Rafting the Source of the Nile
No one can call me a powder puff ever again.
My friend Danielle, after two weeks of intense lobbying, finally convinced me to go to Uganda to white water raft up the Nile. “Only a couple of the medium rapids, and we’ll go around the hard rapids,” she had said.
This did not happen.
The rapids are located at what is now known as the source of the mighty Nile River, in Jinja, Uganda, about 50 km east of Kampala. Fed from Lake Victoria, the water moves north into what is called the White or Victoria Nile, and then continues the long journey northward. Ranging from Class 1 to Class 6, the rapids are known as some of the best and most challenging in the world. We were to tackle all of the Class 3s, 4s, and 5s.
Two things that I should mention here: 1) Class 6 is synonymous with certain death (so you can understand how terrifying a Class 5 is), and 2) I’ve never gone rafting before.
We decided to go with Adrift, the first company to establish operations there, and which has taken the likes of Prince William and Geri Halliwell. They have great facilities and equipment, and I’m happy that I chose to go with them instead of with the other companies. The day-long rafting trip was $95, which was competitive with the others.
We got all suited up in our helmets and life jackets and were sorted into two rafts. For whatever reason, all 4 girls were placed into the same boat. I wasn’t sure why, but I guessed it was because we didn’t want our raft to flip. Our boat ended up having only seven people compared to 10 in the other, and I still wonder why the boats were uneven. This seems like a minor detail, but the weight of our boat did become important.
Our raft included two Swiss guys and their uncle (the uncle was cool but I have taken to calling his Swiss nephews “the fairy Swiss” because they were weak, slow, and generally useless); an Australian who took six months off from university to travel around Africa; a doctor from DC, and Danielle and myself. Our guide was from New Zealand, and I will henceforth call him “Sadistic Simon,” (or “SS”) because that’s what he was. Very nice, but he had a daredevil streak.
We told him that, while the other boat wanted to flip, we didn’t want to. “Only once,” he said. “Otherwise, where’s the fun?” Almost everyone in my boat had rafted before (in Colorado and Canada) but only one person had ever flipped. I wasn’t very excited about flipping even once. It just didn’t sound very pleasant.
We learned the ropes over a half hour, and SS gave us a comprehensive lesson. We flipped the boat, we paddled, we steered, we learned how to get down in a rapid. Then we started heading for the first rapid, a Class 1-2. SS gave us instructions, but the fairy Swiss, who were at the front of our raft (and are therefore the most important people in the boat apart from the guide) didn’t catch on…when we’d gotten through, SS asked if we all understood English, and the fairy Swiss responded, “No, no English.”
I looked around the boat and caught the terrified glances of everyone else. I didn’t have any particular desire to go through a Class 5 rapid being directed by people who didn’t understand the directions. They also didn’t understand the concept of rowing in time, so our boat was all over the place. SS was pretty upset, as were we all.
The first real rapid was a Class 3, whose name I have forgotten. All I remember was going over the edge, smacking into a wave, and finding myself plunging into warm water. I came up, dazed, like everyone else. I managed to find the raft and was pulled back in. SS was standing in the raft and laughing. He had done it on purpose.
That was okay, though. The bottom of the rapid was flat water, so at least you could come up and stay up. And since the water was warm, it was really nice to swim.
We went over the famous Bujagali Falls, where apparently village boys, paid by visitors, hold on to jerry cans and go through the rapids. We were told that tens of boys die every year in their dangerous quest for a little money. Between that and the other rapids, it seems that finding corpses in the water is quite common; one of the guides said that she has a signal that she sends to the safety kayakers to tell them to collect the body and bring it to shore. Apparently, though, retrieving the bodies is a problem because if you bring it to shore, the Ugandan police immediately implicate you in the person’s death. Unfortunately for the staff of the rafting companies, it’s in their interest because no queasy rafting client wants to see a body floating in the water to remind them of the real dangers of the rapids.
The next rapid was called “G-Spot,” which inevitably inspired many jokes. It was a Class 5. We paddled and paddled, and got down when instructed.
The next thing I remember was a huge hole in the water and a 12-foot wave coming over the side of the raft. I was thrown far from the raft and plunged deep. My contacts were loose and I couldn’t see. Swimming to the surface to catch a breath, I only barely managed when I was blindsided by another huge wave and sucked under. Coming up again for an even smaller breath, I was hit again and sucked under again. Finally, I was struggling at the surface for air, smaller waves still smacking me, out of breath, blind, and feeling like a rag doll in a washing machine. Someone grabbed my life vest and put my hand on a safety kayak, whose handle I could barely grab because I was so exhausted and shaky. If I could have cried, I would have, but I didn’t have the energy.
Everyone had had pretty violent wipeouts, and we were floating at the bottom of the rapid like flotsam and jetsam. The kayak took me and two others further downstream before we were pulled back into the raft.
We were all pretty angry. It was a wicked rapid, and we had flipped right in the middle of it. It wasn’t that common to flip there, and the other boat even TRIED to do so, but couldn’t. We were covered in bruises from where oars had smacked us underwater and were all short of breath. Danielle decided that from then on, she was going to abandon our boat, opting to take the safety boat through the rapids.
In retrospect, I’m not sure if it was the poor paddling of the fairy Swiss, or the poor steering of our guide, or the sheer lightness of our boat compared to the other that caused us to flip that time. All I can say is that I can’t sleep at night thinking about that 12-foot wave.
We barely had time to let our hearts settle back into our chests before we reached the next rapid, a Class 4-5. Danielle went through on the safety boat. We maneuvered and got down, and the next thing I remember was being dumped into the water again, getting tangled in oars, and not being able to come to the surface because I was stuck under the raft. I swam out and one of the fairy Swiss grabbed my life vest and pulled me to the raft, for which I was grateful because I didn’t have the energy to swim anymore. Danielle told me later that SS was jumping on the upside-down raft, pumping his fists in the air from pride that he’d flipped the boat.
I was unhappy.
So was everyone else, for that matter, and we told him that we didn’t want to flip anymore. Finito. The other boat watched us with envy, as they had still only successfully flipped once that day.
A few more rapids, and we parked our raft at Wakisi Island for a lunch buffet. My neck was aching terribly from the whiplash of the second flip, and everyone was comparing bruises.
“Four more after lunch,” SS said. “Two easy, two hard. But we probably won’t flip on the hard ones.” Probably.
The first three we successfully navigated without being thrown out of the boat. The last one, however, SS had not described until we were approaching it.
“This is Itanda,” he said. “The locals call it ‘The Bad Place.’” A Class 6, SS said it was the biggest rapid he’d ever seen in his life. “We can take the chicken run or we can take the intermediate course. What do you guys want?”
If the locals called it “The Bad Place,” I was definitely opting for the chicken run. So did everyone else. The thing was, to get to the “doable” parts of Itanda, we had to get out of the water and go overland to avoid certain death. Village boys carried our boats behind us as we crossed over to the other side.
It was easily one of the most terrifying moments in my life, not just because the water was churning violently—by this point, I knew the dangers of a Class 5, and this rapid would have been a Class 10 if the classification system went higher than 6. I was also terrified because I knew that I wasn’t going to be safely watching it from the shore; I was getting in.
The first boat went through with the aim of flipping, at which they again failed. It was our turn. We were all yelling at the fairy Swiss because one slip and we would be in for a bigger wipeout than before. We hugged the edges of the river, but a wave brought us into the Class 4-5 section and I’ll be damned if we hit a huge wave broadside, tipping our raft up on its side, so I was perpendicular to the water. But we were more determined than that wave, and we hunkered down, forcing the raft back down and sailing out of the rough water.
SS laughed afterward. “You know, for the past three weeks, my clients have asked me to flip their boat right there and I haven’t succeeded. I finally get a boat that doesn’t want that, and what happens? You guys almost flip! I just had to shift my weight and you guys would have been finished.”
Bruised and battered, that was the end of our day-long rafting trip. When SS asked us if we enjoyed it, Danielle said it best: “We definitely got our money’s worth.” SS had said that 2-3 flips was average, but that they were intentional flips on easier rapids. “Of all the places where you guys could have wiped out, you had the worst!” he exclaimed.
The all-boys boat had only flipped once. And they had wanted to.
We dried off, shared war stories and drank beer on the shore before heading back to Kampala. I was so shaky from the adrenaline rush that I could hardly hold the bottle.
I’m in complete pain right now but have to say that I’m pretty proud of my war wounds. For someone who has never gone rafting before, I still can’t believe I managed Class 5 rapids. And at the famous source of the Nile, in equatorial Africa! It was beautiful, memorable, and extreme and I don’t regret going at all. But I will say this: After repeatedly cheating death, I won’t be doing that again!