Friday, November 26, 2010

Feelings, do they make you soft?

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.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

another statistic

Instead of leaving Goma a big old ferry, we packed into a bathtub toy with 16 other people, all substantially bigger than anyone of us and dressed a whole lot lauder in Congolese fashion. Once wedged in, we skipped across the lake, bouncing from wave to wave and bombarded with Lingala music for two hours until we reached Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu. From first impression it seemed more of a functional city than Goma, with vehicles other than NGO and UN zig zagging the crumbling roads and muddy strips.
It is unbelievable but entirely possible that Bukavu has seen even more misery than Goma, in 2006 it was overrun by rebel forces, who proceed to try and rape every woman in the city, giving it the dubious distinction of ‘rape capital of the world’. Security has improved but remains fragile. Rumors suggest that 3 weeks ago, the same rebel group, now incorporated into the Congolese army, took the airport from DRC and UN soldiers, in a effect show of power
Our indispensible partner in this ambitious project is the International Rescue Committee, they are the largest NGO in Congo and this is their biggest base. They run 4 programs from here, the largest of which is a community driven reconstruction project(helping communities to help themselves) that has a budget of 160m $ and is estimated to benefit 1.8m people. In most communities, villagers have chosen accessible drinking water as their second highest need after education. Clean water is a real crisis, only 15% in rural areas and 42% in urban centers have access to clean drinking water and the fact that they still chose education as their top priority says a lot about Congolese desire to improve their lot.
Before you, like me ignore this statistic, you should realize the following. Waterborne diseases are the biggest killer of children under 5, and half of the world’s hospital beds at any given time is occupied with its victims. In the countries on our route, clean drinking water sounds harmless compared to say, civil war, but as I am fast learning the struggle to obtain clean drinking water is one of the mayor obstacles that prevent the development that could lead to more stable societies.
To see firsthand what the crisis is about, we drove for hours through rolling green hills with many little streams trickling into the valley below. Water seemed the least of anyone’s problems. The area’s outside Bukavu remain in danger from the many rebels armies hiding here, but superficially everything seemed rather idyllic, apart from woman my mother’s age carrying loads I would struggle under. Noticeable hardly man could be seen carrying anything at all.
Our destination was a few neat huts build on the side of yet another hill. Once we stepped out of the car we were cheered until we sat down in the town hall/ church, a dark building with holes for window and  well worn wooden benches. We had come to witness the opening of a simple water system, the project had cost only 50 000$ and being gravity fed means it has little maintenance. It should be supplying water to 3000 people for the foreseeable future. Another useless statistic, if you like me don’t know what life is like without water at you every convenience.
At first I was puzzled by the passion with which the village sang the national anthem and their allegiance to a government that has not changed a water pipe since the Belgium’s left 50 years ago but Congolese are proud to be Congolese, and I assume that the passion was for mans believe in ideas and his need to belong to something larger, instead of to their nonexistent leaders.
The speeches were above my struggling Swahili, but touching because of the people who stood up and spoke. The pride of the very poor, perhaps victims for most of their lives to forces out of their control, for the first time had a hand in accomplishing something concrete.
What drew my attention most was the woman. It is disturbing how vulnerable I know or believe them to be. My thought kept going back to the security briefing we had earlier in the day. Fresh social unrest has broken out just South from here, full military operations, that will no doubt lead to the scattering of militia and the pillaging of every local community in their path. Our own trip down the border river, the Ruzizi, is in jeopardy because of the new development but we get to chose whether we would like to be brave, they just have to pray another storm will pass.
There can be few places worse to be a female. The fact that perhaps points this out best is that in Bakavu there is a hospital that is the world leader in vaginal reconstruction for rape victims. Try to forget that statistic. By all rights woman here should be quivering in the corner and not be organizing committees to improve their daily lives. Clean water is fundamentally a woman’s crises, because it is them that have to expend the physical effort to carry 40lt, spending a minimum of an hour a day fetching water from often unclean sources, or even more draining, caring for their sick children due to waterborne diseases.
By allowing them to chose water as a priority and giving them the opportunity to participate in the realization of the project, not only does it free up hours in every day to spend on income generated activities but you empower a very important part of society and perhaps start to address the very reason this place is in such a mess in the first place.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

nobody panic

On every mission there are moments that have the potential to stop it in its tracks, moments with consequences so monumental even a spoon of Nutella won’t cheer you up. Sometimes they are associated with danger, more often they are logistical. When the immigration officer in Goma handed us back our passports with visa’s annulled and entry denied, we were looking at such  moment.
Expeditions should not have many rules, but since there is nothing common about sense, some have. Our only rule is jokingly quoted but of the utmost importance. “ Nobody panic” Our visas from the embassy in Kampala were worthless to anyone apart from the Congolese embassy who made 550$ from the ink squares. The new regulation, unbeknown to all but the border post, was that you had to get your visa’s issued in your country of origin. As the official told us to return to Rwanda, we instead stood around in the rain. What she did not know, was that we were going to get into the Congo, I just wasn’t sure how.
We threw ideas around to minimize the damage and were just about to cut our losses in Kivu province, with the hope of trying another border post further south,15minutes
later the door to the Congo opened slightly wider as we pushed 850$ through the crack. Apparently we could get a Special passes, granting us the pleasure of 7 days in the not so Democratic republic of the Congo. When asked about the chance for an extension once inside, we were told that” There is always a chance”
We thanked them for the opportunity but a verbal thanks was not what they were looking for. Another 100$ and we had our Special passes issued.
In an effort to help us get our budget back on track Bryce offered us accommodation at the IRC. It was close, but we made it their in time to watch the second half of the Springboks, Wales rugby match. Finishing of our day in the unexpected surrounding of a beautiful house overlooking lake Kivu.
Goma is special, apart from having possible the worst political mess in the world and being surrounded by some of the most unpleasant armed group you could imagine, it sits on the banks of a lake filled with poisonous gas, capable of killing every living thing in the vicinity if triggered to bubble to the surface. A lake in Cameroon, 2000 times smaller, filled with the same methane, was triggered by a landslide and wiped out the entire neighborhood. Goma has landslides but that is nothing to worry about compared to the volcano. Goma is built on the slopes of Niyarongo, in 2002, She spilled into the city, leaving 120 000 people homeless but thankfully did not turn the lake over.
I had been wanting to see it since I first visited in 2001, but security in the outskirts of town changes like the weather. This time round, the line to the top seemed open and under armed escort we made for the 3000m cone. Getting to the top, we could hear the lava churning down below but the cloud of CO2 (its releases as much as the entire USA) obscured the actually pool. After eating the 200th can of tuna on the trip with some crumpled bread, it finally opened up, at first just a slash of red, but as night settled visibility grew. Feet dangling over the very edge of a crater 3km wide and 2000m deep, we looked into a pool of Molten lava( love the world molten) perhaps 700m in circumference. Everyone can watch a camp fire for hours and some find equal pleasure in watching water run, for hours we watched the combination of the two, imploding and exploding on itself. The venue was breathtaking and the view unbelievable, as we watched the earth’s core bubbling up.
We set our bivey’s set up meters from the rim, on the only flat spot available and possible the windiest place in Africa. With wind gust of up to 1ookm/p(entirely made it figure) it was possible the coldest I have been for quite some time, since I had just come of a glacier last week, I mean it was freezing but that mattered little, somehow it might even have added to the experience. The guards tents was flattened repeatedly until they eventually gave up and simple rolled themselves up in it. I admit to moments when I felt I might be blow of the mountain but for the most part I loved being wind blasted on the side of a crater boiling  with a power I cant comprehend.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I would not have thought it possible to start a day with a genocide museum and having hope for mankind by sunset. But such a day it was.
Rwanda 1994 stands us a low point in human history. Over a million people killed by their neighbors, family’s, and friends in a 3 month orgy of horror. 20 people per minute, slaughtered up close and personal.
Here every grown up has a story, either as a hunter or as the hunted. The museum sates that 5% chose not to take part and 5 % chose to act heroically. For some reason this statistic stands out more than any others. Perhaps because of what it tells us about our specie and its obedience to the statuesque and authority. If you think your society will behave differently I suggest you read the Migram experiments and then ask yourself if you can still be sure.
I tried my best to absorb every story, every quote and every picture inside that dark building, not because I wanted to but because I felt I had to, to at least see what we are capable of, even if I could not understand it.
In the afternoon we had interviews scheduled that I would rather have cancelled. One of the reason we came to Rwanda was because it is one of the success stories of the continent, but miraculously as the turnaround appears it seemed to matter little in the face of where they came.
Hiowever, with every interview, my admiration for the people and the country grew, not despite of the Genocide but because of their reaction to it. Rwanda is a society in a hurry. They have experienced rock bottom and have vowed never again. Rwanda has risen from the asses, to become a regional leader, more importantly it has done so by being realistic. Government strategies are built on the best of African culture and not Western Ideology. Politicians are held responsible to their voters by contracts and corruption is almost unheard of.
This is no utopia, this is not even a free society, there are soldiers on every corner, and party politics, inevitable based on tribal allegiances, are suppressed. It was hate propaganda that sparked 1994 and free speech today is not allowed. The first stage in oppression is a division of ‘us and them’. Once we believe that they are not like us, we can look down on others, next we can believe that they don’t feel like us, once we cross this bridge we can we start to hurt others. Here the party line is: There is no more Tutsi and no more Hutsi, only Rwandans. The hope is that the very real divide can be suppressed long enough that the new generation might forget about it or realize its true insignificance.
The measures can be classed as oppressive. It would be easy to look for faults in the new government, there are many. At our core we are all the victims of like and dislikes based on marketing/ propaganda. If more governments would stand up for the right thing instead of playing on emotions, Africa could be a better place. I don’t know if this could work anywhere else and under any other leader.
President Paul Kagami is no Nelson Mandela, as far as world leaders go he probable has more blood on his hands than most. My opinion is a murky reflection in a mess I will never understand, but it seems to me, no one else could have resurrected the corpse of a society he freed from the greatest horror of our time and rebuilt it in such short time.
How you judge’s improvement is a matter of opinion, I use a simple measure. Is it a better place to live under the current regime that it was before? In Africa this can normally be measured on the most basic of human needs. Security, when you don’t have it, it is all that matters. It is impressive that Rwanda is now one of the safest countries in Africa, but to measure Rwanda by this is inadequate; anything apart from total annihilation of the population would be an improvement. In a country with just about every challenge that could face a nation, perhaps the best measure that can be used is that it is a place where everyday people can be optimistic.

Friday, November 12, 2010

the death of logic

After 2 weeks of experience bombardment we stopped in Kisoro, Uganda for a break. Apart from being 30 minutes from the border with Rwanda it was also a chance to catch up with an old friend. A few things had changed since our last meeting nearly 10 years ago, Kidd had recently got married and added a Phd before his name, I had less hair.
I knew we would be welcome at his house but was reluctant to call for help when our dirt track through the jungle became a dead end behind a truck jacknifed across the road. The offending driver was looking glumly at the edge of the cliff, the twisted truck and thinking the same thing as me “ this doesn’t look good”. The great white explorer’s contribution to the situation was to point out that he should have know better than to try this road with something that size. Our driver Tabu took a more helpful approach. Lucky for us, he has the rare kind of physical and mental presence to walk up to hundreds of unknown people and take charge. I met him 3 hours earlier when I flagged him down by the side of the road. Since then I learned he has 21 children, he was from the warrior Acholi tribe, he served in Idi Amins army as an intelligence officer, he loved Uganda and most importantly, he used to drive trucks in Mubutu’s Congo. In other words, he played in the super bowl for digging out trucks.
Within 30 minutes Kidd arrived at the other end of the jam. Bringing the only safety equipment that makes any sense in a situation like this, 5 liters of red wine. If we were going to be there for the night we might as well enjoy it. We had hardly shook hands when the trucked moved. Before anyone else even knew it was big enough, Tabu slipped through the gap between cliff and truck, firing up the hill with his checkered minibus, 5 kayaks on top, as if he had just entered the Central African rally championships. Kidd and I delayed conversation as we tried, unsuccessfully, to catch up in the slippery, potholed, darkness.
Eventually after the first shower in over a week I got to sit down with my old friend in front of the fire place. It seemed as good a time as have my first drink in 10 months. A hilarious evening of inappropriate tales, exaggerated adventures and good natured abuse of each others countries. Chris took story of the night with The Indian Scarf blowing my Cannibals in Congo and Ben’s paramilitary in Colombia out of the water.
The youngest and quietest member of the expedition is turning out to be a dark horse. On first impression, from all the people who climbed of the plane that night in Entebbe, I felt most comfortable with Chris. His eyes project a stillness, which makes it all the funnier when his ‘darkside’ does surface.
Our rest day turned out to be just as amazing as any day of adventure we have had so far. We all know that there are few things as precious as old friend so i would like to talk about something else. The forgotten art of Hospitality. For two days, me and the boys, were showered with an abundance of it.
In the North of Sudan people don’t say thank you, they say you are welcome, as if giving is the pleasure and not taking. The Kidd family believe in the same mindset. It was never a case of counting how much they had already done but instead of how much they could do.
I owe a dept to them and all the other Samaritans who have taken me in during my travels, givers that will might never blog, that you will likely never hear of even if they have stories surpassing my own. If it was not for the selflessness of people like them, not only would my life not have been possible but it would not have been nearly as pleasurable.
Expedition’ing is in the end a humbling affair, we come in with the cameras and the death defying stunts but what do any of these things really count for in the daily life that we are all forced to life at some stage or another. It is the people who can turn everyday into a chance to give, to laugh or to experience that are the ones we should strive to be like. They are the ones who have “made it”.
I would like to close my scribbling with my favorites two quotes of the week, they followed each other in close proximity.
The customs official as we left Uganda for Rwanda wanted paperwork for our kayaks, the first occasion any of us have ever been asked for this anywhere in the world. I pointed this out to Customs to which he replied
“ How many countries have you been too?”
The number 18 popped into my head
“ Me to” he says and then points at his computers screen.
“ You tell me where is this?” Leaning back and being all proud of himself.
Ben looks over his shoulder at the family picture taken in front of the London Eye
“ Oh wow, how nice, is that your mother”
As the official turns smilingly to Ben, Chris adds
“ Your logic makes no f…… sense”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Out of this world

Our week spent in the mountains of the moon was exactly that, out of this world. Hardly a hour went by without a ‘wow’ view and not a day without a complete change of scenery. Starting down in the lush jungle we climbed through bamboo forest, walked over plateaus with more variations of green, yellow and rusty red that I knew existed. We skirted past high altitude lakes until eventually the fairytale afro alpine zone with its giant mutant plant life was stripped to the bone by ice and snow, and only the wind and rocks remained.
In my life their has been some amazing walks of which the highlight must include a thousand or so  kilometers down the east coast of Africa and 3 months in virgin Congo forest , but walking has always been equated with physical exertion. It took me a few days to settle into the slow pace of the mountains but when I finally did I realized I have been missing a key component of the activity. The physical stuff is all well and good but perhaps for the first time in my life, I walked without anything to prove to myself and I was already where I wanted to be.
Seven years ago I was part of the first team to snowboard the glaciers of the equator, or more accurately the first man to roll down the mountain with a board strapped to his feet. Surprisingly 5000m was not the ideal place for my first lesson. This time I would be part of the first team to kayak Africa’s highest mountain range.
We had all kinds of weather and usually in a 2 hour period, but the heavy rains stayed away until our decent started. Within a hour of the last hut the path had been turned into a stream at times waist deep, giving us a final little challenge and preparing optimal water levels for us on the Bujuku river.
The only question was whether we would put in before or after the ridiculously steep section or after. My vote was for lower down, with thick jungle and a steep gorge I suspected long hard portages that would eat up days we could spend on the more promising propositions on our great African kayak extravaganza.
Ben bit his lip and tried not to look devastated when Chris also voted for lower down. As I am learning rapidly he is not one for half measures, an attitude that is as challenge for me as expedition leader tasked with everyone’s safety as it is inspiring on a personal and professional level. Where we put in it still looked plenty steep enough. It had been 3 years since I had kayaked on a creek and I was aware that I would be the weak link. A turnaround from the’ Murch’ section where the guys must have had similar doubts.
After a quick reminder that this is the life I have chosen, I adjusted my elbow guards, said a quick prayer and got ready to take my medicine. Watching Chris glide ahead like he was walking though the mall, made me feel even more agricultural. It was hard to tell if there were many medium sized rapids or just one really, really long one. What was soon clear was that we had discovered a classic. This was no gimick run, this was the real deal and made for kayaking.
Before I knew it I was high fiveing like I was born in the states and I might even have slipped in a rail grab out of playfulness and given an air punch but no matter what Ben and Chris might suggest, I did not say ‘awesome’ even if it was that kind of day.