Jinja, one of Uganda’s largest towns, has an attractively lush location on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, 80 kilometers east of Kampala.
The former industrial heartland sprawls the source of the mighty Nile, a point where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria. And it’s the mighty river source that attracts visitors to Jinja rather than the moderately attractive colonial town.
Although its population of about 300k people makes it one of the largest urban centers in Uganda, Jinja is far from a metropolis that straddles the Nile. First-time visitors wandering around Jinja’s compact, low-rise town center might reasonably reflect what they expect of the country’s third-largest town!
Jinja suffered severely during the Amin years and subsequent periods of economic and political turmoil. Still, a more recent economic upswing has been mirrored by the emergence of the river corridor as a major tourism center in the region, emphasizing adrenalin-oriented activities.
Jinja magnet for adrenaline tourists is the thrilling series of grade-five rapids below Bujagali Falls. The rapids offer world-class whitewater rafting and have emerged as the most popular active-adventure tourist activity in eastern Uganda.
Most tourists will visit Jinja to explore its popular active adventure or see the origin of the world’s longest river. There is also a particular poignancy attached to standing on the slopes from where Speke first identified that geographical Holy Grail.
No less impressive is the knowledge that the water flowing past these green slopes will eventually drain into the Mediterranean, following a 6,500km journey through the desert wastes of Sudan and Egypt.
The town center admittedly boasts little of a genuine historical note for a city hiker. However, some fine colonial-era Asian architecture complemented by a spread of thickly vegetated residential suburbs carved from the surrounding jungle does give Jinja a compelling sense of place. The restored 1919 Madvhani House on Main Street is one of them you must seek out.
Jinja lies along the surfaced Nairobi-Kampala road, 82km east of Kampala and 131km west of Tororo. The journey in a private vehicle can take about two hours because of heavy traffic in Kampala and slow trucks along the way.
On the outskirts of Jinja, the road from Kampala crosses the Owen Falls Dam on a magnificent cable-suspend bridge. Shortly after, there is a roundabout where a right turn leads to the town center and a left turn to Bujagali Falls.
Regular minibus taxis to Jinja leave Kampala all day from the old taxi park for about 20,000 shillings. Many public transport vehicles leave Jinja for Tororo and Mbale via Iganga. And all reputable rafting companies offer transfers from Kampala as part of their rafting package.
Because of the heavy traffic exiting Kampala, many regular commuters between Kampala and Jinja now prefer a northern route via Gayaza and Kayunga to the increasingly slow and congested main Jinja highway. The alternative is 30km longer, but the road allows a quiet, safe, and enjoyable drive while the journey takes the same time.
To get to Gayaza, head north out of Kampala through either Wandegere junction or Mulago hospital roundabout. These roads meet after 1km at a roundabout where you take a right (turn left, and you’ll head to northern Uganda).
Alternatively, head north to Gayaza from Ntinda past the Ndere Troupe Centre. The initial section leaving Kampala is pretty hectic. Still, beyond Gayaza, a quiet road runs to Jinja (the road emerging onto the Kampala—Jinja highway opposite Nile Breweries at Owen Falls Dam). This road is recommended to travelers headed to Kalagala Falls, the Haven, and Hairy Lemon Island on the west bank of the Nile.
This lovely course, overlooking the Nile and at one time famous for games interrupted by a stray hippo, is open to non-members for 15,000 shillings per round (UGX 25,000 at weekends). Golf clubs are available. Visitors who want to use the 10m x 25m swimming pool, squash, or tennis courts can also pay 10,000 shillings.
Keen golfers may also wish to stop at the Mehta Golf Club in Lugazi, midway between Kampala and Jinja. The Asian owners of the town’s sugar factory have created an utterly surreal golfing paradise in a lush valley hidden from the vulgar gaze of the masses toiling in the factory and the surrounding cane plantations. You can also enjoy good curry lunches at the restaurant.
Two-day rafting trips are also available through Nile River Explorers and Adrift, two prominent whitewater rafting operators in the country.
The first day covers the same ground as the day excursion, with an extra rapid called Novocain tagged at the end. On the second morning, you traverse four more rapids: Hair of the Dog, Kula Shaker, Nile Special, and Malalu. After lunch, the going is smoother, though the day culminates with one last rapid called Weleba.
Kayaking Bujagali is also a top spot for kayaking, attracting experienced proponents worldwide. More testing than rafting, kayaking offers the opportunity to develop your rafting skills rather than just bouncing along in a raft controlled by professionals. The companies also offer courses and expeditions.
The expeditions start at the company’s camp (raftafrica.com or adrift.com) at Bujagali Falls. Instructors trained to the UK’s BCU standard manage the daily excursions.
A one-day introductory course costs $140, and you can progress to more extended and more testing two-day ($235), three-day ($330), and five-day $500. Gentler cruises explore calmer stretches of the river using open-top kayaks at $75 for a full day with packed lunch from Jinja’s Indulge deli.
Quad-biking trips out of Bujagali are another famous active adventure activity in Jinja that usually explores stunning Nile viewpoints using local footpaths and tracks. Day rates range from 65k shillings ($35) per person for an hour-long ride to $125 per person for a nine-hour day with lunch—two to three-day trips to explore the Nile Valley are also available.
Another major step in Bujagali’s development as east Africa’s answer to the more southerly adventure-activity capital of Victoria Falls is a 44m bungee jump located at Adrift (adrift.ug) between Jinja and Bujagali.
For 200k shillings (Ugandans) or $115 (foreigners), jumpers leap from a 12m cantilevered steel structure on top of a 32m cliff above the Nile River. If one jump isn’t enough, you can take a second one at a discount, and the third is free.
If you have a whitewater rafting package with Adrift, the bungee jump operators, a jump will cost you much less. Following complaints from local people (presumably those equipped with telescopes), clothing is now mandatory for daytime jumps. Naked bungee jumping is currently permitted only at night and at the discretion of the management.
A relaxing Nile river cruise on a private boat, canoe, or launch boat is a perfect way to spend an evening at the mighty river’s source.
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