A Float Through Hell A first descent of the Lindi River became a harrowing journey into the violent heart of the Congo

July 01, 2002
July 01, 2002

Table of Contents
July 1, 2002

A Float Through Hell A first descent of the Lindi River became a harrowing journey into the violent heart of the Congo

When Bruce Hayse, a 53-year-old
adventurer-environmentalist-physician from Jackson, Wyo., woke
up in the inky hours of June 10, he panicked for the first time
since leaving for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This is an article from the July 1, 2002 issue

In the past month he'd been attacked by Mike Tyson-tempered
wasps, gnawed by blood-sucking gnats, torn by thorns the size of
fishhooks and tossed into the roiling floodwaters of the
uncharted Lindi River by a 15-foot wave backcurling over his
stern. He'd been lost at night in an impenetrable, snake-filled
jungle, threatened by gun-toting guerrillas, broiled by
equatorial heat and stung by killer bees. He'd had to portage
around waterfalls, row past whirlpools, avoid 15-foot crocodiles
and pay blood money to a stoned band of Mai-Mai rebels who
wanted to decapitate a member of his party and float the man's
head downstream.

Through it all Hayse, who has a family practice, and his fellow
Jackson Hole adventurers, Christian Guier, 43, an orthopedic
surgeon, and Karen Wattenmaker, 40, a photojournalist, kept their
wits about them. But on the night of June 10, as Hayse woke from
a deep sleep, he felt a cold rush of fear. "I couldn't figure out
where I was on the river," Hayse says, recounting his first night
back home in his own bed. "All the time you're there, you have to
know where everyone is, where you are, where the boats are, and
be totally on top of things. For the first time in a month I was
completely disoriented."

Hayse's expedition, the first descent of a 300-mile-long stretch
of the Lindi, was undertaken under the banner of the African
Rainforest and Rivers Conservation (ARRC), a nonprofit
organization that Hayse and Guier cofounded in 1998 to bring
attention to the Congo River basin, which is home to the world's
second-largest rain forest. It's also one of the most politically
unstable areas in Africa, a free-for-all war zone where competing
militias--made up of Mai-Mais, Hutu, Simbas and rebels who have
fled Rwanda--wreak terror on Congolese villagers, stealing, raping
and killing indiscriminantly.

Why would two doctors from a cushy ski resort in the Grand
Tetons want to get involved in such a remote and dangerous
place? The 6'2" Hayse, whose drooping black mustache gives him
the aspect of an Old West sheriff, has a long history of
environmental activism. A friend of the late Edward Abbey, whose
novel The Monkey Wrench Gang became a sort of bible for the
fledgling ecoterrorist movement, Hayse was one of the founders
of the radical organization EarthFirst. He's one of the few
people who know the exact location of Abbey's desert grave in
the Southwest, having attended the top-secret burial-bash in
1989. Like Abbey, Hayse believes in the innate value of
wilderness and is willing to put his life on the line to defend

His involvement in African conservation goes back to the early
1980s, when he spent two weeks with a tribe of pygmies in the
Congo River basin. Guier, too, had been fascinated by Africa
since kayaking down the Zambezi River between Zambia and
Zimbabwe in '88. In May '98 the pair made the first descent of
Gabon's Ivindo River. It was a thrilling ride through untouched
wilderness until, near the take-out point, they passed through a
huge logging clear-cut operated by a French company. "We weren't
looking to get involved in the preservation of Africa's rain
forest," Guier said, "but after that we felt a moral obligation
to try to help."

The result was the founding of ARRC, into which Hayse has sunk a
quarter of a million dollars in the past 18 months. Among other
things, that money has been used to arm and pay guards along the
Chinko River in the Central African Republic to protect wildlife
from Sudanese poachers. Some of those poachers have been killed,
leading one magazine to dub Hayse "Africa's deadliest

"The most critical thing with the rain forest right now isn't
studying it," says Hayse, "but protecting it so we have
something to study. Most conservation groups only get involved
in stable areas, where there's a government in charge to work
with. Where we were, there's no government."

Beyond the adrenaline rush of making a first descent down a
river filled with Class 3, 4 and 5 rapids, the goal of the Lindi
trip was to draw attention to the plight of Maiko National Park,
a wildlife preserve through which the river runs. During the
civil unrest of the past decade few, if any, Westerners had
visited the park, and its staff, long unpaid, had dispersed.
Hayse and Guier wanted to determine what shape the park, one of
the most biodiverse on the continent, and its wildlife were in
and hoped that through their efforts it might achieve World
Heritage status, opening doors to the international funding
needed to protect it.

Their first attempt, in May 2001, was spectacularly
unsuccessful. After being placed under house arrest and
scrambling to avoid a firefight between rival rebel factions in
one town, they hit the end of the line in Boyinga, where a
Mai-Mai leader waving a spear and wearing sunglasses told them
they needed a letter of passage to get through his territory,
which should have been arranged before they arrived. As they
scouted for another route to the river, two of the Congolese
civilians they'd employed were taken hostage by Simba guerrillas
armed with AK-47s. Hayse and Guier decided enough abuse had been
heaped on their party and, leaving $500 behind to secure the
hostages' release, they departed without ever having laid eyes
on the Lindi.

No one could believe it when Hayse and Guier began making plans
for another expedition in 2002. "People told us, 'They'll not
just kill you, they'll torture you,'" Guier says. "'You're

But faint heart ne'er won fair maiden. Hayse and Guier had
Kambale Kipiri Dilere, the assistant conservator of Maiko Park,
who'd gone without pay for four years, give $400 to the local
Mai-Mai chief in exchange for a letter of passage down the
river. The American duo also brought along 100 pounds of salt to
use as barter with the natives they hoped to encounter.
Additional supplies included 60 pounds of medicine, a surgical
kit, a satellite phone, an assortment of Russian-made maps,
three 17-foot inflatable two-pontoon rubber rafts they would row
down the river and six bottles of liquor for barter, one of
which was spiked with a bottle of sleeping pills in case the
group was taken hostage and needed to drug its captors.
Reluctantly left behind was the first trip's cinematographer,
John Armstrong, whose pregnant wife forbade him from making a
return journey to such a godforsaken part of the world.

After flying to Uganda, the expedition members drove to Butembo,
a city of 400,000 with no police force, electricity or plumbing.
There they hired 35 porters to carry their baggage to the river,
a four-day trek through the muddy jungle. At an elevation of
5,300 feet the conditions were cold and rainy and generally
miserable; it was impossible for the trekkers to keep their feet
dry. The Mai-Mai chief who'd promised them safe passage had sent
along four young guerrillas to escort them, a mixed blessing
since the young men had an unquenchable appetite for marijuana
and whiskey and were armed with AK-47s. "We decided it was more
dangerous having the Mai-Mai with us than it was not having
them," says Hayse, whose entourage included Kipiri, who'd made a
45-day solo scouting trek down the Lindi, and Kipiri's boss,
Faustan Mesasu, the conservator of Maiko Park. Mesasu, it would
turn out, was one of the most hated men in that part of the Congo.

Hayse was hoping the four armed escorts would turn back once
they saw the rapid-filled river. Instead they howled in
excitement and began putting on life jackets. When Hayse asked
the men to leave, saying there wasn't enough room in the boats,
they got upset and began waving their guns around, demanding
more whiskey. They became increasingly hostile, at one point
pulling Wattenmaker from her tent. Eventually, for $200 and a
bottle of Jim Beam, the Mai-Mai escorts returned to the jungle.

The river itself was over its banks, a mocha-colored flood
(moving about 2,500 cubic feet per second) that was a series of
shelves connected by waterfalls and rapids. Fallen trees were
everywhere. On the first day Guier's raft got entangled with a
tree that was caught between two boulders. Both his oars
snapped, and one of the Africans was thrown overboard. It was a
dangerous situation that was saved when a group of Congolese
from a nearby village waded out and hacked away the tree with
their machetes, freeing the raft.

"You couldn't scout the water," Hayse says. "It was a very
narrow gorge, and the forest came right down to the water's
edge, so you couldn't tie up and walk ahead. There was always
this fear factor, that if you screwed up, the trip would be
over, or worse. Especially once we found out the satellite phone
didn't work in the gorge."

The maps were too large a scale to be useful, so the expedition
members proceeded by sight and sound. Wattenmaker, an expert
kayaker who'd never rowed a raft, proved a quick study, deftly
avoiding the whirlpools, downed trees and overhanging wasp
nests, whose inhabitants would attack without the slightest
provocation, leaving golf-ball-sized welts that lasted for two
weeks. At night the three-raft flotilla would do its best to
pull onto shore, hacking away a small clearing with machetes.
The party members had to fend off gnats and bees as they tried
to build a fire out of the wet wood. "You had to whittle each
piece to its center to get anything to burn," says Hayse. "You
couldn't have a roaring campfire, so it was impossible for us to
get dry."

Ever since the muddy trek in, Hayse's and Wattenmaker's feet had
been essentially rotting, chunks of skin and callouses falling
off like the flesh from a pumpkin in midwinter. It was very
painful for either to walk. In addition the four Congolese in
the expedition were terrified of exploring the rain forest for
wildlife, fearful of running into one of the bands of armed
guerrillas known to be operating in Maiko Park. Making a foray
on their own, Hayse and Wattenmaker went off the trail and got
lost. As night fell, they were without a light or a weapon of
any kind. "It was too dense to walk upright," Hayse says, "so we
crawled under the vines in the pitch dark, making about 30 feet
every half hour, looking for the trail, unable to see anything
but some phosphorescent leaves on the ground that looked like

Since Guier had already spotted a black mamba along the trail,
glowing sets of eyes on the forest floor were hardly
encouraging. Eventually, Hayse, who had his two-way radio with
him, was able to raise Guier back at camp, and a rescue party
with flashlights came and found them.

The most dangerous moment came two weeks into the river
excursion when some Mai-Mai guerrillas not affiliated with the
chief who'd provided the letter of safe passage came into camp.
They knew that Faustan Mesasu was with the rafting party and
believed that the white men with him were mercenaries he was
bringing in. The guerrillas wanted to search their luggage for
weapons. When Guier, speaking French, explained that they were
conservationists who were there to help the country, the rebels
were curious. Then they confronted Mesasu. "Some of them had
worked as guards in the park," Guier says, "and [they said that]
Mesasu had been very abusive. He was just an incredibly
obnoxious man. I told them, 'Look, we don't like him either. Let
us get back and write our report.' They told me they wanted to
cut Faustan's head off and throw it in the Lindi. There's no
doubt if we hadn't been there they'd have killed him."

The interrogation of the expedition party, conducted in the
rebel's hut, lasted four hours. The guerrillas were smoking pot,
waving guns, gradually becoming louder and more assertive.
Sensing he needed to start dealing from a position of strength,
Guier said that he and the other rafters were in constant touch
by satellite phone with the U.S. government, which was tracking
their position via GPS. "If you kill us or take us hostage,"
Guier bluffed, "the U.S. will come here and bomb the hell out of

That got the Mai-Mai's attention. They let Guier return to the
boat but demanded $500 before they would let the group proceed
downriver. Hayse, telling them they were "rude and
unreasonable," calmly brought out a pack of cards and began
playing with Wattenmaker. "We told them that if they wanted to
keep us there, fine, take us hostage," Hayse recalls. "If not,
let us go. They finally took $200 and a few packs of cigarettes,
and we were on our way."

At the town of Bafwasende, the point where the only road to
cross the Lindi once was, and some 300 miles as the crow flies
from the point they'd put in, Hayse, Guier and their party left
the river. Stung, sore, cold and a little hungry, they were
nonetheless euphoric at having successfully finished a mission
more than two years in the planning. "The satisfaction and
exhilaration of completing something like that is stupendous,"
Hayse says.

Though they saw little game, they did find enough signs of
wildlife--elephant dung, for one--that Hayse is convinced Maiko
Park is still a largely unspoiled wilderness that for now, is
being protected by the political instability in the region.
Loggers, miners and poachers don't dare enter the area, and the
itinerant guerrillas that reign are more interested in raping
and pillaging villages than decimating the populations of
Grauer's gorillas, okapis, Congo peacocks and forest elephants
that live in the park. "Right now the only place people are safe
is in the city," says Hayse, who would like to return with a
tracker for a couple of months to make a comprehensive wildlife
census, "but if the country stabilizes, people will move back
into the forest and build villages. That's when Maiko Park will
need funding for protection."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAREN WATTENMAKER ROIL AND TOIL Unable to scout ahead, Hayse (at the oars) & Co. plunged blindly into the Lindi's Class 4 and Class 5 rapids.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAREN WATTENMAKER LOCAL HELP Thirty-five porters made the four-day trek (below) to the river, where stoned and volatile Mai-Mais kept watch.THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAREN WATTENMAKER THEY BITE The rafters faced a jungle full of hazards, from vipers to wasps (Hayse, above, was well-stung) to gun-toting locals.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAREN WATTENMAKER SOLE SURVIVORS Despite their travails, Hayse (nursing infected feet) and Guier may return to the Congo to take a wildlife census.
"Most conservation groups get involved only in stable areas,"
says Hayse. "Where we were, there is no government."
"If you kill us or take us hostage," a bluffing Guier warned the
rebel interrogators, "the U.S. will bomb the hell out of you."
"There was always this fear factor," says Hayse, "that if you
screwed up, the trip would be over--or worse."