From Bhutan to Brazil, few kayakers have logged more air miles to exotic destinations than First Ascent athletes Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic. Traveling between time zones may seem like a dream job, but as Korbulic discovers through his recollections on their recent Kaiak expedition to Zimbabwe, space and time are less of a constant—and more of a fluid concept—in their expedition kayaking reality. Below is his attempt to make sense of their trip to the heart of Africa and keep pace with Western time as they return to Brazil. -EB Editor
Words and photos by Chris Korbulic
The yellow ball of the sun is just barely visible behind the highrises and granite peaks of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will soon disappear and leave the city in the darkness, which is when this culture comes alive. But my mind is elsewhere. It has not yet left Africa, from the rivers and the people to the coastline and the rhythm. I left just a few days ago, but this feeling of being someplace else will persist. Watching a sunset over Rio’s white sand beaches confirms this as my mind tracks back to stories from my last four months in central and southern Africa.
The memory opens with the most recent trip in Zimbabwe, where we arrived just after Africa’s oldest leader, old Bob Mugabe, celebrated his 88th birthday with lavish parties that commemorated not only another year alive, but also his 32nd in power. The flashback continues with someone familiar waking me as I hear an excited voice and open my eyes to a small fire flickering light on the walls and faces, yet filling all but the lowest two feet with zesty smoke.
“The river is over the bridge!” calls a familiar voice through the haze of waking in an unfamiliar place.
Tired and incredulous, I don’t believe a single word. I saw the river two hours ago and it was flowing at about 300 cfs and more than two meters under the bridge. There is a little movement and less haste. Then above us I hear a thundering on the metal roof, so loud it trembles, as if gravel is dumping from the sky.
It is still raining when Ben Stookesberry comes back into the room and confirms that the river is indeed over the bridge. When we put on the river just that morning it was half the flow of the night before, a flow we knew was still too high, but one we were comfortable with, knowing there were no major gorges downstream. We portaged most of the gradient, but knew it all the better for the second lap that proved to be almost the perfect flow. California-style granite slides closed out the run and brought us back for a third hot lap. Between Gairezi laps we made a first descent on a small, steep tributary, and did a quick run on the Pungwe River just to the south.
Climbing down the side of the 200-meter segmented falls, elation grew as we paddled right in the middle of the falls, running a slide below a 20-meter step and above a 100-meter step. “Eish!” was my instant thought. “Don’t miss the eddy.”
We continued into the Pungwe Gorge then around, through, and over siphons, paddling until just before dark and resigning ourselves to an unplanned night out on the river. It has to happen sometime, right? Why not at a banana and maize plantation with a welcoming family offering us tea and blankets? So we stayed and in the morning said goodbye to the family and Kenneth, the man of the house, as he was departing for the same destination, a bustling hydro development a few kilometers downstream.
Everywhere we travel, we find this gracious hospitality amidst few resources, hydro development, and amazing rivers. I get lost and mixed up in my memory. I had no idea where this place was or that it even existed. And there are so many of these places because they populate our world—millions of hidden spots with distinct names and friendly people and colorful stories. We travel through so many it’s nearly impossible to commit them all to memory.
Yet my mind is awash with them and often disconnects a name with a place, or a view, or a river. A rapid on the Dibang gets placed in Brazil instead of India or a sunset from Cape Town gets mentally captioned as Uganda instead of South Africa. Everything gets blurred, even my sense of place and time. But in this confusion I think there is great beauty, a perceived oneness of the world in my tangled memory.
Now the Brazilian sun is down, headlights are illuminating the beach and I’m starting to get used to the idea of a busy modern life again. Western time is speeding us up with emails and phone calls breaking me out of the subjective, elastic concept of time I’d grown used to in Africa. Newton’s time is absolute, ironclad, going ahead without relation to anything except itself, but time to the African man is malleable. He can influence its course; even create it with the action of an event. It seems like river time to me—you move along in its course, but whether or not some event happens, like running a big rapid, depends on you alone. It is a different reality from my immediate future, which will bring a return to wet California. I can only hope I’ll find enough time to get back into the much faster flow.
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