There’s nothing. . .absolutely nothing. . .half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.
-Kenneth Cole, The Wind in the Willows
The waves rose high above us, like ever growing shadows, as we plunged down the valley towards its base. Beneath us the thundering river pulled us forward to an invariable doom. Above the sound of roaring water I could barely hear the sound of our guide’s voice yelling, “get down! get down!”
There was no turning back.
I grabbed the rope in my left hand, locking my paddle under my arm, while scrambling down as fast as I could into the bottom of the raft, slipping into the small space beside the other paddlers. Just as I was about to reach the floor, I felt the raft lurch under me and the nose rise up as the whole boat went vertical. Time itself seemed to stop, or at least slow down, as we were suspended in the air. But before the moment could be fully appreciated, another wave crashed against the now exposed bottom of our raft throwing us unmercifully into the foaming depths of the river’s mouth below.
My hand was torn from the raft’s rope before I even hit the water, but I somehow managed to still be holding onto the paddle as my body hit the surface. It felt as though a heavy-weight boxer had punched my stomach and all the air I had in me was knocked out. As my body became fully submerged I felt the paddle be savagely pulled out of my hands by the angry current, twisting my shoulder before I had a chance to let go. The force of the river continued the wrenching of my left shoulder and I felt it slip out of its socket, becoming dislocated.
All I wanted to do was scream as my body was thrown head over heels under the water, getting tossed around like a rag-doll. I tried to pull my body into a ball so as to reduce the chance of hitting the boulders beneath me, but the river was too strong and I couldn’t bring my left arm in as it was still out of place. I had lost all sense of direction and had no idea which was up or down and although I’d been under only for a few seconds I had already run out whatever air I had. The only thought going through my head now was “I wonder how much oxygen I could get out of gulping down a mouthful of water.”
The life-vest, clipped firmly around my body, began to tug in a direction which I concluded must be ‘up.’ With all the strength I could muster, I began to kick as hard as could in that direction, hoping to break the surface, with my left arm dangling behind. My head popped out and for a brief moment I could see the large waves dancing around me. I tried to gasp for as much as air as possible, but before I had the chance my head was forced under again as a large wave crashed down directly on top of me and I felt my body twist again as I was pressed further and further down.
I was spinning again in circles, completely disoriented. The little air I had been able to gulp down helped, and my mind cleared enough to cringe and panic again as I thought about the rocks I was most likely to be presently hitting. I knew enough to know that I was going deeper and deeper which was not good. Once again I was running out of air when I sensed a new current flow pushing on my back. Suddenly my body got pushed violently upwards again by the current which at the same time rammed my shoulder back into place. The pain decreased significantly and I thrust out with as much effort as possible and began swimming upwards, following both the river’s pull and the life-vest’s tugging.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, my head burst out through the water’s surface and I gasped for air, sucking in as much as I possibly could. The waves continued to beat against me, but with much less ferocity, as though I had gone through their trials and passed – even if just barely. Before I could even get a second or third breath, a safety kayak appeared next to me, offering me to grab on. I grasped the two handles on the front and swung my legs around the small kayak’s body, as though I was hanging from the limb of a tree. The kayaker began to paddle and within a few minutes we were once again in calm waters. He brought me next to the raft, which had been righted by the guide, and I swam over.
Getting up took about all the strength I had left in me. To do so I had to grab the rope, which is about two feet out of the water, and then basically do a gymnastic pull-up to get my body up over the edge of the raft – not an easy task with a sore shoulder. As I kicked to get momentum going up the guide reached over the edge and grabbed my life-vest and lifted me out of the water, dropping me into the raft like a sack of potatoes. I lay there, sprawled out, panting.
We were only halfway done and this was just one of the nine rapids that we went over that were classed as either grade 4 or 5. In case you are unfamiliar with the classing of rapids, here they are:
- Grade/Class 4: Very Difficult – steeper, longer drops, looming obstacles, technical turns, precision movements, occasional “swimmers”
- Grade/Class 5: Borderline Rafting – transcended to the limits of control. Crews must be agile, aggressive, and follow commands instantly. Should be physically and mentally prepared for adventure and inherent risk. While not absolutely required, it is strongly suggested that everyone has happily experience class 4 rapids before tackling class 5. Make no mistakes…this is big, tough and difficult water
- Grade/Class 6: (which we got out and walked around): Un-runnable, or, at the very least, survived only with a choir band of angles perched in your lap! Hiding under the bed is safer! (1)
A group of us had decided to take a day trip out of Kampala (Uganda), where we had been attending a training seminar, to Jinja, about 80 km to the east. This is also the alleged location of the source of the Nile, flowing out of Lake Victoria. We decided we had to go on an adventure because rumor had it that Jinja was somewhat of the adventure capital in East Africa (it offers bungee jumping, off-roading, rafting, horse-back riding, etc…). And it’s just not ethical to skip an “adventure capital” when it’s that close.
So we went.
It was an adventure to say the least! My boat was labeled the “extreme” boat and as result this meant we had to tackle the larger portions of the rapids. This, by definition, also meant that we flipped much more often (I believe at least five times), and each time was somewhat of an experience. Granted, they were not all so dramatic as the one above. Some you got tossed around by waves, others you ran into other people (or got hit by their paddles), and others you barely made it through on the raft (often less exciting – but still heart stopping at moments).
In the end it was well worth the experience. We definitely bonded as a team, both because of the intensity of the situations we faced, but also just the casual conversation as we lazily drifted down the river in between rapids.
And, at the very least, they fed us a huge meal at the end of the journey – so no complaints there.
“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”
– A. A. Milne, Pooh’s Little Instruction Book
p.s. for those of you who are interested, we went with Nile River Explorers (raftafrica.com). I highly recommend this outfit. They were well organized (even to transporting us to and from Kampala), had food (breakfast, snacks, and lunch), had well-trained and confident guides, had safety kayaks that picked you up immediately, and a photographer so you get to see all your expressions as you plunge down the rapids. The cost for all that was $125 – so a very reasonable price. If you go to Jinja – do it! Just know that: “There is a very high chance of falling out of the boat, but this is often the highlight of the day and our safety kayakers are always close by.”
p.p.s. for those of you worried about the wildlife on the river: “In 15 years of operation there have been no crocodile related incidents as they do not like populated areas so are rarely seen. There are no hippos on this stretch of the river.” (we didn’t see any of either on this voyage)
p.p.p.s on another note, for those of you with more motherly instincts, my shoulder is fine (it has slipped out before) and I survived even flipping several more times down the river
1 – http://gotrafting.com/ratings.html
2 – http://raftafrica.com/site/grade-5-rafting/grade-5-full-day-rafting/trip-details.html#main