MCU kayak lessons

By Dan Smith

Nothing could have prepared me for running Bubugo. When we sat upstream of the monster, all we could see were small puffs of white spray over the horizon and an ominous rumble. As I plunged down behind Sam, the lead instructor,in to the huge hole before the main wave, I watched as he was engulfed in several meters of snarling white water and knew that I wasn’t going to be going by his first piece of advice, “Follow my line.” But as the water threw me over I remembered his second piece of advice, “If you flip, just hold on and you’ll be in the pool before you know it.” Having had countless experiences of these guys ability to paddle up stream in to a rapid to rescue you, I knew I had to hang on. I wasn’t wrong and sure enough there he was with a T rescue in the middle of some of the biggest white water in the world. This was day five.

In most parts of the world kayaking is regarded as a mountain sport because the fast and most powerful bodies of water run down mountain channels, although in Uganda they run from Lake Victoria. When it’s raining the climbers go kayaking. So the Mountain Club of Uganda formed a good relationship with the Kayak The Nile kayak school to get more climbers out on the white water. The school has recently changed hands to Sam Ward, one of the GB Freestyle Kayak coaches, and Emily Wall, two times British Women’s Freestyle Kayak Champion. So the weekend before my birthday Tom, Micah, Jenny, Vicky, Simon, Hugo, Greg and I set off to learn how to paddle.

Before I go in to the five days of coaching I think it’s worth pointing out that ever since the first kayakers came to the Nile to prospect for commercial rafting routes in the late 90s, all of the companies have prided themselves on the quantity and quality of the local kayakers. Having noticed that the people living on the banks of the Nile are not only incredibly warm and friendly they’re also phenomenally strong and fit, they ran trial days to select the best people and trained them up to be kayakers and raft guides. These guys are now earning a decent living which allows them to support their families with the opportunities they didn’t have. Some of the guides travel the world too, working on different rivers or competing in Freestyle World Championships. Two such gentlemen are David Egesa and ‘Prince’ Charles Luttaya; who we spent our first morning with.

Nile River Explorers ‘Explorer Campsite’ sits on the banks of the Nile. Before the construction of the much needed Bujagali Hydro-Electric Dam there were some of the biggest rapids in the world where the guides cut their teeth, but now there is a tranquil lake of flat water perfect for teaching beginners. Which is where we spent a morning moving backwards and forwards, going round in various circles and learning how to be T rescued in case we couldn’t eskimo roll; which we mainly couldn’t other than Tom and Hugo. A T rescue is a method of helping a stricken kayaker if they can’t roll their own boat back up. On the part of the upside down kayaker it involves not panicking, holding your breath, tapping the bottom (now the top) of your boat and sliding your hands along the side. The rescuing kayaker then paddles up so the bow hits the side of the boat, avoiding the upsidedowner’s hands. The upsiderdowner then grabs the front of the boat and rolls his hips around whilst keeping his head on the bow of the boat. This is effectively the same movement need for an eskimo roll, it’s just that in that situation the kayaker uses the resistance of the water on his paddle to help roll his hips around. Following a picnic of sandwich, banana, juice and glucose biscuits with a worried looking little girl on the packet, we headed off down to the other side of the dam to get on some moving water.

The moving water session was led by Sam and included various aspects of breaking in to moving water by edging(tipping the boat on to its edge) across the eddy lines between the flat and moving water, then shifting your weight and paddling downstream. An eddy is an area of flat water in amongst moving water, it’s created when a current passes around a rock and allows kayakers to sit between currents without being washed away. Where the eddy meets the moving water the resistance creates a different current called an eddy line which you have to move past to get between them. This difference in current often catches people out and has them flipping over unexpectedly. One by one we became stronger and stronger at moving in and out of moving water. So off we headed to the first proper rapid of our course, Jaws. On the fifth day we all nailed down Jaws (Grade 3) with no problems, but on day one we were a bit more wibblewibble wobble wobble, ending in what Sam cheerfully refers to ascarnage. Swimming kayakers and kayaks in every direction. Once we were all comfortably back in our boats, complete with ear to ear grins, we carried on down through some smaller rapids and ended the day with a cool Nile Special on the edge of the Nile. Sunday was set for climbing at Luwazi, so in preparation we chowed down on huge plates of pork ribs, drank beer, learnt the words to One By One (which became our anthem) from Tom, danced until the bar closed and swam in the Nile; an excellent way to celebrate your birthday!

The second weekend was spent at the Hairy Lemon further downstream, which was more laid back and involved less beer. This is a cool little island paradise that was coincidentally and fortuitously built near the world famous Nile Special Wave Chain; which we headed across to run down, well, swim down; other than, miraculously, Micah. The morning was spent in a shallow area with the guys learning how to roll (I think I tested even Sam’s endless patience on this one) and out on a small patch of moving water practicing the moving water techniques we’d learned the previous week. After putting out Prince Charles’ car due to dodgy electrics exploding in the hot Ugandan sunshine, we eddy hopped(moving between eddies) up stream for a huge afternoon at Nile Special. Once there we watched some European champion Freestyle Kayakers throw down some moves before heading up stream to have a look at what awaited us.

The theory is that as you run down you bear left to avoid the first big hole, then drop down to the wave chain and attempt to ride over them before breaking out in to the eddy on the right hand side. That’s the theory. In practice you avoid the first hole, drop down in to the biggest wave you’ve ever seen, hit it head on and get thrown head of heels backwards. But, as per usual, you get scooped up by one or other of the guys before hauling yourself back in to your boat with a huge grin plastered across your face.

Following a bit more practice on Sunday, we headed off downstream of the Hairy Lemon to learn the essential Nile running skill of floating down stream with legs hanging out of your boat and run some lesser known rapids to woops and screams of ‘David! I want to get out now!’as we plunged through the point of no return. Before mucking about with some kids, enjoying yet more beer and heading back up to go home.

By our final weekend Hugo and Simon had had to drop out but Charlie Langan, who could already kayak, joined in and, following a pool session, we were introduced to Super Hole; a large standing wave used for Freestyle Kayaking (where you stay in one place and perform acrobatic tricks). But first you have to get in to it! The theory is the same as hitting any moving stream of water point your nose diagonally up stream, edge down stream and put in a big squeeze to the back. But Super Hole doesn’t suffer fools! And you quickly find yourself downstream being rescued again. By the end of the day we were all breaking in and some surfing along to the main wave, but none of us made it look as elegant as the KTN guys. More beer, more party, more swimming, little sleep and we were ready for our final day; 20 km of paddling with a hangover from the Bujagali dam down to Super Hole – a run called Silverback to Super Hole.

By this time we were all relatively used to moving water and shot through the smaller rapids like the wobbly paddlers we were. After a fair bit of floating and paddling along flat water as well as a few ‘cans of man up’; next up was Overtime, a dangerous and uncharacteristically shallow Grade 5 with a 14 ft waterfall at the end. We watched Prince Charles and Sam shoot the first part while we portaged our boats around to the top of the waterfall, feeling fairly apprehensive about what turned out to be one of the best things to do in kayak. Running waterfalls is awesome! Then it was downstream a bit more to Retrospect (Grade 4), on to Bubugo(remarkably only a Grade 3) before hitting Super Hole (Grade 3) for a bit more surfing and then a few more Niles by The Nile.

All of this sounds like three kayakers simply threw us down large volume, deep water rapids; which to an extent they did; which on The Nile you can because the water is very deep and warm. But the standard of teaching and mentoring is hard to compare to. Sam, David and Charles strike an excellent and very personalized balance of how hard to push you yet when to back off and confide some of their experience learning this very intimidating sport. Confidence levels between the group varied but by the end of the 5 lessons all of the group was confidently shooting waterfalls, running huge rapids and rolling back up to the tale. Since completing these lessons we’ve all been back for more and nailed Retrospect, but Bubugo still ate me alive.