Riding the Rapids – The White Waters of the Nile

Foaming water in my eyes, my ears, my nose.  Clinging to a paddle that keeps hitting me in the face as I’m spun around and around.  My lungs are bursting as I try to get my head above water, succeeding for a second before the swirling waters claim me again and I no longer know which way is up.  I feel like an odd sock in a washing machine.  Finally, my head breaks the surface in a calmer stretch of water and I’m able to breathe deeply, regain some composure, push back the helmet that has fallen half over my eyes, and scan the vicinity for the boat I’m supposed to be in.   Yes, I chose to do this – I’m white water rafting on the Nile.

Ready to begin rafting

The previous evening I had arrived, with three friends, in Kampala, Uganda after a thirteen hour bus ride from Nairobi.  We were then collected, by Adrift – the company who would be organising our experience, and driven to Jinja.  Before we knew it, we were kitted out in helmets and buoyancy aids, assigned to a boat and a guide, and ready to begin our ‘training’.

‘Training’ basically involved learning how to paddle, where to sit in both the rapids and the calms, and of course what to do when the churning waters became too much and the boat capsized.  We practised how to get back into the boat (something that requires good upper body strength!) and how to reach the surface if trapped under the boat.  We had a non-swimmer in our group who was initially very daunted by the idea of being thrown into wild waters, but with plenty of reassurance from our guide she was soon feeling confident.

Time to encounter those rapids

Soon it was time to begin our 22km journey down the longest river in the world.  On the way, we would encounter Class III, IV, and V rapids, and a number of ‘small’ waterfalls.

In fact, it was one of these waterfalls that we hit first and turned out to be a great way to overcome those lingering fears and test our bravery.  Paddling hard to the point where the water seemed to just fall off the edge of the world was somewhat daunting.  But with little time to think, we shot over the edge and went into freefall before hitting the water again with a jolt after a drop of around 6 metres.

Can white water rafting be relaxing?

The unique geography of this stretch of the Nile makes it ideal for white water rafting.  There are many rapids (and some very impressive ones) but also long stretches of calm water between.  In these calm sections we would leap into the warm waters, lie back, and float downstream alongside the boat.  Being in the water also provided relief from the burning sun – whilst our skin was still rapidly turning somewhat red, the water made it feel deceptively comfortable.  With nothing to fear (crocodiles don’t inhabit the more turbulent stretches of the Nile) it was wonderful to be in the warm water, just drifting and enjoying the scenery.

Of course, there was never too much time to laze around before clambering back into the boat to tackle the next section of white water.  And our first capsize didn’t take long to come…

The exhilaration of capsize

There’s nothing quite like the hit of adrenaline when you realise that there’s no way your trusty inflatable raft is going to stay the right way up.  There’s a frantic moment when you almost believe you can ‘save yourself’ and you cling to the side of the raft  as if you can will it not to topple.  Then, as the angle goes past the vertical, you give in to the inevitable and plunge into the furious, swirling, churning white water.

As your head is forced under and you lose all sense of direction (and sanity) the prevailing instincts are to find some air and to hold on to your paddle.  You kick for the surface but the water doesn’t want to let you go quite that easily.  Maybe you break the surface for a second, enough to grab a quick breath, and then you’re back underwater and the swirling currents are throwing you around like a cat plays with its prey.

Eventually, inevitably, the current carries you downriver, out of the chaos of the rapid, and into calmer waters.  Finally you can kick to the surface and fill your screaming lungs with delicious fresh air.  All that faces you now is the challenge of locating your treacherous raft, righting it, and clambering back aboard to continue on down the river to the next rapid where it may all start over again.

A well organised day

Included in this full day, 22km trip down the Nile is an amazing buffet lunch provided at a scenic spot high above the river (actually quite a climb on legs shaky from a morning riding rapids).  Then it’s back down to the rafts to continue on the journey, with even more stretches of white water that bring your heart into your mouth as you spot them up ahead and can’t quite believe that you’re going to make it safely to other side.

At the end of this exhilarating day, with adrenalin coursing through my veins, the friendly team were waiting with a minibus to drive us all to our accommodation for the night – the Jinja Adrift River Base.

Jinja Adrift River Base

The River Base proved the perfect place to chill out after an amazing day.

I had chosen accommodation in the dorm rooms – 6-9 people in 3-tier bunks complete with the requisite mosquito nets.  Showers are provided in a separate block and were extremely welcome as they proved the only hot shower I got in two months!

River Base is a vibrant place to spend some time.  Popular with backpackers from all over the world, there’s a distinctly international vibe.  Socialising centres around the bar, hanging on the edge of the cliff with the most amazing views of the Nile.  The evenings are filled with music, limbo dancing, lots of laughter, and plenty of decently priced alcohol.

The food on offer is also pretty good although some combinations may surprise.  It’s the first time I’ve ever had avocado on a pizza!  And, as an English girl with fish and chips pretty much our national dish, it was a surprise to see ‘fish and chips’ being served as a whole grilled fish rather than the battered fried fillets I’m used to at home.

Watching the sunset

Something else you can’t miss at the River Base is the opportunity to watch the sun set over the Nile.  They say that the sunsets in Africa are the best in the world.  Well, I’ve not seen the sun set in every country but I’m willing to bet the saying isn’t far wrong.

Standing at a wooden rail with nothing but the sky before me and the river below, I was treated to a spectacular performance as the sun dipped below the horizon and filled the sky with vibrant colours that were reflected and intensified in the water.  It was one of those moments when, with the sunset before me and the laughter of new friends behind, I could happily have stayed forever.

Have I inspired you?  Are you now dreaming of your own adventure on the Nile?
Why not add ‘rafting the Nile’ to your bucket list (and your Pinterest board)?!

Thanks must go to Adrift for this amazing experience, for taking some great photos on the day, and also for allowing me to use a couple of their own images of River Base. You can find out more about Adrift (and maybe book your own adventure?) here.

NB: this experience was as a paying client in October 2013 and I have no connection with Adrift.

22 comments

    1. Everybody asks about the crocs! I think Nile crocodiles are so well known that people assume they’re everywhere. But they don’t like white water – guess it’s not a very relaxing habitat(!) so this area is safe.

  1. I went white water rafting in Peru and it was great fun. I would love to do it again.
    The River Base sounds like a great place to stay and most importantly the great priced on a beer really sells it to me. I am looking forward to exporing Africa more at some point so I’ve pinned it. Thanks for a great post full of info.

    1. If you want a REALLY cheap beer, how about a free one?? River Base also hosts the site for a bungee jump over the river – Touch the source of the Nile. If you jump, you get a free beer afterwards!

  2. Good you clarified about the crocs! Now maybe I can add White Water rafting on the Nile to my bucket list. I love your description of going under. I’ve gone under in a Kayak, but in calmer waters. This sounds so much more exhilarating.

  3. Hehe love the sunset but I would be too terrified to try rafting. I want to, I really do. But I am actually afraid because I am not a great swimmer. It sounds like you had the time of your life and I wish one day I will be brave enough to try this myself. Uganda sounds like a dream either way though.

    1. As I mentioned, there was a girl in our group who couldn’t swim at all. She ended up having an absolutely fantastic day. The guide was brilliant and made her feel really at ease. Obviously the buoyancy aid means you’ll always pop to the surface once the water calms down. And the rest of us in the raft knew she was nervous so we made sure we looked out for her. Give it a go (maybe with a couple of ‘swimmer’ friends you trust) and I bet you’ll love it.

  4. What an adventure! A 6 meter drop sounds terrifying, but glad that there were no crocs around! I’d love to explore more of the African continent and have heard great things about Uganda!

  5. Sounds like a totally memorable experience! I’ve never been white water rafting before and will definitely need to bulk up on my upper body strength! I’m glad you had a relaxing place to chill after and take a hot shower!

    1. Regarding upper body strength, you don’t really need a whole lot for the general rafting (helps that there are plenty of people to paddle!) so it’s just getting back in the raft really. I did struggle but the guide was always there to help by pulling on the shoulders of my buoyancy aid.

  6. Sounds amazing but terrifying! One of my fears is drowning so I’m not sure if I could do it! It would be definitely worth trying though based on how great of an experience you had!

  7. I haven’t ever been white water rafting but I would love to give it a try someday, although I’m sure I would be terrified! I don’t like the water much as (confession time!) I’m not a very strong swimmer and the water gets into my contact lenses! But this looks like an amazing place to go rafting. That sunset is gorgeous!

  8. This looks amazing! I love white water rafting and this looks like something I would do in a heartbeat! Also, glad you clarified on the crocs! I wouldn’t want to imagine them lurking underneath the waters…

  9. I’ve always wanted to go white water rafting. I had no idea you could do it on the Nile though. It must’ve been so nice to have a chance to relax and enjoy the sunset at the end of the day.

  10. Never tried white water rafting before and from your great writing it does feel like an amazing but dangerous experience! The accommodation sounds nice though 🙂

    1. It’s not as dangerous as it sounds! Doing it with a reputable company like Adrift ensures that they have all the safety in place. We had kayakers alongside who could quickly pick people up if they were struggling in the water. And the guide keeps an eye on things. Plus you’ve got your buoyancy aid and a helmet. I think part of the thrill comes from that feeling that you’re in danger. And yet, deep down, you know that you’re actually really safe.

  11. I had no idea you could white water raft on the Nile! I really appreciated your notes on the Nile crocodiles because that would have been my first concern. Thanks so much for sharing your adventure!

  12. I love your style of writing! I was interested by this whole post, which, shamefully, doesn’t happen very often. It sounds like an incredible experience, albeit one I’m hesitant to have hahaha!

    1. Thank you so much for your compliments! I really enjoyed writing this one. Regarding your hesitation, I think that’s what gives these activities a buzz – throwing yourself into something that, to any extent, scares you!

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