“Tha’s noo good enoof!” Davey yelled in his thick Scottich accent. “When a’ say Hard, ya gotta gi’ me ever’thing! Again!!” He was clearly angry, but we could barely hear him over the massive din that even angrier Mother Nature was making only a few feet away.
We were waist deep, we six Secret Compass team members, in the brown water of the White Nile, hauling a 14-foot inflatable raft up onto the rocky bank, a couple of feet at a time. Our sin which had earned the guide Davey’s wrath was to not paddle hard enough into the centre of the great boiling whitewater rapid behind us. This was a whitewater swimming exercise, and we had failed by staying in the raft and not flipping. With the raft now completely out of the water on the bank, we hauled it first to shoulder, and then balanced it on our heads as we portaged it back up to a small pool above the rapid. We followed the two little Ugandan boys who had suddenly become our guides, grunting and swearing as we maneuvered the six-foot-wide raft along the two-foot-wide path in the jungle. Relaunching in the pool, Davey and his boss Pete Meredith steadied it and we filed cautiously across to climb back in and try again. One of the boys, the mute one, made a horizontal waving motion with his hand. I was in the middle of the pool. “I think he says there’s a snake here.” I said. Davey peered up into the tree we were under. “Aye! There .. see .. There!” He pointed at something that wasn’t a branch. “I’s an African black coobra. Ge’ in tha raft.” This rapid, our nemesis, was called Bad Place. To get to it we had had to negotiate Vengence, Hypoxia and about a dozen other cheerily-named monstrosities. And an African cobra was at that moment the least of our worries.
There is no way this can be your best day ever. This was the final exercise of our last day of whitewater training. The 20km-or-so stretch of the Nile downstream from Jinja on the north end of Lake Victoria is a whitewater lover’s dream, famous and rightly so. It is also the best chance we had of simulating what we were about to attempt over the next few days – to be the first non-professional team to raft the east-to-west section of whitewater Nile between Karuma and Murchison Falls. Only about 25 rafters have ever seen this stretch. Four thousand people have stood on top of Everest. We had learned about reading the features of a rapid, so we knew a happy hole from a sad one; what to do in the event of a crocodile or hippo attack; how to deal with catastrophic bleeding and severe crush injuries (in case we weren’t very good at dealing with croc or hippo attacks); how to swim in rapids and right an upturned raft; and, only briefly, how to paddle one. Along with our new-found skills and knowledge came a new-found fear of what it was we would be heading into in only a few day’s time. When asked why this section had been rafted so few times before, Pete’s answer was succinct: “Because it’s dangerous.”
The 80km long Karuma-Murchison stretch lies in north-west Uganda, on the section of the river that is the Victoria Nile. For nearly 20 years it formed the approximate southern border of the operating area of Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. Now long gone, they terrorised and brutalised the local Acholi population, but were never a credible threat to the Museveni government. The government’s response, however, was to round up the people of northern Uganda into huge camps, whether they were willing or not, for their own protection. As a result the area, which is now a national park, was largely untouched for the best part of a generation. Left alone, the wildlife flourished. It is now home to the largest population of hippopotami anywhere in the world, along with crocodiles, elephants, lions, buffalo, innumerable species of birds and monkeys, and almost anything else with African teeth or claws. For environmentalists, this is a wonderful thing. For rafter-mentalists, “it’s dangerous”.
With our training over (for the record, we didn’t flip and swim on our second attempt either, but at least we paddled hard enough to lower Davey’s blood pressure again), we spent the next morning packing Pete’s huge truck with an inordinate amount of gear and guides. We would take seven river professionals along – four raft guides and three kayakers, whose role would be to scout the rapids ahead of the rafts for the best lines, and then retrieve what they could of the wreckage and survivors at the bottom. In the whitewater world names such as Chris Korbulic and Anton Immler, and of course Pete Meredith, are iconic, the stuff of YouTube legends and more. It was notable then, that during the day-long drive from Jinja to Karuma, this truck full of whitewater alphas was eerily quiet. Little banter or war stories from expeditions past. Each of us in turn stared out the open windows at the beautiful Ugandan countryside jolting past, or dozed, or retreated behind sunglasses and headphones for a period of personal introspection. The Karuma bridge, just downstream from the falls of the same name, is an unimpressive 100 metres long and a single track wide. This belies its importance – it is one of only a few places in Uganda where a vehicle can cross the river. Beneath it an angry tongue of whitewater shoots down the main channel from the falls above. We spent the whole of the next morning rigging our two rafts in an eddie at the base of the bridge. We were not exactly helped by the arrival of a pickup full of local police. More curious than suspicious, they soon wanted in on the photographic action, clambering over our half-loaded rafts for group shots, the casual disregard for the direction of their guns straight out of a 70s Western. With our rafts fully loaded and not accidentally shot, we were finally ready for the put-in at about 1pm. On the bridge above, our support crew waved us off, while a lone babboon feigned indifference on a nearby fencepost. The phrase “thrown in at the deep end” does not do justice to the next hour of our lives. Nevermind that three crocodiles had recently been captured from Lake Victoria where they had been attacking too many locals, and released just downstream. Never mind that. At our first set of rapids we had our first raft flip, and discovered that re-flipping a fully-laden expedition raft is a different experience than an almost-empty one in practice. Shortly afterwards we had our first croc chase. A croc in the water is a difficult thing to spot, deliberately so from the animal’s point of view. There is just a small green-brown lump in the water, indistinguishable from clumps of floating vegetation, except that it is moving at your boat with speed and purpose. We had drilled for this. We hauled the kayaks, their occupants still attached, crosswise onto the rafts. We now presented a slightly more formidable silhouette to the beast as we aimed for the main current and re-doubled our paddling. This one proved not to be one of the recently-relocated killers, but a smaller and poorly-motivated pretender who quickly aborted the chase. We breathed a sigh of relief, and promptly flipped a raft again on the next set of rapids. With such a dramatic start to the expedition proper behind us, we were happy to cover about a dozen kilometres in a couple of hours that afternoon before heading river right to find a campsite on a small peninsular. A pod of local hippos were none too pleased that we had occupied their beach, but since they were in the water, and therefore comparatively happy, both parties agreed to disagree on ownership. They stayed about 50 metres downstream from the campsite all evening and most of the night, snorting and posturing, but otherwise leaving us alone.
Our second day on the river was our longest. This particular section was more flatwater than whitewater. This made the guides more nervous – this is where we were more likely to encounter angry wildlife. Ironically, we had actually been safer in the bumpy stuff. We spent most of the day paddling quickly across the huge pools, slapping paddles on water to minimise any surprise we may cause to the hippos, of which there were many, our strong-jawed steely-eyed kayakers often riding shotgun on the backs of the rafts. This day gave us the best chance to actually take in our surroundings. At points the river was 500 metres wide or more, with only a gentle current. The multi-shaded green of the jungle extended right down to the bank, seeming to create a sheer wall at the river’s edge. Occassional slender palm trees spiked above the foliage like watchtowers, and we could see the broad trails created by large and heavy animals, like open doorways leading into the deeper jungle. We saw a herd of elephants grazing at the water’s edge, who casually wandered away as we paddled closer, buffalo, water- and bush-buck, families of monkeys shaking the trees as they disappeared from view, and myriad birds, large and small. And hippos, many many hippos, in almost every eddie and behind every rock, regarding us with cool curiosity as we paddled past. I could almost imagine them muttering in our wake “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.”
Our eyes must have seen this particular part of Africa much as those of Speke, Burton and Livingstone had done a century and a half earlier. In many parts of Africa, and indeed the world, the land is deforested, cleared, and cultivated for agriculture. This 80km of Nile seemed to us to be as it had always been, as it was meant to be. The third day was a complete contrast to the second. Mid-morning we encountered a set of waterfalls, not rapids, spanning the width of the river. This had been named Go Right, as a humourous aide memoire. So we did, beaching river right and clearing a path through the jungle so we could portage two rafts, three kayaks and all our associated kit around the falls and put in again below them. A small point here: humans are unique in that we walk exclusively upright. The animals around us do not. No matter how many of them there are, they do not create paths through the rainforest; they create tunnels. Very low tunnels. It took us five hours to move our gear less than a kilometre. In the whole day we covered only four; the previous day we did 31. If day three was Portage Day, day four was the Day of Rain. It started well before dawn, let up briefly mid-morning to let us think we might be able to enjoy the day, then set in for good around lunchtime. After a soggy breakfast we travelled a short distance downriver before encountering our first major rapids of the day. Today would test us – the rapids we encountered were on the limits of the possible in expedition rafting, where the name of the game is to finish the entire journey, not just to scare the occupants. After much scouting from the banks, we opted for the conservative approach and roped the rafts around the rapids from land. This involved a lot of standing around. In the rain. The crux of the day was a rapid called Supernova. At its heart is a hole, agreed by all our expert kayakers as “the biggest <something> hole” they’d ever seen. A hole occurs where the water rushing downstream over a feature folds over and back in on itself, trapping any watercraft that it finds there. Supernova did this with evil in its heart. It formed a standing wave 20 feet high and the same across, spitting and snarling. We stood on the rocks, feeling its power through the soles of our feet, and contemplated it individually, conversation all but impossible over the roar of the water before us. And the rain. We didn’t have to be told we would be going around this one, not through. Our final night’s camp was on a small sandy beach on river right, a short distance from the obligatory pod of hippos which had been under the mistaken impression the location was theirs.
The next morning we rafted the short distance to the top of the final rapids of the trip – the S-Bend. Where Supernova is a single point of doom, the S-Bend likes to drag it out over several kilometres. It sweeps left then right in broad, roughly 90-degree turns, with a sequence of big rapids before emptying out danger close to the top of Murchison Falls. Murchison is where the longest and most epic river in the world narrows from hundreds of metres across to just six, before plummetting 45 metres down over the edge. Samuel Baker called it the greatest waterfall of the Nile when he gave it it’s name, but then he probably wasn’t contemplating it from above in a 14-foot inflatable raft at the time. To avoid going over the Falls and dying we had to exit the S-Bend hard river left, and still in the rafts. A mistake in any of the rapids upriver and we could end up in the strong centre flow with no time or space to recover. After four long days of rafting, camping, jungle hacking, and occassionally swimming, we had learnt much about the river, and about ourselves. There was no point to prove. We took the prudent option. A large eddie halfway through the S-Bend provided sanctuary, and we radioed our support crew that the expedition was over. The Ugandan wilderness had two more suprises left for us though.
Half our team began packing up and deflating the rafts, while the other half scouted the route to the nearest track where we could rendevouz with the support truck. This scout party ran into a small herd of elephants who had a bit of sport giving chase until the team managed to disappear over the nearest ridge. And after being picked up by the (beautiful, wonderful) truck some hours later, we drove through the north side of the park and were treated to a magical private wildlife safari. With no other vehicle in sight we saw great numbers of giraffes, elephants and buffalo up close, in a scene that would have left Attenborough even more breathless than usual. Behind us lay five days, 80 kilometres and a thousand stories. The Murchison section of the Nile is an epic for those who do this sort of thing every day. For keen amateurs it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And an absolute pleasure and priviledge to have done it for Secret Compass with Pete and his incredible crew.
By Glen Downton. Glen is a three time Secret Compass veteran, having travelled to the Wakhan Corridor, South Sudan and Uganda All photos courtesy of Glen Downton.