Reasons to Go
Jinja has had historical resonance since 1862 when the Victorian explorer John Hanning Speke stood at what he later named the Ripon Falls and decided that he had identified the source of the White Nile River as it flowed from Lake Victoria on its journey to the Mediterranian. A matter of great controversy at the time, the Royal Geographical Society in London agreed with him, sealing Jinja’s place in human history.
The years following the ‘discovery’, Jinja developed into a key industrial area for colonial-era Uganda, only to suffer economic collapse during the Amin years, which saw it enter the 1990s in a sort of stasis, albeit with pot-holed roads.
It was in the ‘90s, following the establishment of the NRM government, that back-packers began to make the 80km journey from Kampala in search of the rapids.
In the last 20 years, the white water rafting industry in Jinja and the upper Nile has grown to 50,000 rafters annually. In turn, a wider adventure sports industry has developed, offering visitors the chance to bungee jump, kayak, and ride - both horses and quad bikes.
The heart of the action traditionally occurs 7km downstream from Jinja at Bujagali.
Although the development of three hydro-electric dams in the area has affected the flow of the river and submerged some of the most famous rapids, the rafting continues - for now at least.
The development has prompted the focus of the activity to move further downriver 28km north of Jinja to the west bank of the river at Kalagala and Itanda rapids.
Visitors are attracted mainly by the sports available, but, being Uganda, natural beauty is never far away. Riparian woodland meets the water’s edge, a wonderful habitat for monkeys and birdlife and the power of the white water is mesmirising.
Places to Stay
Hotels in Jinja itself are now more focused on providing conferences rather than hosting tourists. Instead, visitors looking for adventure stay in one of the many properties in Bujagali or further downstream on the west bank. In Bujagali, Jinja Nile Resort is an established and popular option, albeit in need of a little refurbishment. Downstream, Wildwaters Lodge is a wonderful luxury lodge set on its own island at the Kalagala Falls. There are 8 canvas and thatch cottages, plus an excellent restaurant. Wildwaters works well as a top-end base for some adventure sports, but it is also a great option for some relaxation after a long and exciting safari.
Things to Do
White Water Rafting
Complete exhilaration and please forget the crocodiles. Rafting Grade V rapids is an exciting experience anywhere in the world, but doing it in the heart of Africa certainly adds a little spice. A full day excursion will take you on a 20km stretch of the river including 8 Grade III or higher rapids. When the water is quiet, you can swim and birdlife surrounds you. Drinks and snacks are included. While this is an adventure activity with inherent risk, the safety standards and professionalism of the best rafting companies is very good.
White-water and Tandem Kayaking
For white-water experienced kayakers, the Nile will be one of the best rivers they have ever paddled. Multi-day courses are also available.
A more sedate option is to kayak on the flat-water of Lake Bujagali - perfect for beginners or families.
Lake Bujagali is also the venue for lunch and sunset cruises using two-storey cruisers similar to those on the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park and the Nile at Murchison Falls.
Full and half day birding cruises are offered by specialised operators, providing the chance to see the local birdlife. Notable species are white-backed night heron, rock pratincole, papyrus gonolek and crimson-rumped waxbill.
If you are looking for an extra thrill, then a 44m bungee jump is available for the brave or foolhardy at Adrift’s Nile High Camp
Of the adventure activities, horse-riding, quad biking and mountain biking are all available from hotels on the Upper Nile
Geography and Geology
Jinja is located 80km east of Kampala on a wide peninsula bordered by Lake Victoria to the south and east and the Nile, with the now-submerged Ripon Falls, to the west.
Water is the defining feature of Jinja. It was first used as a colonial crossing point and then in 1946 work began on the construction of the first hydro-electrical power project which eventually opened in 1954 as The Owen Falls Dam.
Is Jinja the source of the White Nile?
It is accurate to say that where water surges from Lake Victoria into the Nile at Jinja does marks one of the major sources of the White Nile, but the full answer is a little more complicated.
Lake Victoria is not the sole source. As it feeds the Nile, so Victoria is fed by the Kagera River, itself a major river that flows from a watershed in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Mountains to form the border between first Burundi and Rwanda, then Rwanda and Tanzania, and finally Tanzania and Uganda. Since 2006, the Rwandan branch of the Kagera River has been internationally accepted as the source of the White Nile.
With the ever improving road network in Uganda, Junka is now less than a two hour drive from Kampala - although city traffic can affect this depending on the time of travel.
There is currently no air option, so visitors including Jinja in a longer itinerary often fly into Entebbe and then are driven onwards to Jinja.
When to Visit
You can visit Jinja year-round. The flow of the river is dam-controlled and so is not affected by the rains. The most popular time to visit Uganda generally is in the drier months of late June to October and late December to early March, but it is possible (and enjoyable) to travel outside of these times.