Capsizes and Crocodiles: Is this the Most Insane River Trip Ever?

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On a recent flying safari in Africa we piloted a BushCat, a low-slow nimble bush aircraft, from the Skeleton Coast of the Atlantic up the Kunene River running between Namibia and Angola. It is a wickedly wild river, one my former partner in Sobek, John Yost, rafted in 1992, and barely survived for the capsizes and crocs. Past the Baines Mountains, blue islands in a sea of damask sand, the river narrows into a slot gorge, and does a twist to reveal Epupa Falls. This cascade was on a bucket list of rivers and waterfalls I made when I was in my 20s, so it is a thrill to fly over it, and then double back and fly again and then again. It looks like a smaller, tighter Iguaçu, but without the walkways, crowds or lights, raw and remote. We land and check in at the Epupa Falls Lodge, nestled amidst a promise of Makalani palms and Baobabs, dangling over the liquid thunder of the main horseshoe falls.

There is a weak Wi-Fi signal here, and so I email John Yost to ask if kept a diary of his descent of the Kunene, which in my little aerial survey looked like certain death. This is what he sent back:

I hadn't read the journal I kept during the Kunene exploratory in the many years since I had written it. My memories of the trip were lost in the fog of the years and of other first descents. Half-way through my diary it came flooding back: The challenge, the stress, the exhaustion, the isolation. For me, it was the toughest trip of them all.

Financing rafting exploratories is an art. You can't just grab your 'yak and toss it on a local bus--the logistics are cumbersome and the costs high. The compromises made to get this one on the water resulted in a more problematic journey than the river itself warranted. U.S. and South African clients, a South African TV crew, Zambian guides and equipment, and an American boatman who'd never worked with us before are not the ingredients in any first descent recipe I would recommend.

Let me explain. The river, on the border of Namibia and Angola, is not unknown to South African sportsmen. Two canoeists tried an ambitious trip down the river in high water in 1961. Frequent comments like "So time and time again we had to carry the canoes and gear around boulders on the bank" and "We were forced to climb 700 feet up the mountainside . . . and it took the whole day to climb up and down to the river again" ("Canoeing down the Kunene", Willem van Riet, 1961) indicate that they walked more than they canoed the river, perforce skipping the gnarly bits, of which there are many.

Thirty years later a group of university students tried a section of the river but their trip was terminated by a drowning. Ours, we hoped, would be the first successful descent of the river on which most of the rapids would be run and the journey completed.

The idea for the trip came from one of the canoeists from '61, who had since become an accomplished whitewater man. He and some other South Africans got TV interested, but with only a tiny budget. They got meat donations from the Red Meat Board (!). They contacted Sobek for expertise and to help find the money to make the trip happen. I booked four paying clients and made arrangements with our subsidiary in Zambia for equipment and a couple guides, and it all seemed possible. Every other first descent I had done with Sobek included several veteran river explorers, but this one did not have the budget for anyone but me, thus our unusually unwieldy and under-qualified 18 person crew.

The recap: Me, the trip leader; James, a US rafting guide who qualified for the trip by paying his own way along; Saimon and Steven, Zambezi guides without experience on other rivers; Chris, Willem (the canoeist from '61), and John, kayakers; Henry, Dick, Ken, and Jon, US clients; Rob (a paddle guide from Capetown) and Roelof (Willem's brother); Glen and Dirk doing the filming; and Jonathan, Jane, and Jannie, South African friends.

The only rafting equipment available was rented from Sobek's Zambezi operation, where self-bailers were not yet in use, so we set out with four Avon bucket boats, twelve pinned wood oars of dubious strength, aluminum breakdown frames, and a ragged assortment of serviceable but unimpressive auxiliary gear.

None of that made me feel comfortable leading a remote wilderness Class V first descent. What bothered me most was the absence of my pards, of someone to help make the inevitable decisions critical to the safety and success of an exploratory.

I finished the second half of the journal. It was even worse than I remembered. I thought about making the diary into an article, a story for others, and I could not envision a more effective depiction of the craziness we experienced than the daily impressions I recorded on the spot. So I edited the diary and put my thoughts into compete sentences, and nothing more.

I hope you enjoy the story!

Thursday 6/11

Off to a strange start as somehow an oars breaks in flatwater! Since we started with one spare each this could be a problem. We camp in Angola side on grazed and populated (with Ovahemba and Ovamba peoples) river banks, in an area of dry sparsely vegetated hills. A bright moon illuminates ghostly trees with long twisted finger-like branches completely knotted with old dry vines, and the magic sounds of the African night lull me to sleep.

Pleasant weather with no clouds or insects--marvelous. The South Africans stay up late drinking "cane"--white lightning, loud and boisterous. I sleep fitfully, my responsibilities on my mind. Tough river, mediocre equipment, inexperienced crew, no one to discuss decisions with. It's all me. I looked at Willem's article from his high water canoe trip here, but it offers no help for our low water raft trip.

Friday 6/12

Our first rapid is a 12' river-wide falls with marginally runnable chutes not worth the risk in this situation. We line the boats on the left. Good rope work by the crew. We enter a basalt gorge with rocky Class II-III rapids & tight squeezes. James Carroll breaks oar #2. Soon after Steven puts a hole in his boat, so we pull off to patch & eat lunch. More meat for lunch. Meat everywhere! Steaks, sausages & ground beef for dinner, BF sausage, eight kinds of lunch meat, & bags of jerky & salami sticks.

More basalt & little rapids after lunch. Another oar damaged--split blade, so now just one spare amongst us! Very slow progress this day. At end of gorge is first real rapid--Class IV steep drop named Birthday Chute. I scout & run quickly to encourage others along, but with filming it still takes a while. Then 4 more hours of flat water to another Angolan camp. Drinking & noise tonight as we celebrate Chris' birthday. Much US-SA joking. Do Saimon and Steven feel left out?

We've seen fish eagles, hammerkops, pied kingfishers, goliath herons, several monitor lizards, monkeys on shore. Ralph anxious as we are way behind schedule, needing an extra day to get to Epupa Falls. Tomorrow we need to cover twice what we've been rafting. Ralph follows our progress bend by bend on our excellent laminated maps.

Sat 6/13

Great river day, starting with an encounter with three Ovahemba cow-herds, beautiful Hamitic-featured men wearing thin strands of woven metal of some kind, top-knots and pigtails. We row all morning in reasonable current, tying together & drifting during lunch, then entering a basalt gorge with small rapids & a sudden large drop. We stop on a basalt islet in mid-river to scout, but cannot as too many channels block us. The kayakers scout for us. We run two good-sized drops with holes, then float into a quiet pool with another couple drops at its exit.

Magical scenery of stone & water, honeysuckle-sweet smell from weed-vines with purple flowers along banks, wild fig trees, dense riverine vegetation. Interesting bird life everywhere. Enchanting.

The rest of the day alternates between small rapids, fast water through islets & channels, open stretches, & little meandering streams which the whole river divided into. Lots of palm stands, beaches tucked into rock coves, etc. We cover 55 kms, even more than we hoped for. The good current continues, and we have downstream winds.

We pass a Hemba settlement where an old woman, a beautiful young girl & a man watch us, all smeared in red clay and adorned with necklaces & elaborate hairdos.

Sun 6/14

Nice morning--small rapids through basalt shoals, open stretches of slow-flowing river, birds, etc. We reach Epupa Falls & the river drops out of sight, half into a narrow horseshoe of falls & half spreading out over the cliffs creating dozens more falls. Imposing, ungainly baobab trees decorate the fingers of land between the falls. The scene of palm trees & clear pools set off by red & black basalt, with a Hemba man throwing rocks to harvest palm nuts is classic.

The channel below the falls has three runnable rapids before a 20-ft high falls so we just portage it all for a kilometer along a herder's trail. All work hard & we get the gear down in two loads. We try to ghost boat the section below main falls, but the test boat hangs up in an eddy, so we roll up & carry the other boats. We camp, re-rig the boats, swim, relax, clean up, watch a moonrise over falls: wow! Tomorrow we expect the whitewater to start.

I have had ominous dreams of death and loss the last two nights, unusual for me. I guess I'm just uneasy from the pressure of this expedition. The whitewater skill level and experience of the guides is shockingly low for this river, but the group is top-notch. We'll just be conservative & take it easy & slow!

Mon 6/15

What a day! After 1 ½ hours of easy read & run the real rapids started. We ran a couple good-sized straightforward drops, then came to a spot where the river narrowed to nothing: The Keyhole. I ran first through a 6-ft-wide slot blocked by a stick. We wedged on the stick but managed to pull it loose then coax our boat the rest of the way through the slot, with the help of a line from a kayak. The other boats came through fine with the stick gone.

We pulled off immediately to scout the next rapid, Fingertip. It seemed runnable, and Saimon entered first, then James with me following. James & I came through with no problem, but Sai was pulled over to the side in obvious pain. He had lost the tip of his finger between oar & lock and torn it off. Dick cleaned & bandaged the wound & gave Sai pain medication. Rob will take over Sai's raft and Sai will walk the rapids.

We ran another good Class IV drop, then came to a certain V--Mainline--a big water run down the L squeezing between the wall & boulders while in big waves, then trying to make a cut either left to a steep drop or right to a cleaner passage. No one else wanted to go so I ran first & Steven followed. Once into the rapid it was too fast & narrow to even try to row. I parked the oars & was swept right over a rock pile, where the boat hesitated then slid off safely. The other boats followed & made it down the left without incident, including Rob rowing his first rapid!

Next up was Temple of Doom, a short but huge Class V with a center to left run trying to make a narrow & nasty chute left of an enormous boulder. The consequences of missing this tight move looked fearsome. Right of the intended chute was a knife-edged rock parallel to the current with water falling straight down off its backside & sieving off in a narrow channel between it & the boulder. Most of the river piled into the boulder creating two huge cushions then fell off to right onto a smaller rock. Very ugly! I wasn't willing to try first, so James did. He made a perfect run & came through the enormous hole at the bottom OK, but he & his passenger Henry jumped up to high five a bit too soon and were sucked back in. They were there for minutes, twice almost flipping as the boat was pushed up against the back side of the boulder. At last it pulled free but not before another oar was broken! No spares now.

Rob went next & convinced me to go also. He entered completely wrong, did nothing to help himself, rode up the knife edge rock & went over it but flushed out upright. My run was fine but I too got nailed by the keeper eddy, but threw ropes to the kayakers onshore to keep from being sucked back into the hole.

Immediately ahead we came to the worst rapid of the day, Powerhouse, a candidate for a VI. It was huge & long, ending with a collection of finger-like rocks blocking almost all of the river, with a nice channel with little water going into it to the right & a horrible narrow side-crashing strainer on the left into which most of the water moved. The entry was clear, but three large holes preceded the big obstruction, so making the pull the pull right would be sketchy. I ran first, alone in my boat, while the others watched. One of the holes stopped the boat cold, twisted me around & left me with only one oar. I shot left. The raft slopped off into the extremely ugly maw of the rapid. I was thrown from the boat, through the rocks & into a hole behind them, sucked deep underwater & regurgitated some time later not far downstream.

I was being pulled back towards the hole so swam away until safe, got out on a rock at the foot of the cliff, then saw that the boat was caught in the web of rocks. Soon it began shedding bags & their contents, including the medical kit. The kayakers & I were able to scoop some of this out of the water. The boat popped free & I jumped on as it floated by me, full of water. The oars were not on it & the kayakers could not get me to shore, so I was swept through another drop. The current then calmed & John nosed me to shore. I bailed with the empty med kit, re-rigged, restored the unbroken oars to working order & an hour later rowed to the other side of the river where the rest of the group were portaging their rafts.

Jane & Willem & Chris were going through the bags & laying food out to dry & carrying personal bags up to a campsite. My bag turned out to be OK, just a little damp inside, but others were soaked. Rob's had come open. He lost all his clothes but we saved some things (boots, sleeping bag, shaving kit). Most of the med kit was lost, but Dick has extra stuff stashed & thinks we'll be OK. The other three boats are still above the rapid & tomorrow we must deal with them! I hope that the pace slows as I am sore, tired and have blisters.

Steven cracked another oar in Temple of Doom, which we splinted with an oar clip and hose clamps, but we don't know if it will work.

Tue 6/16

We decided to ghost boat the other boats through Powerhouse. We lined one at a time to an 8-ft wide chute. The water drops down it smoothly onto a rock which turns it sharply back up, then shoots it out in a parachute-like blossom. The boats ran it fine & were pulled out below. The rest of the day was great. Class III & IV read and run very fun stuff, with some great holes and waves, including Digit, a simple but big drop, which was filmed. After rafting through Crocodile Alley & running the Class IV Early Warning and Alarm Bell we came to Bad Break, a very big drop of V+ size.

We all pulled over except Rob, who didn't make & got sucked into the maw, mangling his boat but fortunately injuring no one. His frame broke, a tube exploded, & the boat pinned flat against a wall by tremendous water force but in the end popped out upright. Very lucky. Rob still hasn't got the "pulling" instinct as he is a paddle captain normally. We scouted this rapid, a 15' drop over an enormous rock filling most of the river, with both sides smashing nastily into the gorge walls, and the center a toboggan with convergence waves hammering the boat as it shoots through.

As I pulled into the current & started turning the boat the right oar snapped off in my hands. Yikes! No spare . . . We drifted to the left & were absolutely buried by side breakers as we dropped down but emerged without pancaking against the wall as Rob had. We floated on through two more drops with no control & wedged between a rock & the right wall. We unstrapped the kayak, bailed & slopped downstream with one oar & the kayak paddle & pulled to shore at a beach.

Across the river they were calling for a doctor. Steven had hit the center run perfectly but was thrown forward & broke two fingers as he catapulted out of the boat. When we all assembled at the beach one hour later, we converted one raft to "paddles"--two breakdown kayak paddles, one Operation Raleigh paddle we found, a whole kayak paddle & a broken oar, redistributed the best oars among the other three boats & put Roelof on one row boat with Sai to advise him & James or myself to row through anything tough, while Rob paddle captained. Wow!! Talk about a weak crew . . . .

But here we are (alive), well-fed & ready for the rest of the river. We saw 5-6 crocs today in a stretch of basalt gorge. It was really incredibly pleasant rafting, with constant drops through beautifully fluted gorges, swirls, eddies, boils, etc. Saw a purple heron, a martial eagle, doves galore, dassies (rock hyrax). Made lots of miles & are almost back on schedule now. We will leave a boat & frame & any possible extra gear & Sai & Steven at Louw Schoemann's camp in 3 days, then sprint to the sea to meet our plane on the agreed day.

Wed 6/17

Saw black-faced impala (at a distance) & crows (white-breasted) & Ralph caught a tiny croc. Willem said we were out of the gorge and he was almost right. Somehow Roelof was ahead & floated through a blind drop that we should have scouted. The rest of us pulled off but it made me mad. Shortly thereafter a helicopter landed with the battery charger the TV people had left behind by accident. Ruined my day. They told us a big rapid was close ahead & were they right. Potholes, our first real portage.

The river is blocked by large basalt islands and falls in numerous small channels & one large one blocked by a river-wide monster keeper hole. We managed to land on an island in the middle of the rapid. I rowed to the right shore and ended up portaging there while the others carried down the island. John Lee kayaked back & forth with messages as we sorted things out. We got our boats back in the water only after arduous labor.

Finally we broke out of the gorge, lunching in a wide valley before going right back into another gorge. This one has sandstone layers, mesa tops, and some hoodoos. Fantastic Class II-III rafting, read and run with plenty of excitement for a couple hours. Starting yesterday we had been moving towards the Baines Mountains, big cliffed-out sandstone peaks named after an early explorer who walked through here. This gorge cut right through them and now we have peaks all around us!

We pushed on through flat water dotted with rapids & found a big camp with 360 degree vistas of peaks and a rapid to listen to. We are now just 50 kms from Marienfluss, so we might reach it tomorrow if we have swift water & no obstacles. We are moving more slowly as people wear down, & with five strong men on the paddle boat & Steven & Sai injured we are short on rowers to spell the guides. Roelof did very well in his first day, handling the Class II with ease & keeping his high energy level.

James is more a client than a guide & the film crew want to change boats tomorrow. Rob was sick with the flu today but guided the paddle boat anyway. What a ridiculously weak crew for an exploratory! I hope to tighten and lighten things up at Marienfluss, dropping off a boat, Sai & Steven, excess food & personal stuff, & some heavy film gear. We'll need to find new reserves of energy to make it to the sea, as the last section is supposed to be the most difficult.

We have been seeing a lot of Ovahemba, in little family villages, herding and just walking along the river. The men have shaped hairdos, some apparently with nets around the hair. Red mud caked on the 'dos gives some the appearance of red helmets. Others have buns piled on top of their heads. The women wear a single small nautilus-type shell on a cord around the neck, and today the ladies had conically tapering brass wire bracelets extending from wrist to elbow. They are bare-breasted, with leather skirts. They have all been friendly & nonplussed at our UFO-like sudden appearance. I guess between military & dam-related activities and such they've seen enough passers-through though.

Thu 6/18

Willem's recollections of his trip seem to have all blended together, leaving an overall accurate description behind without the details. Today was supposed to be a reasonably easy distance-covering day with one big rapid (marked on the map no less). As we left camp we ran four consecutive Class III's without a break in between & entered another shallow basalt gorge for an hour of Class II-III fun, emerging into a striking geologically jumbled section, with severe uplifting. All kinds of rock appeared--sandstone, narrow-bedded black & green shale, sedimentary conglomerate, an intrusion of lava, strange tuff-like white rock inter-bedded with something black, then briefly basalt again.

Later we entered a deep sandstone canyon, very Southwestern. Desert varnish polished the rocks to smooth shiny blacks & reds, with white blocky sandstone formations & steep cliffing. Dry creek-bed side canyons show some slick rock type polishing. It gets very narrow & sheer, a little scary as the current pushes along and small rapids dot the way. Big waves & holes keep us nervously alert, but the place is magical, cool, shady, beautiful. Near mid-day we sight-run a couple Class IV drops one after the other, and Roelof, who is brand new at this, trashes in a hole at Initiation & everyone on his boat swims including the videographer & his assistant!

Downstream we turn a corner & find the river dammed off by Diamond Rock, an apartment building boulder with some smaller out-buildings. We portage, drag, and line for two hours, then run a nice drop we call Green Mamba. We push on through fun stuff, then late in the day must scout again at a runnable rapid with a big hole at the bottom. We discuss camping at a nice beach above it but choose to push on. We all run it safely, and are exhilarated by its long series of big waves & shallow holes.

A bigger one, Morning Glory, appears as the sun drops, but we see a good line through it, with only two holes to run at the bottom & a dozen rocks & other holes to avoid, and there's a campsite at the bottom. I tell everyone they can walk to camp or ride through. We allow time to set up the TV cameras, then run it successfully and pull in to a lovely campsite.

Fri 6/19

Willem swears we have flat water ahead. We do, but it runs out quickly. We stop to scout & run a Class V, dropping over three large holes & cutting around a big rock. Roelof is doing amazingly well for a novice. At the next steep drop I try a cheat left but can't make the last pull & go over a big rock into an enormous keeper hole. While the boat hesitated on the rock I climbed out, jumped down, & swam out. The boat slopped over, caught the corner of the hole & was thrown clear. I swam to it, got in & rowed to shore.

James made a good run center-right that the paddle boat tried & missed, getting pushed clear of the hole by a huge cushion in front of it. Roelof tried my run & ended up in the same place. He stayed with his boat though & they came through. We name the rapid Oceanos after a Greek ship abandoned by its captain when it foundered off South Africa. Sai, Steven, Jane & the film boys are walking everything, so I've been rowing empty boats all the time.

We reached the flat water and Marienfluss, the only significant Hemba village of the trip with stick & thatch huts, extensive corn & veggie fields. The women here wear a single nautiloid shell on a leather cord plus lots of ankle, neck & wrist jewelry of aluminum beads on leather thongs. The hair is done in corn-row braids coated thickly with red clay & grease. Their front teeth are filed. One lady wore one of the coiled copper bracelets I described earlier. A man had his hair tied in a scarf atop his head. All wore leather skirts & nothing else.

We continued through slow water, eating our lunch with the boats tied together, drifting to the edge of a 40' waterfall, unmarked on the 1:50,000 maps before pulling out. The portage across a bench then down a side canyon to an eddy was easy but long and hot. For several kms below there the water boiled & rushed through narrow walls, with one steep drop & lots of IIs & IIIs before we stopped to scout again at two consecutive Class V rapids, each with a killer hole on the left & a nice slot on the right. We ran them with much excitement & found a camp.

We inventoried our food & got rid of anything superfluous or spoiled. I made everyone go through their personal gear to lighten up for a push to the sea. We are running out of time & are behind schedule, but you just can't hurry the rafting. We'll have to wait to see if the river lets us make it. We had hoped to be at the coast camp tonight but aren't close & have at least one, maybe two, portages before reaching it. We hope to do these by lunch then push on to the sea!

If we don't we'll see who wants to go on, missing international flights home & who wants to take out. I will certainly stick with it--I really want to see the sand dunes, the tunnel where the river goes underground and the Skeleton Coast. Food will be tight, but a diet wouldn't hurt anyone.

Sat 6/20

Dawn at a beautiful campsite: terraces of sand on many levels, a little pond, trees, various rock formations, expanses of flat sand, sandstone peaks in the background. Grey & overcast with a cool, damp breeze, coastal weather.

At one flat spot a white man comes running down the hill waving us over to tell us about three waterfalls ahead. We walk down a kilometer or so to look at the first one, & it's a runnable chute. We run it but the paddle boat flips end-over-end, messily. Oh well. The next waterfall is around the bend, actually two big ugly drops that we ghost boat fully loaded. The first boat flips, the second makes a great run, the third gets hung up requiring great daring to rescue & the fourth makes it after getting stuck in a hole for a while. Wild!

The third boat has a bad rip that must be patched. Chris, Rob & Dirk scout downriver & report one rapid before a third waterfall, another abrupt but runnable drop. The rapid is very challenging, with a series of holes pushing boats directly where you do not want to go. James survives an unwilling run down a tiny slot to the right.

Flat water to Louw's camp but not without several croc attacks. This camp marks the start of the desert. Desolate & unattractive. We are now in the Skeleton Coast Nat Pk. We saw tracks of elephant, the desert-dwelling Namib variety, this afternoon--amazing! We now have two days to get to the coast on schedule, with about 45 kms & three known portages. We are leaving a boat, much gear, the injured Zambians, & Rob (bad ankle) behind.

Sun 6/21

We decide to strip down to just two boats, six total on each & get a motorboat tow down to the first small rapids (6-8 kms) then come to small waterfall soon after. Parallel ridges of rock make it difficult to walk around & impossible to scout--we never really see the rapid as we portage. Five kms of small rapids bring us to a major waterfall, about an 80' drop that we portage. There are so many channels & drops that there is no good route, just steep scrambling down to the river.

Below we start to see a lot of crocs, including big ones on shore. The scenery is absolutely amazing--sand blown in from the Namib Desert burying the rock hills to created towering dunes hundreds of feet high. There are gemsbok & elephant tracks & we see spoor of the latter. The other side of the river is rocky sandstone hills, ridges & cliffs with pink & white quartzite intrusions. It is great to be pulling downriver against the upstream wind, admiring the dunes, relaxing, enjoying. What an extreme place. What an extreme river.

Onwards through a gorge with rapids at every bend. Very spooky after the waterfalls and rock-pinched channels we've seen. Having kayakers ahead helps. It's now late in the day--sixish--so we start looking for a camp. A big drop that we scout comes first however. It's a straightforward set of huge holes like we've been running, with the current pushing left at the bottom. I put six folks in front & launch on a fine run through giant holes, but get pushed against the wall at the bottom. We highside. It's not enough: The boat pins & flips. I get out quickly but see only four others and the boat in an eddy across the river. Two are missing. I swim across to join them (finding out later about the croc in the eddy) & help right the boat.

We're a little panicked that Jane & Jon are missing, but learn Jane is on our side right below the rapid pinned in a little cove. We lower a rope down to her & pull her out, battered & in shock but OK, then spot Jon on the other side. Hooray! I go back & drag the boat up to a camping beach & de-rig while the others are tying down their boats to ghostboat the rapid. I drag even further upriver then ferry across just before dark to bring the seven on the other side to camp.

By a roaring fire we warm up. I dry the wet of a drenching desert dew from my sleeping bag. Tonight it seems dry. The film crew flew over us a couple times today, once when we were at lunch & once when we were portaging the big falls. No river scenes, which is what they wanted.

James was ill today with diarrhea. He dragged all day but hung in & worked hard. Good show! He disputed strongly my decision to take only two boats (he wanted three for safety) but complied with my decision without apparent resentment. I've been very pleased with the decision so far as the portages have been tough & the counter-wind rowing strenuous. With less gear too we can portage everything but the boats & one cooler in a single load! This is what an exploratory should be.

Tomorrow the sea? Probably not . . .


Mon 6/22

No sea--not by a long shot. An awful, spooky day instead. As we approached the area of the "tunnel" we stopped & walked a couple kms to scout. We found two bad areas caused by massive breakdown of the walls into the river. The first seemed navigable, the second blocked the river entirely so all water disappeared in the boulder jumble. We ran down to the first boulder field & scouted one drop but did not see a hidden river-wide pourover. James went first and filled with water and was swept left above the pourover. He lodged on rocks over there, eventually pulling the boat over the rocks & got back on the river below the drop.

After some thought I de-rigged & we pulled the boat below the first drop, and let it bump down to just above the pourover. We carried the gear around & with one person in an empty, bailed boat I rowed out to run Bareback. As I rowed for the center one of my oars twisted & feathered. I couldn't stroke and was sucked off to an ugly place on the right where the water poured off six foot drop into a two-foot-wide passage blocked by a rock. My frame wedged between the big pourover & the small rock. Henry & I ended up on the rock. The pressure of the water on the boat & frame was awesome. I was scared that the frame would snap & hit me or Henry & hurt us badly.

The boat tore loose of the frame after ten minutes & was swept downstream to be rescued by the kayakers. I had tied our only rope on the frame so Henry & I were stuck with it on the rock. I was then able to pull the frame up onto the rock enough to free it, and it headed off, still roped, to be pulled in by the guys on shore. When they secured it, they threw the rope to us & we used it to climb off the rock. The frame still had the cooler & ammo cans attached, and was missing just one cross-bar, but it was torqued into a diamond shape--really a mess--and just one oar was there. So we were cliffed in on sheer gorge walls with our bags & frame but no boat.

We rigged the frame as a raft, had the kayaker tow it & made a long, shaky swim down the rapids to the boat. The frame was (amazingly) still sort of usable & we rerigged the raft & rowed off to the portage where the whole river was blocked by rocks. Very tough portage straight up, over & around huge boulders, under a ledge then down into a narrow turbulent slot. Slippery, precipitous & dangerous, but we pulled it off again!

We rowed downstream through rapids & flat water until we got to another serious rapid which we would have run earlier in the trip, but after the last couple days no way. We stopped to camp & carried everything around The Lock. Everyone is spooked & water-shy. Hope we get out tomorrow. With my boat basically trashed & one spare oar (all of my three were miraculously found) I can't run much more.

Tue 6/23

Another day on the K. My boat, now featuring two leaky tubes & a stick in lieu of an aluminum bar in a frame held together by rope cross-hatching, limps off. We make incredible time this morning with good current, no wind & no big rapids. It feels great to be breezing downriver, enjoying the scenery. We pass a gemsbok (oryx) that just stands & watches us go by, displaying its striking black markings. The bird life changes, as we see spoonbill, white-necked cormorant, bustards, a stork & lots of herons. Baboons gape curiously at our craft, and crocs are everywhere, unafraid and aggressive.

There are several charges but all the crocs dive before getting to us. The kayakers are spooked. Everyone is spooked, afraid of every bit of whitewater. In late morning the plane scheduled to take us out lands near us & waves us over. The message: We're out of time! They want to pull us off the river right there, but we prevail. Dick, who must leave on schedule, Rob & Jon leave with the plane. The others press on to the sea.

Lunch is just crackers & salami eaten while rowing along. We enter a very fast gorge in which we cover ten kms in less than an hour. Only 10 more kms to the sea, with reports of one more tough rapid. The river starts to open up. Now the crocs are fierce, and getting bigger. Several twelve+ footers threaten us. Then one very large croc, at least 14 feet long, takes a bead on us & charges. We yell, throw rocks, try to pull away. The croc dives, disappears briefly then suddenly explodes out of the water, & grabs my left rear tube. The guy sitting there, Jonathan, jumps back & knocks John Lee off. Panic! I pull John in, grab the oars and we limp away with one deflated tube.

We pull into the first beach, drag the tube up & inspect. I decide to insert a spare thwart in the blown section & inflate it. I cut the section between two teeth marks to make a big enough hole to squeeze the thwart in. I jam it in, place the valve in the hole & inflate the thwart. We tie that side of the boat as high out of the water as we can, and lighten my load. At the end of this pool we can see a big rapid, maybe the bad one. I pull over right, James left. I can see from where I am that it's OK so I run it.

Then we are in the estuary--big, flat, wide river with the wind blowing hard upstream & smelling of sea salt. Hard pulling, croc scares & truly desolate scenery, yet another face of the river. We are looking for the markers for our take-out spot, the first of which is a village on the Angolan side. After a while we spot it. What an anomaly! Real buildings--wood frame with stucco, glass windows, metal roofs. In the middle of nowhere, & abandoned because the South African Defense Forces mined it during the wars.

A little further along the sandbars make the river so shallow we must get out & pull the boats along despite the crocs. Finally the take-out spot appears, with the wind howling & sand scouring our skin. We look for a campsite, find one & start de-rigging. Then we hear the plane, our Pilatus Porter, and our hopes rise that we won't spend the night in this dry, wind-blown, wild place.

And we don't. By evening all the people are out, leaving the gear behind to pick up the next day. We land at the strip near Louw Schoeman's camp again for the rough 4WD drive to the camp, & finally the trip is over.

John Yost in back; Richard Bangs in front