This summer, The Epicocity Project assembled a team of kayakers, filmmakers and photographers for a National Geographic expedition to the Congo River. The mission was to complete the first successful descent of the 1.25 million CFS lower rapids—an 85 mile section beginning at the country’s capital city of Kinshasa and finishing at the riverside village of Luozi. During the descent, the team collected scientific data to facilitate the research of American Museum of Natural History ichthyologist Dr. Melanie Stiassny and hydrologist Ned Gardner. Their theory was that the unique ecosystem created by a million CFS of water being funneled through a canyon as narrow as 1,000 feet is creating an evolutionary zone unlike any other on Earth. The Epicocity Project was contacted to enter this unexplored canyon and collect the necessary data to prove their theories correct.
Trip Jennings, who was named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the year in 2008, got the call when he was on an expedition to western China with the rest of the Epicocity team, where they were filming with China Rivers Project and Last Descents River Expeditions. Trip, Andy and Kyle sorted out the logistics when they got back to the States last spring, and two months later the boys were in Congo running the highest volume rapids in the world. PL caught up with Trip to chat about the upcoming show.
PL: So Trip, the Congo doesn’t exactly strike me as the most mellow place. Isn’t there, well, a war going on?
Trip: Yes, it’s true. In fact the conflict in the DRC is the deadliest since WWII. From the minute you step off the plan, you’re surrounded by UN vehicles and personnel. While most of the fighting happens thousands of miles away from where we were, skirmishes do happen where we where, and there are guns everywhere.
I don’t want to give too much of the show away, but we quickly learned that even if you take all the precautions possible, things can get sticky at the blink of an eye. At nearly the end of our journey down river, we were held up for hours, surrounded by two men with AK-47s, six men with machetes and one with an old shotgun. It was the only moment in an expedition that I actually thought I might die.
PL: So with the support of National Geographic you flew to Kinshasa and met this wild group of scientists. How did they come into play?
Trip: Well, they outfitted my kayak with a sonar transducer, data logger, differentially corrected GPS unit and a really heavy battery. What that meant was my boat created a transect of the river’s depth, velocity and topography as I paddled down stream. The scientists thought that we might be able to record the deepest point in any river as well as help explain the amazing diversity of fish species found there and as it turned out, they were right.
It was quite a team though, not your average kayaking expedition. The head hydrologist, Ned Gardiner charmed the locals by playing his banjo, Ichthyologist Melanie Stiassny found a catfish that nearly electrocuted one of her team members and we constantly heard stories of the Goliath Tiger fish nearly eating fishermen.
PL: So we’re thinking that the whitewater would have to be pretty big. What was it like out there?
Trip: Well, 1.25 million CFS was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Imagine a class IV rapid full of standing waves and breaking holes. Now imagine ocean-like crashing waves bouncing off the cliffs on either side of the river and throwing your boat 20, 30 or even 50 feet from side to side as they break. Then add in whirlpools the size of Greyhound buses that would pop up like land mines sucking you underwater. Now imagine that once you leave the narrow spots, the river is a mile wide and hundreds of unknown feet deep. If we swam out of our kayaks, I don’t think we would have made it.
It was pretty scary, but not as scary as the AK-47s
That said, I honestly can’t wait to go back!
PL: Have you seen the show yet? Got any juicy info?
Trip: Well, I hope it won’t spoil the ending to know that we made it, cause we did, but if you watch it, please look for my favorite quote:
Me (while putting lots of scientific equipment into my boat):
“Well, we’re not scientists yet.”
“No, but we play them on TV.”
Monster Fish of the Congo premieres at 7pm on Tuesday, February 10th at 7pm on the National Geographic Channel. The show is also scheduled to air again that evening at 10, then again on Saturday at 4pm. Check your local listings and your On Demand menu.
For photos and video, check out the Nat Geo site for the show.