Africa’s River of Superlatives
By “Awake!” correspondent in Kenya
IF ASKED the name of the world’s longest river, would you get it right? The Amazon? The Mississippi? The Zambezi? It is, in fact, the Nile. Stretching some 4,145 miles (6,671 km) from central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, it is a river of superlatives, that outstrips all others. It has the biggest, largest and longest of so many things—and much more.
Let’s take a brief trip down the Nile and answer a few questions that have puzzled man for centuries. For example, where is the true source of the Nile? Why is it called the White Nile in some places, Blue in others and, from Khartoum down to the sea, simply the Nile? What is the dreaded Sudd region, and why is it feared by travelers?
Where Is the Source of the Nile?
Let us begin our journey at the source of the Nile, or the White Nile to be more precise. Just where this is has baffled and intrigued ancient Greek historians and geographers as well as explorers in more modern times. Why? Because some did not realize they were dealing with two main rivers, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, which eventually become simply the one Nile.
In recent times it has been established that the Nile’s headwaters are in Rwanda and Burundi. Streams and rivers unite to form the mighty Kagera River. As we leave Rwanda we pass through Tanzania on our way to Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake and, in the world, second only to Lake Superior in North America. This massive Nile reservoir is the first superlative on our journey.
Africa’s Largest Country
The lake’s northern outlet, through the Owen Falls Dam, opens into what is called the Victoria Nile. Having made our way around the dam, we continue our trip through Uganda toward Lake Mobutu. On our way we pass through swampy Lake Kyoga, thick with water lilies and hyacinths. Once free of the lake area, we head for a sight that will get your camera clicking. Having negotiated miles of rapids, the river quickly narrows and drops in a series of cascades.
Where are we? At the famous Kabalega (Murchison) Falls in the Kabalega National Park. If you keep your wits about you and your zoom lens at the ready you might get some good close-ups of elephants, hippopotamuses and cape buffalo. However, take care along the river banks. There might be a motionless crocodile waiting for a nonvegetarian meal!
Shortly after entering Lake Mobutu from the east, we exit with the Nile toward the north and head for the border of Africa’s largest country—the Sudan. Did you know that this country, three quarters the size of India, occupies nearly a tenth of the African continent? That also means it gets the biggest slice of the Nile. Two more superlatives!
As we travel northward progress is impeded. We are caught in the apparently endless labyrinth of the Sudd swamps. One report tells of a steamer that got trapped in the Sudd after following a false channel for 20 miles (32 km). The captain and 22 passengers died of starvation before help arrived. Navigation is made almost impossible by the millions of prolific water hyacinths. Just imagine, 10 plants can become 600,000 in just eight months!
As for the local people, unless you are tall, do not be surprised to find them looking down on you. They belong to the Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer tribes, considered to be the world’s tallest people. Even the women may reach heights of over six feet six inches (2 m). That is another superlative for the region of the Nile.
During its slow journey through the swamps, the White Nile loses a lot of its volume to evaporation. However, once it is free of the Sudd’s clutches it takes a sharp right turn to the east and is replenished by the abundant Ethiopian waters of the river Sobat. In fact, if it were not for Ethiopia’s rains and rivers, the lower Nile would be a very meager trickle, indeed, since, on the average, 84 percent of the Nile water at Aswan comes down from Ethiopia.
How Many Niles?
With its volume increased, the Nile again strikes northward toward the Sahara drought region. Yet, as we get nearer to Khartoum, we find ourselves not in a desert but in a fertile wedge of land called El Gezira, bounded on the west by the White Nile and on the east by the Blue coming down from Ethiopia. Some call this fertile area of the Sudan the world’s largest irrigated farm. If true, that is another superlative to the Nile’s credit.
At Khartoum, where the two Niles meet, the mystery of the White and the Blue is resolved. Where they join to form the simple Nile they flow side by side for some distance. The left-hand current is a gray color, while the right is a brownish-green that at certain hours of the day might appear blue to some.
The World’s Largest Desert
With Khartoum behind us, the Nile starts to penetrate the Sahara Desert region. Once again our river is associated with a superlative. The Sahara is the largest tropical desert in the world. In spite of that, the Nile calmly winds through as if unimpressed by the vast emptiness that surrounds it. The calmness, however, is broken by the five cataracts that are encountered on the way down to the Aswan Dam.
As we head deeper into the Sahara, at Abu Hamed the river is suddenly forced off course, to the southwest. The reason is the awesome Nubian Desert. Since navigation from here on is not really practical due to the cataracts, we will avoid the lengthy detour by taking the train that strikes across the desert to Wadi Halfa and the border of Egypt.
The Longest Man-Made Lake
When we arrive at the frontier, what an impressive sight meets us! What is it? The longest man-made lake on earth, Lake Nasser. Yet another superlative for the Nile and Africa. It is over 300 miles (nearly 500 km) long and stretches from the Aswan High Dam right into the Sudan. It is almost as long as England!
With this huge reservoir of water the Aswan High Dam has brought many blessings to Egypt and the Sudan but also a few problems. One very human problem associated with the Nile and the dam is the alarming increase of bilharzia (schistosomiasis), a tropical disease spread by snails that proliferate in the irrigation canals. Although rarely fatal, it certainly shortens life expectancy.
Another more unusual problem involved the huge Abu Simbel statues of the god-king Ramses II. Their original site is now covered by the waters of Lake Nasser. At great expense the temples and statues were cut into 1,050 pieces, like an enormous three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, and then reassembled at a higher level away from the flood danger. That sounds like another superlative for the Nile—the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle!
Africa’s Largest City
As much as we would like to, we cannot delay among the souvenirs of the past. We descend the last 700 miles (1,120 km), observing more ancient monuments that come into view. Finally, on our left, Egypt’s outstanding symbol, the towering Cheops Pyramid, as high as a 40-story building. And that means we are on the outskirts of Africa’s largest city, known in Arabic as Al-Qahira, or Victorious. In English it is Cairo, Egypt’s busy capital, with about six million inhabitants. In the hustle and bustle of the metropolis the Nile serenely wends its way through, unruffled by city haste or the passing of time, a silent witness of once glorious empires and dynasties.
With Cairo left behind, the Nile flows to its last superlative, the Nile Delta. Spread across 155 miles (250 km) from Alexandria to Port Said, the delta has a thick layer of rich silt brought down from the Ethiopian Highlands, to form the most fertile soil in Africa. It is the Nile’s final gift to this continent. And thus ends a journey of 4,145 miles. A long run for a river—the longest in the world!
[Map on page 25]
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Aswan High Dam
Owen Falls Dam