White Christmas

White Water Rafting on the White Nile

It’s December 24th.  We are in Jinja, Uganda.  I wake up earlier than intended and lie in bed unable to sleep.  Excitement runs through my veins.  I listen to music playing softly on my iPod as the sun begins to rise.  The others wake up.  We get changed and spend the next hour watching the Nile flow by reminiscing the evening before.  Dinner had been a sunset cruise on White Nile and its source, Lake Victoria.  Our boat had passed Livingstone’s monument, who discovered the source of the Nile, and one of Gandhi’s shrines, whose ashes were scattered here and across the world following his death in 1948.

It feels like forever before we are loaded into an open-sided truck and shipped off to get breakfast, complete with a life vest and bright coloured helmet.  The trailer, piled high with rafts, gets hooked up to our truck and off we go.  The paved roads become dirt, the smoothness gives way to potholes, and the dust becomes near unbearable.  I don the broken sunglasses one last time.  We are close, I can tell.

We are unloaded and the instructions begin.  I am excited and true to form, can’t stand still.  Our shoes are off and placed with a change of clothes in the truck, which will meet us at the end.  There is no turning back.  Whooohooo!!!

We are given a pep talk, which included tips: what to do when the raft flips; who to give the sunscreen to; check your life vests; practice flipping and getting back into the raft here in the calm water before reaching the rapids; you get more footage in the souvenir DVD if you are dramatic so flip your raft, fall out, lose your shorts.  My eyes widen.  I had woken in the night with the footage of the previous day’s group replaying in my mind.  The rapids are rushing in every direction as fast as I can image.  The rafters were tossed around like ragged-Anne dolls.  To my horror, my realization in middle of the night had been that my shorts might fall off.  Now, I tighten them as much as possible, uncomfortably aware that this makes them inches shorter.  We translate for Natalia and are loaded onto our raft.  I want the front but they say I am too small.  I sit where they put me, towards the mid-back, choosing to trust the professionals.

In a comical way, our guide informs us that today is his first day working these rapids.  We are not sure that we like the humour.  Then he tells us what to do if we fall out and into the rapids.  When he informs us there are kayakers out there who will save us we feel relieved.  This is better.  He and a kayaker show us how to hold onto the kayak when they rescue us.  They then teach us how to paddle and I become impatient.  I’m bursting at the seams with excitement but must remind myself that not everyone grows up with a canoe.  Learning to paddle may be important.

There is a girl in our raft who is terrified and cannot swim.  There is another girl who is still learning to swim.  The guide tells us there are two ways of doing the rapids: the harder or easier route.  My independent-fight-for-yourself side must speak up.  The hardest route of course!  We are here for Grade 5 rafting.  Let’s take on the challenge – no question!  That’s why we’re here.  Complete with a winning smile.  I catch the frightened girls’ eyes and feel sorry for her but I don’t want one person to hold back our Christmas trip.  I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a kid.  My friends and I had this trip planned for months. I think to myself ‘Send her to a different raft if need be.  I want the full experience.’  I feel somewhat heartless and am uncomfortable with it.  She asks if I’ve ever rafted before. Never.  I’ve always wanted to do it here.  I’m so excited!  She says I must be an adrenaline junkie.  I just smile.

In the calm water we flip the raft and must climb back in from the water. The guide gets back in.  So do two of us; the one guy on our raft, and myself.  We thought we were home-free but instead we earned the responsibility of pulling the other five people into the boat.  I realize this is much more difficult than it looks as my help in pulling the first person onto the raft results in their landing directly on top of me.  At least I didn’t fall out of the raft and into the water on the other side.

What seems like forever is finally over and we are off.  I’m so excited!  A small part of me freaks out, but it’s too late, we’re committed!  Whooohooo!!!

We make it down the first rapids, no problem and are shocked to see others lose a couple rafters.

We approach the second rapids.  The camera man watches from shore.  We are dared to stand and wave.  Three of us do, myself included. Back down in the raft as soon as possible, we survive the rapids.  These are warm up rapids.  Now we are ready for the big stuff.

The one nicknamed The Washer, for tearing away people’s clothing is before us.  We are the first raft to go.  My heart is racing.  We paddle, we paddle harder, we get down, all according to the guides instructions.  We remember him saying that if we flip, this time we must let go of the paddle and let go of the raft’s rope and assume the safety position.  Check.

We are down in the raft, holding on for dear life.  We are tossed up on the rapids and down again, up again, almost to the top but not quite.  We are sent backwards into another wave and are spun.  Before I know it, our raft is lifted high and we are flipped out of nowhere.

Water is everywhere.  With my arms and legs I reach.  For what, I’m not sure – something, anything.  There is nothing but water.  No raft, no people, no paddle.  In a split second my natural reaction to swim kicks in.  I realize that I don’t know which way is up while I become acutely aware that I’m running out of air.  I still myself and after a second, which felt like eternity (I was beginning to wonder where my body would turn up) when the life vest finally decides to serve its purpose and it pulls me upward.  I open my eyes and mouth just in time to close them again.  I am pummeled and tossed, while trying to stay in the safety position; my legs out before me, arms by my side.  My head is above water again and I breathe in the wave which comes from behind.  Thankfully it sends me to slightly calmer water and I am able to float visibly.  I open my eyes and am relieved to see a kayak rescuer in front of me.  Someone is at his front, I go to the back.  As he brings us to a safety boat I am coughing continuously.  He asks if I am okay.  I am fine, just full of the Nile.  I look to see who is at his front.  It is the frightened girl.  We are united in our first out-of-the-raft experience.  We loved it.  The sensation reminded me of surfing in Barbados, particularly beach that was notorious for pummeling surfers again and again.  Our guide comes to collect us and another girl who floated by.  We then paddle back upstream to collect the other 4 rafters from where they waited on shore.  They were rescued earlier, while I was still under water.  It had felt like forever.  It was probably only almost a minute.

There is a 45 minute stretch before the next rapids.  We share stories, sunscreen and swim in the Nile.  There are a series of rough rapids and we flip three more times.  We were a strong raft, not losing our rafters and not flipping often.  The four times we do flip are epic.

That night after listening to Christmas music and exchanging gifts, we meet up with the others.  As every other night, everyone staying at Jinja Backpackers’ Campsite, our accommodation, gathers to watch the footage of the day’s rafting.  When showing our first flip, The Washer, there was a unanimous gasp across the room.  Someone’s voice wavered, “Where are they?”  In the film, our raft eventually emerged upside down.  Only three or four red helmet heads pop up seconds later, further in the rapids.  The rest of us, myself included, are still being washed.

Adrenaline junkie?  Bien sûr!

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