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Bujagali Falls Rising Up

Tourism by deNile.

In 1996, Bujagali Falls took on a new character when white water rafting first commenced on the upper reaches of the River Nile. Adventure tourism had started in Uganda. The rapid-busting trips started by Adrift and Nile River Explorers were operated from Bujagali Falls, starting in a calm pool just upstream from the site. There, clients (mostly younger tourists and expats working in Uganda) had a chance to acquire some the basic skills required to paddle an 8 to 10-seater inflatable raft through one of the most exciting sections of commercial white water rafting in the world. From training, hugging the eastern bank, around the treacherous ‘Ribcage’ rapid at the top and then plunging down into the raging pool at the bottom of Bujagali. Often rafts flipped and dumped the life-jacket clad occupants into the seething waters, dragged them under and spat them back up so that they could be rescued by the safety kayakers and put back on board ready for the next big rapids downstream. Other rapids, between the seven islands that stretch across Bujagali Falls are classed / were classed as ‘Grade 6’ (i.e. someone might drown).

Until then the area had been known for its scenic beauty, as the first big rocky ledge along the river, relatively easy to access being just a few km downstream from Jinja. In 1953 the Owens Falls Dam closed off the headwaters of the Nile where it flows out of Lake Victoria, inundating Ripon Falls and bringing Uganda into the modern world with a source of large scale hydro-electrical power and (finally) a two lane bridge across the Nile. Bujagali Falls provided a scenic destination for people living in the now expanding industrial town of Jinja and for visitors coming from Kampala and beyond who wanted to see the Nile. The hypnotic effect of so much water forcing its way through tree covered islands and down a 4 meter drop (Bujagali Falls are more cataract than waterfall) relaxes; you can feel the power of the water vibrating through the river banks, absorb the natural splendour of the area.

Above and through the roar of the water, indigenous and itinerant birds flash their wings, fish eagles hunt Nile perch and tilapia living in the highly oxygenated waters. The bright green of the surrounding vegetation glows in the warm sunshine. A wrought iron steel archway marked ‘Chillington Gate, welcome to Bujagali Falls’ spanning the road in, was erected in the early 1960’s to mark the tourist site. Local fisherman, over hundreds of years, had acquired the skills to navigate boats to the islands at the edge of the falls without being swept over by the fierce currents. Spectacular sights such as the sun rising through the early morning mists, highlighting a fisherman in a log canoe while overhead a flight of glowing white egrets crossed from one bank to the other, were a daily occurrence. At different times of the year, (following the ripening of indigenous and later exotic fruits growing in the area), visitors would be treated to the sight of thousands of fruit bats waking from perches on the tree-laden, guano splattered islands and flying up to slowly assemble in the orange / red rays of the setting sun, forming large flocks that set out for night feeding. Always to a backdrop of pounding white-water, a roar that never ceased.

Also in 1996, the area on the east bank beside the falls, christened Speke Camp (although never visited by the explorer John Hanning Speke), was leased to a Kenyan developer, Raj Shan, from the Jinja District Council. He cleared some of the forest, replanted and grassed and over the next few years, the site was developed further with a bar / restaurant, camping, toilets and accommodation. Poor maintenance of the roads meant that, particular during the rainy seasons, access could be difficult, but as the rafting businesses continued to grow and more tourists came to Uganda, Bujagali Falls become better known as on of Uganda’s main scenic destinations.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors, including generations of Ugandan schoolchildren on day-visit, can attest to the sticky qualities of ‘Bujagali Mud’, the red clay soil that layers boots and bare feet, adhering to everything after a tropical rainstorm. Slipping and sliding down the pathways was a source of trepidation when your turn and delight at the difficulties of others, for regular visitors and locals.

Since 1998 a dam called The Bujagali Dam (actually 3km downstream), has been planned. Initial completion date was by 2003. However by 2001 the project stalled. The World Bank held back funding as the main party involved in construction A.E.S. (initial dam Managers) withdrew from the project. Adventure tourism including; kayaking, water-boarding, quad-biking and bungee jump; continued to develop although it was understood that eventually Bujagali Falls would be inundated.

From 2006, having had a welcome delay with the river left open, dam construction under new managers Bujagali Energy Ltd., restarted with a completion date of 2011. Further adventure oriented activities such as; horseback safaris, jet-boating and mountain-biking were introduced. The popularity of white-water rafting increased; thousands of tourists come to enjoy the area each year. Right beside the falls Speke Camp hung in limbo but elsewhere, improvements in many areas such as accommodation continues, both at Bujagali and in the area back to Jinja on the banks of Lake Victoria.

When planning first started for the dam, it was envisaged that rafting and other tourism activities would shift from Bujagali Falls to re-locate downstream. This became a commonly held erroneous impression, often spread in the Uganda media. In fact only Adrift have done much development at Itanda/ Kalagala Falls, extending their operation to include the exhilarating White Waters Lodge and now a base for rafting and jet-boating. Back towards Jinja on both the west and east banks more development has occurred, such as The Haven lodge, while the existing bases of Adrift, NRE, Kayak the Nile, All Terrain Adventures, Nalubale Rafting, The River Camp, The Nile Porch, Jinja Nile Resort and others; with more adventures; more & improved accommodation and other facilities such as restaurants, continued to develop at and near Bujagali Falls.

The by-line ‘East Africa’s centre for adventure’ has grown in credibility over the last 15 years and will continue to apply in the future.

From 1st March 2011, the River Nile has been closed for rafting above the dam site and all the rafting companies have shifted their start points to below the dam, running much the same trip, missing the first 3 big rapids; Bujagali, ‘Total Gunga’ (Kyabirwa Falls) and Big Brother/Silverback; but including extra rapids downstream such as ‘Vengeance’ and ‘Nile Special’. We still have fantastic white water rafting with heart-throbbing sections of Grade 3,4 and 5 rapids interspersed with long dreamy sections of forested riverbank floating down on warm water.

The project date for closure of the river and filling of the section upstream, eventually inundating of Bujagali Falls, was mid October 2011. This has extended and at the time of writing, the river levels have not changed. When they do, Bujagali will no longer be a ‘Falls’ but part of a big, tree-lined section of quiet water interspersed with forested islands. Ideal for boating, bird-watching, cruises and whatever else comes. Over the last decade, accommodation and all other facilities have improved to provide world-class standards in tourism. Bujagali Falls and Jinja District will continue to provide welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of Kampala.

The section of the river below Bujagali Falls is not for storage as water leaving Owens Falls/Nalubale Dams will exit within about 7 hours through the turbines in the lower dam. Lake Victoria provides the reservoir, what goes through 1 dam passes directly through the next. It will remain a beautiful section of the river, albeit much quieter, and we expect facilities and more adventure orientated tourist activities to develop over the next few years. When the dam is completed and the power of the river is harnessed for urgently needed additional hydro-electric power, expect tourism to be on the rise at Bujagali Falls.

Peter Knight – All Terrain Adventures.