Rafting the White Nile
July 16th, 2010
The source of the White Nile is near the town of Jinja, Uganda. A series of waterfalls and dams marks the start of the mightly river which runs from Lake Victoria all the way up to the Mediterranean. It is here, near Jinja, where some of the world’s best whitewater rafting exists. Since we missed out on the opportunity to raft on the Zambezi river near Vic Falls (because the water level was too high), we decided that rafting here would be a more than adequate consolation.
Early in the morning, after a hearty chapati breakfast, we loaded into the rafts. The rafts are all 8-seaters, 6 or 7 crew people plus a captain. Mark and I filed into one raft with others from the truck and our expert guide, Doug. Doug is actually from Vic Falls, so we knew we were in capable hands. After some safety drills and practice down some grade 2 and 3 rapids we dove head first into our first grade 5: Bujagali Falls. Rapids are classed by their difficulty level. Grade 1 is the easiest, a bubbling of water, no skill or line required. Grade 5 is the hardest, curling waves, turbulent water, much skill required to paddle the correct line. A grade 6 rapid is commercially unraftable, and often deathly dangerous, something we definitely could not tackle. So grade 5 rapids are the biggest, baddest rapids there are. And we were about to head right into the heart of one.
Doug was the big chief of all the rafting guides, which meant that we had to wait and ensure all the other rafts to make it down safely before we could proceed. This was torturous. As we watched all the other rafts flip, it only escalated my fear and the voice inside my head screaming “What are you doing!? Are you nuts?!” There was no turning back. We were up: All I can remember is paddling like I’ve never paddled before, then Doug’s voice shouting ‘get down!’ as I stared down into the middle of a gigantic hole of white water. Next thing I know, we’re on the other side. Somehow, miraculously, we made it!
With confidence up, we were ready for the next challenge: grade 4 ‘Total Gunga’. We took our first swim of the day, of many, as the boat flipped and we tossed out like popcorn. It’s complete chaos when you’re flipped. One second you’re hanging on for dear life, the next your submersed under crazy waters where you can’t tell what direction is up or down. All you can do is hold your breath and hope the river will spit you back up for air somewhere along it’s course. And preferably, someplace where there aren’t any crocs. It’s wild. And scary. And so much flipping fun!
The river would not relent. Next up was the scariest mother of a rapid I have ever seen: ‘Silverback’, another grade 5. We were headed to the highest, hariest section. Inevitably, we flipped; we flipped hard inside a monster hole. When you hit a hole, i.e. large dip in the wave before it crests, you’re supposed to take a deep breath and hold it. You’re also told to hold onto the ropes lining the raft. This is all well and good until the moment you’re tossed violently into the air, or water, then all hell breaks loose and you’re at the mercy of the water.
After Silverback, water logged and weary we had yet one more grade 5 before we could finally relax: ‘Over Time’, a 15 foot waterfall. You’ve got to time your paddling and manouevering just right or else you’ll miss the fun of going over the drop. And so we did: another hair-raising success!
After this momentous feat, things calmed down for us as we had to paddle/drift down one of three so-called ‘oceans’ where we could actually check out our amazing surroundings. That’s where it hit me: we were on the Nile River. Wow. The Riverbanks were lined with papryus, storks, herons, cormorant and ancient Ibis birds alongside locals doing their laundry. Kingfishers, fish eagles and osprey hunted overhead. No crocodiles in sight. Phew!
After the brief calm, a light lunch and some swimming, we were hurtled back into the storm as stormy skies were brewing overhead. First up was another grade 5, frighteningly named ‘Death Pit’. The name alone was enough to scare me silly, but Doug also psyched me out with stories of getting sucked down for extended periods of time requiring resuscitation. As a result I jumped ship and rode down a tame grade 4, ‘Retrospect’ from the security of the safety raft. From the safety boat, on the other side of the ‘Death Pit’, I watched my raft, with Mark leading the paddling, flip and get sucked back into the rapid. Everyone surfaced 20 feet or so down stream gasping for air, but generally in good shape.
We had another ocean to cross. Just enough time for us to get comfy and relaxed before another grade 5, on the tail end of an immensly terrifying grade 6. The final rapid for the day was aptly named ‘The Bad Place’. By this time I was exhausted from paddling 30 km of river and from getting whipped around and waterlogged. I just wanted to make it down in one piece. My gung-ho crew wanted to go for the highest water, the wildest line down the waves. “Ok. One more, I can do this!Woohoo!”, I was telling myself. And then we were off. And then we flipped. Bobbing in and out of whitewater for the next 50 feet, we all needed a kayak rescue to bring us to shore. Solid ground at last.
In the words of an adrenaline junky (that’s me, of course!) “What a wicked, awesome, gnarly day!”