The Democratic Republic of Congo is even more unpredictable today, and the Inga Dam, straddling a side-channel near the crux rapids, is the prized possession of a paranoid regime. It's not the sort of place where a helicopter, dozens of cameras, and a multinational team of hard men are welcome. Fisher worked for years to gain access. Officials struggled to understand the motives of these foreign interlopers in their tiny boats and bizarre costumes. And, not to put too fine a point on it, they worried that Fisher and his team would die on the river, causing a major diplomatic headache.
Words By Jeff Moag
Photographs By Greg Von Doersten
Steve Fisher knew two things for sure about the Inga Rapids of the Congo River: It's the biggest whitewater on Earth, and the last seven people who tried to run it had died in the attempt. The only mystery about the 1985 French expedition was whether they died in the river or at the hands of government troops.
It was a valid concern.
Before they even reached the Inga Rapids, Fisher nearly drowned during a practice session 150 miles upstream. "It was the only time I've ever thought I was going to die," says Fisher, who was held under for more than 60 seconds in the Kinsuka Rapid, which has about half the volume of Inga. The swim lasted approximately half an hour, carrying Fisher 1.7 miles downstream and severely testing his confidence. "I decided to take the rest of the day off, and the boys went straight back to the top of the rapid and do another run."
Fisher took it as confirmation that "the boys"—big-water chargers Ben Marr, Rush Sturges and Tyler Bradt—were the right team to unlock Inga. "Once you pull the trigger on a project like this it's a train that is going with or without you," Fisher says. Together with Uganda-based river explorer Peter Meredith and local fixer Boston Ndoole, Fisher had assembled a complex logistical machine with hundreds of moving parts lubricated by money. If the cash stopped flowing, the team could be left stranded. So in the hectic days before leaving for Inga, Fisher gave bank-signing power and explicit orders to a trusted friend: If Fisher were to die on the river, the friend was to tell no one, and keep paying the bills until the boys were safely home.
All of that was prelude to Inga, where the world's second largest river takes a hard right turn, dropping through seven major rapids over the course of about 15 miles. Here the Congo River has more than twice the gradient and about 50 times the average flow of the Grand Canyon's steepest section. It rushes downstream at up to 30 miles an hour, exploding into waves that pulse 40 feet high.
The team would spend four days in October 2011 descending the rapids and gathering on-water footage for The Grand Inga Project, Fisher's feature-length film about the expedition. Details of the first descent have been closely guarded pending the June 2012 film debut.
A helicopter provided full-time air support for scouting, filming, and a desperate last-chance rescue plan. The scheme called for Meredith to leap from the chopper and clip a rescue line to a potentially unconscious swimmer in the tumult of 1.5 million cfs. It was a long shot at best. In fact, just scouting from the heli proved difficult, because the kayakers had nothing in their experience to compare to the Congo's massive volume. Sections that looked benign from the helicopter revealed a decidedly different character to the boaters in the water.
"I would say that the Congo, without a doubt is the scariest, most dangerous thing I have ever done in a kayak," says Bradt, who holds the world record for dropping a 187-foot waterfall. "It felt like the river was literally trying to kill us at every single twist and turn."
The obvious strategy was to stay well clear of the biggest features, but the entire force of the Congo's flow constantly pushed the kayakers toward the impassable center of the river. "We had to plan our moves miles in advance," Fisher says. "We'd choose a line not because that's where we wanted to run this rapid, but we did it knowing that two miles downstream we'd have to be on the right."
On Hippo Island, where the 1985 team was last seen alive, the kayakers eyed a precarious line. "There was a move there that was possible," Fisher says. "But if four of us went, someone was probably going to fuck it up. And whoever that person is would die."
The team then spent the better part of two days working their way down the left side of the island, and attaining back up the right side. "We ended up doing about half a dozen must-make ferries just above the gnar-gnar, where if any of these ferries go wrong we're getting swept right down into that stuff," Bradt says. After six hours of brutally hard high-stakes paddling, the team arrived at a spot just 100 yards from where they'd started. That hard-won distance gave them the angle they needed to slip through one of the Inga's more harrowing sections.
The next day, the team faced a similar gut-check. With the majority of the rapids behind them, they had to negotiate what Fisher called the Mopane Worm—a massive, channel-wide boil above a potentially lethal rapid. The only way through the boil was on the right, and the only remotely viable line through the rapid below was on the extreme left.
Fisher and the boys studied the big ferry carefully, and agreed that if they timed the surge properly, it was a 50-50 proposition. They were right. The river allowed Fisher and Bradt to pass, while Sturges caught an untimely surge and returned to the right shore. Marr was caught in the middle, unable to complete the ferry and unwilling to give up.
"Benny had this epic battle, where eventually the heli came in behind him and started blowing him with the rotor wash," Fisher says. It wasn't enough. Eventually Marr turned downstream to take refuge on the last-chance island just above the rapid, where the chopper plucked him to safety.
Though two big rapids and a surprise whirlpool beatdown still remained, Fisher regarded the Mopane ferry as the Inga's true crux, because at least one kayaker had to make it in order for the team to claim an uninterrupted line. Fisher is acutely aware of the historic significance of descending the world's biggest rapids, but in the moment, he says, "I was just relieved that nobody had died."
Check out the trailer to the team’s epic film documenting the mission, The Grand Inga Project, below, and Visit IngaProject.com to support the filmmakers and purchase the DVD, which also includes Fish Munga‘s Halo Effect.