The Kiwi connection to Uganda's Wildwater Lodge is as intriguing as the river it sits beside, writes Amy Fallon

The roar of the Nile's rapids is thunderous. But as I listen in my clawfoot bath to the water crashing just metres away, part of me wants to drift off to sleep. The other part wants to stay awake to soak up the surrounding pure paradise.

"I love the noise in the same way that I revel in a good storm," says Cam McLeay, the New Zealand owner of this little slice of heaven in the middle of nowhere: Uganda's multiple award-winning Wildwaters Lodge.

In 1996, Cam led a team of adventurers on the first known descent of the river in Uganda, before co-founding a rafting company there. A decade later, he led the first expedition to trace the Nile through five countries, from its mouth to its source in Rwanda's Nyungwe rainforest.


Having spent so much time on the world's longest river, at some 6650km, Cam, who moved to the east African country in 2001, became passionate about preserving as much of it as possible while also supporting locals.

He decided to build a lodge, aiming to employ workers from surrounding communities on construction and to run the resort long-term. About 150 local people joined in the daunting work of constructing Wildwaters, 90km from the capital Kampala, between two extreme rapids.

Most of the materials, including gum poles up to 8m-long, were ferried to Munyanja in wooden canoes that guests today use to reach the resort, opened in 2010.

"We used very few drawings, and the design constantly evolved," says Cam's brother, Brad, co-architect, engineer and project manager. "One of the most rewarding aspects of the construction was learning from, and empowering, our local staff. They all left our project with new skills and a remarkable collection of ideas for their future."

The construction presented challenges. At one stage the brothers watched a boat loaded with 12 poles and workers hit a rock, tipping everything and everyone overboard. "We were concerned we would lose the men," says Cam.

On another occasion, Brad was forced to decapitate a Jameson's Mamba threatening staff. Today, the elevated wooden walkways linking the lodge's 10 suites allow snakes free movement across the island, but they rarely make an appearance. But, as guests weave through the lush, acacia-strewn grounds, they can encounter African grey parrots, African fish eagles or crested cranes (Uganda's national bird). More than 50 bird species have been identified, and a White-throated cormorant frequently surfs the rapids in front of the lodge's restaurant.

Wildwaters' suites have local names and boast spacious beds and washbasins carved from Munyanja's pink granite. Cam's wife, Kate, and Uganda-based designer Victoria Evans, were responsible for the lodge's decor.

The restaurant's setting beside one of the two rapids is dramatic yet peaceful, inviting guests to gaze upon the rolling hills across the Nile while dining on a five-course meal. Dishes such as seared tilapia topped with lemongrass and ginger, plus ravioli stuffed with potato, roasted red onion and thyme, entertain palates.

Besides sipping sundowners in the lodge's rock pool, guests might be pampered with a spa or facial, enjoy guided walks around the island, or share a beer with locals on the mainland. More adventurous visitors can brave the rapids, go for a jetboat ride, or bungy jump over the source of the Nile.

Cam and Kate now live in Havelock North, but return to the continent, where in 2010 Cam discovered one of the original boats used in the classic 1951 Hollywood film The African Queen. The old, diesel-powered vessel was found on a Nairobi garden trailer. Cam "took a punt on the investment" and had her restored.

Today, the boat's skipper, dressed as Humphrey Bogart, runs 45-minute tours of the river. Though my trip revealed no sign of the 2000 cigarettes or tinned grub that Bogart boasts about on screen, I was thrilled with the obligatory two cases of Gordon's gin kept in stock. The highlight of my entire weekend was taking a turn at the tiller of the African Queen, in the manner of screen legend Katharine Hepburn.

"The African Queen evokes images of a bygone era in Africa where game roamed free and our impact on the continent was much less significant than it is today," says Cam.

About half the visitors to Wildwaters are locals, says the owner, although international tourists increasingly are drawn to the lodge for its intimate, secluded nature and stylish appeal.

Famous guests include Joanna Lumley, who stayed in the uncompleted Wildwaters while filming her Nile TV series, and All Black Conrad Smith. Through rafting company Adrift, Cam has also hosted the Duke of Cambridge, and more recently was involved in Top Gear's east Africa special.

In 2013, Wildwaters was presented with the TripAdvisor Excellence award, which recognises accommodations, attractions and restaurants that consistently show hospitality excellence.

It's the sound of the water that stays with you. Some guests have even remarked that a month after leaving, they can still hear the turbulent rapids, proving that although a stay at Wildwaters may fly by too quickly, it's an experience that lingers for a long time to come.


Getting there:

has connections to Entebbe Airport from Dubai.

flies in from London.