THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE NILE ; from Central Africa to the Mediterranean, Harriet O'Brien Takes a Trip Back in Time

By Harriet O'Brien | The Independent (London, England), October 21, 2006 | Go to article overview
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THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE NILE ; from Central Africa to the Mediterranean, Harriet O'Brien Takes a Trip Back in Time


Harriet O'Brien, The Independent (London, England)


THE WORLD'S LONGEST RIVER?

In theory, yes. And staggeringly big it is, too. The Nile pips the Amazon to the post in world league tables, measuring some 6,695km (4,160 miles), as opposed to the South American river's 6,516km (4,049 miles). The valley covers more than five times the surface area of France. Of course, such statistics depend on where you actually deem this mighty African river to start. The measurement above is taken from the Kyaka river, a headstream in Burundi. However, opinions vary as to the exact source of the Nile; indeed the subject became something of an obsession for Victorian explorers.

Matters are somewhat complicated by the way the river begins as two substantial branches: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The former is the longer (and arguably rises in Burundi), although the latter contributes substantially more water to the Nile proper into which it flows from Ethiopia. The White Nile turns a whiteish grey from clay suspended in its waters as it flows through southern Sudan, hence its name; the Blue Nile is so-called because it is purer and, well, bluer. These rivers merge near Khartoum in Sudan, and the Nile then continues northwards into Egypt, where its fertile flood plains have supported centuries of civilisation (indeed, the name Nile comes from the Greek nelios meaning "river valley").

At Egypt's wide Nile delta beyond Cairo, the river divides into a mass of waterways which drain into the Mediterranean, the principal two being the Rosetta and the Damietta.

AH, THE SOURCE OF THE NILE...

In the 19th century, the search for the source of Africa's greatest river centred on the origins of the White rather than Blue Nile. Leaving aside this river's remote headstreams in Burundi and Rwanda, the longest branch of the Nile can be understood to begin at Lake Victoria. Just outside the town of Jinja in southern Uganda, the lake's waters spill northwards on the start of the long journey to the Mediterranean. A significant commercial centre with a laid- back atmosphere, Jinja is about an hour's drive east of the capital, Kampala. The actual start of the White Nile is a rather uninteresting dam, but the town attracts adventure travellers who come for the rafting, kayaking and bungee jumping on offer.

Although pleasant enough, Jinja is not one of Uganda's prime spots for visitors. The country's biggest attraction is the mountain gorilla area of the south-west and the few, albeit growing, number of UK companies that arrange trips to Uganda concentrate on this region. However, Tim Best Travel (020-7591 0300; www.timbesttravel. com) can combine gorillas with a Nile excursion. An eight-day independent holiday, for example, takes in a tented camp on Lake Mburo, gorilla tracking in the Virunga volcanoes, the Sipi waterfalls in the east near the Kenyan border and allows scope to visit the "source of the Nile" at Jinja. The trip costs from [pound]2,150 per person based on two sharing a room (as are all prices in this article). This includes flights from Heathrow to Kampala, transfers, accommodation (variously in tents, lodges and hotel in Kampala) and most meals.

AND GOING BLUE?

The Blue Nile makes a dramatic start from Lake Tana in the central Ethiopian highlands. The Tissisat Falls tumble more than 45m (147ft) over a sheer basalt cliff surrounded by dense greenery that is home to monkeys and an assortment of vibrant birds. The amazing force of the fall causes a wide curtain of spray, often with rainbows, hence the name, which means "smoke of fire".

The largest lake in Ethiopia, Lake Tana itself is well worth touring. It is dotted with some 35 islands, many of which have striking 14th- and 15th-century monasteries decorated with the colourful murals characteristic of the medieval Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Excursions run from the shoreside town of Bahar Dar.

Lake Tana and the Tissisat Falls are some of the highlights of the Ethiopian Odyssey trip offered by Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.

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