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The rise and fall of Jinja's Bujagali falls

By Vision Reporter

Added 7th February 2012 12:53 PM

Businesses continued to grow and more tourists came to Uganda fifteen years ago, Bujagali falls became better known as one of Uganda ’s main scenic and inter-active destinations.

The rise and fall of Jinja's Bujagali falls

Businesses continued to grow and more tourists came to Uganda fifteen years ago, Bujagali falls became better known as one of Uganda ’s main scenic and inter-active destinations.

By Charles Okalebo
 
 Businesses continued to grow and more tourists came to Uganda fifteen years ago, Bujagali falls became better known as one of Uganda ’s main scenic and inter-active destinations.
 
Hundreds of thousands of visitors, including generations of Ugandan school-children on day-visit, can attest to the sticky qualities of ‘Bujagali Mud’, the red clay soil that layers boots and bare feet, adhering to everything after a tropical rainstorm.  
Slipping and sliding down the pathways was a source of trepidation when your turn and delight at the difficulties of others, for regular visitors and locals.
 
Since 1998 a dam called The Bujagali Dam (actually 3km downstream), has been planned and its initial completion date was by 2003.
 
 However by 2001 the project stalled due to the hot debates in parliament by the then area member of parliament, Dr. Frank Bulima Nabwiso, in the mean-time adventure tourism including; kayaking, water-boarding, quad-biking and bungee jump; continued to develop although it was understood that eventually, Bujagali Falls would be inundated.
 
From 2006, having had a welcome delay with  the river left open, dam construction under new managers Bujagali Energy Limited (BEL), restarted with a completion date of 2011. Other adventure oriented activities such as; horseback safaris, jet-boating and mountain-biking had commenced operating.
 
The popularity of white-water rafting increased; thousands of tourists come to enjoy the area each year. Right beside the falls Speke Camp hung in limbo but elsewhere, improvements in many areas such as accommodation continues, both at Bujagali and in the area back to Jinja on the banks of the river.
     
When planning for the dam first started, it was envisaged that rafting and other tourism activities would shift from Bujagali Falls to re-locate downstream. 
 
This became a commonly held erroneous impression, often spread in the Uganda media. In fact only Adrift have done much development at Itanda Falls in Butagaya sub county in Jinja district and Kalagala in Kayunga district as an alternative for the submerged Bujagali Falls, extending their operation to include the exhilarating White Waters Lodge and now a base for rafting and jet-boating.
Back towards Jinja on both the west and east banks more development such as The Haven and Holland Park has occurred.
 
 The existing bases of Adrift, NRE, Kayak the Nile, All Terrain Adventures, Nalubale Rafting, The River Camp, The Nile Porch, DeNile Café, Jinja Nile Resort and others; with more adventures; more and improved accommodation and other facilities such as restaurants, continued to develop near Bujagali despite the falls disappearance.
     
From 1st March 2011, the River Nile has been closed for rafting above the dam site and all the rafting companies have shifted their start points to below the dam, running much the same trip, missing the first 3 big rapids; Bujagali, ‘Total Gunga’ (Kyabirwa Falls) and ‘Big Brother/Silverback’; but including extra rapids downstream such as ‘Vengeance’ and ‘Nile Special’. we still have fantastic white water rafting with heart-throbbing sections of Grade 3,4 and 5 rapids interspersed with long dreamy sections of forested riverbank floating down on warm water.
     
The project date for closure of the river and filling of the section upstream, eventually inundating of Bujagali Falls, was mid October 2011 but this has been extended and at the time of writing, the river levels have changed and Bujagali is no longer called a ‘Bujagala Falls’ but part of a big, tree-lined section of quiet water interspersed with forested islands.
  
The River Nile below Bujagali Falls to the dam does not need to hold much water. The only major outflow of Lake Victoria passes through the Owens Falls/Nalubale Dams and within about 7 hours surges through the turbines in the lower dam. Lake Victoria provides the reservoir, what goes through 1 dam passes onwards through the next.
 
 It will remain a beautiful section of the river, albeit much quieter, and we expect facilities and more adventure orientated tourist activities to develop over the next few years. When the dam is completed and the power of the river is harnessed for urgently needed additional hydro-electric power, expect tourism to be on the rise at the former Bujagali Falls
     
Bujagali falls have lasted for over years and years, and has the great information about East Africa ’s centre for adventure. Adventure tourism is a rapidly growing part of commercial tourism worldwide, particularly favoured by younger travellers. In Uganda , Bujagali Falls is the main focus for this type of vacation and recreation.
    
Millions of years ago; as the Rift Valley slowly rolled, twisted and formed patterns across the land; as the Virunga Mountains and later the Ruwenzori’s  (sharing the evocative name of ‘The Mountains of the Moon’) rose along the backbone of Central Africa; a large depression formed on the eastern side of these high ranges. 
 
Rain clouds forming over the Indian Ocean crossed East Africa and collided with the barrier, watering the slopes with abundant rainfall. Slowly the great depression filled.
     
Around 13,000 years ago, Lake Victoria / Nalubale filled with enough water to overflow its lowest point, at the north end beside what was to become Jinja Town . 
 
The thick, red top soils were washed away, cutting a riverbed north west towards Lake Kyoga . Hard granite outcrops remained. Rippon Falls (beside what was to become Jinja Town in Uganda ), formed the first rocky barrier along the watercourse, controlling the outflow from the lake. 
 
Bujagali Falls became the second large terrace for water to cascade over.
     
People of many cultures and tribes came to settle around Africa’s largest lake and 100s of years ago, people known as the Busoga settled on the east bank and the Buganda kingdom spread as far as the west bank, putting down roots, farming the lush green land on both side of the Nile.
     
John Hanning Speke was the first European to visit the area reaching the west bank on July 21, 1862. He christened this section of the White Nile, (as distinguished from the ‘Blue Nile’ that flows out of Ethiopia ) the ‘ Victoria Nile ’.
     
In 1954, construction work on the Owens Falls Dam was completed and Rippon Falls were submerged. As Jinja grew, people seeking a day out beside the Nile started to visit Bujagali Falls. 
 
A wrought iron archway bearing a crocodile in silhouette and the name ‘Chillington Gate’ still stands on the road in. When ‘overland trucks’ started visiting Uganda , it soon became a tradition to overnight at the falls on the way to Kampala .
   
Nearby Budhagali, at the intersection with the road to Jinja, was a focal point for merchants trading with farmers in the area, including farmers around Kyabirwa, Namizi and Buyala Villages , the closest settlement to the falls?
    
At Bujagali Falls , the river is split into 7 channels, separated by rocky outcrops of forest clad islands. There are many species of birds (endemic and migratory), an abundance of fish and, until the end of Uganda ’s civil war, large populations of crocodile and hippo.
    
The flow of the river varies very little all year round; it is controlled by the parallel dams a few kilometres upstream at the source of the river. The catchment area of Lake Victoria is vast and this is its only outlet. The roar from up to a million litres per second, hums all day and night providing a blanket of sound to comfort all sleeping within earshot.
     
Over thousands of years Bujagali Falls has been visited by humans. For many generations it has been a sacred site for the Busoga people and it is not uncommon to see witchdoctors and others coming to the riverbank to make sacrifices and leave offerings to the spirits who live by the river and in the large mvule trees nearby. 
 
Nabamba Budhagali is a witchdoctor who has lived in the area for many years. His compound is on the approach road to the site and he is the 39th Jajja or priest/caretaker of the spirits who live at Bujagali Falls . The witchdoctor can be visited for advice and information about the spiritual aspects of the area.
 
 At a convention on Sunday, he and many other traditional leaders from around Uganda established that the traditional spirits living by the falls did not want to shift when the fall are partially submerged by rising waters, when the Bujagali Dam is completed in 2011.
    
Although called the Bujagali Dam, it is located three kilometres downstream. The water will back up to a projected depth that will submerge most of the islands and create a small tree-lined lake within the confines of the river banks. 
Water travelling through the Owens Falls / Nalubale Dams will pass through the new Bujagali Dam approximately 7 hours later. There is no reservoir required, Lake Victoria provides that.
    
Since 1996, the area has come to be very popular for white-water rafting. Trips run by Adrift Adventure Co., Nile River Explorers and more recently Equator and Nalubale Rafting start from above Bujagali Falls.
 
 Clients have a some orientation time and then they hit the first big, safely raft able section by the east bank at Bujagali, where the adventurous are roller-coasted down a grade 4 / 5 rapid on their way through one of the most exciting and beautiful sections of white-water action in the World.
     
When the new dam is completed this section and 2 other major rapids ( Kyabirwa Falls / Total Gunga and Big Brother / Silverback) will also be submerged under quieter waters. This does not mean an end to rafting on the Nile . 
 
Trips will to start downstream below the dam, through the exhilarating rapids that remain and extend over other rapids below the current finish point for 1 day trips, at Itanda Falls (home to ‘The Bad Place’).
 
     
Also in 1996, a Kenyan entrepreneur, Raj Shaa, partially developed the site down beside the river. For a number of years Speke Camp was used as a base by Adrift and since 2002 by Equator Rafts. Nile River Explorers developed a site near Chillington Gate. 
 
Budget bandas, dormitories and camping sites provided the first tourist accommodation for the area. Bujagali Falls remained a favoured picnic site (on Christmas day 2001 over 2000 people visited) and tour companies (particularly Overland Travel operators) started to overnight. Visiting Bujagali Falls became an important must-do for many Ugandan children coming in school groups to see an important part of their heritage. 
     
In 1999, Speke Camp (which was at that time leased from the Jinja District council with some of the rent being paid to Budondo sub-county) changed hands and the current owner, Sudhir Ruparelia, took over the lease.
     
The green clad islands are home or resting point to many species of bird, the foaming blue and white water is an oxygenated paradise for Nile perch, tilapia, and tiger fish.
 
Early mornings, the Nile valley shrouded in slowly lifting mist, fish eagles calling, a small flock of white egrets feeding on the lawns and bedraggled cormorants drying their wings on rocky outcrops, will stir every nature lover’s heart.
      
The pounding rapids bring a rush of adrenaline to rafters and kayakers. Just a few minutes north of the equator, at 1150 meters above sea-level, with a lovely climate all year round, vibrant sunrises and sunsets reflecting orange and purple off the river and the hypnotic quality of the rushing water, Bujagali Falls is a superb place to relax and absorb the environment.
 
 Down by the river’s edge, the roar of water lulls visitors and locals alike. Bars, restaurants and cafés providing shade, comfortable seating, music, food and drink have sprung up on the east bank. Accommodation has improved to international standards.
     
Almost every morning Colourful flotillas of rafts pass over Bujagali Falls ; close enough to see the whites of their eyes! Kayakers from all over the world provide occasional entertainment.
 
 During the day the ‘Bujagali Swimmers’ will for a 5,000/= (@ $2) fee, allow themselves to be washed through the main rapid using only a plastic jerrycan for floatation. Local fishing boats can be hired for trips out onto the calmer waters below the falls. 
 
There are many opportunities for sightseeing, fishing and bird-watching. Budondo Cultural Group provides musical entertainment at weekends and a number of small craft shops and food stalls which were closed have sprung up by Chillington Gate.
 
The intriguingly named ‘Avoid Morning’ shop is one example of local entrepreneurship.
 
Adventurous activities at Bujagali falls
     
alt=''With lots of big rapids on a beautiful, high-volume river, very exciting sections mixed with stretches to lay back and enjoy the scenery, white water rafting remains the most popular adventure activity.
 
There are four rafting companies offering 1 day trips covering 31 km and two-day trips (45km) with overnight camping. Adrift Adventure Co and Nile River Explorers have been operating since 1996, Equator Rafts started in 2002 and Nalubale Rafting in 2005. 
 
For those who prefer a slightly smaller dose of adventure, each company offers family float trips so that children less than 14 years old can also enjoy time on the quieter sections between the Owens Falls Dam and Bujagali.  Fortunately for the rafters, there are no longer any crocodiles or hippos in this part of the river.
     
The upper reaches of the White Nile have also become a ‘must do’ for international kayakers. Kayak the Nile offer kayak ‘schools’ from half to several days, where the less experienced can acquire skills necessary to tackle many of the bigger rapids.
 
For those who don’t have time to learn, Kayak the Nile also offer an adrenaline filled tandem kayak trip where adventure junkies are put in the front of two-seater kayaks and paddled down the biggest lines by professional guides.
     
A more peaceful option is a sunset canoe trip to Bujagali Falls or a fishing safari. But if high-powered petrol-head action is more up your street (or off your wave), the Wild Nile Jet, racing “up the rapids at breathtaking speeds” in a custom made 10-seater jet boat imported from New Zealand and powered by 450HP V8 motor is an “unforgettable experience for the whole family (ages 5-85 years)”. 
 
Wild Nile Jet trips start from Adrift’s Nile High Camp, blasting across the rapids, around forest clad islands, in a spray of water from twin Hamilton Jet motors, travels (flies) down-stream to Bujagali Falls and upstream to Owens’ Falls Dam. 
 
Along the way, powering through the white-water there’s lots of white-knuckle action, power sliding inches from rocky outcrops and the sensation of travelling at speed in the safe hands of a professional jet boat pilot, you get the best insights as to how the river was formed.
     
Still on the waters and as a new addition to the options involving keeping your feet dry, Nile River Explorers now offer cruise boat trips for groups of up to 12 people near Bujagali Falls . This service compliments their new 50-seater boat based upstream in Jinja, where a cold soda or beer provides the perfect accompaniment to a sunset cruise at the ‘Source of The Nile’.
     
In 2002, the list of adventure activities available took to dry land with the arrival of All Terrain Adventures who provide quadbike safaris through the farms, forest and villages beside the Nile . 
 
“Off the beaten tracks and into the warm heart of Uganda”, this adventure company uses local guides trained to international standards, taking clients of all ages (family groups a specialty) on trips ranging from 1 hour to multi-day, starting from their base at Chillington Gate, Bujagali Falls. No previous riding experience is needed as before each safari, a free learner / practice session is conducted on All Terrain Adventures custom circuits. If  it rains, ‘the wetter the better’.
     
All Terrain Adventures range of automatic and semi-automatic quadbikes provide adventure at the press of a throttle for all ages. Smaller fully-automatic Kids Quads cater for younger riders.
 
For those too small to ride themselves, there is the option of riding with a guide, Mum or Dad. Protective clothing (helmet, goggles, overalls, bandana, and gumboots) and refreshments are included so all needed is a big smile and perhaps a camera to capture some of the picturesque scenery along the routes.
     
All Terrain Adventures ‘Roar of de Nile’ Guided ATV Safaris are tailored to suit each group. All levels of rider from beginner to expert are well catered for on the ‘best quadbike safaris on the planet, at the best prices in the World!’ Open 7 days a week and no minimum numbers or fixed start times, All Terrain Adventures provides the most accessible adventure activities. With over 8 years experience and many thousands of happy clients, they have the best safety record of any company in the area.
      
Three kilometres upstream near the Jinja Nile Resort is Adrift’s Nile High Bungee Jump. The tower is 44 meters above the water – time enough while falling to think hard about how well the rope is attached to your ankles! If jumpers want an extra adrenaline rush, there is the option of being dipped headfirst into the river before the first bounce.
     
Nile Horseback Safaris has also started conducting 4-legged trips along the west bank of the river, complimenting the 4-wheeled safaris run by All Terrain Adventures along the east bank. Over the years, their stables have expanded. Their horses are kept in first class condition and experienced guides accompany each safari.
     
Nile Horseback Safaris offer short (2hr and 3hr) safaris and longer overnight and multiday horse safaris. For their shorter safaris, no riding experience is necessary. They have also recently introduced a 1 hour, walking only, safari. This safari is suitable for people with children under 6 years’ old, nervous riders or people who have a limited amount of time.
     
Nile River Explorers  (NRE) Mountain Biking have user powered tours using high quality bikes and expert local guides to help clients safely pedal their way in and around the Bujagali submerged falls and Jinja area. “Whether it's a physical challenge you are looking for or to meander through villages by the banks of the Nile , they can make it happen for you”. 
 
By taking a guided tour through Mabira Forest you will see places you can’t get to in a vehicle and also learn about local flora and fauna around the area. NRE Mountain Biking also offers guided tours of Jinja and its scenic viewpoints as well as individual bike hire for the day.
     
After participating in some of these adventure activities, there are lots of places to kick back and put up your heels with a cool drink. While relaxing beside the falls you may get an opportunity to see Ugandan acrobat Jeremiah Bazale. This amazing man lost the use of a leg from polio when young. To the accompaniment of music from the Budondo Cultural Group he performs feats of strength and balance.
    
Boat cruises run by local fishermen on the quiet waters below Speke Camp, are another way to take it easy and enjoy the scenery and wildlife. These trips take you out to some of the islands where you can walk to viewpoints overlooking the big rapids at the submerged Bujagali Falls .
 
Volunteer working on Bujagali falls
    
Soft Power Education started operation in 1999, supporting the Ugandan Government in working towards its Millennium Development Goals for the Primary Education Sector. Supported by donations and volunteers from all over the world, Soft Power Education has help thousands of children in the area get a better education.
 
 Special facilities such as the Amagezi Education Centre allow school children in the area to enjoy practical, interactive and hands-on learning sessions using equipment they do not have access to in school. The Soft Power Medical Centre at Bujagali Falls provides healthcare facilities to everyone living in the area or visitors.
    
Volunteer working holidays are becoming more popular and with Soft Power’s mix of ‘Education thru Friendship Thru Adventure’, visitors who want to put more into their holidays can find placement. 
 
Anyone making a donation to this registered NGO can be assured that “every single penny donated to Soft Power Education goes towards refurbishing and upgrading the schools involved in the programme; the running costs of the two pre-schools; running the Amagezi Education Centre; continuing the work in Murchison; buying building materials and paying for labour and staff.”
 
Restaurants,bars,cafe's & shops
    
DeNile Cafe at the All Terrain Adventures site has a large menu and budget prices. As well as breakfasts, lunches, snacks, great coffee and the best fruit smoothies around, DeNile Cafe also host the only crocodile to be found in the area.alt=''
 
The Black Lantern offers a fine international a’ la carte menu, “a culinary experience not to be missed ... famous for its pork spare ribs the Black Lantern has become a favourite destination for those who enjoy a little indulgence.
    
Well stocked bars at Bujagali has replaced the falls for tourists to make the place busy till late in the evening.
    
Beside Chillington Gate a number of stalls and small shops have sprung up over the last few years. The shopkeeper sellers a range of small goods such as household items, foodstuffs, and any number of little things that the visitor may have forgotten to bring. Several stalls offer their versions of the famous ‘Bujagali Rolex’, an omelette and vegetables wrapped in a hot chapatti.
 
 Amongst the food stalls are small restaurants offering local dishes such as matooke, beans, fish stew, sweet potatoes and sauces. 
While waiting for food to be cooked, visitors can browse through a range of shops selling traditional crafts, paintings, carvings, clothing, and souvenirs such as jewellery.
 
 
What people say about the submerged Bujagali falls in Jinja 
 
Hitesh Vora , the Manager Campsite bar, restaurant and lodge.
 
 The Indian who has been at the site for a decade said since the water level went up; his business has been frustrated and also affected the revenue base of Budondo Sub County.
 
     “The falls have been giving us the stand in development and helped us to interact with new faces on a daily basis” he said.
 
     He added that the daily income from the tourists had also boosted the community to better levels in terms of construction of permanent houses.

 Bosco Kawereke, Chairperson Bujagali Divers Association.
The association has 12 members who have been earning from entertaining the local and foreign tourists, with each fetching 50,000 per day.
 
He also decried the slow compensation process saying that, Bill Groth of Bujagali Energy Limited (BEL), in charge of compensation has no specific explanation about the rate and mode of compensation.
 
 “The word compensation to whoever affected by the construction of the Bujagali dam curse that word for not meaning what it means,’ according to one Kawereku of Bujagali divers association chairperson   .  
 
 Peter Knight ,the proprietor of All Terrain Adventures 
The number of tourists has dwindled compared to the past where many flocked the site to get a glimpse of the falls.
 
     “I have been earning big per day and this has enabled me to pay my 14 workers and to feed my family. It is now a struggle to get money” he said.
      But with the many mini-golf tournaments, Quakbaking and Horse race people have started enjoying the place as it was in the past.
 
 Jajja Nambamba Bujagali,the Oracle of the spirits at the falls.
 He lamented that the graves of his 38 ancestors have been submerged by the rising water in addition to his herbs that have for years been at the islands and river banks.
 
‘Most of the herbs have been on Nabamba Island. I have been using the roaring waters for therapy to cure my clients of their diseases,” he added.
 
Besides using the water as a medicine, the 97 year old man also used the water to locate elusive dead bodies which had drowned at the source of the Nile and else where.
 
 
Maama Lukowe Bujagali(55), Bujagali’s wife.
 The elderly woman also lamented she has lost the most important ingredient in her herbs.
 
She said she has been using the water to make charms for women to stabilize their marriages, to boost harvests and to curb hailstorms that accompany heavy downpours.
 
Historical background of Bujagali falls
Bujagali Falls was one of the most beautiful tourist attraction sites in Uganda and with the most spectacular waterfalls and rapids on the Nile River.
 
It’s well known that these Falls got the name “BUJAGALI” from the spiritual Bachwezi leader called Mandwa BUDHAGALI who used to carry out his activities of which craft from this spot.
 
This spot has been held as a sacred by the local community, and it was named after the River spirit called “BUDHAGALI” which reigned around this area some years back. 
 
This spirit manifested itself in over 30 human spiritual leaders (reincarnation) over centuries around Busoga. Whoever claimed to be the new spiritual leader of this spot was given a task of drifting along these falls and rapids with a piece of backcloth, so as to show his magical powers.
 
 If he managed to perform this task successful, then he would be crowned the new spiritual leader by the other spiritual leaders. The title awarded to him was “MANDWA BUDHAGALI” literally meaning being reincarnated by the spirit Budhagali. The coronation ceremony could after take place around this spot in presence of the other spiritual leaders, the local chiefs and the residents.
 
Never the less, the current spiritual leader (Mandwa Budhagali) succeed his father after his death in early 1970s, who was buried on one of the extinct small islands found around Bujagali falls locally known as Papa/Jackson island. He is over 80 years married with 3 children. 
 
However he had 2 wives but unfortunately 1 passed away in 2007. He has maintained his spiritual status up to date and he is referred to as a Witch doctor. He has got about 5 shrines at his small village of Budhagali near Bujagali falls in Budondo, Jinja district.
 
Bujagali falls as tourist Site comprised of seven waterfalls, rejuvenating over huge rocks, with a couple of islands full of canopy with forested banks. At this point River Nile dropped 3 meters, taking its first big step on a 6,500Km journey from its source (from Lake Victoria) to its mouth at the Mediterranean Sea. The flow of water here was averaged at 800,000 cubic liters per second.
 
Now all the beautiful rapids, islands and other spots have vanished due to the rise in the water levels as result of constructing a 250MW Hydro Electricity Power dam, 3Km downstream from the Bujagali Falls. The whole area of Bujagali Falls now acts as a water reserve for this new H.E.P dam.
 
Below are the seven waterfalls that comprised Bujagali Falls
Rapid 1 – The camp this was grade 2 good for family float.
 
Rapid 2 – Rib Gauge this was grade 3 suitable for Kayak training.
 
Rapid 3 – The Hump this was grade 6 and a “No go zone”.
 
Rapid 4 – The Bujagali Falls this was grade 4/5 and was the best view point for rafting, kayaking and the                         Bujagali jerrican swimmers.
 
Rapid 5 – Window maker this was grade 3/4 and good for kayaking.
 
Rapid 6 – Bread Runner this was grade 3/4 also good for kayaking.
 
Rapid 7 – Easy Rider (fifty-fifty) this was grade 3/4 and good for rafting.
 
These falls used to rage down in between the islands which were named as follows: The Bujagali Island this was just in front of Bujagali Falls.
Papa/Jackson Island this was down after the Bujagali Island and was named after a raster farian called Jackson who used to reside there.
Dumbbell Island this is where the dam is exactly built.
And many other small islands that were at the extreme western banks of the river.

The rise and fall of Jinja''s Bujagali falls

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