Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Sources of the Nile

Lake Victoria

Last week I wrote about David Livingstone and his six vanished years in search of the source of the Nile.  In a comment, Annamaria Alfieri suggested that the enthusiasm for this particular venture was motivated by Britain’s concern to control Egypt and thus the Suez Canal.  No doubt that’s right.  But the issue goes back much further than that.  There is a Latin saying: “Caput Nili quaerere,” which means “searching for the Nile’s head”.  It was used when someone suggested doing something ridiculous or impossible.  It reminds me of our saying: “You might as well fly to the moon,” which has also been outdated by technology.

Nile Delta
Headwaters of the Blue Nile
Speaking of technology, last week I suggested that a couple of hours with GoogleEarth is all one needs nowadays to solve these exploration issues.  So I decided to try with the source of the Nile.  Well, it only takes about fifteen minutes.  (It’s fun to do, but don’t cheat.  Turn off all the borders, roads, photos and the like or it will take you on an obvious tour down the river.)  
Start at the mouth in Cairo and work upstream from there.  It’s pretty obvious up to Khartoum in Sudan and then there’s a problem.  The river splits into two major tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile.  The Blue, which actually carries the majority of water into the main river as well as the fertile silt, wends its way from Lake Tana in the highlands of Ethiopia.  So is that the source?  No, the definition seems to be that the source is the furthest connected waterway from the mouth.  The White Nile is longer, so follow it south through a huge swampy area in southern Sudan. (Yes, Sudan is like Botswana; very dry except where it’s wet.)   Then it crosses into Uganda and once more splits.  The Albert Nile empties from the lakes of the Great Rift Valley while the White Nile heads east and then south.  It exits from Lake Kayoga, which in turn is fed from Lake Victoria.  And that huge East African lake is to all intents and purposes the source of the Nile.  But, of course, one could argue that the longest river flowing into Lake Victoria is actually the source.  In 1934 a German explorer traced the Kagera river back to the hills of Burundi, and as recently as 2006 a British and New Zealand party claimed a spot in Rwanda as the actual source (i.e. that their source was further from Lake Vic than the German’s).  And that wasn’t easy.  The 2006 team traveled 4000 miles in 80 days and one member of the party was killed by rebels. 

Dhows on Aswan Dam
But it was the connection between a great lake and the Nile that the seventeenth century explorers sought.  A nice, safe water supply for the river, and plenty of accolades at home.

John Hanning Speke
In 1856 John Hanning Speke teamed up with Richard Burton (fresh from his trip to Mecca disguised as an Arab pilgrim) and set out in search of the source of the Nile.  It was a strange partnership; the men already disliked each other and had very different personalities – Burton flamboyant and Speke retiring.  Their earlier trip together had seen them both badly injured in Somalia.  My guess is that they went together because each was scared of the other discovering the source alone!  As with all of these explorations into “darkest” Africa, the trip was horrendous.  Both men became ill.  Speke went temporary blind and suffered greatly after trying to remove a beetle from his ear with a knife.  They discovered Lake Tanganyika, but Burton was too weak to continue.  Speke went on without him, discovered Lake Victoria, and declared it – correctly but with no real evidence – as the source of the Nile.

Richard Burton
Nile Catchment
He announced this publicly on returning to England, to Burton’s fury.  On a follow up expedition in 1860, he sailed the northern coast of Lake Victoria and found the Ripon Falls pouring water out of the lake.  Although he didn’t follow the water through Somalia, the evidence seemed conclusive.  But Burton was still pushing the Lake Tanganyika option.  (He wasn’t stupid, at one stage the Albert Nile was indeed fed from that lake, but it was blocked by volcanic activity in geological times.) Eventually a great debate was scheduled between the men before the geographical section of the British Association in Bath on 18 September 1864.  The day before, Speke went bird hunting and, climbing a wall with a cocked shotgun, killed himself.  There were rumors of suicide, but the wound – below the armpit – made that very unlikely.

The matter rested in limbo until our friend Henry Stanley of Livingstone fame confirmed Speke’s discovery in 1875.

Michael – Thursday.  


  1. I'm hooked, Michael, and all pumped up for my Google maps expedition. Even have the ear phones hooked up to Beatles' music in homage to Speke's suffering.

  2. Hooked? Well, there are these thorns called "wag 'n bietjie" which means "wait a bit". And you do...

  3. Burton is fascinating, and also a bit off putting for me. I read his "Letters from the Battle-fields of Paraguay" as research for Invisible Country. You have to hand it to him. Wherever you go in the nineteenth century, he's there!