Rafting the Nile

It would have been better to just put me into a boat, push me away from the bank, and send me coursing down the White Nile toward the grade five rapids that make Jinja, Uganda one of the most exciting places in the world to whitewater raft. Giving me time to think about putting myself at the mercy of a raging river is not a good idea. I’m a worrier. And I’m a reader. That’s not a good combo, especially when the things you find to read about rafting the Nile talk about how many times the raft flipped over, about being trapped under the raft with the waves washing up and over you, about feeling your lungs about to burst as you’re swept underwater for five or six seconds at a time, about being warned not to fall out of the left side of the boat at one set of rapids because you’ll end up on the rocks…

Suffice it to say I didn’t sleep much the night before our rafting trip. I was too busy seriously reconsidering whether I actually wanted to do it. But when morning broke, I got up, got dressed, and boarded the shuttle that would take us to the Nile River Explorers site. I knew I’d regret not going. And I knew if I didn’t go, I’d probably be more worried as I spent all day wondering what the heck was happening to Jeff. It would be better to witness it all in person.

But they weren’t about to make it easy on me. In addition to the two hour ride from Kampala to Jinja, I also had an additional hour to sit around, think about what the heck I was doing, and watch a video of a raft flipping time and time again as we waited for another group to arrive at the site. Seriously, could you just put me on the raft and in the water?

Finally, they did just that, launching us at a deceptively calm and peaceful site where the seven of us crazy people in our boat could learn from our even crazier guide how to front paddle, back paddle, hold on (for small rapids), and get down (for big rapids). Then, as we approached the first small rapid, we got a taste of what it would be like if the boat flipped, as we all moved to one side of the boat and purposely sent ourselves somersaulting backwards into the water. I came up sputtering, trying to catch my breath between waves, and practicing the crucifix position in which you float downstream with your feet high up and in front of you in the hopes of avoiding any real collisions with rocks. I came up with a bit of a fat lip thanks to someone’s flying paddle. And I came up wondering if maybe they could just let me swim to shore and walk back to the campsite where I could meet everyone later. What the hell was I doing? I am a girl who likes to be in control, and in an inflatable raft in the rapids of the Nile, you’re anything but in control.

I’ve rafted before. This wasn’t a first, and I knew that the fear was part of the thrill, but I still wasn’t sure I was up for it. Last time I’d rafted was in the Grand Canyon, where the rafts were much sturdier, where I didn’t have to paddle but instead held on for dear life while our guide used oars to row us through the rapids, and where our old-hand guide seemed a bit less crazy than the Aussie directing us on the Nile. Though technically in the same category, the experiences weren’t going to be quite the same. I’d also never met a Grade 5 rapid before, the highest grade of rapid considered to be navigable in a raft.

Luckily once on the water, there isn’t too much time to think. After passing through a few riffles, the first real rapid you meet is called 50/50, its name an indicator of your chances of making it through this Grade 3 Rapid without flipping. Let’s just say we were on the losing end of that wager. With the first coming together of waves, the left side of the boat was tossed into the water. With the second wave, one person from the right side was tossed. That left just me and another girl Dierdra hanging on for dear life, the boat pretty much on its side. And we really didn’t have a chance. With the third and final wave, the boat flipped, dunking us into the fortunately quite warm water of the Nile. The two of us plus the guide were able to hold onto the boat and ride it through the rest of the rapid. One other person was able to grab back on after being tossed and ride with us. The other four paddlers, including Jeff, had been picked up by the safety kayakers and transferred to the safety raft, from where we picked them up once we were back in calm waters and had managed to flip the boat upright.

Though it wasn’t quite the start I had hoped for (I’d been hoping to not end up in the water at all), it was probably the start I needed. I’d survived. It wasn’t that bad. The fear of the unknown was no longer hanging over my head, and for me, that is the worst fear.

Baptism by fire is the name of the game on the Nile as our next rapid was to be the biggest of the day, a Grade 5 rapid called Silverback. We were to paddle to the precipice, and then at the command of “Get Down” we were to squat into the boat, face outward, and cling to the rope. Slam, we hit the first wave, water rushing into the boat and washing over all of us, but not yet ripping any of us out. Slam the second wave followed immediately, slamming us around but not getting permanent hold of any of us. We were almost through. Apparently some people thought we might just make it. I wasn’t thinking at all, just holding on. But in the end it was all futile. Wave three grabbed us and flipped us upside down sending each of us scattering in different directions. No one managed to hold on to the boat this time. Luckily we were through the worst of it and there were no massive waves waiting to drown us, just lots of medium waves stealing our breath for snatches at a time. Over the sound of the waves, I could hear a safety kayaker yelling “Feet up! Feet up!” and so as a current pushed me right past Jeff (both of us with it enough to say hello and make sure each other was okay) and towards the rocky shoreline, I got into the crucifix position and used my feet to push off the big boulder in front of me and redirect myself back towards the center of the river and the calm pool awaiting at the end of the rapid. There, the boat floated, still upside down, and I, followed right away by Jeff, was able to grab on and hold on until it was time to flip it back over and get back in. A tiny scratch on my ankle was the only battle wound I had to add to my fat lip. Not too bad.

And after that, well things were smooth sailing. We managed to keep the boat upright and intact over waterfalls and through raging rapids, though there were a few close calls and we certainly had plenty of waves wash over us. In fact, at an optional rapid called Chop Suey, which our boat chose to brave while the other boat bypassed it, a gigantic wave washed over the boat, pretty much sinking it for a moment. I was so surrounded by water that I couldn’t tell if I was actually in the boat or not until it popped back up and I felt the plastic of the raft under my butt. The strange thing was that although I had been in the third position when we entered the rapid, I was now in the first position. The two people in front of me, Jeff and Dierdra, had borne the brunt of the wave and been washed overboard, though both managed to hang on, and we easily pulled them back aboard.

The worst part of the remaining trip, which was about 5 hours in total, were the calm, empty stretches in the middle where you could lie back and relax or get out and swim. It wasn’t that there was anything scary here—no crocodiles that we saw—but the calm gave time for the anticipation to build. When rapid follows rapid, you have no time to think. You just act. You forward paddle and back paddle as told. You hold on and get down. You swim and gasp for breath and try to avoid rocks. But in the calm periods, where you can only hear the rapids building up in front of you, you have plenty of time to imagine the possiblities.

Fortunately, none of the imagined possibilities became realities. Though the Grade 5 rapids of the White Nile are some of the biggest in the world, it’s actually a very safe trip, because the water is deep and the rocks are relatively few. Plus the safety kayakers are so bad ass that they’d have you out in a second if you really needed a rescue. It’s a thrill though, a mix of fear and exhilaration. And in the end, when you make it through the final rapid, which is named “The Bad Place,” with only a few small battle wounds, one missing contact, and a body thoroughly exhausted, you think that given the chance, you’d definitely do it again…though you’d still prefer to just be thrown in the boat and sent downstream, without even a second to think about it.

7 Replies to “Rafting the Nile”

  1. I guess an insurance waiver and being in the middle of Africa can really let you do anything.

    I’m thinking most US guide services would not book “beginners” on such trips. I’ve looked at a few world-class trips on US waters and most ask for some proof of experience and ability. This is for top-level Class 5 stuff. Most everything else is do-able with an insurance waiver and a safety video.

    You know, I did the Poudre River with explicit doctor’s instructions that I wasn’t supposed to do anything that could lead to trauma to the spleen. Good times. Mostly Class 3 stuff, so I survived. I can’t really explain, though, how hard I had my foot attached under the side and my ass planted to the seat. Probably would not have done the trip you did under the same orders.

  2. Very Exciting! I think you’re very brave! We went rafting here in Colorado and it only went up to class 3 and I still spent the entire 2 hour drive there contemplating whether or not I was going to die and if it was worth it. At least the water was warm for you 🙂 I fell out of the raft once and the water was so cold it completely took my breath away!

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