Uganda: Rafting down the River Nile
I entered Uganda on week two of an amazing overland trip across East Africa. I reflected upon Kenya which had been so much more varied than I had imagined it would be (see my previous blog!) I knew a little about Uganda on entry, for instance it was another former colony of the UK and that Winston Churchill had nicknamed it 'The Pearl of Africa'. I was well aware of the torrid post-Colonial past too, that of the crazy dictator, Idi Amin back in the 1970s. If you haven't seen the film Last King of Scotland then I highly recommend you do so, in order to get an insight into one of the most bizarre episodes in modern African history. Forrest Whittaker puts in an Oscar winning performance as the crazy despot leader Idi Amin, but I won't give the rest away, just be sure to check it out!
So after collecting our border stamp in the east of country, our big Mercedes overland truck trundled deeper into the heart of the country to the shores of Lake Victoria, the biggest lake in the whole of Africa, and second largest freshwater lake in the whole world. Our journey was comparatively flat for several hours but I enjoyed peering out of the window at the sodden rice and maize fields. Plus I loved passing through the towns and villages, seeing everyday life in full flow.
Our first couple of nights in Uganda was in the thriving town of Jinja, on the shores of the White Nile (aka Victoria Nile) which flows out of Lake Victoria. We camped at the Jinja Nile Resort - a flourishing camp site beside a very wide section of the Nile. The view across the white waters gave us only a mild sneak preview of what was to come the next day, when we would be indulging in the most exhilarating white water rafting of our lives, no exaggeration! More of that later. Anyway, our first night in Uganda was most pleasant and spent at the resort bar overlooking the Nile, enjoying a local beer aptly called Nile Special.
On the morning of our white water rafting expedition, I am not going to deny I was a little nervous. I'd read up on the stretch of water we'd encounter and discovered that people had actually died along it! A sobering thought but it would not deter me and I'd not miss this crazy adventure for the world. We signed up with a company called Adrift who have done this operation for over 30 years. I was impressed in the first hour with just how seriously they took the safety training. On a calm section of water, an Australian guide took our raft of six crew through some rigorous safety training in which we practised not just the paddling strokes but also pulling people back on the raft. However, when the time came, there was no place to hide when we tumbled down a 15 foot high waterfall on what was classed as Grade 5 rapid - 6 is the hair raising maximum!
In fact, it was a good job we'd done such intense training on rescuing one another because as we hit the first set of falls, our raft actually flipped over and so we had to perform a rescue of one another. Rest assured, there were always a pair of Adrift kayak crew accompanying each raft down the roughest sections of water, and were on hand if any crew member got into trouble. The trick was to hang on the outer rope on the raft if you knew you were going to flip, then you had something to haul yourself back onto when the inevitable happened! I was tumbled under the water a total of 4 or 5 times that day but I can safely say it was one of the most exhilarating adventure sports experiences of my entire life, plus it was on the world longest river!
The photo above epitomises this mind blowing day of adventure. I am the one on the left clinging for his life, whilst three of my raft crew were already partially submerged in the frothing waters of the Nile. We successfully clambered back on board the raft and made in safely back to the shore. Needless to say that after such a day of near death white water rafting (yes - people really do die doing this kind of thing!) we had quite a hectic night of celebration back at the bar of the Jinja Nile Resort. I seem to recall hanging upside down in a kayak attached to the ceiling of the bar, whilst some barman poured some strange spirit down my mouth, which was a ritual apparently, not my own choice of celebrating!
Leaving Jinja in Eastern Uganda, you enter an area of plantations and rainforests. You smell a musty dampness in the air and the humidity rises with the sun ascending high mid morning. We drove to the capital city of Kampala where we got bogged down in traffic for a good couple of hours but it gave us a good opportunity to observe city in action and people watch too.
After years of chaos under Idi Amin, Uganda actually had a fair period of stability under his successor President Museveni. Whilst the rest of Africa suffered massive poverty, Uganda had reasonable economic growth in comparison. You could tell from the buildings, streets and everyday life that whilst Uganda was not exactly as developed as Europe or North America, the core of the country was a lot more advanced the periphery, from where we had travelled through.
After several hours of travel, we arrived at the shores of Lake Victoria, close to Entebbe, west of Kampala. We took a boat ride out onto the vast lake, which is so wide it is more like an inland sea. A one hour journey took us out to Ngamba Island which was used now as Chimpanzee sanctuary for injured and orphaned chimps that had been rescued from cruelty in other parts of the country. They are closed off from human contact as they can be quite violent, but we were introduced to a few characters from up above on a feeding platform, where vegetables and fruit were thrown across the fence for them to feast upon. It was captivating watching them feed!
We spent the night in a comfortable campsite with an adjacent sports bar at the relatively wealthy district of Entebbe. This is where Uganda's premier airport is located and was once the site of one of the most famed aeroplane hijackings in aviation history. Back in 1976, an Air France airliner was hijacked en route from Tel Aviv to Paris and flown down to Entebbe under the orders of Palestinian and German terrorists. The plane contained a mix of European and Israelis and was taken as a show of aggression and revolt to the state of Israel over their stance on Palestine. The Israeli government sent a military unit down and eventually stormed the airport and rescued all but four of the hostages. 45 Ugandans and the terrorists lost their lives too. I recommend watching the recent film Entebbe to learn more about this historic incident.
We started out early on our fourth day in Uganda, leaving behind Lake Victoria but taking in a fascinating visit to the equator line. It was the first time in my life that I got to stand on this geographical wonder. It really is more than just a line marking the centre point of the earth. You get to experience the unique magnetic forces here, with the famous plug hole experiment, which I first saw on the travel programme starring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, The Long Way Down. A man demonstrates with a bowl of water how water spins clockwise down a plug hole in the Northern Hemisphere. You walk literally ten metres south of the equator line where the plug experiment reveals that the water goes anticlockwise down the plug hole. Then finally - onto the equator line itself where water literally gets sucked straight down a plug hole from all directions without spiralling whatsoever. It's a clever demonstration to show the earth is rotating and contains magical magnetic forces - just to dispel those 'flat earth' believers mantra!
After leaving the equator line in a state of amazement, our big orange truck rumbled ever westwards towards our final destination in Uganda, the Queen Elizabeth National Park, close to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We passed on by a few villages and rolling valleys full of tea plantations. Eventually we descended to the shores of Lake George and pitched camp on what was called 'Hippo Hill'. On the first night I was to discover this was not just a cool name, but massive wild hippos roamed around us! Disconcerting is the fact that there are more human deaths from hippos in Africa than there are from lions!
The next day we took a wonderful wildlife spotting boat trip along what was called the Kosinga Channel which joins both Lake George with Lake Edward. We saw hippos close up which reminded me that I had a second nervy night ahead of me on Hippo Hill ahead of me! The channel was also abundant with bird life of all kinds, but particularly cranes and cormorants. Later in the afternoon we took a drive around Queen Elizabeth National Park, which to our surprise offered high quality game viewing, this is despite the fact that numbers of wildlife were decimated over the previous decades by poachers, especially in the Amin years of rule and the infighting of the 1980s which followed.
The highlight of the day was being able to see African elephants up close and personal frolicking around in the mud. These beautiful creatures have been hunted down in large numbers for their ivory but thankfully in Uganda, their numbers are rising again as they get protection from National Park rangers. I absolutely adored watching the many breeds of antelope gracefully grazing and running across the plains. Following a fun couple of days, what could be better than to sit on the top of Hippo Hill and watch the sun go down with a nice cold beer with my fellow overland adventurers. Having been in the company of 20 or so other travellers from all over the world, we had built up quite a rapport and even to this day, several years on we nearly all keep in touch and reminisce those days we nearly drowned going down the River Nile, or almost getting eaten at night by hippos!
Also if you liked my photographs then please check out my other website www.daviesworldphotos.com for a more extensive view of my photos of Uganda.
Next week I will be reviewing my journey through an incredible country, Rwanda!