One of Uganda’s largest town, Jinja, lies about 80km east of Kampala, overlooking the point where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria (the Source of The Nile). And it is the mighty river rather than the moderately interesting town that attracts visitors to Jinja.
The thrilling series of grade-five rapids below Bujagali Falls, a magnet for adrenaline tourists, has emerged as perhaps the single most popular tourist activity in Uganda, arguably surpassing even the mountain gorillas of the southwest.
There is also a certain poignancy attached to standing on the slopes from where Speke first identified that geographical Holy Grail which, less than a decade earlier, had lured an obsessed (and hopelessly misdirected) Livingstone to a feverish death near Lake Bangweulu in Zambia.
No less impressive is the knowledge that the water flowing past these green slopes will eventually drain into the Mediterranean, following a 6,500km journey through the desert wastes of Sudan and Egypt.
Jinja has an attractively lush location on the northern shore of Lake Victoria above the Ripon Falls, identified by Speke in 1862 as the source of the Nile, but submerged following the construction of the Owen Falls Dam in the 1950s. The colonial town was formerly the industrial heartland of Uganda, with a current population of 300,000 people.
Although its population makes it one of the largest urban centers in Uganda, Jinja is far from a metropolis that straddles the source of the Nile. First-time visitors wandering around Jinja’s compact, low-rise town center might reasonably reflect on what they can expect of the country’s third-largest town!
Jinja suffered severely during the Amin years and subsequent periods of economic and political turmoil. Still, a more recent economic upswing has been mirrored by the emergence of the river corridor as a major tourism center in the region, emphasizing adrenalin-oriented activities.
The town center admittedly boasts little of genuine historical note, though some fine colonial-era Asian architecture — epitomized by the restored 1919 Madvhani House on Main Street — complemented by a spread of thickly vegetated residential suburbs carved from the surrounding jungle, does give Jinja a compelling sense of place.
Getting There and Away
Jinja lies along the surfaced Nairobi—Kampala road, 82km east of Kampala and 131km west of Tororo. Owing to heavy traffic in Kampala and slow trucks along the way, the journey in a private vehicle now takes almost two hours.
On the outskirts of Jinja, the road from Kampala crosses the Owen Falls Dam, shortly after which there is a roundabout where a right turn leads to the town center and a left turn to Bujagali Falls.
Regular minibus-taxis to Jinja leave Kampala from the old taxi park throughout the day. Tickets cost UGX 10,000. There is also plenty of public transport from Jinja to Tororo and to Mbale via Iganga.
All of the reputable rafting companies offer a free transfer from Kampala as part of their rafting package. Many regular commuters between Kampala and Jinja now prefer a northern route via Gayaza and Kayunga to the increasingly slow and congested main Jinja highway. The alternative is 30km longer, but the road allows a quiet, safe, and enjoyable drive, while the journey takes the same time.
To get to Gayaza, head north out of Kampala through either Wandegere junction or Mulago hospital roundabout. These roads meet after 1km at a roundabout where you bear right (turn left, and you’ll head to northern Uganda). Alternatively, head north to Gayaza from Ntinda past the Ndere Troupe Centre. The initial section leaving Kampala is pretty hectic. Still, beyond Gayaza, a quiet road runs all the way to Jinja (the road emerging onto the Kampala—Jinja highway opposite Nile Breweries at Owen Falls Dam). This road is recommended to travelers headed to Kalagala Falls, the Haven, and Hairy Lemon Island on the west bank of the Nile.