Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Wildlife and Whitewater: An Africa Honeymoon

Africa has been on my bucket list for a long time. The allure of an exotic destination abounding with wildlife was enough to start the dream, but once I learned about a wave called Nile Special and an island called the Hairy Lemon, I knew I had to go to Uganda.  And after hearing that an incoming dam on the White Nile was going to flood both the wave and the island, I knew I had to go soon.

So when Steve (my then fiancé, now husband) and I were talking about where we wanted to go on our honeymoon, I knew just the place. It wasn’t very hard to talk him into three weeks of warm weather, wildlife safaris and whitewater kayaking all wrapped into one epic vacation. We married in May, but because of our work schedules, we had to delay the honeymoon until December. It was worth the wait.

We started the trip off in Tanzania with four days of wildlife safaris in the Northern Serengeti. To say we were blown away by the experience would be an understatement. Within an hour of landing on the dirt strip that served as a runway, we were staying in the eyes of a beautiful mother leopard hunting for her cubs. Everyday was a new surprise and the perfect way to start off the adventure.

From there we flew up to Uganda and continued on our quest to see wildlife on a safari through the southwestern part of the country. This safari was all about primates, from chimpanzees to baboons to the grand finale: trekking to see mountain gorillas. We also got to witness the famous tree-climbing lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park and spend Christmas Eve on a boat viewing huge numbers of elephants, hippos and water buffalo. Ugandan wildlife did not disappoint.

As much as we loved the animals, we were both most excited for the last part of our trip – kayaking on the White Nile. The White Nile is no stranger to dams. The river has already been reduced in length due to the Bujugali Dam, otherwise known as the Silverback Dam, which was completed in 2011 and flooded many miles of exceptional whitewater. While many great rapids were lost, the river still currently retains plenty of awesome river miles and epic waves to keep most kayakers happy for weeks.

We were stoked to have Erin and Toby “MacSavage” (also freshly married and celebrating their honeymoon) with us for the kayaking part of our journey. We met up with them at Nile River Explorers, where we would base for the first couple of days of kayaking. We decided to hire Kayak the Nile, a local kayak instruction and guiding company, to help show us the ropes of the river, and try to teach a group of creek boaters how to playboat.

The first three days of kayaking were spent with Craig, our guide and freestyle kayaking extraordinaire. Craig showed us all that the White Nile had to offer. The river is generally very wide, and in many cases has 3-4 different channels to choose from. Having Craig along to say “this one’s good to go” or “that one’s called Hypoxia and it will swallow you whole” reminded us why we decided to hire a guide.  In addition to showing us down the river, Craig also coached us on playboating on the Nile’s most classic features including Super Hole and Nile Special. Results were mixed, but I am happy to report that I at least upgraded my standard one trick, the 360 spin, to a roundhouse. J

After saying goodbye to Craig, we posted up for the remainder of our trip on Hairy Lemon Island, the most magical place I’ve ever been. Hairy Lemon is located in the middle of the river, a 5 min paddle from the famous Nile Special wave, and is filled with monkeys, hammocks and cold beer (three of my favorite things). Our days involved eating the delicious home-made meals served by the island’s friendly staff, drinking hot coffee and cold beer, surfing on Nile Special or Club Wave, going upstream for a river run, lounging in hammocks, reading books or just enjoying time with friends. With no internet or phone service, life is simple there and I loved every minute of it.

The imminent Isimba damn, projected to be completed in May 2018, will flood a significant portion of the remaining rapids including Nile Special, Malalu, Kula Shaker and Hair of the Dog. And to add to the tragedy, it will also put Hairy Lemon Island under water. While there will still be some quality whitewater left after the dam is in place, the classics the river is known for will be gone. All this to say, if you have not yet been to the White Nile, 2017 is the year to go! If you are not a kayaker, local rafting company, Nile River Explorers, will take you down the river on a raft so you too can experience the wonders of the White Nile before its gone.

If you want to learn more about the dam, visit Kayak the Nile’s webpage dedicated to providing up to date information about the Isimba Dam Project.  Also, check out this video following a local Ugandan explaining what the river has meant to him (note: Since the publication of the video, it has been decided that the dam will be the highest of the possibilities, causing the most loss to the river).

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