Paddle the White Nile before it’s gone

How to plan a trip to Uganda's endangered whitewater

A local paddler on Nile Special (Photo by Eli Spiegel)

A local paddler on Nile Special Wave. Photo by Eli Spiegel

By Eli Spiegel

For over ten years, I wanted to travel to the Nile. After hearing that the remaining section of the Nile was endangered by a new dam project, I knew it was time to book a ticket to Uganda.

I didn't know what to expect, but I knew that after over 20 hours of plane flights I was bound to find adventure. The Nile lived up to all of the stories and all my expectations. I ran huge rapids during massive lightning storms, spent time relaxing on an island with monkeys jumping through trees, got lost for multiple hours on the back of a motorcycle taxi while trying to get to the river, and paddled with new friends on one of the best rivers in the world.

Here are a few tips that combine things I read, advice from friends, and what I learned from going to Uganda. I highly recommend that paddlers plan a trip before this section is gone forever.

(Photo by Eli Spiegel)

Doug Cooper on Club Wave. Photo by Eli Spiegel

Who Should Go?

The Nile offers something for everyone in terms of whitewater. Kayak the Nile has a spectrum of classes ranging from introductory kayak courses all the way to competitive freestyle training.

The world-famous Nile Special Wave is perfect for advanced freestyle paddlers but may be challenging for some because of the rope system used to catch the wave. Luckily the Nile has a number of friendlier play spots, such as Super Hole and Club Wave, which are high-quality features perfect for stepping up your freestyle game.

The river run is also a blast for all skill levels. The Nile has many channels so make sure to paddle with a guide or someone else who knows it well. This will keep you safe and let you get the most out of your trip.

Doug Cooper on Club Wave (Photo by Eli Spiegel)

Doug Cooper on Club Wave. Photo by Eli Spiegel

Getting there:

Flying with a boat is always a bit of a challenge. The nice thing about flying to Uganda is that the two major airlines, Emirates and Brussels, explicitly accept kayaks. I flew Emirates and wasn't charged for my kayak or paddle. Just make sure your checked baggage is under 30 kg (66 lbs) total. If you don't want to fly with a kayak, you can rent kayaks from Kayak the Nile for $125 a week. They have a good selection. Check ahead of time, though, so you can be sure to get the boat you want.

Arranging to have a shuttle pick you up, especially if you are bringing a boat, will make your arrival less stressful. Ask about getting a shuttle when you book your lodging.

Red Tailed Monkeys on the Hairy Lemon. (Photo by Eli Spiegel)

Red Tailed Monkeys on the Hairy Lemon. Photo by Eli Spiegel

Where to stay:

There are a few options that will largely depend on what you will be paddling. If you want to paddle Nile Special every day, the Hairy Lemon Island is the place to be since it’s only a quick 10-minute paddle from the wave. The Lemon is a great spot to relax, read a book, and watch wildlife. The Lemon's accommodations range from $10 a night if you are camping and cooking your own food to up to $70 for a more secluded option. I chose to stay in the dorms, which are $38 per night and include three cooked meals per day.

If you mostly want to run the river or play at Super Hole, staying at the Nile River Explorers (NRE) camp is a good choice. NRE is also a bit of a rowdier atmosphere. The dorms at NRE are $12 but don't include meals. NRE has internet available so you can stay connected to the outside world.

Staying healthy:

Make sure to check the CDC and the State Department for what immunizations and medications you should have when traveling to Uganda. The main precautions I took were malaria medication and Deet. Overall I stayed very healthy until my last few days when I came down Dengue Fever. So make sure to be extra cautious about avoiding mosquitoes!

It also pays to be aware that paddling here could expose you to Schistosomiasis (Snail Fever).

[RELATED | Paddling Abroad? Stay Healthy with these 5 Tips]

What to Bring:

Here are a few crucial items to bring along:

—Deet
—Sunscreen
—A shorty dry top
—Malaria meds
—US Dollars to exchange in Jinja or Kampala (NRE and the Hairy Lemon both accept dollars as well)
—Books (Living the Best Day Ever by Hendri Cotzee is a perfect book to read while on the Lemon!)

When to go:

The Nile runs all year, but will soon be dammed. Significant portions of this section, including Nile Special, could become part of a reservoir for the Isimba Hydro Power Project within the next three years. This is an extraordinary river that is worth visiting for all paddlers, so start making plans to get to Uganda and experience this amazing section of river before it is gone.

[Eds. Note: Although construction has begun on the Isimba Dam, developers have yet to reveal the dam’s final height. Should one of the smaller proposed versions of the dam be built, the Nile’s best kayaking features won’t be lost. Learn more at www.savethewhitenile.org, a new website which provides a one-click form allowing you to easily send a letter to the World Bank about the Isimba Dam.]

Eli on Nile Special (Photo By Doug Cooper)

Eli on Nile Special. Photo By Doug Cooper.

More from C&K

—Watch Nick Troutman freestyle kayaking on the Nile Special wave on C&K
—Read about the African Freestyle Kayaking Championships on C&K.
–Steve Fisher on the Nile: Threatened Paddling Classics