Science and Survival
Searching for answers, and a way out, on Africa’s Congo

Words by Kyle Dickman
Photos by Skip Brown

The crowd is growing restless. The naked kids thronging around us have quit throwing back flips into the algae-brown water of a sheltered eddy and are joining in a pulsing chant: Muzunga, muzunga! (White men, white men!) Their voices grow louder when kayakers Trip Jennings and Scott Feindel win a high stakes game of rock-paper-scissors and head upriver for the test run of a mile-long stretch of whitewater known as Konsucko. This is the first rapid on the Congo River in 1,200 miles. We're just downstream of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's capital, Kinshasa, a city of 8 million. Four hundred miles north of us lies the equator. A thousand miles east, still in the DRC, the most lethal conflict since World War II simmers on. And 300 miles to our west, in the direction we're headed, is nothing but wilderness and the Atlantic Ocean.

The chanting doesn't hush until Scott lands off a 20-foot wave with a slap audible over Konsucko's roar. He's in the midst of a rapid a quarter-mile-wide and driven by enough water to fill 13 Olympic swimming pools every second. A dozen barn-sized waves shift and surge, sending recirculating strips of white froth skipping down their faces. One hundred feet separate each peak, and African swallows swoop off the air currents created by the breaks.

At the seventh wave Scott and Trip catch the surge wrong. They tuck nose-to-skirt as a wall of froth folds over them. The kids remain silent, then cheer when the kayakers surface halfway through the last trough and charge into an eddy rising and falling like a freight elevator. The kids wade into the river to hoist the victors, still in their boats, onto their shoulders. Their chant harmonizes into feverish song.

Ned Gardiner moles through the crowd and high-fives Trip. The 43-year-old research hydrologist is one of 14 scientists joining our group of six kayakers on this National Geographic Society (NGS) expedition, and three days in he's already layering his soft Carolina drawl with the slang of 20-something kayakers.

"Holy shit, dude," he says to Trip. "Your camera mount." A wave has mangled the quarter-inch hunk of steel attaching a video camera to his orange Wave Sport Habitat, while Trip himself is undamaged. His curly red locks are drooping out of his helmet and he's wearing a Lab-happy smile.

"Man, I'd hate to see that rapid when the Congo's really flowing," Trip says. The river, flowing at 1.25 million cubic feet per second, doubles in volume during the wet season. He turns to me. "You're going to love it." I'd reply, but my testicles are lodged somewhere in my trachea.

It's early July and I'm here on a mission to kayak 90 miles of whitewater last documented by the colonial explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who spent the better part of 1877 portaging the 32 rapids between Kinshasa and the Atlantic. But even more than the whitewater, our crew of Andy Maser, Scott Feindel, L.J. Groth, Skip Brown, myself and Trip Jennings is here to help solve an evolutionary mystery.

Thirty-two years ago, on the last day of a research expedition near our takeout, an opaque, blind fish floated to the surface—an apparent victim of rapid decompression syndrome. How did a fish with features generally found only in the depths of oceans evolve in a river? Scientists surmised that the Congo's massive flow has isolated small populations of fish behind impenetrable walls of currents, where they evolved to particular microhabitats in which they are trapped. Since 2002, when violence in the region eased enough to return, scientists have documented an additional 300 distinct species. They call the phenomenon on the Lower Congo a "species pump" and dubbed the wildly varied creatures "Darwin's fishes."

It's a fine theory, but no one has gathered enough hydrologic data to prove it. NGS's solution is to give our team of elite kayakers the instruments to measure the hydrology. In the stern of Trip's kayak is a depth-finder like those used to map sea floors, connected by a nest of wires to an 8-pound battery and a data-logger wrapped in a padded drybag. The system will measure the depths and current for the entire 90 miles but the greatest depths are expected to come from a 30-mile gorge in the middle third of the stretch known as the String of Pearls. Tomorrow, he and the other scientists will drive 14 hours around this inaccessible section, and then shuttle upstream in motorized canoes to our takeout at the base of the last rapid. There they will begin collecting fish with an electric stun device and measuring the depth of the flatwater in pirogues. We'll meet them five days later.

We're sitting in the glow of Tiki lights in the concrete skeleton of a building that our host assures us is Kinshasa's finest shrimp house. Jean-Marc Gauthier, DRC's French-born Minister of Public Works, has invited us to camp in the safety of his walled compound beside Konsucko and insisted on taking us to dinner. Between sips of ros, he tells us about the fishermen who are frequently swept into the whitewater and drowned. "I never thought anybody could survive the rapid," he says.