A tri-nation celebration: Part 1

Across cultures and ecosystems, Robert Upe takes a 2000-kilometre road trip through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

There's a thunderclap and in an instant raindrops the size of marbles are pelting down, turning the dusty red Ugandan soil to sticky mud. The storm soaks me faster than I can tie a shoelace.

Before the equatorial downpour, a drumming band had been playing in the sapping heat next to the rapids at Bujagali Falls on the White Nile, where crowds of tourists and locals come to see the death-defying "jerrycan kids". The drummers scatter, cowering from the rain under a thin canopy of trees, and the locals take off in their mini vans that slip sideways in the new mud on the rough road to the city of Jinja.

I'm left standing next to the river with the bare-chested kids who, daily, jump into the water and risk their lives for a few shillings from astonished onlookers. Clutching a plastic jerrycan, sometimes plugged watertight with only an avocado, these young men are washed through foaming rapids that flip rafts and are rated the highest degree of difficulty.

Rafting is big business in Jinja and the kids who plunge into the fast-flowing water are just a sideshow in the town, which was devastated in the 1970s by the country's brutal despot Idi Amin. Apart from expelling Asian business owners and sending Jinja into economic ruin, Amin's henchmen dumped so many bodies into the water that they clogged the Owen Falls Dam. It is a few kilometres up river from where the kids take their leap of faith and near Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile.

With a backward roll, I plunge into the river, but I'm not in it for the shillings.

The humidity is stifling during a three-hour raft trip on a section of the White Nile that is wide and languid. We float by small islands that provide sanctuary for kingfishers and cheeky weaver birds that flit in and out of small holes in their oval nests dangling from branches.

Our guide steers us through mild whitewater and tells how rafting, adventure tourism and an influx of backpackers have buoyed Jinja. Beyond Bujagali Falls, he says, the White Nile provides the biggest, most thrilling and safest grade-five rapids in the world.

A new and controversial dam will flood some of the land beside the White Nile and change the flow of the river. It will force the jerrycan kids to find a new place to perform but rafting will be largely unaffected, operators claim.

Our rafting guide is unflappable until police fine him 40,000 Ugandan shillings ($13.50) for carrying the rubber raft on the roof of his mini van. This is something he does almost every day on the same road past the same police patrol. The raft is well tethered and doesn't look hazardous, certainly not like the clapped-out motorbike that rattles past with six crates of chickens and two chairs in a wobbly stack. Oh, and there goes another motorbike with three long benches teetering across the seat and into the line of traffic. It's not the money that bothers him but the day of red tape that will be required to pay the fine.

I'm on a new 2000-kilometre road trip with adventure-travel company Peregrine Adventures and along the way there have been frequent heavy-handed police patrols like the one that catches our rafting guide. The police lay metal spikes on the road to slow the traffic at their roadblocks in Kenya and Uganda and sometimes have AK-47 rifles slung across their backs, but mostly they smile and allow our 15-seat overland vehicle past without question.

Spikes aside, until about three years ago it would have been difficult to undertake a road trip like this because of bureaucratic pig-headedness. "It was a nightmare to cross the borders [between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda]," says Peregrine's man on the ground in this part of Africa, Kristofer Zachrisson. "It would take five hours to get through a border crossing but now there is better co-operation and a push to revive an East African community. There's even talk of a joint visa."

Our road trip starts in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where we leave behind the honking horns of peak hour for serene Lake Nakuru in the Rift Valley, about 160 kilometres from the city. This lake is full of honking pelicans and pretty pink flamingoes. There could be a million of them. Possibly 2 million.

The birds aren't alone. There are giraffes, rhinoceros, baboons, gazelles and buffaloes in the national park around the salt water. As we watch three lions stalk a baby buffalo separated from its herd, I berate myself for not buying a tie from a roadside hawker earlier in the day. I hardly need a tie on a game drive but they cost a measly 35¢ each.

Our guide for the cross-country trip, Charles Nyaga, also known as Mr Charles, says many Kenyans live on the equivalent of $1 a day; the government aims to have clean water - and computer literacy - for everyone by 2030. I have already seen evidence of the living conditions of some, as children scoop water from culverts or puddles and desperate men run beside vehicles to try to sell sweetcorn, charred on roadside fires, for 5¢ a cob.

The lions sit in a row next to a tree and are in no hurry for the baby buffalo, so our driver, Anthony Kabanya, aka Mr Anthony, starts the truck and we idle off for new adventures.

Come back tomorrow and read Part 2 of Robert's incredible piece about our Best of East Africa tour.

Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.

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