In March of ’99, I was working in Uganda shortly after a rebel band attacked a group of British and American tourists there. Eight people were killed. Many more were deeply traumatized.
The only direct impact on me was that the US Embassy told me I could not leave Kampala in its aftermath. That meant I was facing the prospect of a boring urban weekend if I couldn’t find something else to do. Looking for loopholes, I pushed the Regional Security Officer for options. He reiterated that all areas beyond the city were off-limits. Then he added that there was an exemption for Jinja, to the East. “Jinja’s safe,” he said.
Jinja is the ‘Source of the Nile’, the White Nile, which starts on Lake Victoria. It traverses north through the continent, cutting across Egypt before joining the Mediterranean Sea.
I found an outfit in Jinja offering a raft trip. I signed up and they picked me up in an old yellow school bus. The bus was crammed with wild-eyed young people in high-end outdoor gear. Pairs high-fived one another as they discovered ‘extreme’ adventures that they shared.
I had a queasy feeling this raft trip might be ‘extreme sport’ itself. So I sought out the lead guide and asked if it was too late to back out. “Don’t let this crew scare you,” he assured me, “we have two trips today. One is for these extreme guys and the other one’s the ‘bird boat’. You’re on the bird boat. They’ll point it out to you when you get off the bus.”
We arrived at the point of entry and they shuffled us off to meet our guides. Mine tossed me my safety gear and showed me how to put it on. Then he pulled on my life vest tabs until it was uncomfortably tight. He started on his safety briefing and I noticed he had a thick iron spike driven through his tongue. “Ok, remember,” he said, “when you get tossed – and you will get tossed – you will come back up. That’s what the vests are for and they always work. We’ve never lost anyone on this river and we’ve been doing this for years. But it will seem like you’re not coming back up. So here’s what you need to know: The water will get darker and darker as it sucks you down. When it gets pitch black you’ll start back up. Keep your eyes closed but notice how the water gets lighter and lighter and catch a breath as soon as you pop out. Because you’ll likely be going straight back down. Got it?”
I didn’t know what to say, so instead of saying nothing, I said, “I’m supposed to be in the bird boat.” He grinned a knowing, evil grin and shook his head. His spiked tongue darted between his lips and he growled, “My name is Satan…and there ain’t no bird boat.” Then, noticing my wedding ring, he added “Better let me put that in my zipper pocket. Leave it there and this fucking water will suck it off.”
Until that day I’d never heard of Class 5 rapids. I now know that there is an International Scale of River Difficulty that goes all the way to Class 6. Class 1 is defined as ‘Easy’ and Class 6 ‘impassable’. When someone eventually survives a Class 6, it becomes a Class 5. Technically survivable. Class 5 is an extension of Class 4. Class 4 is described like this:
Advanced: Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. …Rapids may require “must make” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary… Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult.
Class 5 (Expert) extends the above by adding: “Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids. They may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts. Extensive experience and practiced rescue skills are essential.”
My bird boat excursion on the Source of the Nile consisted of eight Class 5 rapids. Without going into all the gory details, suffice it to say that I survived the trip. In a letter home I mentioned Satan had stood the raft up on its end in the middle of something called a ‘double hydo’. A double hydo consists of two towering geysers of water forming a deep hole in-between. I eventually lost my grip on the vertical raft. I got sucked into the black hole Satan had earlier described. When I finally broke the surface, I was immediately pounded by the second of the hydro pair. I wasn’t sure I would survive.
Many years later I went to National Geographic’s Ultra Sport film festival with some friends. The festival ended with the three top contenders for Ultra Sport film of the year. The winning film opened with a head shot framed in front of a pounding Class 5 rapid. A man turns to face the camera and opens his mouth revealing an iron spike pounded through his tongue. “My name is Satan,” he growls, “and you’re about to take the wildest ride of your life.”
My life flashed before me again as he spoke. I heard the voice of the Regional Security Officer in my head. “Jinja’s safe.” Safe, like an appointment in Samarra.
If you are unfamiliar with the reference, click here to read Somerset Maugham’s wonderful 200 word story ‘Appointment in Samarra’: [Read more…] about 13.2 Meeting Satan in Uganda