We at DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE are stoked to share with you an excerpt from Adam’s new book “Pushing Rubber Downhill”, Chapter 15, which will appear in three parts over the month of October. Enjoy, and look for the next segment!
Adam Piggott’s first kayak was a Perception Dancer in 1986. He began commercial rafting in 1995 on the Tully river in Australia, and subsequently worked as a guide in Canada, Uganda and Italy until 2010. He has written articles for numerous magazines over the last 20 years, and has written three books, the first two of which he threw away. ‘Pushing Rubber Downhill’ is his first published book where he details his experiences rafting around the world. He now lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife, a cat, a Ducati, and a few Gibson guitars. He still has the Dancer.
Part 1 ‘Into Africa’
I woke from a restless sleep, my neck crushed against the cabin bulkhead. I opened the window shade and looked out over Africa. It stretched out into the dawn light, its hills and ridges colored a dark blue. I felt a sense of unreality, as if the past few months leading up to this moment hadn’t really happened at all, and all I had to do was blink and I would be back in my old room in Cairns. Which obviously was a load of horseshit. I told myself I had to toughen-the-fuck-up, a mantra which I repeated often over the course of the next few days.
The flight path from Johannesburg to Kenya took us over an enormous slum. It stretched out from the edge of the city across a flat brown plain. Tin and wood seemed to be the main building materials and the sprawling mass of shacks and hovels were packed in so tightly against one another it was impossible to make out any streets. The size of the slum was immense, and the jet took a few minutes to clear it.
Finally we arrived at Nairobi airport, a haphazard construction that stretched in endless directions. The narrow corridors were jammed with people, and I was swept along with the crush as I tried to find the gate for Entebbe and my final connecting flight. The gate was a long and narrow room lined with hard plastic chairs and already crowded with travelers even though the flight wasn’t due to leave for another eight hours.
I ordered a bottle of coke from a woman who scowled at me when I asked for my change. There was strange Arabic script on the bottle. I selected one of the hard plastic chairs. On my left sat a man in a long flowing robe. He wore a little fez tilted at an angle. The man on my right wore an unfashionable brown suit. He had very dark skin. I had never seen skin so black; it seemed to absorb the light. I was starting to feel a little out of place as the room’s only resident white guy.
Both men were watching an American basketball game on a small television bolted high on the facing wall. The dark African’s suit was stained with sweat. His tie was knotted high on his throat and his shoes made a creaking sound when he shifted his feet. The noise from the basketball game jarred the room, bouncing off the plastic chairs and the concrete walls. Nobody spoke. This was going to be a long eight hours.
It was late afternoon by the time the plane left for Entebbe. I was seated next to a European woman who worked for an NGO in Uganda. The flight was brief, and soon we were lining up for our final approach. As we came down I could just make out the shape of what appeared to be a burned out jumbo jet on the side of the runway. I asked the woman if she knew what it was.
“That’s the old Israeli jet that was hijacked back in the seventies. It got stormed by their secret service when they were rescuing the passengers.”
“And it’s still here?”
She gave me a look. “Wait until you see the airport.”
We walked across the tarmac through the dense humidity to the airport buildings. I felt insects hovering around my arms and shooed them away in panic. I noticed most of the foreigners were wearing long cotton shirts and trousers.
The buildings were riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, both inside and out. In places, ducting hung from the ceiling. The airport staff far outnumbered the arriving passengers, and as I set down my bags for inspection, a small group of them gathered around me. They had a common look of total boredom; in fact, they seemed to sway on their feet from mental fatigue.
One of them made me take out my laptop and turn it on to prove it was mine. The group swelled in numbers as they jostled for a glimpse of the computer. Somehow I satisfied the one in charge, and then I proceeded to customs, where a large woman made a brutal series of stamps in my passport. I had a visa for three months.
After a moment of indecision, I made my way over to the taxi stand. It was now quite dark, but the air was warm. I thought that someone would have come to the airport to pick me up. Maybe I’d given them the wrong date, or the wrong flight. Maybe I wasn’t meant to come at all. Maybe while I’d been in the air Milo had sent me an email saying that it was all off and they’d left the country.
As bad as things were in my head, I couldn’t have imagined what was really going on.
A Ugandan approached me with a sheepish look on his face. He handed me a note, and, until I read the note, I assumed that he was my lift into Kampala.
I opened the note.
“Run Adam run. It’s all gone to shit. Get out while you still can.”
There appeared to be dried blood on the paper. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone familiar. I studied the note again and tried to work out where I was supposed to run.
The man attempted to steer me towards his taxi, and I decided that this was probably the best option. I would get him to take me to Kampala and then try and figure it out from there. He was stowing my bags when Milo and Corey appeared from behind a concrete pillar with large grins on their faces.
“You bastards,” I said and clapped them on the back with relief. I hadn’t seen them for over two years, but the old feeling of close friendship was immediately there.
Corey retrieved my bags from the taxi driver’s vehicle, to the driver’s many protestations.
“Where’s your guitar?” Milo said as he told the taxi driver to go away with a jerk of his thumb.
“I sold it to get here,” I said as I followed Corey over to a battered single-cab pickup.
“Sold it? The only reason we got you over here was for how you play the guitar.”
“So, not for my guiding skills, then?”
“Not really, no.”
“Is he serious?” I asked Corey.
He looked uncomfortable. “I have to say that the guitar playing did come up in conversation.”
“Well, I’m here on a one-way ticket, so this’d better work out,” I said.
“We’re all here on one-way tickets,” Milo said.
The three of us piled into the front seat, and Milo gunned the motor and swept out, scattering the group of taxi drivers who had followed us over to the car. I looked back to see if they were all right. Milo didn’t take his eyes off the road.
Corey had a big smile on his face. He began repeating a mantra of how much I was going to love living in Uganda. He had his arm stretched out nonchalantly on the back of the seat and was turned to face me. Milo was weaving a constant path through a sea of moving obstacles. I tried to concentrate on what Corey was saying while I watched the road out of the corner of my eye. Milo swerved around a small motorbike while simultaneously dodging an oncoming van. My foot pressed down hard on an imaginary brake pedal.
“What’s the river like?” I asked Corey.
He spread his arms wide apart with a big grin. “Huge,” he said, and he began rattling off a bunch of unfamiliar rapid names.
Our vehicle swerved again and almost lifted onto two wheels. I stared at Milo in alarm.
“All you gotta know about driving here is that it’s every prick for himself,” he said. “You can’t show any weakness; don’t hesitate, just keep ploughing through the fuckers. You can’t see a lane? You make a lane. This is how they drive over here and the nice rules from home don’t count anymore.”
We were on a dark two lane highway. Jungle crowded in from the sides. There was no obvious habitation, yet masses of people crowded the road, in vehicles, on foot, or balanced on precariously loaded bicycles. Little market stalls were set up at regular intervals, each scene illuminated by small fires.
“What’s the plan?” I asked them.
They answered simultaneously. “Al’s Bar.”
“What’s at Al’s Bar?”
“Alcohol and chicks,” Milo said. “It’s where we hang.”
Corey leaned towards me. “Every guide’s first night is at Al’s Bar.”
“I can’t wait,” I said with scant enthusiasm. After over twenty four hours spent traveling, a drink sounded like a good idea, but I didn’t trust these two not to play some heinous trick on me.
Milo was having trouble overtaking an open-back truck. It was packed with people dancing and drinking from large bottles of beer. The truck lurched from side to side, each movement throwing around the passengers. Somebody tossed out an empty bottle, and it sailed over our car.
“This is bullshit,” Milo said.
He slowed down to get a better view of the road. The truck ran over a large pothole, jerking the vehicle and causing the tailgate to drop down with a bang. A long wooden box fell onto the road causing Milo to brake hard and swerve to avoid it. The revelers called for the truck driver to stop, and then some of them jumped down to retrieve the box. I leaned forward and saw that the impact had broken it open, revealing what appeared to be a dead body.
“Looks like they’re off to a funeral,” Corey said.
“A bit late to bury someone, isn’t it?” Milo observed.
As a couple of them stuffed the body into the broken coffin, the others laughed and danced, the bottles raised above their heads. Smoke from nearby fires drifted across the road, casting the people with a burnt orange glow. Their faces appeared demonic in the gloom as they loaded their cargo back onto the truck.
Milo gave me a deadpan stare. “Welcome to Africa,” he said, and we moved around the scene and continued on our way.
After about half an hour we came to the outskirts of Kampala. The city was pitch black, only the beams of car headlights providing any light. I gave up trying to orientate myself as we picked our way through what seemed to be an oversized slum. At last Milo pulled over and parked amongst a line of vehicles. Across the road stood a ramshackle building, a neon sign proclaiming its status as Al’s Bar. The two of them made to get out.
“Shall I just leave my bags in the back?” I said innocently.
Corey and Milo looked at my luggage sitting on the open tray-back.
“We’ll stick it in the front. It’ll be fine,” Milo said.
“And my laptop? Will that be okay inside the car as well?” Milo and Corey exchanged a dubious glance. “I mean,” I continued in an innocent voice, “does stuff get stolen here?”
“All right,” Milo said. “We’ll run home and drop off your stuff and then come back. It’s not far.”
I remained silent as we continued down the road. All I knew was that as soon as we got inside the house they would have an impossible task getting me out again this evening. After another ten minutes careening down the main road, we turned off onto a dirt track lined with gated houses. We sped along this for a few minutes while turning down an endless series of branch roads until we came to a tall metal gate. It was painted bright blue and not dissimilar to the other fortifications around us. The gate was lined with razor wire, and broken glass was embedded into the tops of the walls. Milo leant on the horn and the gate was quickly opened by a young Ugandan carrying an AK47 assault rifle.
“Our Askari guard,” Milo said as we swept past him and into a large courtyard. “He’s pretty much useless.”
“We also have a cook, a cleaner, and a garden boy,” Corey said.
“Are they useless too?”
“Let’s just say you won’t be doing any cooking, cleaning, or washing for a long while.”
“Or gardening,” Milo added.
Two large dogs trotted up to greet us, and I squatted down and presented the back of my hand to them. They sniffed it in turn and then ambled back to the house, an enormous Colonial era mansion. The sound of several generators echoed around the surrounding neighborhood. I hauled my bags inside and followed Corey up to the second floor, where he presented me with a small room.
“This is you, bro.”
The room had a four poster bed with a mosquito canopy. A large wardrobe jutted up against the bed, and there was a small desk and chair off to the side. The floor was a radiant blue tile. There was a large window with a wire screen, and a light breeze wafted the mosquito net. Outside I saw only an occasional light in the darkness. I inspected the net for any holes.
Downstairs in the large common room I somehow managed to convince the boys not to take me out that night. They agreed that it was late and that tomorrow would be a big day.
“You’re gonna need all the sleep you can get,” Milo told me. “’Cause tomorrow you’re gonna get trashed.”
I took a shower in the bathroom down the hall and then climbed into bed, Milo’s words ringing in my ears.
…Watch for part two of Chapter 15: The Mighty White Nile, in an upcoming article of DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE!
Here are some photos from the White Nile in Uganda. The photo names are the names of the rapids. ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Overtime’ (both class V), were both taken on the same trip, (so in the Overtime waterfall shot I have a full crew of nine in front of me. That is the preferred line, by the way, if you’re going to run the waterfall.)
Bad Place, (class V), is a first shot and then the flip. If you look closely at the back of the raft in the second shot you can see my little scared face.
Bujagali Falls, (class IV), is a one-two shot as well, and what I call the perfect Dump Truck.
All the rafts are 18.5 footers, so we could carry nine pax plus the guide.
Where you can buy the book: