Not since Marius Weyers bumbled and fumbled his way through The Gods Must Be Crazy has the South African bush seen such a succession of filmic mishaps as presented by Helge Hjelland in The Impossible River Journey.
The major difference between the two movies is that Weyers’s antics were scripted. Norway’s Hjelland, on the other hand, was subjected to a series of indignities, usually self-instigated, that threatened to derail his documentary project before it even really got underway.
On the face of it, The Impossible River Journey presents a compelling premise: an intrepid explorer-filmmaker would travel the full length of two rivers (with the same origin) that transect South Africa and end up in different oceans. The Tugela River travels 502 kilometres east from the Drakensberg Mountains, between landlocked Swaziland and Lesotho, and has its mouth in the Indian Ocean. The much longer Orange River (2,200 kilometres) descends from the same massif and cuts westward until it empties into the South Atlantic along the Namibian border.
Because Hjelland wanted to experience the journeys every inch of the way, literally, he determined that he would carry his equipment to the top of the peak where the first drops of the Tugela dripped over an escarpment to splash on the rocks thousands of metres below.
The first indication that budget was a problem comes with his last-minute hiring of "porters" from the streets of a nearby town (for about C$5) to lug his gear skyward. The first hint of how his lack of planning will affect the rest of his trip comes when he almost freezes to death rappelling down the range, unable to seek help from his clueless helpers above.
From there, the hapless and solitary Norwegian (travelling in an ill-equipped inflatable "canoe") almost drowns in one of the few turbulent parts of either river, loses equipment when flooded out at night after choosing an ill-advised camping spot, encounters both menacing and cowering inhabitants of a near-shuttered town while seeking a fellow traveller for security, cringes while floating past a marijuana plantation’s unfriendly looking armed lookout, almost sinks after his vessel gets punctured, and gets detained and searched after foolishly walking up to employees of a diamond mine in a heavily patrolled and well-guarded "forbidden zone". (Although during all this, he does somehow manage to recruit an amiable and unusual fellow explorer.)
What makes the whole enterprise more than bearable is Hjelland’s good-humoured self-deprecation after each near-disaster and his determination to plug along. And where Gods Must Be Crazy’s cutesy apartheid-era portrayal of the rural relationship between black Africans and their European overlords was the most grating aspect of that otherwise entertaining low-budget effort, Hjelland dives right into the realities of the supposedly post-segregationist state.
A brief stay in the town of Orania, in the Northern Cape province, and a chat with some of its exclusively white, Afrikaner inhabitants, shows how apartheid is still alive—at least in spirit, if not law—in some areas of South Africa.
One of the more endearing aspects of The Impossible River Journey is Hjelland’s meeting with "Joseph" early on, a Sudanese refugee who has, astonishingly, travelled thousands of kilometres south, mostly on foot, to secure a better life for himself and help his widowed mother back home.
Joseph is in the country illegally and doesn’t really seem to know what he should do next, but Hjelland takes him on for the first leg of his ordeal, gets him some help through some NGO friends, then teams up with him again for much of the longer part of his Orange River trial.
His new companion in harm is friendly, engaging, and inquisitive, and he undergoes a bit of a transformative epiphany himself during the trip, one he later explains, in halting English, to his unlikely benefactor.
It’s heartwarming, really, has an obvious effect on the filmmaker himself, and helps the film, ultimately, to transcend its seemingly doomed outcome.