Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Rafting down the Nile

April 7th

Genocide Day. On this day, fifteen years ago, the holocaust was unleashed on Rwanda which all but destroyed the country and which still profoundly affects every aspects of its daily life.

Last year I went up a volcano with Geert on Genocide Day; this year I’m going to do some of the best white water rafting in the world with four friends. And one of the friends is half Rwandan, has lost many members of her family during the murderous three months; the sheer fact that Épi’s alive and able to enjoy the experience with me is a spit in the eye for those people who tried to do their murderous ethnic cleansing in Rwanda.

We have a leisurely start to the day because we’re waiting for the bus to come from Kampala with today’s rafters from the various hostels in the town. When they eventually arrive we get kitted out with lifejackets and helmets. My helmet (the only one left which will fit my big head) is a bright pink, “my little pony” type of colour. Also there’s absolutely no chance of me being able to wear my glasses in the raft; at the very first rapid they’ll be on their way to Egypt down the Nile. I have a pair of swimming goggles which give me some vision, but I know I must look a fright in them. We leave valuables in a watertight box which will come with us on the river, and then have to walk barefoot down a stony path and endless steps to water level. I didn’t realise just how sensitive and thin the skin on my feet has become; its agony walking without shoes! (Ed: shut up; you’re such a wimp!)

Out on the river we spend some time doing drills; first of all we have to fall out of the raft and get back in. Getting in is not as easy as falling out. We’re wearing wet clothes for one thing, and the rafts are higher out of the water than you imagine. For almost all of us we have to be unceremoniously hauled in by the straps of our life jackets. When we are helping the girls in there’s always a delicate moment when you’re not sure where you can put your hands to haul them up the last few inches to safety…… Fortunately three of the four girls in our raft are VSOs and know me well. The final person – the only non-VSO in our raft – is Jamie. She’s an American management consultant on a break in East Africa and is a delightful girl. Within ten minutes she’s very much one of our gang.

There are around twenty people in three rafts, with a safety boat and several rescue kayaks to haul us out of the most dangerous rapids before we drown. There quickly develops a rivalry between the various rafts involving trying to paddle faster than them, and doing our best to splash water all over them.

The Nile is comfortably warm to swim in. There are no water snakes visible here (I think because the current is too strong for them), so the river belongs to us and to the birds. The sun is scorching hot in the rafts; we slather up with sun cream but every time we go in the water (frequently) it washes off, and before we know it Eric and I are getting our knees and feet seriously burnt.

The next drill is a capsize one. We all go to one side of the raft, and the steersman makes sure it tips over. Some people are trapped underneath the raft; in this case you have to work out which is the nearest side to freedom and claw your way out. You’re in no danger of drowning because there’s tons of air trapped under the raft. Just my luck that the edge of the raft comes down hard on my head, and even more so that a metal cleat whacks me on the bridge of the nose and splits the skin. When I come to the surface I’m bleeding profusely; everyone looks alarmed but it’s not hurting and I can’t work out what all the fuss is about. It gets messy after a minute or two; I look as though I’m going through some tribal initiation rite. None of us have brought plasters, so I just get in the river often and let the water wash the wound clean.

When we approach a big rapid we have to tuck down into the well of the raft. We need several goes to get proficient at this. There are sausage-shaped air bags going across the raft as seats, and we have to kick these to move them and give us leg room. Not surprisingly, with my long legs I’m always the last to get into position.

OK, so now we’re competent to tackle the first little rapid. This only has a drop of a few feet (it’s one you have a picture of on the blog), and we bounce through it, getting wet with spray but with no risk of capsizing.

In between the rapids we jump out of the raft and swim around in the river. At one point we see an otter on the bank; and further on there’s a big monitor lizard watching us impassively. (Or at least, I think he is – without my glasses these animals are just dark blurs on the edge of the river).

We go through a series of rapids which get progressively higher and longer and more challenging. We’re given a choice each time of the “tame” route or the “wild” route. I wonder if there’s any rafting party which doesn’t choose the “wild” route every time? One Dutch girl has decided to opt into the rescue raft; she’s had a bad experience on their capsize drill and wants to play safe.

For obvious reasons I haven’t got any photos of us actually rafting, but we’ve bought a DVD and if I can make it work on my computer I’ll be a happy man. So I’ll have to describe the typical rapid experience.

You hear the roar of the rapids long before you see them. In fact, you don’t see the white water until you’re right on top of it because in the raft you’re so close to river level and because the white water is at a lower elevation than you. So suddenly you become aware that the river is speeding up and that there are big rocks in the water ahead. Then you pass the “event horizon” and everyone thinks “oh hell – why have I allowed myself into being conned into doing this….?”

Suddenly there is no clear water at all; everything is white foam. The water is churning in all directions. There are massive standing waves towering high above the raft. You first reaction is that there is no way you can survive the next few seconds. By now you’re crouched down in the well of the raft with the handle of your paddle firmly in your hand so that it can’t hit and hurt anyone. You lurch over the lip of the rapid and surrender yourself to the power of the water. It feels as if you’ve been put into a washing machine. You’re bounced every which way in three dimensions – up and down, fore and aft, and sideways. At times you are lifted off your seat – on one memorable occasion I find myself airborne for a split second. I’m sure I will be thrown out of the raft, but manage to land back inside it, much to the relief of Tina who thinks I’m about to come down with all my weight on top of her!

You can’t paddle in the rapids; you just have to trust to the boat and wait until you’ve run through them. At the far end of the rapids there is a section of clear water, but with vicious currents boiling up from below and churning around. In these places we have to pull hard on our paddles and manoeuvre the raft to line it up for the next section.

In reality there are about nine or ten rapids with clear sections of river between them. Some of these sections are long, and we are literally paddling our way down the Nile. If the current is strong we can stop paddling and take our helmets off and play silly games like all jumping out of the raft in unison (for the sake of the camera). At other times we have a couple of minutes only to pause for breath. And in others we have a good half hour of paddling in blazing sun.

There are just a couple of the rapids which are scary – in one because you are suddenly made aware of the enormous power of the water, and that despite wearing a lifejacket, if you get trapped in a eddy below the surface there’s little chance of you being able to swim your way out. In another one the force of the waves blows water into our faces under pressure and right up our noses – a really horrible experience. At some time in the process my swimming goggles break and the lenses are lost to the water. I’m not bothered – I can see well enough around me to be able to manoeuvre myself when necessary, and when we’re in the rapids nobody is concentrating on anything except the water immediately in front of them!

Fortunately there’s no sign of a single crocodile on all this stretch of river, nor of voracious Nile perch which have an impressive set of jaws and which are rapidly wiping out all other species of fish in the area. I’m not sure whether crocodiles do exist here, or whether it’s the kind of story the rafting company puts out to “big up” the experience. They needn’t bother – this is generally recognised as some of the best white water rafting anywhere in the world!

We stop for lunch in a little island in the middle of the river, and all waddle up to a clearing where there is a roofed shelter. An enormous picnic lunch has been set out for us – cold meats, salads, fruit, and drink. Very impressive, and most welcome, too. We eat like pigs, and the set off again for the final four or so rapids.

On one of these our raft gets stuck. There’s slightly less water coming down today than usual, and our weight makes us go aground on rocks. We can’t get out because the power of the water is too strong, so we have to shift our weight around the boat and keep jiggling until it eventually unsticks itself. Now this rapid is a true waterfall – a vertical drop of around five feet, which looks a lot more than that when you’re perched above it and about to fall over the edge! Just our luck – at the last moment our raft flats free, swings round in an eddy and we go over the waterfall backwards. Cue much yelling and shouting from six scared rafters!

The last of the rapids is genuinely frightening. The biggest rapids we’re allowed to tackle as amateur passengers are grade 5; this last rapid is a grade 6. It’s not so much that the vertical drop is huge (we’ve already been down a higher one), but that the rapids go on and on and on for hundreds of yards. If you came out of the raft at the start of the rapids there would be little chance of the rescue boats being able to get to you because of the force of the water, and there’s a risk you would be drowned before you floated to the end of the white water. People have drowned here in the past.

The noise of the water drowns everything, and close to the rapids we can only communicate by shouts or signs. We paddle to the side and have to walk round the worst of the white water while our rafts are portaged through. Then we set off again for the last few hundred yards of water, which is still very exciting. It’s a brilliant finale to a series of rapids which have been building up in strength as we have progressed down the Nile.

Well, our rafting experience is nearly over. We paddle our raft upstream for a few yards (hard work) and climb up a steep, slippery bank liberally daubed with cow shit where the local farmers water their animals. At the top of the bank is a trekking bus to take us home, and vehicles to take the rafts and canoes back. And there is a barbecue with juicy brochettes and hot chappatis ready and waiting for us, and –joy of joys – ice cold beer. A group of local children, some semi naked, look on forlornly while we guzzle and stuff ourselves.

Once into the lorry we bounce our way home in our soaking wet clothes. It is our first glimpse of rural Uganda and its a million miles away from the sophistication of Kampala. The huts are thatched with palm leaves (rare in Rwanda where building rules stipulate tiles or tin sheets); the people look desperately poor. But without exception they wave at us, and nobody chases after us asking for money.

Back at the “Adrift” campsite we shower and warm up. We eat well again, and dance some of the evening to celebrate. Our steersman starts to develop an unhealthy interest in Tina, so the evening has its unfunnier moments.

My nose wound has healed and I’m barely aware of the cut any more.

In bed, our dormitory is full and rapidly becomes unbearably stuffy. Mosquitoes are a severe problem in Uganda, and away from the river breezes we can hear them around our hut. Some other campers are celebrating long and hard into the night (they are parties trekking on lorries down the length of Africa, and this stopover, apart from being one of the highlights of their trip, is a welcome break from camping in the wilds). Eric and I both have an uncomfortable night : where we have badly burnt our knees and legs on the river we get jumping pains so that we can’t get off to sleep until the early hours, and we certainly don’t feel rested in the morning.

Best thing about today – everything. I’ve just done one of the best experiences Africa has to offer, and we all did it and enjoyed it.

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