Monday, September 16, 2013

The Nile Special

The flight from Johannesburg arrived at Entebbe at 7pm. The 120 km drive to Jinja where the Nile exits Lake Victoria took 4 hours to complete. As the gates at the Nile River Explorers camp opened someone was ramming a perfectly roadworthy SUV into a semi-demolished brick building. A cheering crowd of young shirtless travelers made sure they had the event captured for posting on YouTube later, most of them wearing a flag of some sort around their necks. We've arrived at our destination but we clearly missed out on the party. After 15 hours of travel I was not going to join in now. I downed one Nile Special just to check out the scene but more particular to make sure that I don't have any of the current party goers on the same raft as me the next morning. Apparently rafting and seasickness goes hand in hand for some and I was sure in this case they were all going to be "some" tomorrow.

The next morning at 7 I was awaken by the call of a Fish Eagle and monkeys playing in the trees. I got up and started looking for a place to charge my phone. The tent that I slept in had no electricity due to the SUV's destruction work the previous night. Kicking a path open through the cans and empty beer bottles I managed to find a working wall socket. Four die-hard survivors from the previous night's party were still sipping on their last beers. I was rather relieved to hear that they were "overlanders" traveling through Africa and were not part of the day's planned rafting excursion. I guess the "overlanders" make full use of each and every pit-stop along their route to Cape Town to build up enough aversion to alcohol for when they actually go back home and start "REAL" life.

The truck to the starting point left at 9am. After a quick breakfast at the rafting equipment storage facilities, we headed down to the river. There we got a safety induction. Even though I think it was a bit over-exaggerated, when drowning is a possible outcome of the activities to follow one can probably expect that. I guess the one rapid called "The Dead Dutchman" justifies it. There were enough people for three teams and we were told to make sure that we choose our partners carefully. I went for the "crazy group" hoping that we might follow a more extreme route than the "cautious group"...with the middle group heading nowhere I guess.

I had no idea what was waiting for us. All I knew is that we had a raft and locally made wooden oars, a chatty guide called Peter and some 9 rapids ahead ranging from grade 1 to grade 5. The grade 6 rapid along the route is not allowed for commercial rafting and we were going to walk around it. I guess grade 5 was going to be our biggest challenge then. Once in the water we did a few safety maneuvers like flipping the boat, diving under an overturned raft and getting out again, flipping it back again and climbing back on. Also a few other safety maneuvers to make sure we don't "end up in Cairo" as Peter repeatedly warned we would be doing if we don't follow his instructions. Then it was off to the first rapid.

One of the only two disappointments of the day I guess was the fact that the river wasn't flowing at full strength. I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but it definitely alters the possible routes over the rapids. Apparently it does not change the grading, but I feel that with a full flowing river we might have had more fun...or scary moments. The crazy guys managed to tip the boat on the first rapid, but we all got back in safely with only our pride injured. This tipping thing was going to repeat itself a few more times, so it was good later on that we had a few practice runs. Crazy had nothing to do with it. You basically have no control over the raft and the turbulent currents decide where it wants to flip you. The safety training does help when you all of a sudden find yourself alone floating down a river that goes all the way to Cairo.

In between the rapids were long stretches of flat water. These sections were quite honestly very boring. I did not sign up for that but I did pay for it, so I used these moments to enjoy the scenery and locals doing their washing on the river banks. It also allowed enough time for a voluntary dip in the warm water, many jokes and getting to know fellow rafters.  We had a German, two South Africans and three Pommies on board, with a very pleasant Ugandan as our guide. In one of the flat stretches we managed to have lunch on the raft which consisted of sweet pineapples and biscuits. The biscuits however I suspect might have been teething biscuits for babies. The food was delivered by the safety raft. This raft, much larger than the one we were on, was steered by one guy with two huge oars and massive pecs. You could see in his upper body physique that he does this quite often. Although his raft takes the rapids much easier due to its size, he still managed to make the rest of us all look a bit amateurish. He later transported two passenger who were not prepared to face another dunking in the Nile and he managed to do this all by himself. Next time I am taking that raft and plenty of ice cold beers. I might even consider a braai on-board.

The memory capturer of the day who used to sell photos for 10 US realized soon after taking up the position of chief photographer that technology was a bitch and he suffered losses because of piracy. One guy on a raft buys a CD and copies it for the rest, simple. The solution to save his business he reckoned was to sell only one copy to the team for 80 US and then they can sort it out between themselves. We had a look at the pictures and even though some of them were really cool, my fellow team mates who mostly are poor students doing charity work in Africa decided that they were not interested. I tried to deal with the photographer for a lower price for myself, but he didn't budge. He was prepared to leave empty handed that day (none of the other teams bought their's either) just because of his "all-or-nothing" business plan. So the second disappointment of the day was that I also left empty-handed. Memories in this digital age that costs more than half of the whole experience in my opinion was a bit over the top. 

The last rapid is named after the local beer...Nile Special. Our guide warned us all along the way that no raft survives this rapid. We were the first raft heading for the rapid to test his theory. As we hit the second huge wave we saw a blue object floating past us at a tremendous speed. The highlight of the day turned out to be our guide falling off and overtaking us in the rapid. We just had enough time to grasp air for a good burst of laughter when the Nile decided it was time to join him. Further downstream while clinging onto the raft we managed to pick up the pieces and oars that went flying along with our guide. From there we drifted slowly ashore recapturing quite an eventful and exciting day. 

When we arrived at our final stop, we had a good buffet and cold beers. From there we took a shuttle back to Kampala where I was booked in for the night. The 70 km trip to Kampala took another 4 hours. By the time we reached Kampala I was still peeved off with the photographer. My action photos will never be published anywhere and might as well have gone down with the Nile to Cairo. The experience was great, the adrenaline level however not nearly as high as I was hoping for. I've had worse experiences in water before and never really felt like I was going to drown soon. Isn't that the whole idea? If you weren't the one running to your mother when your cousins pushed your head under the water in the swimming pool, you are likely to survive this too. I am pretty sure there are more dangerous rivers around the world where a grade 5 might give you a run for your money. The grade 6 rapid where we walked past did look a bit more intimidating, but the rafting we did in the upper section of the Victoria Nile was rather tame. The two passengers on the safety raft however might not agree.....

(*The pictures you see on this site I shamelessly pirated from the Internet. It is not me on any of the rafts, but it does give an indication of what the rapids look like)

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