Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The source of the Nile at Jinja

April 6th

Up very early (considering we’re on holiday) and ready to leave the Hostel at eight. We even get a rudimentary breakfast of biscuits and coffee to keep us awake. We’re taken through Kampala in a taxi and left at a café (Vassili’s) doing excellent muffins and coffee. We ask our taxi driver how long we’ll have to wait until our rafting bus arrives. “Half an hour or so” he says. Good; that gives us time to order some food. So just as we’re getting our food the bus turns up early, and we have to make it wait while we eat. On the bus are a couple of Dutch girls. We get talking (as you do…); it turns out they are KLM air stewardesses and are going rafting during a stopover between flights from and to Amsterdam. Now that’s what I call organisation!

While we’re in the taxi my phone rings; it’s the rafting company asking us if we want to go down the river today after all. We have a quick discussion and decide that, no – we’re set ourselves to rafting on Tuesday, thanks, and we’ll enjoy a lazy day today.

The road from Kampala to Jinja isn’t the most scenic in the world. Kampala’s dreary suburbs, complete with litter and ribbon development, stretch for miles. We cross the forlorn remains of the railway line, now used as a thoroughfare for pedestrians. It’s probably the only road in Uganda where they aren’t at risk of being run down by wheeled traffic.

Out of Kampala we eventually pass through a forest reserve, a beautiful stretch of dense woodland with trees so thick that you can’t see more than a few metres into the woodland from the roadside.

In the middle of this woodland area is a rest stop, a sort of market in the middle of nowhere. The road is lined with tiny wooden shacks selling fruit, and dozens of charcoal braziers are in full production roasting kebabs and chicken breasts. As the bus pulls up dozens of vendors run to us, pushing each other aside in a desperate scramble to sell us their particular brochettes or bananas. We nearly get poked in the eye by over enthusiastic chicken-on-a-stick sellers. The meat smells wonderful, but unfortunately we’re full of muffins and coffee so decide to give it a miss. Our bus driver buys big hands of bananas for today’s rafters.

There is a huge area of sugar cane just before Jinja, with big sugar factories in full production, and a large tea estate too. (All we need is a dairy farm and we’d have the ingredients for the perfect cuppa).

Just outside Jinja is the Nile brewery, makers of what I consider to be Uganda’s best beer. It’s funny how in Uganda, as in Rwanda, the breweries seem to be the most western businesses – adroitly organised, well maintained, and obviously massively profitable.

And then suddenly we can see the river Nile in front, and we’re crossing the Owen Falls Dam. The Nile is enormous. Remember that (according to Ugandans but certainly not Rwandans) the river exiting from Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile. It’s a good two hundred yards wide at its narrowest, and more like a quarter mile wide most of the time. Some source! The Owen Falls Dam supplies most of Uganda’s electricity, except that a fall in the level of Lake Victoria has cut production and means the whole country gets periodic blackouts.

By the side of the lake we see pelicans and endless streams of cormorants. Snowy white egrets perch in the shallows, and the occasional African fish eagle soars overhead. Black and white kingfishers perform aerobatics in all directions.

We turn off the tarmac road just outside Jinja town and rattle down a dirt road and into the “Adrift” company campsite. Because we’re not rafting till tomorrow we’re not their highest priority, and we say goodbye to our air stewardesses. We get allocated rooms in a communal bunkhouse which is very comfortable; I even get a double-sized bed so that I can sleep diagonally and can stretch out my legs for once!

The camp bar is perched on the edge of a river cliff and has spectacular views over the Nile. At this point there is one small rapid, with a drop of just a couple of feet, making a white splash of foam across the entire Nile. And right next to the bar is the tower for bungee jumping, with more than a hundred feet drop straight into a deep pool where currents are constantly swirling and eddying around. Cormorants are fishing all across the river, and every now and then a fish breaks the surface to gulp a fly. Small canoes hover safely away from the rapids with Ugandan fishermen trying to get to the fish before the birds do!

We get a couple of boda-bodas and head off to “do” Jinja town. As usual we seem to go out in the hottest part of the day, and the heat is intense. My bike gets a huge nail in its tyre; miraculously it doesn’t cause a puncture – how often can you run over a four inch nail and stay intact? Jinja is a nice town – we all like it. It’s slightly scruffy and down at heel, but at the same time there’s plenty of trade and lots of businesses. In particular there are a lot of clothes shops, almost all run by Indians, where you can buy one-off fashion and get it altered for you on the spot. The girls try on various tops; I find a shirt I really like but the neck is slightly too tight to be comfortable. A shame, because the embroidery on the neckline is spectacularly good.

We need to eat; one of the staff at ”Adrift” has recommended a restaurant but neither of our boda-boda drivers can find it. We walk round and round, getting a feel for the place. Jinja is built on a grid layout with “Main Street” being the spine and all the other roads having “East” and “West” halves as they run away from Main Street. We hope to find an eating place by the lakeside but this is not to be. The lake is cut off from the town by the railway line, and this piece of railway is still in use. And the closer you get to the lake the more run down the area becomes, with scrap depots and dubious looking warehouses, so we cut our losses and head back to the centre. Just as we’re about to give up looking for the “Modern Restaurant” and head for any food place that’s open, we see the M R opposite us.

It’s an unprepossessing place, but does a hearty lunch. We get enormous plates of fried rice, and I ask for beef. What I get is a few lumps of boiled gristle with some shreds of flesh attached to them. It’s not the greatest meal in the world but it fills us up. While we’re eating who should come drifting past but Kerry, Moira and the other VSOs we were on the bus with. Cue lots of gossip and some attention from Ugandans who can’t understand why one English man should have so many women hanging around him. It must be the size of my wallet….

After lunch we once more roam around the town. There’s an artist at work in his studio, painting in acrylics with a trowel rather than a brush. His work is too garish for my liking, but it certainly is striking and uncompromisingly African. Tina likes his style and they talk technique for a while. We try on more clothes, then decide to head for the “source of the Nile” in some parkland on the edge of the town. We pass a Hindu temple painted a pastel pink, and skirt some beautifully kept parkland on the edge of the Jinja Golf Club. There’s a lovely hedge of bougainvillea in every shade from pink, through red, to purple. We can see the Nile to our right. Half way between where we are standing and the Owen Falls Dam is the Nile Bridge, carrying the railway line. A couple of engines trundle over at walking speed, too far away to get a good picture.

There’s a fee to go down to the source of the Nile – for Ugandans it is 1000 shillings; for muzungus it’s ten times that amount. We protest, negotiate, haggle, throw tantrums, and eventually we get in for 5000 apiece. It’s still extortionate but both we and the gatekeeper have enjoyed the arguing and getting the attention.

The source of the Nile turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. There’s a line of craft stalls, and a bar in bright red and yellow paint right on the edge of the river. There are some river launches, of which more later. There’s a bust of Mahatma Ghandi, maintained by an Indian bank, and we discover that some of the great man’s ashes were put into the river at this point. (Ghandi spent some of his youth in East Africa). There are the remains of the original road bridge over the river Nile; when the dam was built it raised the water level so much that at flood times the bridge is all but submerged, and far too dangerous to remain in use. The water is whooshing past at a huge speed – jogging speed, and far too fast to swim in.

Swimming’s very much on our mind because it’s so hot, and we find a little grassy bank next to the river and debate whether we should paddle or go in properly. I’m paddling and Épi is just getting ready when we see something black moving in a funny fashion across the water. It’s going away from us but only about twenty yards or so. It certainly isn’t a cormorant. Yes, folks, we’ve met our first (poisonous) African water snake. Nobody goes into the water after that! The snakes only attack you if you actually bump into them or tread on them, or so we’re told, but we’re not going to take any risks.

There used to be a big rapid at this exact spot, called Rippon Falls, but when the dam was built the falls were dynamited away to improve the flow of water. So there are no proper rapids to mark the exit from Lake Victoria, just a boiling, swirling torrent which picks up speed in seconds as it leaves the lake. Lines of foam mark dangerous eddy currents, and you can see water boiling up from below where the remains of rocks below the surface have interrupted its flow.

When we’ve cooled our feet in the water we go to the bar for a cold beer, and who should come past but Eric and Amy. Two more VSO escapees to Rwanda. They want to go rafting but haven’t made a definite booking yet, so over a beer we all agree they should come with us and stay with us at “Adrift”. Even better, they’ve got two Ugandans with them, one of whom has a car. We decide to go for a boat trip on the lake, to the exact spot where the Nile begins. With seven of us the price becomes easily manageable, and the sailor guns the outboard motor to beat the current. As we go out into the lake we see another water snake, and we head out to a little island where some fisherman have huts. The bird life here is simply amazing. Not so much for the variety of species, but for the sheer number of birds. Rocks by the water’s edge are white with their droppings.

On the island we land and take lots of posy pictures. Here we are shown one patch of water, upstream, which is beyond question static. Leaves on it are staying put except for some to-ing and fro-ing in the waves. (Lake Victoria is so big that it has tides as well as waves). Then a few feet downstream we are shown that the water is beyond question moving, and the leaves and twigs we throw in start their journey to Egypt. Ergo, we are at the source of the Nile. So how do we celebrate? We find flat stones which litter the island and skim them across the water, trying to see who can get the most bounces. Tina discovers a fresh water crab and terrorises everyone with it. Épi rakes about for snail shells in the shallows.

The afternoon is ending and the sun setting as we motor back downstream to the jetty. We pile into the car belonging to Eric and Amy’s colleagues and go bumpety bump down the mud road to the camp site, where Eric and Amy sling their rucksacks in our dorm. Their friends don’t want to go rafting with us; it’s too expensive. The only other people in the dorm besides our group are two American teachers from Nyamata, both of whom are friends of Els. And there are another two Americans, whom Épi and I have met at Charlotte’s party, staying with Els back at the Backpackers’ Hostel in Kampala. So actually we all know each other. You see how incestuous all this is becoming? It’s as if half the entire volunteer force from Rwanda has come to the same place for Genocide week, and we are fated to keep criss-crossing each others’ paths.

We eat and drink well into the night at “Adrift”. We’ve all decided that none of us is going to do the bungee jump; I’ve promised Teresa that I won’t because I’m too old to expect to come through unscathed; the girls quite rightly decide its one challenge too far. Their decision is made easier by watching one man do the jump as we drink our beers; he bottles out twice and in the end is pushed unceremoniously into the void to make room for the next person.

The beers are cheap, the food is good, and amazingly enough it’s possible to just get blasé about the fact that you’re perched 100 feet above the river Nile; that the water going past you will end up within sight of the pyramids in three month’s time; that some of the water has already flowed past my District of Muhanga in Rwanda; that you are about to go over some of the finest white water rapids in the world, and above all that you are in luxury camping conditions in one of Africa’s poorest countries. The night air is balmy; there’s no wind and no mosquitoes because the air currents rising off the river are enough to keep them clear. I’ve been told that they have had 80 year olds do the rafting successfully, so I feel very relaxed. Life is good. Rwanda feels a long way away.

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