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Africa : Uganda

White Water Thinking

by Rob McCork

After a friendly, fascinating and gorgeous week soaking up the delights of Uganda, we fancied spending our last day there thrill-seeking on the rapids of the White Nile, and signed up for a full days rafting just north of its source at Jinja. As we jumped in to the back of the open sided lorry kitted out in helmets and life jackets and began rumbling towards our launch spot, it felt like we were part of a small military task force about to be dropped for a mission.

The intensity of the action delivered early as we smashed through a couple of currents, took some sizeable hits and capsized on our first two serious rapids. A little shaken we regrouped, got our game faces on and managed to stay on the raft for the rest of the morning.

What emerged unexpectedly on our way downstream was the news that due to the construction of the Bujagali Dam, much of our course for the day would soon be underwater. On the long flat stretches that punctuated the white water Doug, a tall white Zambian who was our guide for the day, described how the rapids would become mere rocks at the bottom of a lake and the diverse wildlife that lived in the area would have to find new homes or learn to swim.

Although leading these tourist boats was his day job, it was clear Doug’s real passion lay in taking on the really nasty sections of river that were too extreme for commercial use; one man and his kayak taking on the explosive torrents of hydraulic power. There were tones of genuine remorse as he spoke of the fate of a river he obviously had a lot of affection for, and clear disgust at the arrogance of men who will live less than a century acting to destroy a natural phenomenon that has been around for millennia.

As the roar of the water filled our ears and we sweated against the forces that burst into froth under our paddles, it was difficult not to feel humbled by the sheer scale of the Nile. Our raft was a speck on a river that would run for another 4000 miles to its destination in Cairo. We were tame insects that needed a guide and a safety team before we even considered tackling its dangers, town folk who’d come for a taste of nature but would never really appreciate it on our bitesize, easy to digest day trips. The rapids exist without purpose or motive and, rather than planning for their demise, we should just be grateful that we can enjoy them.

That such a perspective shifting issue arose out of a day earmarked for adrenaline rushes was a welcome surprise, but as we approached a 15ft waterfall my thoughts quickly shifted back to that of self-preservation. We paddled hard, held on tight, and prayed we didn’t become crocodile food.