Whitewater rafting the Nile

Sunday, December 20, 2009

It really seemed like the kind of thing that I couldn’t NOT do. Like hot air ballooning over Cappadocia, the chance to go whitewater rafting at the source of the Nile was simply too cool to pass up. It also didn’t hurt that it was substantially cheaper than the ballooning and included lunch and a light dinner. As usual though, it wasn’t the rafting itself that made the day so great (though that was really really fun), it was the people I met doing it that put things over the top.

It was a long day. I had to trudge to the Adrift offices and be there by 7:00am, which was no fun carrying everything I owned. (I was moving to a hotel in Kampala that night in order to give Rob and Gülden a chance to pack and mentally prepare for their marathon journey back to Canada for the holidays with 8-month old Ozan in tow.) And of course I managed to turn the wrong way on the walk to the office so I got to haul everything for an extra 10 minutes or so, uphill. And there seems to be a lot more “everything” than ever before. Some of this is the addition of the afore-mentioned and much-appreciated new shirts, socks and undies, and some of this is the fact that I’m in a really warm climate so my fleece jacket and heavy shoes have to be packed for the first time in months. Whatever the cause, the poor Aeronaut is under some serious strain these days, and I will have to make some hard choices at the end of the Africa leg and send a big box home. I mean really, who needs seven t-shirts anyways? Bloody extravagant.

But back to the rafting. Eventually we got out of Kampala, after stops at a few places to pick up other people (I am still baffled as to why all the other people got picked up where they were staying, but I had to find my own way to the place… baffled, and understandably miffed, or perhaps even peeved.) The ride to Jinja seemed long, but we finally made it to the Adrift Base Camp (or whatever they called it) and milled about a bit. That was the first surprise of the day – I actually knew someone there! Laurence, a guy I’d run with at the Kampala Hash on the previous Monday, was there with his Mum and Dad and cousin, and they were coming on the same trip! This was really fantastic, as I’d had a really nice time running and chatting with Laurence on the hash, and was even a bit disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to talk a bit more.

A view of the river from the rafting base camp.

There was a fairly casual briefing by the (Australian) (of course) group leader, and we got fitted up with lifejackets and helmets and picked our way down to the launch site. Then there was, as Laurence put it, some seriously “Olympic-level faffing about” that went on for what seemed like ages: discussion of who would go in what boat, last-minute swapping of who would lead on the raft and who would man the safety boat, and general indecision that went on long enough to make one wonder if this was really a company one wanted to be negotiating Class Five rapids in the care of. Finally the seven of us were off in a big puffy blue raft with Geoffrey, for a bit of flat-water fundamentals practice.

We seven were: me, Laurence and his cousin Nyla, David and Claire, Adam, and Will. I’m pretty sure all but me were from the British Isles, though Adam might bristle at that description, being Irish. And it turns out we were all very cool, fun, interesting and funny people. (If we do say so ourselves). We even commented on it at one point – how nice it was that we were all getting along and enjoying each other’s company while also enjoying the experience itself. Then we figured that simply being the type of person to seek out a whitewater rafting trip in Uganda meant we were a fairly select sub-set to begin with. Whatever the reason, it was great fun.

And let’s not forget the rafting itself. We started of with doing some basic exercises, most of which were about how not to get thrown out of the boat, and then about what to do after you were, inevitably, thrown out of the boat. We got wet, we jumped in the water, we hauled ourselves and each other back into the boat, we swam through a tame Class One set of rapids, and then we were off in earnest.

(And a word of warning. There will be no pictures of me rafting. Not for a long long time. Not surprisingly, they recommended we not bring cameras or cell phones or other expensive non-dunkable items. Adrift had a photographer stationed at the most dramatic places on the river to catch all the action. However, the photos from that CD won’t be available to me for quite a while, so what you see here are pics taken from the Adrift website, and you can just imagine my face in there somewhere. I hope Adrift do not mind me using these photos, since I have credited them, and am quite happy to recommend them to anyone who might have a spare day in Uganda.)

Here’s a nice aerial shot of the river.

Shooting the rapids was exhilarating and wet, and Geoffrey our guide told us the name of each set of rapids, and the class, before we went through. (Some favourite names: “Donald Duck”, “Dead Dutchman”, “The Washing Machine”). Of course we ended up tipping over at least once before lunch, which is actually a lot more fun than it sounds. We’d approach the rapids and Geoffrey would bark out orders: “Paddle forward. Stop. Back paddle. Back paddle hard! Stop! GET DOWN!” which would be our cue to hunker down in the middle of the raft and hang on tight. Then we’d hit some enormous wall of water and the boat would end up perpendicular and then it would just be chaos – paddles and limbs and helmets everywhere. And then you’d be deep in the water, and waiting to find out which way was up, and waiting, and waiting, and thinking, “Ok, that’s enough now. Heh heh. I could come up for air any time. No, really. Heh…” with an increasingly panicky feeling rising inside. And then you’d surface and suck in 14 gallons of Nile river water and 1 cubic centimeter of air, and eventually things calmed down and you were bobbing happily beside the raft, clinging on and looking around to see who else had managed to find the boat, and who was still bobbing along through the rapids, and who was clinging to a safety kayak. And I promise you, it was FUN.

See what I mean? Not exactly graceful.

There were several rapids before lunch, and then we stopped at a nice little island where there was a shelter and a lovely spread laid out and the chance to have a much-appreciated cup of hot tea. After lunch we had more rapids, and more chaos, including one particularly vertical drop down a waterfall that ended with a bump on the face for one of our number. As she was being tended to we got to watch four other boats from another company go down the same falls, and they all seemed to have no difficulty, sliding gracefully over the edge and popping up in no time, with all crew members beaming and cheering and pumping fists. We, on the other hand, seemed to come through each set of rapids with bodies flying, finally coming up like bedraggled wet rats, gasping for air and counting the bodies. No matter, we had fun.

I suspect this is just what we looked like – clinging on desperately.

There were also long stretches of flat water where we paddled slowly (or more likely where we allowed Geoffrey to paddle for us while we lazed and chatted). A few times we got to jump in for a swim, and the water was warm and pleasingly free of crocodiles. In the afternoon the sun blazed, and despite the frequent application of sunscreen I managed to positively bar-be-que the tops of my legs, tops of my feet, arms, and face. And there were one or two moments, particularly when I was bobbing in the calm water supported by a super-buoyant life jacket, chatting away with new friends and I’d think, “How, exactly, did I come to be floating in the Nile when this time last year I was working a 16-hour day in a dark theatre in a frozen city?” And once again I was struck with what an incredibly good idea this whole thing is.

At the end of the afternoon we pulled out of the water and hiked up to where the trucks were waiting. There was a bar-be-que with really nice beef and pineapple skewers and chapatis, and – even better - there was a cooler full of cold beer. We stood around and chatted more and exchanged email addresses. There were a bunch of kids hanging around at the landing site, some helped carry gear up, and some just joked around, and most really liked having their picture taken and then looking at the picture on the camera screen.

Well, most of them liked having their picture taken. Clearly Mr. Upper Left Hand Corner was less-than impressed.

Finally, we divided up into two buses – some for the short trip back to Jinja (lucky bastards) and me, Adam and Will for the long long long ride back to Kampala. But even though the trip was long, it was still nice because by that time it was a ride with friends, so there was plenty to talk about, and the cooler still had some beer in it. I was late by the time the beleaguered bus driver weaved his way through Kampala to drop me off. He originally told me that I’d have to walk the last bit to the hotel, but I think he recognized the genuine anxiety on my face at the thought of trying to navigate with my big bag through the dark, unmarked, heaving streets of Kampala, because he managed to get his bus through the insane traffic to deliver me right to the doorstep. I tipped him handsomely.

The next day I was off on a flight to Nairobi, but that’s another country, and another story.


Kathryn said...

I'll have to take your word on it - the fun, perpendicular rafting experience! Ummmm - those website photos seem to only show the 'before' shots - not the 'after'.
On the other hand...some of us are still working those 16-hour days in a dark theatre.....maybe I could reconsider....

Viviane said...

Awesome. Really Awesome.

Mouse said...

Wow Pam is all I have at this moment. Looks and sounds like you are enjoying your adventure.

Sight Seer said...

That look like a great place to go rafting. Another great place is the Ocoee river in North Carolina.

FLF said...

Wow. What else can I say. I have rafted the Ottawa River and the Athabaska river... but never, ever had a vertical drop like you show. Enjoy Nairobi; Not sure where you are on the 25th (me, Florida) but wishing you the best, and good food and friendship no matter where the day has taken you.

Mitch said...

Simply and truely brilliant.

Lisa said...


benR said...

I'm only doing 14 hour days at work! But I guess rafting looks OK too!
Glad your having fun Pam!

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