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The truth about the source of R. NilePublish Date: Jul 02, 2006
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By Cam Mcleay

MZEE says that you are wrong; he says that the source of the Nile not this way” translated a ranger with the men accompanying us deep into Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park. He was repeating a claim Mzee had made no less than half a dozen times that day. Mzee is a Twa (forest dweller) and the top of his head is well below the height of my shoulders.

He might also be known as a pygmy and was asked to guide us to the source of the Nile deep in the forest. He crawled on his hands and knees with ease under the labyrinth of vines in the forest then waded knee deep through the rocky river bed in his bare feet and rolled up trousers.

I tried to follow. Despite our rolls of laminated maps, the latest models of hand-held GPS (Global Positioning System) and our confidence, Mzee had little faith. To his credit he followed our directions, he dropped over cliffs with us, slashed his way through thousands of vines and huddled in the ever present mud from the thunderous storms that engulfed us each day.

It is wonderful to see that controversy now surrounds the source of the Nile as for it has been the biggest geographical mystery of our times. I read with interest Natalie McComb’s letter published in The New Vision on May 12 referring to the Ascend the Nile expedition – which I co-led with Neil McGrigor. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate her and her team publicly for the fascinating journey they completed on the Nile a couple of years ago. I would certainly welcome her to ‘reignite’ the interest in her expedition but would encourage her to research the facts before doing so.

Her claims are wildly inaccurate, her research is seriously lacking and she fails to give credit where it is due. She claims her team was the first to descend the Nile when in fact the first descent was completed almost 50-years earlier.

The May 1955, issue of the National Geographic magazine features a lengthily account of the expedition of John Goddard and his friends as they travelled on the Nile from Burundi to the Mediterranean in small collapsible canoes. Mr Goddard travelled much more of the Nile than Ms McComb did without the luxury of riding on barges or freighters for large sections of the journey.

Ms McComb also claims first descents of rapids near Nimule in Southern Sudan. Her team even had the audacity to name these rapids, when in fact they were first descended by Irishman Marcus Baillie and his team in the early 1980s.

Marcus and his friends paddled all the way from the Uganda/Sudan border to the Mediterranean but didn’t enter Uganda because of the civil unrest in the country at the time. Naming rights on rapids are the preserve of those who make first descents in the tradition of exploring the world for the last millennium. At best, Ms McCombs journey down the Nile was an imitation of a pioneering expedition completed 50-years before her.

What really surprised me, however, was how poorly informed she is about the sources of the Nile. In 1898, Dr. Kandt (a German national) made a remarkable journey to a source of the Nile deep in what is now the Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda.

Ms McComb loosely referred to him as being ‘called Kunt’ and I sincerely hope no-one takes offence at such a base description of a man who was seemingly popular with those who knew him. Until our expedition, it was generally regarded by Rwandans and most others that the ‘Kandt source’ of the Nile was THE source of the Nile. Mzee, our guides and porters in Nyungwe National Park are prime examples of what Rwandans and the world believed prior to our expedition.

What two of her team members mistakenly did was to rely on their Rwandan guides and trackers in the forest to take them to ‘the source of the Nile’ as thousands of other tourists had done before them. Her team members were led to the Kandt source of the Nile which is miles from the longest source.

Ms McComb did not go to the Nyungwe Forest with the remnants of her team so this would contribute to her confusion.
The Ascend the Nile expedition used detailed topographical maps published by the Belgian Government in 1937 which we uncovered deep in the map room of Royal Geographic Society in London. Neil was able to prove that the ‘Kandt source’ was one of dozens of sources of the Nile in the Nyungwe Forest but it was not the longest. When climbing Mt. Everest, mountaineers from the world over climb to the highest summit of the mountain not the North Ridge or the South Summit. Using similar logic, we completed the world’s longest river journey by following the upper reaches of the Nile to its longest source, not its highest, its largest or its most southerly.

The GPS we used connects with satellites orbiting the earth allowing one to pinpoint a position anywhere on the globe to within metres. The three GPS we carried (so as to record independent and backup data) also allowed us to track our position by satellite all the way from the Mediterranean Sea (near Rashid) to the upper reaches of the Rukarara River deep in the Nyungwe Forest.

The tens of thousands of points we plotted on the in-build maps in the GPS (for some stretches of our journey, we recorded them every 10 metres) can only be recorded by physically being in those locations. It is impossible to fabricate this data in any other way. The data we collected is electronic proof that the Nile is actually 6,718 kms long or 107 kms longer than it was generally believed to be. No-one has ever measured the river from the ‘ground’ (or more accurately the water) before and in the past measurements of the mighty river were made by cartographers tracing pieces of string or similar on maps.

In her letter, Ms McComb flippantly referred to the Burundi source of the Nile inferring it were in fact longer. This source of the river is labelled in the May 1955 issue of the National Geographic magazine as the ‘South Spring of the Nile’ – it is neither the longest source of the Nile nor is it furthest from the Sea. From the Belgian maps, we pinpointed the longest source on the GPSs we carried with us and navigated our way through the heart of Africa’s largest montane forest despite the vocal protests of our guides and porters. What Reuters fondly called the ‘Mac Source of the Nile’ is the longest and farthest source of the Nile from the sea. It has been recognised by cartographers well before us but quite simply no-one had been there before. When we finally reached the ‘Mac Source’ Mzee had the biggest smile of all.

While we don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the mighty Victorian explorers, what we were able to do was to take up the exploration of the Nile where they left off. We used outboard motors, GPS and Google Earth to travel over 98% of the rivers length in our small Zap cats. For me, our success is particularly poignant because this year Adrift celebrates 10 years of operation in Uganda.

In 1996, we made the first-ever descent of the Victoria Nile in Uganda, successfully navigating most of the rapids John Goddard and his friends had portaged around 40 years before us. It was in the following month that Adrift introduced commercial rafting to Uganda on the river near Jinja – the fabled Victorian source of the Nile and it has since become the most popular tourist activity in Uganda.

The writer is co-founder of Adrift Adventure Co.

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