Surviving the first section...just
So much adventure has been packed into a short space of time. We had settled into a good routine. Get up when the sun comes up – in Rwanda that’s about 5.15am and in Tanzania and Uganda it’s 6.15am. Pack up, load the raft, tie everything down and get going. That takes about 60-90 minutes. At some point when we’re not dealing with hippos, rapids or the Burundian army, I make breakfast in the raft. Oats, raisins, ground peanuts, a scoop of protein powder all mixed with some water with a generous tablespoon of Nutella and peanut butter. Fuels us for the day.
Snacks are mostly biscuits or fruit and nut bars. Most days we didn’t have lunch unless we had leftovers. Evening was either rice, pasta or couscous with either pesto, peanut butter or Nutella. Turns out spaghetti and Nutella is a dream combination. Who knew?! We’d get off the river usually an hour or two before sunset, if we could. Bed was not too long after dark – all of us exhausted.
Making our way down the river we heard the thunder of some rapids before we saw them. Koa, acting as our safety kayaker, went to look at the different channels and see if there was one we could run. No, we were going to have to portage. We exchanged some shillings for some help carrying all the gear round the rapids. The unload and reload takes a long time. Everything has to be tied down before we can get back on the river.
We were underway and it wasn’t too long before the thunder of rapids was heard again and we could so the bubble and spray of water ahead of us. We made it into an eddy but had come into the start of the rapids. Portaging wasn’t a possibility now. Koa went off to check out our options. While we were waiting a hippo popped up in front of us. Are you freaking kidding me? They don’t usually hang out in rapids. We moved to another eddy – now stressing not just about the rapids but hippos too. Argh!!
Koa reported that we couldn’t run the middle and right channels. The channel on the left looked ok until the corner. But we couldn’t see what was beyond that. No choice, we set off, and round that corner to our horror was a massive drop with water gushing over it.
We desperately tried to get into an eddy the size of a postage stamp to avoid being sucked over, but it was impossible. I was looking for options to jump off the back of the raft onto the bank. My deeply flawed plan was cut short by Koa yelling “Sarah, GET DOWN!”. I promptly obeyed, getting into the bottom of the raft and hanging on, as we plunged over the falls.
Koa, seeing us go vertical into the hole below was sure we wouldn’t all survive and at the very least the raft would be flipped. We hit the water, went under and I felt the raft on my head as it buckeld on hitting the water. We popped up and started careering down the rapids, with no idea what was ahead. Peter had been thrown out of the raft and was in the rapids.
Thankfully we made it through the rapids into calmer waters. Pulled Peter into the raft and made it to the side. We were on a massive adrenaline high!!
Check out the video here. (**language warning**)
We lost one plastic box, two paddles and a Ugandan flag. The flag was never seen again, but the plastic box was picked up after 30 minutes, one paddle after an hour and then, to our utter amazement, we found the other paddle floating ahead of us four days later!
With the deep papyrus, steep banks, swamp like areas and dense forest, it’s not always easy to get off the river and find a camp spot. One night we made the call to camp next to a pump house taking water from the river to a huge sugar cane plantation. It was noisy, but the only choice. We had to check with security. Security said we needed to check in with the local police. This worried me – we hadn’t been stamped coming into Tanzania – not much in the way of immigration on the river. Got to the police station and the question came “Where are your entry stamps?”. My stomach turned. We explained, more questions, but amazingly we were allowed on our way and no spending a night in a Tanzanian jail. Result. Back to camp after a round trip of about 8km, exhausted.
We had some stunning spots to camp with beautiful views like this one above. There was one day we asked some fishermen if there were any spots coming up. Just around the corner was the reply. Twenty corners later with the sun setting we were worrying (I think they meant it was round A corner, not THE corner). Finally, a small landing site came into view with five huts on. The resident fishermen kindly let us camp and gave us some fish for dinner. I spent half the night, rather uniquely, being kept awake by a catfish in a jerry can.
After a week making our way along the Akagera in Tanzania we crossed back to Uganda and reach Lake Victoria. This was a huge milestone!
There was a fair bit of cheering all round and genuine surprise, given everything that had happened, that we had survived. We made it to a nearby landing site (where the fishermen go in/out) and were met by the driver with to swap the raft for the two tandem kayaks we were going to use across the lake.
Below is a link to the moment we made it! *language warning*
My initial plan had been to use a single kayak and engage a local fisherman to guide me across the lake. The boys were keen to keep going and after the previous three weeks of us all being together I wanted us to continue as a team.
A local guy showed us to a guesthouse for the night. My spider senses went off when I saw metal bars across the bar, lock on the bathroom and the UV lights down the corridor. My suspicions were confirmed when I went into my room and saw three condoms and a small bar of soap by the bed. The guesthouse doubled as a brothel. I kid you not. Returning after dinner the ladies were there with their potential clients and the noises coming from the loos suggested business was booming.
The next morning we went down to set off for the 60km across the lake to the Sesse islands. I wasn’t 100% comfortable – I was going to have to rely on the GPS as we couldn’t the land we were aiming for. I didn’t have any marine flares. Also only had a very high-level weather forecast.
We set off into a strong headwind and after four hours, while the GPS assured me we were heading in the right direction, there was no sight of the island we were aiming for. After seven hours of paddling, while land was in sight, predictions were it was going to be 9-10pm by the time we’d make land. The tandem kayaks we were using were very heavy and made it slow going. Two of the guys were finding it tough going and were quickly running out of juice to keep going. We ended up getting a lift from two fishermen in their wooden boats for a nice ride to the island. It was that or sleep in the kayaks and the guys weren’t keen for that.
We had another long day in the kayaks, but again two of the guys struggled, with one saying that he couldn’t go on with this kind of paddling each day. On a trip to a local town to get some cash with Peter we spotted a ferry that goes to Entebbe. I made the call that we’d get that ferry, get to Entebbe and then get a boat to take us part of the way back to Jinja before a day in the kayaks to bring us home.
While this was moving away from my plan to paddle the length of the Nile, the priorities had changed. We had become a close team and to me it was more important that we finished this section together as a team. This trip was about the journey, the adventure and the search for personal achievement and fulfilment. The how was less relevant. To be honest all the problem solving and these changes really added to the whole adventure.
The boat trip, of course, had its dramas. The boat drivers of this HUGE wooden boat went the long way - not fuel or time efficient. The boat owner who we’d made the deal with started calling cause it was taking so long. He wanted more money and started trying to bribe Peter. Boss man instructed the guys to take us to a landing site and either dump us or get more money. Nice.
Having set off at 2.30pm on a beautiful sunny day, it was 11.30pm and a huge storm hit. We got to the landing site – no one around, dark, wind howling with rain and lightning. Peter cracked it and said he was off to find the police. Before I could stop him he was gone. I didn’t have an entry stamp to Uganda, or an exit stamp from Rwanda as we hadn’t passed border control. I didn’t relish the idea of difficult conversations with the police who were guaranteed to ask for passports if they turned up.
Peter came back, minus the police, and I paid the extra amount, which had reduced considerably by this point. The threat of the police had helped. At 2am we finally reached our destination. There were no guest houses so we set up camp and I finally crawled into my sleeping bag at 3.15am.
I was reluctantly woken at 6.15am the next day – this was a busy landing site with the fishermen returning with their catches from night time trawling. But this was the last day and we didn’t have to rush. Had some coffee and food and got ourselves together.
A relatively short paddle and on home ground for the guys. What could possibly go wrong? I’ll tell you what – we nearly got bloody arrested. AGAIN. We had to portage round the dam. Despite our driver (it was a long portage) having cleared the pick-up point with the authorities, it wasn’t with the right people.
We were quickly surrounded by the policy and within moments of being arrested. This would have been at least one night in jail and probably a large fine. A long discussion took place between the water police and land police. The former chomping at the bit to lock us up, the latter wanting to send us on our way with a warning. The latter, to our enormous relief, won.
Then it was the home stretch and no disasters. At around 6pm on 19 November we pulled in to Nile River Explorers. This first big section done.
A video from the home stretch **Yep, another language warning**
I was SO happy and filled with an incredible sense of achievement. This had been a HUGE learning curve and had thrown endless challenges and quite literally death defying dramas. I had started this trip so far out of my comfort zone I could barely see it. There was so much uncertainty and risk. While it always felt like the right thing to do, and I never really thought about backing down, I was still filled with self-doubt on many levels.
I didn’t really have any expectations going into this. One thing though, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy anywhere near as much as I had. I'd experienced the most incredible adventure and loved it. As I went to sleep that night, smiling, that sense of fulfillment that prompted this whole trip was there. If the expedition finished here, it was enough.
But it was far from over…
Well I hope you've all had a cracking start to the New Year. I'll leave you with this short but sweet quote.
"Comfort is the enemy of achievement" Farrah Gray
Sarah x x