The ‘washing machine’

Jinja – Uganda

May 2008

After a good day and a half on the road, we finally it made it to Jinja. If you thought the Nile was a big ass, lazy river then think again! We were here for one reason only. To raft one of the greatest sections of commercially available white water on this entire planet. As soon as we pulled into the campsite we headed across to the bank of the river Nile which was screaming ‘come in if your dare’. It looked mental. From what we had heard and seen at that moment I think we were all a little emotional. Excitement, apprehension, fear, it was all there as we looked down towards raging white water going through one of the smaller rapids on the river.

The day started with the customary ‘sign your life away form’, a form that always meant we would be doing something exciting. We then met our guide, whose name has shamefully alluded me but, he happened to be part of the Ugandan Olympic kayaking team. You may be thinking he was bull shitting us but if you could see what these guys could do on white water in a raft or kayak, I think you would believe such a statement. Anyhow, he was a legend! Five out of six of us demanded we flip the raft on every rapid, we wanted to push as hard as possible and make the most of every second. Our guide happily agreed with a glint in his eye that reverberated ‘challenge accepted’.

Another sign that one will have an epic, adrenaline fuelled activity is when the safety briefing is actually serious and one has to practice things. So, on this occasion, we practised floating(!), getting back into the raft, flipping the raft back over, how to hold onto a safety kayak and so on. With regards to rafting, if you are told you can keep your flip flops on then don’t bother getting excited. This also applies to no safety kayaks being present. Here there were many safety kayaks plus a safety raft carrying all the important stuff we may need for the day such as neck braces and defibrillators. The safety raft needs a special mention here. This was a raft the same size as ours but, loaded with gear and controlled by one man. When I say a man, I mean a mental person. He sits in the middle with two huge paddles and makes his way down the same rapids as we do. Admittedly there is an easy way and a hard way down a rapid and I would assume he took the easier route but still, the strength required to control the raft and get through would be immense. The kayakers were also from the adrenaline junkie camp. They would always go first (so that they were in place to scoop us out of the water when we came out of a rapid) and the only word to describe their approach to rapids was; cool!

The rafting was a full day event taking in a 25 kilometre stretch of the river. This wasn’t a stretch of river with rapid, after rapid, after rapid. It was a huge beautiful river with moments of terror dotted along it. The day varied from joyful river cruising, enjoying the peace and tranquillity in the warm Ugandan sun, interspersed with casual swimming/toilet paddles (I will explain later) to…. outright terror, barely being able to hear our guides’ instructions as we approached a roaring rapid, being trapped under the raft, people flying through the air, and being slam dunked to the bottom of the river. No matter how many rapids we went through the same feelings of fear and excitement flooded my body every time we approached one. I knew we would flip, I knew we would be rescued but that thundering sound of water is just so commanding. Up to this point in my life I had done a fair bit of kayaking, 99.9% on flat water and I had done a sky dive; but this day was to prove the most adrenaline-fuelled day of my life. Your personal fears are pushed to breaking point and then all of a sudden, relief, as you realise you’re not dead! Bizarrely your body rewards you for not being dead by making you feel incredible. This in turns makes you want to go and not be dead again, and again, and again.

One rapid, only a grade three if I remember rightly, kicked back on itself and so essentially you would hit a solid wall of water. Every raft hit this with momentum and bounced over it, no harm done but, we weren’t every raft. Our guide explained to us that if the smallest person sat at the front and everyone else sat right at the very back of the raft then we could potentially pull off a stunt named ‘the flying squirrel’. Naturally, this sounded incredible to us and our willing volunteer, none other than Ed, moved joyfully to the front as the rest of us moved to the back, pushing the back end of the raft deeper into the water. We all paddled towards the rapid, Ed knelt up front holding onto the safety ropes and then…. the last thing I remember seeing before going under the water was the raft ninety degrees up in the air and Ed at the top of it about to come falling down on top of us. As became the norm, the kayakers plucked us all out of the water and we reconvened on our raft. Also, as became the norm we all felt pretty pleased with ourselves but we had no idea how well we had performed our stunt until the cameraman came over to us. Yes, we had a guy filming the day’s antics which are immortalised in an incredible DVD. The cameraman’s words were exactly as follows, ‘I thought he was going to break his bloody neck’. At that moment we knew we had pulled off an awesome stunt. Our raft had cruised into the rapid, flipped up onto its backend due to the majority of the weight being on the back and left Ed at the front of the raft which was now twelve feet up in the air. Ed, being Ed, obviously didn’t think that just plain old falling was going to be good enough and instead he kind of did a back flip from the height of twelve feet into a grade three rapid on the River Nile. Intentional or not, it looked out of control and reckless. We loved him for it!!

Like most things in my life, food is usually a highlight. On this occasion we had a light lunch on a long stretch of calm river half way through the day. This consisted of biscuits and pineapple. No drinks. Funnily enough none of us were thirsty due to the vast amounts of river water we had consumed. The reason this moment is a highlight is because it was just so damn beautiful, peaceful and relaxing, like practically our entire time in Africa. I am also not a great fan of pineapple yet this pineapple was the juiciest and tastiest I have ever had. It may just have been that I was hungry and it tasted better than Nile river water but I have never tasted pineapple so good since. We also took time to go for a swim. Quite the novelty, as this was the one time we could swim without the river trying to death roll us.

The final highlight takes us to ‘The Bad Place’. Nope, not the southern states of America, the chance of death wasn’t that high. No, ‘The Bad Place’ was our final rapid for the day and as grand finales go this was big. It was also the biggest ‘poo-yourself-moment’ of my life. This was a rapid that stretched across the entire width of the river, it was a ruffled sheet of white, a cauldron of anger. The majority of the rapid was a grade six and as this is deemed too unsafe for commercial rafting we got out before it began. Our raft was hauled around a corner, down through some trees back to the edge of the river where, our guide happily told us where we would get back into the river and what we should expect. I saw no point in getting out in the first place. Or, put another way I saw no point getting back in! Our entry point looked insane and no ‘calmer’ than where we had got out to avoid the huge grade six. But, apparently this was a grade five and so everything was fine and dandy! We were warned that in the very likely event of going overboard there was a chance that we could enter a part of the rapid known as ‘The Washing Machine’. I will let you conjure up an image of that for a moment. In the unlikely event that we stayed in the raft, there was a possibility that we could surf on top of the rapid which would add further to our bragging rights points tally. However so far we had flipped on pretty much every rapid. The raft was duly put back into the river in a spot of water sheltered by a few rocks from the grade five only metres away. I don’t think any of us were smiling at this moment in time. Our guide pushed us away from the side and told us to paddle as though our lives depended on it (and oh it felt like it did). We tickled the water a little bit to get away from the river bank, our guide steered us towards ‘The Bad Place’, tells us all to crouch down in the raft and then, throws his bloody paddle in the air! He obviously thought it was great fun, I mean, who needs a paddle to help get six travellers through a grade five rapid! I wonder if we tipped him!? We didn’t know about this as we bounced sideways on top of the rapid for oooooh, zero point five seconds at best. Of course, if you enter a big rapid sideways there is only one thing that will happen and it did, we all got wet again. The rapid spat out five people, a raft and numerous paddles but unluckily for Jason and me, it had gotten a taste for us and we had a lesson into why ‘The Washing Machine’ possessed the name that it had. I don’t think the name does it justice personally. It just makes this terrifying natural wonder of sheer fear sound like a “white good” from South Korea that sits in the corner of your kitchen bleeping out an annoying little tune to alert you that it has done its job properly. Jason and I were literally dragged slightly back up river and then sucked to the bottom of it. I clearly remember hitting the bottom. It may not have been that deep and it may not have lasted too long (although on the DVD a good few moments pass by) but I had absolutely no control, all I could do was ride it out. I was filled with a complete feeling of helplessness, the power of the rapid was absolutely immense. Our guide told us not to fight it if we did get sucked under and was extremely sure we would get thrown out of the rapid ‘at some point’. Naturally I think I did try and fight the bastard. Soon, my head reappeared into oxygen and I instinctively took a big breath which on my brain’s part, was a great idea because I was instantly sucked straight back down for another working over while Jason got spat out and floated off down stream. The next thing I remember was me also floating down the river. One of the safety kayakers collected me and asked if I was ok, I was perfectly fine, except for the crazy like smile plastered on my face and the shivers of excitement. I was transported to the shore and I just sat in the shallow water and laughed. I was knackered yet ecstatic, numb yet buzzing, terrified yet elated. I had just encountered the scariest moment of my life and I had been rewarded with one of the greatest adrenaline rushes I have ever experienced. Eight years on, and many more adventure activities completed and nothing has bettered that day.

Taken from ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.

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