Rafting The White Nile

With the sprawl and dusty of Kampala fading in my rearview I navigate Doc around bicycles, pedestrians, cows, donkeys, trucks, and throat-clogging and eye-burning puffs of diesel smoke until coming to the bridge that crosses the Mighty Nile where the mighty river sources its water and Lake Victoria. I’ve made it from the bottom to the top of the largest African lake. And before crossing into Kenya there is one thing I’ve long dreamt of doing: white water rafting the ferocious Nile.

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Passing the Nelson Mandela Stadium, I leave the noise and dirt of Kampala behind and head for the River Nile.

Up a rocky and dusty path I find my way to Nile River Explorers Camp and the Nile Porch tent camp. It’s a bit confusing finding my way in but a helpful local who watched me u-turn and ride by the unmarked entrance three times finally flagged me down and ushered me through the guarded gate. Sitting on a bluff above one of the class-5 rapids at Bujagali Falls I am offered a sweet tent complete with and outdoor bathroom and shower overlooking the legendary river. While the sun set over the river and I dined on local river fish, I negotiated a day trip that would take me 30km (about 18 miles) down the river, through five or six grade-5 rapids and a host of fours, threes, twos and a couple “ones” thrown in.”

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Some Nile River seafood, a Nile Special cold beer and scenic Nile sunset provided me with my “last” meal before heading down the Nile.

Nile River Explorers uses 8-man inflatable rafts which includes the guide and “captain”. My group consisted of a two American missionaries, an elderly Canadian woman and a couple from Australia. The two missionairies opted for a half-day river ride and therefore would be dropped riverside in the early afternoon. We went through the normal initiation and training exercises, forcibly causing our raft to capsize and mimicking getting stuck under the thing. With everyone trained to keep their hands on the paddle ends we headed for our first class-5 rapid which all of us, save the Aussie chick, managed well. The girl somehow popped out of the raft, but a team of kayakers provided her with the support and eventually got her back to the boat. After a few more sets of rapids we stopped, jumped into the mighty Nile and floated down river while the support group sliced fresh pineapple and served us a snack of biscuits and fruit. Losing the missionairies we continued through rapid after rapid the rest of the day.

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My tent overlooking the bluffs above the River Nile.

Of the five groups in the same number of rafts on the Nile this day, we were the only group to safely raft through a tough class-5 that dumped us over a a nearly 5-meter high waterfall. Most all were ejected from their rafts while one group taking a safe approach got stuck on a rock and required a tedious rescue procedure to move everyone down the waterfall where they were reunined with the raft a few meters down river. They never exeperienced the thrill of the drop.

But it was the last rapid of the day that saw this weary traveler hanging on for life — literally. The rapid is actually a class-6 white water that after a 100 meters or so softens to a class-5. Too dangerous to ride the class-6, we must carry our rafts around the rapid by land and then relaunch the boats directly into the class-5. Told that there is a 50-50 chance that the boat will capsize we are offered the opportunity to take the easy way, or to go for it. At the head of the boat and the self-appointed ring-leader, I convince our group to “go for it”. And when we do we run directly into a wall of water nearly twice as high as the boat. At this first pounding, our boat is sent straight up and frighteningly vertical at which point all of the passengers are ejected from the boat, except the captain in the rear and me in the front. Hanging on we brace for the second wall of water which sends us up again and then like the fingers of giant, flips our boat and then spins it around. Still in the boat when it’s tossed, the swirling of the white water spins the little toy upside down while my foot is planted on the floor. This twisting motion sends jolts through my knee as I got under the rushing water. I lost count after nearly 7 seconds wondering when I’d surface. In training they said you’d never be under more than 5 seconds. I’d broken that record or forgot how to count. I’m not sure. But then I popped up. I could spot several rafts on the side of the river as I was whisking downstream. Screaming and yelling and paddles were waved at me. Frantically I began making for the shore and in a few seconds was muscling into the safe haven of another raft.

“Wow,” one of the girls in the raft exclaimed as I caught my breath, “that looked scary but amazing,” I was grabbing my knee as the throbbing absorbed my thoughts.

Later that night, after a barbeque and beers with the entire group that rafted, we watched the video of what everyone called the “coolest crash of the day.” It must’ve been because the video editor used it no less than five times in the short video of our days raft trip. There you can see me holding on through the first massive wave and then my little head eventually bopping in the white water.

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Five us in the raft attack the last class-5 of the day. On the far right above you can see me holding on but keeping my head up.
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We hit the first low wave sideways, I’m still holding on and we come smashing down witheveryone still on board.
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Then we get blindsided as we go into a deep cavity before getting slammed by the next wave. Everyone gets thrown out of the boat but both the captain and me hang on and ready to brave the next one.

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Then we get tossed and spun.

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I’m under the raft until it spins me around causing an excellent case of twisting ye olde knee.
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The boat drifts. Where’s Allan? Then the little helmeted head pokes up and I survive. But my knee lives to tell a different story. Ouch.

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At the post rafting BBQ and video world premier with my Aussie raft-mates!

I slammed an 800mg ibupropen before bed, and eager to hit the road at the crack of dawn, I watched the sunrise over the nile to a cocktail of warm water and another 800mg of pain relief. The knee was badly swollen. Rubbing my fingers around it, I felt a gooey mass than can only be described as jello under my skin. I was really worried. The knee hurt, despite the pain killer, and the damage was to the all important left leg — the one that must bear the weight when getting off the side stand and when shifting. It’d be a long day today including a border crossing with two immigration and customs stops. I’d be riding through what has been described as the war-torn northwest section of Kenya — where most of the violence and killing occured after the ill-fated post-election violence that had plagued Kenya until just a couple weeks ago when the opposition party agreed to a coalition government. Not sure if the populace was comfortable with the plan, I knew that I HAD to be in Nairobi prior to nightfall. Tough surroundings and an appointment first thing in the morning at BMW. I had to make it.

And the day would take me through some of the toughest roads in Kenya. All of this with a wobbly and pain-ridden knee.

Ah. But the White Nile? The mighty White Nile! I rafted it. But today I pay my penance.

Yes! We Have No Bananas – Taking the Banana Route to Kampala

After a tranquil stay on Lake Bunyonyi I made my way to the Uganda capital, Kampala, crossing the equator for the second time during my journey. But unlike Ecuador’s equatorial monument, the Ugandan version was more modest — and more interesting. Here at the equator in Uganda there were three large funnels which emptied into larger containers. One on both the north and south side of the equator and one directly on the equator. Pouring water into each and placing a small daisy in the water, I was finally convinced that the water does drain counter clockwise below the equator; clockwise above the equator and on the equator it simply goes straight down. Moving the funnels closer and further away, it amazed me to watch the change of speed as the daisy spun slower further away and faster closer to the equator.

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It’s true folks. I saw it with my own two eyes.

Equally interesting was the banana activity I witnessed nearly the entire three-hundred miles of road I traveled. Bananas everywhere. From Ntungamo to Mbarara to Lyontonde. And onward to Masaka. Bananas stacked over the rear wheels of biccyles and motorcycles as if they were banana panniers. People carried them on tops of their heads. Massive trucks carried tons, often the weight perhaps a bit much for the aging iron as I spotted no less than a dozen trucks broken down – yet full of bananas – only soon to be continuing their banana journey. This part of Uganda is green, green and green. Yes, even the bananas in their transport state are green. Banana trees stretch for miles in the disance. No, Uganda is even in the top 5 banana producers. Countries like India, China and Ecuador perhaps are the top three. But in Uganda, bananas seem more than business. In a country where the average annual consumption of bananas per capital is 243kg, you mustn’t underestimate its important and a vital and staple food. Some lucky villagers have bananas growing on trees in their front yards. I notice young boys hoisting up the trees and wielding large knives from goatskin sheaths which they use to cut the massive clumps of fruit from the tree.

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Yes. It’s true. Water does drain the opposite direction below the equator. I saw it.

I thought of morning cereal, like Corn Flakes with freshly cut slices of banana and cold milk. A banana daquiri sure was sounding good. Hell, simply a banana smoothie. I thought of all the fried bananas I ate the last time I traveled through the Indonesian Archipelago. And how good would banana flambé be right now? But perhaps like a monkee or a gorilla, I just would like to stop and pull a fresh banana off a tree, peel the skin and bite it. Yummy. Yes. I’m in banana country. And the Ugandanas heere are serious about bananas. Judging from the activity on just this ONE day, I imagine this is life. Every day. Don’t know if I will ever look at a banana the same way. Sure. I’ve seen banana plantations. Lots on this trip. But by far this is the most dense and industrious movement of bananas I’ve ever seen. Bar none.

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This Long Horned beauty will certainly give any Texan a bit of horn envy.

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But I regress.

At a petrol stop in Masaka on Lake Victoria, I immediately attracted the usual gawkers and onlookers while the petrol station attendeants futilely attempted to whisk them away. Explaining that there are so many poor people in Uganda who cannot afford standard bus, taxi or mini-bus transport that ad-hoc transportation in the back of trucks, while dangerous and illegal in westernized countries, is an important mode of transport for people going from villages to the market and back. I had expressed interest and worry while explaining this type of transport is illegal in the USA. Even more, while spotting no less than five or six motorcycles carrying three or four people — all helmetless — I sadly expressed to my gas attendents that safety is not a concern in Uganda. Although, HIV/Aids infection rates are perhaps the lowest in Uganda due to its government’s tenacity in education early on and before Aids Awarness became in vogue in Africa. I only hope that traffic and litter education will reach the government docket sooner rather than later.

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No helmets, no laws, no rules. No brains.

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Justine from Kampala guided me to the Equatoria Hotel where slow wireless internet access and secure parking awaited me.

Traffic snarled on the two lane road heading into Kampala. A massive Mosque dominated the skyline of my approach so I headed for it. Later I learned that the Mosque has yet to be opened, and that sometime the following week its patron, Muammar al-Gaddafi, the Libyan president, would be in Kampala to make the dedication and officially open the Islamic fortress. But it was a hotel nearby the mosque and the lovely women working there who finally guided me into Kampala. I would have stayed at their hotel but they didn’t offer internet. And any time I ride into an African capital city, I hope to find a place with an internet connection so I may catch up on these posts, email and business back home.

Things Uganda and/or Rwanda and/or Africa.

Paint is expensive. Construction takes time. Materials are hard to come by. Roads are bad. Trucks are slow and most deteriorating and bad on fuel economy and even worse for the environment. Some towns, rather most towns in Africa look like they were started witha good idea but then left to the whim of some mutated virus — and I’m not talking organic. Piles of sand, stone, bricks, metal, rebar line the fronts of businesses. Hobbled together corrugated metal serves sometimes as roofing and other times as siding — or even a flimsy door. Sometimes entire buildings are feebly rivited together corrugated atrocities. But for most people, this is all they know. Nobody thinks twice about that pile of sand that’s been sitting on the side of the road for 3 months. Someone was going to mix concrete I guess. For what? The only asphalt can be found on main roads. Concrete can serve as foundation for some of these buildings. But they better get going before the rain season. That’s when the whole town turns into a muddy reminder of why things can’t and don’t get done in Africa.

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After leaving Bunyoni, I encountered my budding friends and future lawyer and president. Gracing them with WorldRider stickers they promised to email me!

Enter mobile or cellular phone companies. In some countries there are two or three carriers. They compete for business. But what’s funny is that each company will construct a cellular tower with all the necessary equipment across the road from each other. There’s no sharing. So there’s costly redundancy. Meanwhile, nobody has laid the bricks for the new casket shop down on main street. But caskets are still selling like hot cakes. Wtih AIDS, the business of death is guaranteed. Sadly.

So if you’re a shop owner investment in anything but inventory is never paramount. Move product, collect shillings, pounds, dollars, rand, qwacha or whatever currency they’re comfortable with. But branding? Image? Not a concern. No need to invest in anything.

But then there’s a way to make your down town look a little brighter. A little cleaner. Our spendthrift mobile carriers will come to the rescue. Rolling past some towns it’s amazing how much money the cellular companies put into branding. From outdoor (billboards), banners hung across streets, indpendent distributors hawking scratch off recharge cards at major interesections dressed in colorful smocks to complete retail facades painted in the cellular carriers hard to miss brand color. Two major carriers operate this way in much of East Africa: MTN (yellow) and CelTel (red/orange). And in Uganda they are out in full force. In Mexico, I remember that it was the beer companies who paid for the paint on buildings and in many places the school playgrounds. I guess in Africa’s case, the cell companies are a better bet!IMG_7699_2.jpg

Cellular carriers are happy to provide paint for willing retailers

Oh while I’m on these random thoughts, it’s interesting to note that in both Latin America and Africa the use of cones or emergency road signs is practically non-existent. And most roads are simply two-lane. So if your vehicle breaks down you must take up a little gardening in order to provide some early warning to oncoming traffic. So it’s not uncomoon to see tree branches or even logs or piles of leaves in the middle of the road. Sometimes they’re left over from a previous accident or breakdown, othertimes you better watch it.

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No orange cones or warning beacons in high-vis yellow or orange! Just some tree branches and leaves. Be careful. That big green truck is stopped and stuck.

You Gotta Uganda!

With the gorillas still hanging in the trees clinging to the steep volcanoes behind me, I made my way to the Uganda border. It’s this last stretch of 100km that hasn’t seen interntational support funds — for the road at least. The road from Kigali to Katuna in Uganda ranks up there with one of the worst pot-holed roads of the journey. But the scenery? Stunning. Riding through a valley with traditional villages, rondavel homes and terraced and sculpted fields of rice, corn, tea and coffee.

The scenery continued and got better after making yet another border crossing into the Republic of Uganda. Unlike Rwanda where a VISA was granted with no fee, Rwanda took me for fifty bucks. Plus about twenty bucks for road taxes. So feeling $70 lighter I made my way to the peaceful hamlet of Lake Bunyoni passing through the small town of Kabale which is surrounded by a number of small lakes where terraced hills tumble steep to the water and small camps, lodges and bungalows dot the shores and hills. I chose Lake Bunyonyi about 10km outside of town up and down steep roads.

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The lush green and misty cloud covered hills made exiting Rwanda and entering Uganda a cool and atmospheric feeling.

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It’s hard to take time alone on just about any road in Africa.

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No helmet but with a delivery to make. Not sure I’d take the job!

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The aid flows into Rwanda and Uganda. Convoys of trucks carrying full-size containers proudly exhibited the UN moniker.

Stopping in town to take advantage of the Standard Bank ATM machine, as usual I was nearly accosted by vendors selling newspapers, cellular pre-paid “top-up” cards, fruit and more. But it was two young girls that really ushered my Ugandan indoctrination. Both carrying woven bamboo baskets atop their heads and about 10 years old, we chatted briefly roadside by the ATM. IMG_7683.jpg

Welcome to Uganda!

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Future lawyer and president here in Uganda.

“Where you from,” the less shy girl with her head neatly shaved and shining with small beads of sweat so delicately innocent in the late afternoon sun. “Where are you going?” Before I could answer the shy girl asked if I w \as hungry, pointing to her tangerines. They told me that they learned English in school and then the forward girl offered, “I want to be a lawyer.”

“And I want to be president,” the shy girl with an extra bout of confidence piped.

For perhaps first time in my journey through Latin America, Brazil and Africa have I sensed a desire to exceed and be someone in such young people. Often I’ve hypothesized one major problem with many impoverished people from cultures different than my own is the lack of perceived opportunity by its citizens. You’re raised by a goat hereder, you will be a goat herder and you will rear goat herders — a perceived preordained existence with no other future. Yet in the US and other westernized cultures we are instilled with the concept of fulfilling our potential and dreaming to be something. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s in our psyche but absent in those of many other cultures. Yet on this dusty Ugandan street these two girls capture my heart and share their dreams with me. And it’s not a ploy to sell tangerines. But I couldn’t resist. I bought some fruit from each and shared it with an elderly woman walking down the street and with the boy selling newspapers who guided me to the turn off to Lake Bunyonyi.

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The road to Bunyoni hugs the mountainside, is badly rutted and now in the rainy season always a bit dicey. But it didn’t rain until the morning I left and therefore I avoided any otentially muddy pitfall.

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Pictures just can’t capture the magic of one of Uganda’s most magical lakes in a region studden with dozens.

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At the Bunyonyi Overland Camp I met Tom from Canada who’d been on a group trip with about 20 bicyclists gearing to complete the Cairo to Cape Town overland journey. With the trip booked and underway when the crises in Kenya kicked in, the itinerary and route changed whereby offering the riders a two-week hiatus before reconvening in Dar es Salaam. Tom and another rider opted to go to Uganda and Rwanda while others went straight to Tanzania. After seeing my photos of my Rwanda mountain gorilla experience, Tom was making plans to head to Volcano National Park. An F650GS owner himself, he confided that later in the year he and a buddy are planning a motorcycle journey to Baja in Mexico. Perhaps I’ll see him passing through after I return to Southern California later this year.