Those of you who have been around and reading the Post for the last three years may remember that in 2000 I took myself off to Africa for the second half of my Gap year. This year I returned.
One thing in Africa I didn't need any time to learn to enjoy again was white water rafting. During my Gap year I went rafting on the Zambezi at Victoria Falls and, despite garnering a knackered shoulder and aching calves, it was something I wanted to try again, after all - I still hadn't fallen out of a raft! I'd also had Fiona telling me about her experience rafting on the Nile from Jinja (where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria), a trip that is supposed to rival the Zambezi. She spent quite a lot of the time out of the boat and, having taken the 'safe' route in an oar boat down the final Grade 5 rapid 'Itanda' (The Bad Place) to avoid another dunking, was not keen to repeat the trip. There was no way I wasn't going, but my three years of teasing Fi for her wimpish qualities nearly came back to haunt me when I saw Itanda - there was no way I could avoid a swim unless I wanted to be mocked for all eternity.
Rafting on the Nile was an opportunity that had to be taken, as the chance might not come around again. There are plans to build a second dam at the head of the Nile to supplement the Owen Falls dam which supplies Uganda with a large proportion of its power. If and when this is completed - the project keeps stalling due to financial and environmental concerns - the majority of the rapids will be consigned to oblivion. So I headed off for my adventure whilst Fi took the safe course of going to meet Claire - a nurse coming to spend a month working with Jan - at the airport.
On arrival at the start of the trip I was presented with a helmet, life-jacket and paddle and put in a raft steered by Jules. This was followed by the standard 'this is what happens when you fall out of the boat' spiel, and a practise jump in and out of the raft - I was always requiring a good hard tug to get back aboard. I have to say I have not yet worked out the aim of white-water rafting; whether you are supposed to aim to stay in or fall out of the boat. Jules' general laid-back aim seemed to be to stay in given that we would probably inevitably fall out at some point. The other boat - to which I was transferred after lunch to balance the weight when the river-boarders gave up their body boards - was steered by Ailsa, who seemed to have the philosophy that if we were going to flip we might as well go all-out for it - exactly what I wanted in a guide taking on Itanda! By the time the trip ended I held - jointly - the day's record for falling out of the boat, but I maintain I won, as all of my dunkings stemmed from highly impressive raft flips. The other candidate only had two flips, but fell out of the raft on the last rapid.
We got off to a good start, riding the first rapid in style, but then we took a couple of lovely spills so that we could test our training. The first came on the Grade 4 'Bujugali Falls', when I failed to follow both the 'hang on to the boat - it floats' and 'hang on to your paddle - it also floats' instructions. I did, however, follow the order to not panic, and had a pleasant bob down under the river before being picked up by one of the safety kayaks.
Second flip round I managed to hang on to the boat, and promptly decided that I wasn't going to follow that particular instruction again. Rather than bobbing downstream in relative comfort (apart from the difficulty breathing whilst swamped in white water), I had to try to breathe and at the same time avoid getting hit on the head by the boat as it bounced around upside down. After the ignominy of flipping on this Grade 3 'Easy Rider' we managed, despite one 'Oh no, not again' moment, to stay in the boat on the two pre-lunch Grade 5 rapids and enjoy watching the other raft flip.
Our lunch island was shared by some rather huge monitor lizards and a green mamba (which fortunately stayed away from my bare feet), while I tried to avoid thinking about Nile crocodiles. The second half of a Nile rafting trip is a little more lazy. The rapids are more spread out and there are long pools of still water, where you can either paddle yourselves along, or tie up to the oar-boat (the larger, more stable boat that takes all the equipment and people who don't want to flip down the rapids) for a tow.
However, there were still a couple of Grade 5 rapids to be tackled. The first one, we slid round the side of - it involved a waterfall, and the river was slightly too high for taking the drop safely, so we bumped around it in a shallow, rocky side-stream. The other, of course was The Bad Place.
Itanda is actually a Grade 6 rapid - a huge stretch of white water that you don't raft unless you're feeling suicidal. So we got out of the rafts and walked around it, hopping back in to take on the Grade 5 section at its end. You can hear Itanda before you see it, a deafening roar, while the rafting guides begin to exhibit concern about the rafters' paddling skills as they negotiate the rafts delicately to shore without being ripped away down the rapid. It was a daunting sight - a mass of raging, foamy, yellowy-white water, at which the kayakers flung themselves like it was a day at the races, dancing their tiny kayaks around in the water and turning cartwheels. The option was there to go down in the oar-boat, and I was sorely tempted, but deep-down I really wanted to prove that I could 'survive The Bad Place'.
We got into the raft and were given a choice - to head for the really good wave in the centre of the rapid and definitely fall out, or to try to avoid falling out by aiming for a tiny window of the rapid, and probably missing, but without such a good ride. We went for the first option. As we hit the rapid Ailsa ordered us to fling our paddles overboard, they were no longer any use, and would only get in the way and probably hit someone. That was one less thing to worry about - not that I had any time to worry anyway really. It seemed like quite a while though - we bucked around on the top of the wave spectacularly, first one way, with me falling backwards (thinking 'Yay, still in the boat') and then the other.
As we lurched forwards I decided that actually we really weren't ever going to manage to stay in the boat, so I might as well chuck myself out whilst I wasn't so likely to get entangled in the boat or come into contact with other people's flailing limbs. Therefore I nose-dived out of the raft, very gracefully I'm sure, plunging into the swirling flood. And the first bit of the swim was great - I balled myself up like I was supposed to, and my lungs remained intact. Then I popped up, and opened my eyes and mouth, only to find myself still pretty much in the middle of the rapid. I managed not to swallow more than about half the river, and decided that bouncing downstream backwards might be the best option so I wouldn't be facing into the waves when I tried to breathe. Easier decided than done of course, but I eventually arrived gasping at the kayaks.
It turned out that only three people had managed to stay in a raft - Jules, and two members of his boat - but still, when I went to Kampala a week and a half later I proudly bought myself a t-shirt proclaiming that 'I survived The Bad Place'.