food / travel

White Nile: The Best Rafting In The World Is In Uganda

The White Nile offers perfect rafting conditions: soft water and few sharp stones. The number of times you go overboard depends mainly on the mood of who’s steering.

A very bumpy ride (NeilsPhotography)
A very bumpy ride (NeilsPhotography)
Philipp Hedemann

JINJA -- This must be how the delicate cycle works in a washing machine. Everything's rotating, the water is 30° C, and when I come up I'm going to be really, really clean. If I come up! When is this cycle over!?

Air's getting tight. What's up, what's down? After a couple of seconds that seem endless I finally manage to get my head above water. I have just been thoroughly washed by the White Nile where, according to Lonely Planet, the best rafting in the world is available in the topmost of the top travel countries in 2012: Uganda.

"Is there anybody on board who's never gone rafting before?" Paulo Babi asks before we set out. Three hands including mine go up. "Great, then at least I'm not the only one," laughs our rafting guide in his bright red rubber boots. I know he's experienced – also witty, there's that too, I think as I seat myself up front.

We set off, and, spurred on by Paulo's "Go, go!" my arms pull my paddle through the water. Soon I can hear the sound of roaring water through my helmet, then I see a drop, at least four meters, and my mind starts sending signals that maybe this isn't such a great idea -- but my arms keep on paddling. I'm having a hard time keeping my rubber-boot-clad feet down – and now waves come streaming over us. I lose my orientation. The raft and its passengers – me, six overweight Americans and the shouting Paulo – capsize.

Where the Nile meets Lake Victoria

Freshly washed, back in the raft, we dry off in the strong sun as Paulo utters soothing words: "No worries, there are some crocodiles around here but they're all vegetarians! Seriously, we need to pay more attention at the next rapid. I've got my laptop with me and water's not good for it."

The jokes burble out of the mouth of our Ugandan guide faster than the water rushes past the raft. Paulo could have gotten us through without capsizing – he is, after all, a member of the Ugandan national rafting team – but with him the wash cycle is part of the program.

"Right after the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria, you have the best rapids in the world -- Class 5," says Paulo. "And because there's so much soft water here, and so few sharp stones, capsizing isn't dangerous," he adds. He's been taking tourists on this most African of rivers for over 12 years and there's been only one accident, when a rafter broke a leg.

When a rising roar announces the approach of another rapid I get the feeling that maybe I'm going to be Paulo's second accident statistic. Paddling under these conditions seems about as promising as trying to reach up and grab the fresh green leaves away from a giraffe feeding off a tree top. At first the raft bobs up and down on the white foam like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. Then it's as if the water is saying No More Mr. Nice Guy, cuts the fun and games short – and the second wash cycle begins.

Paulo is intimately familiar with the dangers of the current. Until he was 16, he was a member of the renowned Bujagali Swimmers. Carrying just an empty 20-liter jerry can each – no life jacket, no helmet – for flotation, these young men would jump into the Bujagali Falls. Paulo's older brother was killed doing this.

This didn't happen, however, on the 25 kilometer stretch that Paulo negotiates daily with tourists like me for Nile River Explorers. Still -- hearing the story about the brother isn't confidence building, especially as just then we are approaching a rapid called "Bad Place." One minute and a lot of gulps of water later I understand why the rapid bears that name. The next one's "Vengeance Rapid" – vengeance for what, I wonder, that we got through "Bad Place" without capsizing? Here, nomen est omen (name is omen): submerged again.

Shaped like a fat snake that's just eaten its fill, the White Nile courses through the green landscape. Clapping kids leap off rocks into the warm river. Fishermen in slim wooden boats shake their heads at the often sunburned muzungus (pale faces) who pay nearly 100 euros each to get thoroughly soaked.

Over 100 years ago, Winston Churchill called Uganda "the pearl of Africa." He was certainly referring to the landscape – not the Nile rapids. Whether or not, on a rafting trip, your view of this landscape is more that of a fish really depends on the mood of the person steering. Paulo enjoys turning his boat into a submarine and every time he does it I want to swear at him. But no sooner are we back underway, the adrenaline gets going and I'm thinking: another wash cycle, please!

Read the original article in German

Photo - NeilsPhotography

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