Dam good rafting

1 April 2007 

“Do the rocks go all the way to the bottom of the river?”

“No, they are floating rocks.”

Suffice to say that Paulo Babi has fielded some painfully stupid questions during his five years as a rafting guide at the source of the Nile in Uganda.

Other gems have included:
“Do we end up back where we started?”

“Yes. The Nile River flows in a circle.”

And: “Can you raft rapids in Lake Victoria?”

“No. It’s lake.”

Not to forget the Israeli tourist who asked if he could take his machete with him to protect himself against crocodiles – so seldom seen are they that tourists are actually ‘lucky’ to see them; or the Spaniard who took his passport along – perhaps in case the guide accidentally entered Sudan. (Inevitably he lost his passport somewhere along the way, which made me laugh extremely hard, and also stuff the necklace containing the only set of keys to my backpack, computer and room tightly into my lifejacket).

But a far less stupid question which rafting guides and operators are now searching to answer, is how keep the region’s fledging(??) rafting industry afloat if a proposed hydropower dam goes ahead. It’s an issue of reconciling a town’s need for constant electricity, with the rafting industry’s need for constant water.  

Uganda’s second largest city of Jinja lies at the northern tip of Lake Victoria, about two hours’ drive from the Kenyan border. And unless you want a photo with a bust of Ghandi where his ashes were scattered or of yourself urinating at the point where the world’s longest river begins (well, I did!), then chances are that rafting is the reason you’d go there. 

With 12 major rapids in a 30km stretch, including four of grade five standard (the most severe level you can raft commercially), the stretch ranks alongside the Colorado and Zambezi Rivers as the best white-water rafting locations in the world. And with its deep bottom, warm water, and lack of dangerous animals – Idi Amin shot all the hippos for target practice – it’s probably the safest too. 

That’s not to say there isn’t the odd injury. Someone shattered their elbow on a 2.5 metre waterfall the week prior to my visit; the same waterfall we would subsequently float uncontrollably down backwards…

But rafting the Nile may not always be like this. For all the power in the river, which rages 4600kms to the Mediterranean, Jinja remains a town without constant electricity. Local homeowners and businesses battle frequent blackouts and regular periods of extended outages. Towns throughout Uganda are similarly afflicted.

On 26 April the World Bank will decide whether to endorse funding for a hydropower dam at the Bujagali Falls in Jinja. Most parties agree that approval looks promising, with several of the Bank’s studies and consultations showing minimal environmental and social impacts. The dam would bring electricity down to $US6 cents per unit. The current price is about $US24 cents.

It will take two years before the dam affects the water flow, at which point it will remove three of the four biggest rapids, significantly impacting on the quality of rafting experience on offer.

Jinja’s four rafting companies are approaching the potential consequences for their emerging industry with tacit acceptance. Two of the companies were established in the knowledge about the proposed dam, and the other two have been consulted throughout.
Frazer Small, co-director of the rafting company Nile River Explorers (NRE) which has 10 years’ experience, understands why the dam has gained widespread support. “They need the power badly. It used to be 24 hours on and 24 hours off in Jinja. Hopefully this will make it constant.”

But he rues that the Nile rafting industry might “slowly erode away” before it gets the chance to prove its value.

“Uganda hasn’t yet reached the rafting potential of the Zambezi. And that took 15 years to create.

“So come quick, while we’ve still got two years left.”

So I take his advice; and $USD95 and one bad pair of bathing trunks later, I find myself sitting on a raft, a few kilometres downstream from Ghandi and the plaque and obelisk which mark the Nile’s start – which also used to be a waterfall until it was dammed.

There were nine of us in total, one raft of five American girls, and our raft containing Lotta the Swedish doctor, another American girl, myself and Australian compatriot Peter.

The first rapid was basic: A Grade One trickle which was about as difficult as floating a cigarette butt down a urinal. I trailed my paddle in the water. 

Paulo smirked. Coming up shortly was ‘50/50’, named after the chances of succeeding. Other rapids were called Silverback, the Dead Dutchman, and ‘G-Spot’ – so called because, as our guide relished in telling us, “it makes you scream and makes you wet”. And given the fact it spanned the entire width of the river, even I couldn’t miss it.

I scoffed. I wouldn’t be intimidated by a little bit of water. Had I not, after all, tamed the mighty Yarra in my youth, navigating its hidden rocks, car bodies and yobbos hurling bottles and abuse in nothing lite than a tyre tube and Speedos? 

I admit now that I was misguided: 50/50 was to be the first of several capsizes. I remember somersaulting head first into the broiling water, knocking my helmeted head on my paddle, briefly seeing my life flash before my eyes before realising it was just rubbish and debris, and then surfacing underneath the upturned raft next to Lotta, who looked similarly confused and was chewing her hair. Thankfully the water is free of the Bilharzia parasite which plagues the rest of Lake Victoria, because we gulped plenty of it.

The rapids were so powerful that any loose items can, and do, get ripped off. One of the Americans had to gaff-tape her glasses on to her ears (just imagine if she was wearing contact lenses!), as apparently she was so blind that her vision otherwise was the same as mine was underwater. An Indian guy on a previous trip had even managed to lose his pride; his pants got ripped off, and he had to sit the rest of the day wearing a t-shirt around his waist. 

Even though the water was safe, most of us sustained some sort of minor afflictions, ranging from cuts on the knuckles from the rope used to haul ourselves back on to the raft, mild sunstroke, and even, for one of the Americans, a slap across the face with a pineapple peel – though she felt better after I apologised for throwing it. Lotta also suffered from listening to Australian male chauvinist tirades, but we just told her “shut up woman, keep paddling”.

Most rapids diverge into numerous lines of descent, some branching off into grade six sections, which are unnavigable and often fatal. Having an experienced guide in control is therefore essential.

And experienced they are. Paulo is Uganda’s reigning freestyle kayaking champion, has 10 years’ experience of this stretch of water, and is currently waiting on a Canadian visa to compete there (“It’s the first time I’ve been asked me how much is in my bank account,” he says).

There’s also an Australian, Ailsa Woolard, hailing from New South Wales who has followed the rafting seasons around the world for the past few years.

Several other paddlers in rescue kayaks escort each trip, finding time between playfully rolling and nose-diving in the rapids to fish for bedraggled tourists and hunt their hastily abandoned paddles. At one point I found myself straddling the bottom of such a kayak going headfirst down a rapid. Not an ideal descent, was preferable to drowning.

For wimps, there is also a safety raft, expertly controlled by one man with two oars and poetic talent for finding the right line. Even this can flip occasionally, and two American girls once jumped in to find they were sharing it with a large snake similarly keen on avoiding swimming.

In the still stretches, we ate watermelon and pineapples, hurled vast tracts of weed at the raft of unsuspecting Americans, and lay our heads on the rubber edges, listening to the percussion (sorry, I mean ‘cacophony’) of African insects, squealing monkeys, and the faint hissing of air escaping.

It gave ample time to enjoy the scenery, drifting past numerous lodges with cliff-top river views, the shells of incredible houses under construction for new ‘mzungu’ (white people) landowners (land is sooo cheap!), and a cave where Jinja’s once mayor hid for three months to evade one of Amin’s death warrants.

Of course, the experience will be a little different if the dam goes ahead. NRE will move forward the starting point of this one day trip to begin at what will be the first and last Grade Five rapid, ‘Overtime’, and they will likely scrap their two-day excursion.

Even if the rafting goes under, NRE’s brand will likely stay afloat. They also have a backpacker lodge and campsite to their name, offer kayaking lessons, and have a flying fox harness across the Nile. The business has been growing by 10-20 per cent, with positive word of mouth attracting tourists from Uganda’s star attraction, the endangered mountain gorillas.

So while Jinja’s whole rafting industry may be headed up a certain creek without a paddle, there’s still time now to enjoy it. And if not, then at least visit Jinja for the bust of Ghandi and the photo of yourself urinating in the river.  


Nile River Explorers