There’s a man at the side of the red dirt track wielding a machete and leading three bleating goats who stop to eat banana leaves. It’s Sunday and many of the villagers are at church, but some children smile and wave. “Mzungu!” they shout, a friendly term for “white person”. We’re outside a village school that’s daubed with murals denoting the alphabet: B for buffalo, M for mountain.
We drive on through woodland, the trilling of exotic birds and screeching of monkeys rivalled only by the chukkachukkachukka of our transport. Soon we’re on a path hacked through a field of maize; the plants tower above us.
Our guide, John Aegesa, is chauffeuring me on a machine that looks like the offspring of a lawn mower and a juvenile tractor, and I’m clinging to his back. Welcome to a self-drive guided ATV quad-bike safari near Jinja, Uganda.
Jinja sits on the northern shores of Lake Victoria, 50 miles east of the capital, Kampala. It’s a stopover town famous as the historic source of the Nile. But above all, it’s the adrenaline hotspot of East Africa; the place to set your pulse racing by white water rafting, kayaking, bungee jumping, jet boating, body surfing and paddle boarding.
Earlier that day we’d arrived at All Terrain Adventures (atadventures.com), an activity centre in Bujagali village, 10 minutes’ drive from Jinja.
“You will get dusty,” owner “PK”, a New Zealander, warned us. “Alternatively you can do Grade Four rafting if you want. Grade Five, you die.”
We settled for staying alive and quad biking. “Your bike will roll over if you race around corners,” bellowed PK. “Leave a reasonable gap.”
Ignoring this salient advice, I moved my vehicle closer to my daughter’s to decipher her bumper sticker, inadvertently clipping her rear. “Don’t hit me,” it read — which is how I came to be riding with John.
We started our ride by following the Nile downstream to Bujagali Falls — an area that formerly inluded raging waterfalls and rapids but is now a lake that’s as calm as a chapatti after a hydroelectric dam built in 2011 buried half the rapids under a giant reservoir.
As we wound on through the farmland, forests and villages of rural Uganda, John, who was born and educated in a nearby village, morphed into a Wiki on wheels of local info. An old lady sifts grain on a wicker tray. “That’s millet,” he said, “for making porridge or the local brew.”
We stopped in Kyabirwa by a house made from mud and eucalyptus sticks, a mango tree and coffee plants adorning its dirt garden. “It’s a family home,” John explained. “The outhouse is for the sons. They’ll live there until they marry and put up their own house.”
We peered into the nearby church, where old tinsel decorations replaced bleeding Christs and corrugated roofing sheets took the place of ceiling frescoes. The congregation, all in their Sunday best, turned to smile. “Come in. Would you like to do fellowship with us?” asked a lady in a tribal-print skirt.
We’re lured instead by children having a kick-about around a cow that’s tethered mid-pitch. Six junior spectators hop aboard my daughter’s quad bike for a field circuit of giggles at 1.24 mph. All too soon it’s time to head back to the bike park.
Next day we go “floating” – a sort of geriatric-cum-family version of rafting (raftuganda.com). We bob beside fishermen casting for Nile perch and yellow fish while kingfishers watch from mangrove trees. We’re floating calmly down the Nile when suddenly it happens — we hit rapids. We brace ourselves for a bumpy ride, only to discover they’re only Grade Two. We bounce gently, then float on happily once more.
Regardless, that’s enough adrenaline for one day. My favourite activity? Indulging in an alfresco bath, which I do back at Wildwaters Lodge on Muyanja Island, 16 miles from Jinja and accessible only by boat.
Jinja may be the adrenaline hotspot of East Africa but it’s not half bad for relaxation either.