We had just pushed off the bank in our sixteen-foot paddle boat and our guide, Lee, was giving us a safety talk. “Always keep one hand on the T grip of the paddle. Otherwise it is going to knock someone’s teeth out. It has happened before and it will happen again. This is not Disneyland.”
We had arrived in Jinja, Uganda the previous day after a twelve-hour bus ride from Nairobi. Jinja is the source of the White Nile, which joins with the Blue Nile in Khartoum to create the massive river that we can see off the deck of our Cairo apartment. It is also the starting point for some serious whitewater rafting.
The company we chose, Adrift (not exactly a name that inspires confidence or stability), picked us up in the morning and took us to their office where we paid and signed the usual form stating it’s not their fault should we meet an untimely end during our Nile adventure. Then we loaded up into a van with our fellow rafters for the hour ride to the launch site.
After collecting our life-jackets, paddles and helmets, we made our way barefoot down the steep path taking us to the our boats waiting peacefully on the bank. Lee asked for two strong men to get into the front and two Danish men volunteered, awkwardly making their way to the front of the boat as we piled in after them.
Once we pushed off, Lee started to explain the basics as many in our group had never rafted before. After detailing a number of ways that members of our group could get black eyes or teeth knocked out, he set us to work practicing paddling as a group, with everyone working on the long deep strokes that would propel us across the flat sections and hopefully get us through the all upcoming rapids in one piece.
When he was satisfied with our paddling, he had us practice flipping and then reflipping the boat, an experience we would probably have again in the coming hours. The flipping part is the easy, but those who failed to hang on to the side ropes ringing our boat quickly found themselves surfacing inside the overturned raft instead of beside it. They looked a little shaken when they swam out but it was clear that Lee was not a sympathetic teacher, telling one women who let go of her paddle to go back under the raft and find it!
We made it back onto the raft and paddled up to the start of our first rapid. I had read online that the trip started with a few Class 1 or 2 rapids to get us warmed up and ready for the larger whitewater later on. Unfortunately it seems that a new dam has changed the launch point, because as we neared the suspiciously loud rapid Lee announced that this was “Overtime” and it was a Class 5.
Most rivers classify the difficulty of their rapids using a 1-5 rating. A one is small ripples, two gets bigger with some obstacles, three is more complex and requires significant maneuvering to come out alright, four is huge but predictable and fives are described by the American Whitewater Association as “long, difficult, violent rapids. Unavoidable waves and obstructions. Steep holes and/or drops. Demanding maneuvers that come quickly before difficult passageways. Risks are high for injury and even death.
I was probably the only person on the boat who knew what Class 5 actually meant and Lee didn’t bother to explain it, instead just telling us that we would paddle hard then get down and hold on. We swung around the first rock at the top of the rapid, paddling furiously to keep in the clear channel and cut to the right across the rapid, avoiding the massive rocks just off to our left. Our boat then wheeled around and started in the other direction, coming to rest up against a large rock dead in the center of the river. Lee shouted to get down and look outward (not toward the person in front) and then pushed off the rock so we were heading downriver backward. Looking off to the side, I felt the boat start to tip and then we plunged off a ten-foot waterfall! When we hit the bottom, the boat partially folded in on itself and then shot back into shape, launching half of us, myself included, into the water. Luckily it seems that each rapid ends in a calm section, giving us time to climb back onto the boat and and calm our racing hearts.
The next rapid saw the other half of our group sent flying into the water as we hit a huge wave sideways, turning our boat vertical before flopping it back down again. We had to portage around the first part of the third rapid, a Class 6. Walking around it, we could see why it was classed as “unrunable”. There were two ten-foot waterfalls right after one another leading into a massive hole known as “The Bad Place”, named after one of the adventurous kayakers who first braved the rapid. When asked how it was, he replied, clearly shaken, “that is a bad place!”
After one more massive set of waves, known as Vengeance, we stopped for lunch and lost three members of our group, who left after a half day, needing to get back to Kampala early. Although losing three people cut our group down to five, we were not hugely inconvenienced as they were not operating at 100% to begin with. It seems that they were still drunk from the night before and the pitiful swimming and weak paddling of one prompted our guide to ask, “you knew that you signed up to go whitewater rafting right?” He had started in the front of the boat and ended his trip in the back.
There was a long flat section after lunch which gave us a chance to float a bit in the warm Nile waters and chat with Lee. He seems to be living the ideal life of a rafting guide, going from one country to the next staying for a year or two and then heading on. His favorite river was the Kickin’ Horse in British Columbia, which, he told us smiling. is known for being the cause of death for at least one person a year. Clearly he was not a mellow-waters kinda guy.
He also made no real effort to learn our names, calling all the men “bro” and the women “princess”, trying the name out until he found a good person to match it. He told us the the Turks were the worst paddlers in the world and that an entire side of Turkish paddlers was only equal to the short Korean girl whose weak paddling earned her the title of princess for our group. Although his humor and social skills were questionable, we certainly trusted him with our lives, which was good because we had four huge rapids to go until we reached the end of our trip. Luckily, we made it through all of them without any major problems, making our only flip of the trip the one we caused ourselves in the beginning.
By the time that we paddled in to the take out, our arms were incredibly soar and our other muscles cramped, but we had survived and it was totally worth it. Even more gratifying was the knowledge that we did it all while fasting. It is the middle of the Baha’i fasting month, where Baha’is all over the world do not eat or drink between sunup and sundown for nineteen days. Although our we were a little worried about not having the energy to paddle for 4-5 hours, our hardy breakfast kept us going without a problem. As for thirst, Overdrive, Vengeance and Nile Special made sure we had plenty to drink. :)