Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rafting the Mighty Nile

Day 28: Jinja, Uganda
On Saturday, we departed Kampala for Jinja, a town near Lake Victoria at the source of the Nile. We arrived in the early afternoon, so we had some time to relax and get geared up for our big day rafting on the Nile. This morning, we ventured down the red mud road to the Nile River Explorers headquarters, where we enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit and picked up our life jackets and helmets. Five girls from my group and I were rafting that day – everyone else stayed back at camp for other activities (i.e. they chickened out). Our tour leader, Carol, was kayaking but would be with us in a caravan of two other rafts and a number of kayaks.

The morning was gray and rainy, but we didn't mind as we were prepared to get wet! After squishing through the muddy banks of the river in bare feet, we hopped into our raft and began training through all the different commands – hard forward, high side left, get down, and so forth. We also practiced flipping the raft and coming up inside the air pocket underneath. After enjoying our swim in the warm water, we climbed back into the raft, only to spot a gigantic Nile monitor lizard slithering through the water right where we had been swimming! Now fully aware of the various reptilian lifeforms lurking in the Nile, we paddled towards the first rapid, wondering if we would encounter an infamous Nile crocodile.

Rapids are classified on a 5 grade scale, with 5 being the most dangerous. Grade 6 rapids also exist, but only kayakers are able to tackle them. Our first rapid of the day was a grade 4 – we followed our guide's commands and surfed through the fast-moving water, emerging on the other side ready for more. We soon reached the second rapid of the day, named 50/50 because the turbulent waves flip half of the rafts that attempt it. Our raft was in that unlucky half. Adrenaline pumping, we paddled as hard as we could, but a surge of water hit us from the side, overturning us in the middle of the violent rapids. Before each rapid, our guide informed us what to do if our raft flipped – in this case, we were to swim towards the right side of the river. But those instructions and the training we had done in flat water proved completely useless as I was plunged into the swirling whitewater, completely disoriented and with time to take only a shallow breath. Not knowing which way was up or down, much less left or right, all I could do was wait for my life jacket to pull me through the furiously swirling bubbles to the surface. I emerged in the middle of the thrashing waves gasping for air and trying to find my bearings. I was finally swept downstream past the rapids and spotted a raft, which was moving further away with the current. My life jacket was so constricting that I struggled to breathe as I swam weakly towards the raft. I finally reached it, climbed the sides, and plopped inside. It was not my raft, but there were a few others from my group in it as well. We paddled towards our raft, reunited with our group, and prepared for the next rapid.

We tackled one or two more rapids successfully before our guide informed us about the next challenge. It was a grade 5 rapid ominously named Chop Suey – our guide did not give us any paddling instructions, and we neared closer and closer to the rapid, not knowing what to do. This rapid was even more violent than 50/50, and unsurprisingly the raft flipped, flinging us mercilessly into the churning whitewater. I managed to take a slightly bigger breath this time, but it was still quite a terrifying experience to be tossed about underwater, not knowing how long it would be until I reached the surface. Seeing nothing but swirling bubbles and light, I felt like I was in a washing machine. I eventually scrambled into the raft and caught my breath. After we were safely past Chop Suey, our guide told us that we were the only raft that attempted it – the other two groups went through an easier grade 4 rapid on the other side of the river. He also mentioned that his lack of instructions before the rapid was due to the fact that Chop Suey has virtually a 100 percent flip rate. It didn't really matter how we paddled – we were destined to be overturned by the crushing waves. Proud to have the honor of being the only raft to pass through the rapid, we mentally prepared ourselves for more of the Nile.

We passed through a few more rapids before lunch. The rain ceased and the sun emerged from the clouds, drying us out quickly as we enjoyed our lunch of fresh pineapple on a long stretch of flat water. I soon began wishing for rain again, as the sun quickly began scorching my knees – the mighty Nile had thoroughly washed off any sunscreen, waterproof as it may be, and to make matters worse, my malaria medication increases sun sensitivity. Our guide said it was safe to take a dip in the river to cool off, and as we were all enjoying the refreshing water, he slapped the surface hard with his paddle a few times. He said the noise sounded like gunshots and would scare away any crocodiles that might be lurking below. Needless to say, all of our eyes widened and we scrambled back into the raft.

After lunch, we were energized and ready to conquer more of the river. As we approached one of the rapids, we saw the raft in front of us flip. We paddled as hard as we could, and we emerged unscathed and satisfied on the other side, thrusting our paddles into the air in victory. We paddled further downstream and soon made a landing on the rocky shore – there was a grade 6 rapid ahead that we had to walk around. As we climbed up the banks, we witnessed a few kayakers attempting the grade 6. As violent as the grade 5 rapids appeared, this one was absolutely epic, featuring gushing swells of terrifyingly fast water and enormous vortexes that trapped kayaks in place and slung them about savagely. The grade 5 that we were going to raft was actually the tail end of the grade 6 rapid, and it did not look pretty. Two of the girls in our group decided to opt out, but I decided to go for the full experience. We climbed into the raft and paddled into the maelstrom. We lasted only a few seconds before we were tossed into the river by a mighty wave. Experienced from the flips earlier in the day, I held my breath and waited for my life jacket to guide me through the churning water to the surface. I came up under the side of the raft and had to push myself to one side to finally get my head above the water. Grabbing the rope on the side of the raft, I held on until we floated out to calmer water.

All in all, we paddled 30 kilometers and tackled twelve rapids, including five grade 5 rapids. I have rafted rivers before, but none can compare to the terrifying, exhilarating, mighty Nile.

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