Surviving the Nile on Kayak

I recently returned from a 5 week adventure in East Africa and people are constantly asking me what was the most memorable part of the experience. I struggle to answer it because the whole trip was amazing but also because travel is so personal.


What may have made the top of my list may not have been some one else’s idea of a good time. If I answer this question as honestly as possible, my most vivid memory is of white water kayaking on the world’s longest river. The first thing that comes to my mind is of course, the one that I have no pictures of. It is also the only time I have (somewhat intentionally) done something truly GoPro worthy (more on that later).

To get to Bujugali Falls from Kampala, my partner Philip and I took the free shuttle offered by Nile Rivers Explorers from Nakumatt Oasis Mall. The setting at Bujagali near Jinja, Uganda was exceptionally beautiful for learning to kayak and because the river is damned at that section, it is also very deep. This means that it is possible to attempt manoeuvring rapids on the river after very little instruction. My experience with kayaking is limited, so Philip and I were thrilled to be the only two people in the class that day. We received a full morning of one on one instruction from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructors at Kayak The Nile. I hoped to stay dry for at least some of the morning, but to my chagrin the lesson began with us practising an emergency underwater exit which would come in very handy later on.

People getting a lesson the day after ours. 

We spent the rest of the morning practising strokes and turns and a few more emergency exits for good measure. Despite the instructor’s reassurance that I was picking it up very quickly, I was extremely nervous to go through the rapids on a kayak. Despite having worked up an appetite by paddling the calmer waters on the Nile, the lump in my stomach made eating lunch difficult. All the same, I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the setting, and the excitement of learning a new sport.

Oh sure, the Nile looks calm here. 
After lunch we drove about 20 minutes to our launch point and carried the kayaks down to the water and put in. We were not on the river long when the first set of class 3 rapids appeared on the horizon. The instructor told us where to paddle to avoid the worst of the waves but my kayak seemed to head straight for them despite my furious strokes. I approached the first wave that was at least twice as tall as me and was sucked straight up it by its awesome force. It all happened so fast but it felt like it was going in slow motion and at one point me and my kayak were vertical and I was paddling into the air. Finally the wave tipped me over its crest and I landed with a thud in the wake. I paused for a moment amazed that I was still upright and resumed paddling furiously.
I like to think I looked like this
(source: www.orangetorpedo.com)
I was 3/4 of the way through the rapids when suddenly I flipped upside down and found myself head first in a raging river. It took me a second to remember what the emergency exit procedure was and I reached back overhead first for a way out before remembering that I needed to grab my spray skirt in front. One good tug and I was pushed up to the surface for the most welcome gulp of fresh air.

The safety kayaker helped me back into my kayak and handed me my paddle which I gripped with shaky hands. The instructor paddled over and said “you going over that massive wave was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!” and I so wished that I had been wearing a GoPro. “Two more sets of rapid to go” he added. The knot in my stomach tightened.
But it was probably more like this. 

The second set of rapids had a less foreboding look than the first set but there was an eddy I was advised to avoid. Naturally, I ended up right there. The safety kayaker instructed me to paddle fast and hard to get out of it which I miraculously did without flipping (the instructor later informed me that most people who go in the eddy flip).  By the 3/4 way through the rapids mark however, I started losing steam and was flipped again.

Getting out of the kayak underwater was easier this time, but as I struggled to crawl back in the kayak the instructor tried to reassure me by saying “kayaking is not a graceful sport.” He then instructed me try to maintain more power through the next set of rapids which was the “easiest.”

For those of you have never white water kayaked before, paddling in the rapids takes a lot of strength. You really have to give it your all, funny faces and grunting included. So by the third set, I was getting really tired and flipped again at the 3/4 mark. By this time though, I managed to hang onto my paddle while going over and the instructor remarked that I was getting very good at getting back in my kayak. Maybe even with grace? I wouldn’t go that far. 

Meanwhile I should add, Philip who curiously is nicknamed “Flip”, only flipped once in the 3 rapids and still had enough steam to practice edging in an eddy while I waited exhausted by some reeds.


The rest of the journey down the Nile was a peaceful float which allowed me to regain some composure. Even as I write this, I remember the panic I felt as I was being tossed around in the river current and the disappointment of not even making it through one set without flipping. But I also remember the sheer exhilaration of those moments before and after my flips, as well as the blissful feeling of the sun beating down on my face as we gently floated to our pull out site.


While I learned that I need to work on my upper body strength before attempting to kayak through more white water rapids, I also am proud of myself for having tried something new and somewhat scary.

The whole day translated into an epic, memorable adventure and I would recommend a day at Kayak the Nile to any thrill seeking travellers out there. Although, you may want to make sure you pay attention to the emergency exit procedure at the beginning of the lesson!
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