The River and the City

Kampala, Uganda

Kampala is a city of hills and motorbike taxis (known locally as boda-bodas). After crossing the Nile River on the bus in darkness, the only light emanating from some industrial smokestacks nearby, we arrived and hired a ‘special taxi’ to take us to my friend Michael’s house, of which I had the address and the name of a nearby road but not much else. Following a local boda driver (the acknowledged experts in city geography), we eventually found the right street and a woman at the streetcorner kiosk directed us to the right gate.

The bodas of Kampala (photo credit: Meredith Saba)

Mike runs a rent-to-own motorbike business for boda drivers called Tugende, meaning “Let’s go!” in the Luganda language (the most widely used local language in Uganda, spoken mainly by the Baganda people who constitute the largest ethnic group in Uganda, but are still only 17% of the total population). It was fascinating to get his perspectice on Ugandan business practices (corruption is rampant, unfortunately, though Tugende maintains a zero-tolerance policy for corruption and keeps it out of its business) as well as politics over a couple bottles of Club, a local beer. I also tried a bit of ‘Uganda Waragi’, a spirit similar to gin often sold in small plastic pouches (because they are cheaper to produce than glass bottles).

Discussing Uganda’s future with Mike

Two hours from Kampala, where the Nile flows north out of Lake Victoria and begins (according to Ugandans, though I was just told in Kigali that the true source is in Rwanda) its 4,000 mile-long journey north to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, a number of intense Class IV and V rapids support a fun rafting trip in which Meredith and I were eager to partake. The current raftable section of the Nile is a ways downriver from the original rapids, many of which were flooded with the completion of the Bujagali Dam in 2012 (the goverment is in the process of constructing yet another dam further downriver, which may make the current rapids disappear altogether).

Rapids on the Victoria Nile (photo credit: Meredith Saba)

We met our lead guide Juma (who competed in the London Olympics in 2012), grabbed a life jacket and helmet and jumped into the boat with five other travelers. After practicing flipping the raft in the refreshingly cool waters of the river, we approached the first rapid, known as Overtime. We hit it just as soon as our guide Paolo had time to explain that there is an 8-foot drop at the end, and that it was the most extreme rapid of the day. There was no time to think, about whether we had made a terrible mistake or anything else. Only to duck down and take cover as the raft plunged sideways over the drop off. Miraculously we did not flip, and an exhilirating (and wet) few seconds later we were in calm waters again, looking back at the waterfall we had just gone over as the screams of our fellow rafters subsided into giddy laughter.

Dropping in to Overtime

Seven more exciting rapids followed, including ‘The Dead Dutchman’ and ‘The Bad Place’, a Class VI that we had to take the rafts out and portage around to avoid. At one point the raft turned almost perpendicular to the water and Paolo was launched into the river, though the rest of us managed to cling on. Watching our fellows in Juma’s boat flip a number of times, I found myself wishing I would be similarly thrown into the brisk water at the next rapid. There were also long stretches of flatwater where we enjoyed pinapple slices and glucose biscuits (ubiquitous in East Africa), and I took every opportunity to dive in, swim around and cool off (no hippos or crocodiles here!).

Meredith and me on the river

The day ended with a BBQ, beers and a carnival trolley back to the main road. Sadly Meredith had to return home and flew back to the US the next day (a 36 hour journey) while I stayed in Kampala to see a bit more of the city, including the recently constructed National Mosque on Old Kampala Hill (fun fact: Kampala is also built on seven hills, like every other city in the world), known as the Gaddafi Mosque to Kampalans as it was built with funds and engineers provided by the late Libyan leader. The idea began with Idi Amin in the 1970’s, however, and it was interesting to talk with my guide about Uganda’s Muslim community while taking in the wide-ranging views of the city from the top of the minaret. I would soon strike out from here to Uganda’s hinterland, where waterfalls, chimpanzees, and Africa’s highest mountain range awaited.

National (Gaddafi) Mosque, Kampala

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