Tuesday, June 21, 2011

East Africa Day 38 (Mon June 20): White Water Rafting on the Nile

photo: I'm in the long sleeve turquoise blue shirt. Meghan is sitting to my left, on the opposite side of the boat.

Meghan and I went white water rafting with the company that also owns the hostel that I'm staying at - Nile River Explorers (NRE). I think that there are four official companies that take people rafting on the Nile - the one we went with is extremely popular and SUPER well-run. I was very impressed and would definitely recommend it if you are coming to Uganda. I've heard that rafting is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Uganda - verified by the high number of people that I've seen come through the hostel for rafting trips since I checked in here last Thursday:)

We met in the hostel lobby/NRE desk at 9am. There were approximately 25 other wazungus, all about the same age, rafting with us today. Many of the people I've met at the hostel are visiting from England, but I'm sure there were other countries represented in our group. So the group then sat down on the picnic tables outside of the hostel, where we were briefed on what we would be doing that day, and were outfitted with helmets and life vests. Then we got in red NRE buses, where we ate our breakfast during the maybe 20 minute drive to the Nile - chapatis (sort of like a burrito) with a fried egg wrapped inside, and fruit - banana, passion fruit, watermelon. The chapatti was held inside of a white paper bag - it was made from a recycled piece of paper - maybe a receipt - very awesome!

We drove through several communities on our way to the Nile - from tarmac (paved roads) to single track dirt paths. When we saw a very western-looking white outhouse-style building, I knew that we must be getting very close to our final destination. Sure enough, I looked ahead and saw the Nile. I didn't bring my camera - just wearing a bathing suit, shorts, flip flops, and shirt. The flip flops were left in the truck while we were rafting. So no photos - they're stored in my head:) But the first view of our starting point was so beautiful. We exited the buses (and used the western outhouse), and were then standing on the top of a hill. We took several sets of steps that had obviously been put into the hillside by NRE, down to the shoreline. It was all green and blue water.

Juma, one of the NRE river guides, then gave us all a detailed lesson, going in depth on safety measures. We then broke ourselves up into groups, with a max of 8 people in a group. Meghan and I joined up with the two women that we had met outside of the buses, on the top of the hill, Maria and Stacey, and a German Gap Year student, Lisa. (Gap year meaning that she just graduated from high school and is on her gap year before starting university, doing some traveling around Africa.) We somehow wound up in Juma's boat, the Ugandan who had given our group the instructions. I figured that was a good thing since he gave us a great introduction to rafting and safety:)

We then got into his read, blown up rafting boat, were each given an oar, and we pushed off into the Nile. When we got about 60 feet from the shore and had practiced our rowing, Juma ordered us all into the Nile. I was the first one in the water. It was warm and very calm. We were swimming in the Nile! We then learned out to haul ourselves back into the boat. I never did manage that one - I would like to think that it is due to my small size? :) So for remainder of the day I had to be hauled back into the boat by whomever was inside of it every time we flipped over in the rapids, like a very large fish - probably the most ungraceful action I can imagine:)

Juma then asked us all how we felt about white water rafting - what kind of day were we all looking for? We all agreed that we were there for an adventure, whatever that would entail. I had really no idea what that would mean ... Ha.

We then pushed off towards our first rapid. It was a Class 5 rapid (highest being 6.) Now, let me just say that this was my first time white water rafting. The first rapid (of a total of 8 rapids that we'd do today) was like a waterfall. I don't know if it seemed easier because it was the first, or because it just wasn't that intimidating. But we made it over the waterfall/through the rapids without flipping. I didn't really anticipate that we'd flip much that day.

Then we pushed off through smooth, flat, more slowly moving water for quite a while, until we got to the next rapids. There were stretches between each rapid. This meant that we had plenty of time to talk amongst ourselves, look at the scenery, and just have fun! I think this is when I started to ask Juma questions about rafting and land use along the sides of the river:) Meghan said that she recognized the pattern as I said "So how did you get started rafting?" before we'd even gotten to the first rapid:) I love asking questions and learning just about anything, as anyone who has met me in East Africa can attest to:) I was sitting on the boat without my notebook and pen though, hoping that I would be able to remember all of the information that I was learning:)

The land along the river is owned by Ugandans and muzungos. Ugandans can lease their land to muzungos for either a period of 44 or 99 years, but at the end of the term the land reverts back to its previous owners or the government - can't remember. Juma pointed to two pieces of land on the left and right sides of the stretch of river we were on, and said that they are both owned (leased) by muzungos. It seems that there are a lot of issues about waterfront access, just as there are beach front access issues in the USA. However, I don't know what the laws are like in Uganda - are right of way protected?

We flipped on the next rapid. Even though we'd been advised that if the boat flipped, that there would be a space of air underneath the boat, and that we would be able to swim out through the curvature between the side of the boat and the surface of the Nile ... practically speaking, it was a different story. We were supposed to hold onto a rope running along the side of the boat, if we flipped in the middle of the rapid. But I lost my grip quickly, and found myself underneath the boat (maybe the bottom, maybe the top) with my eyes open, looking for an exit to the surface of the Nile. It lasted seconds, but those were scary seconds. The life vests were awesome - I later figured out that even if I couldn't tell where the surface was, and where the rapids were, that I could just lean back and would be pulled to the surface. So I got to the surface, and at that rapid I think I was picked up by one of the Ugandan River Guide staffers in a kayak, who were following along. There was also a safety boat that would rescue us. It was all totally safe and everyone was so nice and helpful. So I was pulled onto a kayak and returned to my boat.

Then we went down to the next 6 rapids ... I don't remember how many we managed to go through without flipping, but it was maybe 25% of them. It's hard to say which were the most adventurous. There was one where we flipped in the middle of a longer rapid, and Juma pulled me on top of the boat, which had been flipped over, with the bottom facing the sky, and we used it as a raft. (We'd been instructed that this might happen and that we might be pulled on top.) When I was pulled on top, it kind of felt like I was in Titanic or something - the water rushing all over, and me being high up, and looking rather frantically through the rushing white water for the other members of our boat, so that I could pull them onto the raft with us. It was all very dramatic at the time, but now seems pretty funny. That was the rapid where I think I first learned that if I found myself underneath the boat in a rapid, that I could follow the pull of my life jacket to figure out how to get myself out and to air.

On another rapid, we got stuck on a rock or something and couldn't get off. The boat was filling with water, and everyone on our boat was laughing, while the rest of the guests and staff watched us from below the rapid, hopefully entertained by our fun plight. I knew that worst case was that our boat filled with water and started to sink, and we'd have to jump out and empty the water. Given that there was so little white water there and a slow flow, I knew it would be fine. So that one was just a lot of laughing and we never wound up in the Nile.

Another one, we went "surfing" on the rapid. Juma turned us to the side sort of, and I don't know what he did, but we were surfing. It was a lot of fun, and again we didn't flip.

Throughout the trip down the Nile as the other two boats would flip, we'd pull other muzungos from other boats onto ours, or we'd find ourselves on other boats, or the rescue boat, or attached to the front of a kayak frog-style, rescued, with paddles constantly flowing freely on the surface of the water, the kayakers would retrieve them and bring them back to us. So there was a constant exchange of passengers and paddles - in this way I got to meet the other people - staff and visitors alike - and had so much fun! So much laughing and adventure. What a great day!!!

When we finished the rapids, in late afternoon, we had a BBQ in a cement-floored open patio building with changing rooms and toilets, again very western and likely built and owned by NRE. The BBQ was great. We then got back into the buses and traveled back into Jinja. I happened to sit in front of Juma, and next to Meghan. He taught us so much about nonprofits in Uganda. It was sooo interesting. It turns out that his wife, Sharon is British and runs a well-known nonprofit in Jinga, called Soft Power.

Later in the evening while hanging out at the hostel with Maria and Stacey from our boat, Juma came by with Sharon and I got to meet her. (Juma had also told me about the nonprofit that he works for, which assists Ugandan prostitutes, and his music studio and ideas for the future of Ugandan music. SUPER fascinating!!) I then hung out at the bar for a long time talking with Roggers who runs the Booze Cruise, about his experiences going to an American university in Nairobi, higher education, my research project, and so many other things. It was great!

Meghan and I bought the professional photos that we taken while we were rafting, so I'll have to post those when we get them back! For now, here's one of Maria, Meghan, Juma, me and Stacey, taken back at the hostel.

And just in case you hadn't guessed, this was an AMAZING DAY! And it was $125 - booked in person at the hostel (you don't have to be staying here to go with NRE), including one night's free stay at the dorm, breakfast, lunch (pineapple and cookies, served in the boats on the river), dinner BBQ, and all transportation. The rapids were great, but the people made it really great - I loved our boat, and the NRE River Staff and hostel staff are awesome! I could (and do) sit in the lounge for hours talking with people, making new friends:)

PS- Maria is a McGill student, who is from a town outside of Salem, MA. Turns out that a bunch of her friends from home were Marisa Jackson Hedges' students when she taught at Swampscott! Stacey is in a similar position to me - quit her job, gave up her apartment, etc to spend 6 months volunteering in Kenya. Maria and Stacey are volunteering in a village outside of Kisumu, on the western side of Kenya, near Uganda. They came to Jinja for the weekend with two other women they are volunteering with, who are from Germany. They are living in a mud hut together, and invited me to visit them anytime before the end of the summer, when they too are leaving East Africa. (Though Stacey actually leaves in like 2 days, so she won't be there when I arrive.) It was so nice to meet them, and to have an open invitation to visit a village! :)

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