Driving to work one morning toward the end of last summer, I got a call from my kayaking instructor Joe, owner and operator of Ace Kayaking School. He was practicing his Spanish: “Quieres ir para Africa?”
“Africa. Want to go kayaking?”
“What? When? Yes. AFRICA? Yes!!”
That’s how that conversation went. Then I went kayaking in Africa. It’s still kind of surreal.
We set off in mid-December – two other students, Lesley and Kristin, and I. We were set to join Joe in Uganda, where he’d already been boating for three weeks. But first, we got lots of shots and started taking malaria pills. We booked flights totaling 30+ hours each way. We read about primitive conditions, gastrointestinal distress from local food/water, possible political unrest, mosquito netting, and schistosomiasis, a/k/a body-invading water snails. Kristin immersed herself in Uganda books, which allowed her to later pepper our journey with random and important facts.
We wired money to Love It Live It/Kayak the Nile via PayPal, reserved Tennessee-born Jackson playboats on the other side of the world, and selected our lodging (safari tent). We filled out visa applications, recent photo and yellow fever immunization records attached. We worried about the size and disposition of the White Nile. At least, I did.
D-Day, finally: Atlanta, December 14. Two days and three countries later, we landed in Africa, with a luggage-scrambling, tooth-rattling, heart-stopping bang. The pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker, in…Ethiopian(??), then in English: “We apologize for the landing. It was due to training.”
According to Kristin, the average life span in Uganda is fifty-five.
The plan was to split our time between two beautiful Nile-side locations – Nile River Explorers and The Hairy Lemon. Paddling days would start out with two shorter river runs to allow us to get acclimated to the water style, then alternate between full-river runs and surfing at Super Hole and Nile Special, prime playboating spots and home of the Nile River Festival. We’d meet up off and on with a couple of British paddlers, Kate and Simon, who were working with another LiLi instructor, Polish freestyle champion Bartosz.
Now…on to the river. We students ran a total of nine or ten rapids, lumped on one river in an odd combination: big, mostly short, and, to my eyes, very foreign. There’s a video featuring the things we saw here.
I’ll be glad to show you down. There’s a ton of green, gorgeous flat water between the rapids, so we’ll have time to tell some Uganda stories on our way.
Overtime: This was our intro to the White Nile, and it gave me heart palpitations, right off the bat. We opted to skip the top half, a gargantuan, swirling mass of spitting hell, riddled with massive holes, predatory conflicting currents, and evil mank. Joe described the bottom right section of the rapid as being “Baby Falls-ish” (12-16-foot waterfall on the Tellico River in Tennessee, a rite of passage into intermediate-level paddling for any Southeastern U.S. whitewater boater). There are several ways down it; we took the boof line one run and the slide the next. In spite of the intimidation factor, it really was a lot like a first run of Baby – gravity did most of the work, and it was a fraction of a second between kissing my ass goodbye at the top and hyperventilating with relief in the big eddy below.
While Joe described the next rapid to us, Lesley sat serenely in her boat, looking downstream. I asked her, “Are you, like, the least bit nervous about this big stuff coming up?”
She smiled. “No.”
I’ve got to get me some of that.
Retrospect/Bubugo. These two are twins: each is a tightly coiled, thick ribbon of green energy winding down the middle of the splashy, zillion-mile-wide river. Our line threaded between two holes and rode giant waves to the left. If you catch the sweet spot, the river delivers a magic carpet ride down into the dynamic mess at the bottom. (You definitely do not want to celebrate here until you’re dang sure you’re done.) A little to the right or the left, and you get rowdy river fun and rolling opportunities. These rapids were a good introductory lesson in how big water is not necessarily unfriendly. It was deep and warm, and, in spite of the chaos all around, none of us had any problem getting upright again when we needed to. (We needed to a lot. At one point, the three of us noted that we had identical injuries on the bottom knuckle of our left thumbs.)
Below Bubugo, we got our first taste of ferrying across the strong boils and eddy lines that are everywhere in this water. I could see why Joe wanted us to have a chance to get used to it before attempting a whole-river run.
First attempt at a White Nile-style ferry, just after after Bubugo. It did get (a little) better.
Super Hole. I loved this place. We spent several hours there over the course of a few days, and it offered something for each of us. For Joe and Bartosz-level boaters, it looked like chill, good fun. For Lesley, Kristin, Kate, and Simon, it was a challenging but safe place to fine-tune surfing and learn advanced skills. For me, it meant figuring out that if I made the surf across the scary wave into the scary hole, I got to feel the world stop for just a second before being back on my face in the waves. There’s a little boogie below it and then plenty of flat water for recovery. I wish I could have brought Super Hole home with me.
Speaking of flat water, we have a minute to catch our breath:
Village. I got lost on the way back to the car from the takeout on our first day of paddling.
It wasn’t a long walk – there’s a steep but short hill, and then you cross a small creek and follow a happy little path among corn fields. The thing is, the cockpit rim plastic on Jackson boats and my left shoulder stay in a semi-permanent fight. With no mediation from my tank top or my unobtrusive Green Jacket, they were going at it in rare form that day. I ended up throwing the boat on the ground and telling the group I’d catch up after a break. There was a path, right?
Actually, there were two: a few minutes after I started walking again, the road forked. No problem – the left trail was smaller and branched off of the main road. The right was the obvious choice, bigger and more in line with the trail I was already on. I headed up the slope, still nursing my shoulder, and walked. And walked. And kept walking. I started getting a little nervous about my decision, but I didn’t want to turn around and start the process over only to find out I’d quit a few yards from where I was supposed to be. The corn stalks watched me in eerie silence. I slowed down a little. My shoulder didn’t hurt anymore.
I was crazy relieved to see a couple of young boys come running down the road in my direction. “How a u?”
“Hey, I’m doing great! How are you?” They laughed. “Do you speak English?”
“Awesome! Hey, did you see my friends? With boats like this? Did they come this way?”
Sweet. Confidence restored, I followed my guides as they ran lazily back and forth along the path. I could see buildings looming up on the horizon, presumably where the others were waiting. The sun was warm. The sky was blue.
A little girl – maybe around two? – came out of the first building, pointing at me in delight. Yeah, yeah…another crazy with a funny little boat and weird clothes, I know. She joined the party. Behind her, more people started coming out of the houses. Suspicion started pricking the hairs on the back of my neck.
I turned back to one of my helpers. “You saw my friends, right? Come this way?”
“Are you sure?” He looked confused. “Hey, are you sure you speak English?”
“How a u!” he yelled, full-volume and with gusto.
“Not as good as I was five minutes ago when you told me to go this way!”
We had drawn a crowd, at this point. I wasn’t panicking yet. They looked friendly, and English is one of the official languages in Uganda. (Thanks, Kristin.)
“Hi!” I gave them my warmest, most trustworthy smile. “Have you seen my friends come this way? With boats?”
They were chuckling. I distinctly heard somebody say, “Mzungu.” (One of our drivers, Greg – see below – had told us that this is a reference to a white person. When I asked if the term was derogatory, he only raised his eyebrows.) True, but not helpful.
“Okay. Does anybody speak English?”
They looked at me, laughing a little louder. I became suddenly aware of my skirt hanging around my waist and my heat-dried red life jacket and my rasta-colored Madcap helmet, shiny metal flake glinting in the sun, action cam perched on top like a periscope. The mud on my boots was encrusted in red dirt, along with the rest of me. This was the best show they’d seen all day.
I’m no newbie to international travel. I was born and raised in Venezuela, and I’ve gotten myself around various other countries just fine. But my Spanish wasn’t going to work here. My charm was also falling flat. It was time to say goodbyes to my throng of admirers, retrace my steps back to the fork, and apologize to the group, for making them wait and for my existence in general. Except that when I turned around to do that, I pretty much lost the will to live. I’d followed the kids through the houses, off the path. From where I was standing, I could see three paths. I had no idea which one I had come down. They were all dusty and red, with corn all around. And what if they branched off into more paths? I could see myself picking the wrong one again and again, ad nauseam, while the group waited. Nobody was ever going to invite me on a kayaking trip again, at best. At worst – what, they wouldn’t find me for days? I’d sleep in a corn field or ask one of the crowd to let me crash on the couch? I was out of bottled water. Now, I was panicking.
In the end, I took my boat off my shoulder and stood there, watching people say things about me and trying to look harmless. Within a couple of minutes, I saw a Tasmanian-devil-style cloud of dust flying down one of the paths in my direction. It was Joe, at full sprint. He was half scolding and half cracking up. “What did you do? I ran all the way back to the put-in! How did you get here?”
I was so glad to see a familiar face that I could have fallen down and wept. (The audience probably would have enjoyed the added drama.) I was ready to unload my Independent Woman Card for pennies on the dollar to the first bidder. “I don’t know! How did you find me?”
“For the last five minutes, I didn’t even have to ask! People just saw me and pointed in this direction!”
Happy ending. Everyone seemed to forgive me, and we went for food. Turns out you could actually see the car from the point where the trails split. But I did hike a really long way with my boat, without even thinking about it. So that’s good.
Man, I wish I’d had my helmet cam on.
You heard that too, huh? Sounds like the whitewater is creeping up on us. Back to the action!
Kalagala Falls. We enjoyed watching Joe run this beast. (Not in this lifetime!) I did pick out my hypothetical line before portaging, and Joe provided feedback: “That’s awesome – you found the terminal hole! You just died.”
Aero/Arrow/Ero. I can’t find the definitive spelling of this rapid anywhere. All I know about it is that is has waves that are hella bigger than they look at first glance. I flipped immediately and purportedly carped at least twenty times before Joe gave me a hand in the pool at the bottom. (“I was impressed with your spirit. Not your rolls.”) It flipped Lesley and Kristin too. They rolled better.
Real Deal. The main feature I remember about this one is a (wo)man-eating hole on the left. We were supposed to turn upstream and ferry right to avoid it. We ran it twice, and both times, I couldn’t make myself turn my back on that monster to make the ferry. God smiled and let me squeak by it, by an inch or so.
Vengeance. This was a really good exercise for someone at my level trying to get used to big water. We ran it right of center – but not too far right, so as not to get caught in the boils. There were huge, inviting waves – but you had to be on your game to manage the treacherous water between them. There’s a great wave at the bottom. I would have taken photos of Lesley and Kristin working their surf on it, but I couldn’t get close enough. I was convinced that the violently squirrely water would reach out and grab my boat and force me to do things against my will, if I gave it a chance. So you’ll have to take my word for it.
Let’s take a break.
Drivers. We had several drivers help us get around in Uganda. Greg was our primary person, with his habitually demure expression belied by gleeful mischief in his eyes. He be-bopped us down Jinja Road to the soundtrack of his CD collection (Shania Twain and Rod Stewart, alternated and repeated as necessary), maneuvering myriad traffic obstacles at lightning speed with mastery. We learned about his family’s Christmas church-and-dinner ritual and the romantic preferences of Ugandan women (clean, nattily dressed men, which ideal he personified) and men (big butts). He also taught us some useful phrases in Luganda, like “oli mulalu,” which means “you’re crazy,” and “akasolo,” which is either a small animal or a rude word for a genital of either sex. We loved Greg.
When Greg couldn’t drive us, we switched around between some other folks. Sandy was a giggly guy who had several challenges to overcome, as he didn’t know where anything was or much about vehicles or their operation. When we returned from the river one day, the car had a flat tire. Sandy was holding a lug wrench. He handed it to Joe and stepped back to watch him work, with interest, giggling. Eh. He had a sweet spirit. It was Africa, and we were in no hurry.
Ofono was a quiet man with a gentle smile. He was very concerned about the $0.89 laundry bag I brought to carry my gear in – it was new and white, and red dust is plentiful around Jinja. I told him that I had really wanted a red bag anyway but Walmart didn’t have any. He nodded.
As we were pulling away from the takeout after paddling one day, Ofono screeched the van to a halt, flung the door open, and took off running. We eventually figured out that a local kid had tried to catch a ride, hanging onto the ladder on the back and pulling it off, for the second time that week. We didn’t see exactly what happened, but apparently, Ofono gave the kid a little schooling. We sat there looking at each other in a daze of mild shock and cultural confusion. When Ofono came back to the car, sweaty and out of breath, nobody said anything. We drove away. Maybe we were bad people and silent accomplices to child abuse. Or maybe that kid won’t do that again.
Ofono came up to me one morning toward the end of the trip. He was holding my bag, which was no longer anywhere close to white. He grinned. “Red. I am…getting there.”
Our last driver, David, helped us discreetly stalk families dressed in their Christmas-bright best for a few last photos on the way back to the airport. We talked seasons and weather and explained how Americans make people out of balls of snow decorated with sticks and carrots and coal lumps and hats. “Why do you do that?” he asked.
We had no answer.
Kristin informed us that Uganda has one of the highest – if not the highest – rates of alcoholism in the world. (That could explain all the people on the road enjoying their gin from plastic baggies.)
Hair of the Dog. This was probably the hardest rapid we ran, and it ended up being my favorite. We began by skirting the right side of a wave hole, and then, Joe said, look at the waves and figure it out. It looked to me like an enormous game of Whack-a-Mole. The waves pop up at seemingly random intervals and then disappear, in front of your eyes. You pick your line up a nice green tongue, and it breaks on you as you’re climbing it and flips your boat. It rolled me a couple of times, and another time, it turned me backward, forwards, and sideways, and I didn’t flip. None of us died or even swam.
I heard another boater say “These rapids are Grade II-III, right? So no big deal.” (It was fun to hear kayaking discussions in ten different accents/languages at a time.) I don’t know what river he was running or where he got his information. For me, all of it, and this rapid in particular, was a different experience entirely. I was David felling Goliath. I was Lieutenant Dan, sitting legless astride the mast of the Jenny, finger raised to the storm: “YOU’LL NEVER. SINK. THIS. BOAT!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” Maybe, like him, I even made my peace with God.
I keep being amazed at how encounters with water can be life-changing.
Kula Shaker. Poor Kula got short shrift from me every time because of following HOTD, but it was also formidable and super bouncy fun. Avoid the left hole at the top. Tall, crazy waves at the bottom, breaking or not, depending on water level. I both sailed through it and fought like hell to live through it. Perfect.
Massage. A $20/hour massage sounded like the ideal oasis in between paddling adventures, so I signed up. I waited for Amina in a comfy, open-air tent overlooking the river.
She was twenty minutes late and seemed harried, when she arrived. She was tall and thin and elegant, with flawless skin and enviable cheekbones. She told me to take my dress off and lie down on the table. Pretty standard stuff.
Amina was quiet for the first few minutes, which is my preference over a chatty therapist, any day. Then she asked me, “Are you married?”
“Uh…no. Are you?”
“No. I had a husband. He was worthless, worthless! I told him to f*ck off my life.”
“Oh! I’m sorry.”
“Yes. You need foot scrub.”
“No. That is pedicure. Not massage.”
Now I felt that I was in for an interesting experience. I got one. Amina told me that she was a single mother of two, “making two and five years.” She herself was making twenty-six years.
“Are you making twenty-seven years?” she asked me.
Amina explained that nobody exercises in Uganda, that they “eat like shit,” cook with way too much oil (I thought about my new chapati addiction and squirmed a little), and deserve to die young. When she tried to get her mom to go for a walk, the response was, “Are you trying to kill me?” Her grandmother took it a step farther: “Why don’t you love me?”
There were other topics of conversation. “Sometimes,” she said, “men don’t even want a massage. They just want me to touch their body. I tell them to go and spend the money on alcohol instead. Single mother of two…”
At the end of the hour, I felt marginally more physically relaxed and mentally overstimulated. I left Amina a tip and made my way slowly back to my tent, wondering at how different and similar our worlds were.
Per Kristin, most Ugandans live on less than $1 per day.
Nile Special. This rapid looked terrible the first time we ran it. The big wave at the top appeared ominous, impenetrable. Joe showed us the tongue that surged over it periodically, but I had little hope of catching it at the right moment to let me pierce that wall of white. As it turned out, sometimes it was easier to get through this wave than to get stuck on it, when we were trying to.
On our second pass, Joe asked if anyone wanted to take on Nile Special wave, the first in a series of massive surfables on the rapid. We’d need to paddle toward the thing and then turn around backwards and let it catch us – then, whatever happened happened.
Lesley looked a little cowed, but she gamely attacked the wave and was quickly baptized. Kristin and I gaped from the eddy at the top. I asked Kristin if she was going to follow suit, and she said, in a tiny voice, “I don’t think so.”
Within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, these things happened:
It was beyond exciting – a complete privilege – to have a ringside seat to these ladies staring down the bogeyman and evolving as the badasses that they are, as well as watching Joe and his paddling ilk do their expert thing, joyful, late into the African sunset.
I didn’t have any intention of braving Nile Special, but Joe challenged me. My task was to get trashed – roll, swim, anything goes was okay, as long as I tried it. I still didn’t want to do it. I watched everybody else for two days, thinking about it. At one point, Bartosz pointed at the wave and called to me, with a heartbreaking smile, “Lauralyn! Life is waiting for you.”
He was right. I realized that I was being ridiculous, that I would regret it forever if I didn’t take the opportunity to at least attempt, in complete safety, this world-class feature that will soon be underwater due to the Isimba Dam. So I took my whoopin’, for God and ‘Merica – three tries in Nile Special, and two in Club Wave.
I consider this a very important step in my personal development.
Kids. “Did you know that 50% of the population here is under 14 years old?”
These adorable beggars showed up all along the shores of the White Nile. The older ones would carry our boats for a few shillings, and we shared with them the huge lunches that were packed for us every day. The younger ones lured us in with their sweet smiles and “How a us?” and “What you names?” before presenting their list of demands, beginning with “I want.” They “wanted” my sunscreen, my sponge, my camera. (“Oli mulalu!” I told them. They liked that a lot.) One boy asked for a drink from my water bottle. He took a few swallows and then handed it around to his four friends, then back to me, with about a half-inch at the bottom left for my river run. It’s good to know that the concept of sharing is alive and well among the Jinja junior set.
One item was coveted above all else: “I want whistle!” I started out explaining at length that I need it for emergencies, eventually learning to just say, “No.” Kristin left hers for one of her favorites when we departed for the U.S., with apologies to the ears of any adults that may encounter it.
It’s not like the children were being rude. After all, she said, there is no word for “please” in Uganda.
That was some of our trip. I’m back in Tennessee now, and it’s 35 degrees outside and finally starting to rain. My paddling buddies and I are hoping to hit the Cumberland Plateau tomorrow, in drysuits, navigating the shallow and the rocks and staving off the cold with our laughter.
If I close my eyes for a second, I can feel the sun hot on my skin, the irresistible desire to let go of safety and embrace the delicious unknown, the splash of warm waves swallowing my boat and me, and the hope of coming out all right. The chick who was too scared to attempt a second partial run on the Ocoee kayaked the White Nile, and, as usual, my friends were my lifeline.
But what I’ll remember most about my visit to Uganda is the pervasive undercurrent of astonishment, subtle but powerful as a Nile eddy fence: I can’t believe I get to be here, doing this.