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 final 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 2 ‘The Mighty White Nile’
We were up and gone early.
“There’s three boats today,” Milo said as we lurched down the road in a small bus. “Me and Corey are guiding, and Eddie is waiting out at the river for us. He’ll be guiding the other one. We get one guide to stay out at Bujagali every week in case any overland trucks come in and want to raft the next day.”
“Who am I going down the river with?” I asked.
“Me.” Milo grinned, and Dave, the video kayaker, laughed.
I had known Dave in Cairns. He was a tall and lanky Kiwi with a passing resemblance to a blonde Clint Eastwood, complete with disdainful sneer.
“Milo’s our trash champion,” Dave said. “You’ll probably get some mighty downtime today.”
“What’s downtime?” I said, unsure if I wanted to know the answer.
Dave smiled. “The length of time you get held underwater. What’s your record, Milo?”
“About a minute,” Milo said, deadpan.
Dave turned back to me. “Think you can hold your breath for that long?”
“He looks green,” Milo said.
“Shut up, you two,” I muttered.
Dave laughed and then stood up and got the driver to stop. We’d come to the intersection with the sealed road. Dave jumped out and walked over to a group of young men sitting on little motorbikes. They smiled, and one passed him a cigarette.
“This is Gabba Road,” Milo explained. “The suburb we live in is called Gabba. By the way, the driver here is Isaac. He’s a Ugandan who actually knows how to drive.”
Isaac was a little round man of indeterminate age. He beamed at Milo’s introduction and shook my hand with an extremely weak grip. “Is very nice to meet you, Mister Adams,” he said.
We pulled onto Gabba Road, leaving Dave behind. “He’s waiting for Corey,” Milo said. “They’ll go out to the river before us with the pickup. They need to buy lunch for the punters on the way.”
“What’s our job?” I asked.
“We’re picking up the punters. Got some at the Kampala Backpackers and some at the Sheraton. The backpackers is run by an old crazy dude called Geoff. He once chased a bunch of local terrorists down the street after they threw a grenade into his garden.”
“Did he catch them?”
“Lucky for them, no.”
Driving was a more concerning prospect with the light of day. The road was single lane in each direction, but at times vehicles were three abreast. We swerved around gigantic potholes as Isaac waved breezily at various passers-by. Then we came down a long hill towards a very large roundabout that was packed with road users of every sort.
“Clock-tower roundabout,” Milo said. “This will be an awful mess later on, but it’s moving pretty well for this time of day. We’ll go across this and up the other side and then swing back into the city to the Sheraton, and then from there it’s about an hour run out to the river.”
After stopping at the two pickup points, we headed east out of Kampala with enough clients to fill three boats. Traffic was heavy, and we passed a never-ending line of buildings and markets. After half an hour of this, we came over a rise, and Isaac slowed the bus.
Milo stood up. “Breakfast time,” he said to me, and then he addressed the rest of the bus. “Okay everyone; this is the in-your-face-chicken-place. This chicken was running around having a good old time about an hour ago and now it’s dead, cooked, and stuck on the end of a stick. It’s the freshest chicken you’ll ever get.”
As the bus slowed, a line of young Ugandans, each wielding an array of thin sticks topped with flame-cooked chicken, ran beside the bus, yelling out Milo’s name.
Milo continued. “Now just make sure that you don’t open too many windows, because when you open a window, they stick in the chicken. Watch me and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
The bus came to a halt, and Milo moved to open a window at the front of the vehicle. The crowd of chicken merchants pushed and shoved each other as they fought to get the prime position in front of Milo. He opened the window and had to duck his head as a phalanx of chicken-topped sticks were thrust into the little space. The boys were yelling and screaming the goodness of their wares as Milo tested each one with a slight touch of the finger.
“These are hot,” he announced, and he purchased two of the sticks. He handed one to me as the more courageous punters opened their own windows, and soon the bus was awash with the noise of hasty breakfast transactions. Isaac selected his own and ate contentedly.
The chicken was covered with a scattering of salt and was unbelievably fresh and tender.
“Best chicken you’ll ever get,” Milo said.
We left the chicken stop behind and soon passed through a large section of forest. Milo dozed beside me as I stared out the window. After another half hour of travelling, Isaac got me to wake Milo. He stirred, looked around him, and then got to his feet.
“Okay everyone, time to wake up.” He stifled a yawn. “We’re coming up to the dam wall that separates Lake Victoria from the Nile. So you’re about to pass the starting point of the world’s longest river. The dam will have some of its release gates open. One gate is big, two gates are pretty terrifying…and I don’t even want to think about three gates.”
The bus followed the road out and onto the dam wall. A huge plume of water thundered out to the left, and we all crowded the side of the bus to look at it.
“Two gates,” Milo announced. “It’s going to be a big day.”
“How big is big?” a customer asked him.
“Well, let’s just say I’m not wearing the brown underwear for nothing.”
I stared out the window at my first sight of the Nile. It moved quickly away from the dam wall, snaking a path through large cultivated hills. We turned north and followed a wide dirt road that wound up and down the hills. Mud hut villages were interspersed with dense banana plantations, and as always, there were crowds of people walking, cycling, or simply standing and staring at the passing bus full of white people.
The younger Ugandan men were dressed like American basketball players. At some point conservatism set in, as anyone above the age of thirty dressed in severe suits several decades out of fashion. The women either favored traditional long flowing dresses of intense color, or they dressed in Western clothing in what they imagined was a provocative style, but which had more of an effect of tawdry sleaze.
The road was muddy from recent rain, and Isaac had a bit of difficulty cresting the long final hill before the turn-off to the river. The bus slid around in an alarming fashion, but both he and Milo seemed unperturbed. After clearing the hill we trundled down a narrow track that ended in a large clearing. At the entrance to the park we passed a sign advertising rafting with a different company.
“Who are they?” I asked Milo.
“They’re a South African mob that started up here about a year ago. There’s no love lost between them and us.”
Corey and Dave were waiting by the pickup. Next to them were a small crowd of local boys who were engaged in pumping up the rafts.
“This is Bujagali Falls,” Milo said to the twenty-odd people on the bus. “Jump off and grab a life-jacket and helmet from the boys, and then we’ll divide you into three groups.”
I got off the bus. The river was a few hundred meters away at the bottom of a steep hill, but its power and intensity was formidable even at such a distance. It passed through a series of large jungle-covered islands. I could make out very large rapids, the white-water foaming and throwing spray high into the sky.
I met Eddie, the guide camping out here at the falls. He was small-statured, his face hidden by a large beard, and he possessed a very easygoing manner. There were also two Ugandan safety kayakers. Kato shook my hand with a broad smile, his large head bobbing from side to side. Musu had an impressively muscled physique, and he strode around like a shirtless peacock as he handed out helmets to the punters.
I changed into my own gear as well. Dave came up and fingered my new lifejacket with contempt.
“New one is it?” he said. “Don’t think that’s going to save you. Scrawny chap like you, you’ll go straight to the bottom and stay there.”
“That’s mister scrawny chap to you,” I said.
“Whatever. Have fun saying hello to the fishies. And you can forget about taking that throw-bag; that’ll get ripped off you the first time you surf. Don’t expect to keep that nice Gerber knife either. Let’s face it; you’re probably going to finish the trip naked.”
“Actually,” Milo said, “I wouldn’t wear those Tevas if I were you. They will get ripped off for sure. Notice how everyone else has bare feet?”
“I did notice that, yeah.”
“Just be careful of jiggers.”
“What the fuck are jiggers?”
“These little worms that get into your feet and breed and hatch eggs between your toes.”
I stared at Milo. “Are you taking the piss?”
He shrugged. “Ask Eddie about them. He spends most of his time digging them out with his knife.”
Eddie showed me the wounds in his bare feet. “Nasty little buggers they are. Burning with a cigarette sometimes helps too.”
I looked at them both in alarm, and then we went down to the river, the three of us walking behind the local village boys who were carrying the large rafts above their heads. They set down their burdens, and then Milo paid their leader with some small denomination notes he got out of a zipped pencil case.
“We don’t carry boats here,” he explained to me. “We don’t pump boats, we don’t fix boats, we don’t dress punters, and we don’t clean gear. All we do is guide. We employ about fifty locals at various points to do all this stuff for us. The trip leader has the job of paying them all throughout the day.”
“Sounds pretty good to me,” I said.
“It’s how they can get away with paying us fuck-all,” Milo retorted.
“I thought that was because we’re living the dream,” Corey said.
Dave snorted off a laugh, put away his video camera, and climbed into his kayak. “See you the other side of Bujagali. Try to flip, for fuck’s sake,” he said, and then he paddled away into the heaving whitewater.
We floated around in the large pool as each guide took his crew through their paces. Then we peeled off into the massive current, the raft shifting and moving around beneath us, gaining momentum through the confused line as we passed a small crowd of viewers standing on the bank by a large open pagoda, and then we dropped down into a chute that ended in a massive wall of white water. Most of the crew on the left side was sucked out in a moment, the force of water taking them under the raft and out the other side. The safety kayakers zipped around rescuing customers and retrieving lost paddles. We watched the progress of the other two rafts, both passing without incident. Dave had a sour look as he paddled away.
After a few smaller rapids, we eddied out in the middle of the river behind a large rock. Downstream was a chaotic maelstrom of holes and waves, white water being squeezed into the air, and currents running in confused directions.
Milo stood up and addressed the crew. “Okay folks, this is our first class five of the day: Total Gunga. What we have is a two hundred meter lead up through all of that shit, and then we’re going to drop down into a trough and I’m going to get you down on the floor like little chickens, and then we’ll hit a huge hole that’ll knock your bathers around your ears. We’ll probably flip there, and then you’re facing a nasty three hundred meter swim through the rest of it. Good luck.”
He sat down next to me at the rear of the raft. “We’ve gotta wait for Dave to give us the all clear.” He pointed to a section running through trees on the river right side of the rapid. “The other mob run their boats down there. It’s a class three dribbly shit run.”
Dave had clambered on to a tiny rock off to the side of the main part of the rapid. He checked his video camera, then looked back up towards us and raised his hand in the air.
Milo pulled out from behind the rock. The surging current took the raft and swung us downstream, and we quickly left the other rafts far behind. The crew paddled hard as Milo angled his boat across the line of water towards the left. We came up and over a large mound, and I got a glimpse of a dangerous looking hole to our immediate left. And then we dropped down into a huge wall of water directly in front of us, and as I got on the floor we hit it dead center and I flew out of the raft.
I was gone, deep underwater, blackness enclosing me. I couldn’t tell if I was moving or stationary in the water. The pressure on my ears became too much, and I blew hard on my nose to equalize. I scraped against something hard, a rock, and then it was gone as I was swept past. The black became a deep green, and then there was more light, and I willed myself to break the surface, until the water propelled me back into the chaotic turbulence, a harsh reality after the calmness of the deep gloom.
I sucked in great mouthfuls of air as I tried to work out how long I’d been under. Twenty, thirty seconds? Whatever the time, it’d felt like an age. I was in a large pool below the main rapid. I spied Milo kneeling on his upside-down raft, and I swum over as he re-flipped it. We both jumped in and proceeded to rescue the crew.
“Big hit that one,” Milo said. “How was that for you?”
“I don’t remember a thing. It all happened so fast.”
“It does that, yeah.”
“I went real deep though. I hit a rock.”
“Bullshit. I don’t know anyone who’s hit the bottom here.”
“Well I fucking did.”
“What did you notice before we hit the hole?” he asked me.
His tone was serious, so I mentioned the large hole I’d seen towards the left.
He nodded. “Good. That’s the class six part of the rapid. You don’t want to go in there. So don’t overcompensate at the top or you could find yourself in a bucket-load of pain.”
We helped to clean up the mess from Corey and Eddie’s flips, and then we headed downstream to another class five monster where Milo flipped me again. After a few more kilometers of negotiating channels through islands filled with chattering monkeys, we stopped for lunch on a small island next to an adjacent village. Afterwards we paddled along a series of long pools that culminated with a difficult portage around a waterfall that was only runnable when the river was low. It looked terrifying, but it was nothing compared to the truly awe-inspiring cataract that heaved and thundered on the other side of the river at the same point.
“That’s called the Dead Dutchman,” Milo told me. His voice was raised above the sound of the river. “Named after a Dutch dude who thought he could paddle it in an inflatable kayak rubber ducky thing.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“They found a part of his lifejacket.”
Stay tuned for the final part, ‘A Mazungu in Al’s Bar’, next FRIDAY!! Part One ran last Friday.
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