Once I got to Jinja, Uganda's second city, situated at the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria, I caught a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) to Bujagali Falls, which is about 10km from Jinja. I quickly found a bed in a dorm and ran around trying to find a television that would be able to show me the Ireland-Italy rugby game. When I did find one, I had a beer ordered by the time "Ireland's Call" was being sung, a perfect start to St. Patrick's Day!
The area I was staying in was spectacularly beautiful, with views over rolling green hills within which the Nile stretches about 150m wide, coloured a beautiful blue, except when it gets angry and turbulent while passing over the many great rapids in the area, making it one of the most famous places in the world to do white-water rafting or kayaking. I decided to partake in this life-threatening activity - at $95 for a full day it broke all my budgeting rules, but this was an opportunity not to be missed.
So, for one of my days in Jinja I paddled down about 40km of the Nile, starting from the dam at the source, past (or should I say over!) Bujagali Falls, and onwards. Every rapid we went over is given a grade, from one (easy white water) to five (pretty much a washing machine/waterfall). I heard someone say that this stretch of river has the highest concentration of grade five rapids in the world. Whether that's true or not, I know we went over about five Grade Fives, and maybe three Grade Fours, as part of the fourteen we did over the course of the day.
Every one was absolutely terrifying yet exhilarating, as our little raft (housing six frightened tourists and one laughing Ugandan guide) was bashed and flung around the foamy, unpredictable and dangerous white water rapids
. For the first few rapids we were ok, in that we didn't flip over ever, as most of the other rafts had. Our first flip was when we went over a rapid called "Silverback", where all the Nile (often spreading 400m wide) is squeezed through a 50m gap, so it becomes quite rough and fast. The raft was tipped upwards so that the front (where I was) was standing for a split-second about 4m above the water, before it went over, and down into the chaos below we all went. I had actually been looking forward to getting wet, but this was no fun. Immediately I got sucked deep down by a strong current, and having forgotten to take a breath when going over (it was the last thing on my mind, at the time), I was soon in dire need of some oxygen. I was held down by the water's force for some ten seconds, sometimes nearly surfacing, but always being sucked back down by another current. I was lucky not to be sucked all the way down to the rocks below, as happened to one woman in our group, where she badly gashed her knee and shin, being pummeled against the sharp rocks. When I finally did surface I was still in the rapids, now being violently thrown to and fro, but a rescue kayak was there to pull me to safety. When I caught hold of the kayak I thought I was ok, but I then saw that we were very close to being thrown against some nearby rocks, and one look at the kayaker's eyes confirmed that we weren't safe yet. He paddled furiously against the current and a few moments later we arrived onto calmer water.
After that any sense of invincibility that I previously had was gone and every rapid we went over was a scary experience
. The worst was when we went over a fifteen foot waterfall, backwards, and then straight into very rough Grade five rapids. This, however, went off without a hitch, apart from the direction in which we took it. Every rapid we went over was an emotional rollercoaster, first I felt very real fear, then adrenaline pumped exhilaration as we bounced over the wild waters, and finally shouting and high-fiving with joy as we successfully escaped the wrath of the rapids. Of course any sense of achievement we felt was false, every time things got hairy our guide, Paulo, a Ugandan who has competed at World Championship level several times, shouted to us to "Hold on and get down!", and we quickly obeyed, throwing ourselves into the middle of the raft, holding on for our dear lives. Paulo would then expertly steer and control the raft from the back, carefully choosing the line through the rapids which was safe for us.
All in all it was a great experience, I haven't felt so alive in a long time, but at the same time have rarely felt so close to potential death. It is better, though, to die alive than live dead, I believe. That said, I was so happy to stand on safe, dry land at the end of the day that I chose not to go on a second day's rafting (which would have been half-price). Good memories though.
It took three matatu rides to get from Kericho to Jinja, and I crossed the border at Busia on the way. The closer I got to Uganda the more the landscape started to feel and look like what I imagined Uganda would be like - extremely green, with plenty of dense vegetation, tall trees, banana trees, and thick grass growing everywhere in between. It reminded me a lot of parts of Southern Thailand, in fact.