I was really nervous about going to Africa. Not only had I heard tales of gigantic whitewater, crocodiles, hippos, poisonous snakes, spiders and malaria from paddlers, but there is also the mass media that features stories of serious illnesses, war, poverty and violence in Africa. Africa was unknown territory to me, and I was arriving a few days earlier than the rest of the group which made me even more nervous. While stepping off the plane in Entebbe, Uganda, I found myself asking: “Am I crazy?”
The tropical heat was an indication that I wasn’t. When I left Montreal it was -38 degrees Celsius, and there is something very sane about leaving that kind of weather behind! As I exited the baggage claim area with my boat and gear, I saw a young black man with a great smile heading towards me. “Anna?” he asked. He held out his hand and introduced himself as Henry. Henry is a raft guide and safety kayaker for Nile River Explorers (NRE), the rafting company where we were staying. My nervousness dissipated immediately with Henry’s smile and friendliness. Suddenly I felt much better and relaxed into the best paddling trip I have ever taken!
The two and a half hour drive to the Nile River Explorers camp was very exciting, but we managed to get there in one piece around 11 pm. I had learned some interesting facts about Uganda from Henry and his brother on the way, including the fact that there are over 57 different dialects in the country! The camp was quiet when we arrived – a scenario that I soon realized was VERY unusual.
When I went looking for people to paddle with the next morning, I realized that I was in the midst of a British invasion! There were about 15 paddlers from the UK that had arranged a shuttle for the “Day 2” section. I thought that maybe paddling would be the best remedy for my jetlag. I wasn’t disappointed! We all piled into the back of a truck with our boats and gear. The entire drive was over rough, red dirt roads.
The number of people that live in rural areas was striking. As we drove by, groups of kids would come running up to the edge of the road, jumping up and down, waving and yelling muzungu, muzungu!! (the Swahili word for white man, white man!) There were so many kids that by the end of the ride my arm hurts from waving at them!
The put-in to the “Day 2” section is at one of the biggest rapids I’ve ever seen called Itanda. It has 4 gigantic holes that you have to weave your way around. Not only is it a big, pushy rapid, but it’s also a rapid with a challenging line that is easy to mess up. The consequence is a really bag big water swim with lots of recirculation and down time. A lot of people have run it successfully, but it has sent some of the best known paddlers walking and swimming! I saw the line that first day, but day one off the plane was not the right time to run a major rapid.
There are no other big rapids on the “Day 2” section, but there are lots of surf waves! It’s pure surfing heaven with eddy service! The Nile Special, a wave named after a popular Ugandan beer, has become one of my favorite waves of all time. It’s a steep, fast wave with a foam pile. It’s best at lower levels when it has less foam and more green. It’s fabulous for doing all your favorite big air tricks! I played so hard that day that by the end, I thought I was going to hurt myself, but I did get rid of my jetlag!
The next few days I spent paddling with Greg Nicks, a really talented paddler and all-around great guy, and Helen, a veteran of the NZ freestyle team whom I had known from past World Championships. We surfed a wave just downstream from camp called Backwave. The feature is a lot like Push Button on the Ottawa. It should be called Batwave because there are thousands of fruit bats that live on the island across from it. One moment the sky is clear, and the next moment there are hundreds of fruit bats flying around. We also ran a few rapids downstream from camp.
The bulk of our group showed up a few days later. Jessie Stone, great paddler, MD and mastermind of this trip, Kristen Read, awesome paddler and world traveler, Elizabeth Hummer, TV producer from NYC, Antoine Vareille, videographer from Paris and Ben Sarazin, Photographer and Extracycle specialist from France. Alex Nicks, well known paddler and videographer, also made his way from Chile to Uganda, it just took him a few extra days.
The day after the crew arrived, we started on Jessie’s project to educate the local villagers on Malaria and Malaria prevention. Eventually Jessie wants to set up a bush clinic in the village to treat Malaria. Her project is what brought all of us to the Nile. There is almost a 100% infection rate for Malaria in the region so it’s a big problem that affects every family. We visited a local hospital during our stay where 80% of the children in the children’s ward had malaria. Jessie’s main focus was to spread the word about prevention, and encourage people to sleep under mosquito nets.
During the next 3 days we walked through the village of Kyabirwa (pronounced Chaibira), accompanied by our wonderful translator Jessica. Jessica grew up in Kyabirwa, and now lives in another village with her husband who is a Baptist Minister. Jessica is very passionate about trying to help her people lead healthier and more prosperous lives through education. Her smile and laugh are infectious! Jessie and Jessica did most of the talking, asking every family we visited questions about their experience with Malaria. How many in the family had suffered from malaria, what they knew about malaria, if they slept under mosquito nets, if not, then why and so on. Almost all of the families said that they couldn’t afford mosquito netting. Jessie also asked each family if they were interested in learning more about Malaria. All of them said yes.
The families we visited were friendly and welcoming. They made sure we all had places to sit and graciously invited us into their homes. Having the opportunity to visit with the local people and experience how they live is one of the things that made this trip so memorable. Since Kristen and I weren’t doing much except listening and observing, we eventually became more interested in the children that would gather around. The kids love the digital cameras because they can see themselves on the screens. We had a blast taking photos and playing with the kids. Ben and Antoine would sometimes play soccer with the kids when they weren’t shooting video or photos. The kids of Kyabirwa are inspiring because they are amazingly resourceful. They have very little, yet they are always smiling and ready to play. They make their soccer balls out of plastic bags and their toys out of the soles of old flip flops.
After three days of meeting with families, we set up three education sessions that were to be held at the Kyabirwa school/community center. But, first, Jessie put the rest of us through the Malaria education program. She taught us the ins and outs of Malaria, the types, how you contract them (Mrs. Anopholese Mosquito), how the parasite travels through your body, how it makes you sick…and so on. Jessie had posters with drawings on them that showed the path of the malaria parasite through the body. The posters were very useful teaching tools.
Our first education session was with the women’s co-op. About 45 women showed up to learn about Malaria. We held up the posters, Jessie explained them in English and Jessica translated the explanations into Lusoga, the local language. The women asked lots of really good questions and got riled up towards the end. They had a lot to say, especially when the topic changed from malaria to family planning. We stood back and watched as Jessica and the women of the co-op got into a debate about having too many children and how that affects their poverty cycle and hence their inability to afford preventative measures such as mosquito nets. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they were saying it loudly! Jessica kept us in the loop with occasional translations.
After the meeting we asked Jessica to ask the women if they felt that the session was educational. They all said yes. We were the first group to teach them about malaria, and educational resources are almost non-existent. They thanked us and then proceeded with their lively discussion. The women in the village have the responsibility of the family, the home, and sometimes the work in the fields, but the men still control the money. The men also control how many children the women have. If the husband wants 12 children, they have 12 children. It seems beneficial for the women to come together in this way so that they can discuss issues that affect them and maybe find some solutions that work for them. We were stoked at how the meeting turned out.
The general education session we conducted the next day was also very well received. This time there were a number of men who asked a lot of the questions. One man told us that he had 30 children and that he couldn’t afford mosquito netting for his family. We asked him how much he spent on each child per year to treat malaria. He said 100 Ugandan Shillings per child (which is only the cost of Panadol, which is our equivalent to Tylenol, which doesn’t include other drugs like quinine, the hospital stay or the transportation costs). So, we explained that 100 x 30 = 30 000 (about $15 USD) Shillings while a double sized mosquito net costs 8000 (about $4 USD) Shillings. We were trying to convey the message that it would save them money in the long run to invest in preventative measures. I think they understood, but they don’t think in terms of investment. They deal with things as they happen. The people who attended the general meeting said that it was very beneficial and interesting.
Now don’t think that I had forgotten about kayaking! We were kayaking everyday after our meetings with the people of Kyabirwa. We would play at Backwave or run down to Silverback. The run to Silverback consists of 4 rapids and a couple of play waves. Bujagali Falls is the first rapid. It’s a big tongue that leads into a giant wave/hole that you punch through. You never quite know what’s going to happen when you hit it. Sometimes you don’t even get your hair wet, and other times you get trashed! Bujagali is a very popular rapid because there is a rafting company right on its shores. Tourists from the city come down to see the rapid and the Bujagali Swimmers. These are local guys that tie a giant, empty, plastic water container to their wrist and swim down the rapid. After their swim, they walk back up and the tourists give them money. They may be making more than pro kayakers!!
The next big rapid is called Total Ganga. It’s a massive wave train with one exceptionally big wave/hole called The G-Spot. The raft guides like to go into this one sideways… I loved running down the centre of the waves until the last day. The river gods were looking for a sacrifice on that day. I hit the guts of the G-Spot, got thrown upstream and trashed underwater. When I came up, my helmet was gone! I couldn’t believe it! It was pretty violent that time, but big and fun is mostly how I would describe both Total Ganga and Silverback. The entrance to Silverback is impressive: A steep, long green v into a giant wave train. You can’t help but feel giddy as you’re going up and down the waves! The most adrenaline inducing part of running down to Silverback isn’t the whitewater, but the shuttle ride back to camp! You ride on a moped called a boda-boda. You balance your kayak and paddle across your lap and hold on! This is the part you really need your helmet for!
Next we decided to take a few days to focus on kayaking and headed to The Hairy Lemon. The Hairy Lemon is a camp on a beautiful island just downstream from the Nile Special. It’s eco-friendly and run by a really nice Australian couple and their 1 yr old son. The island is host to a family of monkeys and some beautiful birds, and it’s only a 10 minute paddle up to the Nile Special. We spent two days going aerial and eating really good food. I was especially excited because I was figuring out the Helix! Jessie was throwing big air blunts and Kristen was nailing some nice blunts as well. Of course, when Alex wasn’t behind the camera, he was showing us why he is one of the best big water/big air paddlers out there! Greg would have done the same, but he had sustained minor injuries from a little boda-boda accident.
Our last education session was a children’s workshop. We played games such as “dodge-malaria,” which we had learned while volunteering an afternoon with a group called Right to Play (www.righttoplay.com). Right to Play is a non-profit organization that was founded by 3-time Olympic Speed Skating Gold medalist Johann Kaus. The organization teaches life skills in developing countries through sport and play. Their main slogan is “Live safe, Play safe.” Their volunteers use games such as “dodge-malaria” and “get immunized limbo” to teach kids about the prevention of widespread illnesses, including HIV/AIDS.
We provided every child with a few pieces of paper and some paints, and asked them to paint themselves sleeping under mosquito nets. Some of them were talented artists! The paints were non-toxic so we ended up with art all over our faces, arms and legs! I don’t think the children get to express themselves artistically very often, so it was a real treat for them. We also worked together to paint two banners representing malaria prevention. Needless to say, we were exhausted by the end!
Once Alex and I had ferried out to the middle, to the point of no return, I felt a calm confidence come over me. In an instant, I knew that I could and would make this line. I had heard horror stories of kayakers (including some that are very well known) swimming out of the Pencil Sharpener and the Cuban! Only one woman had attempted to run Itanda before me, and she swam out of the Pencil Sharpener. Now, there was no turning back. I was about to drop into one of the biggest and most challenging rapids in the world!
I followed Alex to the top of the first drop and headed down a gigantic tongue into a big curling wave. I went really deep at the bottom of the drop. “Stay forward and DON’T FLIP!” was my mantra through the rapid. When I surfaced, the giant curler that feeds into the Pencil Sharpener was before me. I paused a moment to make sure that I wouldn’t paddle into it, then started making my move to river right. As I passed the Pencil Sharpener, I could see the big lateral wave that I wanted to surf to help send me to the right. I hit the foam pile angled right and braced, again thinking “DON’T FLIP!” The wave surfed me to the right and I found myself above the Cuban, a monstrous wave/hole. I started paddling hard! When I saw that I was where I wanted to be, I faced upstream and caught the river right side of the Cuban. It was actually nice and soft to surf. I contemplated throwing a trick, but decided that I would rather just head down through the next two holes. I surfed off the Cuban and threaded between the Ashtray and the Bad Place, both big holes with big pits. I was super excited that I had run such a clean line! I paddled into shore with a huge smile on my face and gave Alex a big hug!
Running Itanda was a great way to end my White Nile experience. Everything about this trip was fantastic, the paddling, the wildlife, the people and the community service. It was the best paddling trip that I have ever taken, and I encourage kayakers to go!! The next phase of Jessie’s project is to set up a bush clinic for Kyabirwa. She will need volunteers and I am planning to be there to help her out and do more incredible paddling!