Dr. Jessie Stone gave up a promising medical career in New York to pursue her love of extreme kayaking. Dr. Stone’s pursuits led her to Africa and to the Nile river where she witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of Malaria. For several years now, Dr. Stone has lived a dual existence. She spends part of each day training as an extreme kayaker on the Nile, and the other half she spends instructing the locals proper techniques for preventing malaria. The following is a special Paddling Life exclusive. It is Dr. Stone’s love letter to the Nile.
Why do I love the Nile? What makes this river so special compared to all the other amazing rivers in the world that I have been on? For most people, the Nile conjures up visions of pharaohs, sphinxes, and Egypt, yet even today a vast part of the Nile remains largely unknown. In fact, several thousand miles of this river flow from its source in Lake Victoria and go north through Uganda before reaching the Sudan and finally Egypt. This first part of the Nile, known as the White Nile, is in Uganda, and it is home to some of the best big water paddling in the world.
You see this river first at its source at Owen Falls when you cross from the town of Njeru into the town of Jinja. On one side, there is the big, still, meandering source of the Nile. On the other, there is a precipice that leads to a large pool followed by river wide rapids of varying degrees as far as the eye can see. This is an impressive first glance.
Driving north from the source, the “civilization” of Jinja and the industrialization of Owen Falls Dam disappear. To reach the river downstream, you traverse bumpy, wandering marum roads that cover you in layers of red dirt. Hot and dusty, you arrive at the river’s edge again, inundated by lush green vegetation and an incredible panoramic view.
Upstream or downstream, as far as the eye can see, is the wild Nile. In some places, it is quiet, moving slowly and deeply. In other places, the river spits froth and foam from a vortex of whitewater. In between, there is so much life – Darters swim, dive and resurface with fish in their beaks. Otters pop out of the water in eddies. Monitor lizards slither out of view and leap into the water. Kingfishers hover, diving deep to snatch a fish. Fish Eagles high in a tree call out to announce their presence. Fishermen in dug out canoes throw their nets or slap their paddles on the water to draw their catch up, doing exactly the same thing that their ancestors did for hundreds of years. In this idyllic part of the Nile, everything coexists together beautifully.
At various bends in the river, women and men bathe and wash their clothes on hot black rocks at the riverbanks. Calls of “Muzungu, Muzungu” (“foreigner, foreigner”) echo across the river followed by frantic waving. Alongside of this, small children laugh and play in the water –some swimming dangerously close to large rapids, tempting fate with their youthful strength, curiosity, and bravado. Every so often, tragedy strikes and the river will take one of these children perhaps as a reminder of its extraordinary power.
Further down river at Bujagali Falls, the force of the Nile is in glorious display. The river cascades over a staircase of rock producing large waves and holes, and a fantastic roar. Occasionally, a local man known as a Bujagali swimmer will grab hold of his jerry can for a fee of 10,000 Uganda shillings and ride down from the top of Bujagali. Waving to the crowd and grinning, he grips his buoyant yellow jerry can and disappears along a seam. He comes up at the bottom of the rapid shaking his fist to the sky and the crowd. It is amazing that this colored piece of plastic is his only lifeline. Onlookers stare in disbelief at this miracle as they snap photos.
The roar of the rapids at Bujagali never ceases to thrill me and instantly brings perspective to my life. Standing next to the rapid, I am electrified by its energy, and I love to contemplate all the possible routes down. Part of me has an irresistible craving to throw myself in the water – almost like the mythical Sirens luring sailors in ancient Greece. In response to this Siren call, I hop in my kayak, and paddle down but not before appreciating what the river may have in store for me. Despite the hundreds of times I have paddled Bujagali, each time down provides a special experience.
Sometimes, a wave breaks over you and the crest beats you down into the trough. Suddenly immersed in the underwater world of the Nile, your senses come alive as you react. At those moments, you feel the river playing with you, sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully depending on your luck. When the river thrusts you to the surface again, you have a good story to tell, and it’s always an adventure. After a day of paddling, nothing is more peaceful than falling asleep by the banks of the Nile lulled by the river’s distant roar.
This river, magical and enduring, reaffirms my sense of wonder and amazement at the universe, showing and sharing its secret of life. I have been blessed by sleeping many nights next to the Nile, but sadly those days are coming to an end. The Ugandan government is building a dam that will flood Bujagali falls and a number of the rapids just below. By March 2011, the river as it is now will be changed forever. I cherish every moment I still experience the wild Nile and can’t imagine what life will be like without it.