The White Nile is home to some of the biggest, best and warmest white water on the planet. Make the most of it and go kayaking or rafting. Then head to Jinja, East Africa’s new adventure sport capital
“This rapid,” announced Ibrah, my kayak instructor, “is a grade two rapid.”
Surging monstrously between two small islands dotting the immense river the eight-foot-high standing wave certainly didn’t look like the piddly grade two rapids found at home. But the sun was shining, the water was warm and Ibrah’s enthusiasm was hard to resist. I gripped my paddle and launched into the current.
It was the first morning of a two-day guiding package arranged for me by Kayak the Nile (www.kayakthenile.com), a company based on shores of the legendary White Nile, just a few kilometres outside East Africa’s new adventure sport capital Jinja. These upper stretches of the planet’s longest river are a white water mecca with numerous channels of varying difficulty drawing kayakers and rafters from all over the world.
At times the sheer scale of the river – reaching more than 500m across - is mind-boggling. But for the most part it splits into a tangle of channels interspersed with densely-vegetated islands. Cormorants and monitor lizards sunbathe on the rocks while monkeys scamper up and down the steep banks. Mercifully crocodiles and hippos shun these rougher stretches, at least, that’s what I was told.
As a lone traveller and keen kayaker I arrived at the river hoping to find someone to show me the channels and rent out gear. Kayak the Nile, a school operating out of the Nile River Explorers campsite above the thundering Bujagali Falls, fulfilled the brief perfectly.
For 399,000 Ugandan shillings ($210) I had two days of top class tuition from Ibrah – a member of the Ugandan national freestyle team, no less – shuttles to and from different sections of the river, huge lunches, and accommodation in the clean, comfortable dorms. The two days were tailored to my ability, taking in some ideal playspots as well as big volume rapids including Hair of the Dog and the aptly-named Vengence.
Industrious local kids loiter near the banks cajoling and charming you into giving them the job of carrying your kayak. Don’t be fooled by their diminutive stature – these youngsters can heft a 13kg kayak through the dense undergrowth without breaking into a sweat and their 50 shilling rate is well-earned.
Kayak the Nile run a range of courses suitable for everyone from complete beginners to big-air knuckleheads wanting to improve their freestyle tricks. This adrenaline-packed section of the river, offering some of the best grade five white water in Africa, is also immensely popular with rafters.
‘Celebrity’ rapids on the 31km run are Bujagali Falls, Silverback and Itanda – which ominously translates as “the bad place”. The two main rafting companies operating out of Jinja are NRE (www.raftafrica.com) and Adrift (http://adrift.ug). Both offer transport, specialist kit, big lunches and free shuttles from the capital Kampala as part of a full day’s activity for around 241,000 shillings ($125) per person.
The Nile River Explorers campsite is a mellow and friendly place to hang out, with the option of dorms, private rooms or tented accommodation, free internet, washing facilities and a superb bar and restaurant area. The kitchen, admittedly costly by local standards, serves a wide selection of western food including delicious pancakes and a sublime beef and guacamole baguette.
If you are looking for a cheap and tasty authentic alternative, try the chapatti man directly opposite the site’s main gate for fresh-off-the-griddle snacks, or chickpea samosas produced around the clock at a stall 50 yards away.
In the hour before sunset exhilarated rafters crowd onto the balcony to swap stories of aquatic adventure and dramatic rescues on the river. As dusk approaches the searing African sun sinks languidly over the far bank of the Nile, turning the foaming waters of The Hump rapid orange to pink to purple to navy blue.
The vista presents an iconic view of the mighty river, newborn from its source in Lake Victoria 12km upstream, before it unrolls 6,670km across war-torn Sudan, becomes the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and provides the lifeblood of Egypt on its way to the Mediterranean.
Every night at 9pm the day’s freshly edited rafting video, complemented by the odd gecko scampering across the projection wall, is played to whoops of excitement from those featured. The end of the video is usually celebrated with renewed beers and the start of another evening’s partying. Anyone looking for an early night may be better staying at the nearby Eden Rock Resorts, although be warned the gates are never locked and there have been thefts from tents.
For a totally tranquil stay head 40km downstream to the magical Hairy Lemon campsite, situated on a lush island in the middle of the river. The Lemon is hugely popular with kayakers thanks to its close proximity to the iconic Nile Special play wave. Access is via a shallow-bottomed boat and only overnight visitors are allowed. The island is an incredibly serene spot to while away a few days playing cards, boating and sunbathing amid exotic surroundings.
Away from the river, the busy town of Jinja on the shores of Lake Victoria is becoming increasingly popular with backpackers thanks to the host of outdoor activities available. Quad-biking, horse riding and the Nile bungee jump can all be arranged in the town through a host of adventure operators.
As Uganda’s second biggest urban centre, Jinja also boasts its very own tourist drag along Main Street. In among various souvenir shops are some inviting and atmospheric cafés including Source, with its great coffee and large book exchange and Flavours, which has a stunning gardens and some luxurious sofa beds.
And if - quite righty - you fall in love with this corner of the Nile and want to give something back the Bujagali-based charity Soft Power Education (http://softpowereducation.com) is always keen to recruit volunteers. The organisation is based around a school in the village and welcomes volunteers for anything from a day to a year.