The Nile High Club

© Roger de la Harpe

Forget about rebel attacks, malaria and Big Dada dictators. Uganda is currently revelling in its second decade of boom-time growth and is steadily regaining its status as the Pearl of Africa. Jacques Marais ventured into the splendid heartland of Uganda to succumb to a few days of Grade Five rafting mayhem on The Nile.

Think of a river. Make it huge, more than a mile wide in places, with low clouds of thunder-mist drifting above its plunging rapids and waterfalls. I'm not talking about just any old river here. No sir, this is the ancient Nile, a roaring, bucking, wide and tugging liquid snake surging from its source in Uganda and then forging its way through the Great African Rift Valley. After hundreds of kilometres, it leaves the green highlands of East Africa behind to carve a great swathe through the arid wastes of Sudan and Egypt, eventually gushing into the warm waters of the Mediterranean at Alexandria.

When you stand next to this river, you feel like a character from a Hemingway novel. All around sweeping stretches of tropical forests cascade down to the water's edge, where open-billed storks wade and crocodile lurk. Hardwood giants and jackfruit trees loom up from the river, festooned in liana creepers sparkling in all shades of jade when the high equator sun burns through the morning cloud.

When you listen, you'll hear the haunting call of fish eagle and piercing cries of malachite kingfisher above the menacing rumble of Bujagali Falls. And when you look at the inflatable rafts on which you will shortly launch into the tug and swirl of the mighty Nile, you will feel your staccato heart beating away inside your chest. And you will know one thing for sure. You are way too young to deal with death by drowning.

But it is too late to chicken out now. We're all geared up and halfway through the safety briefing at the put-in point a few hundred metres below the Owen Falls dam, grouped around a raft known as The Big Rubber. Eight life-jacketed souls listening attentively to a Nile River Explorers Guide rattling off an alarming list of things that could go wrong if we don't get our fingers out of our arses right away. One more run through the emergency procedures and then we launch, first practising our theory in the safety of the flat-water section below the dam wall.

Here I get a momentary stay of execution - I need to grab some photos and thus make my escape to the bank to set up my camera at the first Grade 5 rapid below Bujagali. Here the river grudgingly splits into two - the un-runnable falls on the upper side and below it, a rip-roaring channel stampeding like a manic water beast into a wide and waiting pool.

I grimace as the raft approaches and dips down into the swirling turbulence, bucking into and over the first standing wave. The hysterical victory cries from the rafters are momentary though and all hell breaks loose as a second monster wave explodes into The Big Rubber.

I look on through the lens in helpless stop-start motion as the river casually crumples the inflatable before spitting it out in an explosion of foam, scattering occupants into a roiling water vortex. Thirty seconds later and it is all over - the safety kayakers surge into motion, rescuing a motley selection of drowned raft-rats to deliver them to the relative calm of the downstream pool.

My time has come and I scramble onto the raft to join the crew, with most of the guys really psyched. The two Dutch girls, on the other hand, look decidedly uncertain as to their immediate future as we set course for the next hurdle, a Grade 3 rapid by the name of Fifty-Fifty (which is about similar to your chances of getting through unscathed). Skipper Rob takes an easy line and we burst through ecstatically, crashing through a two metre standing wave in an impressive surge of spray.

We're whooping it up in the eddy below Fifty-Fifty when Rob breaks the bad news: next up is Total Ganja. "You've got two chances with this huge Grade Fiver", he says, "either you smoke it or it smokes you". The approach makes the rides at Ratanga Junction look stupid - first you drop down a sheer, green-water cliff before entering into three white water sectors where even the bravest river gods fear to tread.

Getting through the first standing wave sets you up for a monster ride into a gully where a triangular wave rears up, forming a foaming water-pyramid by the name of The G-Spot. "Forget everything you've ever heard and DO NOT go there", is the advice from the back of the raft.

And what do we do? For the first time (in my life anyway) there is not the slightest problem in locating this mythical place ... we hit the G-spot dead centre. For a split second I think we're going to make it all the way up the two-storey wave, but then a mass of thundering water implodes onto the raft, completely submerging us. The last thing I see as the water closes in is the blue blade of a paddle spinning towards me in the wave.

Its too late to duck, so I take the blow squarely on the upper lip, but who cares - I'll probably drown anyway. About twenty seconds of eternity later my nose breaks surface next to the raft, affording me a split-second suck of oxygen before hitting the next wave. And then it is straight back into the spin cycle. Much later we collapse into the raft, a bit shaken and stirred, but totally pumped.

After a banana and juice refuelling stop, we head down-river to experience the joys of raft surfing at Surf City. It is another Grade 3, but a curling lip offers an excellent surfing wave. We deflate The Big Rubber and slip into the break from a side eddy for our biggest jol of the day.

As soon as you hit the lip, the crew has to rush to the wave-side of the raft to prevent it from flipping. The force of the water then slowly turns the raft up-stream and around, necessitating a rush to the opposite side by all on board. We flip after maybe a minute of surfing the break, but the rush is so incredible that we do three sessions.

And then you get to Silverback, the Grand Finale of Grade Fives on this section of the Nile - a glassy, aqua expressway surging like a waterspout between two rocky cliffs before rearing up in a series of fierce standing waves. Our raft hovers on the edge and then dips down and we're galvanised into action on the call of "Hard forward"!

We paddle ferociously, surging into a liquid fast lane as the mighty river sinks its teeth into us, our shouts drowned out by the approaching thunder. Nothing really prepares you for the fury of Silverback though; the helter-skelter slide down the glassy chute, the explosion of foam as you launch off the first wave and the deafening roar of the rapid as it thumps into you with its full, brute force.

We lose the battle on the second wave when the raft buckles under the force of the standing wave, turfing out two rafters rather unceremoniously. The rest of us manage to ride out the rest of the rapid, watching as the safety kayakers swiftly rescue the hapless swimmers.

Later on that afternoon I'm relaxing with an icy Nile Special Lager when Sam the Aussie wanders over: "So mate, d'you wanna river-board this mother tomorrow"? I mean, what do you say? Here's a fellow countryman of Fat Boy Warne, so it is not as if you can let the SA side down. And so it came to be that the next morning I am on the river yet again, kitted out like some kind of water gladiator.

Chest protection and flotation courtesy of a padded life jacket, a helmet to guard against skull fracture and fins to speed away from (or into) danger. We go through basic boarding technique on a quiet stretch of river, practicing ferry-gliding and underwater breathing before getting down to the real deal.

With a touch of sadistic pleasure, Sam indicates we should move down into the Thunder Zone (just above Bujagali where I saw the river gobble the raft yesterday). I launch my puny bodyboard into the snap and crackle about a hundred metres above the huge Grade 5, with Sam showing me the ropes. Although entry into our first wave is through a calm side eddy, the technique proves a lot more difficult than it looks.

I find myself swirling down the face of the wave every time, gobbled by the current before once more battling into the safety of the eddy. And then, finally, it all clicks into place and it is brilliant - curving down the face with spray spurting and the full flow of the Nile charging below your board.

So much for surfing standing waves; we need to make like real men and board some rapids. Sam shows the way and then it is me and my board matching up against the might of the Nile. For a short, sweet second I swirl above the surging drop and then the river hits fast forward, sucking me into the maelstrom at such speed that I swallow buckets of river through the first wave.

A split-second of recovery time and Boom into the next big hit - my board pops into the air and the world goes ballistic. Wild water sucking and surging all round while I do rubber lips in order to gasp some air. Then into a watery gat-oor-kop somersault before latching back onto my board like a very wet rat. Finally the river gets tired and spits me out into placid pool below, my brain mainlining on the rush of pure river.

When you think that you have tamed this watery beast, you get lined up right into the rock-chomping roar of Total Ganja - and you die like a dog-end in a toilet bowl. Water. Air. Whirling cumulus sky. Manage a huge gulp of oxygen. Smashing into the next wave to go cartwheeling into that bloody G-Spot yet again. Someone hitting the Flush button just as you reach the surface.

And just when you think your chest is about to explode, you're in the clear. Running cool to where the Landy waits to take you back to camp. And up to the thatched pub where the smiling barman guards a frosty crop of Nile Specials. Where there is a view across the Nile that you will remember forever. And thinking how sweet it is to taste the true spirit of adventure.

By Jacques Marais

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