We crossed the border into Uganda – grumpy immigration staff, money changers in yellow overcoats, a nice lady that paid 10 shillings so I could go for a wee, posters about HIV. The bus rolls through the fields towards Jinja, our first stop in this new country.
We arrive into town in the dark and the bus unceremoniously drops us off on the highway next to a petrol station. We’re bombarded by boda-boda drivers who try to take our bags and Moz and I battle our way through them and find two guys who say they know where our guesthouse is. They speed down the highway and we cling on behind – I try not to imagine what would happen if the bike slipped – and then they spend ages trying to find where we’re staying. When we finally get there they try to overcharge us. I lose it and start telling them off. It’s not the ideal start to Uganda.
The next day is better: we walk into the town centre which is being dug up to put in irrigation, pass peeling colonial buildings and chapatti stands and find a sweet cafe for coffee. We find a matatu that takes us out of town to a little village called Bujigali and walk down a track to the camp that will be our home for the next few nights. It’s lush: built on a hillside, tents on terraces down the hill and the River Nile ahead, wide and calm with eddies and swirls of currents, clumps of greenery moving downstream and flocks of birds circling the islands. The bar serves £1 beers and we begin to settle in.
We head down for a swim – my mind filled with thoughts of snakes and crocodiles and currents – but venture into the water. Moz encourages me in and then swims out a bit further. Kingfishers and cormorants and kites circle and dive. One day I’ll be brave enough. The light is golden, and we watch the sun go down.
The next day we’re woken by the sound of rain on the corrugated roof; it’s coming into the rainy season and there was a storm during the night. The Nile has almost disappeared in the mist. We have a relaxed day, read, do some planning, play cards with a couple sat next to us in the lounge. When it finally stops raining we walk out through the village, our feet clarted with thick red clay, buy a chapatti and a mango for lunch, shake hands with the little children that run up giggling to look at us. I do the laundry out the back, scrubbing in a bucket and listen to the women next to me gossiping in a babble of Lugandan that I (obviously) don’t understand.
One of the main attractions in Jinja is that it is both the source of the Nile and a world-famous spot for whitewater rafting, with Grade 5 rapids with names like “the Dead Dutchman”. You couldn’t pay me to go rafting but we still want to explore the river on boat so head out one evening with a lovely guy called Luta. It’s just us in the boat and he’s brought along a cool box of beer and my favourite drink here, the fiery Stoney Tangawezi (ginger beer), so we kick back and relax as we chug slowly out onto the water. This section of the river used to be famous for the Bujigali Falls but the building of the Bujigali Dam flooded this part of the river so the Falls are gone and the river has swollen. It’s beautiful now and I can’t imagine what it used to be like, the only trace of the waterfalls being the strong swirling eddies on the surface of the current moving beneath. Luta tells us that the energy from the Dam is then sold to Kenya; local people don’t feel the benefit, and there are talks of another Dam being built further down the river. It’s a concerning time for people in the area.
It’s so peaceful out on the river: cormorants perch on rocks and hang their wings out to dry, herons and cranes stand on the river bank, we spot the beautiful colours of the malatite kingfisher as it dives for food and Luta points out a huge monitor lizard stalking along the shore. Fishermen raise their hands to us, pulling nets out of the water like peeling skin, and Luta teaches us greetings in Lugandan. We stop and get off the boat, climb into a cave where bats hang above us, turning their round eyes down onto us and stretching their papery wings. Back on the river I’m so excited to see a family of river otters, tumbling into the water and swimming past us, rising as one to turn their heads to us and dive.
The next day we head back to town, commence our classic wander around the ATMs to find one that accepts foreign cards. I feel like I don’t get too stressed here about things not working but for some reason cash machines drive me to distraction, convinced the machine will swallow our card and we’ll have no money. We’ve now got a system where Moz leaves me somewhere and heads off on the hunt alone – I’m very grateful to him for this! We revisit the cafe from a couple of days earlier and I catch up with stuff on wifi, get an unexpected FaceTime call from my girls on a weekend away and piled into bed. Love and miss them.
We want to see the source of the Nile, where it begins its 4160 mile journey through nine countries before it eventually will pour into the Mediterranean. We walk along one side of the river then cross a footbridge, past boda guys washing their bikes in the water, and up along the other side until we reach the faded Gardens of the Nile overlooking the source where it flows out of Lake Victoria. There’s a monument here to English explorer, John Speke, who ‘discovered’ the source in 1862. Speke, she first European to reach Lake Victoria, knew that a river flowing north from the lake would be the beginning of the Nile and when he found this section of water, he claimed that this was the source. Rivals doubted his claim and the Royal Geographic Society challenged him to prove his claim in a public debate; Speke died the day before the debate in a shooting accident, which some say was suicide.
We sit on the grass for a while, the sound of music drifting across from the bars on the other side, watching the slow river begin its great journey north as we prepare to continue on ours.