By Caesar Abangirah
“You can call me ‘Big J,’ Juma introduced himself to the 11 guests who had just arrived at the Tulina Riverside Treat in Jinja in the early hours of Saturday, December 15.
“And I am going to be your guide for the day.”
The group comprised a Ghanaian couple, two Asians, two women from the UK and five Ugandans. He then asked us to register our names, telephone numbers and email address.
“Ideally what you are doing is signing over your life to me,” he told us.
A few murmurs were heard here and there, mostly from some of us first timers. Only one of us – Eric Ntalo, the public relations officer of Ngamba Island had gone white water rafting before.
“I have done this three times. There is no need to worry,” Ntalo assured us.
Big J, originally from Arua, has found his home on the Nile, literally taking tourists and rafting enthusiasts on this adventure for 28 years. He works with Raft Uganda, one of the six rafting companies on the Nile.
On their website, Raft Uganda is described as ‘the first 100 per cent Ugandan owned rafting company on the Nile with proprietors and guides boosting of over 16 years of dedicated rafting and river operations on the Nile.’
Little wonder Big J was confident when he led us, barefoot down stone path to the starting point of what was going to be an unforgettable adventure.
We had left all our valuables as well as trousers, shoes, shirts -behind.
Somehow, when we were told to form teams, the foreigners found themselves on one of the rafts – an inflatable ‘bouncy castle-like’ boat, while the five Ugandans settled for what would later on be named ‘Team Uganda.’
We got onto a blue and white raft, the number 12 and ‘raftuganda.com’ printed on its side. My colleague from New Vision, Steven Odeke and Jose, a dentist took the front ‘seats.’ Ntalo and Urban TV’s Aine Derrick occupied the next row while I settled for the third row with Big J at the very end.
“You need to listen to my instructions and all will be well. Otherwise we shall all die if you decide to do your own thing,” Big J advised. “When I say ‘stop,’ I will expect you to stop doing whatever and actually ‘stop’. When I say ‘get down’, you get down.”
Indeed ‘Paddle harder’, ‘Stop’, ‘Get down’ were the instructions that punctuated the entire four hour trip.
Big J had already shown us how to move the raft forward, in sync. Ideally, Odeke and Jose were in charge. The guys at the back were supposed to follow exactly what they were doing with their paddles. Of course, everyone ended up paddling when they felt like, resting at uncalled for intervals and leaving all the donkey work to Big J.
About 200 metres into the river, Big J stopped, and requested that we jump into the water to, one, feel how good the life jackets were but most importantly show us what we need to do in case the raft flips.
One by one we jumped into the warm water. This was the first time in eight years I had dipped myself in this much water. And naturally, I freaked out. And swallowed a few mouthfuls. I was not going to be part of this anymore. I told Big J I was done. He insisted I remain calm. I just could not. A couple of more mouthfuls, so much to the delight of Aine, got me swimming about 200 meters back to the shore. Yes, I learnt how to swim in River Rwizi, Mbarara some 20 or so years ago. The rest of the guys I shared the raft with could barely flap their legs.
So from ashore, I sat, and watched the others go through the rest of their drills as I wondered why I thought I would conquer the Nile at my age.
About 10 minutes later, Big J and team got back into the raft and rowed towards me.
They tried to convince me to get back onto the raft, but I was having none of it.
But Big J’s 28 years of rafting manifested when he convincingly told me that I was trespassing (I was sitting on a rock in a plot of land he said was not theirs) and that I was better off siting on a life boat deep into the river.
And just like that, I agreed and hopped onto the raft again. Slowly we set off towards the life boat, which also seemed to be drifting off in the distance. That is when I realized that I was never going to jump out of this easily, especially after we approached the first set of waves – Overtime.
The other team of foreigners was having too much fun; and yet from our team, Odeke, Aine and I were requesting to jump off, yet again. Big J was kind enough to let us off. So we rounded ‘Overtime’, the smallest of the waves and walked for about 10 minutes through a thorny, rocky path that I guess has been trekked by first timers like us. We met what was left of the team – Ntalo and the dentist – a couple of meters ahead and rejoined them.
They narrated tales of the Grade Two rapids they had just hit. The look on the face of the rather quiet dentist showed that of one that had undergone a one million experience.
The rapids, according to Big J are rated by numbers, one through six.
At ‘One’ you are allowed to jump out of the raft and swim, while two and three are the fun ones – bouncy. Four and five are regarded tough while six is death trap.
“Itanda falls is a category Six. No one does that. In fact many people have died here, including a Mengo hospital doctor,” Big J said.
Itanda means grave in the local Lusoga language.
The said doctor is Joan Twizere Uwimana, a Mengo hospital publicist who died while taking photographs by the falls in 2014. Several others have since been swallowed by the River Nile at this particular spot.
As we listened to Big J, Team Foreigners was heard mocking Team Uganda for, among others being ‘little girls’.
“Mummy I am scared,” one of the UK girls teased. She was celebrating her birthday and decided to have white water rafting ticked off her bucket list.
The teasing, and Big J’s reassurance in fact helped us regain confidence. And off we continued, hitting ‘Retrospect’, a grade three rapid as Big J told stories about the Nile.
His scariest moment?
“I was hit by a rafter’s paddle and lost two teeth,” he said, showing us the gap that has become his signature look. “I told them to get down and he flung the paddle my way.”
When the dentist said the missing tooth can be fixed for about Shs800,000, Big J laughed so hard we thought he was going to flip us over.
But he got back normal and told us how a snake had crawled up a tourist’s life jacket. No one noticed besides him. He wasn’t going to risk his team, so he let it continue slithering up until the helmet. Then he told her to jump into the water and back. She left the snake in the water.
Up to now he does not know where the said snake came from. Snakes are not the only wildlife on the lake. Different bird species including African Open-billed Storks, Green-backed Herons, Rock Pratencols, among many other swimming species could be seen on the rocks and at the banks.
From a far, we saw the raft carrying Team Foreigners flip over. Before, Big J had advised us to hold onto the safety ropes by the side of the raft. And so he said, the reason one of the girls was now being rescued after falling off was because she had not listened to instructions.
We remembered to hold onto the ropes when we hit the smaller version of Itanda – a grade five rapid just after the death trap that is the grade six.
Midway the 21 kilometre journey, we stopped for a quick bite, pine apples and banana, provided by the support team of life savers on kayaks and the life boat. These follow you throughout the journey with one of them even taking photos for a more memorable experience. Some of the rafters took off sometime to swim in the warm waters of the Nile that travels 4,000 miles across Africa to the Mediterranean Sea.
We continued through to grade four rapids known as Vengeance. Here the waves did throw us up in the air, thrice, in probably the most fun part of the trip. But we remembered to hold tightly onto the ropes. Team Foreigners navigated past this one, probably because the thought of the previous dip was still in their minds.
The last rapids we hit before Big J allowed us for another swimming session are called ‘Hair of the Dog’. Big J has baptized them ‘baby rapids.’ Here we watched the locals swim too. Along the way we had caught some sand mining while others washed their clothes by the banks.
We then docked at the finishing point in Nazigo, Kayunga, where a waiting coaster drove us back to Tulina Riverside Treat in Jinja.
Someone on TripAdvisor had written; “They did an excellent job of communicating pick up and departure as well as facilitating food, comfort and knowledge. I would highly recommend getting on a raft with Big J especially if you’re interested in the more active and turbulent waters. He is 100 per cent capable, kind and funny. The entire experience was Lovely, Fun and Beautiful. Not much beats whitewater and swimming in the Nile.”
We could see why. It is an experience one needs before they die. I am glad I did it, more especially with Raft Uganda and Big J.