Nile River Festival – Kayaking in Uganda’s unrivalled whitewater

Nile River Festival – Kayaking in Uganda’s unrivalled whitewater

Big air, class V head-to-head, big wave freestyle, endurance racing and funnels. Why else would the Nile River Festival be Uganda’s most anticipated kayaking event of the year?

From Thursday January 23rd to Sunday January 26th, white water lovers, kayaking enthusiasts and a random assortment of misfits and party animals will all be drawn to the black hole, Jinja, Uganda for the annual Nile River Festival.It’s fondly called ‘the black hole’ or ‘centre of the universe’ by many expats and river bums that have chosen to call this small African town home due to its tendency to draw you in and never let you go. Many a visitor has stopped for a night or two and has found themselves caught up by the magic, staying a month, a year or longer.

Scouting Itanda from the bank

Scouting Itanda from the bank

What’s so attractive about this place, you must be wondering. To begin with, Jinja lies in a significant nook of Lake Victoria where the notorious River Nile begins to build up speed and meander its way north, starting its 4800km journey from the equator to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. What many people don’t realise is that the first 50kms of the Nile’s journey is jammed packed with world-class white water and rapids for all levels of adventure.

White water rafting tentatively began on this river stretch in Uganda in 1996. Since then, it has gained incredible momentum and now, Jinja is commonly regarded as the ‘Adventure Capital of East Africa’. The industry that has spawned from the river is a significant contributor to Uganda’s blossoming tourism sector. Whilst its seasoned neighbours of Kenya and Tanzania often overshadow the equatorial nation, Uganda’s white water is unrivalled within the region. Kayakers first started trickling in during the early 2000s, and it was around this time that the Nile River Festival (NRF) was formed. The festival is a celebration of the river, its amazing whitewater and the lifestyle that surrounds it. With 100s of kayakers from all corners of the globe now visiting the Nile on an annual basis, its reputation as ‘a must do’ for any whitewater kayaker is now firmly secured.

Boats lined up on the Hairy Lemon

Boats lined up on the Hairy Lemon Island


This year’s NRF will begin on Thursday with a new addition to the event line up, a big air ramp competition. Based at the host site of the Nile River Explorers campsite, the ramp allows for optimal viewing whilst the competitors will launch themselves spectacularly over the water, in much the same way as a ski jump works. Whilst in the air the kayakers are able to do a variety of 180s, 360s and inverts, displaying an array of skills and potential wipe out carnage. The next day, the competition moves to the white water, where paddlers face the longest endurance of the festival.

Starting just below the newly constructed Bujagali dam, competitors take on 45kms of big volume white water rapids ranging from grade 1 (mild) to grade 5 (deemed to be the toughest navigable by kayak). Not content with just challenging the competitors on the water, once they have reached their destination of the Hairy Lemon island resort, the paddlers will have to complete an obstacle course and a funnel of Nile Special beer before staggering over the finish line. It is expected we will see the fastest kayakers clocking times of around two hours.

On Saturday, the focus is freestyle. Competitors will take to the infamous ‘Nile Special’ wave to wow the crowds and show off their latest tricks. For the uninitiated, freestyle, or playboating as it’s also called, is the half pipe of kayaking. The hull of a freestyle kayak is designed similar to a surfboard, so kayakers can rides waves in much the same way as a surfer does, except that river waves stay in one place allowing for optimal viewing, consistent rides and, in the case of Nile Special, some serious airtime. Within the freestyle kayaking world, this wave is legendary and a number of world champions choose to visit here regularly as part of their winter training schedules.

Nile Special wave

Performing to the crowds - Nile Special

After this third stage, spectators and competitors head-off to another legendary feature of the Nile – the NRE bar. The scene of many epic party tales, probably too outrageous to be believed, a party at the NRE bar is not to be missed. For those still standing, and those brave enough, the next day will see the grand finale of the NFR 2014 take place. Dedicated to Hendri Coetzee, a renowned expedition kayaker who lived in Jinja and passed away on an expedition in the Congo in 2010, the second ever Itanda Falls extreme race will . This rapid, commercially un-run by rafts, is one of the most impressive big volume rapids in the world, just to run it in a kayak is a significant achievement for any paddler.

The rules, dreamt up by Hendri, push the competitors even further. Head to head races, and a ‘freeride’ final, with a compulsory finish line in an enormous white water feature make this a impressive show for everyone. Individual and overall winners will be announced, prizes dished out (including a highly sought after spot in May’s White Water Grand Prix in Canada) and the celebrations are set to continue until midnight.

The bottom of Itanda

Bottom section of Itanda

River fest

The NRF is an event based on a conflux of the eclectic but lovable raft guides community, kayakers and river bums. Some take it seriously, others, less so. The visiting internationals will do their best to take the title of overall champions but they will have their work cut out against a stacked field of local kayakers to whom the Nile is their daily workplace. This year, the organisers are not only celebrating our river but are also hoping to bring awareness to a major issue that is threatening hundreds of businesses that rely on the river and its visitors, and is set to destroy not only Uganda’s natural wonders but also the livelihoods of 1000s of Ugandans as well; the Isimba dam project. If this dam goes ahead as planned, it will wipe out most of the commercially rafted rapids, leaving a shell of a tourism industry behind.

The majority of those who make a living from the river are not against the idea of a dam in this location, but they are campaigning for a smaller version of this dam to be built. When originally proposed, there were 3 options for the Isimba dam, one of which would only take away one rapid, allowing for the rafting and kayaking to continue as normal, whilst providing an increase of much needed power.

The Podium - 2012

River fest

With the event kicking off tomorrow, final preparations are underway. For updates throughout the event, follow the host’s Facebook page and check back here on The Outdoor Journal next week for an event summary.

Image © Kayak The NilePlace: Jinja, Uganda