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By Jonathan A. Benaiah (The Ugandan Tourist)
We had just been paddling for about 5 minutes but I had already gobbled in my first gurgles of Nile River water, about 500 milliliters to be specific.
After an almost successful attempt to drown us in shallow waters, he seemed to find a way to win our trust back, and on he went about his usual craft… a mouthful of safety drills on the Nile River as we wiped wet faces dry in a state of utter disbelief at what had just happened, completely unexpected. “Please sit on the edge of the raft and paddle well as long as I tell you to, you may want to go down into the raft and hold on tight to the side rope when I ask you to, especially when we approach the rapids. But should we tip over and you end up drifting away from the raft, don’t worry, we have plenty of rescue staff out there, a kayaker will be right there to save you… the river is happy with us and we are damn well destined for a very fun day on earth’s longest river”. “My name is Bob, and I’ll be your guide for the day”.
How it all started…
The 15th day of December might just be any other day in the 12th month of the year to some people, and you might be one of those people, yes you. Yea, I know you’re trying to think about that date, you might just look at your calendar as well; I bet it is not one of those special red or highlighted dates… but just another day in December and all you have is that thought of Christmas and New Year’s Day coming up. But it does mean life to me. It’s on this date that I count age in growths, what you’d probably call one’s birthday. Well, now you know when to plan to send me a special message, or a little something. Maybe I’m terrible at asking for gifts but I wouldn’t mind the new iPhone X or the keys to a brand new 7 seater safari Land Cruiser.
Away with all the self-love… while going about my usual assignments, I made a new friend earlier this year. While we yakked about random tourism topics, advancements and challenges in Uganda’s and Africa’s tourism sector, my loose tongue gave me over. This “stranger turned buddy” found out that I had never gone whitewater rafting. It was like one of those childhood tête-à-têtes when you turned out to be the only kid on the block who hadn’t watched the new movie everyone was talking about. Well, since this new friend works with one of Uganda’s finest adventure companies, he promised to hook me up with an all-expenses paid rafting trip down the Nile, all I had to do was pick a date and find a travel partner. Quite sweet an offer to turn down, isn’t it!
It was until (I think) 2 weeks ago that I still had it at the back of my mind; a long pending offer that I just had to take up whenever. I blame the delay on two ladies; one a very good friend and the other, I just kind of like her. So there are these two girls who I was divided between choosing to travel these 85 kilometers East of Kampala with to the famed Adventure Capital of East Africa, Jinja. That might have been one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make all year and it’s an absolute shame I failed to decide among these two cute ladies. Shame on me!
Now, December 15th rolled in much quicker than I had anticipated, and along came the thought of finally taking the offer, this time with my younger brother. He had expressed interest in a little bit of adventure, just a little bit, not the extreme stuff, Haha. “We share a lot of memories with this dude, so why not give him a treat”, I thought to myself! He wanted just a little bit of adventure and here I was signing him up for some really nasty thing, an extreme escapade. You must think I am insane right?
Well I open my WhatsApp icon to contact Artha who had offered me the trip in the first place. I inform him of my intentions to come down to the Nalubale Rafting base on that 15th day of December 2017. Okay I promise this is the last time I am going to say 15thDecember. Uhmm…perhaps I might say it one or two other times. It’s my birthday, please bear with me.
So where does one get the inspiration to seek a day off from work and on that day wake up at 05:00am to catch Nalubale Rafting’s daily shuttle at 06:30am to simply ride over some rapids and waterfalls and basically try to zap themselves; and kill their sibling too? Blame it on daily coffee and chapatti, but mostly just go ahead and place the fault on friends who had rowed down the same Nile and survived its wrath in a similar exploit.
Photos and stories of my acquaintances who had gone rafting kept me secretly jealous at the kind of fun they had experienced while braving the Nile waters. I had been to Jinja and on the river numerous times. One time I came for a trip to where its waters are birthed “The Source of the Nile”, to a sunset cruise, a friend’s wedding on another and a tourism development meeting on another day, but I had never ever ridden a boat over a waterfall. Oh the thought of that!
A group with which I had bungee jumped in this same part of the country a few months ago had since returned to Jinja to raft the Nile with Adrift Uganda, one of the oldest adventure companies in the country. Another group of friends had drifted through the waves on this mighty river with Nile River Explorers, and an old boy of mine from college was commanding a daily fleet of rafts owned by Raft Uganda, a relatively newer company but Ugandan owned with a team of guides who boast of close to two centuries of experience in the same field… rowing people over waterfalls and then attempting to save them. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
I had to equal up on my pursuit of bucketlist priorities, and my friend Artha from Nalubale Rafting just made my dream come true in a very special way!
Fast forwarding to the day…
The time is 06:00am on this cool Friday morning and it’s just the two of us at Café Javas Jinja Road, sipping on double cappuccinos, biting through cookies and lemon cake, Yummy! Quite expensive for my usual kind of breakfast (a chapatti and a cup of African coffee) but why not, if The Ugandan Tourist is celebrating his birthday today.
While we enjoy the relatively slow but free Wi-Fi, in jets a cute yellow minibus at about 06:35am, driving into the adjacent gas station (City Oil) and then right off, back onto the Kampala – Jinja highway heading East without us on board. Well the driver must have expected us to be standing outside Café Javas and not inside, munching on expensive junk. Possibly why he didn’t even wait a minute for us.
I am quite sure that’s our ride so I pick up my phone, feed in Artha’s phone number and hit the call button. It only rings twice and then I get a “Hello, Hey mate”, his voice sounds like he is in the middle of some sweet morning sleep (it’s his day off today by the way), but he assures me he is already wide-awake. He contacts the driver and asks him to drive back for us. How sweet! If he hadn’t bailed me out here…this story would have ended right at this point. It would have been minutes of precious sleep lost, and a very sad birthday for an adventurer.
Meeting the team…
On board is the driver and Maria one of the ladies who will be rafting with us today. It’s probably due to morning shyness, that we don’t attempt to ask too much about her whereabouts, we stick to the plastic coffee cups and selfishly finish the last few bites of cake. Since tourism is where my bread is buttered (my profession in that case), it was not hard to tell she was a tourist on safari.
It’s a fast but quiet 90 minutes’ ride with a little bit of sightseeing. We accidentally miss “Namawojjolo” a famous tourist roadside stop for some roasted meat on skewers (locally called Muchomo) and “Gonja” (roasted plantain), but I guess there are better things to look forward to.
We finally get to officially meet Maria when we shake hands with the two other members of our crew at the Nalubale Rafting Reservation offices in Jinja. They had spent the previous night in Jinja. I quickly find out that Maria is also here for Chimpanzee tracking, a visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park and her itinerary ends in a dream come true…tracking mountain gorillas in their forested Kingdom, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
“Hello my name is Evelyn”, she says in a jovial mood stretching out her hand in a friendly handshake. Her accent quickly gives her in, as I can easily tell she is from the UK. I also get to meet her travel companion, a gentleman about “six foot two”, who sounds very French, and so does his name. Even after those French classes in college, I still have a natural challenge with spelling French names and for that reason I choose not to attempt to misspell his. I know I should have asked him to write it down on a piece of paper for me but my mind at this stage was at the river, not with me. A total of 5 novice rafters we were, generally happy people and the mood looked very positive. I was looking forward to what I hoped would be a day to remember.
The rest of the team went ahead to bite through sweet yellow bananas and what looked like tasty Rolexes (an omelet-like snack wrapped in a page of fried dough called a Chapatti), while I changed into some lighter clothes that I was quite more confident of getting irresponsibly wet in.
“Welcome to Jinja and to Nalubale Rafting,” the message in an American accent from a rather relaxed Bob, our guide for the day. This guy is a master of his craft and he does it so effortlessly, he knows his tourism really well too! He quickly asks some questions, gets an understanding of our anticipations, confirms that no member of the team has any previous severe health complications, checks dietary requirements, leads the team through a short briefing of what to expect, introduces and explains the members of the rescue crew, who get our safety vests (life jackets) and helmets finely fastened and then asks us to climb onto an Isuzu track that leads us 35 minutes to “Tulina Riverside”, where the day’s adventure will commence. The truck, like the bus is yellow in color, with the company’s names scribbled on and it has platforms on which one can either stand or sit.
“We will be going for the Full-day rafting trip today, so it will be a total of four rapids in the morning, and then we will break for lunch after which we will head on and complete the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth rapid”, he continues to explain. I guess their Half-day trip ends at around lunch.
Finally on the Nile… Here’s the fun stuff.
So I kind of had quite a ghostly intro to this blogpost, but here’s the truth…it does get spooky at some points especially being your maiden attempt at whitewater rafting.
Helped by the rescue team and support staff, we descended down to the river bank, grabbed our paddles, got into the inflatable floating mass of rubber material (which is what is actually referred to as the raft), and the on-water briefing began.
“Please sit on the edge of the raft and paddle well as long as I tell you to, you may want to go down into the raft and hold on tight to the side rope when I ask you to, especially when we approach the rapids. But should we tip over and you end up drifting away from the raft, don’t worry, we have plenty of rescue staff out there, a kayaker will be right there to save you… the river is happy with us and we are damn well destined for a very fun day on earth’s longest river”. “My name is Bob, and I’ll be your guide for the day”.
We were still in calm waters right next to the river bank, but still pretty deep. And then it got funny for a moment…our guide was asking us to all move to one side of the raft. At this point I needed no lecture to know he was planning to tip us over in the name of “a practical demonstration”. “We got ourselves into this, so we must be braced for whatever was to come at us. Or maybe more theoretically at the start. This was a complete shocker!” Just random thoughts in my head.
He’s an expert at getting you overboard, this guy Bob, but he very well knows how to get you back onboard too. This demonstration wasn’t fun for me, I think it was the unplanned feeling of being overboard, that had my brain humming eerie lyrics to a tune called “welcome to your funeral”. We had just been paddling for about 5 minutes but I had already gobbled in my first gurgles of Nile River water, about 500 milliliters to be specific.
It was worse for my sibling who probably took in a litre right at this point. Thoughts in my head were… “Hey Jonathan, you might just kill your brother out here”, I laughed at self. We must have looked like complete wussies to the expert rafters and kayakers that formed the rescue team.
Well as I said, Bob got us back into the raft like an absolute maven, after which we quickly learned that the itinerary would present a variety of rapids with a few waterfalls; some would be mild, others mid-sized, a few extreme ones, and one or two will be grade 6 (non-raftable), really scary and nasty those ones. The names of the rapids were Overtime, Retrospect, Bubugo (named after the neighboring local settlement), Itanda Falls (one of the roughest and most famous) before lunch; and then Vengeance, Hair of the Dog, Kulu Shaker and Nile Special would be our last four after the lunch break. You can easily tell by the rapids’ names, even before physically entering them that another underwater episode is yet to unfold.
Riding the rapids and falls…
The hard stuff started at our very first rapid, “Overtime” a very vertically steep one. We got enough warnings from our guide that it would possibly be our worst rapid of the day, and I was like… “Bring it on Baby, let’s do this!” Okay maybe I didn’t mean that. Truthfully, I don’t think I meant that.
It didn’t last long until Bob sounded his routine warning, like those great horns that brought down the walls of Jericho in the Old Testament. “Guys go down into the raft, keep the paddle in one hand and hold tight onto the side rope with your other hand, take in a deep breath NOW”, our chaperon yelled.
“Could you just pause right there for a second dude. How do you expect me to deal with all that stuff? My mind is pretty much terrified already. I find it so hard to type an email while talking to a client on phone, multitasking is a big challenge for me; and here you are asking me to do a thousand things at the same time.” These were all thoughts in my head. Of Bob’s caution, I must have only heard the word “…NOW”.
Those questions remained unanswered. Our raft went right over the rapid and then down at an angle close to ninety degrees, and then Bloop! I was overboard, the other crew members too I guess because I ended up right under the raft. Here I was at the bottom of the mini-waterfall wolfing in another litre of Nile River water. This is meant to sound fun, by the way.
Let’s just rewind and get a few frames of this scene in SLO-MO…We drifted right on top of “Overtime” and then Bloop! Off I went swinging into the fierce waters and gaining that top leaderboard position in the “water-drinking” competition. This was all in below 5 seconds, yes 5 normal seconds. Of course the paddle was useless at this stage, so my reflexes preferred to let go and let it drift away. The kayakers brought the paddle back to me real VIP style after a shipwreck, sorry “raft-wreck”.
Did I skip the bit where I kind of fought 3 times to get back to the top of the water in vain, and then in came one of the kayakers, my savior, in whose face I “terror-looked” with red eyes, chocking on water-filled lungs and helplessly clinging onto his plastic kayak like a new born baby does to its mum’s bosom.
When I got back into the raft, Bob who was watching everything told us how we all just shot back to the top in below 4 seconds. Turns out the three-times vain battle to get back to the top of the water was just another psychological scuffle.
Ask any novice rafter who’s tipped over before and they will tell you how sick the first feeling of being under that water is. Feels a lot more like one of those Monday mornings when you get drowned in pending tasks from the previous week, but a lot more physical. Feels to last a lot more than an hour, but in reality it’s about 3 to 5 seconds, matchlessly the longest 3 to 5 seconds of my life so far.
The good news, you’re very safe…
So you might have a random thought or possibly have heard from a friend that whitewater rafters are fastened to the raft with a safety leash. Think about it for a moment! This would make perfect sense in the real world, right? You wouldn’t have to worry about drifting away when you tipped over. That’s what makes you a theoretical genius my friend.
Okay now that’s complete mumble jumble. It doesn’t work with rafting, you actually risk getting trapped in the leash, and even worse still, getting chocked on the rope.
So depending on which part of the world you are rafting from, here’s how safe this activity is, although it may sound like the “end of the age, or even worse more like completely suicidal” having watched video clips of past rafting trips. Here’s what you should know:
- You are well fitted with necessary safety gear. A life jacket which will ensure that you pop right up to the water surface each time you go overboard and a safety helmet to keep your head well protected.
- You get a fine briefing from the guide on all useful safety procedures.
- The guide is with you all the time and will brief you about each rapid. He has your very best interests at heart, and he is paid to keep you alive all throughout the thrill. He will sound warnings and get you ready for each and every rapid.
- Should you drift off and away, there are often plenty of experienced kayakers ready to help get you back to the raft; they are actually paid to do exactly that. They also have a rescue tether that they sometimes throw out to you from another safety raft which you can cling onto and then pull yourself back onto the raft.
- Before you set off, all your crew members will run through the rescue drill of saving an overboard team member and help them get back into the raft, and this helps when the actual adrenaline rush sets in. It’s a smooth process that follows a count of one, two, three after which you are pulled in using the shoulder harnesses of your safety vest and then it’s time to paddle and have fun again.
- You might want to also know that the water has no crocs and is not even close to cold. So no need to panic when in the water.
- While swimming might be an added advantage, it is not that important. You’ll spend more time aboard the raft than inside the water, unless if you prefer to just swim all the way to shore. If that’s the case, then I’d recommend you go for some other activity instead, something more like whitewater swimming maybe, haha!
- Lastly, the guide will ensure to lead you away from shallow waters, so should you tip over, it is very rare that you’ll hit rock-bottom.
Sadly saying bye for now…
This has been the longest blogpost I have ever had to write but perhaps you want me to tell you about the other seven rapids, including “Nile Special”, the one at the very end where our French friend went way overboard and took an actual sip of the Nile. Could this be the point at which the national brewery “Nile Special” gets its tagline from “take a sip from the Nile”?
I wouldn’t want to preempt the entire experience for you. After all whitewater rafting is better experienced than read. Go with a GoPro and film the entire experience or let the rafting company take the photos, choose to remove your shirt or come dressed in a swim suit or just leave your clothes on, swim if you want to or just lay on your back and float. Just break free and have a great time. YOLO – You Only Live Once!
“I did it with Nalubale Rafting, you can also did it!”
This activity was sitting high on my bucketlist for quite a long time and I am glad to have knocked it off in the best way possible.
It was only a beautiful day that I asked for, but in return I got the ultimate day’s trip of a lifetime, thanks to Artha and the entire team at Nalubale Rafting, not forgetting my teammates with whom we battled for dear lives. I lost lots of office stress, possibly some calories as well, lightly hit an ankle on a rock and won myself a massage when I returned to Kampala; I had lots of fun, the food I asked for is exactly what they brought and with Bob’s genius and on-river expertise I was forever confident my parents had nothing to worry about losing two sons on December 15th. Oh I said it again… I am still celebrating a birthday that turned out to be very wet and the very best “bathday” of my life so far
Feel free to hit me up in the comment box below if you found this particular blogpost interesting or have some questions to ask about whitewater rafting. Otherwise, till next time I remain yours truly…
Watch my YouTube video here