WHEN I showed up to go whitewater rafting on the nile in Uganda, Gerald, the Canadian rafting guide who stood barefoot in board shorts and looked like a hardier, hairier version of Brad Pitt, greeted me with a simple question: Wild or mild?
BY: JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
My advice, if you’re ever going to do this, is to choose wisely. Because the next thing I knew, I was upside down in an infuriated patch of the Nile River, a ceiling of white water above me, all those tranquil birds and flowers along the banks a violently disappeared memory and Gerald screaming, “Dude! Watch out for the rocks!”
And that was just Round 1. During my two-day trip this winter, our rubber raft flipped countless times. We went flying off waterfalls. We got twisted around rocks. The whole experience was like riding a bouncy castle through a tsunami. In some places, the water seemed to defy the laws of physics, with giant, green frothy waves crashing into one another at impossible angles. The scariest rapid was aptly called the Bad Place.
The Bad Place. It, indeed, was pretty bad.
But the Nile, that historic source of life gushing 4,000 miles across Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, was exceedingly beautiful — all we could see along the banks were miles and miles of pristine woodland, no garbage, no development, no fences, just cormorants and monkeys and the occasional crocodile lounging in the sun. The water was warm and clean, perfect for getting dunked into. The guides, who were a mix of expats and Ugandans, were funny, skilled and safe.
Uganda is a wonderful place to experience Africa — and rafting is just a piece of it. You can trek deep into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and stand eye to eye with a 500-pound critically endangered mountain gorilla. You can scale mountain peaks in the Rwenzoris (also known as the Mountains of the Moon) and see wild elephants at Queen Elizabeth National Park. You can bungee jump, jet boat and kayak. And when you’re done and ready to relax, you can head to the capital, Kampala, to feast on Indian food at boutique hotels and watch enormous marabou storks fly lazy circles in the air, like feathered B-52s, right in the center of town.
Winston Churchill called this green little country “the pearl of Africa,” and it remains a hidden gem. True, Uganda does not offer all the tourist bells and whistles of Kenya next door, like $1,500-a-night tented camps and beach vacations on the Indian Ocean. But Uganda also doesn’t have the baggage. There’s less crime here than in Kenya. There aren’t the tourist crowds. It’s cheaper. And perhaps most importantly, there is a different vibe — Ugandans tend to be a little more laid-back, a little less deferential. It’s a place where your driver will look you in the eye instead of avoiding your glance and smothering you with obsequious yes-sirs, no-sirs and fake laughs.
THIS makes sense. While Kenya was a full-fledged British colony that became a tropical playground for aristocrats to guzzle gin, shoot lions and cheat on their wives, Uganda was a protectorate. That meant it was spared the masses of white settlers, and today it has less of that onerous stamp of colonialism than say, Kenya or Congo, places where, even decades after white rule was dismantled, there is still a discomfiting gap between the races.
Of course, Uganda has had its own sordid history, and a lot of people will associate it with Idi Amin, the country’s hulking dictator in the 1970s who beat political enemies to death with a hammer and plunged this country into years of bloodshed and terror. But those days are not even a speck in the rearview mirror. Uganda has righted itself and driven out various rebel groups, including the notoriously brutal Lord’s Resistance Army.
Today, it is one of the safest, more stable nations in this patch of Africa. For example, when my colleague Jessica and I began our rafting trip, we landed at 9 p.m. at Entebbe airport, the main airport in the country. We had to get to Jinja – the adrenaline capital as commonly known, a midsize town on the Nile River and the hub of Uganda’s booming rafting business. We drove two and a half hours through the countryside, through inky blackness. And guess what? We were fine. We spent the night at the Jinja Nile Resort, a serene hotel perched on bluffs overlooking the Nile, and the next morning, the fun began.
“Listen up, folks!” boomed Gerald, the rafting guide, whose blond locks dangled from under a beat-up construction-site hardhat. “No shoes, no flip-flops, no necklaces, no nothing. If you don’t want to lose it, don’t bring it. If we flip over — and you will flip over — hold on to the raft. Now, who wants to go wild?”
Without thinking, everybody in our 60-person group, who were mostly 20-something students and backpackers from England and the United States, cheered out “wild!” — the more aggressive course. If you want to go mild, which, by the end of the trip, many frazzled rafters had switched to, you float down the same stretch of river, just with your guide steering clear, or trying to, of the most intense rapids. Rapids are rated by numbers, 1 through 6. When I asked Gerald to break it down for me, he said: “One is basically flat water, like a swimming pool.” Two and 3 can be bouncy, 4 and 5 pretty tough. And 6? “Death likely.”
To make sure that didn’t happen, Gerald put us through the paces, teaching us how to stroke, how to hold on and how to get back in the raft if we got tossed out, which actually took a lot of strength and always ended in a thoroughly undignified wiggle.
Our first test was Big Brother. I never got a good answer as to who had named Uganda’s rapids, but the names were impressive, like Hair of the Dog, Vengeance, 50-50 and, of course, my favorite, the Bad Place. Most were Class 3 and 4. Big Brother was essentially a waterfall, and we pulled hard on our paddles and then let the falls suck us in. The awesome power of the Nile surged beneath my feet. The roar was deafening. I remember right before we hit the falls, looking up and seeing some paper-white egrets cruising in the sky, totally oblivious to the terror we were about to experience. “Everybody get down!” Gerald yelled.
The raft smacked into a torrent of white water, and in milliseconds, our bouncy castle was swamped. The river was actually swirling inside the raft, trying to yank us out. I clenched the safety rope along the edge with all my strength. My heart was pounding. My grip was slipping. This lasted for all of about three seconds. And then, poof! It was over, and we were floating through flat water again.
Aw, that wasn’t so bad, I was thinking. I even slapped someone a high five. But then I looked down at my left hand. Um, wait a sec. Where’s my wedding ring? The one my grandfather made and wore at his wedding? The one thing my wife would kill me for losing? Gone. At the bottom of the Nile. Gulped down by Big Brother. A cherished family heirloom reduced to 18-carat fish food. Crestfallen, I asked Gerald if such a tragedy had ever struck a rafter before. “Happens all the time,” he said. “Did I forget to mention that at the beginning?”
Eventually, I got over my loss and was able, once again, to enjoy the white water and the scenery. Most of the river is actually placid, sometimes a mile wide and calm as a Wisconsin lake. I could see thatched huts in the distance with smoke lifting off their pointy roofs. And walls of leafy green banana trees. And huge monitor lizards slithering across rocks. When we got hot, we just jumped in the Nile and floated on our backs, searching the sky for that perfect cloud, toes pointed north, toward Egypt.
The guides were careful about the crocs — which, yes, do bite, and in the few known crocodile hang-out spots, we weren’t allowed in the water. Every once in a while we’d pass fishermen paddling along in log canoes. Some didn’t bother with clothes. Milley, an M.I.T. grad on my boat who recently lost her finance job, was inspired. She suddenly jumped up, peeled off her bikini, snapped her lifejacket back on and resumed paddling. ”Uh, excuse me,” asked one of the young Brits on the raft, with a look of genuine shock on her face. “But why exactly are you rafting naked?” “The question is,” Milley shot back, “why aren’t you?”
I didn’t have time to settle this before we hit 50-50, one of the nastier rapids, where two forks of the river collide and drop like a precarious set of stairs. The Bad Place, a thundering, angry vortex that looked as though it was powered by a jet engine just under the surface, was right next door, but the water was too low and therefore too dangerous for us to run it. We learned that 50-50 was scary enough. “On this one, if you fall out,” Gerald screamed, cupping his hands over the rising din, “don’t even bother try holding on!”
We plunged. The curl of a wave lifted our boat straight out of the water and flipped us upside down like an egg in a skillet. But instead of immediately popping back up, a bunch of us got trapped under the raft, with the rapids pushing it down on top of us. It was terrifying, because there was no way out. I kicked. I thrashed. I felt as though I swallowed a gallon of river water. I started thinking of that scene at the end of “Titanic” in which Leonardo DiCaprio drowns. And then, pop, the raft shot away, and I broke through a fury of white water and feverishly gulped for air. That’s when I noticed everything was a little fuzzy, which leads me to casualty No. 2, my right contact lens. Gone. I spent the rest of the trip squinting through one eye.
That night we licked our wounds and drank cold beer at a campsite on a bluff above the river. The guides made us dinner — rice, salad and a chicken stew with peanut sauce, all served family-style out of big, dented pots. I polished off several plates and then slept like a baby in my tent.
The next morning, we switched guides. Godfrey was our new master. Godfrey was the picture of Ugandan chillness, sitting quietly at the back of the raft in a Spiderman visor. He was also a physical specimen: broad-shouldered, slim-waisted, strong as a linebacker, fatless, with every muscle jumping out of his arms when he stroked. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him when he said he was 48. He could have easily passed for 28. Maybe even 18.
We flipped several times on the second day, but most of us were more comfortable now, and to be honest, we were getting hooked on the adrenaline rush. The last rapid of the day was the aptly named Malaloo, which means crazy in Luganda, one of Uganda’s main languages, and again, it was some freak of physics. It was basically a roaring rapid on one side of the river, with the other side flat water, so you could run the rapid, bounce over the white water and then claw across the river and paddle back up and do it again. And again. And again.
WE did this at least 10 times, with Godfrey effortlessly steering the raft into the rapid’s sweet spot, where we just stayed, miraculously suspended in the middle of the Nile, getting battered by thrashing water for a minute straight, not really moving. We tried it on boogie boards, too, and I jumped in on my belly and pointed myself upstream and found that precise spot where a torrent held me transfixed in a stream of white water, like surfing a never-ending wave.
It was the perfect way to end the trip. We climbed back on the bus, exhausted, sunburned, shoulders sore and feet raw. The engine sputtered to a start. I looked around at the other contented faces of the group and felt that we all had been through something together. I squinted through my one good eye and tried to forget about my newly vacant ring finger. I watched the Nile slide away behind us, smooth, green and inviting as ever.
Most flights to East Africa, including Uganda, involve connections and flight changes. A round-trip ticket from Newark to Entebbe on Continental and KLM, for example, starts at $1,432, according to a recent online search. A trip from Kennedy Airport with American and British Airways, via London, starts at $2,580.
After you land in Entebbe, Uganda’s main airport just outside the capital, Kampala, it’s a smooth two-and-a-half-hour drive to Jinja, the rafting base on the banks of the Nile. Wild Discoveries Uganda Safaris can pick you up for an extra $75, or you can hire your own safari car for a little more. We used a driver named Blackie Mukasa (+256 77 520 7450), who has a fleet of taxis that can be hired to travel around Uganda.
The ideal time to go whitewater rafting on the Nile in Jinja is in January and February or June through September, Uganda’s dry season, when the sun is strong and the skies are clear. But since Jinja is essentially right on the equator, it’s balmy year round, typically 80s during the day, 70s at night. Adrift runs the river throughout the year, with May through August the busiest season, because of summer vacations.
In Jinja, we stayed at the Jinja Nile Resort. The hotel has a nice pool and spectacular views of the river gorge, complete with monkeys frolicking in the trees. The hotel is can be included in your Uganda Safari package.
You can also stay at Adrift’s noisy but spirited campsite, with dorm beds at $10 a person (Adrift rates are given in dollars), double tents for $40 total, and wooden chalets (again, for two people) at $50 a night.
The river guides serve up tasty food and cold Nile Special beer. During my two-day trip, we ate loads of fresh fruit, salads, lunch meat and chicken stew. The beer, soda and bottled water were included. The campsite where we spent the night was a scenic bluff above the river, with different-size tents and some dorm rooms, with showers and toilets.
Rafting is just the beginning of Uganda’s charms. If you want more adventure, Wild Discoveries Uganda Safaris can take you bungee jumping and jet boating.
Farther afield, you can see enormous mountain gorillas with heads the size of engine blocks at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Or go chimp trekking in Kibale National Park, a lush, tropical jungle where you can search out man’s closest living relative. Queen Elizabeth National Park, is a bird watchers’ paradise, said to have more than 600 species. It’s also teeming with bigger game (elephants, leopards and lions, to name a few), and you can take a boat ride on the Kazinga Channel, threading through water thick with hippos.
It’s not as if Uganda is cut off from the rest of Africa. There are several flights a day between Entebbe and Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Round trips on Kenya Airways start at about $352 in June, according to a recent online search. This makes it easy to add Uganda to a longer East African jaunt, which could include the Masai Mara game park in Kenya or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania all tailor-made safaris by Wild Discoveries Safaris.