I’m sitting here in the middle of the rainforest in Uganda writing this. I’ll talk more about the adventure of actually getting here but first we need to discuss white water rafting because I just did it and I was not prepared!
As some of you know, I’ve been working with Joel Lambert on a new project that focuses on adventure travel from two very different perspectives. We selected Uganda as our first destination, gorilla trekking, but what I didn’t realize was how the white water rafting was going to steal the show.
It all started the other day when I had breakfast my friend, Robert Goodwin. He’s founder of Executives Without Borders and my travels pale in comparison to this man. He has been all over the world, spear-heading non-profit work in developing regions and because of this, he has had some incredible adventures with some AMAZING people. He heard I was going to Uganda and suggested I raft the source of the Nile. At the time, it sounded like the best idea on the planet. I told Joel we were doing it then immediately wrote Vincent at Kazinga Tours and asked him to set it up
I’ll admit, I was a little nervous about falling out of the raft in the weeks leading up to the trip but having zero experience white water rafting, I figured it was a low probability. Fast forward to the actual day of the rafting, I was informed that I indeed would fall out of the raft. Not only that, but when we arrived at Nile River Explorers, the guys who owned it recognized Joel from his show and they (of course) were all huge fans… which means they hooked us up with their senior guide to raft class 5 rapids at the most extreme points. In case you’re unaware of the class system, class 5 rapids are the black diamonds of river rafting. Anything above a 5 is illegal to raft. So, not only were we going on the most extreme rapids possible, we were taking the hardest position in the rapid (which believe me, makes a huge difference). When I found out what we actually were doing, I went into a complete panic. As far as life experiences, I’m not afraid of very much, and this fear came so unexpectedly that it was a complete shock to me. My Garmin watch was picking up my heart rate at 124bpm, my stomach was turning, and I was ready to cry. The only reason I ended up getting on the raft was because Joel was adamant about me facing my fear. As my partner on this project, I had gotten used to him taking care of me a little, so when he wasn’t coddling me, I realized I probably should take his advice and actually finish what I started.
We walked down to the water where the lead guide, Jimmy, a 42 year old local of Uganda with 20+ years of guide experience, began giving us a little safety prep. He then started putting people into their boats.
“Joel!” he announced first. “Joel, you will be in my boat.” He continued, “And Joel’s friend, Joel’s friend will come in our boat too.” It took me a second, but I was like “WTF? He’s talking about me!” My internal monologue was getting pretty pissed off, “Wait a second pal…” I thought. “I arranged this little adventure, how the heck did I get demoted to ‘Joel’s friend’?” Feeling completely defeated at that point, I slowly, with head-bowed, walked to our raft, hoping that by some miracle I would get out of this day without drowning.
There were about 25 people rafting together, but they were broken up by intensity level. Since we had the lead guide, we had taken on the hardest course. Our boat had just three other people in it (the other boats had many more): a man from Swaziland and a couple from Israel who came to Uganda on their honeymoon.
My annoyance towards our guide not knowing my name quickly dissipated when he found out how scared I was about falling out. At that point, not only did he joyfully learn my name, but he gleefully asked me to jump out of the boat and proceeded to use me as the person to demonstrate all the safety techniques in the water. I was sitting there, watching the rest of my boat looking down at me with such pity, only wishing I was back to being “Joel’s friend” at this point. To add insult to injury, when I finally was allowed to climb back in the raft, I got banished to the back of the boat by Jimmy. This was when I was really starting to panic. My goal was to stick by Joel so he could save me when I inevitably would fall out, hit my head on a rock, and float unconscious down the Nile rapids. No such luck, I was stuck in the back next to our guide, who I was pretty sure couldn’t stand me.
When we got to the first rapid we were prepped by Jimmy. This was a class 5 rapid in very shallow water. If we flip we need to keep our feet up because there were tons of rocks. At his command we not only needed to get down, but lean to the right because that rapid flips boats to the left.
“Oh shit.” I thought. “ I was peering over at the safety boat, wishing I was in it, when Jimmy attached bungee cord he had hooked onto himself onto me. He yelled something to the other guide in their local language and then unhooked me. “I’m sorry, I think it could actually be too dangerous this way.” I was confused at what he was trying to do, but I had no time to process what just happened. We were coming up to the rapid and told to row. Then, suddenly the command came to get down. “This is it!” I panicked. “We’re going over!” I grabbed my oar as taught and leaned to the right. We dropped from this incredibly steep rapid at a 90 degree angle and I felt my body start flipping forward. I held on as tight as I could, but I was suddenly sitting next to the woman in front of me. I wasn’t sure how I didn’t fall out until I realized that Jimmy was holding my leg. “You kicked me!” He joked. It was then that I realized this man, who had been giving me such a hard time about being scared, was going out of his way to look out for me. Jimmy suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
We had 40 minutes of rowing before we got to the next rapid. We learned about everyone in our little boat. Jimmy was telling me all about his hysterical reasons for why he is afraid of marriage to make me feel better about my fear of white water rafting. As we exchanged stories about our personal lives, I began warming up even more to the smooth talking Ugandan man who was so quick to tease me at the beginning of this journey (and who ultimately had my back for the duration of the rafting day). As we continued floating, some of the other boats began getting into water fights with one another and people began jumping in the water. I happily hopped in the water and tried to pretend another rapid wasn’t in my future. I looked around at where I was; this overwhelming feeling of awe took over me. I was with a group of kind, interesting people from all over the world, and I was swimming in the Nile River. The beauty of my surroundings, the history of the river, and the people I was with made me realize I would never forget this moment.
Before we knew it, we were back to gearing up for the next rapid. According to Jimmy, this one was fairly easy. We paddled and heard the command to get down. I was sitting on the right side and I began to feel the right side of my raft fly up in the air. I held on as tight as I could and realized three of us were still holding on to our capsized boat as we endured the rapids. We flipped the boat back to its correct side…. and we did it properly (which is scary as f***, btw). Jimmy pulled me back in it just a split second later. (I was really starting to like Jimmy.) Once I got back in the boat, I realized that Joel and the Israeli woman were both missing. We picked them back up at the end of the rapid where Joel exclaimed with astonishment, “James, you’re in the boat!” Damn right I was, and I was really hoping that was going to be the end of our capsizing… but boy was I wrong.
We continued to capsize on EVERY. SINGLE. RAPID. You see, we took the hardest routes, so when you saw the rapid you would think, “Wow, let’s avoid that spot, we won’t make it out of there” and then you would realize that we were actually STEERING toward the area. Every other boat capsized maybe once or twice. We had just one good run before we ended up perpetually capsizing for the remainder of our adventure.
Our routine for the rest of our runs was pretty simple: Jimmy would give us the name of the rapid and the challenges that came with it, then we would row and drop. One rapid’s challenge was that it was slim and fast. He said if we cannot hang on to the boat if we capsize (which he said was doubtful) that this rapid pushes you under for long periods of time and people get severe ear pressure and commonly come up screaming. And of course, we capsized on that one, but I held on for dear life to avoid the pressure and feeling of impending death. The only people left hanging on were me and the Swaziland guy who both looked at each other with relief that we actually were able to hold on. It was around this time that I realize Joel was never able to hang on to the boat when we capsized, which didn’t seem like him. I was sort of chuckling to myself at how I was able to do something he couldn’t do, but moments later I saw him out in the distance looking like Neptune of the Nile. It obvious he wasn’t hanging on because he was happily letting go of the boat. Not only was the man welcoming the rapids minus a raft, he was doing rescues, collecting paddles, and fully enjoying himself as he waded around the class 5 rapids like it was a kiddy pool, while everyone else is coughing up water, losing pant legs (yes, they ripped off of some people), and in various states of panic.
And although I wasn’t like Joel, I was actually doing okay. However, the one that finally retired me was called “Hair of the Dog” (how appropriate), and this one was intense. We flipped, and I held on like I had been so good at every other time. This rapid kept going and I felt my paddle (which I was diligently hanging on to, too) and my left hand get pulled away from the boat’s rope. My right elbow scraped across a rock and I finally lost our raft. Everyone else was getting pulled under as this long wild rapid continued but for some reason I stayed calm and just rode the rapid the whole way out. I never got pulled under but I saw the other rafters looking at me down below with such somber faces, that I wondered if I should be panicking a little more. I looked for my raft and it was nowhere to be seen. I was still sailing down the rapid and figured I would find them eventually. There are a few safety kayak boats and one came racing to me after about a minute. He was yelling grab on and pretty soon I was flipping with kayak on another rapid. At that point, I was ready to just get on my raft, but it still was nowhere to be seen. I look up at the big safety boat an see my entire group, including Jimmy our guide, sitting on it. I was confused, but before I could ask the safety kayaker what was going on, I was paddled over to another boat that was holding about 10 women from the Netherlands. Their group was closer to me than my group, so the kayaker had them rescue me. I had been on their boat for a few minutes when I realized, not only was my arm scratched up, but my thumb nail had completely broken at the bottom of the nail bed. It had about a millimeter still attached, but the majority of my nail had been ripped off. They tried to keep the nail on and bandage it up, but was only a matter of time before the entire nail was going to fall off. At that point, the group rushed me over to the safety boat where my group was and I found out that the entire boat capsized and it was such a wild ride that we all, including Jimmy, ended up losing the boat; everyone had to be rescued.
By the end of the rafting day, I swam down the still parts of the river a little more and made it to the end where they gave us beer and hosted a BBQ. I’ll suck it up now and thank Joel for forcing me to face my fear and stick with the rafting. For me, the best parts were embracing the land of this area fully, connecting with the people you’re on this adventure with, and doing something that was a bit terrifying over-and-over again in this setting.