Worldwide, white-water rafting is one of the fastest growing sports, and in Kenya this is no exception. If you have never experienced the adrenaline surging excitement of a wild river, join, or bring a group of friends or colleagues, and under the command of an experienced river guide, experience the thrills, and sometimes spills, of maneuvering a 14- foot inflatable boat through the waves, twists and falls of a white-water river.
Perhaps the river most suited for rafting in Kenya is the Tana River - Kenya’s longest, draining Mt. Kenya, the Aberdare’s and much of the highlands beyond. In its upper section the river is navigable only to experienced kayakers, (class V+ white water!!). Lower down, and only 95 km from Nairobi, the river widens out and becomes less steep. It is on these sections that commercial river rafting is done. In parts the river is tame and tranquil; whilst in others there are cascading waterfalls and foaming rapids.
On our trip we were to experience all these conditions, though before setting off, the 15 of us were kited out in bright yellow helmets and sky blue life jackets, we were given a comprehensive safety lecture. Certainly we were very colourful, and we felt very safe and in competent hands.
“These are paddle boats” our guide informed us. “I sit in the back ,steer the boat, and tell you what to do. You guys provide the means of propulsion”. Was this really what we were paying for? - to work!!. In fact we soon found out that it was very easy to paddle the boat, and the only time we really had to work, was in the big rapids, however before getting to those, we had the mysteries of rafting jargon explained to us. “High side” means the whole crew, (six of us in each boat), jumps to the side instructed, “Hit the deck” means get down , with the pitch of the guides voice indicating to us the speed with which we should get down. “Surfing” is when you get caught in a whirlpool and the raft bounces up and down and all around without going anywhere - it’s like riding a bucking bronco or jumping into the washing machine during full spin. “Flipping” -- well you’re going to get wet!!
We did a few practice turns around a calm pool by the start, then assured by the guide that we were sufficiently proficient we headed on down the river. The first rapid was soon upon us. Our guide shouted the instructions and suddenly like oil down a drain pipe we slid effortlessly down the shute, but drenched by the waves at the bottom. Our first rapid completed. We let out a loud cheer and made ready for the next one.... So passed our first hour or so.
In between the rapids are stretches of calm, peaceful water where we drifted along observing the superb bird life, and being watched just as closely by the local villagers, who, because it was a Sunday, were down on the river banks doing their weekly wash. The sun was warm, we were able to take a refreshing swim, and where there were cliffs dropping into the river, the roots of the wild figs and camphor trees stretched like tentacles into the water creating gnarled sculptured grottoes where the river creatures could hide.
By the end of the longest calm section, we were getting quite cocky, having gone through rapids with names like “Dogs Back”, “Can of Worms” and “Folly”. Slowly the current quickened and the sound of tumbling water ahead could be heard. We pull over to the bank for some special instructions. “I will call hit the deck” says our guide, “then be ready to highside left..... and if you fall out ......!” What have we let our selves into.?
“Easy forward”... “OK now hard forward” ... “Hit the deck!”. Water rushes over and around us like a tidal wave. “Back paddle hard”... “Harder!”.....”Highside left!”... we jump left just as the other side of the boat starts to take in water and we feel the boat right itself. “Hard forward!” ... and suddenly we are through, and shoot out into calm water. - We had conquered the first of the big ones, and were soon watching the other boats come on through.
The next one - “Sphincter Flexor” - even bigger, claims one of our crew members about half way through it. We pick him up once we are through, spluttering and spitting water. Soon after, we also collect the crew from one of the other boats that flips as it enters the “Fish eye. We all laugh like mad, but rapidly sober up when our guide informs us that it’s time for our boat to go and have a go at “surfing the Fish eye”.
Ah well you see... we try to explain, but to no avail, and soon we are “Surfing” - scary at first, bet exhilarating . “Yay!!”, till I get swept over the side into the boil of water, tumbled end over end. I remember the instructions - relax, and almost immediately, though it seems a lifetime, the life jacket has brought me to the surface and I’m able to swim easily ashore
After about five super hours on the river, and another relaxing swim near a picturesque waterfall, which we leap from, we help pull the boats onto the bank where our reward for a job well done awaits us. Grilled steaks, sausages, salads and potato, but best of all an ice cold beer.
Description of the commercial rafting area.
A low volume, technical, pool drop river, with rapids formed by hard basaltic dykes across the softer, original basement rocks. Difficulty of the rapids range from 0 through IV+, though in high waters there are three class V sections. Paddle boats are used unless requested otherwise
Participants leave Nairobi from outside the Norfolk Hotel at 0800hrs, and get back to Nairobi by around 1800hrs. An exciting day of thrills (and often spills), but with plenty of time to relax, view the abundant birdlife, cool off with a swim, or just work on the suntan. On reaching the take out point / campsite, about 4½ hours after setting off, a full bar-b-q lunch awaits the participants, plenty of beer and soft drinks included.
The company doing the rafting now have their our own idyllic campsite at the take off point. Fishing, bird watching, swimming for the kids, watered lawns to pitch tents on, plenty of shade, tables and benches, toilets and shower, fire grills etc. It’s available free of charge to river rafters and their families (whether rafting or not).
The Muthoya River. Alt 1,650 - 1,160m
With a runable distance of about 30km. and with just under 500m of descent, this river offers some of the most demanding and continuous white-water rafting and kayaking found in Kenya. Because it is a narrow, low volume river, the water is not particularly “big”. However it is fast flowing and many of the rapids are technically very difficult. (class IV and V). There are numerous hydraulics. Fallen trees are another potential hazard. Two short portages are required around class VI sections. Because of the volatile nature of this river, the company will only make it available to those who have rafted with them before or who have previous experience on a class V river.
The Athi River
The only raftable during the two wet seasons - April - July and again November - December. Best described as a scenic river, it has limited white water sections with a quarter of the river only, being class II and III. Rafting starts at an altitude of about 800m. and descends, after a distance on the river for about 80 km, to around 600m. Distance from Nairobi to put in is about 230 km, and hence only viable as a minimum of a three day trip.
Day 1. Depart from Nairobi at around 0800, for the 4-hour drive to the put-in point at “Yatta Gap”. Afternoon spent drifting / paddling slowly down eight kilometres of flat water river. Superb birdlife all around, particularly the kingfishers, heron and weavers. The nights camp, as with all the night stops on the river, is upon a sand bank, at a point accessible to the Land Rovers which carry all food and camp equipment. Four course evening meal, plenty of cold drinks and the evening around a camp fire. Retire to ones sleeping bag as you wish with the sounds of the river and “Africa”, lulling one to sleep.
Day 2. After a leisurely breakfast and having packed up and loaded the camp onto the vehicles, one continues down river. Again aviflora abounds and as one approaches the boundary with Tsavo East National Park, so does the animal life. Numerous species of the antelope, giraffe, buffalo; sometimes the elephant, and more rarely, one of the big cats that come to the river to drink. Crocodiles are a certainty, hippo almost as certain. Several long, and numerous shorter sections of class II and III white-water.
Day 3. Similar to the previous day but with a couple of class IV sections. This superb section is followed by several sections of calm water interspersed with more, though shorter sections, of exciting class III white water. After an early lunch and having packed away the boats and river gear, we depart by road for Nairobi. Total Distance covered on the river - up to 82 km. but is dependent on time available and prevailing water level and conditions
Ewaso-Ng’iro River. Alt 900 - 750m
When the water levels are suitable, this river is without doubt the best combined white-water river / scenic river expedition any of us have ever had. Like the Athi River, the minimum duration required is 3 days. However because there are much longer and more difficult sections of the white-water, a lesser distance is covered each day. Start from about 10km. west of Barsalinga and raft for over 20km. on almost continuous class II, III and IV rapids, but there are several rapids of class V.
This trip can also be extended, to cover a further 100km. of the river, from the usual take out point near Kipsing, eastwards, through Samburu National Park, to as far as Chandler Falls in Shaba National Park. On this section it’s a scenic river, with flat water all the way. Plenty of game to be seen, particularly elephant and crocodile, numerous species of the antelope, giraffe, warthogs; and more rarely, one of the big cats that must come daily to the river to drink.We have even seen the lion just 10m from the boats floating by. Superb birdlife all around. Once into the Shaba National Park, minor rapids, interspersed with calm sections lead one into another section of gorges and superb sections of white-water. Spectacular scenery. Total Distance covered on the river - up to about 180 km. but is dependent on time available and prevailing water level conditions.
General rafting information
All boats are manufactured by Avon of the UK, with a crew capacity of six per boat. Life jackets and helmets are supplied. Lead boat carrys a comprehensive first aid medical kit. Guides all carry a knife, throw bag /s, binas and a pulley.
Client participation preferred, and hence boats are paddled by the participants themselves. A guide in each boat just gives the commands and steers the boat. Clients have the opportunity to bring cameras or video in our waterproof boxes, or to rent our waterproof cameras.
Customised food catering, including complementary beer and soft drinks
Minimum age, experience and fitness
Usually 14, with parental consent. We have no upper limit as it’s dependent on the individuals fitness and health. We regularly have “old” men of 40, and we’ve even had a “young” lady of 72 with us on the Tana!. With the exception of the Muthoya North River, no previous rafting experience necessary, and an averagely fit person will encounter no physical problems.
On the Athi and Ewaso Ng’iro Rivers, each nights’ camp is set up at a scenic point, either on the side of the river or upon a sandbank. Tents are small 2-man dome types, and air beds and sleeping bags are provided.
Shorts, (or swimming costume), and a shirt, (long sleeves and pants for those with sensitive skins and essential on all multi-day trips). A wide brimmed hat. A pair of fastenable shoes or “Teva” type sandals. Sunscreen of factor 25 or more. Personal toiletries and malarial prophylactics as applicable.
Camera, and sunglasses (with retainer cord), gloves and socks, (anti-sunburn). A light weight nylon rain jacket worn under your life jacket is also useful in cold weather or if it does rain while you are on the river. Spare warm clothing to change into at the end of the trip. What you wear on the boat for the white-water WILL get wet.