Whitewater Rafting at the Source of the Nile in Uganda
"Okay, this is one of the moost intaense number faeves we're goo'n oover all de," Lee, our rafting guide from Glasgow, Scotland, warned us. "We're goo'n ta farward paddle, then hard farwards, and then I'm goo'n ta shoot 'Get doon! Hold oon!' And when I shoot tha, I mean 'GET DOON! HOLD OON!'"
I looked at the river ahead. The surface was calm, but the waterline dropped off about 50 meters upstream. Mist was visible just beyond the drop. I took a deep breath.
I paddled along with everyone else. We approached the ledge. I got a clear view of the two-meter drop we were going over. Whitewater churned violently for about 75 meters beyond the fall.
We negotiated the 14-foot raft into the center of the rapids. The lip of the raft crept over the sheer water ledge.
"Na GET DOON!"
I hunkered down in the rear of the boat and clutched the safety line with both hands. We dropped over the ledge. A huge swell had risen at the bottom of the drop, and it pushed us back toward the falls. Then the swell broke and unleashed its full fury, flipped our raft like the toy that it was.
I was airborne for a moment, then I hit the water and went under. The current pulled me far below the surface and sped me downriver.
A deep stillness took hold of me. I had a good lungful of air. I counted it
I snapped to the surface and started a new breath; before I could finish I crashed mouth-first into a wave and was underwater again.
The deep stillness had left me; asphyxiating alarm took its place. I counted it out:
One. Two. Thr–
Yes! I was on the surface, coughing, breathing. My co-rafters were whooping and laughing nearby. The whitewater was behind us. I took another breath and let out a barbaric yawp of my own. I swam toward the raft. I'd just gone over my first class five rapids.
I'd come to Jinja, Uganda to view the (contentious) source of the Nile. Sitting on the riverside, I watched Lake Victoria empty into the waterway and marveled at how, just one month earlier, I'd swam in this very same river in Egypt, thousands of miles to the north. I thought about the enormity of the African continent, and the beauty and majesty of this river.
Then I got into a rubber raft with seven strangers and threw myself at the mercy of the river's rapids, some of the most extreme in the world.
Two Norwegians, two Brits, one Greek, and one South African joined me in the raft. They were a high-spirited group of guys who'd attended university together in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A two-member support crew worked outside of the raft. Moshi was a master whitewater kayaker; he was there to collect us if we were swept downstream. Peter, who paddled a raft similar to ours, was there for the same reason.
Lee, our sometimes unintelligible Scottish guide, had been living in Africa for nine years. He sported a handlebar mustache, giant mutton chops, and knew everything there was to know about whitewater rafting.
Whitewater Rafting 101
He then demonstrated how to pull yourself back into the raft.
To make sure we'd absorbed these lessons Lee flipped the raft using a special cord, spilling us all into the water.
It was a hot, sunny day, and the water felt cool and clean. My lifejacket kept me buoyant, allowing me to assume the crucifix position with ease, and I was swept speedily and pleasantly downriver.
The stretch of whitewater we were rafting was made up of class three, four, and five rapids with names such as "Rib Cage", "Silverback", "Jaws", and "The G-Spot" ("because, if you hit it right, everybody screams and everybody gets wet," Lee told us).
The International Whitewater Rating System describes class five rapids as "extremely difficult; long violent rapids that must be scouted from shore; dangerous drops, unstable eddies, strong, irregular currents and hydraulics."
We were going to hit four sets of class five rapids.
Lee claimed that, if he were to design a whitewater run for commercial rafting, he could not do any better than this stretch of the Nile. The river is wide and, most importantly, deep. Challenging series of rapids are linked by tranquil stretches of river over a 30km stretch. Two intense class five rapids pound rafters near the beginning of the journey, and then give way to relatively mellow class fours and threes for the most of the afternoon. But the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) is saved for last: a class five nightmare known as "The Bad Place".
The objective to whitewater rafting in Uganda seems to be simple: flip the raft as often as possible. Judged by this standard, we succeeded mightily.
The most intense aspect of the trip was hearing Lee describe the terrors that awaited: "Okay, this one's kinda tricky. You're goin' ta see a three-meter wave comin' in from tha left. It collides with a faeve-meter wave comin' from tha right. We want ta goo inbatween these two," he'd tell us earnestly. "If we kin manage to do tha, there's a huge pool on the other sade. This pool is known as 'tha flipper'. If luck is oon our sade, we'll stay oop. More likely, we're goin' ta rise on a swell, surf there for a whale, then drop doon into an oncoming wall. Now, this wall will dafinitely flip us, but still, HOLD OON!"
My co-rafters and I would smile uneasily at each other after these briefings, and then we'd assume our positions and do what Lee said.
Time seemed to slow down as we entered each rapid. From my crouching position I'd glance around and see belligerent white waves bursting all around us.
Time would fast forward as the waves took a hold of us. An onslaught of water would lift the boat into a near-vertical position. A strange, light sensation would come over me; I'd float away from the boat. Then a heavy, violent sheet of water would smack down on me, snapping my body around in summersaults, corkscrewing me into the deep. With the safety line just a distant memory, I'd see blue sky and white water, then pure green as the undertow sucked and sped me downstream.
After what always seemed like an eternity, I'd hit the surface, gasping for air. An incredible sense of elation and well being would flood over me – I'd made it, I was still alive.
There were plenty of relaxing stretches on the river during which we laid around and swam and ate pineapple, watermelon, and cookies. But it was hard to enjoy these times with "The Bad Place" hanging over our heads.
A class six waterfall kicks off the series of rapids known collectively as "The Bad Place", our last run of the day. Class sixes are deemed "unrunnable" by everyone with any sense, so we paddled to shore and carried the boat past the falls to a point where we could re-launch.
From our vantage point on the shore we could clearly see the 50-meter stretch of mayhem that looked like a very bad place indeed. Frenzied whitewater raged around huge drain pools, over gigantic lumps, and seemed to collide into itself and explode just for the sheer joy of anarchy. The site filled me with dread. Why torture myself? I thought. Why not sit this one out? But Lee had already launched into his briefing; wimping out did not seem to be an option.
"Now, I know I told ya ta always hoold on to tha safety laine. But when we flip oover here, tha's tha last thing you're goin' ta want ta do. Let goo of tha boot and get away from it quaeckly, cause it's goin' ta spin aroond in that pool several times before it goos downriver."
The guys piled into the boat ahead of me; I took my place beside Lee in the rear. To psyche myself up, I thought of Georgina, a petite English girl I'd met in Bwindi who'd completed this run. Then I remembered that she'd emerged with a black eye.
We shoved off the rocks, straight into the madness.
I paddled with all my might, looking the nightmare right in the eye.
An appetizer course of two-meter waves thrashed us around, disorientating me for what was to come.
"HOLD THA FOOK OON!"
We took a four-meter drop into a wide pool and rode up an immense swell. For several seconds everything was still; we were in a near-vertical position and "surfing", or staying in place.
"We're going to make it!" I thought foolishly.
Then the raft fell away beneath me. I snatched a quick breath. I was airborne. I noticed a few clouds in the sky.
My entrance into the water was like a belly flop off a high dive; my lifejacket cushioned the blow but didn't prevent the air from being knocked out of my lungs. Breathless, I took several hard tumbles before being sucked underwater and downstream. I tried my best to remain calm. I counted it out.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Si-
A torrent of green water sent me somersaulting downriver; the force of the water raged loudly in my ears.
Next thing I knew I was gasping for air. I was on the surface, in relatively calm water. I still clutched my paddle in both hands. It was over; "The Bad Place" was behind me.
I took a look around. Lee and all the others were scattered in all directions.
They were shouting and cheering. I took a deep, soggy breath, bellowed my finest
barbaric yawp of the day, and then swam gleefully toward the overturned raft.