Some reflections on learning to kayak on the River Nile

Paddling past 'The Bad Place' on the River Nile

Paddling past ‘The Bad Place’ on the River Nile

I have always loved the outdoors and growing up I occasionally ventured out onto the flat waters of the River Wye, close to my parent’s house in the UK, to do some paddling with my local scout group.

As much as enjoyed these ventures out into the pleasant surroundings of the Wye valley, kayaking remained for me a sport that failed to conjure the passion or excitement of other sports I loved in my teenage years such as mountaineering, football or skiing.

When I moved to Uganda then, it took me almost a whole year until I was persuaded by friends into trying my hand at white-water kayaking on the River Nile.

In retrospect my biggest regret is that I waited this long to try it. Equally though, it was far from love at first sight, or perhaps a more appropriate axiom, all plain sailing from the start.

Getting off the water at the end of the first lesson I knew that a seed had been planted that had the potential to grow into a real passion. I made a conscious choice, despite feeling apprehensive, to give this seed the best chance possible to grow and booked myself onto an additional four lessons with the kayak school ‘Kayak the Nile’.

At that stage, I can remember distinctly feeling that my enthusiasm for kayaking could go either way. As much as I enjoyed the adrenalin of kayaking my first rapid, I also remember a few hours earlier the less pleasurable spluttering for air as I first attempted an upside-down ‘t-rescue’.

Looking back on the last 10 months of padding, I can see though that it was as much the spluttering for air moments, the times I had to work hard, to persevere at practicing skills as it was the exciting splashing down rapids that have helped grow my initial excitement into a real passion.

The hours I spent alone in mate’s swimming pools practising, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, my flat-water role and the sense of achievement at now rolling in (quite) big white-water stands as just one illustration of this.

Unlike some friends that I see now out on the water I don’t feel like kayaking came naturally to me. It took me a bit longer than what I have observed to be ‘normal’ to start feeling relaxed out on the water and especially upside-down.

Even now, 10 months after starting this sport, I still feel panicked when I move into territories that are new to me. Just last weekend I went to surf a wave that was much larger than I was used to and this filled me with an apprehension that, at least in part, dictated how I kayaked on the wave.

It only seems fair at this point to give a virtual hat-tip to the instructors of ‘Kayak the Nile’ who seemed to instinctively know that when I said my goal was to ‘feel in control on the wave’ I was not just referring to the physical challenge of staying up-right but the psychological one of staying relaxed and confident.

Without the careful and consistent guidance of the instructors I am convinced that my seedling of passion planted on that first lesson could easily have been flushed away at any moment.

For as much as I am grateful to the instructors though it is an interesting reflection to note that learning to kayak is also a lot about learning to understand and control yourself. It is not just about taught new skills.

It might sound like an exaggeration to say kayaking teaches you to ‘learn about yourself’ but from a personal experience I can say that one of the most rewarding parts of learning to kayak has been the journey of learning to stay psychologically more in control (for I still don’t feel 100% in control) out on the water.

My passion for kayaking on the Nile though goes beyond all of this.

There is something really profoundly special about being about being on such a huge powerful expanse of water.

Out the Nile I feel something comparable to how I do in large mountain ranges. I feel a sense of my own size and vulnerability in the grand scheme of nature, I feel a sense of wonder at the amazing beauty that surrounds me and a sense of profound appreciation that I am lucky enough to have experienced it.

Even the experience of being near the Nile the night before feels magical. I love waking up after camping on the banks of Nile to see the strong sunlight breaking through the trees with the sort of intensity you only really get on the equator. I love lying in my tent hearing the powerful sound of the water in the rapids carving itself through the rocks in the Nile. I love the, admittedly quite hippy, idea that kayaking is about harnessing the amazing power of nature and working with it.

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Most of all though I think enjoy sharing this passion with people. I love seeing friends do their first lesson, first roll, or first trick on a wave. I love watching those with less experience than me and seeing them progress as much as I love watching those with far more experience than me and feeling that mixture of aspiration and dread about what I might, or might not, be able to achieve in the future.

When I move away from the paddler’s paradise of the River Nile I have no idea if this passion will stay with me but I do know that at this moment I really hope it does.

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Filed under Sport, Travel, Uganda

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