Monday, November 11, 2013

Rafting Uganda's White Nile - Class V

The first rapid was a Class 5 with a tricky entrance to a 12-foot waterfall. I'm in the yellow helmet, and PK is directly on my left. Kara Blackmore, our unofficial tour guide, is in the back in front of Josh, the amazing local river guide. In addition to Josh, we three were the only people on this raft with any previous rafting experience. Which goes to show, with a skilled guide, anybody can do this!! 
We knew from the get-go that, as parents of Chris Korbulic, we'd have no excuse, other than cowardice, for not jumping into a paddle raft for a Class 5 commercial trip on the White Nile near Jinja, Uganda. (For the uninitiated, Class 5 means that flipping is likely.) Not that cowardice wasn't a factor. PK had sorta-kinda committed, and I was "maybe" but then PK, looking at the unfavorable weather forecast, mentioned to Kara, "If it's raining, I probably won't go."

Kara, Chris' good friend and the volunteer tour guide who'd arranged 12 days in Uganda for us, was stunned. "What? You'll man up and go!" she insisted. "What's a little rain?"  

Indeed. What's a little rain? I "womaned" up and signed on as well. 

Our outfitter, Nile River Explorers, picked us up close to our lodging way too early in the morning, and after about a half-hour open-air bus ride later, we were greeted at the company's staging area with a hearty breakfast of Rolex, fruit, coffee, and various carbohydrates. What's a Rolex? A culinary discovery! I know you don't click on many links, but the Rolex link is about more than the Rolex. It's also about Ugandan street life and attitude. There we were outfitted with life jackets, helmets and paddles.  Another 40-minute drive and we were at the put-in.
The assembled paddle rafters getting the low-down on how to navigate the rapids. PK and I agreed it was the most thorough river safety briefing we'd ever heard. Then we were instructed to team up with people of like mind. Do you want to flip or not? NOT. We sorted into a raft of Australians, a family with no river experience who were not too fit looking. Still, PK and I were by far the oldest people in the entire group. I guess our elderly status is getting to be a badge of honor, because on this raft, we were, along with Kara, also the fittest. Not counting the guide, Josh, of course, in his own class of rippled readiness. He was ejected once and he sprang back into the raft as if he'd been propelled by an underwater cannon.

This is the first rapid,  a true Class 5. See that red object toward the top of the photo? That's a raft, and behind it is flat water where each of the five rafts was required to flip, then everybody aboard had to help right the overturned craft. The hardest part? Getting back into the dang raft unaided.  I think Kara was the only passenger on our boat who powered  herself into the raft. The rest of us whales needed assistance. Even all-muscles PK required a tiny boost. 

After getting hung up on rocks, we entered the first rapid in perfect position.
It's starting to look bad! And feel bad! But we're in great shape.

We hit the hole head on. Nobody fell out. This all happened in a flash. These great photos were captured by a pro working with Nile River Explorers. When the trip ended, raft mates decided whether or not to join forces and purchase photo CDs and/or DVDs. 

Believe it or not, this was fun!
You can see the guide powering with his one little paddle to keep the raft straight and we came out of the hole in great shape. I guess everybody swallowed some Nile River, but were none the worse.

The young woman behind me, unfortunately, lost a toenail . She unloaded onto the safety raft, the one with the blue kayak, where she spent the rest of the day with her bleeding and bandaged foot elevated. I think she was relieved to be in the safety raft. She blanched at the safety talk above this rapid about what to do, if the raft should flip and you get sucked into a downward spiral. What you do is bring your knees to your chest and wait to pop up to to the surface. The message: you are not in control here.
The river trip was 15.5 miles, (25 kilometers) long, but it didn't seem that far. Seven rapids, Class 3-4, followed the first, which was the most challenging. We had lots of time to float and enjoy the scenery and the big waves. Lunch on board was the most delicious-ever giant pineapples cut with a few deft machete strokes and passed to passengers in thick sticky wedges. We also enjoyed cookie-type treats labeled as "Glucose." Well, that's honesty in packaging.

This may have been the rapid where the guide was jettisoned. But he quickly reclaimed the helm.

What?! Kara is going overboard.

As a frequent river-runner, she claims that the final rapid of this trip, the Nile Special, is best enjoyed when you're one with the river. time? Incidentally, Nile Special is also a popular Ugandan beer, which was offered in abundance at the end of this trip along with a delicious buffet.
By the way, our boat never flipped, but other boat upsets were frequent. I don't know whether we got lucky with our guide, or if the other, equally skilled guides, dropped into holes sideways on purpose.  Before one especially tricky rapid,which Josh said was better left unexplored via immersion, he gave explicit directions regarding the "ball -up to avoid getting sucked to the bottom" direction but ended his pre-rapid instructions with this: Be ready for anything. Shit happens. That seems to me a good advice for life in general.

Addendum: A dam that would drown this beautiful whitewater section of the Nile River is in the works, but is not a done deal. The dam would destroy the tourist industry in Jinja, whose main tourist draw is the river and various activities associated with it—especially the rafting and kayaking parts. It makes me sick to think that the wonderful Ugandans we met on this trip (as guides and the photographer, mostly) would be out of jobs. This link describes the situation, and introduces readers to some of the people whose lives have been transformed by the opportunities afforded by their river jobs. 


  1. Yikes is all I can say. Amazing photos, amazing daredevils, you two. Chris comes from fine stock.

  2. Well, I don't think we're daredevils. One big thing I took from this experience is that any reasonably able-bodied person can get on a paddle raft (or be a passenger in an oar boat) whether they know anything about whitewater or not! A skilled guide is the key However, being a paddle raft guide or rowing this stretch of whitewater, that's another thing altogether.