Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why did the mzungu cross the Nile?

This is a bit long but there's no way I can explain this weekend without a bit of wordiness. Hopefully I do it justice.  
This weekend was unbelievable.  Seriously, one of the wildest adventures of my life.  The guys who were here last year told me about a white water rafting trip down the Nile.  It did not disappoint.

We left Eldoret on Friday around 2:30 and headed north for Uganda.  Nine of us piled into a safari van with a driver and a Kenyan named Calvin who works for AMPATH and who served as our unofficial guide.  Nothing too exciting about the drive except for a stretch of road between Uganda and Kenya referred to as No Man’s Land due to the fact that neither country claims it.  It is essentially a lawless stretch of road between boarders. Apparently some nefarious characters make it their home when the heat is on since neither country will enter it.  I also was approached about a possible marital arrangement with the Uganda customs worker but nothing came of it. 
So. We made it to Jinja, Uganda on the edge of Lake Victoria 6 hours later after passing through some terrain I was not quite expecting.  Lush rain forests, rice paddies nice roads (huge plus considering what we drive on in Kenya)

We checked into our “campsite”.  Again, I use the term loosely.  Although it was a bit more rustic than the last campsite, this was primarily geared for American and European 20 something’s traveling through.  Grabbed a beer at the bar that overlooks the Nile and called it a night. 
Nile view from the bar/restaurant

830am the next morning, we left for the Nile rafting excursion.  At the training site we happened to meet five St Mary’s (All girls college across the street from Notre Dame) students who are volunteering in Uganda.  Since we had nine in our group and the boats only fit 7, I took one for the team and jumped onboard along with Darren (ND MBA ’09 and 2nd year med student at Indiana U.) to form the South Bend Boat Crew.  I know it was noble of me.  Turns out, they are all teachers or nursing students. Jackpot! For those who don’t know, I’m convinced I will end up marrying a teacher or nurse. 

So we get going to the river and meet our guide, Geoffrey who is Ugandan but speaks English with a Jamaican/Australian accent.  Geoffrey is awesome.  Out to have a good time, loves the rapids and knows what he’s doing.  After paddling about and learning what to do when we get flipped over, we head to the first rapid.  Geoffrey nonchalantly informs us that it is a class 5.  

“Wait, what, Class 5?  There are only 6 classes total.  What the hell? Thats a bit aggressive to start, don’t you think?” 

“No worries mate, happy days.  Only a 3 meter waterfall drop to go over”

No worries, happy days. class 5 rapid. 10 foot drop.

So off we go.  After waiting for the other boats to go, we hit the rapids and catch the right timing to make the turn and go over the waterfall.  Somehow we managed to all stay in the boat.  Nice way to start the day.  We go through a level 4 and pass with ease.  And by ease I mean it was a huge adrenaline rush that nearly caused a heart attack more than once.    

Front right, with the awkward sunglasses.

Head on to a level three, no problem.  Except for the fact we all got tossed overboard and I had my first of several near-death experiences of the trip.  We were moving so fast, I am not exactly sure what happened but we got flipped and I get sucked under.  I had no idea which way was up, waves just kept coming on top of me.  I took in a few mouthfuls of Nile and actually thought for a second that I might not be making it out of this situation alive.  Not hyperbole in the least bit.  That’s the closest I have ever felt to drowning.  Thankfully my life jacket eventually popped me up and shot me down the river.  Nobody was injured and we all got back in the boat. 

Before the next rapid, we all recounted what happened and took a few minutes to swim while the other boats caught up.  We definitely had the most fun boat group.  We spent our down time pushing each other off the boat, doing flips into the water and having a ton of good laughs.  Geoffrey swore like a sailor and kept the down time interesting.  The water was the perfect temperature and made for a relaxing float down river.  The next rapid was a class 6 (defined as “at risk of life and limb”).  
Class 6 rapid we walked around.  Ominous sky in background. 

 They don’t allow the boats to go down this particular one for obvious reasons.  So we disembarked and walked around it and caught the last 100 meters of the whitewater. 

Walking around the class 6.
Flipped again and carried on.   Just as we are breaking for a leisurely lunch drifting down the Nile, a huge storm rolls in.  Lighting, thunder, driving rain.  We got it all.  The last two hours of the trip were in a torrential downpour. It added so much to the experience.  What a blast.  We jumped into the water to keep warm and tried to move around a bit.  We all agreed, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.  I felt like we were on Survivor or making a cameo appearance in the movie Castaway.  The last four rapids after lunch were just as, if not more, intense as the first half.  We flipped on three of four and lost one member on the only one everyone didn’t go overboard on.  For some reason, class 3 rapids were the death of us.  Writing this now, I realize words cant describe how much fun the afternoon was.  Words do not do it justice. 

We ended our rafting adventure with a barbeque and a few beers.  We jumped onboard the trucks and headed home. 

Now, this would be a story in and of itself.  It’s not every day that you get to raft down the Nile.  Remember that torrential down pour? Well we neglected to remember that our way home was all dirt roads.  We didn’t make it more than 30 yards before we came to a stop.  We find out that one of the other rafting tour trucks is stuck up ahead.  So myself and a few other guys jump out and try to help push the truck back on the road so we can get through.  Not Happening.  About 30 of us are pushing trying to get this truck moving to no avail.  In fact, it was only made worse when the truck carrying 6 huge inflatable rafts went into the ditch and came within inches of taking half the pushers with it.  I could barely walk in this crap, let alone get a 2 ton truck moving through.  Not to mention the 6 other vehicles that would also need to pass.
Truck after truck after truck got stuck.  Then when we finally got one bus out and on its way, it got stuck a mile later without half the pushers it needed to get out the first time.  After about 1.5 hours of lollygagging  and getting covered in mud, we called it quits and started walking toward town.  Unfortunately, “town” is 25 miles away.  So we decided to walk to a major (see paved) road where we might grab a taxi (mutatu – remember those things from the earlier post?).  We must have walked 3-4 miles, barefoot.  We were stepping through mud, rocks, sugar cane, cow pies.  I was calf deep in some liquid mud combo that I decided I would be better off not knowing what it was or how long it had been there.  Did I mention it was now getting dark?  We walked through a small, poor village at dusk and you would have thought we were aliens.  The children were scared to death of me. Sure, they would say “How-are-you-I-am-fine” but when I reached out my hand to say hello they scattered and hid behind huts, trees or each other.  One brave kid shook my hand but went away screaming when he touched my skin.  We must have been quite the site, group of 7 mzungus rolling through the poor rural villages in Uganda at night.  Why do I not have awesome photos of this event?  Because, I left everything at the campsite.  Everything.  No dry clothes, no flash light, no camera, no cash, no passport, no cell, no proof that I am in the country legally.  I have nothing and have no idea where I am.  I always have a knife, my compass and flashlight in my backpack just in case of situations like this when I am out exploring.  But nooo not this time. Thankfully the South Benders stuck together and we eventually found our way onto a bus that the tour guides got a hold of.  

We went back through that same village we had passed an hour earlier.  Now the place had really come alive, people put up shops with candlelight.  The word must have gotten out that the mzungus were in town.  Our bus was stopped by some villagers and they would not let us pass.  The rafting guides got out and ‘discussed’ with them what the problem was.  Now we had a crowd gathering around the bus looking at all the mzungus covered in mud and cow poo.  The crowd got closer and closer.  I was only thinking of what could happen next.  I have to say that this was the first point in Africa which I felt unsafe.  Tensions eased, mainly by the driver slowly rolling through the crowd and us rolling up windows and closing the door. We picked up locals to navigate us through the back roads that were still passable in order to reach the main road and get back to Jinja.  One wrong turn and the discovery that the reverse did not work on this particular bus added a bit of spice to the night when we had to yet again push our mode of transport back onto the appropriate pathway.  So we had been expecting to get back to camp around 5ish.  Final arrival, 10:45pm.  The free beer at the campsite never tasted so good.  So we had a good time partying that night after a shower and bathroom break since we had gone nearly 6 hours without facilities or drinking water and walking at least a 5k.  The bugs, as you can imagine, were terrible.  I can only guess the amount of malaria exposure we had during our walking tour of rural Uganda.  Not to mention the healthy mixture caked to my feet. It got to the point where we didn’t even care what we were stepping in. Poo, mud, dirt, rocks.  No worries mate, happy days. Right?
Nile Special:  "You've Earned It" is their tagline. 

So that was quite the adventure.  What could top that?  O maybe jumping off a platform 320 feet above the Nile.  (Sorry Mom, I’ll “try” to make better decisions). Nile High Bungee Jumping Co.  here we come. 
What better way to commemorate near death experiences than with another terrifying adventure.  It was really to the point where I had to say “How can I not?” Truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.  So me, Ryan, Darren and 2 of the 5 SMC girls made the plunge, Ryan literally did since he touched the water on the way down. 
The 5 South Bend bungee jumpers

I hate to admit it but I think I was the most scared of the group.  I’ve never been afraid of heights but this made me nervous.  My legs were shaking, mouth completely dry, heart was racing out of control.  Then getting my final instructions, stepping to the platform, toes hanging over the edge, looking straight ahead (no way was I looking down) then 3…..2……1…..Jump.  Forward and outward like I was going to belly flop 320 feet below.  The first time I saw the water below, a really strange thing happened.  I wasn’t nervous, I didn’t have a care in the world. I didn’t matter if the cord was going to work or not.  I was completely at peace.  For those few seconds, I was completely and utterly free.  It was a crazy sensation.  Closer and closer to the water. YOINK! Back up.  Whew.  Then I just twisted and turned, cheesed for the camera and got lowered into the waiting boat.   
I have a video, but cannot upload it due to size.  Ill try when internet is working better.  Should be getting some other pics later this week. 

What a rush!  It was a feeling I have never had before.  After I got out of the raft, I shot up 300'+ of stairs like it was nothing.  I have never been so fired up like I was after the jump.  My heart rate and breathing didn’t get close to normal until maybe 10-15 minutes afterward. 
We dropped the St Mary’s girls off in town and started our 5 hour journey back home.  What a weekend.   

Thankfully, I’ll have the memories forever in my mind because rereading this post doesn’t do it justice.  Hopefully you got a small taste of what one of the greatest adventures I have ever done was like.

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