The Great Niger River Boat Trip – Part 2

Day 4: 9th Feb 2010

Quiet morning – shallow maze – near-disaster – crocodile island

Following a quiet morning on the river where progress was slow but steady, the afternoon brought with it a maze of rocks and shallow waters that slowed progress drastically. We would stop paddling and stand up to get a better view downstream, but this only occasionally helped. It seemed whichever path we took, we would still hit shallow water, the boat would become impaled on a rock and we would have to get out and push and drag and re-route the boat until we found a deeper section. We would have barely got in the boat and caught our breath again when we would again become steadfast in what was beginning to seem an unnavigable river. Perhaps we had left our departure too late, too far through the dry season. We need water to paddle a pirogue and there just didn’t seem to be enough of it.

Eventually the rocks subsided, the river deepened and we could once again paddle uninterrupted. The river was still, barely a ripple on the surface save for the wake of our boat and the circular splashes from our paddles. There was silence between the walls of the deep, vivid green tree-lined banks. Nothing but us going up or down the river. Serene. Surreal. Our boat glided with ease along the surface.

But it wasn’t to last.

Out of the silence came a faint rumble. Wind? A distant bush-fire? Rapids? The sun was scorching, but the air was motionless and there was no smoke over the horizon. The river was straight and flat and calm. If the rumbling was distant rapids, then the water must be gushing over rocks and creating frightening amounts of white water.

We paddled on. The rumbling grew. Silently, nerves crept over us and engulfed the boat. Then we saw a wall of rocks ahead. We got more nervous.

When we finally reached the rocks, we pulled the boat over and took a closer look from a sure-footed, elevated position. The river here was making a 90 degree change of direction and a significant drop in water level. The noise was considerable.

We clambered over the rocks and began to investigate a route through. The sandy crevices between the rocks were covered in footprints and trails – crocodile tracks – but we were too pre-occupied with finding a water route, urged on by the rumbling river whose sound was drowning out all other thoughts.

There were four places where the water flowed between the wall of rocks. The largest volume of water rushed through on the left; a huge deep channel guided between boulders. This route seemed possible, but only as a last resort – the ‘rapids’ we had successfully negotiated prior to this were mere drips – here the tap was open full. The next section along, the water flowed with equal power, but there were boulders in direct line of the main flow and we would have surely smashed the boat on them. The other two routes flowed out into a wide, calm bay. The problem here was that they flowed over a steep precipice which was impossible to paddle over. We could have led it down on ropes, but the front end would have hovered over the edge until the balance tipped and it plunged head-first into the pool below. Who knows if it would surface again. It seems the last resort would be the only resort. And with the light beginning to fade on another day, we decided to bite the bullet and attack this rapid before dark.

Having pushed the boat out into the middle of the river, we began paddling towards uncertainty. The boat sped up, I stopped paddling and put all my strength and determination into steering to avoid the boulders. One boulder passed…. two…. three…. and the water slowed enough that we could pull into the side and rest before attempting the next part. My heart was pounding, my body full of adrenalin. That wasn’t so bad!

But the next bit didn’t look so simple. We chose to lead the boat down on ropes from the rocks. So while Lars guided the front end, I pulled back as hard as I could from behind to slow it down.

But the boat was at an angle to the flow and the flow was too fast and the back end was beginning to rotate. I pulled and strained, but the rope just burned through my hands. There was nothing we could do. The front end jammed on a rock and the back end swung round until it too was pinned against another rock. Water rushed in.

We both leapt into the river and lifted the sinking side out of the water enough to stop the flow and without a word we rapidly began untying our ‘valuables’ bags (the ones we were to save first in the event of a capsize). These were soon safely on dry land and we were busy scooping out water from the semi-submerged boat.

Getting out of this situation was going to be tricky.

Stuck

Stuck

We decided to pull the stern backwards and hopefully free the front end so we could guide it between the rocks. All that happened was that the front end wedged itself on another rock and the back end swung to an even greater angle to the flow and stuck solidly. Water now gushed over the side and rushed through the boat before exiting over the bows. We leapt and grasped for loose items as one paddle disappeared out of sight. No point trying to empty the boat of water, but we could empty the boat entirely of our belongings. We untied bags and bikes and carried them dripping to the safety of the shore.

Helped on by the adrenalin, we managed to right the boat enough to stop the inflow of water and set about draining the boat with the use of the plastic kettle (the yellow scoop must have drifted off).

There was now only one course of action left to take – push the boat forward over the rocks and let go. Just let it go with the flow. With one final show of adrenalin-fuelled strength the boat slowly shifted, cleared the rocks and rushed round the bend, loose ropes trailing in the water.

I ran over the crocodile-track-covered sandy island and looked out for our boat, which by now had come to a standstill, still floating, in the bay below. Phew!! Putting thoughts of reptiles out of my mind, I waded into the river up to my neck and retrieved the boat so we could paddle it to safety.

With the sun setting, I rushed to put up tents while Lars laid out the sodden food, we cooked dinner and retired to bed as darkness fell upon us. We didn’t want a crocodile encounter after the day we’d just had!

Day 5: 10th Feb 2010

Aches and pains – Fishing attempt – Lars uses the machete – Rapids and adrenalin – Important lesson

I awoke early in the morning and inspected the damage: The boat wass still parked and afloat where we left it, the food drying in the morning sun hadn’t been eaten by any wildlife and the rest of our gear has survived surprising intact and dry. It seemed the only things lost were a towel, a water bottle and the plastic scoop (the paddle we found again).

Boat still afloat and moored on crocodile island

Boat still afloat and moored on crocodile island

Me on the other hand, didn’t feel quite so lucky. I made a short note of my aches and pains:

  • Legs covered in hundreds of itchy sand-fly bites
  • Ends of toes are cut from wading through river in flip-flops
  • Hands stiff and feel as though ridden by arthritis due to constant grasping of paddle
  • Fingers sore from rope burns
  • Bruised ankle from when I slipped on a rock while leading the boat by rope
  • Bruised shin when it got wedged between the boat and a rock

Fortunately, the morning was peaceful, with easy paddling and good progress. At lunchtime, Lars took some time out to try a little fishing. Although we could see plenty of small colourful fish, they seem uninterested in our hook and line.

Unfortunately the afternoon wasn’t so smooth. Once again we came to some rapids. There is one fast flowing channel but I think I can see a calmer route that flanks the right bank and so we proceed. There being a wall of low-lying branches, we wade alongside the boat and guide it downstream. Where the channel flows beneath the branches, Lars hacks out a clear route using his machete. We make it through the branches, down the narrow fast-flowing section and into the calm waters. As we round the bend however, we realise our path is blocked. A dead-end.

Lars - the machete wielding pro

Lars - the machete wielding pro

With nowhere to go but the way we’ve come, with some effort we push the boat back upstream and re-assess the situation. After walking over all the rocks, which show signs of crocodile attacks on the nesting egrets, we finally conclude that we’re going to have to attempt the gauntlet – the only clear route is also the most direct and the fastest. Having discussed and agreed the route we’re going to take and the rocks we’ll be attempting to avoid, we nervously get in the boat and start paddling. And then I stop paddling and turn my attention to steering the rapidly accelerating boat. We speed downriver, jettisoned down the flume and soon emerge at the other end unscathed. Phew! What an adrenalin rush! Now that was fun!

We both finally calm down, just as the river has done and can now assess how we handled that section. We conclude that from now on we should always check potential routes out fully until we can see a clear river ahead and not just assume it will look the same round the bend.

Day 6: 11th Feb 2010

Makeshift sail – more rapids – woman overboard – lost sunglasses and flip-flop

The morning’s progress was hindered by numerous sections of shallow water and rocks. We followed our rule of checking the entirety of any route before we proceeded. It meant that we rarely got stuck, but we did spend most of the morning out of the boat checking routes, rather than just paddling and hoping and pushing is necessary.

When the river was wide and deep and clear, our progress was hindered by the wind, which made paddling on the choppy water tough and energy-sapping.

At lunchtime, we thought perhaps we could harness the power of the wind by making a sail – we had several large 100 litre sacks and so went about constructing a sail with them, some cut-to-length branches and rope. With the heat of the midday sun beginning to beat down on us however we stored the partially assembled sail in the bottom of the boat and chose to paddle on through. The sail needed more work – at the moment it was more Heath Robinson than Robinson Crusoe!

Makeshift sail - not very Robinson Crusoe

Makeshift sail - not very Robinson Crusoe

Once again we came to more rapids. Having assessed all viable routes, based on our rapidly increasing knowledge and experience of them, we opt for the fastest most direct route through. It’s the same scenario repeated – paddle nervously, speed up, steer agressively, adrenalin rush, a couple of close shaves with rocks and we’re through.

Only this time we set up a camera to film it.

Only this time I don’t manage to turn sharp enough round the last bend and the current takes us side-on into some bushes. I manage to grab a branch as I am catapulted from the stern and instantly submerged in the torrent. I am clinging to my left flip-flop with the end of my toes and so try to reach down with my spare hand to grab it before it is lost in the undercurrent. Meanwhile I am conscious that I am about to lose my sunglasses from my head. I daren’t let go of the branch though. Somewhere in the decision-making process going on in my submerged head about whether to save the flip-flop or the sunglasses – a flip is no use without it’s flop but I’ve lost too many sunglasses to rivers in previous water-induced escapades to lose yet another pair – it dawns on me that just maybe I should save myself first. At this stage there is just my right arm, from forearm to fingertips, that is clear of the water and the only thing saving me from being dragged downstream.

With sudden clarity of mind, I give up the flip-flop-or-shades debate and reach my left arm out of the water and grab for another branch. With considerable effort I manage to heave myself up and as my head clears the surface I take a much needed gasp of air.

My flip-flop and my sunglasses are gone though.

In the next update…

After nearly a week on the river, we seem to finally be mastering the boat and the water. Perhaps life on the river will calm down a little now.

But our experiences so far don’t help when it comes to animal encounters….

3 Responses to “ The Great Niger River Boat Trip – Part 2 ”

  1. Real adventure; your insight, determination, resilience and resourcefulness are inspiring.

  2. That was a gripping narrative – really well written. I am so impressed with both of you taking on this Niger River expedition & I look forward to Part 3. Thank you

  3. What an adventure, sounds both amazing and challenging! Roll on Part 3

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