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Kayaking the Inga River with Steve Fisher

We all know how Steve Fisher is quite happy to tackle anything, so it’s quite surprising to find him in a deeply contemplative mood, but there’s a reason for it. The Inga River in the Congo has a nasty sting to its tail  and mortality is something you have to think about deeply before accepting the challenge.

The challenge is not only the bad-assed rapids but the political tension within the country too. A previous French-led expedition in 1985 disappeared. The most plausible theories, according to Steve, are that the team either drowned in the massive rapids or that they – or there are rumours that at least part of the surviving team were shot later by the Congolese army after reaching the shore. Only one body was ever found and that was downstream.

That was in 1985, but things haven’t changed much since then…

Steve Fisher and Red Bull challenge the Inga Rapids

However so ever that may be, the Inga Rapids have been Steve Fisher’s dream for a long time and with the help of Red Bull it is a dream that has come to fruition. Now Red Bull Media House and Fish Munga present: ‘Congo – The Grand Inga Project‘ – a 77 min film documenting the historic first descent of the world’s biggest rapids on the Congo River. Starring: Tyler Bradt, Steve Fisher, Ben Marr and Rush Sturges.

The Grand Inga Project

36-year old Steve Fisher has been three times voted the world’s best all-rounder by top pro kayakers. There is nothing he won’t challenge and his many ‘first descents’ are legendary. His boldest expeditions include the Irrawaddy in Burma, the Salween in China, and the Yarlung TsangPo in Tibet, home of the world’s deepest gorge. Yet with plans for dozens of first descents, he’s only just begun. “The holy grail is a source to sea journey on the Congo river, 4,000 kilometers down to the Atlantic,” he says. “There’s a lot of fear from media and sponsors that I’ll get killed. I risk that quite often, but to them it’s different if you get shot. The outcome is more or less the same in my mind.”

You might be wondering how he got out of that whirlpool without the help of the helicopter? This is how he described it in a Red Bull interview: “The dynamics of a whirlpool work in three revolving phases: 1) strong downward pull 2) release and 3) fading. When I realised that I was caught and began spinning around my kayak’s axis under water, I held my breath and waited for the pull to dissipate which I figured would take approximately 30 seconds. The problem was that at the moment I got sucked in, I was already exhausted from a 10-minute paddling sprint through major whitewater just to get to that section of the river. So the feeling of drowning was already there after a couple of seconds. Fortunately, just as I felt I couldn’t take much more, the whirlpool dissipated and released me.”

Steve Fisher on the Grand Inga Rapids

The eyes of hungry investors are on these very same rapids. They have the potential of supplying 40,000 MW of electricity, over twice the power generation of Three Gorges Dam in China, and more than a third of the total electricity currently produced in Africa. A river diversion scheme called Grand Inga is on the cards, which, if it goes ahead, will be the envy of everyone as it will dwarf every hydro site worldwide. But who will it benefit? That is the question…

It seems unlikely that it will be of any benefit to the local communities and certainly none at all to the thousands who are being told to leave their homes.

Currently, only 6% of DRC’s population has access to electricity. Some people are advocating that if future projects are developed, the first priority should be to increase the rate of access to electricity to 60% of DRC’s population. Without such a national benefit from the development, some fear it would cause new civil unrest in this country which is one of Africa’s most politically volatile and corruption-plagued countries. They argue that lighting the rest of Africa while leaving most of DRC in the dark would be politically and morally unacceptable.

But I am not meant to be a political site and after all, progress in Africa ought to be beneficial to millions – one shouldn’t be automatically pessimistic!

 

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