|Running the Nile||
A captivated David Holt-Biddle traces one of Africa's newest and most exciting river trips, following the Nile from its source at Lake Victoria into the heart of Uganda.
A hundred years ago travel along the Nile was an uncomfortable, arduous business. So what's changed, you ask? Well, in the 19th century explorers had to put up with untold hardship that lasted for months on end, as they were poled, punted or portered along the river in primitive craft. Today's explorer, however, can spend just a few days, or even hours, on the river, and although it can still be uncomfortable and arduous, it is a lot more fun!
White water rafting and river running have been popular in other parts of the world for a long time, and Africa offers one of the greatest experiences of all, the Zambezi. Running the Nile, however, is a comparatively new adventure.
Uganda is often described as the Pearl of Africa, and it is therefore entirely fitting that from the pearl should spring Africa's - and the world's - greatest river, the Nile. Along with other great rivers like the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Indus, the Nile can be considered the cradle of civilisation, for it was in these ancient lands that man first settled and began to build his great cities of brick and stone.
The quest for the source of the Nile is almost as old as the river itself. The ancients certainly wanted to know where this great waterway, which they venerated as a deity, sprang from the earth. The search continued for aeons, until it reached fever pitch in the 19th century. Then, a dozen explorers from a number of European nations were rushing around Africa like characters in an old silent movie, trying to bring light to "the Dark Continent", not to mention a touch of economic gain to their emperors and empires.
The explorers were the stuff of which legends are made: Dr David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Emin Pasha, Sir Richard Burton, General Gordon (of Khartoum) and John Hanning Speke. It was actually Speke who, in 1858, established that Lake Victoria's natural drain was in fact the Nile, and that it was therefore the source of the world's longest river.
From the point at which the lake becomes the river, at the town of Jinja in Uganda, it is 5,588 kilometres to where it enters the Mediterranean at Alexandria in Egypt.
From Jinja, the Victoria Nile cuts its way to Lake Kyoga, then onwards to Lake Albert, whence it becomes the Albert Nile. Meandering northwards into Sudan, it becomes the White Nile (which it technically is from its source), and is joined by the Blue Nile (which rises in Ethiopia) at Khartoum. Sweeping on through the cataracts to the Egyptian border, Abu Simbel and Aswan Dam, the river then threads its way through the ancient land of Egypt to the sea.
Rafting the early stretches of the Nile was pioneered by Adrift, a company that has its headquarters in New Zealand but its spirit on the great rivers of the world. Adrift has been rafting in Ecuador, Nepal, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Ethiopia for many years, but it ventured into Uganda just a couple of years ago. They pioneered the trip from Jinja to Lake Albert in 1996, with a combination of paddle rafts and canoes.
Today's commercial trip actually starts at Bujagali Falls, some 10 kilometres below the source and Jinja. From Bujagali (which is really more of a serious set of rapids than a waterfall, but which does gets that first rush of adrenalin going), the route is through lush, green walls of equatorial jungle, interspersed with rapids like Easy Rider, Total Gunga and Silver Back, until the countryside, and the river, flatten out to become Lake Kyoga some 55km downstream. The leg across Lake Kyoga can be canoed but it is not going to provide too many thrills, so the next best bet is to pick up the river again at Masindi Port, where the lake again becomes the Nile. Adrift actually take this leg from even further downstream, at Karuma Falls. This is the stretch that takes you to one of the most dramatic sights in Africa, the Murchison Falls.
There is a dark side to this corner of Uganda, for it is at Karuma, on the road bridge above the Falls, that dictator Idi Amin used to have his opponents handcuffed and hurled into the Nile. It is no accident that he also referred to the stretch of river below the bridge as "the headquarters of the crocodiles", as those reptiles knew they were on to a good thing.
But the leg between Karuma Falls and Big Brother Murchison is probably the most dramatic 85 kilometre long reach of the river. This entire stretch is through the Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda's biggest. While trying to stay upright in the rapids, rafters now also have the opportunity to see elephant, buffalo and even lion, apart from a lot of other big game and the ubiquitous crocs and hippos.
It is at Murchison that virtually the entire flow of Africa's biggest river is forced through a gap in the rock walls just three-metres wide, and shot out over a 30-metre high cliff face - spectacular is hardly the word. Do not try to do this in your raft, however, but porter around the falls to tackle the next leg!
Murchison definitely tames the Nile, for below the falls it is somewhat more subdued (perhaps embarrassed by its exuberance at the Falls?). The river widens again here, meandering between lush banks and papyrus beds to become the delta on Lake Albert, some 40 kilometres below the falls. This is more of a canoe stretch, giving one the opportunity to do some serious game viewing and birding.
The river now ambles off for about 200 kilometres through not-particularly-exciting plains, to the Dufile Game Reserve on the Sudanese border. This end is uncharted territory, and although there are reports of some 90 kilometres of highly dramatic rapids, the rebels in Sudan and their Ugandan sympathisers also find the area exciting, and therefore render it, for the time being anyway, uncomfortable for river runners.
So why should one raft the early stretches of the Nile? Because this is the newest and one of the most exciting river experiences in the world. When should you do it? Any time of the year, really. Uganda is on the equator so the climate is stable, although some seasons are somewhat wetter than others. But then you are on the water anyway. Where should you raft? There is a choice of rafting or canoeing on the Bujagali or the Murchison legs, but there are also one day experiences to be had out of Kampala or Entebbe.
One should not imagine that Uganda is all white water and gorillas. It is not called the Pearl of Africa for nothing; it is a beautiful and varied country, from the Mountains of the Moon (the Rwenzori), the jungles and gorillas in the west, the Murchison in the north west, the semi-desert of Kidepo in the north, the extinct volcanoes and reserves of the east, to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria in the south, there is great game viewing, great fishing, and perhaps above all, great people.
David Holt-Biddle is one of South Africa's foremost environmental and travel journalists and broadcasters. He travels extensively throughout Africa.
Published in Travel Africa Edition Two: Winter 1997/8. Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)
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