My heart is pounding and our guide is yelling something I can’t make out. I think he’s telling me to paddle harder, so I bend over to put my oar into the water but, to my shock, the water is not there. Turns out, we are on the very crest of the wave, and our raft is almost vertical. Then we crash. The walls of white foam close all around me, and I can barely see, let alone breathe. When we finally come back to the surface, I feel like a sock must feel after spinning inside a washing machine. My God, I think. This is the most fun I’ve ever had.
Welcome to some of the most spectacular rafting in the world, in Jinja, a small town in Uganda that’s home to the original source of the Nile. Waves upon waves of pale greenish water wrestle each other, giving rise to a cloud of mist that floats above the equatorial forest. That is, for now. Because in a few months, a 25-kilometer-long dam will flood this stretch of the river and, with it, a sizable chunk of this whirlpool playground.
Some even come all the way from Australia or Japan to splash around in rapids nicknamed “Bad Place” or “Super Hole.”
The upper Nile was once a mythical place — a dream for every explorer hell-bent on finding the headwaters that David Livingstone had failed to locate. And it was here, in Jinja, that in 1858 a young officer of the British Army named John Hanning Speke “discovered” the first confirmed source of the Nile.
The days of colonial exploration are long gone, but Jinja continues to attract thousands of adventurous foreigners seeking a world-class adrenaline rush. Some even come all the way from Australia or Japan to splash around in rapids nicknamed “Bad Place” or “Super Hole,” a large standing wave where kayakers can show off their acrobatic tricks. There is even a Class VI rapid (the highest category), which is so dangerous that even expert rafters choose to walk around it.
But Uganda is a fast-developing nation, and the government has decided that the country needs more hydroelectric power, even if it hurts tourism. The flooding is expected to bury at least half of the commercial rapids by the end of the year, leaving only three. It will also drown Itanda Falls, a site of enormous cultural significance for locals who believe it to be home to a powerful river spirit.
Still, the other passengers in my raft seem oblivious to the fact that what they are now experiencing for $140 will soon be priceless. That’s until we get to the last rapid. “You better enjoy this one,” says our guide, Josh, “because soon, it will be gone forever.”
The raft suddenly goes quiet as we take a moment to admire the river flowing unfettered around us. Birds play above the water, fishermen prepare their nets on the banks and, before we know it, our small red boat dives into the last set of waves. We scream in excitement, our voices drowned out by the loud roar of rapids that will soon be silenced.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.