Uganda and Tanzania both border the huge Lake Victoria, but there are no ferries operating the route, so the only option for us to make it from Arusha to Kampala was via Kenya. Travelling fast through Africa becomes a costly exercise, mainly in entrance visas. Kenya is quite cheap in comparison however, with the standard visa at $25 for three months, or a transit visa of up to a week for only $10. I’m fast running out of space on my passport though, so although our transit visa was cheap, it took up a full page of my passport. Only 9 full pages empty for the rest of our world tour – will I make it around the world?!
The bus ride from Arusha to Nairobi is along a road which is under complete reconstruction and through some of the driest land in East Africa. We had a complete African Spa experience – the traditional African Massage as the bus bumped and jostled all along the road caressing our muscles with all the tenderness of a bulldozer, and an African Hammam where we could sit sweating in a confined space inhaling clouds of dust instead of steam. We were filthy and tired by the time we got to Nairobi around 10pm. Nairobi has a reputation for being top of the charts of Africa’s most dangerous cities, along with other worthy contenders such as Johannesburg. But unlike other cities, it was still buzzing after dark. Nonetheless, as we had a connection to Kampala the next morning at 7am, we opted not to discover Nairobi by Night, but instead checked into the first hotel we saw which was right next door to the bus office. In Africa, almost all bus routes are run by private operators which means that most of the better companies do not depart from the central bus stations. We had booked with a trans-African operator, Kampala Coach, which offers a Royal Class service from Nairobi to Kampala with luxury armchairs (only three people to a row!), and we treated ourselves to a little transportation indulgence, well warranted after our day at the spa.
The drive through Kenya was beautiful, with rolling hills, and lush verdant valleys. If it wasn’t for the banana trees, you’d be forgiven for thinking you weren’t in Africa at all – it certainly defies the stereotype. We passed through field upon field of tea plantation and it was great to see the land yielding its massive potential. The formalities at the border were completed without a hitch, and in the Ugandan immigration office they even had a TV showing the first day of the English Premier League. Add to that the fact that Irish people are the only non-Africans to be able to enter Uganda free of charge, and I felt at home right away. Ninfa had to pay $50 and there was no TV showing Sex and the City, so she didn’t feel quite as much at home but was still excited.
We continued on our journey, and decided to disembark 100kms before Kampala in a town called Jinja. Jinja is famous for being at the source of the Victoria Nile (the Nile has many sources, and this one emanates from Lake Victoria), and being home to some of the best white-water rafting in the world. We thought we’d give it a go. Our first impressions of Uganda were good as well, as a minibus brought us from the bus stop on the main road into town free of charge, and a local girl called Anita was really kind and guided us to our hotel.
The next morning we set off to Nile River Explorers for our rendez-vous with our fellow rafters. At breakfast we met a New Zealand couple, Tim and Helen, who are volunteering in Uganda, and a Spanish couple travelling through Africa. When we arrived at the river, we decided to team up in a boat together. Each boat should have a crew of 8, one of which is the guide who steers and controls the raft. We were only 7, which meant a bit more rowing exercise for us boys.
The rafting takes us 30km along the Nile and starts at the foot of a dam. Over the first few kms, the water pushes the raft along nicely, and Henry, our skipper, took the opportunity to give us the safety drills and instructions on how to reach the other end still alive. Still not feeling confident, we hit our first rapid. It was a grade 3 and was no problem even for debutants. Rapids are graded according to their difficulty and force, with Grade 6 being similar to a rocky high-speed waterfall, and Grade 1 being something for all the family. It wasn’t long until we hit the Grade 4s, and the Grade 5s, and inevitably our first flip. Flips are fun as it involves holding on to the raft for dear life, only to be catapulted into the air, sink into the churning water, panic while you’re completely disoriented, only to somehow surface and have a safety kayaker waiting for you and pulling you to safety. Quite a buzz, and all this in a split second!
After around 10 of the 15 or so rapids, we had lunch on the boat, and jumped into the water to cool down from the sun. The currents in the water are so strong, and rafting gives a new respect about the forces of nature, and the power of the great river, as you speed along without any effort at all. At times, however, the water is still as a lake, and you begin to realize what 30kms is when constantly rowing. All along the river, the villagers use the river as a fundamental life-source, for everything from clothes-washing to fishing to their daily bathing – we saw more than a few naked men drying off on the riverside, alas the ladies must have been in a more secluded area.
Our final rapid was a combination of a Grade 6 and a Grade 5. We shored and walked around the Grade 6, but what a mighty sight it was. Our skipper Henry told us how dangerous Grade 6 can be, he himself having spent 45 seconds underwater when he last tried one. The fact that one of them is called the Dead Dutchman probably tells you all you need to know. We got back on the raft at the bottom of the Grade 6, and unanimously agreed to “paddle hard” (get the biggest thrill with the biggest risk of flipping) at this our final rapid. We got halfway down the ferocious rapid, and I have no idea what happened. By some freak of fortune, I was still in the boat with the Spanish couple, while Helen and Tim were being rescued by kayaks, and Ninfa was already 100m downriver bobbing right through the rapid followed by some floats which previously were part of our boat. Our crew was now reduced to a few, and we paddled like crazy into the middle of the rapid again, and crashed down into a spray of white water, and somehow came out the other side with the adrenaline rushing. It was crazy! We paid $125 each for the pleasure, which includes a barbecue and beers at a campsite overlooking the rapids. The bar was also showing the Arsenal game, in which they scored a last-minute equalizer against Liverpool – a great way to end to a great day. And oh, the next day on the drive out of Jinja, we saw our first crocodile in the Nile …