Whatever you do,” says Rueben Connolly, the director of the Nalubale Rafting company, “don’t stop kicking.”
We’re standing on a little rock outcropping, just above the last rapid of our Nile tour. Beneath us, a ski-jump of white water tumbles down into a swirling hole. They call it The Bad Place. In a minute, I’ll be expected to launch myself into the water holding only a Styrofoam boogie-board to manage the rapid. With luck, I might miss the hole.
I dive off the rocks, hands on either side of the board, and for a moment everything goes white. When I surface, I feel myself swept up in the power of the rushing water. Up ahead, I see a crest of wave. If I can kick hard enough, I might catch it and avoid the hole. I’ve never pumped my legs so hard, but the crest doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. It’s like watching a friend go by from a train — you might wave hello as you pass, but you’re not getting off until the train stops. In my case, next stop is deep in the hole.
For years, white-water rafting on the Nile has been a staple of the Ugandan tourism industry. A few kilometers after the source of the Nile, the river crashes down a series of rapids, some of them Class V. With a guide directing the paddling, tourists navigate their way down the rapids, occasionally flipping the raft to tumble into the churning water — but always secure in the knowledge that a giant inflatable boat floats nearby.
In the last few years, however, a certain breed of tourist has eschewed the raft in favour of a boogie-board. And Nalubale Rafting, a newer operation on the Nile, has made it their business to cater to these thrill-seekers.
“Despite what you might think,” said Reuben, a New Zealander who has been guiding rafters down the Nile for eight years, “the hardest part of the job isn’t safety, we’re very safe, the hardest part is giving people the tour they want.” A single raft full of tourists might include daredevils looking to flip, along with novice swimmers who’ve never been in water rougher than a wading pool. Balancing the needs of all rafters can be tricky: play it safe and the daredevil complains the trip is dull, play it fast and loose, and the novice might spend the day in a safety boat, vowing never to again set foot on a raft.
Riverboarding offers an opportunity for rafters to split the difference. Our raft carried two guides: the aforementioned Reuben, and Charles, a former Nile fisherman with sixteen years experience guiding rafting trips. The tourists included a Dutch couple who had never been rafting before, a group of Australians on the daredevil side of the spectrum, and me. At the big rapids, Charles guided the Dutch down in the raft, while Rueben let the Australians and me jump on the boogie boards to seek our thrills.
The foursome of Australians seemed unfazed at the prospect of diving straight into the white-water far from the raft. In fact, they tackled each other and jostled to be first in the water. Three of them were amiable guys in their thirties and one of them, a builder named Scott, had even come with his father, John, a lanky sixty-seven yearold who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. At one point, I asked John if it was the cancer that made him unafraid to brave class-five rapids at his age. He just nodded towards the massive river as if indicating a pastry he wouldn’t mind eating and replied, “No way, mate, I’d have a go at it no matter what.”
Silverback is the biggest rapid on the day-long tour, a smooth green ramp of water that tumbles into a series of churning white crests. In February, the hydroelectric dam is scheduled to go into operation, and the second branch of the river will be closed. At that point, many of the famous rapids of the Nile will cease to exist, submerged deep below the flooded river.
When the dam opens, the rafting companies will move down river. New put-in points have already been constructed, and the rafting companies have begun to shift their focus to the down-river rapids. Nalubale, for instance, has begun to offer a twoday riverboarding trip, in which they emphasize the standing waves downstream, where a riverboarder can point the board upriver and, by balancing just before wave breaks, can surf the rushing water in place. It’s supposedly a real thrill—but I feel a mixture of pride and sadness knowing that I’ll be among the last to have felt the sheer power of the soon-to-be drowned Silverback.
We hit the end of the ramp and their cheers were lost in the abrupt roar and white of the rapid. When I could hear again, I was far downstream, with about as much adrenaline in my blood as I’ve ever felt. Between diving into the rapid at Bujagali, going over the falls at Overtime, and flipping the raft under a sky full of enormous flapping bats at Chop Suey, I didn’t think there could be any adrenaline left. At the end of the afternoon, Reuben assessed the Australians’ enthusiasm and said, “Well, we’ve got one more rapid left. I don’t normally take people down it on the boards, but you lot seem up for it. It’s called The Bad Place.”
My stomach drops as I fall, dead centre, into the sucking hole. Two days later, I’ll learn that a photographer got a picture of me at that instant—in that photo, I appear to be screaming for dear life. But in the moment, my own screams don’t register. I close my eyes and the water welcomes me down. The board rips itself from my grip. Vaguely, I remember Reuben mentioning that if you go into a hole, you should tuck your body into a ball. The worst thing you can do is flail around in a panic.
I don’t know how long I’ve been down. Probably only a few seconds, but it feels like ages. My lungs begin to burn. There’s dark green below and a lighter green above; they reverse and reverse again as my body somersaults underwater. With a kick, I surface—just in time for a wave to smack me in the face. Back under again. I catch gasps of air when I can. At last, I’m drifting on my back, supported by the buoyancy of the life-jacket.
A safety-kayaker, one of the guys who Charles calls the “boda-bodas” of the Nile, pulls me onto the back of his kayak by the collar of my life-jacket. He deposits me on the riverbank, where I gasp and flop around on my stomach like a beached fish. When I finally catch my breath, my eyes focus on two sun-spotted white ankles planted just in front of my nose. It’s John, the sixtyseven year-old. He peers down at me with a big smile. “Great fun, eh? Let’s run up the hillside and do it again!”
By David Torrey Peters
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