There is a wave, far from passable roads and deep in the center of Africa, where those who seek to become the best of the best freestyle kayakers come to train.

HAIRY LEMON ISLAND, Uganda — As the landlocked country of Uganda embarks on an ambitious national works project to construct a hydroelectric dam across the Nile River, one of its economic lifelines and national treasures is being forever altered.

For millenniums the Nile has had Class 5 rapids near its source, making it Uganda’s premier tourist attraction. At Bujagali Falls, where the 250-megawatt power station is being built, hundreds of tourists once churned through rambunctious blue waves as they experienced one of the top white-water rafting spots in the world.

Today that postcard spot has been swallowed silent. The dam has changed the river’s rhythm. But there is a wave that remains.

Some live in a nearby village, scraping by on about a dollar a day, sleeping in a mud hut they share with others and their kayaks, picking at tomatoes and rice. All for a chance to ride the wave.

Uganda’s Nile River basin attracts bungee jumpers and pied kingfisher birds, mystics and quad bikers — and thrill seekers who cling to a stretch of craggy shoreline at one particularly turbulent patch of water. These are the world’s top freestyle kayakers.

Kayakers come from around the world to train on the Nile Special.

Each winter dozens of them descend on a tiny palm-fringed island in the middle of the Nile to try out their skills on a single wave, called the Nile Special, or, simply, the Wave. Freestyle kayaking, a hybrid akin to skateboarding and surfing, has Olympic aspirations, and there may be no icon in this extreme sport quite like the Nile Special.

It is a whipping, meters-tall rapid that surges year round. Freestyle kayakers surf it like a skateboarder would a half-pipe; flipping, spinning and grabbing hang time. Children in tattered clothing watch from the shore. While most big-time freestyle kayaking spots liven up only under certain conditions, the Nile Special is open for business 365 days a year. Over the years, between its warm weather and inexpensive lodging, Uganda has become the No. 1 stop on an annual freestyle kayak circuit that includes Nepal, Norway, Chile, the Alps and Canada.

But it now lives under the shadow of the dam. Bujagali Falls, too, was once a premier kayaking spot. The Nile Special has not yet been adversely affected, but the potential consequences of further industrialization of the Nile — an economic lifeline for numerous nations in Africa — loom. While fears grow over the river’s future, kayakers’ affection and reverence for the spot grow as well.

“Technically, this is training,” said James Bebbington, a freestyle world champion who recently spent three months living in a tent on the island, known as Hairy Lemon. “But it’s hard to call doing the Wave training because it’s so fun.”

At the bar at the Hairy Lemon, reggae plays from the stereo and kayakers unwind with beers and cigarettes as they edit kayaking videos on laptops or chat in the auburn dusk. In a quiet corner, Bebbington, a Hairy Lemon regular who exudes a superstar’s aura, sits among friends, quietly eating a tomato. He has been a raw vegan for years, he said, and it helps him perform.

The Hairy Lemon is run by a zany South African former park ranger who has built it Robinson Crusoe style with lookouts and lever systems, a backpackers’ paradise where kayakers come to stay for months at a time. While most stops on the kayaking circuit are besieged by tourists, the kayakers have the Nile Special to themselves.

There is no Internet, and electricity and cellphone service are scarce. The idea, kayakers said, is pretty simple: live, breathe and surf the Nile Special.

“It’s a pretty small community,” said Maria Stern, 20, a kayaker from Canada who has come to Uganda for the last two winters and describes herself as a relative newcomer. “Kayakers live in a kayaking world.”

Freestyle kayaking is not a lucrative sport. Its top performers survive on a shoestring budget, and when they are not training they often earn income from arranging rafting tours.

During the winter, Uganda offers a perfect opportunity to glide through the low season back home while practicing on one of the best waves available, and having a tropical vacation to boot. Kayakers bring their own kayaks and gear to Uganda, and as much cash as they can muster. Some even forgo staying on Hairy Lemon to live in a nearby village.

They often visit the Nile Special up to three times each day for two hours at a time.

“Just relaxing, smoking some weed, surfing,” explained Mischa Stas, a kayaker from Novosibirsk, Siberia, while waiting for his turn on the rocks by the Nile Special, “running rapids, dunking waterfalls — you come here.”

Stas grew up rafting Russia’s icy Ob River, one of the longest rivers in the world, but said the wave on the Nile was one of the best.

“You can do huge waves, huge moves,” he said.

Like most of the roughly 15 Russian and Ukrainian kayakers who spent the winter in Uganda, Stas eschewed the relative expense of staying at the Hairy Lemon — about $22 per night — opting instead for a mud hut in Mattung, a one-road village up the hill from the Nile Special.

Inside the dry-caked walls he keeps his toiletries, canned food, a book and his kayak.

“It’s a very different life,” said Anna Ruda, 24, of Ukraine, who was on her second trip to Uganda and living in the village. She said it was all she could afford.

The hydroelectric dam will not do much for the 97 percent of the Ugandan population not connected to electricity, like the people of Mattung. As for the presence of kayaking superstars in their village, that has not done much, either, despite river-rafting’s bringing in millions of tourists’ dollars to the local economy.

“It has been good; now we are familiar with the white man,” said William Bossa, 28, a teacher from Mattung. “Before, you know, we see mzungu in films,” he said, using the African term for a person of foreign descent. “Shooting, explosions — we feared them.”

“Economically,” he added, “there has been no advantage.”

____________________________________________

Source: The New York Times - http://www.nytimes.com

3 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.