Rafting the Source of the Nile
On our first full day in Uganda we were booked for whitewater rafting at the source of the Nile River. From our hostile at 7 am, we were picked up by some rafter-dudes in a minibus. “Hi, my name’s Eric and this is Moses”, said the blond rafter dude. Eric was from Arkansas; Moses was Ugandan. “Sorry if I seem a bit groggy today,” Eric continued, “I think I’m coming down with malaria.”
Joy took one look at Eric and started to worry. “Oh no,” she said, “This guy looks like he knows no fear...”
A half-hour out of Kampala, the minibus pulled over to the side of the road where there was a feverish market going on. “Welcome to your first in your face chicken stop,” cracked Eric, referring to the swarm of Ugandans who had surrounded the vehicle waiving clusters of chicken parts, each one grilled to a crisp and skewered on a bamboo stick. We would later come to regret that we did not buy the chicken-on-a-stick at that first and fleeting opportunity, but instead the driver purchased two pineapples and we continued on our way toward Jinja.
At Jinja we crossed the Owens Falls Dam, the new source of the Nile River. The old source of the Nile, Rippon Falls where the Nile once poured from Lake Victoria, was not far to the south, having flooded over the with the building of the dam. It was a matter of some sadness to realize the rapids through which we were about to raft would soon themselves be flooded by a new dam downstream. However, given the poverty and underdeveloped condition of Uganda, one has to appreciate the hydroelectric potential of such a swift and mighty river as the Nile.
Once across the Nile, the van took a left turn for a brief jog northward, the van parked in a grassy field near the top end of Bujagali Falls. Our rafting equipment and several more guides were waiting for us. “You can go ahead and leave any valuables you might have in the van,” said Eric. “They’ll be safely protected in here,” he continued, pointing to the two African men who had been in the front seats of the minibus during our drive, “These two are ex-Congolese rebels. Nobody messes with them.”
Outside of the van we were introduced to a pillar of a man by the name of Juma. “Nobody knows the river better,” said Eric, “He’s been rafting this river for six years, and fishing on it for an eternity before that.” Juma was to be at the helm of our raft; Eric was to man the oar boat that was to accompany us for support. Moses would be going along in a separate kayak, as would Gabby, an enthusiastic kayaker chick from New Zealand. The final addition to the flotilla was a pair of “river boarders” - young African rafting dudes on their day off, crazy enough to float down the raging Nile with naught but a small body board and flippers. I envied their lunacy.
Soon we were down the bank and floating in the practice pool, a gentle eddy above the first rapid where Juma trained us in our paddling technique. There were six of us in the boat - Juma, the four in our group including myself, Joy, Shannon, who lives in the apartment directly below us, and David, who, like Shannon, is a music teacher at the International School of Tanganyika, the school we all work for in Dar. Also with us was Irene, a sweet and quiet young employee of Backpackers who had been sent along for the ride. We finished our training with a capsizing drill and set off down the river.
“This first rapid” declared Juma, “is called ‘Donald Duck.’ Class two point five.” We bounced down the whitewater with glee, shot over standing waves of some size, and – being at the front of the boat – I received a refreshing splash of river to the face. While Donald Duck was tamer than most of the other rapids we would see on the trip, it was stronger than any whitewater I had seen in my previous rafting experience on West Virginia’s Shenandoah River. It was a fun first run, easier that I had expected.
The next whitewater was a hundred yards or so down the river. “The next rapid is Bujagali Falls,” Juma informed us, “Class four.” It was with confidence that we charged the rapid, paddling at full speed as we were drawn into the current. The ride was bouncy at first, and then we seemed to be almost falling, picking up a great deal of speed. Suddenly I was shocked to be face to face with a previously unseen but humongous standing wave that stood like a wall directly before me. “Everybody hold on!” shouted Juma. We shot out of the trough and up the face of the mountain of water. The raft was rising vertically, straight up into the air on a trajectory that seemed to continue for quite some time. I started to feel the tug of gravity pulling me down, even as the boat continued to rise. It was when I saw the boat was pitching backwards, front over end, that I realized all hope of a clean landing was lost. Loosing my grasp, I descended into freefall.
When I hit the water I hit hard, and when I was under it was for a longer spell than I might have hoped. Buffeted by the current and flailing desperately at the water it was with some relief that I found another’s hand, though it was plain to me the owner of the hand was as much at the mercy of the torrent as I was. When we reached the surface Irene and I were together in the water, and it seemed that our boat and several of its other former occupants was some ways downstream. Already Juma had climbed on top of the capsized raft, and I could see our trip-mates, David and Shannon clinging to its sides. Joy was nowhere to be seen.
We were picked up by Eric in the oar boat. “That was spectacular”, he raved as he hauled us into the raft. “A total summersault! I’ve never seen THAT happen before – Not here anyway.” He rowed us over to the other raft. I had been freaking out, scanning the water for Joy. I knew it had been with some trepidation that she had agreed to raft the Nile with us – she is of the type that doesn’t like to get her face wet. Now her face must have been soaked - or worse - and it was my fault for talking her into it. The guilt was already tearing me up.
It was with immense relief that I finally spotted Joy, sitting in the raft with Shannon and David, a big smile on her face. I returned to the raft and she kissed me as she switched over to the oar boat. “One dunking is enough for me,” she said, “I’ll be taking the mild route down the river now.”
There were six more rapids before lunch – two of them class five – but we managed to go without flipping the boat again that morning. Joy seemed to be enjoying the luxury of having someone else rowing the oar boat, staying clear of the more menacing rapids as she sat in the bow. Lunch was on an island in the middle of the river, it had been ferried there from shore. We had Dagwood sandwiches with avocado spread and pineapple. It was there that Moses showed us the digital pictures he had taken of the capsizing incident.
The next forty minutes of the ride was a lazy drift down the river, for which Joy had joined us again. I would estimate the Victoria Nile to be about the width of the Potomac above great falls, though it seemed to me a good deal deeper. From its source, just to our south in Lake Victoria, it runs to the north before cutting west to Lake Albert. Flowing out of Lake Albert, it is known as the Albert Nile until it crosses from Uganda into the Sudan, where it is known as the White Nile until it joins the Blue Nile at Khartoum, where it becomes the Nile proper all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. I have seen the Nile from an airplane, perhaps a 2500 miles to the north, where it cuts across the immensity of the eastern Sahara desert; it looks like a great coffee stain on the endless barren landscape. This is a big river.
It’s sad for the nature, but perhaps good for the rafters that there are not hippos and crocs on this part of the river. It seems this area was too populous to support both people and large dangerous animals. As we floated down the river, we passed numerous small banana plantations that came right down to the waters edge. Around every bend we could see cattle grazing on the banks, or African women doing their wash on the rivers edge, or naked men and young children bathing in the water. There had been hippos here once, according to Juma, but they had all been hunted out as they had a habit of coming out in the night and destroying the food plantations. Juma did say that there was one large crocodile that the locals hadn’t managed to kill, but he didn’t say where.
The next rapid we hit was class five – Joy was back in the oar boat by then. We decided to take the tough route down…over a 7-foot waterfall! I’m still loath to explain why the air around this particular rapid was filled with hundreds upon hundreds of bats, flying every which way in a state of pandemonium. This was the first time any of us except Juma had gone over a waterfall into a swarm of bats, and Shannon seemed to reconsider the wisdom of that prospect as we were about halfway down. “OH MYYY GAWD!!” she yelled, as we passed over the falls backwards, terror in our hearts. Juma is an able raftsman, however and on that one we managed to stay afloat, upright, and relatively dry.
On the next rapid we were not so lucky… catching the bad corner of a wave, the raft went up on its side and dumped us all. I was sent flying through the air, bounced off of David, and landed in the drink. Fifty yards down the river was another rapid, and I was not able to get to the raft before the current was ready to take me down. After bouncing off of a rock, I was able to grab Moses’ kayak just before the rapids hit, and I clung to his bow as he steered through the whitewater.
Back on the raft it was a comfortable ride for the rest of the way. We saw a pair of red tailed monkeys playing in a tree above the river as the current carried us gently and we had to paddle very little. There were a few more rapids, but they were just good fun and did not involve any spillage. The last rapid of the day was called “The Bad Place”; class six. It was a huge cascade of whitewater, the largest vertical drop on the Nile except for Murchison Falls, and strikingly beautiful. With the help of some local boys, we portaged around it.
Soon we were back in the van with Eric, Moses, Juma and the Congolese rebels. The dirt road back to Jinja was far different from the highway we had taken from Kampala, and much more like the majority of roads we would encounter during next our nine days in Uganda. The area was well populated; most of the houses were of simple brick with corrugated tin roofs. Children by the dozens ran down to the road to wave at us as we passed.
In the van, we were decompressing, recalling the trip and working our way through a cooler full of beer and coca-cola. David asked Juma his opinion of the best beer in Uganda. “Nile Special,” answered Juma, “brewed with the waters of the Nile!” Indeed, that has been among the favorite beers of all my travels.
Written by Bobby Williams
Photos by Moses the Rafter Dude