve some bending of protocol, and the line was looking as blurry as ever. With a new dam proposed farther downstream and the area likely to remain on a political knife’s edge, we realized that this might be the last chance anyone gets to run the Ruzizi River. And we really, really wanted to paddle it.

The Ruzizi River

The Ruzizi River

I started to make alternative plans while waiting for the boys to return from a scouting mission with some hired motorbikes. When they came back bearing photos of monstrous rapids taken from the rim of a truly spectacular canyon, desire overtook common sense. Ben was keen and Chris was 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 precious little information on what we would find on the river. The greatest source of stability and sanity for hundreds of miles around, the almighty Rwandan army, had become an obstacle to be avoided. Their reaction, were they to discover us in a delicate area with bags full of cameras and no official papers, would be less than accommodating. Yet with all this on the table, I was surprised that I still wanted to have a crack at it.

The river would be enough challenge under any circumstances. With the added element of paddling it without permission, we all knew that we were on the line, possibly already past it. We promised ourselves that if any more complications arrived we would back down, pack up and go our way.

The plan was simple. We would go down to the river, nice and slow and as far from the soldier who had 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.

Coetzee in White Nile, Uganda

Coetzee in the Chutes, White Nile, Uganda

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 five minutes. We eddied out and waited a few minutes for hell to break loose. 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.

I thought I had been to most of the big gorges in Africa, but it turns out I’d only seen the known ones. To find myself in a place of such scale, yet that remains 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 3,000 feet above us, the river drew us ever deeper into the canyon as we kept a constant eye on the banks for trouble.

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, we let the hush of the river static fall over us, thick and comfortable in the narrow valley.

Photo by Chris Korbulic

Photo by Chris Korbulic

We spent the night under an overhanging cliff, waking sporadically to stare at the full moon and the silhouette of the mountains overlapping in the cut behind us. We rose with the sun to begin another big day. In a rapid below our camp, I changed my line to accommodate the camera—making the schoolboy error of not scouting first—and I paid the price. Being ahead of the boys, I knew that swimming was not an option and that made the beating easier to endure. As the day wore on more portages appeared, and in the whitewater I struggled with the unusual reactions of a heavy boat. It seemed a bit too fast or too slow most of the day. At times I was annoyed, other times I was scared. But most of the time, I would have rather been nowhere else.

To avoid detection from possible soldiers downstream, we took out at the last big rapid. An army of impromptu porters appeared, eager to carry our boats out of the gorge along what seemed to me a challenging route. Three-quarters of the way up, a storm unleashed, dragging a curtain of water toward us through the warped valley. As hard, warm drops trashed at our little selves and a pair of goats, we stood precariously on an unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa.

For once my mind and heart agreed: I would never live a better day.

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