Apparently whitewater rafting in Jinja, at the base of the Nile, has surpassed gorilla tracking as the most popular tourist activity in Uganda. No surprise there, as rafting is about one tenth the price and one fifth the drive. As such, when we arrived at the Nile River Explorers office on Saturday morning, there were 49 tourists lined up and ready to paddle the Class V stretch of the river. Unlike rafting in the US, the operators here will accept anyone on their Class V trips — no prior rafting experience, no swimming test required. And, incredibly, everyone rafts barefoot.
Our fellow paddlers consisted of three graduate students from Pittsburgh who are in East Africa for field work, and a twenty-two-ish girl from South Africa. All were first-time rafters, and all were terrified. From the very beginning, they pestered our guide with questions about annual drowning statistics, crocodiles, and whether or not they were likely to die on the next rapid. Our guide, who had surely heard all of these questions before, handled them quite well. Lots of people die, he assured them. Yes, there are crocodiles, but don’t worry, many of them are trained and will let you walk on their backs to safety should you fall in the water. You probably won’t die on the next rapid, but it depends on how well you paddle. If you keep asking me these types of questions, I am unlikely to marry you and have zebra babies with you.
What will always set this river trip apart from all of my other whitewater experiences is the sheer amount of carnage that took place. Every boat capsized at least once, and as we learned from the video later, most boats flipped on over half of the rapids. Our crew of melodramatic whining girls actually turned out to be darn good paddlers, and our boat only flipped one time — on a Class III rapid, ironically enough. We played rescue boat on a number of occasions, most notably rescuing the captain of the safety oar boat when his vessel capsized. I am not certain whether the carnage was a result of the relatively inexperienced rafters on the trip, some negligence on the part of the guides, or just the tremendous power of the massive river. Perhaps it was some combination of factors.
I will say that the stretch of river that we traveled was by far the most intense I have ever experienced. The second Class V rapid, known as Silverback, featured four massive waves in succession. Our guide explained our mission before we entered the rapid: just try not to flip the boat on the first wave, ’cause it’s a rough swim. Somehow, we avoided the swim altogether (the only boat that did), but the ride was still a raucous one. Later in the day, we hit another Class V rapid that features a 10 ft drop over a waterfall.
The river also had a few very long flat stretches, where it felt like we paddled forever. We stopped on one of the long flat stretches for a “lunch” of pineapples and glucose biscuits in the boat.
After our day of rafting, we boarded buses for NRE’s campsite, situated on the Nile just outside Jinja town. Most rafters choose to spend the night; in fact, dorm accommodation is included. We upgraded to a private tent for $11, which featured one of the most comfortable beds I have slept on in months. The campsite caters mostly to a young backpacker crowd, so the party noise kept us up a bit late, but the party crowd also slept in, which made for a very peaceful morning. NRE actually serves a very good breakfast in their open air restaurant overlooking the mighty river.
We spent Sunday just hanging out watching the Nile, and getting afternoon massages at the Nile Porch next door.
We didn’t take many photos (we were busy paddling and trying not to drown), but you can check out the ones we have here. A few moments:
Lunch break on the river
View of the Nile from our campsite
Tiny little boats on a big, big river. This was the Sunday crew rafting with NRE; we waved to them from breakfast.
Lunch at the Black Lantern, overlooking the Nile. The ambience was better than the food.