When I first got put on the Palm team, I was an up-and-coming freestyle kayaker who had just left home and high school. I could barely afford to feed myself, let alone pay for new kayaking equipment and I had spent many a session soaked, freezing cold and questioning whether ‘chasing your dreams’ was really all it was cracked up to be. I was lucky enough to get noticed by Palm’s marketing and team manager, Paul Robertson. From then on I had my hands on some of the best equipment on the market, which was absolutely life changing. Being warm and dry meant that I could kayak longer and progress much more. I owe a lot of my freestyle prowess in a hole to the dryness and warmth that the Palm Apex dry top afforded me.
Seven years on, Palm are still willing to help out an up-and-coming kayaker that is severely in need of some warm and dry kayaking gear. And there are few more deserving than my friend from Uganda, Sadat Kawawa. Sadat was about to embark on a trip to Iceland, which would be his first time so far from the Equator (and so close to the Arctic Circle). Keen to not see one of my friends become a human popsicle, I reached out to Palm to see if there was any way they could help. Two weeks later a brand new Palm Torrent suit was waiting for Sadat in Iceland.
Despite facing enormous challenges, Ugandan kayakers are amongst some of the worlds very best. With a smooth, powerful style and a frankly obscene level of comfort in some of the worlds biggest whitewater, Sadat is amongst one of the very best kayakers to ever come out of Uganda. I caught up with Sadat this summer to find out how he began kayaking and to see how he was adjusting to the difference in temperature and whitewater found in Iceland.
How old are you and where are you from?
I am twenty-five years old and I am from Uganda.
When and how did you start kayaking?
I began kayaking in 2008. When I was a young boy I would watch the kayakers running the rapids at Bujagali falls and thought to myself, ‘that could be me one day’. Unfortunately, despite my desires to begin kayaking, I couldn’t afford the equipment or pay for lessons. Still, I wanted to learn how to kayak more than anything and eventually I found a solution to my problem. I began working as a porter, carrying tourists kayaks to and from the river, rather than charge 500 shillings (10p in British money by current exchange rates – Ed) as others would, I would carry the kayaks for free in exchange for a 10-20 minute lesson and some time in their kayak
What do you like most about the sport?
I am in love with the feeling I get when I am flowing down the river or surfing, not thinking about anything but this beautiful moment that I am enjoying in nature.
Ugandan kayakers are earning themselves a reputation as some of the best kayakers in the world, especially on big water. Are there any young Ugandan’s coming up on the scene right now that will keep the fire burning as the next generation?
Yes, there are a few of them. Sadly with the further construction of dams on the White Nile they will have a much harder time accessing some of the world’s best whitewater and learning on it. Some of them are disheartened by this and are not as inspired to push hard and progress.
This year you left the warm waters of the Nile for the freezing, snow melt of Iceland. How are you adjusting to the temperature difference? Is this your first time kayaking in cold water?
I was honestly unprepared and shocked at the temperature difference between Uganda and Iceland. I always heard people talk of cold weather in Europe but I didn’t take their stories of snow, frozen rivers or frostbite seriously. I thought they where joking or where perhaps not very tough people. Unfortunately, they were completely correct. It took me a while to adjust but I am getting used to the cold now, ultimately it is a very small price to pay to be able to realise my dream of travelling around the world as a kayaker. Thank you for the drysuit Palm!
How is the trip so far?
So fun, I am making lots of new friends and am enjoying experiencing new cultures. I am on the river most days for work as a safety kayaker, as a raft guide, or just for fun. I am especially enjoying all of the waterfalls here.
You have earned yourself a reputation as a ‘charger’ at the Nile River Festival. I have personally seen you drop into spots on the river that I would never consider going and come out smiling. Do you think you will continue to send it as hard in Iceland as you do back on your home river?
Oh yes, why not?
Iceland’s whitewater seems to be dominated by waterfalls, is this the case? Have you been running many of the waterfalls out there?
I have only been here for six weeks and I have to balance my time in-between working to pay for my trip and kayaking for fun but yes I have been running lots of the local waterfalls and it is my goal to run as many of Iceland’s waterfalls as I can during my stay.
How’s the Icelandic food?
As you can imagine coming from Africa, the food is very different to what I am used to. There are not many options when it comes to food here. I wish I could find a *rolex somewhere.
*A rolex is a Ugandan delicacy consisting of a chapati wrap rolled around eggs and assorted vegetables.
Best thing about Iceland?
It never gets dark which means there’s so much time for kayaking! I am also enjoying being able to kayak on multiple rivers as opposed to just the Nile and get used to their different characteristics.
Worst thing about Iceland?
It’s too cold and the weather changes all the time
The dam on the Nile is nearing completion and will soon drown a lot of the remaining white water on the Nile. Do you think you will stay in Uganda even after the dam is built or will you try and move to a different location?
Uganda is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and I am proud to call it home. I think there will still be some good sections of whitewater left on my local river after the dam and I believe there is a lot more potential for world class whitewater in Uganda. I see the dam as an opportunity to get out and explore more of the country in search of new waves and rapids. I look forward to returning home this winter and putting my exploration plans into action.
My dream is to be a pro kayaker and travel the world and so if an opportunity that would enable me to do that comes along, I will take it but Uganda will always be my home.
Thanks for answering the questions Sadat, stay safe in Iceland and I look forward to seeing you in Uganda this winter! – Bren