River rafting in Uganda: You'll be all white on the Nile

"We have three options for Itanda Falls," our guide Wilson says.

"Easy, 50-50 or 100 per cent."

The six of us confer. Choosing 100 per cent means we'll enter Bad Place, a hole formed by an enormous standing wave, which all but guarantees we'll flip. I make an impassioned plea for 50-50 but the consensus is clear. "Hundred per cent," Peter from Belgium says. "After all, you only live once." Staying alive is the overriding theme of the safety briefing that started today's adventure.

Over breakfast at Adrift's base near Jinja in southern Uganda, lead guide Jane Dicey talks us through the realities of rafting the thunderous class five rapids of the White Nile. "Don't bring anything you wouldn't want to lose," she says. "And, if you fall in, you're probably going to spend longer under water than you expect."

Despite the sobering advice, we're in exceptionally safe hands. Since making the first descent of the White Nile in 1996, Adrift has safely hosted more than 30,000 people.

And although the river is renowned for its huge water volumes (three times the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon), the rapids are deep and largely hazard-free. After being kitted out with helmets, paddles and corset-like life jackets ("they need to be uncomfortably tight"), we file down to the river. Peter's wife and youngest daughter have wisely chosen to ride in the safety raft, which leaves six of us in the paddle raft with Zimbabwean Wilson Ngwenya.

We spend a few minutes learning the various paddle commands and practising a flip. Then it's time to commit. Flanked by safety rafts and kayakers, we paddle into the current.

First up is Overtime, a tricky class five. After deftly steering the boat between two exposed rocks, Wilson screams, "Get down!" We crouch down as the raft roller-coasters through a powerful wave train. Miraculously, we all stay in, and celebrate with shrieks of delight and a paddle high five.

The next two rapids – Retrospect (class three) and Bubugo (class four) – are dispensed with in a similar fashion.


We follow Wilson's shouted instructions, digging deep into the warm water in an adrenaline-fuelled paddling frenzy. Between rapids the river mellows and there's a chance to relax and admire the scenery. Apart from a few high-end lodges, the forested river bank is largely undeveloped. We pass fishermen in traditional wooden boats and spot fish eagles perched high in the tree tops.

Sadly, some of the rapids we'll run today will be lost because of a hydro-electric dam due to open downstream next year. Adrift says it will start the trip higher up but it may have to shorten it to a half-day. It'll still be an exhilarating adventure but it's a compelling incentive to visit sooner rather than later.

After walking around an un-runable class six rapid, we jump back in and head towards Itanda Falls. Wilson lines up the raft and, just before we enter Bad Place, he yells, "Paddles out!" We toss them overboard and crouch down just as the raft is hit by a towering wall of water.

All but two of us are catapulted out and for the next minute we hurtle downstream, bobbing up and over monstrous waves until we're collected by one of the safety rafts. It won't be the last time we'll fall in today, but it's the most thrilling. As I lie back in the raft and catch my breath, everyone else is laughing and talking excitedly. Maybe it wasn't such a bad place after all.






Qatar and Emirates fly to Entebbe. From Entebbe, it's a three-hour drive to Adrift's base near Jinja. See qatarairways.com; emirates.com


Trips start from $US125 a person and include safety equipment, lunch and transfers. Minimum age 16. More gentle Family Float and Relaxed Rafting options also available. See adrift.ug


Spectacularly located on an island in the Nile, Wildwaters Lodge  has 10 chalets with four-poster beds and terraces overlooking the river. Accessible only by boat, the upscale property also has a pool, a library and a gourmet restaurant. See wildwaterslodge.com

Rob McFarland was a guest of G Adventures, Adrift and Wildwaters Lodge.