River rapids -Jinja, Uganda

An adrenaline rush on the White Nile in Jinja

They say the rapids on the White Nile in Jinja give the river its name. And rafting them is an adrenaline rush like no other.

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In June 2018, we headed on a three-week visit to Uganda and Kenya. Our itinerary was a week in Kampala; another week on safari in Kenya; a few days in the coastal town of Malindi; and another week in Kampala.

Our first glimpse of Jinja

During our first week in Kampala, we visited nearby Jinja, about two hours away. This town is famous for being the site of the main source of the river Nile, where it flows out of Lake Victoria. Aside: Uganda’s White Nile (supposedly so named because of the many rapids it has, but actually because of the colour of the water) and the smaller Blue Nile from Ethiopia combine into the river Nile that we’ve all heard about.

We spent a few pleasant hours in Jinja, admiring the river and driving through the nondescript little town. On the way back, we took a little detour. We wanted to have a cup of tea at The Haven, a little eco-resort on the hillside overlooking the river. So we turned off the highway and spent about 15 minutes bumping over an unpaved road through the underbrush. But when we finally got there, it was all worth it! The view of the river and its rapids was spectacular, the resort cosy and the tea very good.

Also read: A hidden gem in Kampala: Kardamom & Koffee

The Haven entrance in Jinja, Uganda
Driving into The Haven
View of river rapids from The Haven, Jinja, Uganda
Trying to take some video of the rapids

A spur-of-the-moment idea

This memory stayed with us through the next ten days. After some serious wildlife watching—and some coastal relaxation—in Kenya, we were back in Kampala. And dreaming of spending a night at The Haven. So we called them and set it up.

We had never tried white water rafting before, so we were a little nervous. Little did we know how justified our nervousness was!

We had also heard that it was possible to do some white water rafting on the White Nile, so we asked them about that, too. They recommended a nice agency, and arranged transport to and fro transport as well. Once we spoke to the rafting agency and decided on a half-day package, we were all set.

We had never tried white water rafting before, so we were a little nervous. Little did we know how justified our nervousness was! Watch this quick video of our rafting experience to see what I mean.

Also read: Our Kenya safari: Up close with Africa’s incredible wildlife

Prelude to the rush

The morning of our adventure started early. The Haven sent a matatu (a minivan usually used for public transport) to pick us up at 5:00 AM. Though it was a little cramped and cold, we managed the two-hour drive well enough. Near Jinja, we again went off the highway and drove through the forest for a while before we got to the office of our rafting agency—White Nile Rafting. When we got there, we found that we would be sharing the four-man raft with a pleasant young Israeli couple. And while we got to know each other, and finished off the formalities, the White Nile Rafting team were busy getting a nice breakfast ready.

Breakfast was simple but extensive, and featured heaps of the juiciest and most awesome pineapples we had every eaten! Our boat captain Ibrahim boasted that they were the best in the world. And we had no reason not to believe him.

Besides the five of us, there were at least six other people. Four would join us on the river in separate boats—to rescue us if we fell overboard.

After breakfast, we all put on life jackets and helmets and set off in open mini-trucks. We were surprised at the size of the team that came along, though. Besides the four of us and Ibrahim, there were at least six other people in the trucks. Four would later join us on the river in separate boats and kayaks—to rescue us if we fell overboard, and to carry some mid-morning refreshments. There was even a photographer to take pictures while we were on the river. The rest took care of things like on-shore transport. It was slightly embarrassing to have so many people hover around us, but we got used to it quickly enough.

Matatu outside White Nile office, Jinja
Our matatu outside the White Nile office
White Nile support team, Jinja
Some of the extended support team
Open mini-truck, Jinja, Uganda
Driving to the river

The river adventure begins

After about half an hour of driving, we finally got to the spot on the riverbank we would start off from. We all piled in to our boats, and started out onto a long, smooth stretch of river. During the drive, the photographer had kindly helped me tie my GoPro on to my helmet, so if you want to spot me in his pictures, just look for the helmet with the funny-looking thing stuck on top.

Once we got on to open water, Ibrahim gave us a lesson in basic safety, paddling and working together. He even tipped us into the water so we would know what it felt like and didn’t panic if it really happened. We had gotten over our nervousness by then, but being stuck under an upside-down raft in the water for a few seconds brought it right back!

Raft capsize training - Jinja
Ibrahim gives us our first lesson
Cormorants on river rock - Jinja, Uganda
Cormorants watch us with mild curiosity

A taste of the rapids

Soon, we got to the first set of rapids. In hindsight, they were relatively mild, but they seemed incredibly ferocious when we first saw them. With Ibrahim shouting instructions and us whooping and screaming, our raft plunged into the churning water.

After what seemed like forever, we got past the first bit of white water, only to see a sheer drop right in front of us!

After what seemed like forever, we got past the first part, only to see a sheer drop of at least three metres right in front of us! Just before we tipped headfirst over the edge, though, Ibrahim got the raft to stop and turn around. Then we went over… backwards!

We got out the other side in one piece, spluttering and laughing. We were proud at having survived our first bit of white water. But that was just our first taste, and we had three more sets of rapids to go.

We hit the next set soon afterwards. These were different from the first set, with big waves coming at us from in front. On Ibrahim’s instructions, we paddled furiously and powered right through them. Suddenly, it felt like we were climbing up a vertical wall of water, and then we were through. We had survived the second set, too.

Scary river rapids - Jinja, Uganda
Yes, we went over these crazy-looking rapids!
River rapids -Jinja, Uganda
Going over the steep drop. Backwards.

Placid waters and pineapples

There was a half hour-long stretch of peaceful water after the second set, and everyone took the opportunity to relax a bit. The team tied the support raft to ours, and took turns to row all of us along. While we drifted along, we saw a few thatched-roof cottages on the hills and along the river, and wondered if any of them belonged to our resort. We decided they didn’t, because we noticed a particularly rough set of rapids on the river when we first visited The Haven.

Midway through our relaxation, the team broke out the snacks: some biscuits, bottled water, and more of that luscious pineapple. In fact, each of us got one huge quarter of a pineapple, which we happily wolfed down while the juice ran down our chins and fingers. With some food and water inside us, we now had the strength to face the next set of rapids.

We would need it.

Rafts on the river, Jinja, Uganda
Recovering from the first part of the adventure
Snak break on the river - Jinja, Uganda
Everyone takes a break. With pineapples

We take the plunge

At last, we reached the third set of rapids. These weren’t as high as the first set, but were much more turbulent. Waves seemed to rush together randomly from all sides, and there didn’t seem to be any way through. Still, Ibrahim commanded us to forge ahead, and we did. Our raft rushed straight in.

Suddenly, the raft swerved sideways, and a huge wave pushed us up and over.

Suddenly, the raft swerved sideways, and a huge wave pushed us up and over. The swirling water swallowed us all. For a few seconds that seemed liked hours, the world consisted of boiling white and a deafening roar. One by one, we all surfaced, gasping and spluttering. And one by one, the support boats picked us up while Ibrahim righted our raft.

Looking at the photographs, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ibrahim deliberately tipped our raft over to give us a thrill. If so, he definitely got what he wanted. The experience was quite terrifying!

Raft capsizing - Jinja, Uganda
Ibrahim dumps us over (I suspect)

Saving the ‘best’ for last

A few minutes later, we reached the last set of rapids. These turned out to be so rough that even Ibrahim and his teammates had never managed to get over them before. So we rowed to shore, got out of the boats, and trekked around them.

Wait. What?

Well, not all the way around. We walked around the worst parts of the rapids, and got back into the boats a little further down. It turned out, there was still some exciting white water to be had. So we had it. Once we got back into the raft, it just took a few strokes of the paddle to get us right in the middle of the white water.

Dangerous river rapids, Jinja, Uganda
The crazy last stretch of rapids
Raft being carried - Jinja, Uganda
One of the rafts being carried around the dangerous stretch

Almost immediately, the same thing happened again (only this time, I don’t think Ibrahim meant for it to happen). Our raft twisted sideways, one side was heaved up by the raging water, and all except my wife were dumped in the drink.

If the previous ducking was scary, this was worse! I remember going under and being tumbled over for an eternity, my mouth and nose full of water.

And if the previous ducking was scary, this was worse! I remember going under and being tumbled over for an eternity, my mouth and nose full of water. Panic? Definitely! But if my GoPro footage is anything to go by, it was only two or three seconds.

And then, suddenly, it was over. We got picked up by the rescue boats again. From there, it was only a few minutes’ paddling to the end of the line. We got out and trekked up the bank to where the matatu was waiting with a change of clothes. Our adrenaline rush was over, and we were happy. But we were also exhausted. And we longed for the soft beds waiting for us at The Haven.

Raft capsizing again - Jinja, Uganda
Going over. Again.

Going over, from our point of view

Here’s what that second dunking looked like to us.

Falling into white water, Jinja, Uganda
Going over…
Falling into white water, Jinja, Uganda
…and over…
Falling into white water, Jinja, Uganda
…and over!
Underwater in the river, Jinja, Uganda
This is what the river looks like from inside!
Falling into white water, Jinja, Uganda
Surfacing in time to see our raft disappear

Recovering from the rush

We got to the resort a little late, around 3:00 PM. But because they knew we were coming, they had kept lunch waiting for us. So after a quick check-in, we dug into our meal. All meals were included in our room rate, and we could choose from a small fixed menu. To our delight, the food was excellent. Our only complaint was that the quantities were far too large. We quickly learned that ordering the full menu of appetizer, salad, main course and dessert would mean that lots of food would go to waste. So we stuck to sharing most of our meals.

Also read: 21 simple tips to be a responsible traveller

View from Haven, Jinja, Uganda
The spectacular view from the dining area

All we could’ve asked for

After a sumptuous lunch under a thatched roof and with a magnificent view of the river, we headed to our room to wash up. Walking through to grass, we discovered that our room was actually a separate cottage. It turned out that the resort had different kinds of cottages, from family cottages of multiple rooms to single-room cottages like ours, and even a honeymoon cottage right at the end of the path.

The icing on the cake was a huge picture window looking out onto the river.

Ours was lovely, with a single huge bedroom, an outdoor verandah, and a large rustic bathroom. The icing on the cake? A huge picture window looking out onto the river!

After the exertions of the morning, we didn’t have the energy to do anything much besides relax. And relax we did. We spent the evening enjoying a drink in the dining area, watching a bit of the football world cup, and stuffing our faces at dinner. All while soaking up the view and the sound of the rushing river in the valley below.

The next morning, after another lovely meal with a view, it was time to head back to Kampala. But even though we only spent a day in the company of the White Nile, that day gave us memories to last a lifetime.

Window view from Haven, Jinja, Uganda
Yes, that’s a window. And yes, that’s the view.
View from Haven, Jinja, Uganda
Few views get better than this
View from Haven, Jinja, Uganda
Fishermen on the rapids at sunset

Fishing boat and river rapids, Jinja, Uganda
A fisherman glides past the rapids in the morning
Weaver bird nests - View from Haven, Jinja, Uganda
Weaver bird nests hang precariously over the rapids

Also read: Hyderabad to Masai Mara: How to plan your Kenya safari from India

Top tips for visiting Jinja

  • The drive from Kampala to Jinja and back is long and sometimes bumpy, with plenty of traffic jams along the way. Prepare yourself.
  • There are plenty of different river tour packages to be had with White Nile Rafting, from a simple glide down the river, to a full day of extreme white water. Kayaking is also available, with even a three-day kayaking course on offer.
  • Depending on the package you choose, you can expect to pay anywhere between USD 50 to 700 per person. A half-day package for a somewhat advanced level of rapids will cost around USD 120.
  • A lot of these packages include add-ons like transfer to and from Kampala, breakfast and mid-morning snacks. The day packages include dinner barbecues and camping accommodation.
  • The rougher white water rafting packages aren’t for the faint-hearted. Prepare to be scared, soaked, and thrown into the water.
  • Knowing how to swim is more of a psychological than a practical advantage. Your life jacket will keep you afloat anyway.
  • If you plan on fixing a GoPro to your helmet, make sure you tie it on securely. It seems the standard adhesive pads aren’t always strong enough to withstand the force of the water.
  • To stay at The Haven, you’ll need to budget anywhere between USD 30 to 150 per person per day, depending on the type of accommodation and the number of meals. For a mid-range room with all meals included, you can expect to pay around USD 120 per person.
  • You might want to ask them to serve smaller portions during meals, or share meals instead. Only people with huge appetites will be able to finish an entire meal by themselves.
  • Take mosquito repellent along, and use the mosquito nets at night. There are lots of them along the river, along with swarms of other less-annoying flying insects.
  • WiFi at The Haven is patchy except at the lobby and dining area, so you might need to walk a bit before you can check your email.

Watch: Video diary: The best of our memories of Africa

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I took these photographs (the ones with my logo; the rest are from the crew) with my trusty Canon EOS 200D DSLR camera, and my solid GoPro Hero5 action camera. For lenses, I used a friend’s amazing Canon 100-400mm zoom lens, and my always-reliable Canon 18-55mm wide-angle lens and Canon 55-250mm medium zoom lens. I also took the footage for the video (including the underwater shots) with the GoPro Hero5. Click the links to check out the latest offers on Amazon.


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