Exhilaration of whitewater rafting on the Nile

The team that Champion editor Gale Horton Gay went whitewater rafting with in Uganda included people from around the world.

The team that Champion editor Gale Horton Gay went whitewater rafting with in Uganda included people from around the world.

My impression of the Nile used to be a gentle, meandering river. All that changed Feb. 14, when I had the opportunity to go whitewater rafting on what many consider to be the longest river in the world.

Yes, parts of the River Nile are flat and placid, but then there are the other parts—rapids classified as Class 3, 4, 5 and 6 and spots with such colorful names as “The Bad Place.” I think I drew my previous impression of the Nile from the Bible story of Moses floating down the river in a basket. What I was about to face bore no similarities to Moses’ easy-going float. 

We started our adventure in Jinja, a small riverside Ugandan town that proudly bills itself as the “Source of the Nile.” The north-flowing Nile spans 4,258 miles and has two sources—the While Nile and the Blue Nile—as it also courses through Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Congo, Kenya, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt and, of course, Uganda.

My colleagues were outfitted with helmets, life vests and paddles and divided into two groups of about eight people each. Once we got into our raft on the White Nile, our guide Sadat Kawawa took us through a 30-minute orientation on how to paddle forward and backward, how to maneuver left and right, had us fall out of the raft so we could understand how to get back in and outlined a number of scenarios about his commands, safety and maneuvering. Kayakers to rescue those who would fall in, a photographer and videographer as well as a safety boat with medical supplies came along as well.

What initially sounded like pure fun was increasingly sounding ominous and when I realized I had to sit on the outer edge of the raft paddling until the guide shouted “Get in, get in,” just before we jettisoned into the violently churning waters, I knew my odds of ending up in the river were quite high. Honestly, I got scared.

Guide Sadat Kawawa maneuvers the raft from the back and steers it into the cascading water.

Guide Sadat Kawawa maneuvers the raft from the back and steers it into the cascading water.

The first rapids we encountered on our half-day with Adrift Outfitters was exhilarating and scary but while we surged up and down, spun around and got drenched by an explosion of water, everyone remained in the raft. We let out boisterous shouts and high-fives with our paddles. 

As we made our way down the Nile—hitting four rapids along the way—we also took in the Uganda countryside. We occasionally passed by houses and resorts positioned high on hills and embankments, fishermen and kayakers and other rafters in the water. At one point I observed plastic bottles floating on the water, which I thought was trash but our guide said fishermen used them to mark where they had placed traps. While the Nile was a temporary playground for me and my colleagues, it is food, transportation and agriculture resource for the people who live along it. 

At one point, we came upon a placid spot and our guide said we could lose the helmets and go for a swim. Most of us did as the weather was likely a warm 85 degrees or so and the Nile waters were clean and inviting.

Kawawa talked about the joys of introducing visitors from around the world to Uganda and the Nile and shared highlights of his experiences such as when rafters end up in the water and lose their shorts in the churning waters or while climbing back into the raft.

Before approaching our final rapids, Kawawa said we had to make a choice—take an easy route that guaranteed we wouldn’t end up in the water, go for the “50/50” route with a possibility of being one with the river or take the path with a 100 percent assurance of being propelled out of the raft. We chose 50/50. 

But first we had to paddle to the shore, disembark the raft and walk—barefoot—over rocks and dirt to avoid a part of the river with such a violent vortex of rapids (Class 6) that nonprofessionals aren’t allowed on it. When we finally put back into the Nile, our guide immediately shouted commands, the raft began to spin, then we dropped and all I could see was steady, cascading water hitting us from every direction. It was so intense that I thought we had capsized. Seconds later, I saw blue skies and realized that everyone was still in the raft. We screamed and cheered. (One woman in our group suffered a cut on her chin when her paddle hit her in the face.)

By the way, the other rafters from our group (mostly 20- and 30-year-olds who choose to raft together) did not fare quite as well. Their raft capsized on the first rapids and on the final one three people got bounced out of the raft into the water with one sustaining leg and arm injuries.

Half-day tours  with Adrift are $125 and full-day tours, which include experiencing eight rapids and lunch on a private island, are $140. Cost includes a professional photographer who captures the best and worst moments.

For more information on whitewater rafting in Uganda, go to www. Adrift.ug. For general Uganda tourism information, go to www.visituganda.com. 

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