The River Nile, being one of the two longest rivers in the world (it’s constantly disputed whether the title of the world’s longest belongs to the Nile or the Amazon, so I’ve given up trying to keep count), is a place that has fascinated travellers, explorers and adventurers for years. In the time-honoured man vs nature battle, various milestones such as its entire length being successfully navigated in 2004 have been reached. But walking its whole length? At over 4000 miles long, you’ve got to be mad to try it…
Or you’ve got to be Levison Wood. When it comes to travel adventuring, Wood is the real deal – he’s also walked the length of the Himalayas, and at the time of writing is currently on another walking expedition through Central America. It is this expedition that really put him on the map though; with a military background (as a Major in the British army, he has experienced armed conflict in several countries, most notably Afghanistan), Wood was suitably toughened up for this trip, shunning all comforts to take on the hardships and very real dangers of walking along the river through some of the world’s most barren and hostile territory.
As he puts it himself, Wood was partly doing this for the reasons George Malory cited for climbing Everest (‘because it’s there’), but he also wanted to experience places that are well and truly off the beaten track; to see, in his words, ‘the way humanity shines in the most troubled places on Earth’. And traversing six different countries in Eastern Africa – Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt – Wood certainly gets the chance to do that.
Africa is a complex continent, an amorphous collection of countries that evade easy definition or unification within some sort of grand, definitive narrative. Within each individual country are multitudes of tribes and ethnic groups; attempts to simplify things are most likely a legacy of the various power plays of European countries in the ‘scramble for Africa’. The vacuum left behind when the Europeans pulled out left behind the troubled conditions in the various countries – some more than others – that Wood walked through, posing him all sorts of problems to contend with beyond those posed by nature itself.
It is this that makes the Nile, and its surrounding natural and manmade environs, the real star of the show. But that’s not to say the expedition itself isn’t important. Wood himself makes for a very likeable narrator, not afraid to be brutally honest about the very real lows of his adventure as well as documenting the thrilling highs. It would be a disservice to say it’s all about him too, with various other people making their mark, especially Boston, Moez and ‘Turbo’, three very different men who each guided him on very different stages of his trek. The various locals he meets along the way all also play a considerable role in fleshing out the cultural bones of the various countries.
Clichéd as it may sound, Walking the Nile very much is more about the journey than bragging ‘I walked the length of the Nile’ rights, and Wood’s experiences along the way – wrestling in South Sudan, visiting the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda – illuminate the countries’ psyche in ways that dry facts and stats can’t. The life-threatening moments make for pulse-quickening reading too: when he is literally caught in the crossfire of South Sudan’s civil war his life, let alone the expedition, is very much put in jeopardy. But for all that, the very worst moment of all comes in the relatively stable and ‘safe’ Uganda…
As other writers have found when taking on routes through post-colonial Africa, journeys such as these are not for the faint-hearted. I for one have no desire to attempt something similar! But you simply have to admire him for even attempting to take this on, and in so doing pulling off the impressive feat of both educating the reader about the complexities of this fascinating continent and entertaining us with daring tales of high adventure. Definitely a recommended read for those who are interested in either, or both.