Before the dam went in at Big Brother Rapid on the White Nile the best class V hit of the day was Total Gunga rapid. It was over three hundred meters from top to bottom, a maelstrom of pressure waves, conflicting currents, massive holes, and enormous boil lines. And all of it was created by over 3000 cubic meters of water per second turning a slight corner and dropping a little in elevation.
It scared the shit out of me. Every single day. There was a large rock just upstream where three of the 18 foot rafts we used could comfortably fit into its protected eddy. That’s where we would wait while our video kayaker got himself set up and our safety kayakers ran the rapid. The safety kayakers couldn’t really do anything from a safety point of view. They were there more or less to retrieve the paddles – it was hard to source them in Uganda.
So we waited. Until our video guy lifted his hand high in the air and then one of us would have to peel out into the massive current. I preferred to go first so I could just get it over and done with. The problem was that every other guide felt the same way. Sometimes I’d make the break but sometimes I’d be last.
Sitting there waiting. You’d watch a raft leave the eddy, it would swing out hard into the current, the eddy-line catching it in a dangerous lift, and then the raft would barrel over to river-left, the crew paddling their hearts out as the guide tweaked his line.
The river was almost a kilometre wide at this point, and the currents were massive and confusing. But at the entrance you had a very fine line to put the raft where it needed to be. Half a meter either way or the wrong angle and even though you had hundreds of meters to go, the power of the current meant that you would very rarely recover.
If you went too far left you’d go into a class VI pour over – nothing good could come from that. Too far right and you’d just flush through. What we were aiming for was the G-spot, the only part of a rapid that I’ve ever named. The G-spot was a massive breaking hole where rafts could become ensnared in the most horrendous surfs. The surfs were so violent that we had sent an email to Avon, the manufacturer of our rafts. We asked them what we could do about the thwarts that were continually blowing out. Avon replied that their rafts were the best in the world and that we were talking rubbish.
So we sent them a video. They wrote back and politely told us that we were insane and to never contact them again.
Eventually we designed a system where the thwarts could be clipped in. The clips would come away in a violent surf but the thwarts could just be clipped back in again. Violent surfs lasting for minutes were not uncommon, bodies, paddles, and thwarts all being pounded out of the hole and through the remaining two hundred meter class V swim to the still pool below.
But on this day, the day of my worst ever swim, I never saw any of that. I was too busy trying to save my own life.
I peeled out into the strong current and my crew sprang into life as I called a forward paddle. They were a good bunch. They paddled in time, their heads down and their bodies arched forward. I had eight of them in the boat plus me. As we came to the top of the rapid I tweaked my line. Right at that moment the current surged and the main boil line rose up. It flexed its muscles so to speak.
My paddle was set hard in the water and my body was angled out of the boat. The problem was that the boil line erupted where my paddle was set, which aerated the water. My crew literally paddled the boat away from under me as I spun around my paddle.
I was in the water, at the top of the rapid, with over three hundred meters of class V rapid still to come. My raft was gone, the crew still paddling their hearts out and completely unaware that their guide was no longer sitting behind them. I dropped my paddle, turned in the water and immediately began desperately swimming to the right. I was doing my utmost to get away from the G-spot. I was a good swimmer and I knew the rapid.
The problem was that I overcompensated. To the right of the G-spot was a beautiful sloping wave which was where I wanted to go. But to the right of that point the wave began breaking.
Swimming means that you are low to the water, which means your vision is poor. I rode up and over a huge mound of water only to find myself directly in the path of the breaking wave. And it was breaking. The wave caught me up and then threw me back in the air the way that I had just come. Our video guy reckoned that I went at least 10 meters in the air. I hit the water but now I was on the left side and right in line for a perfect crack at the G-spot.
I closed my eyes and tucked up into a ball. Boom. I was under, going deep. I had to equalize to relieve the pressure in my ears. I opened my eyes underwater. It was black. I was very deep. I had no sensation of moving forward but I knew that I was from past experiences. I saw green, it was getting lighter. I had been under for around 10 seconds. It was getting lighter and lighter and I willed myself to break the surface. But before I did it went dark again. I was going down into the green room a second time.
Now I knew I had been under for at least 20 seconds. The trick was not to fight it. You had to relax, go limp, and conserve your oxygen. I had been under for at least 30 seconds when I suddenly shot to the surface.
A quick gasp of air, I heaved in my lungs, but then a boil line took me again. I had hit the second current. Down I went. I must have been on the surface for barely a second. I had only just closed my mouth in time. This was a big swim. I wondered how my crew were going. Had they made it through the rapid unscathed? Or had they been swept over towards the class VI area. I was still under, but this time I could feel myself being propelled forward.
Now it became more violent, and even though I didn’t break the surface I was getting pounded from one hole to the next as the rapid emptied itself out into the large pool. My lungs were screaming at me but I knew it was from the built-up carbon dioxide not the lack of oxygen. I forced myself to slowly breathe out underwater, getting rid of the unwanted gas.
And then I was up, just like that. I felt almost too weak to breathe in but I managed it.
“Dude! That was a massive swim! How long? A minute?” It was one of the other guides. I had broken the surface close to his floating raft.
“I don’t know,” I gasped. “My crew, how did they go?”
He grinned. “Perfect. They ran a perfect line through the entire thing; never stopped paddling. We had to chase after them to get them to stop. They reckon they can go on without you.”
I sat there in the warm water holding onto the side of his raft. Big Brother was just around the corner, the next class V run of the day.
“Fine by me,” I said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Adam is a longtime international raft guide who now makes his home in his native Australia after many years abroad Wallacing and getting Wallaced. He is the author of a fantastic memoir of his days on the river, PUSHING RUBBER DOWNHILL. We featured Chapter 15 in three parts here in DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE.
Part 1- http://dbpmagazineonline.blogspot.com/2015/10/pushing-rubber-downhill-part-1-africa.html?m=1
Part 2- http://dbpmagazineonline.blogspot.com/2015/10/pushing-rubber-downhill-part-2-mighty.html?m=1
Part 3- http://dbpmagazineonline.blogspot.com/2015/10/pushing-rubber-downhill-part-3-mazungu.html?m=1
Some links to Adam Piggott-
Where you can buy the book: