Thrill-seekers flock to Jinja, Uganda for East Africa’s wildest rapids. But that could soon come to an end when a new dam floods half of them.
It’s a stunning sight. Walls of white water, giving rise to a cloud of mist that floats among the treetops of the greenest equatorial forest. We are in Bujagali, a small Ugandan town 40 kilometres downstream from the original source of the Nile River.
Rushing past us are some of the world’s most spectacular rapids. For now, that is. Because come next May, a 25 km-long dam will drown most of this white water and with it, a sizeable chunk of Uganda’s adventure tourism industry.
This extreme sports scene is only 20 years old but has grown immensely since a handful of kayaking pioneers decided to settle near the rapids and invite friends over to play in the water. Today, this mythical stretch of the upper Nile has become a must-do for thrill-seeking tourists. They come all the way from Australia and Japan to splash around in rapids nicknamed “Bad Place,” which is surprisingly popular, or “Super Hole,” a large standing wave where kayakers can show off their acrobatic tricks.
Quest for Hydro Power
But Uganda is a fast-developing nation and the government has decided that the country needs more hydro-powered electricity, even if it hurts tourism. Experts now believe the flooding will bury at least half of the commercial rapids – leaving only three. It will also drown Itanda Falls, a site of enormous cultural significance for locals who believe it to be home to a powerful river spirit.
Kayaking aficionados around the world have already heard about the upcoming development and are flocking to Uganda for
a chance to paddle one last time down its endangered white water. “When a friend told me about the dam, I knew I had to come,” says Robbie Mingay, a 25-year-old kayaker from Canada. The Nile didn’t disappoint. “These rapids are truly some of the best in of the the world,” he adds. “It’s hard to believe they We are will just disappear.”
The “Nile Special”
That’s what Juma Via Kalikwani worries about. Juma is the head of expeditions at Nile River Explorers and a local hero for discovering the “Nile Special,” a warm water wave that can be surfed 365 days a year that is now a kayaking mecca. Juma is from a small nearby village and started working as a porter from a young age. Soon, he discovered he had a gift for surfing white water and has been a guide ever since. “The dam will create jobs, yes, but only while it’s being built,” he says. “What happens after?”
Still, this will not be the first time the White Nile has been dammed. Only five years ago, this same stretch had 12 rapids. Then the government built the Bujagali Dam upstream and flooded six of them, including the beautiful Bujagali Falls. That time around, many rafting companies were able to relocate downstream – but now they have nowhere else to go.
“People climb Mt Everest because it’s the tallest”
For over a year, activists have been trying to stop the construction of the second dam. But time has run out. First flooding is scheduled for next May, with the official opening expected in August 2018. Rafting providers are left with no choice but to adapt as best they can. Some are relocating away from the shores while Jon Dhal, owner of Nile River Explorers, and others have started an alliance to help promote alternative activities in the river. They hope tourists will be happy to exchange top-notch rafting for paddle surfing, jet skiing or taking a romantic sunset cruise. But Dhal fears Uganda will lose its adventurous appeal if the rapids disappear. “People pay to climb Mt Everest because it’s the tallest,” he says. ”No-one pays as much for the fifth-tallest mountain.”
Still, tourists visiting Bujagali seem oblivious to the dramatic changes looming ahead. Early in the morning, they laugh and tease each other as they try on life jackets and clunky helmets. They have paid $200 to raft some of the world’s best white water but few know what they’re about to experience will soon be priceless. So they giggle as Juma explains what to do if the raft flips over.
“Ignorance is Bliss”
“I had never been here before the previous dam so I don’t miss how things were before,” says Stefan Whal, a 23-year-old South African on a rafting trip with his brother. Stefan says he’s sad to see the rapids go but thinks most tourists will continue to come regardless. “Maybe ignorance is bliss,” he argues.
Behind him, the river flows unfettered and shrouded in mist. Birds play above the water, fishermen retrieve their fish-filled nets and a small red raft takes to the waves. The tourists scream in excitement, their voices drowned out by the loud roar of rapids that will soon be silent.