Riding the Nile

  Yesterday, I almost died.  It was well worth the $75. Friday, I took one of the local people we work with up on his offer. When I mentioned I wanted to go raft the Nile, he said he would be happy to take me down there.  I called him to confirm and we arraged to meet at 10 on Saturday morning. When Saturday rolled around, something came up and he couldn’t make it.  Determined not to miss another chance, I found a rafting operator who was willing to pick me up at the hotel, take me rafting, feed me 3 meals and drive me back home.  We were to leave Sunday morning. I woke up and met them bright and early.  We drove around Kampala picking up other people who wanted to go rafting: a couple from Holland, an Italian and his Ugandan girlfriend, and half the crew of a Chinese telecommunications firm.  I started talking to the sales manager for the group.  He told me that China is funding over a billion dollars worth of telecommunications projects in Uganda.  The company he works with is one of the construction firms that bids on projects to build cell towers. As we drove the 80km (50mi) or so from Kampala to Jinja, I was struck by how different the area was than what I saw of Rwanda.  The area I saw looked more developed, more exploited.  In the middle of fields, hulking factories sat belching smoke from their stacks.  Rwanda, by way of contrast, seemed to be filled with only terraced farms. Before we even started down the river, a bad omen popped up.  A chinese woman stepped on a nail and it went straight through her foot.  She hobbled away, but her determination brought her back at lunchtime. So, anyway, we hopped in the raft and sat through 20 or 30 minutes of introduction to how to ride a raft.  The guide made sure we knew how to respond when he told us “Forward”, “Back”, “GET DOWN!” and “HARD FORWARD!”  We all needed it.  It was the first experience riding rapids for all of us — even more amazing was that two people on our raft couldn’t swim!  The guide didn’t seem to have a problem bringing them along even after we practiced what would happen if the raft flipped and they both freaked out. We started just before our first bit of rapids.  Only a Class 3 or so, it was plentwy of fun.  After that We drifted and paddled downstream to where we came upon some rapids that our guide called “Class 5 and half”.  The other side of the Nile at that point was being damned up for a power station and the volume of water over the already-Class 5 rapids was increased.  He gave us a warning and a few pointers and then we went into it. On the first bump, almost everyone went over.  On the second bump, idiot that I was, I thought “I want to go in the water!” and didn’t hang on.  Into the water I went. It was here that I learned why it is important to hold onto the rope that runs around the edge of the raft. I was under the water but knew I was coming up soon, so I didn’t worry too much.  When I came up, I took a breath… But not a deep one.  The water didn’t let me.  I moved into the 2m (6ft) pile of water at that point.  I didn’t have enough air and I was struggling to breath and I was scared.  I saw the light, but air was suddenly very far away and the river was pushing me along.  The river ignored my life jacket’s desire to surface and pushed me along under water forever. When I finally surfaced I tried to get the attention of the crew with Kayaks.  Still struggling to get any air into my lungs I began to panic more and felt very weak. When a kayaker finally came with distance, I grabbed on for dear life. After this experience, when everyone was back in the boat, our guide made a point of telling us to grab the rope with both hands and, more importantly, DON’T LET GO when we he told us “GET DOWN”.  Even when we hit more Class 5 rapids, we had no trouble staying in the boat from then on. We hit more rapids that morning but spent some of the time just drifting in the water, sometimes jumping into the Nile and swimming or floating along side the raft. When we reached our lunch spot, the food hadn’t shown up, so I got to spend some time just floating on my back watching eagles high in the sky or diving beneath the water, all the terror from earlier almost totally forgotten in the beatific surroundings. (Not all was total bliss, though.  I missed the spot to get out of the river and walked through what I thought was some mud.  Turns out that was the spot the local cowherds brought their charges to drink.  And the cows did a bit more than drink in that water.  The local people laughed when they saw a Mzungu with dung from their cows all over his legs.  I found the right place in the water and rinsed off.) After lunch, we hit the water again for more rowing and riding. We saw many a pastoral scene where women and children were washing clothes by the river … a few were even bare-chested, National Geographic style. The wildlife was amazing.  This was the first time I saw a kingfisher in action.  I’ve never seen a bird hover quite so effortlessly. We saw fish eagles, monkeys, egrets and men punting their bike across the river.  Unfortunatly, I wans’t able to capture any of these since my camera isn’t waterproof. The trip over 27km (17mi) of the Nile was amazing (though I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much had I died).  It was about the best $75 I’ve ever spent. (Pictures when I get a chance.)

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