The readers have spoken! E-mailed, anyway. Consider me suitably chastised for not writing about rafting the Nile. Here it is, with apologies.
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Up to the point when I got off the bus in Jinja, I’d second-guessed my decision to raft the Nile.
"It's only $95, you get same day transport to and from Kampala, breakfast on arrival in Jinja, light lunch, full 30kms of the Nile, and a massive BBQ with beers and sodas at the end. Bargain!” glee-mailed Marky, my Ethiopia Dragoman driver who now runs the office at Nile River Explorers.
I’d e-mailed back the electronic equivalent of sputtering. $95 was an entire summer’s food budget for Herr Marlboro and me at Murchison Falls, excluding splash-out dinners in Kampala. It seemed an outrageous amount of cash to be spending in Uganda, especially on just a few hours. It's a third the average Ugandan's yearly income. (Mind you, the "average" is stilted by all the rural citizens intake, and you'd never survive in Kampala on the average.)
Four companies offer rafting out of Jinja, but it’s a bit of a cartel as they all charge about the same. And they don’t stop there… you can’t take your camera along unless you want to submerge it in the Nile, but they will sell you a CD of photos of your trip for THIRTY DOLLARS.
Is it worth it?
Well, it was a lot of fun, although not too different from rafting the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls. And it’s cool to raft the Nile, even though I swallowed a bit of it, leading Dr. Smyth at The Surgery to stuff bilharzia medicine into a bag. She shoved it into my hand and instructed me to take it right after Christmas. H.M. warned me not to take it.
“Get a blood test to see if you need it,” he advised. He should know. He had bilharzia last year, and the medicine knocked him out for a few days. Africa veterans often try to one-up each other on the illnesses they’ve had, and H.M. can banter with the best. When he drove me to the airport from Kampala, he was just getting over his latest malaria episode.
I later learned I was lucky to have made the decision to get off the bus in Jinja. It was “riot-day” in Kampala, and no doubt the bus hit roadblocks and traffic problems as soon at it hit Jinja Road roundabout. Plus there was a big conference in town and all the cheap and mid-range hotels were booked solid. The conference and riots occurring together were no coincidence… the arrest of the opposition leader seemed timed to coincide with the political conference.
The bus dropped me off north of Jinja’s center, where I was instantly surrounded by motorbike taxis. I started to negotiate, waving away the pedal-powered bicycle taxis as I pointed out my large backpack.
“Will you be okay?” whispered the Akamba bus conductor. I giggled. It was nice of him to be concerned. Surely there are lots of criminals in the world, but it’s been years since I encountered any, and I sure wasn’t going to run across one in Jinja.
“Yes. It’s no problem.” In truth, my only problem had been the excruciatingly long bus trip. I’ve tried both night and day buses between Nairobi and Uganda and my only suggestion is don’t take one. Catch a Peugeot shared taxi on the Kenya side and minibus on the Uganda side. Walk across the border. Sage wisdom of locals is to take the bus because it is slow but it is safe. Marie-wisdom is “for god’s sake, don’t take the bus. It will drive you crazy. Just wear a seatbelt as a nod to safety in the fast Peugeot.”
If you absolutely MUST take a bus, catch Scandinavia Express. Their better shock absorbers will make the road to Nairobi more tolerable.
I wore my pack and perched precariously on the back of the motorbike, which zipped me to 2 Friends Guesthouse. I’d chosen it based on its attractive website.
I threw my bag into my room and went off to find Marky. I asked for coins at the 2 Friends pizza joint. Oh, there was Marky, chatting with the owner… no, wait… that man was thinner in the face plus he didn’t look at me at all. Just someone who looked liked Marky? Maybe.
I walked to the NRE Backpackers and asked about Marky. The bartender called him. He said “park her at the bar and I’ll be there in a minute.”
He was there moments later. After all, he had only to drive over from 2 Friends.
Unfortunately, the riots meant that tomorrow’s rafting trip had been cancelled. No one was moving in or out of Kampala. Marky was glum that he hadn’t had the opportunity to sell me a trip, but Adrift had a half-day trip going.
At $85, the half-day trip is even less of a bargain than the full-day trip. But it was the only trip happening so I signed up.
There were only three other rafters in Jinja that day. Big Ray, Little Ray (a Canadian Mountie and son of Big Ray), Marta from Italy, and me.
Our rafting boss—whose name I am sorry to say I have forgotten—was being tested by an experienced Tasmanian gal who has probably been doing this job for so long that she’d long ago covered up her true self with a solid wall of professionalism. She had a quick answer filed away in her head for each question, and had clearly been asked “where are you from” at least 7,000 times. When I told her I used to live in New South Wales “up near the border of Queensland,” she snarkily said “I know where New South Wales is.” Anyway, she knew her stuff even if her bedside manner was that of a tired veteran. And she became more accessible as the day wore on.
We were instructed to leave behind our Tevas and go barefoot, and there was no question about carrying along money or cameras. Everything stayed in the bus. This made me nervous—was it dead-certain that we’d flip?
We were each given an oar, a helmet, and a puffy vest. These vests would keep us afloat no matter what. The only real danger was in panicking and drinking too much Nile, getting stuck under a raft, or hit in the face with an oar. Or rock.
We each had to practice falling out into the Nile. I was quite good at this.
I wasn’t so good at going under the raft. I had vivid memories of being caught briefly under the Zambezi raft. I’d looked for the famed pocket-of-air and instead inhaled river water. Only sternly reminding myself that I’d die if I breathed water instead of air convinced me to drag myself out from under the boat. And what was on the surface? Wave after wave of churning water smacking me from all sides. More drinking the Zambezi. One man had panicked and finished the trip like a beached whale, gasping for air on top of the overturned rafter where the leader had dragged him.
Off we rowed, the four of us clumsily trying to follow instructions. “Left forward, right back!” Uh, what?
We probably weren’t the worst crew in the history of Nile rafting—after all, we had a Mountie on board—but we were far from the best. The river took us (it was clearly in control) through a few little rapids and we were delighted when we came out the other sides and were still intact.
“This next rapid is called 50/50.”
A wave the size of a Mama-hippo caught us and tossed us over like a Peppermint Patty wrapper on Michigan Avenue in January. There was only a split-second in which to comprehend “shit, we’re going down” and gulp a breath. We were all in the dark river, under the raft in the rapids.
No way was I staying under this time. I didn’t bother looking for the pocket of air—I’d grabbed a breath on the way down—I kicked and ducked under the rubber raft’s rim. I seized the rope on the outside and let the raft pull me downstream, remembering this time to keep my mouth shut.
I still managed to drink some Nile water, but not as much as Marta, who coughed for a good five minutes after our dunking.
We didn’t flip the rest of the time, which was fine with me. Once a wave hit us and everyone on the right side flew in—but I was on the left. A safety kayaker picked up Marta who had been thrown clear of the rapid.
We finally pulled up along the bank for lunch, and then rowed across the river to the take-out point. No one bought the CD. If it were $10, maybe. But $30? No way.
Marta and I changed clothes back at 2 Friends, and I caught a lift with her back to the outskirts of Kampala.
Was it worth it?
I still don’t know the answer to that. It was certainly better value than $360 for an hour of listening to mountain gorillas. And way better when compared to $400 to go over Masai Mara in a balloon. But was it good value when compared to eating perfect steaks for two months in Murchison Falls? No.