Said to be the very source of the Nile (the longest river in Africa and arguably the world), Jinja has incredible views and world-class rapids, and promises a world of adventure for the keen thrill seeker. I find it appealing because food, outdoor activities, transport and entertainment are relatively cheap here, writes Wendy Watta.
Photography: Wendy Watta
Quad biking with All Terrain Adventures
My guide Henry helps me gear up in tan overalls, goggles, a scarf and helmet. Riding a quad bike is very easy to master and hard to forget, and after a short practise session, we set off for Kyabirwa village. In the dry season, Jinja is very dusty; the kind of red soil that desperately clings to the skin long after you have taken a shower. In the light afternoon breeze, it curls and curls, patiently, waiting to attack. Henry goes first and I am hot on his trail, along what was once Bujagali Falls. When the Ugandan government dammed the river in 2011 for a hydroelectric project, six rapids were buried under a giant reservoir, and the loss is palpable. Now the Nile silently snakes along the periphery of the village, between a sprawling mass of trees and shrubs, its beauty domineering.
We charge almost full-throttle towards simple mud or brick homes, some unintentionally quirky given the pop of bright paint on the windows and the bold graffiti etched into the mud walls. Bare doorways are covered only by thin brightly coloured curtains billowing gently in the breeze. At first, it is hard to imagine that a place as charming as this would be without inhabitants, but as we roll on, I spot them lounging in the shade outside their houses seeking respite from the mid-afternoon heat. The kids run to the roads in numbers to wave and say hello. We also come across goats, those stubborn animals that when we meet along the road, it is us that have to move out of the way.
As I switch gears to charge uphill through a road lined with surprisingly green farms, it is thrilling to feel that power underneath my hands. We get to a secluded river bank where some villagers are bathing, washing clothes, swimming, fetching water in yellow jerrycans or tending to their fishing nets, all within about five feet of each other. This is not only an exciting activity, it is also a great way to gain insight into the daily life of the locals.
Book with: www.atadventures.com
Whitewater rafting with Adrift Uganda
As far as names go, it doesn’t get more intimidating than a class five rapid called ‘The Washing Machine’, but Jinja has up to grade six rapids for seasoned pros. As beginners, after we are taken through some safety instructions followed by a brief practical session out in the water, some of my apprehension gives way to excitement which continues to build as the seven people in our bright blue raft start to paddle in a near-perfect synchrony. Shortly after, we come to our very first raging class three rapid, or the scene of the crime, as I now like to call it.
It is called ‘Bubugo’, and when I find out that this translates to ‘condolences’, my apprehension returns. There is no time to second guess things, however, as the majority of the group quickly vote that we navigate it from its very centre which increases our chances of flipping over by about 90%. With feigned gusto, we paddle right for Bubugo. Before I am hurled out of the raft, it feels like I’m tumbling over the edge of the earth, an untetherdness that’s as unsettling as it is thrilling. The white water rages at me but my life jacket pushes me up to the surface, and as I splutter for air, I realise that I am trapped under the raft. Remembering the practical session, I manoeuvre my way from underneath and swim to the safety boat which had been following our raft all along.
It is only later while we are tucking into delicious sandwiches on calm water, bumping fists and hooting into the air as the adrenaline kicks in, that I realise I would probably do it all over again.
Book with: www.adrift.ug
Kayaking with Kayak the Nile
It is day three and I have kayaking on my mind. From solo to tandem, and whitewater kayaking which would see one go down a rapid like Bubugo which I faced on day one, the limit just depends on how adventurous you are. I settle for a one-hour session gently paddling out on the calm, flat water while checking out the birdlife. My guide and I both get on solo sit-on-top kayaks after which he shows me a few basics like how to hold the paddle and move in different directions, then we set off.
The scenery surrounding the Nile River, especially taken in from the water, gets me every time. It is spectacular, and it is not long before we start spotting an array of freshwater birds like the cormorant, grey crowned crane, various herons and egrets, and my favourite: kingfishers. My guide points them all out, and the conversation naturally turns to conservation, as he tells me about some of the efforts being made to involve the local community in beekeeping as a business, as opposed to cutting and selling riverine trees which are vital for the ecosystem here. He even tells me about two friends who followed the Nile from its source in Jinja to Egypt on a four-month kayak and rafting trip.
Book with www.kayakthenile.com
Cycling with Bikeventures Uganda
There are many routes and options to consider, but cycling to Mabira Forest just outside Jinja, then heading to the surrounding tea estate, sounds most appealing. Indigenous trees stand on long lean trunks, branches converging at the top to provide a much needed umbrella, without which the climb would be much more arduous. Rolling along the rainforest, we spot barefoot kids balancing heavy bundles of firewood on their heads, and I learn that while the surrounding community is not allowed to cut trees, they can pick fallen branches.
While the first kilometre is laid back, thereafter it is anything but. The route has steep climbs and fast descents, all queued up in quick succession, and it feels like a challenge-and-reward cycle that any enthusiast would revel in. 7km later and the thick foliage gives way to a well-manicured tea estate which stretches into the gentle hillside as far as the eye can see. It is also dotted with tea pickers who are dexterously plucking the delicate leaves by hand (or using handmade devices) then throwing them over their shoulders into large sisal baskets on their backs.
Bikeventures is a social enterprise for CooP-Uganda. All profits are allocated to three social projects that improve access to income generation (Bike4Work), education (Bike4School) and healthcare (Bike4Care) by providing bicycles to social entrepreneurs, students, teachers and health care workers.
As we cycle past their homes, the smell of brewing tea wafts towards me, disappearing over my shoulder almost as quickly as it hit. I am reminded just how hungry I am, and when we get back to the main road after covering 16km in 2.5 hours, it is time for a classic Ugandan snack. To some, a rolex might be a beloved luxury watch, but here, it is a spanish-style omelette placed inside a chapati which is then rolled to create the most delicious thing I tasted in Uganda.
SUP Hammock with Nile SUP
I decide to wind down with something relaxing. A friend and I get on SUPs and after pottering about the river for all of 30 minutes, decide to hire a SUP Hammock instead. It is a thing of wonder; three SUPs rigged together with two hammocks tied to either end. We get comfortable, and a guide on a kayak gently pulls us along. Time spools out. I barely even lift my head to look at the otters swimming past. The sun starts to set. Our gin and tonics are instinctively topped up. If ever an activity deserved to be called blissful, it would be this.
Where to stay
Lemala Wildwaters Lodge– Nestled in a rainforest and surrounded by rapids, right in the middle of the Nile. High end.
The Haven – Serene, with stunning views. Cottages are mid-range, but consider the lazy camping accommodation for even cheaper rates.
Nile Porch– Has semi-permanent tents raised on cliffs overlooking the Nile. Accommodation available for different budgets.
Nile Explorers River Lodge- Has affordable camps, dorms and rooms. Always lively. Great for meeting other adventurers from around the world.
Where to Eat and Drink
Black Lantern– Striking view, serene, popular for their pork ribs, excellent mojitos, has a pool.
Moti Mahal’s– Try the Tahil, a delicious spicy curry with unlimited naan, daal and rice. Good spot for vegetarians as well.
Jinja Sailing Club– Set along Lake Victoria and can be a good base for boat cruises. Good Indian and continental food. Try the “kuku in a basket”.