The Return of Jinja, Town On the Nile

With no coastline to boast of, beach tourism in landlocked Uganda is a far cry from the splendour of the Kenyan and Tanzanian [rather Zanzibari] seashore, where some of the world’s A-listers and lovers go to cavort in the sand and sun.

But Jinja the Ugandan town by the source of the Nile could soon help overcome this disadvantage if the plans under way bear fruit.

Once Uganda’s metropolis of choice for manufacturers, Jinja has endured decades of near-economic collapse, but is keen to bury its past and distinguish itself as a hub of “soft industry.”

More importantly, Jinja’s revival can exploit the advantage of its location at the source of the world’s longest river to become a top resort for recreation and marine tourism.

“We are redesigning new circuits of tourism from wildlife to water-based tourism; we are moving to protect our natural and traditional endowments, and the source of the Nile is one of them.

In that respect, Jinja is at the centre of these plans,” Tourism and Wildlife Minister Prof Ephraim Kamuntu said.

Jinja is one of 10 tourism zones in Uganda’s master plan. It is identified as a centre for marine tourism. According to Uganda Tourism Board boss Cuthbert Baguma, a consultancy for the planning of Jinja’s infrastructure that must complement the river, lake, hills and greenery has been advertised.

Skyscrapers, for instance, are not allowed.

The plan will also decide what other physical structures will go where in order not to compromise the allure of the natural features around the town.

Marine tourism

Jinja’s strength is marine tourism, which, with the right investment and marketing, could attract the likes of Alicia Keys, Rowan Atkinson, Naomi Campbell, Bill Gates, Kofi Annan and others who have graced holiday resorts on the East African Coast.

Some of these VIPs and superstars may have visited Uganda, but they have been treated to the unsightly Kampala.

“They are right to think marine tourism. It would be such a spectacle, almost similar to Cape Town.

Can you imagine a cruise on the Nile or Lake Victoria? What needs to be done is to create many activities for people to stay for many days, not just to come and see the source of the Nile for an hour and leave,” said Amos Wekesa, president of the Uganda Tourism Association.

Mr Wekesa, who operates tour and travel company the Great Lakes Safaris, faults the government for failing to create an e-tourism portal that would market the entire country, but emphasising Jinja as the capital of adventure sport on the Nile white water rafting, kayaking, boating/sailing, bungee jumping and sport fishing. This would make the town Uganda’s flagbearer alongside the mountain gorillas.

Museum of commerce

Jinja, 80km east of Kampala, took the biggest blow when Incompetent new owners ran down the businesses that Idi Amin gave them the town became no more than a badly kept museum of commerce from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Not anymore. Politicians and business people speak of Jinja rebounding. More commercial banks now operate in the town and a few new hotels have come up in the past two years to complement the old town’s conservative look.

Owners of old hotels that had closed for lack of business, speak of a renaissance for a municipality that had earned the tag of “ghost town” — generally humdrum, slow and depressing.

“Now that we are seeing signs of revival in Jinja, we are upbeat that the Sailing Club makes business sense. It will be a slow process, but we will revive it,” said Koduvayur Eswar, referring to the Jinja Sailing Club, a recreational facility owned by the Madhvani Group.

It has been years since Jinja Sailing Club, once a famous sport sailing resort, opened for serious business, according to Mr Eswar, but the Madhvani Group plans to revive it as an upmarket resort.

“We want to build a small upmarket resort. Not five-star, not four-star, but a perfect upmarket standard club,” Mr Eswar said. “There will be a health club, a sailing/boating club, a golf club and sport fishing parties besides the usual lounge facilities. We want to offer tourists and guests a variety of entertainment.”

Under its Marasa brand, the Madhvani Group’s footprint in high end lodges is unrivalled, with Mweya in Queen Elizabeth National Park and Paraa and Chobe safari lodges in Murchison National Park in its profile. Even when war was raging in northern Uganda where Paraa and Chobe are located, Paraa remained open.

Variety galore

Not that variety is lacking in Jinja, but at the Sailing Club, it will all be under one roof. But if that is not to the guests’ liking, there are other choices. A little farther north on the river is a lifetime’s experience of white water rafting — challenging rapids (the first five big ones at Bujagali are no longer part of the rafting safari due to the upcoming hydropower dam just ahead, but downstream are more rapids).

The Nile is one of only two raftable big rivers in Africa the other being the Zambezi but the experience on the latter is nowhere near the excitement of the Upper Nile.

Adrenalin junkies can also have a go at the bungee jump at the Jinja Nile Resort, and take a 44-metre plunge off the Nile overhang for a full water touch, tandem, stunt or full- moon jump.

Then a few metres outside the entrance to the source of the Nile is a 9-hole golf course that hosts occasional local tournaments.Across the source of the Nile is Kingfisher Safaris Resort, whose whole fish dish is a compelling delicacy, washed down with fresh pineapple juice. You might even go Caribbean style and order a pina colada.

Until Adrift Adventures started rafting expeditions on the Bujagali-Nile in 1996, Jinja barely recognised itself as a hub for tourism.This attitude angered John Speke — the first European to lay eyes on the Nile, who described the then thundering Ripon Falls, and the white rocks from which Jinja [Luganda for rock] derives its name thus:

“Though beautiful, the scene was not exactly what I expected, for the broad surface of the lake was shut out from view by a spur of hill, and the falls, about 12 feet deep and 400-500 feet broad, were broken by rocks; still it was a sight that attracted one to it for hours.

The roar of the waters, the thousands of passenger fish leaping at the falls with all their might, the fishermen coming out in boats, and taking post on all the rocks with rod and hook, hippopotami and crocodiles lying sleepily on the water, the ferry at work above the falls, and cattle driven down to drink at the margin of the lake, made in all, with the pretty nature of the country small grassy-topped hills, with trees in the intervening valleys and on the lower slopes — as interesting a picture as one could wish to see.”

The roar of the water and the white rocks are no more as the falls were submerged after the construction of Owen Falls Dam in 1954.

The economic slump of the 70s-90s in hindsight, was a blessing in disguise for it allowed Jinja to retain an old-fashioned look: new buildings have come up, yes, but these are carefully planned to accentuate the elegance and beauty of natural features such as the lake, the river, the islands and hills.

It is easy to appreciate Jinja’s freshness and quiet; it still has green spaces and lots of space for future economic expansion the exact antithesis of Kampala which has traded green spaces and trees for ad hoc glass and concrete buildings on almost every inch of space.

With such factors playing in its favour, Jinja could take a portion of the more than $600 million that Uganda earned from tourism last year, but also, it would provide some relief from the insanity of the capital.