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Korbulic Guides First Commercial Descent of the Nile’s Murchison Falls section
Posted on October 31, 2013

Sunset on the Nile

When Chris Korbulic checks in, it is usually after some epic personal adventure to the ends of the whitewater earth. The stories are always incredible and the images stunning, but his missions seem surreal since they are almost always a personal tick accomplished with a crew of professional kayakers. His latest report, from the Murchison Falls section of the Nile River in Uganda, provides a different angle on adventure. In this instance, Korbulic was merely one guide in the first commercial descent of this wild stretch of African Class V river. A few months after he clocked out at Murchison Falls, he filed his report. —LYA Editor

Security at Camp, Murchison Falls Section of the Nile

Words and Images by Chris Korbulic

There are few places that consume such a great part of my memory as the Murchison Falls section of the Nile River in Uganda. It is as wild a place as I have been and contains some of the most powerful and intimidating whitewater I have paddled. It is basically a Class V paddling safari through Uganda’s largest national park. Bound at either end by un-runnable cascades, teeming with dangerous wildlife, and highlighted by Class V whitewater, this section of river is one giant must-make move. It’s a serious undertaking for even the most adventurous kayakers, so when I stood at the put-in with two rafts and a few brave clients, more than the standard concerns spun my head.

If you seek adventure, as they surely did, it does make sense to go for one big undertaking–a Murchison trip or long trek–rather than depend solely on weekend excitement. A trip that will take all that accumulated experience and intention and turn it to reality. This trip was commercial, but that alone is a word they are escaping. Apart from clever slogans and marketing schemes, this is a landscape freed from commercial intrusion, open to interpretation. Why go for the adventure if not in the hope of exploring mystery, clearly seeing beauty, and heightening life? Why are the clients going if not in hopes that the guides will magnify and clarify their experience, will open pathways to the deep mysteries of the place and their own inspiration, and maybe even be revealed to themselves in ways they never knew?

But maybe that’s just me romanticizing the clients’ intentions. I guess it is no less difficult to paddle Class V in California as in Murchison, so you might as well paddle Murchison, right?

The guides know their field, what they have done, what they can do, and their limits. Like many experts, they like to play the edges, to see what is just beyond the limit. Murchison, to me, looks like the very edge of raft guiding possibility. About 25 people, mostly whitewater professionals, have rafted Murch before this trip. When comparing the 4000+ who have stood atop Mt. Everest, Pete Meredith explains why so few have come here: “Because it’s dangerous, bru.” Pete would know. As leader of three of the previous four rafting trips, he’s seen his fair share of excitement down here.

Standing at the put-in with clients Kyle Lisabeth, Dan Brown, and Glen Downton, rafts, and a group of ten was so vastly different from my first trip in 2010, when Ben Stookesberry and I followed Hendri Coetzee in a sprint to finish the 80 km stretch in a day and a half. It was a blur, but a beautiful, streaking, eye-opening blur that I have since been drawn to slow down and soak in. We three had a flawless run, following Hendri on his seventh lap, weaving a risk-minimizing route through seemingly infinite channels, passing thousands of hippos, and seeing few crocodiles. I was struck by the immensity and nature of the place, and awed by the power of the Nile descending in stairsteps and massive falls. I’ve counted my days until a chance arose to return, and we are the first group since that trip three years ago.

Numbers were in the clients’ favor—four guides and three safety kayakers to three clients–but you wouldn’t tell that advantage by the looks on their stoic faces at the put-in. A final pep talk, some high-fives, and a strong push off the bank and we were all out in the current, barreling headlong into “the wild blue yonder,” according to Pete. At least someone was lighthearted. It all changed in a heartbeat when just 20 minutes downstream, a raft flipped, sending four swimmers into dark, swirling currents. Our worst-case scenario was happening in one of the first rapids, but this was why we had trained. When guides and clients righted the raft and pulled from the whitewater back into the raft, we knew training had paid off and that they were in for the ride of their lives. The gravity of the situation sank in, and everything was okay. Then they flipped again, sending a swimmer far from the raft and into calmer water, more dangerous because of the likelihood of hippos and crocs.

A second recovery, but the excitement continued with a crocodile charge only minutes later. “Don’t worry, he’s just small bru,” Pete comforted, and the croc stayed at a safe distance. The river became more difficult and isolated the following days, but there were no more flips and only the best kinds of excitement. Here we were enveloped in a great African landscape, and our doubts were overshadowed by the place itself. We settled into a rhythm and it became clear that the challenge of guiding a commercial trip was but a small piece of the puzzle, and that this was not a river to conquer or overcome, but a place to simply be, experience, and enjoy for client and guide alike.

Five days rolled into one, and we reached an unplanned take-out after the rafts were forced offline in a long series of rapids above Murchison Falls. Any mistake in this final series of 300-meter wide rapids and it is unlikely that a raft or swimmer could make it ashore before plunging over the falls.

The decision to end the trip a single kilometer above the predetermined take-out did little to temper the excitement and relief of successfully finishing the first commercial trip down Murch. We had done it. Kyle, Dan, and Glen had done it, and if their eyes and smiles at take-out were any indication of whether or not they absolutely loved it, it was easy to see they did. A trip down any river can be life-= changing, but I imagine that an experience of this magnitude will have them, as well as us experienced river runners, back again and again. Any doubts I had about rafting being epic on Murch were settled, though on any future trips, I will definitely stick with my kayak.

 Check out the Eddie Bauer First Ascent gear Korbulic used on his trip to Uganda here.

Author: - Thursday, October 31st, 2013

  1. Brian P. Martin

    Chris Korbulic this is the first I’ve learned that any Raft successfully ran “Murchison Falls.” This is “Site Zed of the Southern Hemisphere,” material….Herculean accomplishment my friend!

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