Finding oneself rag-dolling under a canopy of white water rapids on the Nile River isn’t an opportune time to wonder: Did my guide say there are or aren’t man-eating crocodiles and hippos in the water?
Moments earlier, I’d been sitting on the front bench seat of a raft with another passenger and a pair of guides. Together we’d already paddled through a series of Class IV and V rapids, with names like Overtime, Retrospect, Novocaine, and Itanda (meaning “The Bad Place”). Even though the bow and stern of the raft were bouncing like a possessed seesaw, we managed to stay within the vessel. However, in this particularly angry junction, a wall of water hit our starboard side, and before the words “Hold on!” could pass my guide’s lips, I was airborne.
Not that I was underwater for more than a few beats—aided by a sturdy life jacket, my yellow helmeted head soon broke through the surface of the Nile, sputtering and swearing. A few seconds later, I was clinging to one of the three inflatable safety kayaks, being towed back to the main raft.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” the lead guide said before pulling me back in and handing me an oar. “Ready to keep going?”
I’d come to eastern Uganda to visit Wildwaters Lodge, a safari-style setup on a private 2.5-acre island right in the middle of the Nile River near the town of Jinja. The lodge consists of 10 stand-alone stilted suites, each with high thatched roofs, a canopied king bed and daybed, and a deck with a private clawfoot soaking tub overlooking the river.
A few miles upstream, the churning lifesource that is the Nile pours from the mouth of Lake Victoria, pulsing more than 4,000 miles like a heartbeat through northeastern Africa until it spills into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Egypt. In some places, like the island’s western side, the river runs as smoothly and steadily as a conveyor belt (we’re able to access the island relatively easily via a metal skiff boat). In other spots, like the island’s eastern shore, where boulders and erosion over time have caused varying water levels and speeds, the river is an unpredictable, convulsing vortex. Signs across the island warn visitors about the dangers of getting too close to the river’s edge.
Prior to booking at Wildwaters Lodge, I wasn’t aware that the Nile originated in Uganda (or that it ran through or along the borders of 11 African countries). All I knew was that it was a sedate river in Egypt, popular for cruising. But over the centuries, its waters were originally used for fishing and to aid in farming. Eventually, it became an important transportation and trade route. It’s only been in the past few decades that it’s started making a name for itself as a white water rafting destination.
My room, suite 10, overhangs one of the biggest, most dangerous sections of rapids in Uganda, and the way the water swirls and churns like soup about to bubble over is equal parts hypnotic and stomach-tightening. While the western side of the country is known for gorilla and chimpanzee treks, this area is known more for its adventure sports—mountain biking along the Nile, kayaking along the Nile, bungee jumping over the Nile, and yes, river rafting in the Nile. Even knowing that ahead of time, I had hoped that reading a book from my open-air bathtub would be the most immersive experience I’d have. Or at least that’s what I told the lodge manager during lunch on the first day.
“Everyone enjoys the rafting,” he tutted, adding, “Go, you’ll see. And don’t worry, the water is warm.”
Warm is about 75 degrees, though the latter statement wasn’t my primary concern. The next morning, I found myself signing a safety waiver and reading over the rapid names—suspiciously devoid of names like “Kiddie Pool” or “Lazy River” and instead given names like “Vengeance” and “Pandemic”—on the route map. Was it too late to chicken out?
We were going out with one of Wildwaters’ partners, Adrift Uganda, a company that over some 30 years has seen everyone from locals to royalty (Prince William participated in 2003) and Jedi Masters (Ewan McGregor was a guest in 2009). In addition to the two guides in our raft, three others would flank us in inflatable kayaks as an extra safety measure.
As we push off, our lead guide tells us that white water rafting on the Nile in Uganda is considered among the best in the world. The 12-mile span we’d be doing marries quiet zones full of forested islands—where the water teems with river otters, monitor lizards, cuckoos, and turacos—with booming rapids and sudden drops. (This is also when he tells us there are no crocodiles or hippos in this part, though the information sadly doesn’t stick.)
The first rapid is easy—it’s only a Class II, and we jitter over the lightly boiling water like a popcorn kernel in hot oil. Just as I start to think this could be easy, we approach a cascading rapid called Big Brother, and well before we reach the lip of the falls, we can feel the water sucking us forward. Over the thunderous roar of the water, our guide yells for everyone to “Get down!” I tuck my head, white-knuckle the safety rope that runs along the side, and brace for impact as we soar over the edge.
In an instant, we’re underwater. Not out of the boat—just blanketed momentarily by a giant wave. The raft pinballs between a half dozen or so rocks for another few seconds before we’re spit forward into smoother water. If not for the wet hair plastered to my cheeks, you might not have known what had just transpired.
“High five!” our leader says, holding the blade of his oar aloft. We all touch paddles in the air and laugh. I can feel the tension in my shoulders release and my confidence buoy. Sure, this is barely contained chaos, but it is fun.
Honestly, as we continued to wend our way down the river, it was largely calm. We passed mated pairs of African fish eagles sunbathing on rocks, small villages where children waved from the shoreline, fishermen in dugout canoes, and miles of dense jungle. At one point, a guide chopped up a pineapple, and we sprawled along the edges of the raft, nibbling on the treat and soaking up the sun.
Each time we came up to a set of rapids, our leader would instruct us when and how vigorously to paddle, and each time we came out on the other side, we’d clap our oars together in celebration.
Other than me being unceremoniously dumped into the drink, we only left the boat once—to portage around a particularly nasty Class VI rapid too dangerous for us nonprofessionals to attempt (though one of the safety kayakers deftly glides over it, as if it’s a bunny hill and he’s a black-diamond skier).
I’m not sure whether it’s natural euphoria or basic human relief, but I’m elated as we disembark. As we walked back to the lodge—me drenched, sunburnt, a little bruised, and somehow missing both a hair tie and a nose ring—the manager looked up from his desk and gave me a conspiratorial smile. He could have asked how it was, but he knew the answer.
Fly into Entebbe International Airport in Uganda’s capital city and either rent a car or hire a driver. It’s about 2.5 hours to Wildwaters Lodge.
Where to stay
Book now: Wildwaters Lodge
The Lodge offers 10 spacious, stilted cabins on a private island in the middle of the Nile River.
The shared spaces include a restaurant and bar where all meals are served, an infinity pool, a circular library, and a decadent massage platform situated over a calmer spot in the river.
Wildwaters Lodge is owned and operated by Lemala, a company that offers boutique camps in Tanzania and Uganda.
Book now: Adrift Uganda
Adrift has been operating rafting trips on the Nile River since 1996. On the morning of your trip, its guides will pick you up directly from Wildwaters Lodge. Tours cost $140 per person and typically take four to five hours. Guests have the option to choose between a mellower Class III course or the more challenging Class V option. All tours include life jackets, helmets, and rafting equipment.