“If you dare nothing,
then when the day is over,
nothing is all you will have gained.” (Neil Gaiman)
In Uganda, I had the life-changing experience of extreme whitewater rafting in the River Nile rapids. Both thrillseeker and overthinker, I'm constantly fighting my own fears, but the only thing I fear more than leaving my comfort zone is staying in my comfort zone. So, I pushed my boundaries.
Four hours of rafting became a fast emotional and spiritual learning curve. Spinning blindly into underwater oblivion, unable to breathe, made me realise the strength of character needed to remain calm and responsive under pressure. It was equal parts amazing and terrifying. Never have I felt so aware of my body, my fragility, nor my mortality.
Without further ado, here's a blow-by-blow of my first whitewater rafting experience. Enjoy!
An Early Start
We rise at dawn. I turn off the alarm as J rubs sleep from his eyes. At 7am we catch a shuttle van packed with fellow risk-takers from downtown Kampala to Bujagali, Jinja. The sunrise winks at us between houses and hills as we zoom towards our destination.
Two hours later, we’re revived by hot, sweet, milky coffee in red plastic camping mugs at Jinja. We’re equipped with helmets and lifejackets before boarding a safari truck and taking another 45-minute journey down to the River Nile, a stack of bright red inflated rafts in tow. On the way, we munch down a filling breakfast of ‘Rolex’, a warm rolled potato tortilla, and a generous fruit salad. The truck hits a couple of potholes.
“You know what the most dangerous part of our day is?” shouts a lively Argentinian expat sat beside us. He lurches forward as we hit another bump: “The drive there!” We all laugh. J gives my hand a reassuring squeeze and I squeeze back.
We pass through towns of dispersed huts and shacks. Groups of adorable local kids wave and chase after our truck, shouting jubilant greetings through the dusty air. Smiles spread across our faces in response, and we happily return their warm affection.
Eventually, we arrive at an isolated off-road clearing and make our way down to the river barefoot in our gear, soil and gravel crunching beneath our tender soles, emerging into a clearing at the river’s edge. The view is astounding.
The water is still and infinite for as far as the eye can see. In this vast, tranquil stretch of river we are absolutely alone, not more than thirty of us altogether, including the various crew members. Just nature and us. Verdant, leafy trees adorn the landscape. Pools of luscious water vegetation float peacefully and prettily in near-perfect circles here and there across the water. Only the soft sounds of birds whooping in the distance can be heard.
The tranquility. The silence. The beauty. The realisation that I am by the Nile, a river steeped in such rich, religious, geographical history, is overwhelming. It is utterly unreal. The kind of beauty and peace you only expect to see in far-off places untouched by human hands. I feel my spirit connecting with the water, the trees, the river. I breathe deeply, taking it all in.
Ready to raft
We get out onto the water and learn about basic raft etiquette: rules, hand signs, motions, safety procedures. We practise rowing our oars synchronously, and how to react in the event of capsizing. Our team leader, Hassan, tells us that each of the rapids vary in grade, typically growing quicker and stronger as one progresses downriver.
The names of the rapids are amusing and fitting – ‘The Bad Place’ is suitably ominous; ‘Nile Special’, eponymous to the popular Ugandan beer, also causes a few chuckles. The weakest rapid is a grade one; the strongest a grade six. But a grade four alone is strong enough to flip a raft.
I feel so calm, so relaxed, as we row in unison and learn about each other’s lives. The river is indescribably gorgeous, a long stretch of untouched, unspoiled nature. Every so often, Hassan fills his helmet with water and splashes us in turn to cool us down – particularly the paler mizungu (“white-skinned people”), whose sunburns are starting to pinkify.
All of a sudden, breaking the silence, I hear it: the loud, rushing gurgle of moving water. We draw nearer. I finally see it. The first rapid. It’s white and fast and beautiful.
I’m crazy excited now, ready for adventure. But at the sight of the white water the danger of the activity dawns on me. The rapid looks fierce. Even though experienced professionals are with us, my heart begins to race. I’m suddenly aware of the very real risk. You can’t tame nature.
"No pressure, no diamonds." (Thomas Carlyle)
Facing the inevitable
As we approach the first rapid, Hassan tells us not to worry: “Listen, guys. If you’re spinning underwater, just raise your knees to your chest. You’ll pop up out of the water.”
We row elatedly towards the waves – and we ride across them, the raft slapping thunderously across the currents as we journey downhill. It’s exhilarating. At the second rapid, we capsize. As a first time rafter, there is little time to think coherently in the split second that you realise you’re about to be thrown overboard and plunged into the depths of an unforgiving current. It’s awesome. (Capsizing is fun.)
I am plunged repeatedly beneath the waters, tossed around under the waves, but surface within seconds of raising my knees to my chest. A safety kayaker tows me back to my group, where I am yanked ungracefully into the raft each time, my flailing legs almost as dangerous as the rapids. (Still awesome.) But after an easy few rapids, everything seems to change.
“We’re going to walk for a little bit,” Hassan tells us. “There’s a very fast Grade Six here, it’s dangerous. We’ll walk around it and ride the end of it, which is a Grade Five.”
We hop out of our rafts and hike barefoot over a rocky hill of dry, scorching earth to get to the other side of the river where we are confronted by the stunning but seething tail end of a violent grade six rapid: rushing currents, jagged rocks, and a very long way down. We can’t see the end of the rapid from where we stand. We all get back into the raft, assume our positions, and prepare our oars.
“We will try and stay afloat,” Hassan instructs us over the loud rushing of the currents. “But if we go over, do not hold on to the raft this time. The current is too strong.” We row towards the seething white waters, following Hassan’s orders to a T: “Left back, hard forward, right back… Get down!”
We instantly squat down in the raft, clinging onto the side ropes with one arm over our oars to prevent damage. Next thing we know, we’re surfing the waves, our raft cutting through the choppy sprays. We shout and whoop in adrenaline-filled ecstasy, our stomachs flipping in excitement.
Our ecstasy is short lived.
Within seconds, an enormous surge of blinding white water swells above us. There is no time to breathe before it immediately crashes down. We all cry out. My oar falls from my hand as we’re all propelled from the raft by sheer force. I plunge, head-first, into the ferocious white waters. My eyes clamp shut before I hit the water, and that’s when it happens.
I am caught in this moment, this fraction of a millisecond, where time seems to freeze.
A rapid number of thoughts and ideas and feelings fire in quick succession as I spin helplessly into oblivion. Most clear is my frantic strand of thought: You’re underwater. Don’t fight the water. Don’t panic. You’ll surface soon. Where is J? Is he safe? I can’t breathe.
Suddenly I feel my head pop up above the water – but I barely have time to open my eyes and instinctively gulp down more precious air before another surge of water smacks the top of my helmet. It feels like a ton of lead. I plunge back down into the dark waters. My head is smarting, ringing, dizzy – so, so dizzy.
I see nothing but swirling darkness for what feels like an eternity, my body tossed around like a rag doll, blown every which way by the powerful waves of this grade six beast. The roars and gurgles of the currents blare in my ears. Disoriented, I put my knees to my chest as Hassan had instructed, holding my diminishing breath as the conflicting currents whip me around. My chest feels tight.
I struggle to keep calm, knowing I will reach the surface in a second. Any minute now, I tell myself. But my head doesn’t break the surface. I have no idea how far underwater I am. I feel my body doing Olympic-style backspins beneath the waters. My chest is constricting, my lungs are burning. I am scared.
And I am excruciatingly aware of the fact that I physically cannot breathe.
"Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down." (Ray Bradbury)
I don’t know how long I am under for, but my lungs are fit to burst. To fight the human instinct, human reflex, to breathe, is as fruitless as mankind attempting to tame nature. The idea that I might be held down underwater for longer, and eventually, no longer be able to hold my breath – that is the most traumatic thing of all. I focus only on holding my breath, fighting nature, as my body swirls endlessly through watery darkness.
I become vaguely aware of my lifejacket being tugged, and I am suddenly hauled above surface by a safety kayaker. I splutter and gasp for air, completely out of it, as he tows me quickly into a safer area and then towards my raft. My head pounds – either from the trauma, or from the heatstroke. I stay quiet as the others, choking, floating around in the water, slowly clamber back into the raft.
We are all shaken up, drained. J looks lost in his own thoughts, massaging his neck. The safety kayakers took a while to rescue him because the currents are so strong. Everyone has lost their oars, are all looking dazed. Only Hassan is unpeturbed, well accustomed to the roughness of the waves.
Breaking the quiet, Francis, a sunburned American lawyer many miles from home, asks the question on everyone’s minds: “Has anyone ever died doing this?”
“Well, there have been a few dislocated shoulders,” Hassan recalls. “Some broken teeth, toes, ankles, fingers, especially from being caught in the raft. Bruises and gashes from splitting skin on the rocks. But nobody has died yet.” Charming.
I have a terrible headache now, from the drop in blood sugar, sunstroke, dehydration, and swallowing so much salt water. But I push past it as we enjoy a long stretch of rowing and relaxing. We’re given generous quarters of fresh pineapple and glucose biscuits to snack on – presumably to replace our drained blood sugar.
Feeling replenished, I jump off from the raft into the river and swim alongside it for a while to calm down, to make peace with the waters again. As I swim, I try to block out my feelings of fear towards the next rapids. I’m not sure if I can handle the trauma of not being able to breathe again – or rather, not knowing when I will be able to breathe again.
It terrifies me to lose control of myself, of my body. I love chasing adventure, I love doing crazy activities – but after experiencing just how powerful the waves are, I am reminded of something with starting clarity: that I am not invincible. I’m reminded that with one wrong turn, life can end in a flash.
"Seeds of faith are always within us; sometimes it takes a crisis to nourish and encourage their growth."
We have three more rapids left. As the others chatter, I stare out at an island of clustered trees where relaxed cormorants perch here and there on the branches, and I decide that I will not spend the rest of the rafting experience being scared.
Life is too short not to embrace everything wholeheartedly, I think. Start now.
Right then and there, I decide to have faith. To have faith in this group of adventurous spirits; to have faith in the waters. To have faith in myself.
“Be the wave!” J hollers to the group as we row determinedly into the surf. But I know his words are for me, to put me at ease, lovely thing that he is. “You are the wave!”
True to Hassan’s word, we stay afloat, cheering as we navigate the waves unscathed. Soon we reach the penultimate rapid, where we’re most definitely going to be thrown overboard.
“It’s an easy one,” announces Hassan. “Don’t worry.”
We row steadily onwards. The loud, rushing waters make my heart skitter. The sight of the jagged brown rocks make me shiver. Have faith, I remind myself. We keep rowing forward, my heart pounding the entire time.
“Get down!” yells Hassan. As if in slow motion, an enormous wave curls inwards on us, and our raft begins to flip. I just about manage a gleeful “Whoop!” before we’re sucked under the water.
This time, swirling in the dark depths of the currents, I am much more at peace. I hold my breath, urge myself to stay calm, and lift my knees to my chest. Although my body spins rapidly beneath the waves, I suddenly break surface, eyes opening onto a vision of the bright blue sky.
Hassan appears in the water beside me; he holds my arm firmly before I spin away into the rocks, clinging to the raft rope with his other hand, even though the choppy waves are engulfing us both. Bobbing between crushing swells of water, he is reassuring and firm: “Stay calm,” he tells me. “Stay calm and relax your body, don’t fight the water.” I remain calm, and eventually the water ushers me along into stiller waters. I exhale deeply. I am safe.
After the easy final rapid, we jump out of our rafts and float down the rest of the river, laughing at the insane experience we’ve just shared. We move onto ground and have lunch together, replenishing and relaxing after such a physically and psychologically demanding five hours.
We toast to the day with our Nile Special beers. The raft photographers show us a slideshow of our experience as we all wonder where on earth they stood to get the shots. I spend most of our drive back to Kampala gazing out of the window in a daydreamy daze.
I remember my panic under the water, and my lungs seem to twinge in memory. I try to imagine how terrifying it must truly feel to drown… to no longer be able to resist the instinct of breath. I envisage falling into dark, violent waves by accident, all alone… to be lost and afraid in unknown monstrous waters, confused and helpless and aware of my inability to breathe.
I start thinking about the victims of tsunamis. Everything and everyone you’ve known, loved, engulfed by the wildness of the waves. I think about the terror, the fright, the inevitability of being crushed by a deathly body of water. The impossibility of survival. Terrible. I’m thankful for my teeny, tiny, fractional expansion of empathy to those who have survived terrible drowning ordeals. I'm also, I realise, a lot more wary of nature’s strength.
A day later, I’m exhausted. Physically exhausted from hours of rowing and swimming, and emotionally exhausted from working through so many thoughts that I’ve never had before. My brain still feels like a heap of scrambled eggs. (It usually feels like a well-cooked Spanish omelette, at the very least.)
Sitting here, typing this, I'm sunstroked, sunburned, and dehydrated to high heaven; my head is burning, on fire, after forgetting to acknowledge the sun's intense blaze. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. After the entire experience, I am changed, and I am grateful. I’d do it again it a heart beat.
And next time, I’d remember the sunblock.
If you find yourself in East Africa raring for adventure, I fully recommend the (awesome) Raft Africa crew; the day was thoroughly organised, safe, professional, and worth the money. Check out www.raftafrica.com. This is not a sponsored post!
Thanks for reading! Have you ever been white-water rafting? Share your experience below :)
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.