Uganda Guide - The White Nile
by Mark Rainsley
First published in 'Paddles' magazine.
Uganda is a beautiful and blooming East African nation. Most of the country is swathed in lush green vegetation but the real beauty is in the people; Uganda boasts some of the most open, friendly and welcoming locals you are ever likely to meet. A Ugandan female has 6.6 children on average, which may explain why the streets are filled with waving kids calling Jambo mzungu! (hello white person!). Rapid economic growth has made Uganda into a regional success story, but visitors from the UK will still find that their money goes a very long way. The south of the country is safe and stable; the years of bad government and war under the Dictator Idi Amin are a distant memory. Most importantly from our point of view, Uganda boasts the newly discovered jewel of African paddling; the White Nile. Its vast, its warm, and its fluffy.
Okay, so John Hanning Speke actually discovered the river in 1862but paddlers have only unlocked the secrets of the White Nile in the past decade. Undoubtedly there are other possibilities hidden away in the Rwenzori Mountains (the fabled Mountains of the Moon), but the White Nile is the known classic and it is reason enough to visit East Africa. The White Nile has sections of rapids in central Uganda below Murchison Falls, but these are seeing few visitors at present due to a crocodile problem and some regional instability.
The popular section of the river is right at the source. The White Nile flows with up to 60 000 cfs at its source where it leaves Lake Victoria, a vast inland sea. This is (obviously) very big water, but playboats are the norm. The most popular channels of the river are mostly friendly and forgiving some call it the Big Friendly Giant. One second you stare at a monster stopper bearing down on you from high above, the next you pop out of the other side, grinning and intact. Obviously your river-running skills are not redundant, but a bombproof roll and big lungs will get you a long way!
Clothing is optional beyond a buoyancy aid, helmet and spraydeck (bring one made from kryptonite). The water and air is so warm that even a shortie cag may be too much on some days. Cover up though, a long-sleeved rash vest is highly recommended. Ear plugs will stop warm water infections developing in your lugholes. A spare pair of paddles is a good idea, the Nile Special wave in particular snaps many.
Only 50 kilometres of the river are commercially rafted and regularly paddled, but there are endless channels to explore with markedly different character - from 100% friendly to utter evil. Paddlers just looking for river-running will begin to run out of new things to do after a week or so unless they want to take on some of the really gnarly channels. The problem with these harder rapids though (anyone for Hypoxia?) is that they are several large steps up on the normal channels in terms of scale, difficulty and danger.
The Nile is a playboating Mecca, with world class natural spots catering to all abilities. If you are looking to stretch your playboat horizons with conveniently accessible primo quality waves and holes, there are few equal places on earth. Top paddlers base themselves at these spots for weeks on end.
A final point is that the Nile is accessible to all abilities. A mixed club group can come out and find a section or playspot for everyone to paddle, from novice to expert. Grading the Nile is a moot point, but think in terms of Grade 3 and 4 skills to paddle it. The main channels can considered by any paddler with a solid roll.
Day #1 Section
This begins either at Owen Falls Dam in Jinja town, or downstream at the Nile River Explorers (NRE) Camp, where most paddlers stay.
Between the Owen Falls Dam and the NRE camp there are about five kilometres of Grade 1-2 water with a couple of Grade 2-3 rapids. This is basically a warmup which is often missed out by kayakers. It is an ideal place for novice kayakers with appropriate guidance, however. NRE can arrange kayak coaching on request.
The real fun begins at the NRE camp. Close to the camp there are several small holes and waves, of which the best is the Back Wave. This is a fun smooth playwave which is visible from the NRE campask a kayaker to point it out for you! Once finished at the wave, you can return to NRE by a path across an island a hundred metres downstream on the right. Having crossed the island, you have to ferry glide across below Bujagali Falls to the main bank.
If you are running the river, there are at least six different channels downstream of the NRE camp. Some are quite hard and cant be inspected easily (eg. The Hump and Brickyard). The normally taken channel is beside the far river right bank, beginning with
Ribcage a short intense Grade 4 rapid named after the dangerous tree roots in the middle of the current. Rafts often portage. This leads directly to...
Bujagali Falls, a spectacular mass of water dropping over a bedrock ledge. The right-hand flume is the place to be!
50/50. An easy wavetrain warms you up for Total Gunga which is a huge crashing wavetrain, with a monster stopper (the G-Spot) luring in the middle somewhere! Next, you wind down on the easier wavetrain of Surf City before reaching the horizon line of
Silverback A series of memorably massive waves dwarf the kayaker. Ooh, its big.
Many paddlers take out here (see Getting About below) but if you continue for the full section along with the rafts, the rapids retain their impressive character but (less impressively) are now bookended by very long sections of wide flat water. The most memorable rapids are the waterfall of Overtime (various routes possible, Grades 4 or 5) and the playspot Superhole.
Day #1 ends just above the mother of all rapids, Itanda this is utterly immense and certainly Grade 6. Paddlers usually run just the last section of this beast, dodging the stoppers Bad Place and Other Place (also bad). If running the whole of Itanda is your thing, youll want to know that the river left and centre channels have similarly awesome gnarl, the rapids Kalagala and Hypoxia respectively.
Day #2 Section
This is not normally rafted, but will certainly see much more commercial use if the proposed 2010 dam is built at Itanda! Launch below Itanda for Day #2, a mellower section with better playindeed, this is the sensible section for a group to start out on, having just arrived in the country. As before, there are many channels and inviting along someone who has paddled this before may be helpful first time.
Several big wavetrain rapids form the top half of this runTotal Vengeance, Hair of the Dog and Kula Shaker. The river then eases and you can enjoy a series of playspots, big and small. The two particularly fantastic eddy-served spots are
Nile Special Named after the highly potent local beer drunk by tourists and avoided by locals (in favour of Club Lager, if you must know). A big crashing bouncy wave that will make your heart rate go off the scale. If you cant get aerial on this, you never will. In truth, you wont get a choice! It is pretty fickle and changes markedly with different dam releases. Most agree that it is best early morning before breakfast or on Sundays (low water).
An hour of flat water leads to Malalu just above the takeout for Day #2, this is a bigger but more stable wave. Less experienced (or fit) playboaters will be happier here. It works best in higher water; this occurs in the evening, so time your shuttle pick-up to allow with an hour or two of sunset play here.
When to go
The paddling season isthe whole year! Water levels dont vary much through the year as they are controlled by the Owen Falls Dam. They do however vary markedly through the day, depending upon Ugandas electricity needs. Low levels are encountered in the mornings and at weekends. The water level tends to rise through the day and drop off again after dark. The hottest and driest parts of the year are December to February and June to September; Equatorial Uganda is hardly going to be anything approaching cold at other timesbut wetter times may mean more of Africas deadliest beasties, mosquitoes (take prophylactics!). The White Nile is the only destination in the Paddles World Guide series which works just as well through the whole year.
It is possible to get to Entebbe Airport fairly cheaply using Ethiopian Airlines (www.flyethiopian.com), their flight prices can go as low as sub-400 depending on the time of year. Ethiopian seem to have no fixed weight limit and are generally indifferent to kayaks. You get what you pay for though, the flight takes 16-18 hours and last time, we were randomly bumped off our flights homeonly resolved by a long heated argument. Good old boat friendly and reliable British Airways offer direct flights (c.9 hours) in the 5-800 range.
There are various transport options Matatus (minibuses), Boda-bodas (mopedsthink of the sound!) and taxis. Porters are also used, youll find guys offering to carry your boat up the hill for you or around a portage.
From the airport at Entebbe, you may wish to arrange a Matatu with roofrack to pick you and your kayak up. Companies like Nile River Explorers (NRE) or Adrift will do this for you if you email beforehandbe sure to remind them again just before departure, though. The 2-3 hour journey to Jinja via Kampala will cost $80-150 depending upon the size of your group.
For the Day #1 section, you have various shuttle options. If you just want to paddle the easiest section of the river from Owen Falls Dam to the NRE camp get NRE to call you a taxi which will cart you and your boat up to the put-in. Shove your boat in the boot. Sort of. If you want to do the whole section, your best bet is to follow a raft trip. NRE charge about $10 for this (good value, it includes food, beer and shuttle). You can either rise early and go right up to the Owen Falls put-in with the raft customer lorry, or simply join the rafts when they pass the NRE camp a few hours later.
Another alternative for Day #1 is to cherry pick the best section of whitewater by only paddling from NRE down to Silverback rapid. This makes for a half day paddle, or could be done twice. Before setting off, tell the Boda-boda drivers outside NRE camp what your plans are. After running Silverback, take out at the first eddy on river right and follow the path up to meet the Bodas. Whizzing back along mud tracks through the villages on the back of a decepit moped, whilst balancing your boat on your kneesan unforgettable experience; dont forget to wave back at the legions of kids!
To do the Day #2 section based from NRE, ask them to arrange a taxi or matatu for your group. This will drop you off at Itanda (above or below, its your call!) and then meet you on river right directly downstream of Malalu. To do the section based from Hairy Lemon Island (see below) the same applies they will arrange the vehicle for you, only you launch and egress on the river left bank.
From Hairy Lemon Island, a popular option is to do only half of the Day #2 sectionplayboat at Nile Special early morning, then paddle the hour down to the Malalu wave in the evening, egressing on the left and taking a pre-arranged Boda-boda ride backits a long ride!
Plenty of contact details at http://traveluganda.co.ug/pdf/Bujagalifalls.pdf
Where to stay
There are numerous places from which to base yourselves. There are hotels and hostels in Jinja the town at the very source of the Nile but most paddlers choose to stay nearer the good whitewater
For the Day #1 section, the Nile River Explorers (NRE) Camp is popular for kayak scum www.raftafrica.net. It is right at the Day #1 put-in, just upstream of Ribcage and Bujagali Falls. The Back Wave is a five minute paddle away and there is even an epic spine-bending seal launch ramp for those who cant be bothered to carry their boats all the way to the bottom of the hill. NRE offer camping, bandas (huts) or dormitories. On the plus side, NREs location is unbelievable; taking a shower whilst the morning mists drift among the islands of the Nile takes some beatingyou wont fail to notice the view, as the showers have no rear wall! On the negative side, a new group of rafters and/ or overland truckers arrives every day, all intent on getting as wasted as humanly possible in the bar that nightand UK licensing laws do NOT apply! Those wanting peace and quiet at night might find it a bit too much. Staying downhill beside Bujagali Falls at the Speke Camp is an option for these folk - www.equatorrafts.com/speke_camp.html. Alternatively, a little self-indulgence is possible by booking into NREs adjacent Nile Porch resort with its luxury bandas, restaurant and swimming pool.
For the Day #2 section, it is possible to shuttle to and fro from Jinja or the NRE camp. However, this would miss out on a chance to stay at Hairy Lemon Island. This island is located halfway down the Day #2 section and is run by an Aussie couple who are developing it as a resort. Camping, bandas and dorms are available and all food (not beer) is included in your nightly rate. The island is a haven of tranquillity; youll score lots of points if you bring your partner here. More pertinently, Nile Special is a ten minute paddle upstream and Malalu an hour downstream.playboaters will think that theyve achieved eternal Nirvana! Hairy Lemon is accessible from the river left bank of the Nile, taking about an hour by Matatu from Jinja. When you arrive, you bang a gong and the ferry appears! Note that casual drop-in is discouraged, book ahead first.
More accommodation details and contact information can be found at http://traveluganda.co.ug/pdf/Bujagalifalls.pdf
Finding out more:
White water guidebooks
There isnt one in print, but the Internet has some useful resources. A (dubious) map and summary of the main rapids can be found at www.kayakthenile.com/River%20guide.htm
A great guide to the river, along with articles, photos and daunting video can be found at http://hsr.yucc.co.uk/jay/Trip-Uganda-Nov02/
There are plenty of notes on the White Nile here.
www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk/forum has loads of useful advice if you search for 'nile'.
More photos at www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk/uganda
The nearest Internet Cafs are in Jinja, where the Source Caf is particularly recommended. Nice cookies, too.
There are none. If you find yourself short of kit, you are reduced to begging, borrowing or hiring leftovers from the raft companies or other visiting paddlers. Go equipped.
None are really needed, beyond those that you will find in the travel guidebooks Lonely Planet East Africa or the Footprint Guide to Uganda, but NellesUganda map gives a clear overview of the country.
by Mark Rainsley.