White-Water Rafting the Nile

 

 

January 14, 2009

 

 

Jinja, Uganda

 

 

Journal Entry January 15, 2009 - My 43rd Birthday

 

This journal entry home will be shorter than most as it is my birthday and I have a full day ahead. But after yesterday, I needed to write and share how truly grateful I am to be alive today for my 43rd birthday this January 15, 2009.

 

I arrived in Uganda on Christmas Eve morning and offered a gift of T-Shirts to my driver. After all, my four week trip was taking him away from his family during Christmas and New Years and I wanted him to have a present to open. Ronnie enjoyed the Thailand and Las Vegas T-Shirts. They put a smile on his face and I believe he was surprised. Just days later, he offered me his favorite hat that said, “I Survived the Bad Place”. It was a perfect cap for our long drives throughout our month long trip together. I was embarrassed to take it but I accepted graciously!

 

When rafting the Zambezi river in 1997, I remember my best friend reflecting on the “Sinuous, Tortured Gorges” that I was to face with names like "Toilet Bowl" and "Three Ugly Sisters". Even flipping on two class five rapids and then flipping on Kaituna, a 5+ waterfall in New Zealand, could not have prepared me for what I was to face yesterday.

 

The day was a perfect combination of blue skies, white fluffy clouds that patterned a giraffe’s hide, the hot African sun, warm Nile water, cool breezes and green canopies that lined the river as we floated calmly towards each rapid. 40 minute spans would have us frolicking in the sun and swimming around in the river with river guides splashing us with paddles. It was like being a child with floaties on without a care in the world.

 

The raft was occupied by two of us in the front paddling our hearts out and three passengers in the back as waves would wash over us before we settled in calm waters again. As we lay on our backs floating with the current, we passed the “real” life along the Nile; naked boys jumping off rocks into the river; Ladies washing their clothes on one side of river beds and men washing their bodies on the other. Jugs carried on heads of youngsters to gather water for drinking and washing.

 

It really is amazing when Nile life floats by just before you crash into waves that could potentially drown you. Hours had passed with no incident in pretty calm waters. We hit a few class three rapids and easily stayed afloat. We even conquered two class fives in the morning.

 

Before we knew it we were rafting to an island for a lovely laid out lunch of veggies and ham. Then it was back to the river. Feeling full and a bit tired we had yet to conquer “The Bad Place”. It is the sure flip, class five rapid that immediately follows an unrideable class six. There is barely a split between the two so you must paddle to the edge and walk over the rocks to see this massive rapid of white foam that would almost ensure sheer death. After fearing the whirlpool, you reboard basically in the middle of the rapid and immediately immerse into this 5 plus.

 

I had been waiting all day for this. The other riders that I met earlier that day had known they would opt out as this was there very first rafting experience. My guide explained we could not attempt this with just two. I was determined to talk one of the other passengers into it. As a born sales person, I accomplished just that. I ironically talked him into this mission with the assurance it would be just fine! So, while the others chose the safety raft for a comfortable ride we two joined our guide to risk the, what I know now as, unthinkable.

 

I have knots in my stomach as I type. I even feel the lump in my throat that I had just before approaching the rapid. There really was no time to think. You are in the middle of the rapid alongside the Nile when you re-board so as soon as I was given the instruction to push us off of the rocks with my paddle we were in it.

 

I think only seconds passed as he screamed NOW, paddle forward Faster. “GET DOWN”, he yelled! Holding the T-Grip of the paddle with my left hand and my right hand gripping the tight rope on the side of the raft, I tried to hold on for dear life. The waves came before I could blink and was unable to take in the deep breath I so desperately needed. Like foam from a crashing wave atop a surfer, we were encompassed! The water covered my head, then my body, it whipped the oar from my hand and tore my hand from the rope.

 

I was in the fury. I was under water. I thrashed around like a tiny washcloth caught up in the final rinse cycle of a washing machine. I gasped underwater taking it in through my mouth and nose. I actually remember thinking to stay calm, you will surface but I honestly did not know how. I was lost in the rapid. I was underwater and could not breathe. I could feel the strong current pulling me so far away from the reality of the safety of the raft. I was upside down and sideways.

The strap of my helmet was making it harder to focus. It was constricting my breathing, choking me tightly. My life jacket was lifting above my neck adding another obstacle as I tried tofind an air pocket anywhere. It just would not come. It was frustrating being so helpless.

 

Then, it finally came. My head was up. I was kicking and fighting for my life to stay on top of the water. I barely had my eyes open and I saw the next wave hover over my head like a wave washing over New York City in a movie. I was once again, pulled back down. I had barely caught a breath. That short, single breath saved me. I was dug back underneath, this time with an even greater vengeance. I actually thought, "This is it". I did not know how anyone would find me. I was going to drown. I have tears falling down my face right now as I type as it was so real. The fear was all consuming.

 

Then just as I was sucked in for a third time, I was released from the ferocity of the wave my body tired and aching from the thrashing. What must have been only a couple of minutes felt like a lifetime of survival.

 

I was now up and out of it to trying to distinguish up from down. I saw sky and frantically searched for anything to grab on to. I saw a safety Kayak in the near distance and begged to get closer. I swam with all my might just to grab that tiny rope in the front of this single man kayak.

My chest was heaving and I was struggling to release the buckle under my chin restricting my breathing.

 

And it was over. I was safe. I gave a thumb’s up as I could not speak. My first words were, “Where is the other guy?” The safety pointed in the direction of the rapid, I saw him sitting in the raft. I did not understand how. He was flipped and came out quickly and they immediately pulled him back into the raft as soon as it was upright.

 

I was so far away. I lay on my back as instructed with my legs wrapped around the front point of the kayak as he paddled me to safety to the raft. I was pulled onto the comfort of the inside of the raft. Again, I quickly fumbled to release the four clips restricting my breathing by the tight life vest that was too high on my body for comfort.

 

I just lay back and let out such a sigh. My breathing was still labored and I could now see the safety raft with the guide, the two British girls and the Irish lad that chose to stay safe in the class 3. I laughed, I sighed and I really was in a bit of a shock. But I was fine and thrilled.

They said how frightening it was for them to watch me. They lost me immediately after we flipped. They finally saw my head come up for a second and then nobody knew where I was again. They just had to wait like I did.

 

The safety that saw me flip went to rescue me but the effort was futile. The fury trapped him in his kayak under the raft. They had to go in and get him out first. In the interim, I was lost. They had to wait for me to surface to know where I had been taken to so they said they went wide and spread out. That was how I spotted a kayak when I came up out of the river so far from the raft, the rapid and the safety raft.

 

The Nile current was strong and we were not done. The 5 of us gathered back in our raft with our guide. We still had work to do. As two of us were in front again, we led the pack in oaring ourselves to shore without being pulled down river. I was overwhelmed, I was tired, and I hurt. But the alternative was not an option. We had to paddle hard now to cross the river to the shore before we were pulled down stream.

 

You just find the strength. You ignore the fact that you just almost drowned. You let go of the fear. You breathe, experience gratitude, and paddle with the crew of strangers you have spent all day with. The two of us in front were a bit speechless. We would just look at each other as though we survived the unthinkable and we actually did. At least I did! He said it was quick for him. He said he was up fast enough to see that I had been lost underwater.

 

We climbed the rocks up the side of the river up to the road towards our bus. I got to the top and breathed my first real breath. I leaned forward and water literally poured from my nose to the ground. My sinuses were burning from all of the water I took in.

 

It was surreal and over just as fast as it started. It was a crazy experience. I really was exhausted and yet ready to party. All day, the guides and I spoke of going out to the bars in Jinja town. They asked if I was still up for it and my only reply was you better believe it!

 

With an absence of vodka, I drank my very first beer ever on that 40-minute bus ride home. It was a Nile Special. I never had a beer before but it was well deserved!

 

Ironically, I had plans today to repel down Sipi Falls in Eastern Uganda at the base of Mt. Elgon near the Kenyan border. Feeling shaken still from yesterday and knowing I would have to face my intense fear of heights atop this 325 ft waterfall after a rough 3-4 hour car ride from Jinja to Sipi, I decided I had experienced enough drama for my 43rd birthday. Although disappointed, I would have to return another time to tackle this waterfall (which I did one year later).

 

Everyone aboard the bus was chattering, recounting the fabulous events of the day. I was quiet and in my head. I was experiencing extreme appreciation for life. When asked if I would ride that river again, I was quick to say, “Absolutely”. My apparent need for adventure has a very short memory. So, I don’t know what river is next but I do know, I’m up for the challenge.

 

I had survived “The Bad Place” and could wear my new hat that I earned proudly!

 

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