When I first started reading about Uganda before the trip, I came to know that the river Nile originates from a town called Jinja, a couple of hours drive from Kampala. Though I was not sure at the time whether I will actually end up going there, I knew I wanted to. And by the time we returned from the safari, I had decided to spend a few days in Jinja before moving on to Kenya.
While most travelers visit Jinja on a day trip from Kampala, to do some rafting and kayaking before returning back to the capital, my plan was slightly different.
The infections on my right leg had ripened up further and the fact that I would scratch them in my sleep every night weren’t helping matters. The mosquito repellent and antiseptic cream I was carrying in the name of medicine were largely ineffective. (TMI?)
So, the idea of spending a few days away from the city and just relaxing on the shores of the Nile, having good food and doing nothing exciting was exciting enough for me to book a seat on the free shuttle bus that left from Red Chillies the next morning.
David, the Canadian guy from the safari, decided that he would join me. Though he had originally planned on staying in Kampala to figure out a way to go enter Tanzania, I guess the idea of a free ride to Jinja was too good to pass up.
“I could catch a bus to Dar Es Salaam from there.” He declared while we browsed on the free hostel WiFi.
The next day however, despite getting up on time, we somehow managed to miss the shuttle bus. The helpful receptionist called the driver, who said he was on his way to pick some other passengers but he could pick us up from a bus stop, few kilometers away from the hostel.
It was early in the morning but we managed to find one boda boda driver who agreed to carry both of us on his bike. All three of us, travelling on the bike while hanging on to our big bags, became the source of amusement for the school going children of the neighbourhood that morning.
We waited for about an hour at the bus stop that was in the middle of a market, by the side of a busy road. We stuck out like a sore thumb, as people waved and came to say hello. Others just stared. Some of the shopkeepers came by to see if we wanted to buy anything. The boda boda drivers surrounded us with offers for cheap rides to wherever we wanted to go.
The receptionist of Red Chillies had told us that it was a red bus with the words “Nile Explorers” written on it in yellow. But as we stood there waiting for the bus, it seemed red was suddenly out of fashion.
“There’s a red bus!”
“No, that’s pink.”
“Not at all.”
The bus did arrive finally, and we were on our way to Jinja.
Nile Explorers River Camp on the outskirts of Jinja town is one of the prettiest places I have stayed in. It overlooks the river Nile and is surrounded by greenery. I woke up when the monkeys created ruckus on the wooden roof, listened to the chirps of birds while having my morning coffee and played with the resident cat during the day. When it rained, the sound of rain drops falling on the leaves of surrounding trees combined with the smell of wet earth and the cool breeze was just a divine experience in itself. Fishing boats ploughed the river most of the day and villagers would come to the shore to wash their clothes and bathe in the evenings. The dusk was the best of the day when the sun set behind the hills on the other side of the river. This was the time when all the people in the camp, including the staff, would hang by the hostel bar and watch the sunset. Easily, the busiest time of the day. (Unless there is a football match on)
David and I would sit there in the evenings, watch whatever game was on TV, swatting away mosquitoes and ordering beers. We would explain to each other rules of cricket and ice hockey and talk all fun things. We would be joined by some of the staff members sometimes, who would share their stories also.
For dinner, we would step out of the gate of the hostel and buy some rotis, which was similar to rolls we have here in India. It would have fruits, vegetables, meats and sauces of your choice. It was delicious and dirt cheap.
One morning, we decided we were being way too lazy and hired a couple of boda bodas to the point from where the Nile originates. I had read that it is the biggest and the only tourist landmark in Jinja. We drove through the uneven roads, passing busy traffic and wide open fields on both sides. At one point, both our boda bodas started racing each other, overtaking dangerously, covering the other with a cloud of red soil in the process.
I don’t know what I was expecting but The Source of the Nile, as the place is called, turned out to be quite a low-key attraction. There were a couple of boards with stories of early explorers to the area and details about the incredible journey that the river starts from this point.
We found a pocket-sized fisherman, taking stock of his catch by the bank of the river. His wooden fishing boat had a plastic container full of small and medium sized fishes that he had caught that morning. Two wooden paddles rested on the side of the boat. We decided to see if he would take us on a tour on his boat.
A little surprised at first to see us, he instantly agreed and we soon found ourselves negotiating a price. After a lot of back and forth, we made a deal for 10000 shillings.
“You are a good Indian.” He said to me after the negotiations were over. “You give me money. Indians give no money.” He said smiling.
Apparently, he sells his fishes to some Indian guy who gives him a shitty price for his catch.
We got on his boat, David in the front with one paddle, the fisherman in the back with the other, and me in the middle with a mug to scoop away the water seeping into the boat and keep it afloat. I don’t want to gloat but I think I was entrusted with the most crucial task.
“Why is there a hole in the boat?” I asked.
“No money to fix.” He said as he took his seat.
We were paddling against the stream and soon realised that all our energy was spent fighting off the current and we were hardly moving. David and the fisherman paddled hysterically but we kept running into the low hanging branches of the trees on the banks of the river.
“I can’t believe we are paying for this.”
We gave up hope up after a while and decided to just go to the other side of the river where we could see some shops and restaurants. A few people on the other side were staring at us while we fought with the Nile.
Somehow our boat reached the other side and we got off, huffing and puffing, relieved to be back on solid ground.
And just when the fisherman was probably changing his opinion about Indians, we decided to pay him only 5000 shillings.
“10000?” He said, still a little out of breath.
“That was for a half an hour tour. We just rode across the river.”
“Yes, you should have told us if you couldn’t manage the stream.” We said as we walked away shamelessly, with the fisherman, still holding the 5000 Shillings, looking at us in disbelief.
There wasn’t much to see on the other side either, apart from a small market selling souvenirs. We walked for a bit and then took a boda boda to the Jinja town bus stand. We were planning to leave Jinja the next day and thought it will be a good idea to figure out bus timings. But after about half an hour of explaining and being redirected to several bus offices, we came out with more questions than answers.
“It’ll probably be best to ask the hostel staff.”
We walked around the town a bit, through the fruits and vegetable market, and decided to grab some lunch at a decent looking restaurant near the bus stand.
Here, I will have to put in a word for a drink called Stoney. It is a sweet, non-alcoholic, carbonated ginger drink that you will find all around East Africa. It is delicious and super refreshing. There is nothing better than a cold bottle of Stoney after you screwed over an innocent fisherman.
That evening, we hired a couple of kayaks from our hostel, explored the surrounding areas, and saw the sun set for the last time on the Nile.
It seemed the next day everyone in the hostel, including David, checked out together and I was the only guest remaining. My bus to Nairobi left in the evening and till then, I had the hostel all to myself. I spent the day, eating cheesy beef nachos, knocking down a few beers, catching up on some sleep and applying antiseptic cream on the infections on my leg, which were starting to pain so much that I had started walking with a slight limp.
With not much to do at the hostel, I reached the travel office of Lion Coach about an hour early to collect my tickets, that I had booked with the help of the hostel receptionist. I was told to ask for a guy named, Peter.
After he checked my passport and visa and handed me my tickets, we talked for a bit about the various bus routes from Jinja. Apparently, the longest route is a bus to Harare that takes about a week, making several stops along the way in different countries.
I waited at a bar near the bus stop and watched the orange sky slowly darken. The bus that was supposed to leave at 7 PM, hadn’t arrived till 7.30 PM. It finally arrived around 8 PM, as Peter and I waited by the side of the road.
If I had thought the Mash journey was bad, this was going to be something else. The moment I boarded, I could see that most of the seats were already taken and the inside of the bus was warm, stuffy and smelly. I found a seat in the back, where all the passenger luggage was stored. The conductor fell asleep on the seat next to me, almost immediately after checking my tickets.
Feeling suffocated, I woke up the conductor and asked if he could turn on the air conditioner.
“I was told the bus was air conditioned.” I told him as he looked at me, irritated.
He rolled his eyes, got up and turned a knob above my seat.
A gush of hot air descended upon me. I quickly reached for the knob as he looked at me questioningly.
“Sorry. I don’t want the AC.” I said, guiltily and turned the AC off.
He let out a loud sigh and went back to sleep.
This was going to be a long journey.