(This correspondent during a recent visit to the Nile Porch, with the new Bujagali Lake in the background)
When in November 2011 the dam of the new Bujagali hydro electric power plant was finally completed and closed, the water levels of the Nile behind the dam wall immediately started to rise, first almost unnoticed, then gradually and in the end quite progressively, drowning the rapids and smaller falls upstream before eventually reaching one of Ugandas best known whitewater rapids and falls, Bujagali itself.
Long the centre of adventure tourism activities, with two rafting companies having their base right there and overnight facilities for overland truck tourists and backpackers at the Nile River Camp, and of course the rather up-market Nile Porch with its restaurant The Black Lantern, the area underwent a dramatic change, at least as far as the river is concerned. The Nile, formerly gushing across rocks and bolder down rapids and falls is now showing itself more like a lake, created behind the dam wall further downstream.
It is at the Nile Porch I spent a few days recently to let this new experience sink in, the sound of rushing and gushing white waters from the falls below gone forever and substituted by the subdued noises of the African night and the now audible calls in the early hours of the day of over 150 bird species identified from and at the safari styled resort.
The immediate area around Bujagali Falls was in the past literally inundated with visitors every day, many local Ugandans especially on weekends but also hordes of wagenis, aka tourists, who came by 4×4 as part of their Ugandan safari, or by boda boda from the Jinja Kampala road roundabout some 7 + kilometres away, where they got off overland busses from across East Africa to experience the thrills of white water rafting, boating, quad biking, horseback safaris along the river banks or bungee jumping with a little dip into the Nile, as in being baptized by the worlds longest river.
Today, the spectacle of white water rafting has moved to below the Bujagali Falls, in a way a loss of attraction as the rafts no longer race over the rapids which are now submerged of course, but that has given way to an entire range of new opportunities, which previously did not exist.
The tourism stakeholders, led in an initiative to turn the wider Bujagali area into a conservation zone by Bingo, aka Frasier Small of Nalubale Rafting, also the owner of the Nile Porch and its adjoining operations like the Nile River Camp and his wife Hannah, are keen to see the lake zone which has now emerged to become a tourism hub in the future, working hand in hand with Bujagali Energy Limited, in short BEL, which owns and operates the new hydro electric power plant that so fundamentally changed the goal posts for adventure tourism along the upper Nile valley.
Proposals are now being fine-tuned to get formal government backing for the establishment of a conservation zone or a nature reserve encompassing the entire river banks between Owen Falls and the new dam and regulating fishing, so as to turn the new lake into a new centre for tourism activities, albeit different of course from the previous adrenalin rush activities.
Bird watching on the calm waters of the river / lake is now possible and boat trips with expert bird guides on board are on offer every morning and evening, when the birds are at the most active. Sport fishing too is being promoted but here a regime of regulations is needed to ensure that local fishermen stop using drag nets and participate in fish conservation and support restocking, and not, as seems presently the case, fish the area empty. Such unsustainable behaviour will leave them in the end with nothing while also impacting on the potential revenues of sports fishing tourists would come for and pay handsomely for the privilege to pull a large Nile perch from the waters. Even house-boating is under consideration, and what a thrill that will be when available, to spend a night actually on the Nile, which would add another unique attraction to Uganda.
NEMA, Ugandas environmental watchdog, has already signaled that they will support a private sector led initiative which would be able to enforce a halt to cultivation on the river banks, stop the greedy fishing with explosives and illegal nets and through re-forestation halt soil erosion.
Hand in hand with BEL, land owners along the river corridor from the former Bujagali Falls to the dam and operators of tourism related businesses, the initiative, provisionally called Nile River Guardians, would seek to incorporate the local communities and in particular the community elders, to create a completely new and re-invented hub of activities, where the loss of the rafting has led to the creation of new opportunities, from which all can benefit if properly done.
While the roll out of NRG, or whichever name is ultimately chosen by a united front of stakeholders, will be taking some time it will nevertheless be interesting to see how the concept of conservation for the sake of promoting new business opportunities will take root and in what format it will present itself in coming months.
One prediction though has come true, sadly, which is that the intransigence of the Uganda Power Transmission Companys chosen path of the high voltage power line has irreparably destroyed part of the unique ambience, and the sights, as the monstrous pylons run only a short distance from the river bank itself, instead of, as had been repeatedly pointed out to them, putting it half a kilometre or so back along the main road between Jinja an Kayunga. There, a great potential has been destroyed by bureaucrats with frankly no clue of what they have missed out on, which is making the best possible use of the land near the river. This has now been literally made impossible as under or near the high voltage lines, no sensible investor would nor could put up weekend homes, time shares, restaurants, entertainment complexes or even a casino with an attached resort hotel. Government planners here must bear their share of the blame for that, as a little more thoughtfulness and looking ahead and not that they were not all told of the stark consequences of running the power line so close to the river could have made such a significant, and for certain profitable impact on the development of a real estate towards a comprehensive tourism hub along the upper Nile valley. Water under the bridge, or rather water into the lake that is now, but these sentiments will for long linger and are evidence, that bureaucrazy pun fully intended has claimed the scalp of what could have been a purpose built centre of hospitality and tourism. That ugly sight apart though, coming to Jinja and staying at the Nile Porch, or for the more budget minded at the Nile River Camp, is certainly a preferred weekend or even mid week getaway, considering that it is only 100 kilometres from the capital Kampala and reachable on decent tarmac roads except for the last few kilometres on recently maintained murram. Visit Uganda 2012 and beyond comes to mind, and this part of the Pearl of Africa surely has its appeal and charm, inspite of the knock government functionaries have dealt it here with their lack of vision.
Visit www.nileporch.com for more information, also on related activities at Mt. Elgon vis a vis trout fishing and the sister Sipi River Lodge. And of course do visit www.softpowereducation.com to see what this NGO has done in the wider area around Bujagali for schools and education through donations and volunteers.