Ross Exler, an ambitious world adventurer passionate about biodiversity and the sustainability of ecosystems in Africa, embarks on a journey to become the first person to complete a solo, man-powered crossing of the African Great Lakes. His aim? To understand more about sustainability, conservation and the balance between humans and the environment.
I’’ve always felt a magnetic appeal to wild, mysterious places and I think that most people who are drawn to studying biology are keenly interested in observing the natural world, always wanting to go out and explore.
Even with my curiosity for adventure, I knew a trip of this scale, with this level of commitment, was something not to be entered into lightly. I also knew that the most important thing I could do to succeed and remain safe was to prepare sufficiently. One of the first things I realised was that instincts and hyper-awareness are all magnified greatly when alone. At a baseline, you’re certainly more at risk when you’re alone and have fewer options for recourse if things do go wrong, but perhaps more challenging is the psychological aspect of spending months making decisions and then dealing with the endless internal monologue that is second guessing each decision. Overall, my thorough preparation gave me confidence for the voyage which surprisingly went off largely without a hitch.
No journey like this is without significant danger. On the third day, while paddling north along the shoreline of Lake Malawi, I heard a splashing sound from the water. When I turned to look, I saw that a 4 or 5-meter crocodile had surfaced and was staring at me icily before it disappeared back under the surface. After that, I took even greater precautions to avoid crocodiles – paddling several kilometres offshore, avoiding river mouths and wetlands and staying away from the water at night, and was largely able to neutralize that threat. Still, I looked over my shoulder every few minutes for the remaining months of the trip hoping that I wouldn’t find a large predatory reptile behind me.
After every long day’s journey came the chore of figuring out where I’d be resting for the night. I generally only bush camped when there was no one around to know of my presence. If that opportunity didn’t present itself, I would go into the local community and present myself (usually to great fanfare) and ask if it was alright for me to spend the night there. By somewhat declaring my presence and asking for permission, I got to feel as though I belonged, even if only for the one night.
When I would arrive in a village, I would immediately be greeted by a crowd of curious onlookers. Connecting on a human level, even when there was a language barrier, was relatively effortless.
Several weeks passed with a continuously smooth expedition until midway through my time on Lake Tanganyika when things quickly turned for the worst. I was heading for Greystoke in the Mahale Mountain National Park when I heard a powerful stormfront was about to roll through. I tried to come up with alternative strategies and even thought about waiting it out, but with the forecast stretching out so far, I was just going to have to paddle through.
They call it the Rukuga wind, a powerful north wind that occurs in the rainy season. It carries storms down the lake and usually lasts a few days. Sometimes though, if you’re unlucky, it lasts longer. I knew that my next realistic rest point was a larger village on the lake called Karema, but the direct line I had to take would mean travelling up to 9.6 km offshore but would save me about 6.4 km in total. Over the next 90 minutes, as I rhythmically paddled to the point of exhaustion, the moving time didn’t change! Despite my efforts, I was frozen in place by the headwind and lake current.
My decision to make the crossing was also coming back to bite me, as my only option to go to land would require me to give up hard earned kilometres and I wasn’t willing to do that. After a while, the wind speed dropped a little, not abruptly, but enough that I started to make some progress again. I limped into Karema close to sunset, badly beaten. I had managed 27 km on the most exhausting paddling day of the expedition. For comparison, my best day on Lake Malawi was 52 km, which ended with me feeling more or less fresh.
After a week of battling a north wind, faced with the unappealing reality of a forced and unsafe night in the national park, I was now moving northwards under favourable conditions at an extraordinary pace. I headed further into the park and at 12:30 reached the point that looked like my best option for the night if I wasn’t going to make it to Greystoke, and I was forced to make a decision. I needed to head to the beach and set up camp or go for broke and head to Greystoke. As far as I could tell from the satellite maps, it was the point of no return. Once I went north, I had to make it to Greystoke and it was only 12:30, so I pushed on. Another 3 hours went by until I could see camp, to say that this was a joyous moment would be a wild understatement.
It’s kind of amazing to me that I have only been back from my trip for a few months. It feels like a lifetime ago, so it’s great to reflect on successes and failures I endured along the way. Whenever you set out to do something, whether it’s starting a business, writing a book, remodelling a kitchen, or paddling and biking across Africa, I think you embark on it with an idea of what you want to accomplish but perhaps don’t exactly know how you’re going to get there (no matter how much preparation you do). You have to retain flexibility as challenges arrive and one way or another you do eventually make it to a suitable conclusion.