Monday, July 18, 2011

Row, row, row your boat…..

        Living in Uganda gives me so many options on what to do on the weekends.  Being centrally located in East Africa makes travel to several different countries relatively easy.  I plan on going to Rwanda in the next few weeks and then also to Kenya, stay tuned for updates.  There were plans in the works to be in Southern Sudan on the very day they achieved their independence; history in the making!!  Wiser heads prevailed on the third one and we just celebrated the newest country in our world back in our apartment.

         Kampala boasts attractions that are a bit closer to home too.  For instance…THE NILE!!  The disputed source of the Nile (Rwanda claims they have it too) is in Jinja.  Clearly being so close to the source of the most celebrated river in history and not experiencing it would be ridiculous so two of my colleagues and I planned a weekend excursion.  After spending several weeks in Kampala (which, while an interesting city, is crowded and polluted) the escape to the greenery and wildness of Jinja was much appreciated.  Jinja is a touristy place and features lots of things for the wanderer to enjoy.  We decided to follow the majority and go white-water rafting on the Nile.  If you ever do this, and I completely recommend it, Nile River Expeditions is a great company to go with.
             We arrived in Jinja early on Saturday morning and loaded ourselves, our rafts, and all other provisions into several open air buses bound for the starting site.  Apparently we missed crucial instructions for the ride to the site because my co-worker Karrin took what she assumed to be an innocent picture of a dam that crosses the whole width of the Nile.  Our bus was immediately stopped and some very angry guards start shouting at the river guides who are riding with us.  All the other passengers don’t know what was being said any more than I did and the guards were loud and armed, so that was a little scary.  Eventually we figured out that because of possible terrorist activities, photos of the dam are illegal.  Who knew, right?  EVERYONE, except us L  The guards deleted the offending photo and we continued on our adventure.

               When we got to the starting site we organized ourselves into groups of seven or less.  Basic none-dying lessons were given before we jumped into our boats, ready to attack the Class 4 and 5 rapids.  Each of our rafts was staffed with one guide and at least two safety kayakers.  The guides were fabulous!!  Ours was Paolo but he wasn’t Italian as he tried to convince us.  Funny, talented, and reassuring; I felt better risking my life with him.  Even better were the safety kayakers.  They paddled around the raft making small talk and doing fun flips mainly for our entertainment.  Their job was to run the rapids before each raft and then rescue the people who were thrown out of the raft and kindly paddle them back towards the raft in time to attack the next rapid.  I made a special effort to be friendly to one of them, Alex, because I was pretty sure he’d be dragging my a-NILE-ated (shamelessly stolen pun from someone much more clever than I) corpse from the river by the end of the trip.  More thorough instructions were given by our individual guides in our rafts like how to properly lean, how to seek refuge in the bottom of the boat, how to paddle so Paolo could “safely” navigate us down the river.

                    The total trip was four Class 4’s and four Class 5’s separated by several long stretches of calm water where you could talk to fellow rafters, engage in epic water fights, or just abandon ship and swim along with the raft.  Sometimes whether you were in the water in calm areas wasn’t up to you at all.  On one stretch Paolo leaped out of our raft and left us to our own devices.  He then, very stealthily, swam back behind us and yanked me and another women right out of the raft.  The other lady was terrified!  She was sure at first that a crocodile had pulled her into the water and then, once she realized Paolo had done it, was equally convinced that she was about to be attacked by a crocodile at any moment.  This was a completely baseless fear as we had already been assured that all the crocodiles we would encounter that day were strictly vegetarian.  How convenient!

        Honestly, the majority of rapids were a blur.  Dehydration wasn’t a problem even in the African heat because I am pretty sure I swallowed a good portion of the Nile.  Since most of the time I was trying to stay in the boat and not in the water (which was a woefully lost cause, we flipped at least 4 times), I didn’t see a lot of the action with the other rafts.

           A couple memorable rapids stuck in my mind though.  We were behind another boat which was attempting the hard line of the rapids.  They managed pretty well at the beginning but then the almost inevitable happened, their raft tripped past the point-no-return and they were on their own in the water.  However, their guide, in a spectacle of impeccable timing and strength managed to flip himself on to the bottom of the raft as it tipped over.  This left him on the previous underside of the boat where he began doing backflips in apparent exhilaration on the completion of a trick that has to fail more times than it succeeds. 

         We were approaching the hardest rapid on the trip and our boat was deciding which line to try (easy, medium, hard) as we watched another boat attempt the hardest path.  Their guide had advised them to paddle hard and then throw their oars clear so they could hold on with both hands.  They dutifully put their backs into the paddling until the “Get Down!” call came.  They all flung their paddles and prepared to let their guide manage the steering but their guide was thrown clear of the boat and there they were, going down the hardest rapid without paddles, a guide, or much hope.  They did flip, spectacularly, and all surfaced smiling but a bit bruised.  You could tell they loved it though!

          When we had all successfully completed all 8 rapids we hit the landing site.  There was an incredible BBQ waiting for us and, after a whole day swimming and paddling hard on the river, we devoured the food with impressive speed.  That night we stayed at a backpacker’s camp right on the edge of the Nile.  Something happened to our “reservation” for the hostel dorms so we slept in tents that had been set up everywhere to deal with the overflow.  What a step up!  The night was warm, the tent was comfortable, and once the music quit for the night you could hear the rush of the river enticing you into dream land.

             The next day was all ours because we didn’t need to meet our homeward bound bus until the evening.  We decided to hike down to the site Bujagali Falls and then to the site of the new dam being built.  They falls are beautiful and awe-inspiring in their power.  The sheer amount of water that pours over them daily is baffling.  We hiked most of the morning and then caught a boat to explore several islands in the middle of the river.  In October, when the dam is finished, the water level of that part of the Nile is anticipated to rise almost 50 feet.  The islands and falls we explored will be nothing more than a memory.  Hopefully the dam will be able to provide the intended electricity and an easier life for those people surrounding Jinja.

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