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Jewel of Denial

An odyssey to the headwaters of the world’s greatest river.

May 9, 2007

Every journey worth taking comes with obstacles and a high price tag. A price some people are all too eager to pay with time, money, or their lives. The greater the challenge, the higher the price. And this is one of the great ones.

It’s a journey into Africa’s heart of darkness. Farther than any past explorers – Speke, Gordon, Stanley, or Livingston – to ascend by outboard-powered boat the length of the world’s longest, and arguably most dangerous, river. To finally, and unquestionably, pinpoint its source.

“It’s human nature to explore, challenge, be the best or the first,” Neil McGrigor, one of the prime movers of this adventure, told me recently. He not only believes this, he takes it personally. He must, to go through the story of hell he tells here. McGrigor, a 44-year-old British businessman, has some experience with boating adventures. He set a transatlantic record of 11 days, 14 hours in a sailboat and broke the speed record for circumnavigating Britain in a powerboat. So when his Kiwi friend Cam McLeay came up with one the world’s last great adventures, McGrigor jumped at the chance to be part of it.

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McGrigor, McLeay, and fellow New Zealander Garth MacIntyre believed that the source of the Rukarara river in the heart of the Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda is also the source of the world’s longest river. It is the Nile’s tributary farthest from its Mediterranean outlet. For the expedition they chose three 14′ Zap Cats (see “Air Africa”), light, twin-hulled inflatables powered by 50-hp Yamaha outboards. The boats were fitted with Bimini tops to provide shade in the 120-plus-degree heat. Since the boats are so stable, the tops of the Biminis doubled as campgrounds where the explorers erected their tents to be safe from the crocs and mosquitoes while they slept. “Hippos are another problem in the bush,” says McGrigor. “They tend to charge into the river and disappear, only to rear up from underneath, threatening boats.” Then there are the usual snakes, scorpions, and deadly spiders.

Another bonus of the Zap Cats is that they’re light, easily airlifted around obstacles. In total, these rugged little boats traveled more than 4,000 miles upriver. Some of those miles were on water, and some went over land. By journey’s end, the boats had been portaged by crane, helicopter, boat, truck, bicycle, and hand.

During more than a year of planning, McGrigor made reconnaissance journeys by plane and helicopter. On his laptop he mapped out the route using Google Earth and GPS. Since they would be traveling through five countries – Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda – visas, customs forms, and security clearances had to be handled before departing. No small adventure.

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The trip began at Rashid, on Egypt’s northern coast, starting a voyage about which McGrigor would later say, “I don’t think there’s an experience in the world that will match what we’ve been through.”

Not All Journeys Can Be Followed on a Map

From the very beginning everyone knew they were in for the trip of a lifetime. Egypt supplied a 900-mile armed escort. In Sudan, McLeay recalls running into a band of Nilotic tribesmen. “It wasn’t just that they were incredibly tall, but they were covered in this gray dung ash to ward off insects,” he says. “It was an amazing sight – and scary, given that they carried spears and automatic weapons.”

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But it wasn’t all good times, as this entry in McLeay’s journal about testing a rapid proves: “….we got the line wrong. We wrapped ourselves against a large rock, folded down the side, and then flipped. We got caught in the back eddy, which allowed me to climb onto the upturned Zap. Garth clearly had injured his leg resulting in me having to pull him up. The wave eventually spat us out into calmer water…With a well-practised procedure, we drained the carbs and cylinders of water and restarted the engine for a slow, wet return to base and some medical attention. Garth had clearly damaged his ankle badly and could by now hardly walk.”

He ends with understatement, “These rapids are going to be challenging.”

Nonetheless the trip went reasonably well through Egypt and Sudan until Day 53, when the group ran into the worst kind of trouble in Uganda.

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At the huge, 60-mile-long rapids above Murchison Falls, the only way out of the valley was to use a FIB (flying inflatable boat), and turn the river into a runway. Unfortunately, one crashed. But that was the least of it.

As they were transporting the boats around the rapids in McLeay’s friend’s truck, they were ambushed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group of rebels trying to destabilize Uganda from bases in Sudan. Steve Willis, McLeay’s friend, was shot and killed. MacIntyre suffered a bullet graze to the head; McLeay had lacerations on his feet. While trying to escape, McGrigor climbed on top of the truck, which was then set ablaze. He got away with a broken leg and burns.

It was enough to send the group home for a few months. But with the backing of their families, they started out again four months later to finish what they started.

Victory Belongs to the Most Persevering

It’s not being brave that gets it done, it’s dogged persistence. Here’s a journal entry from McLeay in Rwanda: “Having taken the plugs out and drained the carbs of water until fresh fuel flowed out, I pulled the engine over and it caught fire like a Christmas pudding! A spark must have leapt from the high-tension lead, igniting the fuel vapor around the base of the engine. I immediately splashed water onto the electrics to keep them from melting. Suddenly, the locals started throwing handfuls of mud and gravel all over the engine in the belief that this would help. Thirty seconds of mayhem and confusion resulted in putting the fire out, but our engine looked like a termite hill…We then took the air filter off, exposing the carb and cylinders to the incoming mud. The best course of action was to turn the Zap over and wash the engine out underwater! Amazingly, 30 minutes later we had it running.” Here’s another, from McGrigor, describing a portage by helicopter: “The second attempt made good, but we were swept away by the current and were pulled sideways by the helicopter that couldn’t lift off with the amount of water [in the boat]. The cable was dumped too late and we flipped. The revised plan was to have the helicopter run forward at around 13 mph so we were on plane and would have more control over our direction. This worked and in no time at all we were airborne, being whisked up at what I felt was far too high an altitude…The landing was interesting. We came in sideways. As soon as we touched down, I was catapulted straight over the side.”

The boats and engines persisted. Constant grounding became a frustrating pastime, as the team continually shaved inches off its propellers and wore away at the inflatables. But they had the most praise for the engines. All vowed they’d never use anything other than a Yamaha.

“We’ve put them through hell and high water, turned them upside down, set fire to one, and still they kept on going. Incredible!” says McGrigor.

Toward the end, the river narrowed and the Nyungwe Forest thickened. The haggard crew was forced to leave the Zap Cats and continue on foot for a 50-mile hike up East Africa’s largest mountain rainforest – to the end.

The final measured length of the Nile turned out to be 4,197 miles, some 66 miles longer than previously thought. The team actually covered much more than that due to wrong turns and exploratory trips into lakes and minor tributaries. It took the three men 80 days to complete the voyage. Apart from the final walk to the source, and a few portages, it was all by water. In the end, what was accomplished was the longest river journey possible by boat. At around 7,800 feet in the Nyungwe Forest of Rwanda is a plaque with the coordinates 2°16’55.92″ S; 29°19’52.32″ E, next to what McGrigor describes as “a muddy hole.” It’s on that spot that an age-old question was answered, once and for all.

Air Africa

You can’t buy a Zap Cat, the boat that conquered the Nile, in the United States, but there are clones. One is the Aquarius Aqua-Cat Race Boat. “Race Boat” because that’s what this type of craft is primarily used for – racing, not exploring. In fact, the American Powerboat Association (www.apba-racing.com) has a dedicated class for them: Superlight Tunnel Boats.

As with all boats of this type, the 175-pound, 13′-by-6’10” Aqua-Cat features parallel, asymmetric neoprene tubes, with two chambers each for redundancy. Smaller, more rigidly inflated tubes run the length of each hull. Connecting the hulls is a fiberglass wing with a stainless-steel transom made from 2″-square tubing. The vinyl-covered plywood floor panels are removable, as on your average RIB, allowing the whole boat to fit in the trunk of a car. It takes two to get the most from these boats. The driver handles the tiller of a 30- to 50-hp outboard, and the copilot uses his weight to keep the boat balanced. With my crewman hanging over the port side, I cranked a tight right turn that compressed my body into the side of the port tube. Turn radius is 10′ at most, before you find yourself hauling butt 180 degrees in the opposite direction, giggling uncontrollably. With the crew far aft, the bow lifts for maximum acceleration. A Yamaha 40 got me into the 50-mph range, and the record is 66 mph. Fast, durable, and stable, these boats are an adventure. For more information, contact: Outboards Unlimited at 954/861-1611.

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