I looked ahead in panic. We were in trouble. We never had the chance to stop and scout ahead on land. For the last hour we had fought our way through a narrow, overgrown channel, often jumping overboard to hack through branches. The quick, clear water ran through tangled Congolese forest of the darkest green. When I forced my rusted machete through the last blocking vines, our lumbering pirogue, a hollowed out tree trunk, surged suddenly into the piercing daylight.
We were midstream and speeding helplessly towards a churning field of rapids. Boulders littered the wide, broiling waterway, each one threatening to undo us. Both banks of the narrowing river taunted us with a scrolling succession unreachable landing places. The tang of adrenal fear registered on my tongue. Already exhausted, we braced for battle. I gripped my part-broken paddle of crudely carved wood with whitening knuckles. Our heavy wooden canoe was unwieldy and steering was a physical fight against the coursing current. It was imperative to remain facing forwards so as not to be tipped into a capsize. Archie shouted something from behind me, directions perhaps, but it was lost to the rapids’ clashing roar.
It was only our fourth day on the remote river and we had alerted nobody to our plan. Nobody knew where we were. We were utterly unprepared and I was afraid.
We slalomed the first few jutting rocks in a fearful panic of adrenalin. Spuming water danced and sprayed all around us. The side of our canoe was only a hand’s breadth above the water and inundation seemed certain. A submerged rock nudged our tail, spinning us into an unplanned pirouette over the surface of a whirlpool. I grabbed the side of the canoe to avoid being flung out. Yet we somehow span on around and came out facing forwards.
We pitched relentlessly on and for the first time I dared to believe we might pass through intact. But then the water became faster, too fast, and the rocks too many. We sped into a cloud of spray and hit another hidden boulder. We span again and this time tilted. Water gushed over the side and, in a desperate attempt to avoid the pirogue sinking or smashing, we leapt overboard.
The fierce, uncaring river dragged us indifferently onwards. A current forced me under the surface and I felt the skin on my back break as it scraped over something jagged. A second later I heard a yelp as Archie thwacked his ankle on a rock. I tried to keep at the surface and avoid being shoved under again. Thrashing my arms, I struggled in vain towards the listing pirogue. Our bags were being carried away in different directions, bouncing off the rocks as they went.
Finally we were spat out and it was over. The river widened and the water flattened, but the flow was still fast. The pirogue’s nose was underwater and the rear was only held near the surface by the empty water containers we used as buoyancy aids. We hurriedly swam back and forth in the still-speeding water, shepherding errant bags to the moving ‘base’ of our sinking canoe. All the while, with a bend in the river ahead, we were fearful of being plunged down another field of rapids.
At length, we hauled everything to the thickly-wooded west bank. The sun was setting, its warmth dropping with it. Our pirogue’s nose caught in underwater tree roots and took several dives to extricate. I had been wet for the last two hours and began to shiver uncontrollably. We needed to make a fire quickly.
We had survived the rapids, but lost our map in the process. From here on it would be exploration into the unknown.
Can he survive? Will he survive? Will the book ever be published? It can, if you support Charlie Walker on kickstarter. He has, in any case, done this sort of big bike ride before and you can read his book about it by going to Amazon.