The Weekend on The Nile
The week Kylie and I decided to spend the weekend in Jinja, we had been thinking about going back to Fort Portal. We had all agreed that Fort Portal is the most beautiful place in Uganda. We are actually hoping that Fort Portal adopts us one day.
The only flip-side about planning to spend a weekend in Fort Portal is the 5 hour drive from Kampala, if your weekend is as short as ours; you would want to factor in the hours spent on the road in the whole trip. While I managed to get Friday AND Saturday off, Kylie failed and a Fort Portal trip seemed feasible. I remembered Kylie had told me she had never been to Jinja- a two hour drive from Kampala in the Eastern region of Uganda. Obviously, when someone mentions Jinja, the mighty River Nile comes to mind.
The Nile is one of the world’s longest rivers; traverse 6,695 kilometers and shared by 11 countries namely Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, The Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda.
The Nile is such a captivating feature that back in 1856, the Royal Geographical Society – a learned society and professional body for geography and geographers founded in 1830 in London – organized an expedition led by Captain Richard Burton. It included the newly commissioned John Speke to search for the source of the Nile.
The expedition started out at the East African coast. Two years later, they discovered Lake Tanganyika. They explored the lake for months on end, the source remained elusive. They fell ill and returned to the coast. It was then that they heard a tale of “a vast expanse” of “the pale-blue waters” north of Tanganyika.
As soon as John Speke recovered, he set off in command of a small party in search of the northern lake. When he came upon it, he named it Lake Victoria. Sigh. There went the original name e nyanja Nalubaale. So Speke returned to England without Burton and announced that he had indeed discovered the source of River Nile. Of course Burton felt belittled because he believed that the true source had to be “his” Tanganyika.
The Royal Geographical Society did not know who to believe. They had no choice but to send Speke back to Africa to justify his Nile claims. After quite a number of difficulties, negotiations, more politicking and intrigue, the powerful king also known as the Kabaka of Buganda (the Kingdom I come from albeit a commoner but who is asking?) Mutesa allowed Speke to proceed to the point on Lake Victoria where the White Nile issues from the lake. I can actually picture the Kabaka in his royal gab pointing to the source… Wait, what was the Kabaka doing in Jinja at the time? Is Jinja even its original name? Do Kings fish? I wonder…
Anyway, on a bright sunny afternoon of 28 July 1862, John Speke “discovered” the source of the Nile and named it Ripon Falls. It goes without saying that this was the highlight, the crowning of his life. At thirty five, this man made history.
It was upon this great history that I suggested to Kylie we go to Jinja. Who knows what we would discover?
I booked our accommodation at Nile River Explorers -duh- and I embarked on our expedition on Friday as Kylie would join me the following day in the afternoon after her show. Nile River Explorers also known as NRE provides transport using their shuttle. Pick-up points at Fat Cat Backpackers, Red Chilli and Oasis Mall in the city; you just stand by the elephant statue so the driver can see you. Which is pretty cool as it saves you an expense and the inconvenience of having to use public transport.
By 6.50am, I was casually leaning against the elephant, looking out for my ride. At 7.05am, I received a phone call from the shuttle driver asking where I was since he couldn’t see me. I told him.
“Oh. Okay!” He said and he hang up.
An elderly man stepped out of a grey saloon car and walked up to me. He introduced himself and told me he would be driving us – two Swedish girls and I to NRE. He said it’s not often that he picks up Ugandans to go to NRE and that I should forgive him for assuming he was picking up a White person since they are the ones with the touristy genes, in his opinion. I told him that I was also looking out for a shuttle, a big van. Clearly, our expectations that morning weren’t met. Apparently, because it was just the three of us, he brought the saloon car to save gas.
I sat at the front with him; the Swedish girls took the back. I had never been up-close to one; Swedish women are beautiful! One of the girls had been in Uganda for six months, volunteering in Gulu, northern Uganda – you could actually tell by the tan. Her friend who was still slightly pale had come to visit her for two weeks before the volunteer left Uganda for good. They had wonderful stories from Queen Elizabeth national park.
The driver asked me what inspired my weekend away; I told him I wanted to see my country. The Swedish girls jumped in, “You’re so lucky to come from this country. It is so beautiful!” I agreed. I asked them about their country, mentally trying to place it on a map of Europe and failing miserably.
“Not as beautiful as Uganda…” Any compliment to Uganda or anything Ugandan is like a compliment made directly to me. It warms my heart and fills me with great pride. So I just smiled, trying to stay cool and everything.
We arrived in Jinja at about 9.00am, the driver dropped them off the NRE Backpackers, which is relatively in Jinja town and proceeded to take me NRE, the campsite on the Nile. It’s about 5 kilometers from Jinja town.
Ben helped me check in. Ben is Australian. At the beginning of the year, he decided he was going to live in Africa. He visited South Africa, and then he applied for a job at NRE, the rest as they say, is history. The campsite was quiet. I was told that some guests had gone water rafting, others kayaking, others were on a cruise… I was filled with excitement. I took my stuff to our room and came back to sit in the lounge area.
The lounge. How can I even explain this? I’ve never sat in a place that had me so relaxed and so lazy that even the simplest things like relieving myself felt like quite an irritating chore. I watched NatGeo, dozed off, woke up and watched NatGeo again, ordered lunch, ate to my fill. The food isn’t all that but hey, a holiday is a holiday. I went down to the river where I found a guest that asked me to organize for her a kayak thinking I was staff and apologized profusely when I told her I wasn’t. I came back to the lounge area, dozed off some more. I think I had a sleep debt. That’s the only explanation. The alternative would be sleeping sickness…
At 4.00pm, I grudgingly left the lounge and went back to our room (for a nap.) I was woken up by chatter and lots of laughter. The guests were returning from their various activities. I decided to go take a shower. Meanwhile, the bathrooms have a hair dryer! How convenient is that? It’s the little things…
After the shower, I felt rejuvenated. So I went back at the lounge. The guys were chatting over beer about their day. I went and ordered a pot of tea and joined them. I said hello as I sat down and propped the cushions into a comfy position. Two minutes later, I was engaged in their conversation.
It was like a United Nations kind of gathering. There was a group of about six friends from New Zealand transversing Africa. They flew from New Zealand with their huge truck to South Africa and they had been driving since. Their plan was to stay at NRE for a couple of weeks but after those two weeks, they would wake up, have breakfast, check out, load their truck and kayaks, drink some beer at the bar or just take a nap in the lounge and before they knew it, they checked in again in the evening. This happened for another two weeks. A bunch of Irish guys visiting Africa and Uganda for the very first time, another working for an NGO up north, this one had suffered injuries from a kayaking accident. Apparently a big wave hit him and he fell out of his kayak, quite frankly, I didn’t understand it. The time he spent describing the ordeal, I was thinking what an exciting and frightening experience. The skin on his left was scrapped by a rock. He spent the weekend limping about… If you called out his name, he would have to turn around one eighty degrees. Poor Guy.
The special guest was the surgeon from London. He was a very seasoned traveler with a wealth of hilarious stories. He told Poor Guy, “You’re lucky. One of my friends was killed by a crocodile while kayaking the Nile in DR Congo a few years ago…” We all looked at him. He went on to tell us that it’s a true story and that the crocodiles in DR Congo are gigantic, the size of the small pickup trucks. That Uganda is the safest place to kayak the Nile. I looked at Poor Guy, he managed a shrug and said he reassured us that he would be fine.
At around 6.00pm, one guy suggested we move the party to the terrace to catch the sun set into the Nile and my God. What a marvel! The sun casts its shadow in to the water turning it into ripples of orange… At one point, everyone fell silent. Moments later, the surgeon exclaimed, “Well, that definitely never ceases to amaze me!”
A while later, everyone ordered their dinner and went on to discuss plans for the following day. They asked me what I would be doing, I told them quad biking. I also told them that I was praying it rained heavily that night so I could get a muddy experience. Poor Guy would do a bit of reading and sleeping in the lounge – the surgeon, the Irish guys and the New Zealand friends were going rafting again.
After dinner, the guys took turns buying rounds of drinks, tea for me while reminiscing about previous adventures. I listened on with envy. By 11.00pm, they suggested hitting the club in town. At this time, I could barely keep my eyes open. So I wished them a goodnight.
That night, my dreams were filled with quad bikes. My friends and I were riding big monstrous bikes and extremely muddy tracks. Unfortunately it didn’t rain, which meant no mud puddles for me. Good thing is All Terrain Adventure is just about fifty meters from the campsite. I had planned a one hour trip because a) it’s the cheapest b) I was worried for my skills since I don’t drive and I don’t even know how to ride a bicycle!
So happens that I shouldn’t have worried about my lack of experience. After changing into safety gear; overalls, boots, helmet and glasses – the guide patiently gave me a lesson for a time that was exclusive of my package. I was almost confident by the time we set off for the villages. Oh what an experience.
The ride took us deep in the villages, filled with people happy with so little. We encountered children squealing in excitement and sometimes in fear at the sound and sight of the quad bikes; asking for rides, begging for money. The ones that were frightened went hiding behind their mothers’ longs skirts, screaming their heads off. Others just waving us off but it wasn’t until twenty minutes into the ride that I was confident to wave back and when I did, I felt like squealing too!
About forty minutes into our journey, I saw a mud puddle shimmering at a distance. Suddenly, I was so obsessed. I was so fixated by it. I wanted to ride into it at my fastest speed, unfortunately, I don’t know what happened. My bike and I rolled over, I fell out of the bike, sprained my wrist. Even worse, I missed the puddle! I was so upset! Henry, my guide ran to me immediately asking if I was hurt, had I broken something… I told him that I missed the puddle, while pointing at it like a spoilt brat.
With a bruised wrist and ego, I got back onto my bike. My confidence was pretty shaken up. Luckily the journey ended soon. It was bitter sweet. It was interesting how the children were chanting, “Omuzungu! Omuzungu!” And look at me curiously with a tinge of disappointment upon realizing I wasn’t “Omuzungu” which is a White person. The stories from Henry about the village people, what the construction of the new dam means for them and for the businesses along the Nile. How the rapids aren’t as strong as they used to be… This itself is a topic on its own.
I returned to a nearly deserted campsite. With everyone out, Poor Guy was reading and one of the New Zealand guys was buried in the cushions in the lounge, he had been to the clinic earlier that morning and his fear was confirmed, he had malaria. From then on, people took turns doting on him. Asking if he needed anything; from fresh juice, fresh air or if he needed everyone to keep quiet.
I couldn’t wait for Kylie to arrive and meet my new friends. Plus they kept asking me when she would arrive because I had told them about her. So basically, I couldn’t wait to show her off too. Turns out that none of the guys went rafting, apparently they left the club at 6.30am. The boys knew how – what we call here – to eat life!
Hunger drove them out of their beds at 1.00pm. We ate lunch, while watching a movie and listening to more adventure stories. These people would make you want to leave everything behind and travel with them. If for no other reason than amass such stories…
Kylie arrived around 3.00pm. Everyone was excited to meet her. First order of business was to explore the river and take tons of photos. That evening, there wasn’t a sunset, still the clouds danced in the river. More stories were shared. Kylie had come with roasted peanuts; she became an instant hit at the table of drinks. The bartender brought a bowl, peanuts were emptied into it. Hands made trips to the bowl, conversation continued flowing… We had dinner shortly and went to bed.
Kylie woke me up so we could take photos of the sunrise before anyone woke up. We sat in the boat and watched the river change against the daylight. We were already sad that we had to leave that day for Kampala. Why do they make weekends so short? We got back to our room, packed up, went to take a shower, had breakfast, checked out at 11.00am and sat in the lounge. Having woken up so early, I dozed off in the cushions.
More guests had arrived that mid morning and there was more chatter, rudely disrupting my beauty sleep. Kylie woke me up to have lunch; Poor Guy called us a cab to drive us into town since he was also leaving to catch a plane back to Dublin. We found the shuttle, a minibus filled to capacity returning to the city. The ride back to Kampala was quite uneventful since we slept off half the time. The Monday blues hit shortly before we reached home…