Without the help of a child, we would not have found Itanda Falls. Known to kayakers and rafters, including Prince William of Great Britain, this stretch of the Nile is easily one of the most hidden jewels of Uganda. Few traveller guidebooks mention this spectacular set of rapids, waterfalls and the hillsides around it. Even fewer know how to get there over land.
Our group had some luck, however. The first visit of the day was Bujagali Falls. At the entrance, we were warned by the groundskeeper that there was little to see because the dam upstream in Jinja had raised the water level and reduced Bujagali to a mere pittance of its former self.
Not believing, we paid the admission fee and headed down the road to see for ourselves. Bujagali was as described, and there was little beyond a few gurgles of white water where there had once been spectacular scenery.
And that is when the child arrived.
“If you want to see falls,” he said, “you need to go to Itanda.” The road to Itanda is not well marked, and we got lost several times along the way. It’s best navigated by asking locals for directions. And not everyone along these pot-holed, dusty red dirt roads is aware of Itanda. So you may have to ask for help more than once.
Without getting lost, the trip is 30km from Jinja or about 45 minutes.
Coming in on the east side of the Nile, you drive through a small forest that had no roads until the 1990s. The pathway was carved after many of the locals saw a white man for the first time in their lives and wondered what he was doing in the neighbourhood.
He was surveying, they said, for a location for a rafting business on the Nile. Itanda has three levels of rapids, including Grade 6, the most difficult, Grade 5 and Grade 4. It is a spectacular and dangerous place.
Local fishermen have died here, slipping on the moss that grows on the rocks just above the falls and tumbling headlong into the water that is estimated by locals at 100 meters deep. Whirlpools can drag one down 50 metres, according to journals kept by rafters, before letting go. Sharp rocks and the rocket-like current can trap even the most experienced.
On the red hillside overlooking Itanda, we met Matia Lukungu, the gatekeeper. In the month of July, he has registered about 130 visitors with few from other places outside of Uganda.
Those that visited from elsewhere– Ireland, India, USA, Canada – were with locals that had shown them the way. There are not many entries of foreign tourists on the list, but Matia is very proud that people are now coming.
This site, he said, was carved out because forest families were afraid that outsiders would take all of the revenue away from the area with their rafting businesses. They saw a need to tell the story around the falls and to provide a place to sell local goods.
Indeed, you can see the thatched huts of a hotel on the west side of the river from a wooden tower constructed at the foot of the entrance.
On Matia’s side of the river, there are small stands where local businesses sell souvenirs. Drummers and dancers entertain, and the weekends can be festive.
You can also get a real sense of the geography of the Nile. At this juncture, the river splits into two, dividing Central and Eastern Uganda. On the east side, the majority of the water plummets through Itanda. On the west, a shallow yet fast route goes around a large, densely forested island.
There are monkeys and baboons on the island, Matia notes They share the place with swimming birds, vultures and bats. The forest is so deep there that it would take days to clear even a small patch with a machete.
It gives a sense of what the eastern shore must have looked like about 20 years ago, before the people cut the trees, cleared the brush and chased away the animals.
Matia offers to guide us down the hillside to the falls. You can stand within a few feet of the crashing water at the first, most dangerous level. Water tumbles at you like it is coming from the highest waves of an ocean storm and then crashes within inches of your feet.
“The forest people had heard the falls for a long time,” Matia says. “But it was not until the 1980s that fishermen discovered them.” Further down the pathway beyond the top of the falls, there is a small fishing village carved out of the forest. Four huts—made of mud, sticks, metal and wood—shelter fishermen during the night as they await the early morning hours to cast their nets for Nile Perch and tilapia.
Not far from the huts, there is a walkway to a tree that overlooks the falls. At the tree’s base, the deep brown roots form a kneeling ground. It is a spot where locals come, says Matia, to ask God to heal them: “They call this ‘Blessed Place.’”
In the rafting journals, most of the writers talk about the thrills of Itanda after a day on the Nile. Many talk of overturning and close calls. Others talk about Murchison Falls, which is further down the Nile.
But for non-rafters, this is a sacred space in an old and sometimes forgotten part of the world. Once only a thunderous sound in the forest, Itanda is now a place that even children are talking about.
Go see it.
From Jinja: Go 13 kilometres north from the Amber Courts round about. The paved road will soon turn to a red dirt highway. Be careful of the potholes.
Take a left on Budondo Road and go 14 kilometres.
Take a left on Kabowa and go three kilometres
Take a left into the park on Buwala
If you get lost, stop and ask one of the friendly people along the road.
Sh1,000 for Ugandans
Sh3,000 for Non Ugandans