Flowing deep through the heart of Africa lies one of nature’s most dangerous predators. Snaking northward, she innocently maneuvers her way through the brilliant green brush and sun-soaked sand dunes, scouring quietly for prey. She camouflages herself as the lifeline to civilization, but those who reside along her banks know her true wrath.
One spring day, six thrill-seeking American college girls set out to tame her. Girded with only helmets and life vests, they climbed aboard the “Uganda Matayo” for the adventure of a lifetime—eight hours of utter terror, fifteen miles of crocodile infestation, and one rookie South African river guide named Elsa. It was 2003; I was twenty years old, and I was one of those thrill seekers.
Our journey started long before we caught a glimpse of the world’s longest waterway. Thirty-six hours prior to push-off from the banks of the Nile, we caught a bus in downtown Nairobi and ventured twelve hours across the Kenyan-Ugandan border to Kampala.
I had been in Kenya for three months as part of study abroad program with my university, and it had been the longest three months of my life. I was looking forward to a break from roommates who didn’t speak my language and food that didn’t settle right in my stomach. The six of us—Jen, Whitney, Sarah, Darya, Suzi, and I—had been planning this trip for weeks. A night in a hostel in a country far from my spider-infested, cobra-nested dorm room sounded like a vacation in the south of France.
I’m usually nervous when I travel, whether traipsing across town to Grandma’s house or trekking thousands of miles away to Africa. There is no real reason behind this fear. I haven’t lost a loved in a car wreck or witnessed a plane crash. I have no reason to think I may ever go up in a ball of flames. As irrational as it may sound, I constantly fear violent death. And this weekend getaway was no different. For weeks I had nightmares that my bus would crash somewhere out in the brown bush of Western Kenya, and I would be shipped home in a body bag without telling my parents I loved them one last time. Morbid—I know. But if I trusted every time my stomach turned at the thought of adventure, I would still be on 81st Avenue Circle in Omaha, sitting in my old purple bedroom.
Ignoring the knot working its way through the twists and turns of my digestive tract, I boarded the Eldoret Express Bus bound for Kampala. It smelled like Grandma’s bathroom after Uncle Jim used it, and the hours passed like a bad sermon on an empty stomach.
“Can you believe we’re really going to do this?” I said turning to Jen sitting in the seat next to me.
“If only the girls could see us now.” Jen and I had lived on the same hall at our small liberal arts college in Kentucky for the past two years. We signed up for the study abroad together, had our going away party together, and now were about to ride the Nile together. We both took a couple Tylenol PM and fell asleep.
When dawn appeared, the plush jungles were the first sign we were far from drought-ridden Kenya, far from the familiar wasteland, far from the comfort of what we knew. An hour after crossing the boarder into Uganda, the bus pulled over to what appeared to be roadside vegetable stands. As quickly as we stopped, men, women, and children swarmed the window holding up mini bananas, grilled chicken on wooden sticks, and bottles of water.
“Can you believe this!” Suzi said as she reached for Kenyan shillings, hoping to buy some bananas.
“I’ll take the chicken,” I shouted to a woman with a basket of fruit resting on her head and a handful of poultry gripped firmly in her palm.
When we finally arrived at the Blue Mango Hotel, we spent the day getting settled in a room that consisted of twelve bunk beds made of thin metal rods and inch-thick mattresses. To add to the atmosphere, there was a hole in the ground in the corner of the room for a toilet. The exhaustion from the overnight journey hindered any reluctance to pass out for hours on the bottom bunk of a bed in the corner of our five-dollar-a-night hotel accommodations. After a quick dinner at the hotel bar, we all climbed in our sleeping bags and anxiously awaited the alarm clock to ring six a.m.
The next day, we loaded the bus and sat in the back with our metaphorical war faces painted on.
“I think I’m going to do the bungee jumping-rafting combo,” Suzi said.
“This is going to be awesome,” Whitney said.
“Yeah, can’t believe the guys weren’t brave enough to come. Who needs ‘em?” I said coughing at the end of my sentence, trying to hide my trembling voice.
We marched in rhythm toward the mucky waters, glancing down over the red banks of the river. Something about that rushing water didn’t look quite as peaceful as I pictured back in Sunday school with baby Moses floating gracefully in a basket made of reeds. And something inside me, probably the bad goat I ate the night before, tempted me to back out. The closer I got to the river, the more my heart pounded. I wanted to break free from the single-file line on the jungle path leading us to the rafts and run as far as I could. Nevertheless, I kept in beat for fear of being viewed as weak or being eaten by wild cats if I escaped into the tropical abyss. We made our way to the raft, climbed in, and began to float downstream.
“We don’t have a rapid for a while. Feel free to get in the water,” Elsa, our river guide, encouraged us. She had just moved to Uganda from South Africa for the job the week before and had only run this river once.
“You don’t even have to swim. The river will pull you.”
I thought about her words as I jumped in. The pull of the river. The idea of moving without moving myself—placing my trust in something unsure, unseen.
I took off my life jacket and swam as fast and as hard as I could. And when I had exhausted by muscles, I rolled over on my back and let the river pull me.
Just as I started to relax and float peacefully, I heard Elsa shouting.
“Quick, back to the raft, there are crocs over there.” Who knew if she was telling the truth, but it sure got me swimming.
“Jesus save me,” I yelled as I flailed my arms and kicked my legs.
“Jesus can’t save you now,” Darya responded jokingly from the safety of the raft. Crocodiles and hippopotamuses are killers in these waters. I wasn’t taking any chances.
When the white-water rapids began, they hit us hard and fast.
“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” Elsa demanded. “PULL IN!”
In one fluid movement we all pulled in our paddles, tucked our bodies and hid at the base of the raft, holding onto the rope that outlined the air-filled inner tube.
“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” she shouted again. “PULL IN!”
“Elsa, make the water stop,” Jen pleaded.
One rapid after another, the bumpy waters threatened to fold us up and to suck us under. We refused to surrender.
In the minutes between each rapid, we talked about our trivial lives, about boys and jobs and life after Kenya. All I could think about was the safety boat one older woman chose to take down the river instead of fighting the rapids—why hadn’t I chosen the easy way out? Just when I started to let my fear of falling out get the best of me, Elsa would tell us to paddle again.
After seven and a half grueling hours of adventure under the equatorial sun, I looked ahead and comforted my raft mates. The end was in sight. Only, I had spoken too soon. As we rounded a bend, Elsa’s face went sheepishly pale.
“Listen closely,” she told us. “In about one hundred yards we are going to encounter a waterfall. And when I say so, you must paddle with everything you have left. It’s a twenty-foot drop with rocks at the bottom,” she paused and regarded us seriously. “You keep going until we’re over it, and if we’re lucky, most of us will make it.”
Our laughter subsided and our eyes anxiously peered ahead. We sat in silence, except for someone randomly whispering an expletive under her breath. Elsa was serious, and we were in trouble. I made it this far and now you’re going to tell me I’m a dead woman!
Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. The rhythm of each stroke thrust the seven-passenger raft down the rushing river. The intensity of our team to survive the churning waters bound us together like soldiers at war. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. In perfect unity, we approached our giant. “Get down!” Elsa yelled. And with that command we pulled in our paddles, grabbed the rope, closed our eyes and prayed for mercy. Suddenly the slippery raft came to an unexpected halt. Confused, all seven heads lifted. As we peered over the edge, we froze in terror. We were stuck on the cusp of the fall. Half of the raft was ready to be swallowed by the whitewater below; the other was still holding on to dear life. No one moved. No one spoke. The only sounds were the rapids gushing through the jagged rocks under us as we hung in the void between life and death. Elsa hollered to us again, “We’re going to have to jump up and down.” Was she crazy? If the choice was either to stay on this unstable pillar for the rest of our lives or rock the raft back and forth by jumping, I voted stay. “Jump up and down,” she yelled again. With trepidation in her voice, she said, “On three.”
“One.” Why did I ever agree to this? This wasn’t in the plan. I knew from the start this was a bad idea. This river is too big.
“Two.” No. I’m too scared. I’d rather stay put and watch everyone else take the plunge.
“Three.” Oh crap, I’m going to die.
And with that, we jumped up and down. Again and again. Finally, I felt a budge. The raft turned, and in a Michael “Air” Jordan move, we flew through the sky, raft and all. Water sprayed like a fountain around us, and we were tossed like popcorn. After a final thud, our raft stopped, and we soberly opened our eyes to see if any of us had succumbed to the pull of the fall. We were at the bottom of this aquatic beast. We had conquered Africa’s fury, and not one person fell out of the boat.
When we reached the end, I climbed out of the muddy river and felt the earth’s black goo squish through my toes. I hiked the steep pathway away from the water as native children ran to offer their toting services. At the top, I turned and saw her, the Nile, in all of her glory. The river’s current looked deceptively peaceful hundreds of yards away. In hindsight, it always does. The only trace of struggle was the pain in my body. But I knew that pain breeds strength, and not just surface strength, but strength deep down in the soul. For those few hours, the river had held my life as if she had a message for me. Through the twists and turns, the rapids and the rocks, the river had led me. The river had terrified me. And the river had brought me safely back to her banks where I could stand on my own two feet. There, at the finish line of a conquered fear, the river had taught me something. The river taught me to let go.