By no sense of the word could you call me a ‘playboater’ but I could not refuse the opportunity to travel to Uganda and kayak the Nile before the flooding of some world class rapids. It has always been a childhood dream to go and I am so grateful that I was invited by a friend on his trip; and even more stoked to be a part of the Nile River Fest 2018! I do love a spontaneous trip and decided to go with less than 2 weeks until departure! I am very appreciative of Sean and the group for letting me gate-crash and helping logistically; and most of all, Canoe and Kayak store for sourcing equipment for me to take!
As the snow started to settle on the ground at 1am it was time to leave for the flight. Cruising through the snow I was so stoked to be on my way to Uganda. I felt like I was on cloud nine or at least in Star Wars. With the usual kayaks-on-a-plane complications it was onward to Brussels for a quick changeover and then Uganda bound with the rest of the crew.
On arrival in Entebbe, it became apparent just what I had let myself in for. It was 11pm and still searing hot! The roads were far more uneven than I expected. The 130 km drive took 4 hours and we finally got our heads down at 3am, it had been a long day!
The town of Bujagali was beautiful; the wildlife wonderful and the roads red and dusty. The locals are lovely and friendly and all shout ‘muzungu’ (white person) and ‘how are you?’ from the road sides. In villages the roads are strewn with smouldering piles of rubbish; while between the villages families live in mud houses on the roadside with a goat or cow tethered to the verge. The accommodation is basic but great, there is free access in and out even though there is razor wire on the perimeter and security. This is due to the vast amount of expensive things that westerners take with them. A kayak is worth several million shillings!
On the first day of paddling it became clear how wide the Nile really is, the warm up was the longest ferry I have ever made to run a rapid called Babugo and paddle back again. Everyone had an amazing day on the water surfing Superhole during which we unleashed carnage on the wave with a few party waves, rafting up and playing king of the wave.
Walking out of the river back to the cars was an experience in itself. All the village children turn up and fight over who should get to carry your boat up the hill for you. The trick is to ask them maths questions and reward one of them if they get them right.
The transport is not the most reliable but the locals are very good at fixing roadside. Most vehicles are falling to bits with holes in the floor and broken speedos. On day two we broke down on a hill in a cloud of black smoke. We changed the roofrack onto another mutatu (imagine a people carrier but slightly larger and able to carry an unbelievable amount of luggage both in and on it) and continued on our way, only to get a bit lost in a forest trying to find the river.
The trip had truly begun now the water was really starting to show its true power. While I was enjoying big wave surfing, throwing wave wheels and doing kick flips, between the rapids we enjoyed kicking back, rafting up and floating with our legs out.
My first view of Nile Special was from above as I committed to dropping into it to find its phenomenal power. It took a bit of getting use to the bounce and the propulsion up the face of the wave. The queue was long and my ride time short so after a few tips from Bren Orton I dropped downstream to Bells Hole and found it more predictable and suddenly I was getting vertical and consistent blunts. Having got the thumbs up from Bren I went and watched the likes of Dane Jackson and Alan Ward ripping up Nile Special with pistol flips and mystery flip. This alone was inspiring and I soon took to the water again and as the sun set I managed some big air blunts.
Photo Credit – Richard Green
There were boaters, inflatables and the group even made some knock off Send. T shirts; ‘Beat.’, that both Bren and Dane thought were sick! A wicked day on the river with a fantastic bunch of people from all over the world. There were games from playing a five person orchestra on the wave at once; a king of the wave and synchronised freestyle, some were better than others at it. While not on the wave we floated around the eddy watching and listening to music, or surfed and played on inflatables. A highlight of that day was seeing Bartosz spinning on the wave with an Emoji poo strapped to him.
The evening concluded with a brai (a true South African barbeque) with steak cooked to perfection and then partying into the night. It was a great night seeing everyone unwind while still respecting the venue and the staff.
Photo Credit - Aaron Kendal
The following day I watched two of the guys run Kalagala to assess the line and found myself immediately running for my boat as one of them plugged the guts of it and was ripped out of his boat by the ferocity of the water. On emerging 20ft down stream his helmet had been ripped off his head and he nearly lost his buoyancy aid.
Swimming out here is nothing like swimming in the UK, the volume and power of the water out here is incredible. Not long afterwards I did some beatering myself on the rapid Vengeance, getting back looped wave after wave and nearly having my helmet ripped off.
By now Danny and I were playing in every wave possible while Sean and Rich thought we were crazy. Lunch was had by a beautiful little hole deep enough to practise looping. With no one but us there, we sessioned the wave for hours and started to get bigger and bigger air loops and giving each other advice on how to go bigger.
The Hairy Lemon
The Hairy Lemon was our new accommodation for the next 2 days, Island Paradise! It is a wonderful place on a beautiful little island, there was no road to it, and everything comes by boat and is very basic. I loved it, no electricity in the rooms, no signal! Just nature all around; monkeys in the trees, birds in the sky and everything between.
Such a relaxing place to be; hammocks in the shelters, volley ball in the shallows and Frisbee golf all over. It is also only a 20 minute paddle from Nile special.
It is completely self-sustainable other than beverages. All food is grown on the farm and all meat comes from their animals. The electric in the main bar comes from solar and the showers and toilets are powered by the water mill. It’s such a wonderful place that’s so carefully maintained it is sad that in a few months it will be under water.
Snakes on an Island
We went to a little stream known as the Jacuzzi, it was great hanging off branches in the river being massaged by the cool water. However, suddenly there was a snake 3ft from us. After a quick photo opportunity it flared its hood and entered its striking pose and then we all screamed and jumped on the rocks as the snake entered the water (one of Africa’s most deadly snakes, the Forrest Cobra).
Nile Special Shenanigans
While staying at the Hairy Lemon it is hard to refuse paddling as much as possible at Nile Special. After what seemed like an ages jamming on the wave with others and sticking huge blunts and the odd pan-am it was time for a break.
So we all decided to mega train swim down the Nile Special wave train. It was a long swim, the boils send you deep but it was great fun!
Surfing alongside some of the best freestyle paddlers in the world was so relaxing, they were filming with drones and there was a crowd watching, it was epic. I played until I was worn out and then paddled to the Hairy Lemon with Lowri and got lesson 101 on air screws, my next challenge!
Taking a break from solid freestyle we ran Day 2 again from Superhole down to Nile Special. Running Real Deal down to Superhole was great until I dropped an edge and went straight into Danny surfing and took a boat to the head knocking me over.
Once at Itunda we analysed the lines and given it was in super high flow and being unsure which channel to make the main line; we portaged the top part and continued with Danny taking a controversial line. He put our hearts in our mouths ending up too close for comfort to one of the large holes.
We then cruised down to the Hairy Lemon for a late lunch but not before carving up the super glassy smooth Virgins wave, Hair of the Dog and Nile Special on the way. With the water so high everything was a bit fruity and it was hard to stick moves on the waves. Nevertheless I was having the time of my life and loving playboating for the first time and progressing my skills drastically.
I could not go to Africa and not spend a day seeing the local town, Jinja, and experiencing the amazing craftsmanship that was on offer. They had so much pride in what they do I couldn’t help but buy an excessive amount of stuff. The cafes were all so friendly and the food to die for.
With Nile River Fest and the endurance race looming I experienced my first Boda Boda ride to the river to run Day 1. It was so fun riding a motorbike with a kayak, what an experience!! Most of the river was flat and long but there were a few fun rapids. One of which, Overtime, was quite gnarly and Danny took a bit if a beating when he missed the line and dropped over the lip of the falls into the tow back.
Nile River Festival 2018
SUP Jousting and Air Ramp
Turns out having only been on a SUP for 10 minutes in my life, my balance was quite good. I was undefeated managing to even knock the former world freestyle champion Dane Jackson off in his horse mask. Even jousted a local fisherman in his fishing boat, he was a good laugh.
Photo Credit – Tommy Hatwell
It was super cool seeing everyone throwing down big air tricks on the ramp in outstanding fancy dress. My highlight has got to be a duo inflatable unicorn managing an airscrew and defining gravity. Everyone was cheering and it was such a good atmosphere. By the time the jousting finished I only managed one counting ramp run but someone had to stand up and superman off a kayak!
Photo Credit – Sean Clarke
Photo Credit – Louise Fingleton
Unfortunately, my partner dropped out and I had to go with a South African also in need of a partner.
The race was a 35km race down Day 1 and 2. The start was great I headed off with the top guys at the front, we hit single file down the flat and I had Dane Jackson on my tail. Down the first rapid everyone spread out to find faster lines.
10 minutes into the race I stopped as I lost my partner. This was devastating for me as it was going so well, however it was a team race and unlike most I stayed with him. I gave him a 101 lesson in forward paddling technique and rotation and he sat on my tail all the way.
Thankfully I had a speaker in my kayak with tunes going which was awesome and it motivated us both but without being in the pack it was painful to catch up. I led as he was unsure on some lines and everywhere possible I would make some space and start throwing some loops or blunts.
By the time we got to Day 2 he was knackered and I was having fun, boofing a wave chain so hard I went airborne landing upside down. Then it was down to Itunda where he ran round while I ran B line, back looping on the edge of Bad Place, a nasty turbulent hole.
Powering from here all the way to the finish beach, we remembered there was an obstacle course to complete before the finish line. We managed a time of 2:46 hours and came 14th pair which we were stoked at!
Refuelling consisted of multiple hydration drinks before deciding to go kayaking again for a freestyle session which was sick. I managed my first airscrew on Bells Hole and I was so stoked I couldn’t wait for the competition.
The next day was the freestyle competition on Nile Special. It was quite exhilarating being in the same heat as Dane and also being asked to scribe for the women’s heats. I was thoroughly looking forward to paddling after seeing some carnage due to a ‘tow on' rope being needed to gain access to the wave.
It was unnerving, 100s of people had turned up to watch, encourage and cheer. If you were struggling to get on the wave, threw big air or beatered you were cheered, it was sick.
Photo Credit – Richard Green
Nile Special was quite big and bouncy and at first a struggle to get onto the centre of the wave so I opted to throw cartwheels for style points and of course the shudder rudder. When I was in the swing of it I was managing some big air blunts and was having a sweet time jamming with everyone.
Photo Credit – Alex Neal
After the freestyle heats there was a SUP Cross down the wave train. I won my heat and I was second in the semi final to Dane by a split second. In the final though I got a bit carried away with the crowd cheering and instead of ducking and holding the board as I hit Special; I went big, standing and arms in the air, so I flew off and the board had a surf. I still managed to come 4th over all which I was happy with.
That night we went for a lovely meal before heading to the ‘wild party night’ which included jello wrestling in a raft. I personally did not take part but it was an interesting phenomenon to watch.
Hendri Coetzee Memorial Itunda Extreme Race
The next day was devastating for me as I couldn’t enter the race as I hadn’t paddled the rapid before; only to turn up to watch and be asked where my boat was!
Nevertheless it was an amazing day watching the kayaking, qualification was based on times. The racing started off badly with Bren Orton racing against Bartosz; it was a close race and neck and neck for a while until they went round the corner and then the signal was given that there was a swimmer and a doctor needed. Bren had taken a nasty swim in the The Other Place, recirculating for a while. Everyone was concerned as Bren was taken to hospital. The race stopped during this time and all the competitors were sat in an eddy committed to the rapid not knowing what had happened.
As the racing continued most people made it down unscathed, a few people ended up swimming but no one else was injured. Craig Ayres had the most interesting line; he hit Cuban and punched through it in a stern stall. He gained control in time to come over the lip towards Ashtray. Out of the blue he capsized meaning the stopper did not retain him for long and he managed to surf out.
The finals were judged by three kayakers and three non kayakers for style. The finish being in the centre of a hole called Bad Place. There were some amazing tricks here including Sam Ward who threw his paddles away and managed to hand surf out, this time not breaking his carbon boat as he has before.
Final River Day
The last day was full of mixed emotion; it started off quite sombre, we were all happy to be there but it was so sad that not only were we leaving but the River is to be flooded.
Danny and I decided to ‘go bigger then go home’. We were playing with everything from whirlpools to big stoppers. It was a fantastic day with so much surfing that I did not care if I swam, I was on the Nile and it was my last day.
Photo Credit – Louise Fingleton
I had the ride of my life on the Hair of the Dog surfing for about 5 minutes and getting some huge blunts and sidekicks taking a few rolls but managing to stay on the wave. This felt amazing as I had not long ago taken a beating in the smallest pour overs attempting front loops, cartwheels and a classic bit of carping to be released.
We were then blessed by the wildlife seeing a pair of stunning African eagles in a tree right overhead. We floated down for our final ever sunset surf on Nile Special. Everyone was having fun surfing, watching and drinking; Sean took it to a new level and finished his trip drinking a Nile Special on Nile Special!! Danny and I kept going till we could go no more determined to get an airscrew on Nile Special. I was so stoked when I landed one I did a Harry Potter and cast my spell before getting off and toasting a once in a life time trip before it’s flooded.
Photo Credit – Lousie Fingleton
With one last breakfast overlooking a few monkeys and eagles in the trees we packed the mutatus up and headed off for the Entebbe Wildlife Education Centre for a behind the scenes tour.
The zoo is a world class refuge for animals that have been injured or orphaned by poachers and traffickers. A lot of Africans still eat wild animals as well and when they kill an animal orphaned juveniles are taken to the centre.
The behind the scenes tour is a spectacular tour to partake in as not only do you see the wildlife but you go into the enclosures of them and feed them, stroke them and of course take selfies with them.
The snake encounters were far more pleasant at the zoo with a nice plane of glass between us, the Gaboon viper sending chills down my spine; it will bite through its own skull with rotatable fangs just to bite you.
Then we got to feed the chimpanzees and watch how they use sticks to aquire food from the water, they have the only known about hermaphrodite chimp in the world! Currently it is separated from the rest of the chimps as when introduced last time it did not go well but they are hoping to try again soon.
My favourite part of the tour was baby Edward the elephant, a 1-year old adorable African elephant. Barely waist height he was the cutest thing I have seen, and we all got to stroke him and feed him. Edward looked like the happiest elephant in the world washing himself and enjoying the company. A close second was feeding Albert the giraffe.
We also had the pleasure of meeting three lion cubs playing in their hut together, my heart melted when I saw them and listening to their playful calls. The final thing to do before leaving was to enter the cheetah enclosure and stroke a cheetah without losing a finger or getting clawed.
Once we left the Education centre we went to ‘2 Friends’ on the shore side of Victoria Lake and had a few cocktails and our final meal in the country. It felt right to have a tilapia caught just meters from where we were sat while looking across the lake as the sun set.
Brussels, a whistle stop tour
On entering Brussels everyone else in the group headed off for their connecting flights, however I had decided on a 15 hour layover so that I could have a day in Brussels to go sightseeing.
It was a long day with over 22 miles of walking everywhere but I wouldn’t have changed a thing other than the torrential rain all day and the bitter cold. Having walked everywhere there were so many little thing that I saw that you wouldn’t even notice on public transport. I saw everything from the Église Notre-Dame au Sablon to Manneken Pis and the Chinese and Japanese Towers. Then it was finally time to catch the plane home.
My time in Uganda is by far some of the best kayaking of my life and a real eye opener. I went away with a trick list of spins and roundhouses; I came back with blunts, back blunts, pan-ams and airscrews added to the arsenal! For the first time I really started to enjoy freestyle and I cannot wait to start learning more new tricks. I am so thrilled that I have been to Uganda now; however, I am also saddened knowing that this is the first and last time I will ever get to kayak this section of the Nile. Though I have learnt that the dam may be flooding so many beautiful areas including the loss of the Hairy Lemon and Nile Special but it will not stop kayakers from flocking there nor the Nile River Festival from running in the future.
I managed to reconnect with friends I had not seen in years and make new friends to paddle with in the future.
I would like to thank BPF Fitness Hub for helping me get fit and strong before my trips and Canoe and Kayak stores for the equipment. I would also like to thank everyone in the group; Sean, Daryl, Danny, Becca and Lowri, not only for an amazing trip and incredible experience but for the guidance and coaching tips provided to improve my freestyle.
Words by Gareth Farrow Sponsored Paddler