"I thought they were mad," recalls Paul Osogo, a Bujagali local and Nile River Explorers shuttle driver, about the first inflatable rubber rafts to charge down the River Nile. "The first day I saw them, I thought they would die. The second day, I thought they were on drugs." Historically, Uganda is a country without water sports, except for maybe fishing. Crocodiles and hippopotamus live in abundance on some stretches of the river; villagers often tell stories of people disappearing into the Nile. So, it shocked locals when Nile River Explorers launched its first rafting trip down the Nile in December 1996.
The beginnings were modest: one old raft floating a handful of clients, and an exclusively international staff. But word spread quickly about the rapids of the White Nile. In less than eight years, rafting has become one of Uganda's top tourist activities, spawned three rafting companies, and employed hundreds of Ugandans in the area. For Paulo Bibi, Juma Kalikwani, and Geoffrey Kabirya the Nile's rapids have changed their lives forever.
SINK OR SWIM
"I was the first Ugandan rafter," Paulo Bibi explains proudly. As a boy Paulo worked building steps at Speke Camp, near raging Bujagali Falls. The owners saw Paulo working hard, and offered to take him down the river. He's been a raft guide ever since. Though Paulo, 24, claims to be the first Ugandan on the river, he admits was not the best.
"I ran Bujagali upside down for three years," laughs Paulo, now a member of the Ugandan national team. Rapids are graded on a scale of one to six; a class six rapid is commercially unrunnable. Bujagali Falls is a class five rapid - not a pleasant place to be upside down. A single mistake could send a person smashing onto rocks.
"Paulo was not a natural," recalls John Dahl, owner of Nile River Explorers. If you see Paulo on the river today, this is hard to believe. "Paulo is a beautiful boater to watch," proclaims adventure filmmaker Jamie Simpson in a thick Scottish brogue. Of the three members of the team, Paulo is the most fluid. His movements on waves are natural, as if he and the river are lost in dance. His boat carves with the wave, rather than against or through it. Yet he hardly takes this for granted. When talking about kayaking, Paulo speaks with a reverence that comes only with the knowledge that success was not easy.
Learning to kayak, for Paulo, was a sink or swim proposition. "I swam a lot," Paulo chuckles. "It took me a year to learn how to roll." The roll, the ability to turn oneself upright after the kayak has been flipped, is the single most important skill in kayaking. If you can't roll, it's time to bail out of the kayak and swim the rapid, often a much more dangerous option. An upside-down kayaker may find himself drifting perilously toward a crashing 15-foot wave or, worse, a ledge or rock in the river called a "hole," where water pours over and recirculates on itself. Though water is considered a universal solvent, for an unlucky kayaker trapped in a recirculating hole, it can be the stickiest substance on the planet.
Fortunately for Paulo and the thousands of other rafters and kayakers who have found themselves accidentally swimming the Nile most frequently run has few of these "keeper" features. On an average day, the Nile, a dam-release river, flows somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 cubic feet of water per second (compared to 10,000 cfs on the Grand Canyon's Colorado River) - the equivalent of some 1,500 tons of water moving downriver every second. Simply translated, the rapids on the Nile are huge. The river has become a popular draw for the international kayak community over the last few years because the enormous flow of water makes the river comparatively safe by pushing rafts and kayaks through, yet it also creates waves 15 to 20 feet tall and wide, and rapids big enough to frighten even the best paddlers in the world.
While the river scares the world's best, it also breeds them. "The speed at which everyone learns here is amazing" says filmmaker Simpson. "I used to coach for the Scottish Canoe Association and I've never seen anything like this." One of the paddlers Simpson knows best is Geoffrey Kabirya. Before he became a safety kayaker and then raft guide, Geoffrey worked as a porter. Four years ago, Geoffrey learned how to kayak.
"He was rolling in a day," says Simpson "and he could hold his breath forever. He would take a beating but he just wouldn't swim. On his third or fourth day, he just followed the rafting trip down without permission." Given one look, Geoffrey's tenacity, and the fact that he can take a serious beating, isn't surprising.
If a man could be built specifically for a river, then Geoffrey, 22, was built for the Nile. He is shaped like an upside-down equilateral triangle; his skinny legs explode upwards into a massive upper body. When asked if he occasionally has to walk through doors sideways, he answers only with a laugh. It's entirely possible.
"Geoffrey is a power paddler," says Dahl. While Paulo's smooth style may make one wax poetic, Geoffrey's modus operandi is his unadulterated jaw-dropping strength. Where Paulo dances with a wave, Geoffrey simply obliterates it.
"He is extremely aggressive on the river," confirms Simpson. The rapid Geoffrey enjoys most, unsurprisingly, is Itanda, a class-six rapid three football fields long, with a half-dozen enormous holes. One hole, called the Cuban, is a 20-foot-wide, 12-foot-tall maelstrom of raging whitewater. For most kayakers, the Cuban is as appealing as a one-way trip to the bottom of the river; Geoffrey treats it as his playground. He hurls himself into the meat of one of the most notorious holes on the Nile with the same nonchalance with which one might order a cup of tea.
P. DIDDY DON'T KAYAK
The nightclub is packed. A few hundred bodies cram in, with barely enough room to move, let alone dance. A heavy stench of smoke and sweat fills the air, as bodies gyrate, women scream, and one man entertains them all. The people have come here to see the Original Via Man. On the streets of Jinja and Kampala, he is best known for his thumping beats and dancehall/rap vocals. On the River Nile, Juma Kalikwani, 22, is known as the third member of the Ugandan National Kayak Team.
"I think I am the only rafting rapper," Juma says, grinning.
"Juma has a lot of flair," says Dahl. "He's a performer. He's charismatic, and I think that spills over into his boating." Juma describes his own style both onstage and on the river as "aggressive." Though he doesn't have Geoffrey's power or Paulo's smoothness, he commands a hip-hop flash that dares people not to watch.
Juma appreciates the river and the opportunities it offers, but it's not his sole focus. He does not assume that the river work will always be around. When asked if he will teach his sons to kayak and guide, his answer - "If I am still doing it when they are old enough" - speaks of a man looking forward. He is aware that tourism is a fickle friend, and with the possibility of a new dam washing out some of the river's best rapids, there is no guarantee of the Nile's rafting future.
For the time being, however, the Nile brings prosperity. The river that once helped the ancient Egyptian civilization spring forth from the sands of the Sahara at its Mediterranean terminus 6,000 miles downstream is now responsible for Uganda's bourgeoning whitewater industry at its source. A position as a raft guide or safety kayaker is one of the highest-paying jobs in the area; not only are Ugandans becoming top boaters, they are making a good living doing it.
The secret has spread. World-class talent does not hide in obscurity for long, and January 2004 served as an international coming out party for Geoffrey, Juma, and Paulo. "We had a Nile Freestyle Competition in September 2003, and the guys cleaned up," says Simpson. Nearly 50 paddlers participated, many international, and the Ugandans "tore everybody apart - finished first, second, third." Uganda served notice; it could hold its own in the international kayak community.
A few months later, the team flew to Penrith, Australia, to compete in the 2004 Pre-World Kayak Championship. Words like, shell-shocked and gob-smackedare frequently used to describe the team's overseas experience. Paulo, Geoffrey and Juma were the first members of their family to leave Uganda, and it showed. The standard case of nerves that accompanies anyone's first airplane flight stayed with the team throughout competition. The food was strange. The city was huge. And waves appeared from nowhere on an endless body of water.
Juma's biggest shock was the ocean. "I thought it would be a little bigger than Lake Victoria. But I think…"He pauses and shakes his head incredulously searching for words to explain the enormity of both the ocean and his surprise, "It was big." Paulo quickly learned not all water comes fresh when he took a deep, salty drink from the ocean.
Geoffrey's most nerve-wracking moment came on a day trip to an amusement park; he refused to ride a roller coaster. A man who joyfully throws himself into one of the biggest rapids on the world's longest river would not join a gaggle of teenagers on a thrill ride. "At least in Itanda, I am in control," he explains.
Come competition time, the team definitely was not in control. Geoffrey, Paulo, and Juma finished 25th, 30th, and 39th respectively in a field of 42. The river in Penrith is actually a man-made watercourse, and compared to the Nile it looks more like a trickle of piss than a proper venue for a freestyle kayak competition. A freestyle event is the ability to do tricks - spins, flips, and aerial rotations - in a wave or hole. The event in Penrith was held in a small hole that, on the Nile, would probably be ignored for larger features. Predictably, the team suffered for it.
While the team did not perform as well as they hoped, they put in a good showing for Uganda. "The thing that became obvious" says Simpson "is that if they had proper coaching and training, they could easily be among the top boaters in the world." David Dean, chief judge of the competition, told Simpson that if the team had managed to replicate their practice runs in their heats, all three would have been in the quarterfinals. One of Geoffrey's practice runs would have won the final.
Predictions and potential only go so far. One thing will help ensure that the team can translate practice brilliance into competitive victory: experience. The team is already looking ahead to the 2005 World Championship in Australia. They hope to make a trip to South Africa at the end of the year for the Nationals, and run Zambia's fabled Zambezi River. Uganda is bidding to hold the World Championship on the Nile in 2007, which if realized would be a serious opportunity for a Ugandan paddler to break into the world's top 10. The more cross-cultural experience the team has, the better their chances on an international level. Yet no matter what happens in regards to standings and sponsors, careers and contests, Geoffrey, Juma and Paulo will still be kings of the Nile.
Nile River Explorers (firstname.lastname@example.org) runs rafting and kayaking trips all year long. A full day of class-five rafting, lunch, and beer costs $85. Accommodation ranges from $2 a night for camping to $82 a night for a tented luxury resort, at one of Africa's most beautiful campsites overlooking the Nile. Paddling the Nile is for both advanced and beginner kayakers. NRE can teach you the basics for $40/lesson (including gear). Customized packages are available. British Airways, KLM, and Emirates all fly to Uganda (Entebbe Airport), and the folks at NRE run airport shuttles. For more info, check out kayakthenile.com or raftafrica.net.