Gura, the ‘Usain Bolt of rivers’

A boy jumps into the Gura River at the confluence with the River Gikira. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI

What you need to know:

  • Gura River flows from deep in the bowels of the Aberdare ranges to the Gura Falls, a 300-metre tower reputed to be the highest falls in Kenya.
  • Shirtless and baked, they are taking part in an activity that I later learn is a form of a rite of passage: diving into the “suicide hole”.
  • The Gura Hydro Power Project generates 6 KW and has been praised for saving tea famers about Sh40 million in annual power bills.

When the seasons keep to schedule and the clouds squeeze themselves dry — mostly from late March to May — Gura River, already a presence of note at any time of the year, notches its resume.

It might take on the rich brown colour of hard-boiled milk tea, or be clear if silt and jetsam is light upstream. But it gushes forth, winding its way downstream with renewed urgency.

It’s understandable if the name of the river sounds unfamiliar, distant. Geography 101: Gura River, which flows from the Aberdares, is recognised by by potamologists (people who study rivers) as the fastest-flowing river in Africa (Internet sources) fastest-flowing river in Africa.

That most Kenyans aren’t aware that the fastest river on the continent runs through their country is not exactly surprising: my Geography class must have skipped this bit, and tour brochures and coffee-table picture books announcing the wonders of the Big Five and the marvel of Vasco da Gama’s fort hardly mention it.

Gura River flows from deep in the bowels of the Aberdare ranges, and like most rivers, its journey begins simply. The point at which Gura announces its destiny — where it separates itself from every other river — is at the Gura Falls, a 300-metre tower reputed to be the highest falls in Kenya.

The river traverses several constituencies in Nyandarua and Nyeri counties, weaving its way through a tangle of woodland, past farmland and under canopies of bamboo; but always in a rush, as if impatient to surrender its haul of other, lesser rivers whose burdens it shoulders down where all rivers surrender their souls – the River Tana, splashing into the turquoise vastness of the Indian Ocean.

To a newer generation, Gura River has in the past few years come to be known affectionately as “The Usain Bolt of rivers”, a reference to Usain Bolt, the retired Jamaican sprinter who became the fastest ever man in the world after shattering the 100 metres World Record - the 100m dash.

A blue vein, the river weaves its way to the Tana River. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI

But to previous generations, Gura was more than just speed, it presented something majestic from God. Indeed, it is little wonder that the earliest meetings by future Mau Mau leaders to scheme ways of fighting the White man were held along the banks of the river.

Potamologists differ when explaining what defines the velocity of a river, or more specifically, why a river can be considered the fastest or slowest amongst hundreds of others. But there are a few key factors unanimously agreed on.

The gradient of the river’s course significantly affects the speed of flow; a sharp gradient makes the river faster, while the volume of water a river carries, which is mostly determined by the number of tributaries that empty into it, as well as the friction it encounters, such as rocks, either increase or lowers speed.

Against this backdrop, Gura presents a peculiar, interesting scenario. No fewer than seven major rivers and streams empty their waters into the Gura, including two nearly equally voluminous tributaries: the Thuti, and the Gikira. The confluence and the attendant extra load hardly seems to affect the river’s raging speed.

If anything, it lends a certain majesty to its presence. Besides, the Gura River boasts one of the most dense rock deposits.

THE RITE OF ENTRY

I am chasing the river, partly out of fidelity, and some hubris. I grew up within shouting distance of the river in eastern Nyeri and all these years did not know that the waters that ran on the edge of the dirt roads were part of high company.

I have touched the waters of the river on the map countless times but had no idea. But I am also chasing stories.

It’s mid February and I have fled the city. The season has kept to the calendar, the sun has been red-hot since early January, and all over the country grim reports of rivers shrinking, streams drying to narrow trails, others completely continue.

The mighty Gura has not been spared. The water runs low, receding from the banks like the hairline of a balding man.

But it’s still the River of Rivers. I am walking beside the river, along the injured banks, appearing suddenly at its confluence with the Gikira near the border of Othaya Sub-county and Mukurwe-ini Division.

It is a place of stories and myths, both beautiful and scary. The junction used to be referred to as the “suicide hole”, a watery tomb so deep that people who chose to end their lives knew there was no chance of rescue.

But that must have been a long time ago, because this afternoon I encounter a group of daredevil boys. We wave at each other across the river.

Shirtless and baked, they are taking part in an activity that I later learn is a form of a rite of passage: diving into the “suicide hole”. One by one they climb an anaemic tree, perch on a branch for a moment, then pitch into the river.

It’s a beautiful dance to watch, the reckless suddenness of the moment. To dive here, the boys will tell me means you are part of a select club, something they will carry through their youth into adulthood: their fathers and their uncles did it.

They don’t mind my camera, but I will leave a peace offering. The boys cross over to my side and we talk as they sit, drying off in the grass. Do they know about the river; that these very waters are known? No.

We talk some more, and they review themselves in the frames, impressed.

HARNESSING THE RAGE

Despite its profile and potential, the waters of Gura River had not been used in any major economic activity other than basic farming and domestic use until 2015 when a hydro power project was unveiled.

The Gura Hydro Power Project, which was built at a cost of Sh1.7 billion, was initiated by the Kenya Tea Development Authority in conjunction with the government.

It generates 6 KW and has been praised for saving tea famers about Sh40 million in annual power bills. The project supplies 2KW of power to four tea factories in Othaya, Nyeri, with the remaining 4 KW sold to Kenya Power.

Deceptively languid, River Gura passes under a canopy of trees. PHOTO BY WILLIAM RUTHI

No matter how big or significant a river might be there is always a bigger one. It is a blueprint, destiny that works everywhere.

Gura River surrenders its waters to the biggest, most voluminous river in Kenya, the 600-kiloometre River Tana. To watch the river empty into the Tana is to understand a lesson in mortality; there is some sadness to it too, karmic even.

Like all the lesser tributaries that have seen their names and pride usurped at their confluence with the Gura, the fastest river on the continent surrenders its name, notoriety, and history.

The journey rides south, slow, a legion now single following a pre-ordained route, to end into the endless jade of the Indian Ocean.

Later, I will remember something. That afternoon in February after I met the swimming boys I walked a few hundred metres downriver. Barefoot I stepped into the river.

It was as wide as ever but with the waning water, the Gura appeared to me like a road, hundreds of ashy-black rocks lying like tiny turtles sunning. The air was thick with the menthol of cedar bark and waves of bamboo fronded the river.

Yet even in its reduced state there was some magic to the river, something ancient. Something you would find in the Atlas on a map but could never teach: Essence.

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