SAVAGE TAKES ON WHITE WATER RAFTING IN KENYA. by Rupi Mangat (East African Nespaper)
Tourism in Kenya has in the recent past been in the news for all the right reasons after a couple of years of a serious downturn.
The newly appointed Cabinet Secretary for Tourism Najib Balala is leading a campaign to revive local tourism and last week pictures of him skydiving in Watamu beach, North Coast, were all over the social media.
For adrenaline junkies out there, tourism players in Kenya are now marketing extreme sport to add to the usual beach and safari holidays.
Skydiving at the Kenya Coast may be catching on now as an extreme sport but white water rafting has been around for a while, thanks to the efforts of one man: Mark Savage.
Savage is the owner and operator of Savage Wilderness Safaris of Sagana, 70km north of Nairobi, the centre of white water rafting in Kenya.
Savage, in his mid-70s, got into white water rafting by sheer coincidence. Sometime in 1990, while flying low over the Athi River on the edge of Tsavo East National Park, he promised himself he would someday raft the river.
So on a trip to England, he bought a rubber dingy worth $1,000 and that was the beginning of white water rafting in Kenya.
Savage in his own words, thrives on adventure and excitement.
He still rafts the Tana in Sagana twice a day, nine kilometres each run over busy periods when rafting groups visit his Savage Wilderness Camp in Sagana.
On April 6, 1990, Savage rafted for the first time in the Athi River bordering Tsavo East. Nobody at the Mountain Club of Kenya of which he has been a long standing member volunteered to join him except for some friends — the then boss of Lufthansa Airlines in Kenya and his wife.
“None of us had been in a boat in our life and the Athi had the highest water level in four years at that point. How we got out alive is amazing,” said Savage.
Savage and his friends did remarkably well in the inflatable rubber dinghy in the Athi on the first run. They covered 82 kilometres in eight hours, 15 minutes with just one person falling out.
“We went down this enormous rapid and this guy got washed down,” he narrates. “We had no helmets on except home-made lifejackets made of polythene material by my wife.”
This was in sharp contrast to the gear used in rafting today — sturdy helmets and proper lifejackets.
He says of his first rafting foray, “We continued rowing downstream because we could not see him and reasoned that he probably would get washed downstream too.” In any case, the current would have been too strong to row against.
“Anyway, the guy got stuck on an island and waited. He had no shoes on and could not walk in the thorn-filled bush. So he began swimming downstream past sunbathing crocodiles and he found us waiting for him. It had been a scary moment.”
Most sane people would have called it a day and packed up after this experience. But not
“We had done 75 kilometres and there was a massive rapid that we had been told about. We did it but we had already done worse rapids than this one. And then we pulled up at Tsavo River Camp where tourists were being flown across because the river was too rough.”
After conquering the Athi, Savage says; “We then started looking for other rivers,” and lists some like the ferocious rapids on Adamsons Falls on the Tana (where crocodiles are aplenty) that mark the boundary between Meru and Kora national parks where the legendary George and Joy Adamson spent years working with lions; the Ewaso Nyiro in Kenya’s northern drylands and the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in the US.
“The Tana has a couple of class six sections,” explains Savage.
“Class six means that the river has never been run before because it’s too dangerous. The section between Kinshasa and Mtadi on the Congo River has never been run before either.” It’s something that Savage has attempted in the past.
Class 0 to 1 means calm water; 1-3 means more difficult with rapids and Class 3 means there is possibility of the boat flipping. Class 4 to 5 means that on the first time run the crew has to get out and scout the river to know which way to go down river – and of course the boat will flip over.
The International Rafting Federation is the world governing body for white water rafting, of which Savage Wilderness is a member. The Savage team of 25 guides undergo routine training every two years and are qualified by the British Canoe Union.
Having rafted down most of Kenya’s rivers regularly over a span of 20 years, Savage says of the state of Kenya’s rivers; “Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t see the banks of this river [Tana at Sagana] because there were huge massive old trees.
But they have all been cut down. That goes for every river that we raft on in Kenya. Nothing is being spared.
“Along the Athi, between Tsavo East and the Yatta Plateau (the world’s longest lava flow) there was nobody living there. In the past 10 years it’s been subdivided for settlement and everything cut down for cultivation and for charcoal. There is a big chance of losing half the rivers in Kenya.
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