TWO weeks ago, a team of rafters and kayakers completed a historic expedition from the most remote source of the Nile in the mountains of Rwanda to Lake Victoria, finishing a source to sea journey that began over a year ago. Tristan McConnell joined them on their travels through the jungles, rivers and swamps of Rwanda and Tanzania.
We arrived in Kigali, Rwanda on April 7, a day after the anniversary of the 1994 genocide, where an estimated 800,000 people died. Our mission is to navigate the Kagera River from its source in the highlands of southwest Rwanda to its mouth in Lake Victoria.
But the genocide is impossible to ignore as we arrive in Rwanda during the weeklong mourning period and are about to travel down the river, which in 1994, carried hundreds of thousands of bodies into Lake Victoria. And we are also determined to discover what more there was to this country than its recent horrific history.
The expedition has been organised by Pete Meredith and Hendri Coetzee, a South African rafter and a kayaker respectively, who last year navigated the White Nile from Jinja to Alexandria over five months. The month-long trip through Rwanda and parts of Tanzania and Uganda completed the first-ever full navigation of the worldâ€™s longest river from its most remote source through the Nile to the Mediterranean Sea, a big historic achievement.
To complete the eight-strong team, Meredith and Coetzee invited Ugandaâ€™s top kayaker, Paulo Babi, South African kayaker and cameraman Dale Jardine, South African rafter Jane Dicey, Canadian kayaker and surgeon, Dr Alexandra Mikhailovich, Belgian camerawoman Kashi Decleer andmyself. Coetzee, Babi and Jardine were to travel in their kayaks; the rest of us on an inflatable raft.
The Kagera River curves an â€˜N-shapeâ€™ through Rwanda and so offers a perfect opportunity to see the countryâ€™s diversity and beauty.
Its source is in Nyungwe National Park in the southwest, a high altitude rainforest populated by chimpanzees and monkeys; from there it flows north towards Volcanoes National Park, which is home to Rwandaâ€™s mountain gorillas; it then turns southeast and passes through Kigali and on towards Rusumu Falls, where Rwanda meets Tanzania from the falls it heads north through the dangerous hippopotamus and crocodile infested swamps of Akagera National Park, before finally turning east to form the border between Uganda and Tanzania.
As soon as we reach Kigali, the Rwandan National Parks and Tourism Authority (ORTPN) director general, Rosette Chantal and head of tourism Ernest Ntagozera help us make our arrangements. Without them, the trip through the countryâ€™s national parks would have been impossible, and their enthusiasm for what we are trying to achieve, is overwhelming.
With ORTPNâ€™s aid, we set off into Nyungwe Forest in search of the source of the Nile. It turned out to be nothing more than a muddy pool in a swamp 2,550m high in the mountains.
Few people attempt to trek through this cold, wet and hostile environment carrying all their own equipment. In fact, while rangers take porters, we decide to lug our gear ourselves, Meredith and Coetzee competing to see who can carry the heaviest bags.
Although we only have seven kilometres to walk to reach the edge of the rainforest, we have to follow the course of the river as it winds through dense thorny vegetation, and this means we actually cover closer to 30km. Our park rangers, Roger and Fineas, stop us from getting lost and, armed with machetes, chop us a path through the jungle.
Five days later, we leave the rainforest behind. Along the way, we hear monkeys calling and see a family of chimpanzees high in the trees. We are soaked to the skin, our boots full of water, our legs slashed by thorns, we have camped each night in the jungle eating only the rice and pasta we carried. From there, it is into the uncharted water with the kayaks and the raft. The narrow river includes many steep rapids and rushing waterfalls, which would have proven highly dangerous to a less skilled team.
Each time we go down the rushing water, locals crowd the banks to watch the spectacle, their hearts in their mouths, convinced we are about to die. But each time we survive and they cheer us into the distance,
especially Babi, who puts on regular shows of his white water skills in the kayak.
In the far north of the country, we visit another of Rwandaâ€™s great attractions: the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. The group we see only a few metres from us among the bamboo and eucalyptus trees include two male silverbacks, four females and a young baby.
From there, the river runs straight and we reach the mighty foaming Rusumu Falls after seven days paddling. Sometimes, we carry on through the night without stopping, rowing in shifts to reach the next destination, while trying to avoid the many hippos and crocodiles that make the river perilous.
On one occasion, we come eyeball-to-eyeball with a huge crocodile as we are making lunch. On another evening, we almost strike a hippo on the head with one of our paddles, he is not happy and snorts then charges at us.
Camping around a fire and sleeping out under the stars each night, we get up before sunrise each morning, a time when mist rises off the river as we paddle in the red dawn light. It is truly spectacular as we pass gorges, hills, cliffs and papyrus swamps, the river meandering past the fishing villages on the banks.
Two days from Rusumu, we reach Akagera National Park on the eastern border of Rwanda. Again ORTPN help out by lending us a motorboat to get through the slow-moving swamp and lakes and also throw a big welcome party for us at Akagera Safari Lodge.
Here, Rosette Chantal of ORTPN thanks us for the effort we have made in raising awareness of what Rwanda has to offer visitors and set off for Tanzania in good spirits.
Once in Tanzania, the river slows down dramatically and we spend long days rowing through the winding water as it turns back and forth through the papyrus.
Once again, the biggest danger is not the rapids, but the hippos that hate to be disturbed and can easily sink a raft or destroy a kayak. We have regular close encounters and are constantly on the look-out for their snouts rising out of the eddies in anger.
But we make it past these perils and are relieved when, on the 23rd day of our journey, Tim De Wet of East Africa Lake Rescue, meets us on the Kagera a few kilometres from the river mouth to transport us across Lake Victoria in his 400 horsepower speedboat.
At last, we are on the home stretch, back in Ugandan waters and heading for Jinja, where Nile Breweries (the teamâ€™s main sponsor) is preparing to greet us.
The 25-day journey is over when Meredith and Coetzee touch the dam wall at Jinja, an emotional moment for the two expeditioners.
We had covered the 740km of the Kagera River, crossed 350km of Lake Victoria and, for Meredith and Coetzee it was the historic completion of a 6,695km journey to navigate the Nile from source to sea.
In Jinja, we arrive home tired, but elated. Along the way, we had encountered many dangers and had been exhausted by the long days and nights rowing the river, but we had also seen the beauty and attractions that are hidden in Rwanda, and undertaken a wonderful journey through Africa.