Nile River Festival 2016: Will it be the last?

Photos and recap from the annual throwdown on the Nile's endangered whitewater

Getting pumped on the way to the river. The logistics of shuttling competitors, kayaks, and safety equipment makes for creative transport solutions.
Paddler Yusef Basalirwa dropping into the seam beside the ‘Bad Place’ at the bottom of the Itanda Falls rapid.
A competitor and his friends getting ready for racers to navigate around ‘the pencil sharpener’, a dangerous and unique hydraulic in the middle of Itanda Falls.
On the edge of their seats, competitors cheer on Sadat Kawawa as he surfs his way across ‘the pencil sharpener’ of Itanda Falls.
The freestyle event at Nile Special wave brings a wonderful combination of paddlers and locals to watch the show.
On the wave.
A local woman does laundry downstream of the competition.
Yusef Basalirwa and Bren Orton dropping into the ramp left of the top island in Itanda Falls during the endurance race. This line is the most direct path through the rapid but is seldom run due to its difficulty
Scotty Robinson wins the Big Air Ramp competition in a spectacular leap out of a basin.
Competitors and spectators crowd the hillside above the river, waiting for the Nile River Festival to begin on Thursday evening.
Getting ready for the Big Air ramp. The judging takes place from a boat on the water.
Spectators at the Nile Special Freestyle competition celebrating.
The winners of the Nile River Festival overall men’s championships: 1st place Yusef Basalirwa, 2nd place Bren Orton, 3rd place Sam Ward.
Driving home after a long day on the river.

Words by Jessie Stone
Photos by Haley Buffman

The Nile River Festival 2016 was a spectacular event. It was the biggest festival to date with the largest number of participants in both men’s and women’s classes from the Big Air Ramp to the annual extreme race. Over 50 competitors paddled in the 40+ kilometer endurance race and over 50 funnels were served to successful finishers. Big tricks and big wipe outs were thrown by many to demonstrate a high level of paddling and to entertain the enthusiastic crowd of spectators. Literally hundreds of people squeezed onto the banks of the river to cheer the competitors on. Capping off the 2016 Nile River Festival was the thrilling memorial Hendri Coetze Itanda Falls Race. Red Bull in combination with Nile River Explorers put on awesome post-paddling entertainment, which made for some long lasting after-parties.

It was truly impressive to see the numbers of locals of all ages and visitors who came out to support the event. Emily and Sam Ward, owners of Kayak the Nile organized and ran the best festival yet and managed to recruit a plethora of volunteers to help out. Sam competed in every event, hoping to retain his title from last year, and Emily provided commentary for all events. Competitors included national freestyle kayak team members past and present from Uganda, the USA, the UK, and Ireland as well as many other international participants including fellow east African kayakers from Kenya.

[Related: 6 Reasons You Should Know Amina Tayona of Team Uganda]


All of these competitors battled it out for the overall crown of men's and women's Nile River Festival Champion. Cash prizes and the chance to compete in the 2016 Whitewater Grand Prix were awarded to this year's top finishers, Lowri Davies for the women and Yusuf Basilirwa for the men. In second place overall was Sam Ward who also garnered a spot to compete in the Whitewater Grand Prix. The festival had acquired more support and prize money with Red Bull joining on as one of the lead sponsors accompanying Kayak the Nile, Nile River Explorers, and the Nile Brewing Company. There was a festive and enthusiastic vibe throughout with so much interest, participation and support.

Ironically, as the Nile Festival grows in popularity and notoriety each year, the question remains as to whether or not the 2016 festival will be one of the last if not the last one due to the rapid construction of the Isimba Dam downstream. The height of the Isimba Dam wall has been in question ever since the clandestine construction began nearly two years ago. The Ugandan government has not officially announced what height the dam will be nor the anticipated mega watt generation. The tallest Isimba Dam would produce a relatively small amount of power compared to larger dams such as the Bujagali Falls Dam or the Karuma Dam, which is currently under construction.

[Related | Steve Fisher on the Nile: Threatened Paddling Classics]

What is known is that the largest proposed Isimba Dam wall will flood the protected Kalagala Offset Area and no official Environmental Impact Assessment has been done for any of the proposed sizes of the dam. The fate of Nile Special Rapid, home to the famous Nile Special and Club waves remains in question, as well as the Hairy Lemon Island just downstream. In addition to all of this, thousands of people will be displaced by the Isimba Dam and have not been compensated for their land. With an upcoming presidential election in February 2016, the discussion about the Isimba Dam has taken a sideline to other "development projects" such as improved roads. With luck, there will be more open post-election discussion about the true height of the Isimba Dam in March of 2016. Stay tuned for the next update.

— Learn more about the Isimba Dam at This new website provides a one-click form allowing you to easily send a letter to the World Bank about the Isimba Dam.

— Watch a VIDEO on the Isimba Dam and its impact on the local economy

— Click here for the full results of all events