“Do you want to go for a paddle?” Alex asked me.
A young lad of 22 from the Musoga tribe, I had met him when I casually walked down to the banks of the Nile seeking adventure.
“Won’t say ‘no’,” I grinned as I stepped into his leaky canoe and paddled upstream towards the Owen Falls dam. “What do you do?” I asked him as we glided on the still waters of the Nile, close to the bank.
A bright blue malachite kingfisher with a long red beak, darted along the banks with us as it fished, resting on the low hanging branches.
“I’m studying in Kampala,” Alex said. “I want to be a doctor.”
We stroked upstream towards a cave where, “There used to be three caves,” explained Alex. “But now there is only this entrance. Because of the dam it made the other entrances fill up with water. See?”
He pointed to the top half of what would appear to be the entry point of one the previous exposed caves.
Dams were a problem on the Nile. They’ve caused tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding the Blue Nile, almost leading to all-out war and also with Uganda along the White Nile. But the biggest concern was not for the existing dams but for the one about to come further downstream, towards the rapids.
It was a controversial idea that the government had approved. Thing is, if they do go ahead with it, it will kill Jinja, a huge tourist town that probably brings in most of the tourism dollars for Uganda. White water rafting is growing in its popularity but without rapids to create the white water rush, it’s just rafting. Which I’m sure might be appealing to some but for the adventure seekers, it won’t cut the gravy. And this approved dam will kill the rapids, destroy half of the nature in the area and the income for the town of Jinja and its people.
The malachite kingfisher continued to follow us as we spooked darters, cormorants, open-bill storks, egrets, herons and sandpipers. We paddled all the way to the dam that also acted as a bridge across the river at the mouth of Lake Victoria.
Back in 1862, John Hanning Specke, along with Richard Francis Burton, set out on a mission to find the source of the Nile. These two were the Bradgalina of their time, in the days where being an explorer of foreign lands was the highest celebrity status one could achieve.
Burton loved languages and immersing himself with the locals. Upon reaching Lake Victoria, the two separated. I could imagine the conversation going something like,
Burton: “Right, I’m going to set up camp here for the next few weeks.”
Specke: “Marvellous thought, old chap. I shall continue on the quest for the source of this damned river (see what I did there?).”
Six weeks later, Specke returned with the announcement that, “I’ve found the source. Named it Rippon Falls. I’ll see you in the Queen’s country.”
Burton had his doubts. Although the two were equipped with scientific equipment to survey the land, Specke hadn’t utilised any of it. Upon their separate return to England, Specke’s celebrity status rose to that of Beckham’s in his hey-day. Burton argued in the press and to the Royal Geographic Society that had funded the trip that Specke was full of it and demanded a public debate. Specke accepted. Legend has it that on the day of the debate, Specke was out hunting pheasant when he ‘accidentally’ shot himself dead.
More than a year would pass until it was confirmed that, indeed, Specke had found the source of the Nile. A plaque was made in his honour and placed at Rippon Falls – until they built the Owen Falls dam and relocated the plaque.
“The name of my village is Bujugali,” Alex said. “It was named for the waterfalls next to it, but the dam you saw? It has killed the falls. Now it is just the river flowing.”
Seems to be a concerning pattern.
The canoe had a major leak in it and between shooting photos of the wildlife, paddling and waving at the few fishermen in their canoes, I found myself to be the water bailer. We U-turned just after the 80-meter bungee jump from an outstretched crane and allowed the current to carry us downstream back towards Alex’s village river bank.
Red-tailed monkeys jumped between the tree branches. Water monitors evaded my camera lens and kids splashed in de-Nile (see what I did there? Thanks Stacey), striking poses.
“Alex, thanks for the adventure,” I hugged him as we parted ways. “I’m playing tonight at the Nile River Explorers camp. Come down and see me, if you can,” I invited him.
Smiling, he accepted my offer.
As I hiked back to the camp I couldn’t stop grinning. I asked for an adventure and there I was provided.
Don’t ask, don’t get.