2014 Nile River Festival
Later this week, 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 that is Jinja, Uganda for the occasionally annual Nile River Festival. It’s affectionately called ‘the black hole’ or ‘centre of the universe’ by many of the expats and river bums that have chosen to the call this small East African town home due to its tendency to draw you and never 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.
What’s so attractive about this place, you might be wondering. To begin with, Jinja lies in a significant nook of Lake Victoria where the notorious Nile River 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 adventurer.
White water rafting tentatively began on this stretch of river 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. With consistent water levels and eternal sunshine that provides year round access; it could be argued that it is unrivalled on the entire continent. Kayakers first started trickling in in 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, it’s reputation as ‘a must do’ for any white water kayaker is now firmly secured.
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 Bujagali Lake. The potential for air, and wipe out carnage, is huge. The next day, the competition moves to the white water, where paddlers will take on the longest endurance of its kind. Starting just below the newly constructed Bujagali dam, competitors will take on 45kms of big volume white water rapids ranging from grade 1 to grade 5. 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. The competitors will take to the infamous ‘Nile Special’ wave to wow the crowds and show off their latest tricks. Within the freestyle kayaking world, this wave is legendary and a number world champions chose to visit here regularly as part of their winter training schedules. The event uses a relaxed scoring system that encourages big air, combos and taking risks.
After this third event, spectators and competitors alike will head 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. In dedication to Hendri Coetzee, a renowned expedition kayaker who lived in Jinja and passed away on expedition in the Congo in 2010, we will be running the second ever Itanda Falls extreme race. This rapid, commercially un-run by rafts, is an impressive, big volume rapid that provide a significant challenge to run normally in a kayak. 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 called ‘the Bad Place’ make an impressive show that anyone can enjoy. 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 long into the night.
The NRF is an event based on a coming together of the eclectic but lovable community of raft guides, kayakers and river bums. Some will take it seriously, others, less so. The visiting internationals will do their best to take the title of overall champion 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, we are not only celebrating our river but we also hope to bring awareness to a major issue that is threatening the hundreds of businesses that rely on the river and its visitors, and is set to destroy not only one Uganda’s natural wonders but the livelihoods of 1000s of Ugandans as well; the Isimba dam project. If this dam goes ahead as planned, it will wipe 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 per se, 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.
With only 2 days left until the event kicks off, final preparations are underway. For updates throughout the event follow the host’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/kayakthenile and check back here on Kayak Session next week for an event summary.