As we drifted across the still and steel blue waters, slowly approaching the roaring rapids, audible but so far not visible, I was getting seriously anxious. I had opted for Sam and me to go in the safety boat. There were twenty other mzungu in our group, most of whom were going in rafts, and a few on kayaks, either by themselves or in tandem with a guide. We got a thorough debrief from the guide on the shore and I was confident that Sam understood what to do if we did fall out of the boat, but still, but still…
‘Sam, are you nervous?’
The safety boat had Moses, the head guide, using two long fixed oars on the side of the large inflatable raft. A metal frame steadied the centre of the raft, adding to sturdiness, on which Moses sat on a raised seat or stood in the middle of the frame. Sam and I, his only passengers, sat on the inflated rim at the front, but when things got bumpy we were instructed to sit down on the floor and hang onto a safety rope on the outside of the rim. On the other rafts, six passengers and one guide each had a paddle and manned the outside of the craft.
The safety boat would only go in the softer parts of the rapids, whereas the other rafts went for where the action was greatest. Eight sets of rapids spread over 25 kilometres of the Nile River sat below us. As we approached the edge, Moses told us to sit down on the floor and hang on.
The raft tilted over the edge. A dramatic set of rapids, plunging up to two metres at a single drop but over twenty metres in length lay below us.
‘I don’t want to go down there!’ Sam yelled.
‘SAM, DON’T STAND UP!!’
Hanging onto the rope with one hand as we fell, I reached out for the bottom of Sam’s life jacket as he attempted to jump out of the plunging raft. Moses also grabbed Sam, abandoning one of his oar handles to do so, and we secured him down just as we landed at the first of half a dozen wrenching thumps and lurches. Walls of water would appear before us and then smash into our faces, before we would leap up again then tilt with ridiculous speed forward and plunge again. It was like riding a rodeo horse, a very wet rodeo horse, not that I have ever ridden one to know.
I looked across to Sam, incredulous that he had tried to jump out. Sam punched the air.
‘I DID IT!’
What? Over the course of twenty seconds he had gone from terrified to exhilarated. The second set of rapids was soon upon us. Here we go again.
Aargh! Plunge, thump, lurch, heave, plunge. Splash! Oomph. Wooh, woh! Between the waves I heard Sam giggle. We finally reached some still water.
‘We are playing Quidditch!’
I couldn’t help but burst into a fit of laughter. Moses joined in, shaking his head, before turning to me.
‘What is Quidditch?’
‘He thinks it is like riding on a broomstick.’
We watched the others come over; after all, we were the safety boat. One tipped, all and sundry tumbling their way down the slope before being retrieved by the very impressive staff. These guys knew their stuff. I found out several of the guides were in the Ugandan kayak team and were heading to the World Championships in Canada the next month. One of the mzungu, an Australian, was kayaking by himself and was also incredibly good. He was also off to the World Championships representing Australia, and was here to get in some practice. The rest of us were in awe of their skills, and several of the girls in awe of their physiques.
On we went, gliding over the silky waters stirred by eddies and whirls, draped in tattered remnants of lilies and reeds ripped from the shore, waiting for the rush towards the next set of rapids. The roar would build, the raft would tilt and down, down, down we would plunge.
It was a little embarrassing just sitting in the safety boat, not having to do the paddling work expected of everyone else, but hey, I got over it and drank in the atmosphere. The Nile was magnificent, with the silver blue currents cutting between steep wooded banks where children would jump and excitedly wave to us from the shore. Dugout canoes with fishermen plied the waters, and cormorants and yellow billed storks glided above and beside us. Sam thought the cormorants, with their sinewy necks ducking in and out of the water, looked like the Loch Ness monster. I could see that, but I just never would have thought of it myself.
There were no hippos or crocs above Murchison Falls so it was safe to be in the water, fortunately for those in the rafts that tipped. Each raft tipped at least once, and the guides waiting in kayaks would haul them to safety. We approached the last set of rapids, Sam giggling and squealing in anticipation. It was a doozy, but being the safety boat we went down a section that was a bit calmer than the centre of the rapid.
‘I want to go over there.’
‘No Sam, we can’t, we’re in the safety boat and have to go in the easier section so we can help people if needed.’
‘But that is more fun over there, I want this to be an event!’
‘I think it is an event Sam, that you have been so brave.’
‘What does event mean?’
‘It means something special.’
‘Yes, this is an e-VENT!’
The other rafts came down, two out of three capsizing but everyone safe. Sam laughed at their tumbling exits from the craft. He turned to Moses.
‘I want there to be more rapids. Let’s round it up to ten.’
‘No, there is only eight. It is finished now.’
‘No, let’s round it up to ten. Ten is a more rounded number.’
Moses turned to me. I waved to him to ignore it. Half of the troubadours were now in the water in their life vests, swimming or just drifting with the steady current as we approached the exit point. Sam watched them.
‘I want to swim,’ Sam said.
Was this the same boy? Only a month or two earlier it had taken three people ten minutes to convince him to swim in Lake Malawi for a few seconds. He jumped in and swam alongside our raft to the shore, and I was feeling pretty damn special. It had been an event.
P.S. Due to a problem with the server, some people have not been receiving email alerts. The problem has now been remedied but some of you may have missed a few instalments. These are all on the blog website if you want to check them out.