The adventure capital of East Africa has much to offer the intrepid traveller — from bungee jumping and quadbiking to whitewater rafting and kayaking. Lizzie Williams reviews the best activities
When visiting Uganda, the focus is usually to head west from Kampala to see the mountain gorillas in the tangled forests, and to go on game drives in national parks such as Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls. But just a couple of hours’ drive to the east of the capital, Jinja and Bujagali are the centre of Uganda’s biggest attraction for adrenaline seekers — the River Nile, where there are countless outdoor activities to try. This area is rightly dubbed East Africa’s adventure capital.
Jinja is a pleasant town on the northern end of Lake Victoria and was founded in 1901 by the British as a port for a steamer service from Port Florence (today’s Kisumu in Kenya), the terminus of the Uganda Railway from Mombasa. Tourism initiatives were first established here because of Bujagali Falls — the point where the Nile used to drop 3m down a series of raging, tiered rapids separated by rocky outcrops. It was perfect for some exciting whitewater rafting, so the travel companies set up shop in the mid-1990s.
However, the Bujagali Falls were submerged and the river flattened out when the Nile was diverted through the new dam and turbines of the Bujagali Hydroelectric Power Station 3km downstream. Uganda has one of the highest population growth rates in Africa and the force of the river was harnessed to meet urgently needed energy demand. The plant became operational in 2012, and the Nile now flows through a new lake at Bujagali. Yet, while the waterscape may have changed, it remains beautiful, albeit much quieter without the roar of the rapids.The river is fringed with riparian woodland full of birds and monkeys; the climate is lovely all year round and vibrant sunrises and sunsets reflect orange and purple off the slow-moving waters.
Rafting and kayaking now take place on the whitewater rapids beyond the dam wall, while additional activities such as stand-up paddleboarding, fishing and sunset cruises have become viable on the new lake. Birdwatching has become a rewarding activity, too — always good anywhere in Uganda due to the astonishing list of species surpassing 1100 — as many birds not previously favouring the rushing water of Bujagali Falls are now attracted to the peaceful shores, making them easy to spot.
If there’s one place to have fun in Uganda, it’s here. And even if adrenaline-charged activities are not your thing, a visit is a great addition to a wildlife safari to admire Africa’s greatest river on a walk or a boat excursion. There are also several cafes and shops to enjoy along Jinja’s laid-back main street — look out for the famous ‘Bujagali Rolex’, an omelette and vegetables wrapped in a hot chapatti. The name has nothing to do with the Swiss watch company, but is a combination of ‘roll’ and ‘eggs’.
This takes place further north of Bujagali below the dam wall. The one-day route covers about 30km of the Nile, with eight major rapids to negotiate, and time to relax on calmer stretches to enjoy the scenery. There is also an overnight option with camping and a BBQ dinner on the riverbank.
Book through Adrift (adrift.ug), Nile River Explorers (raftafrica.com) or Nalubale Rafting (nalubalerafting.com)
Like rafting, kayaking has moved downstream below the dam. Kayak the Nile, based at Explorers River Camp in Bujagali, offers one-day tandem trips with a guide from the launch site near Kalagala Falls. Multi-day trips and lessons can also be arranged, and there are gentler, guided paddles in two-person canoes on the lake itself — a great option at sunset.
Book through Kayak the Nile (kayakthenile.com)
All Terrain Adventures at Bujagali offers exciting one- to four-hour quad-bike safaris through the lush farms, forests and small villages along the river. No previous experience is required and tuition is given on practice circuits first. Those with a bit of confidence can go hell-for-leather on the more rugged and steep 4WD dirt trails (overalls and goggles are provided if it’s muddy), while mini-quads are available for children.
Book through All Terrain Adventures (atadventures.com)
Nile High Bungee at Adrift River Base in Bujagali is a 44m jump from a 12m cantilevered tower on top of a cliff over the Nile. For the ultimate adrenaline-seekers, there’s also the option of jumping ‘tandem’ with a friend, being dipped headfirst into the river — a ‘water touch’ — and you can even jump by the light of the full moon.
Book through Adrift (adrift.ug)
Nile Horseback Safaris, on the west bank of the Nile 9km north of Jinja, offers pleasant one- to three-hour jaunts along the riverbank on well-schooled horses suitable for all abilities. There are also pony rides for kids, sunset outings that include boat transfers from lodges and camps on the east bank, and for those more experienced in the saddle, overnight excursions.
Book through Nile Horseback Safaris (nilehorsebacksafaris.com)
Bujagali Falls may have been inundated, but in its place is the serene and forest-clad lake where you may spot otters and Nile monitor lizards. Relaxing cruises can easily be arranged; some include sunset drinks and nibbles or an on-board barbecue, while others specialise in guided birdwatching or fishing for tilapia.
Book through Nile River Explorers (raftafrica.com)
Bicycles can be hired in Bujagali for leisurely rides along the single-track footpaths through the villages and farms along the riverbank. Explorers Biking Safaris at Explorers Backpackers in Jinja offers an energetic four-hour guided mountain-biking tour to the Bujagali-Bugembe Viewpoint — the highest hill in the area with a wide view of Jinja town, Lake Victoria and some of its islands. More challenging day trips can be arranged to Mabira Forest Reserve.
Book through Explorers Biking Safaris (explorersbikingsafaris.com)
One of the new activities made possible by the formation of Bujagali’s lake, SUPing is a full body workout and a unique way to soak in the scenery. Boards and paddles can be rented from accommodation, or Kayak the Nile at Explorers River Camp can arrange guided lessons and trips from the foot of Nalubaale Dam beyond the Bujagali Dam wall to paddleboard on some of the smaller rapids.
Book through Kayak the Nile (kayakthenile.com)
• Getting there South African Airways, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Emirates all fly to Entebbe, 40km south of the capital, Kampala. Jinja lies on the A109 road about 80km east of there, but the drive usually takes two hours. Bujagali village is 8km north of Jinja and reached by transfer or taxi and local matatu (minibus) or boda boda (motorbike taxi). The activity companies mentioned can arrange transfers from Kampala.
• When to visit Uganda has a warm climate all year round. The wetter seasons are March to May and lighter rains are from November to December, but usually there’s sunshine each day. The average year-round temperature of the Nile at Bujagali is 23°C, ideal for splashing around.
• How long do you need? A couple of days minimum, but how long you stay rather depends on how much you want to do. Apart from the organised adventure activities at Bujagali, it’s a great area for village and river walks, and many visitors go and visit the source of the Nile in Jinja.
• Where to stay There are several guesthouses in characterful old colonial houses and also some lively backpackers’ spots. Alternatively, on the first 20km stretch of the Nile, there are several places to stay in commanding riverside locations on both banks. These range from the luxurious Wildwaters Lodge, which perches on islands in the rapids downstream from the dam, to options around Bujagali such as mid-range Nile Porch or The Haven. There are also popular budget and camping destinations affiliated with whitewater rafting companies such as Explorers River Camp, Nile River Camp or Adrift River Base.
• Further reading Footprint Uganda Handbook (2nd edition) by Lizzie Williams.