Day nine in Uganda dawns with a sunrise mural. Splashes of coral, violet and magenta fill the sky in interwoven streaks as the morning sun warms the valley. Yesterday’s sick-bed revaluation is still intact. The heaviness that accompanied me to Africa is gone, replaced by the gentle grace and healing that can only come from our Father in heaven. I am new.
After a week of travel, tours and emotion, today activities are more recreational. We’re going to play tourist. Our destinations: the mouth of the Nile River and some place called Wildwaters Lodge.
While my spirit is bright, my body remains various shades of green. You don’t attempt to turn yourself inside out one day and feel grand the next. Still, our group – which includes Steve, Vicki, Sarah, and myself – has been joined by Prosey, Lianna and Derrick. Joe has also returned as our driver. I’ve quickly grown to love this group. Filled with genuine joy, these are people I would walk life with.
We head east toward Jinja (pronounced “ninja” but with a “j”). Joe is behind the wheel and I’m in the front passenger seat, his self-appointed co-pilot handling refreshment and phone duty. (Side note: I took several calls for Joe while on the road and I noticed that when people are done talking to you in Uganda they just hang up. No “goodbye.” No “See you later.” Nothing. Out. They do not want to waste their minutes on pleasantries.)
The chatter in the van is light and easy. It’s amazing how people from around the world – with no immediate connections – can so quickly find common ground and just laugh. There is nothing more simply human and beautiful then laughing.
As we pass the giant stadium on the outskirts of Kampala, Lianna, Derrick and Joe regale us with stories of attending an overflow soccer game, as well as tales from working the farms. I draw one conclusion from these stories – quit complaining Americans. Seriously, no whining. We have it way too easy.
Soon, a road side market appears ahead and Derrick squawks from the back. It’s time for breakfast. Before the van slows, we are encased in humans, holding bananas, pineapples and water for sale. They press against the glass and there’s a moment of tension. You feel their desperation, and that twinge of guilt resurfaces.
Derrick lunges out of the sliding door, and checks the chicken being sold to the “tourists.” Unsatisfied with the temperature, he disappears into the market and returns with half a dozen chicken cutlets on a sticks. He distributes them to those in the car and breakfast is served. Not for me. The mere aroma of food cause a wave of nausea to roll from my stomach to the back of my throat. I crack a window. Oh, Lord thank you for the cool wind.
While the road from Kampala to Gulu deteriorated into barely a path, the highway connecting Kampala and Jinga is two-lanes of blacktop that dissects rolling hills covered in emerald tea fields. The beauty of the countryside is only disturbed by a series of ongoing (and highly unfortunate) beer billboards dotting the roadside with poorly translated English. “More is extra” they read with a smiling consumer. All I can think is how I don’t want this precious country to fall prey to the commercialism that has ravaged mine. Uganda has lost generations to war and genocide but I fear the infection of success and money could take just as much. Ugandans don’t care about material possessions as much as we do. They care about family, faith and friends.
The edge of Jinja comes into view. It looks positively modern with gas stations on every corner and businesses with slick facades. This could be Any City, USA. We across a small dam and weave through a neighborhood that mirrors any suburb with modest houses and lush landscapes before landing at a small parking lot. A short walk down a cement pathway and we’re standing beside the mouth of the world’s largest river. Welcome to the Nile.
Here at its origin, where the water spills from Lake Victoria, the Nile flows in blue-green motion. Every National Geographic documentary I’ve ever seen shows the river as a muddy, slow-moving lagoon infested with crocodiles. That’s on the north end near Egypt after the river has widened, slowed and collected thousands of miles of dirt along its journey.
Make no mistake, this end of the Nile still contains predators. Pretty much everything in its water is poisonous, vicious or finds you tasty, but here at the mouth, the river is a stunning visual.
Our group drinks in long moments of awe, watching in silence as the current swishes by. The water we see in this moment will travel more than 4,000 miles before it dumps into the Mediterranean Sea. They say if you throw a bottle into the Nile at its source, it will take three to four months before it reaches its delta.
This is yet another moment of humility. One cannot help but feel small standing next to the world’s longest river, knowing that it is the life-giving artery for an entire continent, knowing that it has been running since before the days of Moses, knowing that it will continue long after we’re all dust. Of course, watching the river is only part of the experience. Our group heads down to a dock for a boat tour. This would be the first of two boating adventures onto the Nile during this day. This one with an actual boat, the next one with something that was more canoe-like.
While we strapped on our lifejackets and snapped photos, I could only think that if I fell into the Nile this lifejacket was wearing me for projection. The boat is large enough for our group and had a canopy (Gingers always appreciate shade). Our guide – a humorless man who proves any job can become routine – revved the two-horse motor and we pushed away from the shore.
The engine made a sick putt, putt, putt sound like a lawnmower chocking on the last few drops of gas. This, of course, filled me with complete confidence. What could go wrong? It is only the longest river in the world, and we do have an engine that is the horse power equivalent of Eeyore. Still, I said nothing.
We glided across the surface to the far bank, snapping photos of large white birds, monkeys and sizable lizards warming in the sun. Dense green vegetation overhung the banks and sprouted from small rocky islands in the middle of the river. From bank to bank, I estimated the width of the Nile to be a few hundred yards (but to be fair my powers of estimation rank only slightly higher than my power to fly).
Soon, our guide, who had been giving us his best monotone script reading while dozing in the back, aimed the boat directly toward the mouth of Lake Victoria and pushed the engine to its max. The gentle putt, putt, putt turned into a strained putt, putt, putt as we pressed through the current. Clearly, this was our moment.
Because this is one body of water flowing into another body of water you’d need a sign to demarcate the exact moment Lake Victoria becomes the Nile River. Conveniently enough they put one up. There standing in the middle of the river is a blue metal sign that gives visitors the pure satisfaction of knowing that they had been exactly at the mouth of the Nile River. Thank you Uganda Department of Tourism for playing to my OCD.
We took more photos like the tourists we were, and soon the boat glided back to the dock. We grabbed a few more photos next to the giant signs, piled back into the van and headed for Wildwaters, which I had neither taken the time to envision or formulated an expectation about. All I knew was that we were eating lunch there and I was finally hungry.
We drove for half an hour weaving through a maze of bumpy, back roads before stopping by another Nile River photo op. Here the river had narrowed and raced over falls. If you wanted to experience the sheer power of the Nile, this was your spot. Back in the van and down a few more jagged roads, we finally came to a green gate with a guard shack. They checked our reservation and opened the gate which wasn’t quite the size of double doors and took all of Joe’s considerable skill to squeeze us through. It was in this moment that I truly began to consider our destination. Clearly Wildwater would have water and it would be wild, so I asked the others for more details. Turns out, it is a lodge, a very nice lodge on a forested, private island located in the middle of the Nile. Yes, in the middle of the Nile. There is only one way in or out to Wildwater – canoe. We divided up into two groups and we were carefully paddled across the Nile to the lodge. From the dock there was an extensive labyrinth of wooden walkways that led to private bungalows right on the river’s edge.
Just imagine the Swiss Family Robinson’s treehouse, now lower it to the ground, add luxury finishes and a wait staff. That’s Wildwaters.
We landed in a larger, central area that housed the lodge’s restaurant and main facility. We were escorted to our own private bungalow just a few yards from the roaring Nile. Two of the four walls opened so you could absorb the view – one from a couch, another from a long table.
Lunch was marvelous – more for the company than the food – and we continued to laugh and tease each other. I was also initiated into the Wildwaters club. Any newbie who goes to the bathroom at Wildwaters has to pass by a series of African tribal masks. You see them but you don’t think much of them. That is until you open the bathroom door to return to the table and find Derrick wearing one to scare you. I jumped. Lianna – his partner in crime – snapped a blurry photo and we all laughed.
Soon, the meal was done and we were headed back to Kampala. The conversation in the car ebbed and flowed, and soon I found myself lost in thought. This would be one of those days I would never forget. I had just been on the mighty Nile River – twice. I had dined in paradise. As I turned to view my tired fellow travels in the van, I saw friends that I hoped I’d have forever. We returned to our Ugandan home, and said our goodbyes. I had 24 hours until to my flight home.
No words can express my joy for coming to Uganda. Likewise, I cannot fully express how I feel about leaving – sad, anxious about travel, not ready for the adventure to be over, so ready to be home.
Just one more day.
P.S. – One last quick story from the day: As we hit the edge of Kampala on our return trip, there was a small parade of people marching down a side street. Clearly, the young man at the front of the parade was being celebrated. I inquired about the parade. Derrick and Joe both smiled and then explained that this was a male circumcision parade. I blinked about 90 times as my brain processed both the act and the need to celebrate it so publically. Everyone waited for my response. I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think I could find an appropriate greeting card for that.” Great memory.