On his summer holiday before starting university Cam McLeay was reluctant to join a family rafting trip on the Rangitaiki River, but it changed his life.

"I couldn't believe how much fun it was," he said.

He wanted more whitewater.

"We couldn't afford to buy rafts but what we could do is make them. So we went to Firestone Tyres in Rotorua where Dad had a connection and they generously donated some inner tubes.

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"We went to a friend's property who offered us some bamboo and we had some bailing twine in the shed at the farm outside Rotorua.

"So we made our own rafts and we even made our own paddles."

In 1981 they rafted the Motu River and looking to be paid for his passion approached rafting companies, saying he was an experienced guide.

"I didn't tell them it was on inner tubes and bamboo."

He became a professional rafting guide in his last year at Victoria University of Wellington, graduating with an accounting degree, and rafting took him around the world.

He met his Australian wife Kate in Nepal and while living in London organised a private rafting trip in Africa to celebrate his 30th birthday.

With 60 people coming along for the Zambezi River adventure it was cheaper and easier to buy their own expedition equipment, the genesis of their rafting and adventure company Adrift.

Adrift was founded in 1992 and led the first known descent of the Victoria Nile in Uganda. His dream was to ascend the Nile and 10 years ago there was a window of opportunity.

"The South Sudanese signed a peace deal so we embarked on an expedition to travel the full length of the Nile for the first time ever, starting in the Mediterranean and travelling up, which the Ancient Egyptians had tried to do for thousands of years and the British explorers attempted."

London retailer Fortnum & Mason, the supplier for previous attempts, sponsored the expedition through five countries to the Nile's source in Rwanda's Nyungwe rainforest.

"We said to Fortnum & Mason we'd like to finish off what Speke, Baker, Burton, Livingston and Stanley were unable to achieve and travel the full length of the Nile.

"They were very excited. They've had a business for 300 years and never sponsored anyone."

The first attempt ended in tragedy. Microlights flying their inflatable boats over Ugandan rapids crashed and a friend who came to their aid was killed by rebels.

"The grass was higher than the roof of the Land Rover so you couldn't see much and then bullets started hitting. I was terrified."

The vehicle crashed and the driver shot. In bare feet he fled through long grass from the Lord's Resistance Army, which had the reputation of leaving no survivors.

"I started telling myself, I'm not going to let these guys kill me. My wife is pregnant and I've two young kids - it's too early to go."

After six months the trek continued.

"It was part of the healing process."

It finished in a blaze of publicity "with hundreds of journalists". With Garth MacIntyre and Neil McGregor he wrote Ascend the Nile, published in 2009.

In 2010 he guided English actress Joanna Lumley on a similar journey for a TV series and also Top Gear in 2013. The Ugandan rafting business grew steadily with the help of local people trained as guides.

He has since sold out of the business but said second-generation world-class guides were joining the company, which paid Western wages.

He said deforestation was a growing problem on the river.

"People would cut down a 250-year-old hardwood tree and sell it for $20."

Locals agreed to sell his company an island for a tourist lodge and the promise of jobs.

Wildwater's restaurant sits beside one of the two rapids. Activities range from Jet boats to jacuzzis, beers or bungy jumping.

Cam and Kate now live in Havelock North but still has several projects in Uganda. On a 2010 return trip he discovered one of the original boats used in the classic 1951 Hollywood film The African Queen. He had her restored and it operates river tours with a skipper dressed as Humphrey Bogart.

"I am very passionate about New Zealand and I wanted my kids to grow up as Kiwis. When the eldest was at secondary school it was the catalyst to come home."

He said he was lucky to be able to return to New Zealand and chose Hastings for its schools.

Many in the community near Wildwater Lodge lived hand-to-mouth but the tourist businesses had made a real difference.

"There was no employment in that region when we started commercial rafting in 1996 and now commercial rafting employs over 600 people from those local communities.

"There is real hope that will continue - as a group we have been able to empower those people and give them some values in protecting their environment."