Uganda: The Source of the Nile

21st January - 9th February 2002


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I made an early start to return to Kampala as I had been told that there was a direct bus that departed Fort Portal at 10.00. After settling my bill at the Kibale National Park, I walked back to the road where there was a matatu waiting by the park gates, dropping off some workers. It was a tight squeeze to get in the matatu, but with matatus travelling through rural areas, there is always room for one more. At 08:30, once my backpack had been securely tied to the roof, we set off and lurched over the bumps in the road as we made our way out of the forest and back to civilisation. The matatu was heavily overloaded and did not have the power to get up some of the steeper hills, so we all had to get out and walk. We all slowly followed the matatu up the hill as it belched black smoke and the engine wined, obviously not happy at the sudden exertion needed to get up the hill. The driver waited patiently at the top while one by one we caught up and climbed back in trying to reclaim our tiny piece of personal space.

I kept an eye on my watch, which is generally not a good idea while travelling on local transport in Africa; I still had 45 minutes to reach the bus park in Fort Portal. Seconds later we hit a large pothole and the matatu bottomed out scraping along the dirt. We continued for a few hundred metres more, a horrible rattling noise now coming from underneath us. The driver pulled over, stopped and turned off the engine. My chances of catching the Kampala bus were now slipping away while the driver fiddled about under the chassis with some spanners trying to tighten up what the last pothole managed to almost rip off. We were very close to Fort Portal, now stuck by the side of the road in a small village, the journey becoming increasingly frustrating. The occasional vehicle that passed us seemed to mock us by covering us in a cloud of dust while we stood around watching anxiously as the driver clanked about under the matatu with the spanners. The majority of traffic passing along this road was either bicycles or pedestrians; I just hoped that we wouldn't end up as one of the pedestrians.

Eventually the driver was satisfied that he had managed to fix what ever had come loose and once again we all squeezed into the matatu and slowly made our way along the road, reaching Fort Portal without any further incident. I untied my backpack from the roof as quickly as I could while negotiating with a boda boda to take me to the bus park. As soon as my pack was off the roof I was on the back of the moped heading up the hill as fast as we could go, a bit faster than walking speed, in a desperate attempt to catch the once daily bus to the capital. The driver shouted to me, 'Are you going to Kampala?' My bus was coming down the opposite side of the road at full speed. We both waved frantically at the bus to get the driver to stop. The driver stopped in a cloud of dust as I ran off down the road to climb aboard. Now I could relax; by the afternoon I would be back in Kampala where I intended to spend a couple of days sorting out visas for my onward journey through East Africa.

The road between Fort Portal and Kampala was in the process of being upgraded, but this didn't seem to impede our progress as the driver raced along the diversions and the old dirt road, criss-crossing the new road being graded out of the dirt. We almost flew over the bumps in the roads, speeding past colobus monkeys sitting in the trees beside the road, who watched us disappear in a blur of metal and dust. As we neared our destination and were now travelling along the new smooth, paved road, the driver went even faster. There is something to be said about potholes in the road, at least they do slow the traffic down; although sometimes the potholes have an alarming habit of sending all the traffic to the same side of the road, a common problem along the busier roads.

By early afternoon we had reached the western suburbs of Kampala and our journey slowed considerably as we made our way through the traffic to the city centre and the bus park. I knew the routine in Kampala by now, this was my third visit, and from the bus park walked to the old taxi park to take a matatu to Bugolobi and the Red Chilli Hideaway. The next two days I considered to be work days. Firstly I paid another visit to the bank before walking to the Kenyan embassy to fill out a visa application and leaving my passport with them for the day to process. I passed the time waiting at an internet cafe back in Bugolobi where I also stopped for lunch before returning in the afternoon to collect my passport. From the Kenyan embassy I walked to the Tanzanian embassy and repeated the same routine there and by the end of the day found that I had spent US$100 on visa fees. The following day I collected my passport again and was now ready to travel east to the Kenyan frontier.

On my way to Kenya I planned to stop at one more town in Uganda, Jinja. The town is famous for being the source of the Nile, as well as being the source of Nile Special, one of Uganda's most popular beers. It is not far from Kampala to Jinja, only about 80km or just over an hour on a local bus. The clock on this stage of my trip was ticking and my March 1st deadline to reach Dar es Salaam loomed ever closer as each day slipped by. I wanted to cross the border into Kenya this weekend, today was Friday, so that I could spend almost three weeks in Kenya. That really only gave me a day to see the two most important sights in Jinja, the source of the Nile (the river, not the beer) and Bujagali falls, downstream on the Nile.

Just at the outskirts of Jinja the bus crossed over the Nile at the Owens Falls dam. The dam was built in the 1950's as a hydroelectric project and is today still the main source of power for Uganda. A replacement dam is being built as the Owens Falls dam is now structurally unsafe and is destined to be mass filled with concrete. It must be somewhat of a worry for the people living downstream as this dam is now the only thing holding back the waters of Lake Victoria as the natural rock shelf of Ripon Falls was blasted away during the construction of the dam. I arrived in Jinja at almost midday and the bus dropped me in the centre of town. I planned to stay at the Explorers Backpackers to the north of the town and quickly jumped on a boda boda and backtracked up the road. I checked in, dropped off my luggage and immediately left to head for Bujagali Falls, a series of rapids rather than waterfalls, 9km downstream from Jinja.

I walked north along the road out of town from where I jumped on a boda boda, which got me as far as the turn off for the falls, where the moped picked up a puncture. It was only another kilometre from the main road to the falls, so rather than wait for the puncture to be fixed, I walked instead. It was a pleasant walk along the track past small huts and fields of mostly of banana palms to the river. The Explorers Backpackers have their rafting base up here along with another rafting company. The Explorers Camp was set on the steep banks leading down to the Nile, with terraces for camping on and small bandas for rent. I stopped for lunch and a drink before walking down to the falls. There is an entrance fee of USH2,000, but I told the gatekeeper that I was camping at Explorers and he let me in for free.

I have to admit that the Bujagali falls are not really that exciting, and to call them a waterfall is being very poetic with the English language because they are only a series of rapids; grade five rapids according to the rafting companies. But you could still get down them on a raft, which you couldn't if they were a waterfall. The surroundings were very picturesque and it was exhilarating to stand on the banks of the river by one of the rapids and see the sheer power of the water flowing downstream on it's three month 6,400km journey through Uganda, Sudan and Egypt to eventually discharge into the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately the Bujagali falls will soon be submerged with the construction of a new dam to provide more hydroelectric power for Uganda. This will also put the two rafting companies out of business and submerge what is billed as one of the best stretches of white water rafting in Africa.

After spending some time relaxing by the river I picked myself up and walked back to the road; I still had to find the source of the Nile before nightfall. Time, as it always does in Africa, was slipping by me almost unnoticed; I was again on a mission. Walking back along the road it was not long until a boda boda pulled up alongside me and offered me a lift back into Jinja; he dropped me off at the Explorers Backpackers. From there I walked along Kiira Road and turned on to Bridge Street until I saw a sign saying, 'The Source of the Nile', pointing down along a small dirt road. The road led down past Coronation Park and the golf course to the river. I expected by now to have picked up a crowd of potential guides offering to show me what was clearly signposted, or at least a gaggle of kids following me, but I was by myself. No one took any notice of me as I made my way to the biggest potential tourist trap in town. It made a welcome change from other countries I had visited not to be hassled; I had prepared myself for a battle against hustlers and touts but reached the gates to the park around the source of the Nile alone; the entrance fee was USH2,000.

I walked down to the banks of the Nile where there is a plaque telling you that you have reached the right place. There were a few souvenir stalls dotted around, but the vendors seemed more interested in lying in the grass under the shady trees than trying to sell me anything. One vendor did approach me and stopped for a chat and showed me around. He was easy going and friendly; it was nice to chat and find out some more about the place as I was the only tourist there. On the opposite bank is an obelisk marking the spot where John Speke stood and observed the source of the Nile, where the water starts flowing out of Lake Victoria and downstream to the Mediterranean. This was the site of Ripon Falls, which were subsequently submerged with the building of the Owen Falls dam in the 1950's. I think that it would have been easier before the construction of the dam to appreciate the source of the Nile, as the water pouring from the lake must have been far more dramatic than it is today.

Something of a surprise is also to find a small shrine commemorating Mahatma Gandhi at the source of the Nile. Apparently after Gandhi's death in 1948 his ashes were divided up and sent to different parts of the world. Some were scattered here into the river Nile and the Indian government donated a bronze bust of Gandhi, which now forms the centrepiece to this little memorial garden. The shrine appears to have undergone a recent renovation in 1997 and the sponsors don't shy away from letting you know that they either constructed the new memorial or maintain it. On the trees surrounding the garden is a corporate message from one of Uganda's banks. In fact the whole 'source of the Nile' park had been taken over by corporate sponsorship by one of Uganda's leading beers, which according to the logo gives you, 'a good night and a good morning'. This was also my favourite beer in Uganda; maybe I had accidently discovered the source of Nile Special too.

I returned to Explorers just as the sun was going down, my mission of seeing the sights of Jinja completed in one busy afternoon. There was only one other guest staying there that night, a girl from Denmark plus the barman and the manager who turned out to be an ex-overland truck driver. She had spent just over nine years working for Dragoman and that evening we listened to stories of her career driving to all points of the planet. The psychology of doing an overland truck trip has always fascinated me and that evening we managed to gain an extraordinary insight into what can go wrong with group dynamics during a long road trip in the bush.

The next morning, Saturday, I packed my bags and headed to the border town of Busia. It was time to leave Uganda behind and start a new adventure through Kenya. The matatu from Jinja dropped me off at the taxi park in Busia from where I took a bicycle taxi the approximately 1km to the border gate. The bicycle taxi is the African equivalent of the rickshaw, except a lot more basic; it is simply just a bicycle and the passenger sits on the rear luggage carrier while a poor bloke nearly kills himself trying to pedal you through town. This seemed a fitting way to leave Uganda as we slowly pedalled along the main road to the border winding through the crowds of people and the traffic. I hopped off the back of the bike at the gate and walked into Kenya.

I continued this journey in Kenya.

Continue reading this journey: The Kakamega Forest