Rafting the Nile River

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July 10th 2008
Published: July 25th 2008
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Bujagali FallsBujagali FallsBujagali Falls

The only photo from Bujagali. We couldn't take our camera on the rapids with us, so here is what we have!
White water rafting on the Nile River was a must do as soon as we heard it was possible. Coming out of Lake Victoria, one of the three sources of the longest river of the world, the Victoria Nile has four grade five rapids and several grade three and four (not to mention the grade sixes we completely avoided) within a day’s rafting distance. (For those not familiar with grading for rafting, grade six is un-navigable; grade one is moving water.) I’ve done rafting in the Rockies involving grade fours and thought it was pretty intense; but now I know that was naïve. It was nothing compared to this.

I sat shotgun to start the trip and the first real rapid was one of the more mild grade fives. As you approach you can only see a horizon line right in front of you; you can’t see the waves. We paddled up, got down and grabbed on; the boat dropped into the pocket and I realized the wave we were about to go through was at least 10 feet high. You don’t have to be creative to imagine the words that came out of my mouth. We went through just fine and were celebrating when the next boats when through. A few didn’t have the success we did. They tipped the raft and the people in the boat had to swim the rest of the rapid. There are kayakers to grab you out of the water, but there is plenty of time to be frightened and suck down a ton of water. We didn’t have the misfortune of being tossed on a grade five; our guide just purposely tipped us on a grade three.

The next rapid was considered a waterfall (Bujagali Falls), but it was more of an enormous rapid with huge waves. We hit a lot of those so I won’t bore you with every detail. However, the third rapid was amazing. Our guide got us really excited about it by saying that of the six years he has gone rafting, this rapid was the best he has ever seen. It has a long sloping chute, so you start well above the rapid gaining speed as you descend, and the elevation provides the opportunity to see the rapid before you hit it. You go through three large waves giving you good shoves left and right before you hit The Silverback. It is the largest constant wave I’ve ever seen, and I got a good look at it. The wave surged into an enormous crest as we went through it; the wave broke over my head into the middle of the boat as we went through. It was the biggest adrenaline rush of my life.

After that though, I had to surrender shotgun. Sitting in the front of a raft is a completely different experience, so I handed the duties over to Ben. In retrospect, I should have been greedy as the next rapid was a 15 foot waterfall.

Ben: I can personally attest to the fact that the rafting experience is entirely different from the front of the boat. This was my first rafting trip, and while the first few rapids were intense, I wasn’t feeling the desired combination of adrenaline and fear for my personal safety that I expected in return for my $100. That all changed at the falls. The raft went through a series of rapids before the falls that had me simultaneously uttering profanities and drinking several gallons of the Nile (I never really perfected a system of cursing and breathing) but it really got intense when we hit the falls at the end of the rapid. The approach to the falls was slow enough that you could really appreciate what you were about to do - the water in front of you picked up speed before completely disappearing out of sight over the edge of the falls. Our guide maneuvered us into position, which unfortunately for me and the 50 year old drunk and toothless Scot occupying the other position in front, meant that we went over pointed straight ahead. As the raft crested the falls I had one and a half seconds to stop paddling like a mad man and look down. Huge mistake. The entire front of the raft was, to my terrified mind, in suspended animation 30 feet (in reality probably closer to 10) above the river below. No sooner had I come to terms with my eminent demise than the rest of the raft, which consisted of 40 pounds of inflated rubber, Kyle, Darren, three Norwegians, another drunk and toothless Scot and our guide came crashing over the falls behind us. The raft came over the edge and pointed straight down as I wedged myself into the front and held on for dear life. Incredibly, the raft crashed straight down, bowed at the middle and then popped straight out of the falls, avoiding the flip and waiting pack of crocodiles (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style) I had assumed was a fait accompli. By comparison the rest of the rapids were a walk in the park, but still extreme (like, Mountain Dew Extreme, dude) by any sense of the word. I have never rafted in the states, but Darren and Kyle assure me that I will be under whelmed after starting my rafting career on the Nile. Like any good guide piloting a raft full of guys, ours made sure to tip us over in the next, considerably less terrifying and bone-shattering, rapid.

Kyle: We spent a few nights hanging out at a hotel near Bujagali Falls partying and swimming in the Nile. While traveling you get kind of used to being in exotic locations, but every once in a while you have a flash of, “What am I doing here?” I was swimming down the Nile looking for huge spiders and colorful lizards when it hit that this isn’t exactly a normal day, despite the fact that I’ve been doing comparable things for the last six months. Anyway, it had been a long while since we had partied, even longer since we had been at a real bar, and the first time since southern India where we met several groups of independent travelers to hang out with. Each night the place was lively with people and they played highlights from that day’s rafting expedition. You really got to see how ridiculous the rapids were, laugh at the people that wiped out that day, and then we get right back to the drinking games. We even got a bit of a dance party going one night. It made me feel halfway normal again.

It was a great group of people, and we really enjoyed hanging out with them but we needed to move onward to Tanzania. It is a twenty-two hour bus ride to Arusha and we wanted to give our legs enough time to recover before Kili. While rafting I had heard people say that they were never so sure they were going to die as at that moment. On the bus, I had that same experience flying at 100 km an hour in a complete white out of fog. But, if traveling has taught me anything, it is that everything is relative. If that were in India we would have had a semi coming at us while passing a rickshaw with a herd of cattle on the side of the road and some goober trying to sell chai tea.

Ben: Fortunately I was spared the white-knuckle bus ride from Kampala to Arusha, Tanzania, since I was passed out for the vast majority of it. After a four hour layover back in Nairobi, we crossed into Tanzania and reached Arusha without incident. We met up with a good friend of mine from undergrad at U of M, currently in law school, who is interning in Arusha at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the court authorized by the U.N. Security Council to try genocide suspects from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The tribunals are open to the public so we were able to watch a trial, in addition to meeting the attorney Eliza works under. The trial we watched was of four suspects accused of ordering an attack on 8 Belgian UN Peacekeepers who were attempting to pick-up the Prime Minister’s wife. I was fairly young when this happened, but it is my understanding that the killing of the Belgian soldiers was big news internationally so some of you may actually remember it. The whole experience was really interesting, especially for me since I will be attending law school in the fall and am considering focusing on some aspect of international public law.

In addition to visiting the ICTR, the attorney that Eliza interns for (and with whom she is living for the summer) insisted on having a dinner party for us the last night we were in Arusha. As we’re not really in the habit of having dinner parties thrown in our honor that often, we agreed. It was an interesting crowd - Darren, Kyle and myself looking like we had been homeless for the last couple months, several of the other ICTR interns who are all about our age from the US, Canada and Israel, a tribunal judge from Argentina, a Belgian architect who designed the house we were eating in, two prosecuting attorneys from Berkley, CA and London respectively and another woman whose connection to the group I never figured out. The food was by far the best we had had in months and it was nice to have some civilized conversation for a change (the subject of our conversations, in addition to the level of attention paid to personal hygiene and appearance, seem to have regressed to that of three 10 year olds as of late - we’ve spent entirely too much time together). Some of the people at the dinner were pretty hilarious, including the forty-something English attorney who expressed his love for Eminem at one point. Kyle and I were both stifling laughter as he elaborated on his love for the lyrics on the Marshal Mathers LP to the judge from Argentina who obviously had no idea what on earth he was talking about. (Kyle: He explained to the judge that most rappers today are “from the other side of the tracks,” meaning that they are black, in describing the novelty of Eminem’s skin color while neglecting to mention that he is also broke-ass trailer trash. Also, he professed that Eminem is one of the most “eloquent lyricists of modern day.” Seriously, has anyone said anything like that about a white-boy from Detroit before?)


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