Upside Down on the River Nile


As Guy wrote in his article about kayaking in Nepal in last June’s edition, you just need a taste for adventure, cold beer, warm water and a reasonably solid roll to consider a big whitewater kayaking experience.

The abduction of tourists by Somali pirates put an end to our planned visit to Lamu Island off Kenya in November last year but East Africa has lots to offer those with a taste for adventure.

Uganda has great cold beer, my favourite being Nile Special, which is also the name of the last rapid I kayaked down in the wonderful warm waters of the River Nile last November.

What an experience!

I did learn to roll those funny whitewater kayaks, trying not to spend too much time on set-up, not to move hand position and reaching out further, but I certainly did not have a bombproof roll. However, I did have a guide close enough to be there for the occasional bow rescue and also for an assisted rescue after a swim.

Guy also mentions in his article that “cutting in and out of the eddies” is a key survival skill – it is one that I didn’t always master and that felt counter-intuitive to me. You have to lean downstream as you enter the fast flowing water whereas I wanted to brace into it. Exiting the fast stream was also challenging. On one occasion where failure to get out of the fast water would have resulted in going down a waterfall, I hopped into the support raft!

The reason for being in Uganda was to holiday with Bob while he was working there. We had lived there for a few months back in 2008 and decided to revisit Jinja, the source of the Nile, for a taste of whitewater kayaking. Jinja is a well known whitewater rafting destination with some of the biggest rapids in the world. Backpackers are picked up for a day’s adventure from Kampala, the capital, and overland expeditions include a stop there. There are also opportunities for travelers to go on low-key cultural tours in local villages.

We kayaked on three days, staying at the same place each night, with excursions upstream and downstream for a few hours practice on days 1 and 2, in preparation for the big day 3.

Our base was the gorgeous Nile Porch overlooking the Bujagali Falls. There is a range of accommodation where you can meet and listen to the adventures of travellers from around the world. When we were there, a group of crazy young boys were celebrating their return from a kayaking expedition on the Congo.
A dam opened just after we left but the view with wonderful sunsets would still be spectacular and the kayaking is still available downstream. There is also the Hairy Lemon hostel downstream where keen whitewater kayakers gather from around the world.

Kayak the Nile was the company that organised everything: pick up from Kampala, booking accommodation, our Ugandan and overseas instructors and the connection with the rafting company. Andy from the UK instructed us for the first two days. Ugandan kayaker Geoffrey, who had been to Sydney in the Olympics freestyle team, accompanied Bob on a tandem kayak on day 3 and another Ugandan, David, was assigned to look after me. Our group on day 3 also included a rafting group and another tandem kayaker.

Not that I have anything to compare it with, but the rapids on day 3 were huge, with lots of water but also with reasonably flat sections where capsized rafters (and kayakers) could be picked up if required before the next set of rapids.

There were long stretches where you could relax, carried along by the current (keeping a watch out for the boils and whirlpools), enjoying the birds and monitor lizards, or hop into the support raft to eat freshly cut pineapple and chat to other travelers.

There is an amazing sense of inevitability as you approach a rapid. You can hear the roar, a foaming edge appears, the speed quickens, your heart pounds and there is no turning back!

We went through lots of rapids with wonderful names like Retrospect, Vengeance and Overtime. I walked around the Itanda Falls and the Bad Place. I kayaked two rapids, then cruised along in the support raft for two to rest up (and nurse my pulled hamstring) in preparation for the last big one.

The finale was the Nile Special, apparently internationally renowned for its standing wave. I didn’t have the skills to stop to play; my goal was just to get through it. There is definitely a very fine line between thrill and terror but the adrenaline kicked in and I somehow stayed upright. I then made the mistake of relaxing and of course capsized as I strayed across the eddy line into calmer waters. My roll didn’t work, David was too far to do a bow rescue so after a while waiting upside down I wet exited into the warm waters of the Nile. No drama as there was plenty of time to be picked up before the trip finished. I was happy.

Whitewater kayaking is great to try if you happen to be near the great whitewater rivers of the world. For me living in Sydney, ocean kayaking would still be my choice, we have such easy access to so many beautiful places. I wouldn’t choose to journey up to Penrith or to rivers in Australia with rocks and trees and the hassle of car shuffles. While rapids are exhilarating, so too can be the sea off Sydney Heads on a Tuesday evening or scary Garie Beach during sea skills assessment.

A few days later we flew to Juba in South Sudan, where we again saw the Nile as it travels downstream on its long journey to Egypt. Ending on the beginning theme of beer, we met a manager at the local brewery, Louis, and his family in Juba. Louis is a keen sea kayaker and was part of the first team to successfully paddle the entire length of the world’s longest lake, Lake Tanganyika ( He has a long term dream of kayaking all the rift valley lakes of East Africa. Lake Turkana will be the most challenging because it is still full of hippos and crocodiles. Louis had closely followed Stuart’s journey around Australia – it is a small world.