Water Bliss: A Guide for Planning your First Paddling Trip

Anyone who has ever travelled anywhere by water knows that it is can be both a tremendously exciting and relaxing way to experience the world. Nevertheless, these a paddling trip requires a lot of preparation which can be intimidating for newcomers to water sports. So in this post I will try to help you wade through the muddy waters of canoe and kayak trip planning. Continue reading “Water Bliss: A Guide for Planning your First Paddling Trip”

Baboon Theft and Hippo Threats at Murchison Falls National Park

After a peaceful first day driving and animal watching in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, Philip and I were excited to explore the park both by boat and by foot.

We started the day with an early morning game drive and then headed toward the boat launch where we had crossed the river the day before. As we went to eat our packed lunch under a tree, our driver Bosco warned us to “watch out for the baboons!” How could baboons be so bad? We thought naively. 
Cute? Don’t be fooled. 
We had not been sitting on the bench under the tree more than a few minutes when a baboon descended on us fast. I spotted him out of the corner of my eye so I tucked the food back inside the bag and folded it over thinking that would stop him, while Philip held the rest of it up high. The baboon was smarter than my ruse and just grabbed the whole bag, taking the samosa that I really wanted to try. The pancake that was in the bag too fell on the ground so I snatched it back while Phil swung his leg at him in a last ditch attempt to not lose our lunch. His kick was in vain because the emboldened ape just reached back and grabbed the pancake too. He then perched himself in front of a tree opposite us, flung the plastic wrapper off in one swift movement and smugly enjoyed our lunch as we watched helplessly. 
We used to think baboons were kind of cool, now we thought they were jerks. The jerk baboon came around one more time until the locals finally showed us how to dispatch him by throwing rocks at his feet. We enjoyed what was left of our lunch in relative peace until I went to throw our garbage but the can was being guarded by our old world monkey nemesis. Bosco saw what was happening and took the garbage from me. “Let me throw it out,” he said, “they’re not afraid of white people.” Nevertheless, he armed himself with a stick for good measure and the baboon scrammed at the first sight of him.

Yeah you eat those leaves and leave my samosa alone. 
With the lunch hour unpleasantness behind us, we crossed the river to wait at a boat launch on the other side. Eventually, two boats arrived at the same time. One two-storey booze cruise type thing and one understated, dented aluminium beauty pulled up too. Ours was the latter. I climbed somewhat reluctantly into the small boat not entirely sure it could handle the trip to Murchison Falls, some of the most powerful falls in the world. Our skipper James reassured us that the boat called “Hippo” was safe and not to worry about the hippos in the water since “hippo + hippo = hippo”. Well that settles it, or does it?

From the boat we were able to get so close to the animals on the shore and were plenty impressed by drinking elephants, creeped out by basking crocs, and threatened by hippos.

Elephant comes down to the river to drink
Perspective shot as the boat pulled away. 
Creepy croc just hangs out on the bank with his mouth open. 
Hippo to humans: “Soon.”
The Nile boat cruise was an incredible way to do some wildlife watching and our excitement wasn’t over yet. Our captain steered us to the closest point where we could safely view the impressive Murchison Falls.

The water gets a little too turbulent after this to let our hippo boat go any farther. 

As our fun Nile River boating adventure came to an end, our Skipper dropped us off at the beginning of a short hike to the top of Murchison Falls. The hike is straightforward and not too strenuous so most people could enjoy it. It winds through lush forest and climbs up a cliff to various viewpoints along the river. After our game drive the day before, getting out to hike and move was most welcome and the views were very rewarding. 

A closer look at the Murchison Falls. 

The famous Murchison Falls is where the mighty Nile squeezes through a 7 meter gorge and then falls 43 meters below. The result is one of the most powerful waterfalls I have ever seen. Other falls may seem more majestic, but Murchison Falls is a worthy competitor in demonstrating moving water’s awesome power.

Thea, between two falls. 
Philip admires the falls from close to the top. 
From the top the mist from the falls floats up and provides welcome reprieve from Uganda’s daytime heat. Despite our exhaustion, the hike was the perfect way to cap off our second day in Murchison Falls National Park. While MFNP might not be the first destination that comes to mind when one thinks of game watching and hiking in East Africa, it proved to be a very worthwhile destination on all fronts. The park is quiet, teeming with animals and dedicated to conservation. A must see for any adventure-loving traveller. Just be sure to watch out for the baboons!

Peaceful Safari in Murchison Falls National Park

Few things can harsh your Zen while travelling worse than dealing with massive crowds. Murchison Falls National Park is Uganda’s lesser known answer to the more crowded parks in east Africa so we were keen to add it to our East African itinerary. 
After a long drive from Entebbe, which included the requisite car troubles leaving us stranded in sleepy Masindi for a couple hours while our driver sorted things out, we finally arrived at our place to stay for the night just outside the park. 

 Warm Boomu welcome
photocredit: www.boomuwomensgroup.org
The Boomu Women’s Group is a women-led camp close the Murchison Falls National Parks gate. 
We were warmly welcomed, shown our room in a thatched banda and advised what time we could expect dinner. One thing I learned while working in West Africa, is although cold showers are offered, they are not the only way. Uganda despite being tropical, is very mountainous and can be quite cold at night, so I asked if a warm bucket shower could be arranged. Much to our delight, it could but we would have to wait until after dinner. 

Bandas at Boomu
photocredit: www.boomuwomensgroup.org
After spending almost an entire day in the car and teeming with excitement from our close encounter with two rhinos at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary earlier that day, we had some energy to burn. We started walking to a nearby village when our driver Bosco joined us. As we walked the sky darkened both from diminishing daylight and storm clouds so we decided to run back to camp. It was a funny scene, the three of us jogging in flip flops in the dark under a light drizzle. It was a good thing that we picked up the pace too, because it started pouring hard right when we returned to camp. 
Our dinner of warmed beans, rice and roasted cassava was very welcome once the chill from the rain set in, as was our warm bucket shower. We retired early that night, and were up on the sun with the hundreds of noisy weaver birds that call the Boomu camp home.

Weavers, hundreds of weavers.
Photo credit: www.scienceblogs.com
After a simple breakfast of tea, bread and eggs, we bid adieu to the ladies and noisy weaver birds at Boomu and headed to Murchison Falls National Park for our first safari. When we arrived at the gates, Bosco hopped out to pay he entry fee and we were excited to see some baboons running down the road right by the gate. This was before we knew what baboons were all about; more on that later.

Baboons, while we were still excited to see baboons!
The park is lush, green and positively teeming with giraffes, ungulates, baboons, monkeys, elephants, many different birds, cape buffalo, lions, hippos and even the very rare leopard. After a short drive in the park, we took a ferry across the Nile to see more animals on the other side of the park.

Giraffe party 
Cape buffalo love to stare at you
As do Jackson’s hartebeest

We had our fill of  big game animals and thanks to Bosco’s persistence, we were able to see lions…lions (!!!). Noticeably absent from MFNP were crowds. Compared to the massive clusters of white safari vans than indicate an animal is nearby in other parks in East Africa, such as Masai Mara, Murchison Falls was refreshingly quiet. There were times where ours was the only vehicle on the track for as far as the eye could see.

Lioness posing for her glamour shot
Elephant strutting in the park
Elephant becoming a bird perch just outside of the park

We were amazed at just how many animals there were in the park and at how knowledgeable our Bosco was. After a long day of driving through the park, we arrived at the stunning Fort Murchison camp which overlooks the Albert Nile just outside of the park.

There we enjoyed a big, tasty meal and watched the sunset from the roof with a few lukewarm Nile Specials and retired early. Little did we know, our second day in the park would prove to be very eventful. Keep reading in the next post!

Surviving the Nile on a Kayak at Night

After testing my courage the day prior by trying to kayak through white water rapids on the Nile, I decided that I loved kayaking but wasn’t so sure about the paddling through rapids business. I debated between taking a sunset yoga class and renting a river kayak for a peaceful cruise at dusk. Having these options available to me is yet another reason why the Nile River Explorers camp at Bujagali Falls is such an incredible place.

Philip and I decided to head into Jinja for lunch which meant taking our first boda boda ride. For the uninitiated, boda bodas are motorcycle taxis that every guide book tells you not to take in the introduction because they’re so dangerous, but then tells you that they’re pretty much your only option for getting around in some circumstances. This was the case for getting to Jinja from Bugujali Falls. With a little trepidation, our boda boda driver, also named Philip, told us to step on and took off. I chuckled to myself as I rode between Philip and Philip in a Philip sandwich of sorts.

While we clung on tight, Ugandan Philip told us how he thought the dam had hurt the people of Bujagali, rather than helped. He said that the government had promised that everyone in the village would get electricity, but it was years later and they hadn’t delivered and the electricity was being sold overseas. The dam removed the falls which generated a lot of steady income for locals, since tourists and locals would come to visit the falls and go white water rafting or kayaking year round. He told me that he wanted me to share this story, so I am now, although at the time my heart sunk because I felt like sharing it wouldn’t do much for him.

Once in Jinja, we worked out that he would stay and wait for us for a couple hours and then bring us back. Jinja was a cute small city, with a decent expat culture it seemed, but I think Jinja’s selling feature was it’s shopping. The shops had a lot of the same wares that we saw all over Uganda and Kenya, but for a lot less. The environment is much more relaxed there too since the shop owners won’t immediately go for a hard sell, like we found it to be in Kenya. If you want to bring some East African souvenirs back, I would highly recommend picking them up in Jinja.

Once back at Bujugali, we gave Ugandan Philip a good tip for waiting and asked if he wouldn’t mind posing for a picture with Canadian Philip. He obliged, but couldn’t keep his eyes open for the picture. Must be a Philip thing.

Over here Philips

From there we decided that a rolex with avocado from a street stall and a beer on NRE’s beautiful patio were in order while we decided between sunset yoga and another kayak adventure. While we pondered this, we were joined by this truly beautiful specimen on the patio:

Blue beauty

After some liquid courage in the form of cold Nile Specials, I said that I thought I could do yoga anywhere but could only kayak the Nile on the Nile so Philip and I rented a river kayak for what was supposed to be a late afternoon/early evening cruise.

Heeding our kayak renter’s advice, we set out upstream first and paddled against the current to start our tour. We paddled around islands where birds seemed to be the only inhabitants and to the opposite bank where villagers were washing their laundry and filling up their water buckets. We remarked at how much easier it was to pilot a longer and wider river kayak than a shorter white water one. We never worried about tipping it once and paddling against a gentle river current was very easy compared to a white water rapid.

Not a care in the world a this point.

As dusk began to settle in, we finished the last drops of the Nile Special that we had smuggled on board and set to return. I insisted on trying to get a few shots where our kayak lined up perfectly with the reflection of the setting sun as we paddled back.

Success!

Pretty soon, we noticed that the dam was in front of us and we were losing light fast. When we set out, we had not seen the dam at all so something seemed amiss. We asked a couple local fishermen if they knew which way NRE was and they both pointed us toward the dam. We humoured them for a bit until we found a third fisherman who told us to go back the direction we came. Exasperated and somewhat scared, I suggested that we pull the kayak ashore and call the Kayak the Nile. When we got a hold of them, we advised that we were safe but that we weren’t exactly sure how to get back.

Trying to explain where we were on a dark river was next to impossible, so we were told to wait where we were for a rescue boat. Feeling rather silly, we waited sitting perfectly still on a river that yesterday had consumed us both in massive waves, but today in this spot, was as calm as could be. Fireflies started to glow along the shore and frogs began their nightly chorus. The scene was somehow both stressful and serene at once.

We waited for what seemed like a really long time until calling again and being told to follow the music. That sounded easy enough until we paddled closer to it, but it  started to seem like the music was bouncing off the opposite bank which made it difficult to tell where it was coming from. With a few more phone calls and some worried paddling, we finally found our way back to the NRE camp.

As it happens, we had made the classic river sport mistake of  underestimating how much faster we covered the same distance going downstream as we had gone upstream and overshot the camp on the way back. We insisted on giving the staff at Kayak the Nile a tip for their troubles and they kindly reassured us that we weren’t the first to get lost and all that mattered was that we were safe.

While it was stressful to feel temporarily adrift on the longest river in the world, we were in good hands and learned an important lesson that we can carry with us as we progress in improving our kayaking skills. I think that the Zen in this experience is learning to accept that you’re learning which means you will make mistakes. Ambitious, adventurous types like myself and Philip want to excel at everything right away but that is rarely possible and there is an opportunity to learn in almost every experience.

Our time at NRE and Kayak the Nile was brief and at times, harried (our own doing not theirs), but it was amazing enough to inspire us to continue kayaking and recommend Nile River Explorers and Kayak the Nile to anyone looking to kayak or go rafting in a truly beautiful spot. I know I hope to be back some day. 

Surviving the Nile on Kayak

I recently returned from a 5 week adventure in East Africa and people are constantly asking me what was the most memorable part of the experience. I struggle to answer it because the whole trip was amazing but also because travel is so personal.


What may have made the top of my list may not have been some one else’s idea of a good time. If I answer this question as honestly as possible, my most vivid memory is of white water kayaking on the world’s longest river. The first thing that comes to my mind is of course, the one that I have no pictures of. It is also the only time I have (somewhat intentionally) done something truly GoPro worthy (more on that later).

To get to Bujugali Falls from Kampala, my partner Philip and I took the free shuttle offered by Nile Rivers Explorers from Nakumatt Oasis Mall. The setting at Bujagali near Jinja, Uganda was exceptionally beautiful for learning to kayak and because the river is damned at that section, it is also very deep. This means that it is possible to attempt manoeuvring rapids on the river after very little instruction. My experience with kayaking is limited, so Philip and I were thrilled to be the only two people in the class that day. We received a full morning of one on one instruction from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructors at Kayak The Nile. I hoped to stay dry for at least some of the morning, but to my chagrin the lesson began with us practising an emergency underwater exit which would come in very handy later on.

People getting a lesson the day after ours. 

We spent the rest of the morning practising strokes and turns and a few more emergency exits for good measure. Despite the instructor’s reassurance that I was picking it up very quickly, I was extremely nervous to go through the rapids on a kayak. Despite having worked up an appetite by paddling the calmer waters on the Nile, the lump in my stomach made eating lunch difficult. All the same, I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the setting, and the excitement of learning a new sport.

Oh sure, the Nile looks calm here. 
After lunch we drove about 20 minutes to our launch point and carried the kayaks down to the water and put in. We were not on the river long when the first set of class 3 rapids appeared on the horizon. The instructor told us where to paddle to avoid the worst of the waves but my kayak seemed to head straight for them despite my furious strokes. I approached the first wave that was at least twice as tall as me and was sucked straight up it by its awesome force. It all happened so fast but it felt like it was going in slow motion and at one point me and my kayak were vertical and I was paddling into the air. Finally the wave tipped me over its crest and I landed with a thud in the wake. I paused for a moment amazed that I was still upright and resumed paddling furiously.
I like to think I looked like this
(source: www.orangetorpedo.com)
I was 3/4 of the way through the rapids when suddenly I flipped upside down and found myself head first in a raging river. It took me a second to remember what the emergency exit procedure was and I reached back overhead first for a way out before remembering that I needed to grab my spray skirt in front. One good tug and I was pushed up to the surface for the most welcome gulp of fresh air.

The safety kayaker helped me back into my kayak and handed me my paddle which I gripped with shaky hands. The instructor paddled over and said “you going over that massive wave was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!” and I so wished that I had been wearing a GoPro. “Two more sets of rapid to go” he added. The knot in my stomach tightened.
But it was probably more like this. 

The second set of rapids had a less foreboding look than the first set but there was an eddy I was advised to avoid. Naturally, I ended up right there. The safety kayaker instructed me to paddle fast and hard to get out of it which I miraculously did without flipping (the instructor later informed me that most people who go in the eddy flip).  By the 3/4 way through the rapids mark however, I started losing steam and was flipped again.

Getting out of the kayak underwater was easier this time, but as I struggled to crawl back in the kayak the instructor tried to reassure me by saying “kayaking is not a graceful sport.” He then instructed me try to maintain more power through the next set of rapids which was the “easiest.”

For those of you have never white water kayaked before, paddling in the rapids takes a lot of strength. You really have to give it your all, funny faces and grunting included. So by the third set, I was getting really tired and flipped again at the 3/4 mark. By this time though, I managed to hang onto my paddle while going over and the instructor remarked that I was getting very good at getting back in my kayak. Maybe even with grace? I wouldn’t go that far. 

Meanwhile I should add, Philip who curiously is nicknamed “Flip”, only flipped once in the 3 rapids and still had enough steam to practice edging in an eddy while I waited exhausted by some reeds.


The rest of the journey down the Nile was a peaceful float which allowed me to regain some composure. Even as I write this, I remember the panic I felt as I was being tossed around in the river current and the disappointment of not even making it through one set without flipping. But I also remember the sheer exhilaration of those moments before and after my flips, as well as the blissful feeling of the sun beating down on my face as we gently floated to our pull out site.


While I learned that I need to work on my upper body strength before attempting to kayak through more white water rapids, I also am proud of myself for having tried something new and somewhat scary.

The whole day translated into an epic, memorable adventure and I would recommend a day at Kayak the Nile to any thrill seeking travellers out there. Although, you may want to make sure you pay attention to the emergency exit procedure at the beginning of the lesson!