Steve Fisher is one of the world’s most experienced kayak adventurers with loads of compelling stories to keep you captivated, so when he's as excited about a project as he is about his breathtaking feature documentary, "Congo: The Grand Inga Project," you know it's going to be good.
We caught up with the whitewater wizard for a conversation about the African heartland, scaring off crocodiles and why it is essential to be politically informed as a traveller.
Redbullusa.com: When was the first moment you knew that Steve Fisher and Grand Inga would meet one day and what was that moment like?
Steve Fisher: I was quite young, a teenager in fact, when I heard about the Grand Inga rapids after the French TV team passed away down there, making news worldwide.
[Ed. note - in August 1985 seven members of a raft expedition, including popular French TV host Philippe de Dieuleveult, disappeared on a trip down the Inga rapids. The most plausible theories, according to Steve, are that the team either drowned in the massive rapids or that they -- or at least part of the surviving team -- were allegedly shot later by the Congolese army after reaching the shore. Only one body was found downstream.]
It was of course a tragic incident but it stirred my interest. I knew I was going to try to kayak these rapids one day and kept it in the back of my mind until five years ago, when the idea started to become a reality.
When did you set out to actually tackle the Congo river?
In 2002, Red Bull asked me what the "holy grail" of kayaking was, and I immediately named the Inga rapids. Still I had to put the project off for many years because I knew that great financial and logistical expense would be involved in it.
Now I know that realizing the project last year was just the right timing in terms of getting the permits [a process that took almost four years], establishing the logistics and, most of all, telling the story myself. In contrast to the Tsangpo expedition in Tibet, which was a total team effort headed by Scott Lindgren, I wanted the Inga project to be my personal project.
In the last two years before we decided to do it, I got really frustrated: I thought, "If I don’t do Inga soon, I might as well stop doing kayak expeditions altogether." The two other factors that tipped the balance were that I wanted to do Inga at the top of my game, not as a senior of my sport. The other one was that I wanted to get Inga behind me before getting married, because I knew it was going to be extremely committing and dangerous, and that I would have to really want the accomplishment.
And so it proved to be. How in the hell did you get out of the last whirlpool without the aid of the helicopter, when it seemed that you were already swallowed up by the water?
The dynamics of a whirlpool work in three revolving phases: 1) strong downward pull, 2) release and 3) fading. When I realized that I was caught and began spinning around my kayak’s axis under water, I held my breath and waited for the pull to dissipate, which I figured would take approximately 30 seconds.
The problem was that at the moment I got sucked in, I was already exhausted from a 10-minute paddling sprint through major whitewater just to get to that section of the river. So the feeling of drowning was already there after a couple of seconds. Fortunately, just as I felt I couldn’t take much more, the whirlpool dissipated and released me.
Steve Fisher, caught in a 20-foot-wide whirlpool on the Congo River. © Greg von Doersten/Red Bull Content Pool
What kind of kayaks did you use for the Congo?
I am now sponsored by FLUID kayaks but for the Congo we needed kayaks with speed, volume and maneuverability, so I used a Liquid Logic Remix, which incorporated these demands quite well.
For you, as a South African, does the Congo river have a special meaning; like the lifeblood of your continent?
The Congo is the biggest river in Africa, and yes, it is the very heart of this continent that I consider my home -- I have a house on an island in Uganda and I have what I would call “African know-how” when it comes to dealing with people and circumstances there. In that context, it was my responsibility to tell my story as it really happened.
What was the most pleasant surprise for you concerning the Democratic Republic of Congo?
That 90 percent of the people we met were very helpful and friendly in spite of the country’s poverty and poor reputation. We also immersed ourselves very naturally in the street life of the capital, Kinshasa, while at the same time being cautious -- a poor and desperate man will take what he needs, if he sees the chance.
How did you protect yourselves from crocodiles?
A friend of mine and one of our predecessors on the Congo, Hendri, was killed by one, so crocodiles were a concern, yes. We stayed vigilant, but as a matter of fact never saw any during our trip. In case you do encounter one, it is best to aggressively swim or paddle towards it to scare it off.
Regarding Inga, but also the Tsangpo in Tibet, you seem to nurture an interest in the political situations of the countries you chose for your projects. Is this mainly for self-preservation?
The Tsangpo and the Congo rank as my top expeditions in the 21st century. I always try to prepare with utmost care. Knowing about the political situation is being savvy, sure! On the other hand, it is your responsibility as a visitor and I always try to make sure that the entire team understands the political setting of the places we go to.
I’ll give you an example: When I went to Kinshasa for the first time in 2007 to get the permits for the Grand Inga Project I was unfortunately captured by soldiers. They went through my luggage which contained high-end technology, cameras and maps -- which led them to the assumption that I must be a spy!
This suspicion seemed to be confirmed when they found a photo on my laptop which showed me posing with Ugandan soldiers -- there was tension between the DRC and Uganda at the time and I got into a lot of trouble, so I’d advise everybody to understand the political climate and not to have incriminating material on them!
The Congo White Water Kayaking Expedition team (Steve, Tyler Bradt, Ben Marr, Rush Sturges) head to the helicopter with armed security looking on at the Inga Airstrip, Congo River. © Greg von Doersten/Red Bull Content Pool
What else (besides kayaking) would you like to excel at in life?
Other than my sporting endeavors -- mountain biking, paragliding, fishing and skiing -- at which I want to get better, the first thing that comes to my mind is filmmaking and then marketing.
I must say that I gained a lot of experience in these two fields during the last 15 years of my professional life, documenting and marketing my kayak projects. As it turns out a lot of us sporting professionals have to get into these other fields to make a living. Also I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself too much.
Then of course I just got married which I would also like to excel at!
Steve behind the camera. © Lucas Gilman/Red Bull Content Pool
Who is your favorite travel writer?
Mark Anders, who I had the pleasure to work with on the Grand Inga Project. He came on the trip with us and wrote a 26-page article on the trip. He was also instrumental in constructing the story and narration of the documentary. All this can be found at the Inga Project site.
Steve Fisher emerges from the Inga Rapids. © Greg von Doersten/Red Bull Content Pool
What's up next for you, Steve?
I have a few awesome kayak adventures up my sleeve but since I’ve done Inga, they won’t be about "higher" and "more dangerous" -- done that! What I would like to focus on in the future are my filmmaking skills. I want to apply my storytelling to high-end cinematography about other people, specifically younger kayak talent and eventually other sports. There’ll be more to come soon!