Uganda may not be the first country that comes to mind when you think of adventure tourism. The Pearl of Africa is better known for its stunning landscapes, endangered mountain gorillas, and Big 5 wildlife. But the truth is, few activities will get your adrenaline pumping like white water rafting in Uganda. The stretch of the Nile River that runs through Jinja — a small city an hour north of Kampala — contains ten ferocious rapids.
I did a one-day whitewater trip with Nalubale Rafting, one of the top Jinja-based companies. It was easily the most thrilling, and at times terrifying, activity I’ve ever done on the road. Read on to find out how to plan this trip, what to expect, and how to decide whether you’re up for it!
A couple quick notes before we dive in: I did not partner with Nalubale Rafting on this post. I paid for my trip just like you would, and I didn’t tell their staff I’m a travel writer. I just had a great time and want to tell you all about it! Additionally, the photos in this post were taken by a photographer with the rafting company — free photos are part of the package.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you, which helps me keep this site up and running.
White water rafting in Uganda: Is it safe?
Before diving into the details of rafting Jinja’s grade V whitewater, I want to give you a sense of what you’re in for so you can decide if this trip is a good fit for you.
The short version is, you will end up in the water. A lot. In the rapids. Under the raft. Slammed into rocks. Caught in whirlpools. Sometimes for 15-20 seconds. It’s not a question of if, but when — several of the rapids have an 80%+ chance of flips. It can be genuinely terrifying even if you are water-confident.
My raft flipped twice and caught me underneath it in Grade V rapids. We came very close to flipping and two people fell out of the raft on a Grade IV. And at one point we had the option of a Grade V raft with a 60% chance of flipping or a Grade IV with a 60% chance of staying in the boat — and we chose to stay in the boat. I ended my trip covered in bruises, very sunburned, with a good amount of Nile River water in my lungs and even more of it in my stomach (prepare for tummy aches the next day!).
But before you get concerned that white water rafting in Uganda is dangerous, hear me out – I’ve been rafting four times now, and the trip with Nalubale had far and away the highest safety standards. That includes a trip I did in the U.S.
Nalubale has an outstanding reputation for safety on the river. In fact, they send an entire army of safety staff with each trip — a “safety raft” with a full first-aid kit, including a stretcher, and several safety kayakers. Additionally, before you hit any of the big rapids, you’ll practice all of the skills and ‘what-if’s’ (like getting caught under the raft, swimming down a rapid, reaching a safety kayaker, and flipping) on small rapids.
Finally, if you get too nervous when you see an upcoming rapid, you can always hop in the safety boat until the other side of it. You’ll still get to ride down Class III rapids with no chance of flipping.
Choosing a rafting company in Jinja
When you start researching your white water rafting trip in Jinja, you’ll notice a huge number of companies competing for your business. They all seem to offer wildly different price points.
But really, only two companies are worth your consideration: Nalubale Rafting and Nile River Explorers. Adrift used to have a good reputation as well, but locals report sliding safety standards. All other companies take serious short-cuts with safety and/or haven’t been around long enough to establish a really reliable reputation.
When choosing between Nalubale and Nile River Explorers, there isn’t much to distinguish them. Both offer full-day packages for $140 a day. Both include pickup from the major backpackers in Kampala or any hostel in Jinja, rafting, free photos, lunch, drinks and snacks, and two free nights of accommodation at their camps in Bujagali (near Jinja on the river).
I chose Nalubale Rafting because their river camp had better reviews and when I was communicating with them over email, they just gave me a better vibe.
Regardless of which company you choose, it’s smart to book in advance. In high season the trips sometimes sell out, while in low season they may only run a trip if there are enough people. You can book through the companies’ websites.
What about the dam? Is rafting in Jinja still worth it?
If you’ve been researching white water rafting in Uganda, you may have heard about the Isimba Dam Project. This dam flooded a number of the most famous rapids on this stretch of the Nile, and threatened to permanently end the rafting industry in Jinja.
Fortunately the dam has been completed and the damage is less than what was originally feared. Yes, some of the rapids were flooded. Yes, there is now a 45-minute stretch of flat water along the rafting route where there used to be Class V’s. But overall, the rafting trip is still nearly as good as it was before the dam’s completion. Think of it this way — after your raft has flipped two or three times, you’ll probably be glad not to encounter another five massive rapids!
The rafting trip still takes nearly a full day. You’ll put-in around 10 am and get back to Jinja by 3 pm. You’ll still get plenty of adventure and excitement. I didn’t feel like I was missing out at all.
Rafting Day: What it’s like to raft the Nile River
On the morning of my rafting trip, I was extremely nervous. I’d read countless accounts online of rafts flipping. I’m actually not much of an adrenaline junkie — I’d way rather be in a safari car than bungee jumping or skydiving. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but I wasn’t sure I was up for it.
The shuttle from Kampala
Before I went white water rafting in Uganda, I had been on a safari in Murchison Falls. So I needed a ride from Kampala on the morning of the rafting trip. Luckily, Nalubale Rafting provided this for free.
The shuttle picked me up from Red Chilli Hideaway at 6:30 am on the dot. The van was spacious and comfortable, and I was the only person in it.
The drive took about two hours in rush-hour traffic (i.e. an hour to get out of Kampala). The driver was much safer than most others I rode with in Uganda — he didn’t blind-overtake and he kept his speed to 100 km/hour.
Once we reached Jinja, we first stopped off at the Nalubale Tea House/Headquarters. Here I was offered a quick breakfast of pancakes, fruit and coffee. I ate together with my fellow rafters, who had stayed in Jinja the night before. I also had some time to move essentials into a dry bag (which would come with me for the day) and lock up the rest of my belongings. The tea house had a clean restroom as well.
Then, we were off! We loaded ourselves and all the rafting gear into the back of a truck, took a seat on the benches, and endured a bumpy 30-minute ride to the put-in spot.
The rafting trip, Part 1: Learning the ropes
When we arrived at the put-in, we had to leave our shoes in the truck. We helped haul the raft, kayaks, paddles, life vests, and helmets down the steep and muddy path to the river. Our amazing guide Nasser showed us how to correctly put on our life vests and how to make sure our helmets fit correctly.
We got in the water and got some quick paddling instructions – forward, back, and the most important one of all, “GET DOWN.” We practiced a few times to make sure we knew how to avoid hitting each other with paddles. Then we chose our positions in the raft — those at the front had the highest likelihood of falling out.
By the time we got through our first lesson, we were at the beginning of the first rapid of the day. This Grade III rapid is called Jaws. It moves fast enough to be thrilling, but is non-threatening enough to make it a good place to practice. By the time we got to the other end of it we were all thoroughly soaked.
The next lesson was a little more serious: Falling out of the boat. We learned how to signal that we’re okay, how to point our feet down the river to avoid getting caught by a rock, how to hold on to a safety kayak, and how to pull someone back in the boat. Then, we practiced jumping out of the raft and pulling each other back in.
By the time we reached Pyramid — a Grade II rapid — we were all swimming. So Nasser made us ride this rapid in the water. This was essential safety training to teach us how to avoid panicking if we fell out in a more intense rapid later on.
The final safety lesson came in the next section of flat water — flipping the raft. This would prove to be highly relevant for the day. We learned what to do if you get caught under the raft. Then we practiced, three times, to make absolutely certain that everyone felt okay. Back in the raft, we rode down the quick Giggitty Giggitty to complete the training.
The rafting trip, Part 2: Waterfalls and serious rapids
The first “real” rapid of the day was Overtime. This Grade V rapid is extremely fun because you get the thrill of serious white water, the possibility of going down a waterfall, and a high likelihood of staying in the boat. In fact, flipping on this rapid is quite dangerous because the river is shallow here, so the guides go way out of their way to keep you inside and upright.
Nasser told us to paddle hard through this rapid, but it was worth it. We made it to the side of the river with the 8 meter waterfall. It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds — it was actually one of the most purely-fun, not-terrifying moments of the whole day!
We barely had time to high-five our paddles before the first major decision of the day. To the left: Retrospect, a fairly tame Grade IV. To the right: Chop Suey, one of the most challenging rapids on the river. Although it’s only a grade IV, it’s the rapid that flips more rafts than any other. It’s truly wild.
My group chose Chop Suey.
We actually almost made it.
We were more the halfway through the rapid, paddling hard but maintaining control. The raft started to twirl around slightly and Nasser course-corrected. Then, from out of nowhere, a truly gigantic wave appeared. I barely had time to be scared before Nasser screamed, “GET DOWN!”
Really, we never had a chance. The next thing I knew I was under the raft, getting pounded by the river, unable to find an air pocket, and flipping upside down and every which way. It took me solidly 20 seconds to reach the surface. Even then, I was trapped under the raft and inhaling large amounts of Nile water for another minute until we reached the end of the rapid.
I swam out to the sound of hysterical laughter from the safety kayakers and guides. The photos later would tell the whole story — we could have easily avoided the huge wave that flipped us if we could’ve seen it in advance. We apparently looked quite ridiculous.
The rafting trip, Part 3: A long break and another flip
It took me a good 15 minutes to recover from Chop Suey. As much as I’d love to tell you that riding down a rapid under the raft is thrilling, it was honestly more terrifying than anything else. By the time I got back in the raft I was shaking from the adrenaline and trying to cough at least some of the water out of my lungs.
Luckily, we had a nice long break ahead of us. The next section of river contains 45 minutes of flat water where the rapids were flooded by the Itambira Dam. We got a chance to reapply sunscreen, drink some water, snack on some biscuits, and swim a bit.
We had plenty of time to discuss our next decision. It was a choice between a Grade III route through our next rapid, Bubugo, or a Grade IV route. The Grade IV route comes with a high likelihood of flipping. Somehow, Nasser talked us into the Grade IV.
Once again, we made it most of the way through the rapid. The waves were smaller here so it was easier to see what the river was doing. We took on a few drops head-on and spiraled through a whirlpool.
All was going perfectly until we hit the side of a large wave and started to tilt. We shifted around in the raft and everyone made an effort to keep us inside. It felt like the world was in slow motion — Nasser yelling “grab the rope, grab the rope” — as the raft went vertical underneath us and it became increasingly clear that none of us were staying in the boat. Seconds later, I was under the raft again.
Luckily, I found an air pocket quickly this time — and the remainder of the rapid was short. I also discovered that as scary as it is to be caught in fierce whitewater, you actually kind of get used to it. The second flip was almost fun.
The rafting trip, Part 4: Hiking around Itanda Falls, Bad Place, and riverboarding
The next rapid we faced on this trip white water rafting in Uganda was a Grade VI — too dangerous for commercial rafting companies. So we had to get out of the raft and walk around it. We paddled over to the shore (frighteningly close to the rapid), hopped out, and met our support team to carry the raft.
We stopped for a team photo in front of the spectacular Itanda Falls, which makes up the rapid. Unfortunately, this also gave us an up-close advance look at our next challenge. See, the lowest portion of Itanda Falls is only a Grade IV. So while we couldn’t raft the upper part, we could put the raft back in halfway down and raft the lower part, known as Bad Place.
It looked intimidating enough that it took Nasser a full ten minutes to convince us to get back in the raft. And we made him promise to try harder to not flip the raft again.
Luckily, we made it through! Bad Place ended up being my favorite rapid of the whole trip. There was a huge hole in the middle, and a smaller hole on one side, and we just narrowly skirted between the two for an exciting but safe thrill.
On the other side of Bad Place was another spot to “dock” the raft. Here, we all got to try our hand at river boarding. If you’ve never river-boarded before, think of it as like boogie boarding, but in a rapid. You hold on to the board with your upper body, swim toward the rapid, find the sweet spot, and ride on top of the moving water in place. It’s fun and relatively tame, and a nice break from the more intimidating big rapids.
The rafting trip, Part 5: The final rapid, lunch and return to Jinja
We could hear the last rapid of the day well before we saw it. Vengeance. One of the Nile’s most infamous rapids.
This Class IV rapid has two tiers, between which you get a very short break. That makes it the longest rapid on the trip, and one of the most thrilling.
There are a number of routes you can take through Vengeance. Some have enormous waves, others have whirlpools. The likelihood of flipping depends on which direction you go in. My group felt like we’d drunk enough river water for the day, so we requested a route that would be thrilling but low-risk of flipping.
Vengeance ended up being my group’s most successful rapid of the day! Everyone stayed in the boat, we stuck to our route, and we actually started to paddle like a team. The waves were big and intimidating, but it never felt like we were about to fly out of the raft or flip. It was pure adrenaline-fueled fun.
After Vengeance, we paddled a short way further downriver before hopping out. We loaded the rafts and gear onto the truck, which was waiting for us, and drove a short way to Nalubale’s lunch hut. Here we enjoyed a feast of sandwiches, salads, grilled veggies, local treats, and drinks (boozy and non-boozy). We changed into our dry clothes, exchanged contact info, and hopped back in the truck for the drive back to Jinja.
The day ended with a group viewing of our photos back at headquarters. We laughed at the near-death experiences we’d had just a couple hours before and marveled at the fact that we’d made it back.
After rafting: The river camp
Even after rafting is finished, your adventure with Nalubale doesn’t have to end there. You can stay for up to two nights for free in a dorm or camping at their river camp, called Explorers River Camp.
Nalubale provides your first ride to the camp (in Bujagali, 8 km away from Jinja). Getting back into town costs 1,000 shillings in a matatu or 5,000 shillings on a boda. But it’s worth it for the gorgeous river setting.
The camp overlooks peaceful Lake Bujagali. The lake is supposedly bilharzia-free and safe for swimming. It doesn’t have hippos or crocs — just lots of beautiful bird life.
If you’re camping, you can set up your tent anywhere on the grounds with grassy space. I recommend staying near the restaurant — further into the trees and the resident vervet monkeys will hassle you. The dorm is on the other side of the restaurant. Both campers and dorm-stayers have access to good, clean bathrooms and showers, a swimming pool, and a rope swing into the lake.
The restaurant area has free WiFi (which works well for Uganda), board games, TV’s, and charging stations for your electronics. The food is decent (15-20,000 shillings for dinner, veggie options available, and definitely try their fries) and the bar attracts a mix of local and international clientele. The sunsets from the restaurant are simply spectacular.
Additionally, don’t miss the Bujagali Chapati Company. This Rolex stand just outside the gate (take a left and walk 100 meters) has the best rolex in Uganda. You can choose from a large menu, which even has some vegan options! Everything is below 5,000 shillings.
If you don’t want to stay overnight at the river camp, you can get a free ride back to Kampala or to any hotel in Jinja from Nalubale.
Is white water rafting in Uganda worth it?
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering if I enjoyed white water rafting in Jinja. While it was scary at times and really intense, I can emphatically say it was one of my favorite experiences in Uganda!
I credit my positive experience entirely to my guide, Nasser. Even when I was nervous on the river, I felt like he 100% knew what he was doing. He was really good at building up my confidence on the water. And when even that failed, he knew when to just crack a joke and move on.
The safety team also helped make the day more enjoyable. It was great to know that I always had the option to ride in the safety raft instead. And I really appreciated the fact that one of the kayakers was a woman — if she could handle the river without a support team, than surely I could with an entire army of support staff!
The other thing that made this rafting trip so great was that the Nile River is gorgeous. The whole time we were rafting, we were also drifting through amazing scenery and seeing a large array of bird life. We got to see how communities along the river live. Everyone we encountered was friendly and welcoming.
If you’ve never gone rafting before and aren’t super water-confident, I’d recommend signing up for the Grade III trip. But if you bring a spirit of adventure and nerves of steel, I’d highly recommend taking on Jinja’s Class V white water!
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