Fifteen years ago, tourism activities on the Nile north of Jinja were limited to a peaceful and rather obscure picnic site at Bujagali Falls, a series of impressive six grade rapids about 10km downriver of the source of the Nile. The falls were visited daily by a good number of travellers.
The wide Nile is fringed by lush riparian woodland rattling with birds and the odd monkey.
Today, the eastern bank of the Nile between Jinja and Bujagali has developed into East Africa’s premier adventure-tourism centre, serviced by four bustling backpacker facilities, and an upmarket tented camp and hotel. This is because the 50km stretch of the Nile north of Jinja is now a legendary white-water rafting and kayaking route, widely regarded to be as exhilarating as the more famous Zambezi Gorge below Victoria Falls.
There are additional activities that have been developed within the areas of Jinja and these include bungee jumping, an aerial runway and quad biking.
Although most visitors to the Bujagali Area primarily visited the area to undergo their trail by white water rafting, a lot changed! Jinja became a place for a relaxed holiday in Uganda and a scenic place to spend a few days while on a Uganda safari. There are tourism facilities that have been developed along the equally scenic western bank of the river, rather laid-back setups that complement rather than compete with the high-Adrenalin activities centered on Bujagali.
As a tourism destination, Bujagali Falls is currently headed into uncertain territory, owing to the completed development of a hydro-power dam 3km downstream at Dumbbell Island. There is no doubt that such a facility is necessary to ease Uganda’s chronic electricity shortage, but questions arose whether the Nile corridor north of Jinja was the right place for this development.
The Bujagali Dam project been dogged lots of controversies since its inception in the 1990s. Implementation was delayed for several years by local and international concerns regarding the environmental consequences of the dam, as well a discrediting lack of transparency and alleged corruption during the tender process. This muddy history is, however, now in the past and the dam was constructed.
By 2010, several rapids became flooded and the white water rafting is no more in this area. If you never visited the Bujagali Falls, you can’t know the beauty that the falls owed to our motherland. The Jinja Nile’s four grade-five rapids were among the strongest rapids that white water rafters sought for in Africa: Total Gunga, Silverback and Bujagali Falls.
Though Jinja’s reputation as an adventure-tourism capital was initially based on rafting, the feeding seems to be that the industry is sufficiently broad-based to survive the disappearance of some of the river’s rafting and kayaking highlights beneath several feet of water.
The spirit of Bujagali
The waterfall at Bujagali, held sacred by the local community, is named after a powerful river spirit that has manifested itself in more than 30 successive human reincarnations over the centuries. Anyone who claims to be the new reincarnation of the spirit is required to prove it by sitting on a magical piece of bark cloth and drifting across the rapids. Only if he succeeds in this risky venture will local villagers accept him as their new spiritual leader.
The last uncontested Bujagali died without nominating an heir in the 1970’s, and the identity of his successor was subjected to a heated dispute. Most villagers believe the spirit resides in a local called Jajja, who is said to have crossed the rapids on the magical piece of bark cloth while evading military arrest during the Amin era.
Jjajja’s rival for the title is an outsider called Jackson, who dreamed that he was the reincarnation of Bujagali more than 20 years ago. Jackson arrived at the village to stake his claim and assisted by a companion, he ran off with the magic bark cloth in order to float over the rapids. Before he could attempt the crossing, however, the villagers caught him and killed his companion. Jackson was banished from the village to live out his days on what is now known as Jackson’s Island, opposite Speke Camp.