I guess first of all for the kayaking; there is so much white water in Kenya that has still not been found. Even after three and a half months of scouting and running everything that we could, there were still hundreds if not thousands of rivers still there to be run. Second was to see one of my best friends, Stewart Wintersgill. He and I were at college together in Glasgow and I guess we taught each other to paddle, going on many crazy missions with little to no planning. After college we parted ways; he left for Kenya and I went to Spain, both with jobs in rafting and kayaking. I missed out on a chance to go there in May 2014 with some other friends that were headed there and I was super bummed about this so when the chance came to get out there for three months over the short rainy season I jumped at it.
My plan? What plan?
My plan was simple. I had some work with a rafting company there, Savage Wilderness, which would fund my plane ticket, food and board for the time that I was there. The rest of the time I just wanted to be on the water. I was not there to make money, I was there to paddle and nothing more. Having Stewart there was great; having been there for the past year and a half he had a good idea of the rivers in the area and also where there could be some potential next level shit too.
My flight was booked for the 1st of October. I was told that the rains would come in mid-November so this gave me some time to get some work in and also learn about the area I was in. In true dirtbag style, on the flight out there Stewart and I got totally hammered and do not remember getting off the plan in Dubai to get our connecting flight to Nairobi. Luckily there was some charity workers that woke us up off the floor so we did not miss our flight. We arrived in Nairobi late at night and hung over as shit, and best of all the airline lost my boat with all my gear in it too. I was way too hung over to try and deal with this, so we organised to come back the next day and collect it. Lucky the next day, there it was and we were off again hitching a lift to the Savage camp; a quick hour and a half trip and we were there.
Located at the take-out of the classic section of the River Tana, the camp was awesome. I was shown my home for the three months, a small cupboard with a bed around a foot away from the roof. I dropped off my stuff, called some boda bodas (motorbike taxis), strapped the boats on, got on – and off we went up the road to the put-in. This was a bit weird for me sitting on the back of a bike with my kayak, this was a creek boat so we were around the same width as a car now. These boda trips would become very common on river trips. They were great; the drivers know their area (more or less) and they could get anywhere as well. Most of the time the fact that the boat would be too wide to get along some of the paths would mean you had to walk the rest of the way. Also they were super cheap. A half hour journey cost only around $8 and if you wanted to just lap a section they would meet you at the bottom and take you up as many times as you wanted. As long as you did not mind huge trucks passing you at ridiculous speeds and feeling like death was around every corner, they were great!
This river is hands down one of the best rivers I have ever paddled and for so many reasons. There is the main classic section that is around 17km from put-in to the camp. It has everything from class 1 to 5 and even a nice 8-10 meter waterfall (The Mission) depending on water levels at the end that has got a set of stairs so you can just lap the shit out of it. With a super soft landing it is great to learn the boof on bigger drops or to throw some freewheels off of, and it makes a really nice place to just sit and chill with a beer in the sun too. The classic is great for any level of paddler with the harder rapids having super easy portages and some chicken lines, and for the solid class 5 boater there are some super cool, fun lines, or you can just try and blast the whole thing. We got it down to around 30 minutes.
The next section is the lower Tana, around a 15 minute boda ride from the camp. This part of the river is dam controlled so sometimes water levels can be unreliable but again it is an awesome run, a constant grade 4-5 run, with lots of slides, boulder gardens and one huge hole! It does not take long without stopping, run in under 30 minutes, but look out for hippos at the take-out! You get a way bigger adrenaline rush from paddling away from one of those big boys than you do on all the rapids on the river, trust me!
The other section that can be run is the upper Tana; unfortunately I never got there due to a combination of water levels, poor planning and having too much fun on other rivers. It has been done a number of times at different water levels and from what I have been told it is around a two day expedition with grade 1-6 water, some rapids and drops that are still to be run. Wish I had got on that part of the river.
In the area that we were based, Central Kenya, there were so many rivers, some had been done but a lot had not. I met up with a local Kenyan paddler, Mike Bell, who knew the area well and was keen to try some new rivers but was also keen just to go paddle and have fun too. We went on a lot of missions in search of finding that new African classic searching for nice clean drops and beautiful class 5 rapids. We did a lot of scouting, a lot of driving, and we found a lot, not quite what we had dreamed of… we did get on some nice stuff, but a lot of mank too. Unfortunately this year was not the best rains so a lot of the drops we looked at would not go. All seemed to be just that little bit too low to send it. So they are still there for the taking… I am already looking at flights for the next rainy season!
Some of the rivers we did get on were awesome, one of which was the Maragua, again slides, drops and boulder gardens. A short run with four main rapids, all of which are around 4-5. This river was a great morning or afternoon run and if you managed to catch it at just the right level you were in for a treat.
After spending around two months going around central Kenya, we decided to try and get out to the west. So many people had told tales of endless first descents and a place where it rains twice as much and twice as hard. We set off, hung over again, for the long drive ahead. Myself, Mike and Alex packed up the car and said our farewells. This time we did have some plans. There were a few rivers that a team before us had tried to get on but ended up having to walk some of the bigger drops as there was low water. We hoped to get there and get some of this done and also check out some other rivers too.
We had arranged to crash with Mike’s mum, who lived on a game reserve around half way from our destination. This was awesome. We were able to take a drive around the area and see some of the animals that Africa is famous for.
When we arrived everything was dry and the rivers were on the low side of good. From what we had been told by the groups before us, the drops that we hoped to run would not be going. So we carried on down to check out the low part of the river in the hope that we may find something. We got down to Wabuie or Broderick Falls, a part of the river where it splits up into loads of different changes, not all can be seen in the picture. We spent some time checking out different lines and seeing what could go, in the end we only found one part that looked nice, a two tier double drop in the far right channel. We then paddled downstream and got some really nice rapids straight after the fall and then a small drop, way more downstream.
We then spent the next few days looking around western Kenya in search of more rivers, got some paddling but this year the rains just never really came and the rivers were all low.
This sucked for us as we did not really get the paddling we had hoped for and were constantly finding drops and rapids that just needed that bit more water to make it go. But when talking to the local people and farmers it hit home as to how much more important it is to them to have the rains. Without the rains the crops and grass do not grow so they have nothing to feed their animals and no food to feed themselves. For us it meant no water to paddle, for them it could be the difference between life and death.
We had all decided that we would finish our trip in Kenya with a Uganda blow out. The plan was to spend two weeks in Uganda, over New Year and the week after. We planned to party hard for the first few days over New Year, then after this, if we were still alive, we would head downsteam and camp on a friend’s land, living super simple and cheap.
We set off again making the long drive from Nairobi to Jinja then got to the Nile River Explorers and set up camp. The next day we got straight on the water, doing the full river decent. I have never been on anything like it; the water was warm, the sun was out and there was some of the biggest white water rapids I had ever seen. We stopped to play on every wave and hole that was there, just loving life. We got down to the infamous Itinda Rapid, one of the bigger, harder rapids on the river. I had made a pact with Mike the night before in the bar I would not look at the rapid, I would trust him and just follow him blind down. He gave me a rough description, mostly just “There’s a big wave then go left, then go really hard right, then go really hard left again. Oh yeah, and don’t go in the bad place! Cool? Lets go!” I know it was not the nicest and cleanest of lines but I got down in one piece and loved it. The next few days just turned into a blur of night time kayaking and a lot of party wave!
After our time partying we packed up and moved down stream to live the simple life. We ate local Ugandan food, slept under the stars every night and paddled hard every day. Surfing Club Wave in the morning, heading upstream for the afternoon, and then on to the Nile special for the evenings. I think that these are the times I miss the most. Having no electricity, cooking on a fire and just living in the simplest but perfect way, that is what I miss the most about that special place and time.
Seori’s Video of Africa
“This is a video showing the adventures of a group of kayakers exploring the rivers of Central and Western Kenya.
Unfortunately the short rains (October too December) where not the best and we where not able to do as much as we hoped but we still had some great times.
We finished our journey with a trip to the mighty White Nile for some surfing in the sun.”
Paddlers; Seori Ormiston, Stewart Wintersgill, Mike Bell
Cinematography; Mike Bell, Seori Ormiston, Stewart Wintersgill
Edited by Seori Ormiston