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Christopher Ondaatji

The Quest for the Secret Nile

by Guy Yeoman

Chaucer Press: £20  

The manuscript for this book, The Quest for the Secret Nile, was at a late stage of completion when the author, Guy Yeoman, died in 1998. It is by far the best explanation ever published on the sources of the Nile and goes a long way to finally disproving the erroneously accepted theory that John Hanning Speke “discovered” Lake Victoria in 1858 and that the lake itself is the source of the Nile . It is not. However, it is one of the two great reservoirs, the other being Lake Albert .

The Nile ’s headwater is a huge complicated network of lakes, rivers, swamps, mountains and vast savannah plains and was, before European explorers entered this part of Africa , home to many separate kingdoms and cultures. Only recently have outsiders penetrated these lands which, despite the ravages caused by the Arab slave trade, managed to maintain a relative prosperity. The ecological balance ensured a constant source of water for the Nile and the political balance of power protected the inhabitants against starvation. This region recently, however, has suffered through wars, genocide and political depredation, resulting in great poverty and starvation. In the last years of the author’s life he visited the remote regions harbouring the Nile ’s headwaters and the message in this, his final book, is very clear: without adequate protection for these sources there is a real possibility that the Nile could simply dry up. In a sensitively thoughtful introduction the author’s son, Paddy Yeoman, warns “There is a widespread belief that, in a world where water may become more important than oil, Africa will be the continent and the Nile the river of this new century. It was my father’s hope that his account of the discovery of the Nile sources would capture the interest of the present generation and play its part in making a case for the protection of this unique landscape on which the Nile depends for its survival.”

The Nile is the longest river in the world: 6,741 kilometres or 4,187 miles. It is a river which represents the cradle of civilisation and whose movements still dominate the landscape of Egypt . But where did all this water come from? The riddle had obsessed the Ancient Greeks, and Herodotus himself is said to have followed the course of the river upstream in the 5 th century and quoted a story that the Nile rose from two great equatorial lakes which, in turn, were fed by waters from two snow capped mountains.

Were these mountains and lakes myth or reality? “In the course of the centuries Roman legionnaires, Portuguese Jesuits, adventurous Scots and erudite Frenchmen all tried to solve the riddle, only to be defeated by the terrain or lured along a wrong branch of the headwaters. The enigma would remain unsolved until the mid-nineteenth century.” Thus, following the discovery of two snow-capped mountains on the equator (Mount Kilimanjaro in 1848 and Mount Kenya in 1849) the Royal Geographical Society determined that Britain should have the glory of finding the actual source. They chose Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, two officers in the Indian Army, to lead the quest and in 1857 the two men set out from Zanzibar . Assembling a caravan of over 200 porters and an escort of Baluchi soldiers, their journey is a gruesome story of sickness, desertions, arguments and impositions by petty chiefs. Nevertheless after 225 tortuous days, stopping only briefly in Kazeh (now Tabora), the two men staggered to a hill from which they saw Lake Tanganyika . They were the first Europeans to see the lake, but they had no idea what part, if any, the lake played in the geography of the Nile . Exploring the northern end of the lake in dug-out canoes, they noticed that the head of the lake was walled in by a circle of forested mountains and that the substantial Ruzizi river flowed into and not out of the lake. Speke also incorrectly calculated that the lake surface was only 1800 feet above sea level – much too low for it to be a possible contender for the Nile . Disappointed, Burton and Speke headed back to Kazeh where, left to regain his health, Burton mistakenly allowed Speke to lead his own small expedition north and changed history. On 3 rd August 1858 Speke reached the summit of Isamiro hill, near present day Mwanza, and saw the vast waters of the Nyanza which he christened Lake Victoria in honour of his queen. Returning to Kazeh he jubilantly claimed that he had discovered the lake and the source of the White Nile . The sardonic Burton denounced Speke’s claim with ridicule.

But was Speke right? And were Speke’s claim that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile accurate? Despite eventual acceptance by the Royal Geographical Society and a second commission for Speke (this time with James Augustus Grant) to verify his “discovery”, the dramatic story that followed is recounted with flair by Guy Yeoman: Speke’s first sighting of Rippon Falls; Baker’s discovery of Lake Albert; Speke’s suspected suicide; Livingstone’s final fruitless journey to Lake Tanganyika; and finally Stanley’s two missions: one to find Livingstone, and the other to confirm Speke’s claim, and journey to the mouth of the Congo river.

Curiously, although Yeoman discounts Speke’s enthusiastic claim that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile , he gives him full credit for speculating correctly in Karagwe on his second journey that the “bold sky-scraping volcanic cones” he glimpsed 50 miles to the west in unknown Rwanda were in fact the great turning point of the central African watershed. This is in fact exactly what they were. With detailed explanatory maps and photographs Yeoman explains that anyone who wants to see the ultimate Nile and Congo springs can, by climbing these steep, densely vegetated volcanic cones, find Speke’s words confirmed. “Standing on one of the highest summits, say Muhabura, 15,540 ft. to the east, or Karisimbi, 14,786 ft. to the west or Sabinyo, 12,035 ft. high (the summit of Sabinyo marks the point where the modern borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo [Zaire]) meet, the traveller can observe how the waters shed along the southern flanks of the Virunga barrier, across the western Rift Valley, flow towards Lake Kivuu and the Congo system, whereas to the east, west and north they flow down to the Nile. Here, however, the dramatic landscape must be studied carefully, for we are at the sources of not one Nile but of two. They are the progenitors of two great and distinct water systems that, only after many hundreds of miles – comprising the Bantu-Hamitic heart of the continent – at last come together in Lake Albert to form the White Nile of the Sudan and Egypt .”

This then finally is the answer to the riddle of the Nile , which has puzzled and obsessed geographers for centuries. Although Guy Yeoman stated that “the enigma would remain unsolved until the mid-nineteenth century” he is being too generous in his admission. It wasn’t solved and certainly never fully explained. The lesser of the two systems that Yeoman talks about is the Semliki river of the western Rift Valley eventually draining into the southern end of Lake Albert . The major headwater is however the Kagera Nile – the main feeder river of Lake Victoria . Both systems are complicated, but in a final chapter, entitled “The Nile Springs” Yeoman, having travelled most of the water systems before he died, gives a detailed illustrated description of the water system and mountains that are the true sources of the Nile .

This beautifully produced book is well worth reading. If nothing else, it is a fitting epitaph to an extraordinary man – explorer, mountaineer, photographer and geographer – who in his final years worked tirelessly against the deforestation and the environmental devastation of much of Africa – an ecological disaster made worse by the ravages or war.

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