Have you ever tried Stand-up paddle boarding or paddle surfing, better known as SUP? It’s a great outdoor activity for those who enjoy the water, even for beginners. It can be part of an intense full-body workout, a meditative yoga alternative, or even a competitive sport in some regions. I hadn’t until my good friend Anna, who’s German, sporty, and a great travel buddy, suggested it as an intriguing water activity to try out during some free time during our travels.
How It Started
We were traveling from my hometown Nairobi in Kenya, to Kigali in Rwanda by road and exploring ‘what to dos’ while touring the East African region. It would take us at least 24 hours to travel out of Kenya by bus, through Uganda, and into Rwanda. It sounded rather long and tiring, so we figured a day’s stop in Uganda would be an ideal break.
That’s how we happened upon SUP as an off-the-beaten-path water excursion. It would be in Jinja town, located at the source of the longest river in the world, The Nile. It sounded exotic and looked fun too. Ever the curious adventurer, I thought, why not? And thumbed up for her to make the reservation.
Where to Paddle Board
Jinja is a small, quiet town about 80km east of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and lies by the fresh waters of world-famous Lake Victoria, the largest in Africa and shared by 3 countries (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania). Because of this, it’s been deemed the “adventure capital of East Africa”. If you choose not to do paddle boarding you can choose other water activities to do, such as white water rafting or kayaking on the water. You can get here by coach, matatu (minivan tax), or motorcycle taxi known as boda boda, from Kampala.
When you arrive at the site offering the SUP activity, you will be delighted to discover it’s based at a fenced-in campsite right by the shores of the lake. As you look around with eager curiosity, you’ll spy the waters sparkling blue, as they peep through the many tall trees surrounding the lush green expansive grounds within the property. A few scattered tents may already be pitched up, evidence of campers making good use of the open spaces. If you’re lucky the sun will be out and the climate fairly cool, an ideal day for you to embark on this exciting new activity.
Once you are shown to the cabin where you can confirm your booking, you will be introduced to your guides who are experienced paddlers and who will direct you to the storage area where all manner of water sport paraphernalia are hanging, to select the proper gear that will fit you. SUP is just one of many other activities they offer at the lodge. After changing into your swimwear, you should be all settled in for the orientation session before starting.
Rules & Regulations of Paddle Boarding
Like most activities, the expert guides make it sound fun and look easy during the demonstrations. It should take just about 30 minutes and will include lots of personal safety precautions and how to ease rescue operations in the water for yourselves and the instructors if needed. You will be reminded to relax and have fun since they’ll be with you throughout your time in the water.
Once you gathered your helmets, life jackets, and paddles, the guides help carry the paddle boards, and will all be loaded into a small saloon vehicle parked nearby. You might need to squeeze yourselves tight inside (2 guides, yourselves, and the driver). There, you’ll set off for the start point about 30 minutes away, slowly descending downhill to get nearer to the water’s edge. On arrival, you will offload your gear, complete your wetsuit dress up, and complete the short walk down a rather soggy, muddy path into the waiting boats bobbing on the river shores.
What you learn from Paddle Boarding
Here’s what I learned during that day and you will too most likely, by the end of the two and half hour activity:
1. Paddle boarding is best done in calm or gently moving waters. It’s a balancing act once you get on the paddle board and set your stance, so you want to select waters with slow-moving currents. It partly helps if you move along gently for maneuverability so at least you won’t fall back right back into the water!
2. It isn’t as easy as it looks. Like any sports activity you try for the first time, it’s going to take a few failed attempts before you get it (for most people); If you are agile however you may start easily and get on like a pro, hardly falling back into the water at all. I got on and off (er… several times!) before I got the hang of it. Better yet, follow the next instruction properly.
3. Once on board, relax and look straight ahead (not down). If your mind is anything like mine, fear might play a few tricks on you. When you succeed in getting (and staying) on the paddle board, don’t try to balance by looking down. This causes you to focus too much and your body will follow your eyes right back into the water! Ha-ha! So, look straight ahead of you and use the paddling motion to propel yourself forward.
4. Keep the paddle lightly in the water, near the edge of the paddle board to your left or right, and stroke it back and forth, in short-span motions rather than wide. Keep standing straight, feet slightly wide apart to keep your balance.
5. Watch out for the rapids. Since the waters may appear calm, and you’re keeping your eyes steady looking ahead, you might miss a rough patch of water and glide right into it. This happened to me and I fell in unexpectedly (really?).
6. Stay calm if you fall in. If you panic, you may start battling against the current to stay afloat, as the rough waters will drag you down under and up again repeatedly. Remember to follow the safety instructions: relax and point your feet forward to allow the current to carry you out of the mini-whirlpool, and onward to calmer waters. Phew! By then the rescue boat will be beside you, with the guide first confirming you are okay and then connecting you to your rescued paddle board, after it most likely drifted away with the current.
7. There is no elegance in learning. There’s no way of getting onto the paddle board apart from crawling on, trying to keep a grip, keep it floating, and trying your best not to slip off the slippery wetness everywhere right back into the water!
8. It’s best if you know how to swim. It isn’t a requirement to participate in this activity (because you’ll have a life jacket on throughout), but since you’re likely to fall in the water at least several times as you learn, it may be advisable to have some basic swimming skills. This will keep the panic levels low, especially if you are in a wild & deep water body like a river or lake.
9. Relax and have fun! Ultimately, the idea is to enjoy yourself with this water activity while learning, and once you get the hang of it, indulge yourself fully. Eventually, you will be able to propel yourself calmly, while keeping balance long enough for you to become aware of the beauty surrounding the area in the form of dense green forests lining the banks on either side, clear blue skies above, and the calming silence of the serene environment.
Two and half hours will fly by too quickly, and by the time you are gliding back to the endpoint a few miles downstream, you’ll most likely be reluctant to get off your paddle boards and back into the water for a short swim to shore. Back on land, toast your accomplishment for the day with refreshingly cold beers in agreement with everyone that it was worthwhile.
If you’re planning a trip to Uganda, consider including this in your to-do bucket list in the future, either as a once-in-a-lifetime excursion or as a fun outing to do every so often with friends or family for a little diversity in your travel adventures.