Above: The Nile, near Murchison Falls. No, we didn’t raft anywhere NEAR this spot. This would be a Class 1,575,093 rapid
Sunday 5/3/09 Gulu, Uganda
**No pictures of Rooster or the rest of the people mentioned below because cameras hate water. It’s a known fact.**
Standing there, all 12 of us awkardly fidgeting in an arc around our would-be guide, I couldn’t help but notice what a motley crew we were: two frail British women in their 60s chain smoking nervously, two bleary-eyed Austrian backpackers and their strange quiet friend, a pair of young polished Finnish couples, and Aida, an Invisible Children intern, and I. All eyes were focused on our guide, a stocky freckled man in his late 30s with a shock of red hair atop his head and a stained cut off T-shirt.
“I’ll be your guide for today,” the man said. “My name is Rooster.”
I smiled. Rooster–excellent. Of course you’re name is Rooster! I thought. Have you ever met people who have names that perfectly suit them? It’s comforting. Amidst all the chaos in the world, it reminds you that some things still make sense. Lyle Lovett, for example, could only be a Lyle, clearly. Could you imagine Will Ferrell as a Max or a Richard? Of course not. So it was with a bit of comfort that I listened to Rooster, the world’s most suitably named river rafting guide.
“We’re going to go over some nice rapids today. One of the rapids, Big Brother, is the steepest drop I’ve ever ridden in 15,000 kilometers of whitewater. It’s a great little rapid,” Rooster crowed, grinning.
The two older British ladies nearly swallowed their cigarettes. One visibly shivered in fear.
“Don’t worry guys, don’t worry. Even with rapids like Big Brother, we have a safe river here. This stretch of the Nile is deep and mostly free of rocks. I’ve worked cold, rocky rivers before, and this is the complete opposite.”
The British ladies ignored Rooster and tried to pull reassurance from deep within their cigarettes.
I looked closely at Rooster’s face. He had a fading black eye and two small deep cuts on his forehead and nose. For some reason, this made him seem more capable as a river guide. I imagined him saving some shrieking tourist from the raging foamy grasp of Big Brother, a daring rescue that caused him to take a quick paddle to the face, something he barely felt, being so hardened by years of cold spring rivers and all. (Sadly, I later found out that his injures were rugby-related and lacked any sort of cool back story. )
Rooster went over all the basics; he told us to leave our jewelry back in our rooms; how the sun can be brutal because Uganda sits on the equator; how we didn’t have to worry about crocodiles; how we would practice flipping the raft in calm water first so that when it flipped for real we’d know what to do. At the end of his speech, he advised us to go and get ‘river-ready’ and to meet him down at ‘Put In’ (which, I know now, is the opposite of ‘Take Out). I fell in love with the expression ‘river-ready’. For the next twenty minutes, I drove Aida crazy by asking her about her level of river-readiness and updating her on my level of river-readiness.
“Just one more thigh…almost…OK. Aida! Aida are you still listening over there? I’m covered in sun lotion and am OFFICIALLY RIVER-READY! Yeah!! Let’s do this!”
For eight or nine hours, I paddled down the Nile with Rooster and the others. I sat at the back of the raft, close to Rooster, and, at times, rode the raft like it was a bucking bronco. We flipped once. We nearly flipped a few times. Mostly though, we paddled and talked and let our day be swept along with the current. We’d pass birds and Rooster, fittingly, would tell us about them. “That’s an African Fish Eagle. One cool bird!!” he’d say, or “Those guys usually fly away by now. You’re lucky to see them stick around.” We’d pass children and their families doing wash in the river and the children would scream out to us from the banks. At the bigger rapids, Rooster would tell us stories about historic raft flippings here or there (“Saw a raft double-flip here once”), or why rapids were called certain names. As we passed one particularly loud rapid, one that fell out of view into a haze of white spray, Rooster directed everyone’s attention to it.
“Hey, look over there,” he said, pointing to the rapid with one of his thick muscled fingers. “That’s called The Dead Dutchman. A few years ago a Dutch guy went tubing through this stretch–no raft just an inner tube. He went over that rapid in a tube. His life vest was crappy. Rapid killed him. There you have it–Dead Dutchman,” Rooster said with total indifference.
“Huh, wow,” one rafter said flatly, as if he’d just heard a random fact about the parenting style of cats or the speed at which Jello solidifies or something.
At the end of the day, over drinks at Take Out, one rafter asked me what I thought of the day.
“It was awesome,” I said honestly.
“It was the coolest thing I’ve done in my life,” he said, holding my gaze with an intense stare.
On the bouncy bus ride back to the hostel, I passed scores of mud brick homes complete with sheet metal roofs. I didn’t see a single circular mud-and-thatch hut like folks use up north. Although still poor, the communities we passed were noticeably more developed than their northern counterparts and had the signs to prove it–more stores/services, sturdier looking structures, bigger homes. Reminders of the tribal and social barriers within a small country like Uganda are everywhere.
The last thing I spotted before I fell asleep was a pack of kids by the roadside waving at the bus so emphatically I feared their arms would snap at their joints.