Could you walk the Nile?
“The Sudd had beaten me, like it had tormented so many other travellers along the Nile, and the disappointment as difficult to put into words”. (Pg. 207)
Never before has an explorer successfully walked the length of the Nile, so why did Levison Wood believe that he could succeed?
The Story of ‘Walking the Nile’
Of all that came before him – Speke and Burton – not one was successful in their quest. Together they were the first Europeans to discover Lake Victoria in Uganda, at the time believing it to be the true source of the Nile.
Did you know that Lake Victoria was named after Queen Victoria, who was the reigning monarch during the time of Speke and Burton’s discovery and the only larger lake in the world is Lake Superior in the United States.
“I don’t know where the idea to walk the entire length of the Nile came from. It was a question I’d been asked a hundred times…I’d given each of them a different answer – but all were true… I wanted to follow in a great tradition, to achieve something unusual and inspire in others the thirst to do the same.” (pg. 5)
We join Wood as he starts his journey at what is now believed to be the source of the Nile, in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda. With over 4250 miles to walk this was going to be more than an exploration, it was to be a journey of stamina, self reflection and pain.
“Richard Kandt is not a name as famous in the pantheon of great African explorers as Burton, Stanley and Speke but he holds a special place in my heart, and he felt especially important to this expedition. It was Kandt who first explored the Nyungwe Forest and, in 1898, declared it the true Source of the Nile.” (Pg. 30)
Not only is this a book describing colourful landscapes, highlighting the native animals that still roam the path less trodden in Africa, this is a historical account of what has taken place across this self-imploding nation.
In 1994, I was still too young to fully understand the extent of the Rwandan genocide, but reading about the loss of around a million lives due to civil war left me feeling cold. The killings may be in the past, but for the people living in Kigali and the surrounding area today, it is still a very raw subject that time will never be able to truly heal.
“…while the country has taken several steps forward, the hearts and minds of its citizens seem yet to have caught up.” (pg. 29)
Probably most distressing of all, is the fact that the outside world really knew nothing of this atrocity until bodies washed up across the border.
“It had been at Rusumo Falls that the genocide had come to the attention of the world, when thousands of dead bodies that had been cast into the river further upstream floated under the bridge into Tanzania while, on the bridge above, thousands of people tried to flee the slaughter for sanctuary across the border.” (Pg. 39)
I can imagine that, to wander the tracks of Rwanda, would take more than just physical strength; it would also take a great deal of emotional fortitude not to break down after being exposed to the depth of pain people that had been subjected to.
It must have been a relief to reach the Tanzanian border.
After spending Christmas on the shores of Lake Bisongu, Wood and his guide, Boston, wander into Uganda and the fishing village of Kasansero on Lake Victoria. Now a hive of activity and business, a place where Nile Perch is abundant, Kasansero has also had its share of heart attack. Not only has it become a mass grave site for 10,000 Rwandans who floated up river during the genocide, it is also said to be the location from where the AIDS Virus first spread around the world.
Today, around 70% of the current population is believed to have contracted the HIV Virus and includes an orphanage full of children that have fallen victim to this awful disease. At one time, it was believed that HIV was simply the flu or malaria and therefore was left untreated which is why it spread so quickly.
“It was easier to dismiss AIDS as ‘just another illness’… people blamed it on witchcraft… We put some of them onto islands in the lake and wouldn’t let people visit them. We treated it like leprosy, something that could be contained, but we were not fast enough. By then it was already a way of life”. (pg 59)
Without Wood’s account, Kasansero would be just another uneducated village that the western world knows very little about, but now I for one, know far more about not only this village but also a continent that still insists on torturing itself.
From Kasansero, Levison Wood walks on through a ‘quagmire of locations’, through marshes, swamps, forests and beaches.
After crossing the equator line, it’s not just the landscape that changes. Levison begins to notice an increased number of tourists, no longer is he on the roads of ‘unseen Africa’, he is now rubbing shoulders with those that prefer custom-made safaris and luxury lodge retreats.
In Kampala, we read about the exploits of a Witch Doctor called Mama Fina; a woman making a fortune manipulating other peoples’ beliefs for cold hard cash. From there, Wood travels north to Jinga, Lake Kyoga and Murchison Falls.
Where other locations may not have been known to me before reading this book, Murchison Falls first came to my attention when I watched The African Queen for the first time as a young child.
It is on this leg of the trip that disaster strikes.
Two journalists, Matt Power and Jason Florio arrive ready to write about the potentially record-breaking walk along the Nile. For 6 days, these two well-known writers would follow in Wood’s footsteps, capturing moments on camera and experiencing first-hand what it is like to wander the inhospitable landscape for themselves.
Unfortunately, whilst both started out, only one would return. 3 days into the trek, with the heat beating down and the unrelenting sun taking its toll on the group, Matt Power collapses after feeling faint:
“This was heat exhaustion: hyperthermia, the overheating of the body is just as deadly as hypothermia, but – beyond summer sun stroke – is barely ever talked about.” (pg.148)
By the time help arrived, it was too late – Matt Power had succumbed to the overpowering weather conditions and the inability of others had to reach him in time.
Should this have been the end of Levison Wood’s Journey?
Perhaps many would say that Levison should have given up at this point; that he should have turned around and headed home to family and friends but what would that accomplish? Matt Power lost his life doing something he enjoyed; writing about the adventures of others that desire to push boundaries. If Levison Wood gave up Matt’s death would have been in vain.
After time out to reflect on his journey, Levison Wood and Boston pick up their packs and set off once again knowing that trouble lay ahead. South Sudan was the next country in their path; the same South Sudan that was experiencing internal conflict and civil war. It was a country where most people were fleeing not entering and it became the sticking point of Wood’s challenge.
What happens in South Sudan means that Wood has to travel up river by other means before retracing his steps in order to try and complete his challenge. Will he ever succeed?
In the final chapters, Levison Wood crosses across the Sahara Desert and into Egypt, visits ancient wonders and finally makes it to the sea, but is it everything he expected it to be.
Would I recommend ‘Walking the Nile’?
This is more than just a story about a man walking thousands of miles along a river. It is a book that tells a story about a struggling continent; a book that digs deeper, going below the surface in search of understanding.
‘Walking the Nile’ is more than just another travel story, it is a soul-searching, historical tale that will make you reflect on your own surroundings.
Travelling Book Junkie’s Book Rating – ****
If you have read and enjoyed ‘Waling the Nile’ then why not check out Levison Wood’s newest book, Walking the Himalayas.
Have you read a similar book? Perhaps you know of other books on Africa that you would like to recommend to others?