The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey on the World’s Longest River

One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace & War on the Nile

Ah, the Nile. What hasn’t been said of it?
—Maria Golia, Cairo: City of Sand

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Dan Morrison paddling the Nile. photos by Dan Morrison.
Dan Morrison paddling the Nile. Photos by Dan Morrison

In The Black Nile, American writer Dan Morrison sets out with a childhood friend to take a journey that few have ever even dreamed of: To seek out the very beginning of the massive Nile River, in Africa, and ride it all the way to Alexandria, Egypt. Sick of his job in a more and more collapsing print publishing business, he wants to go for it, so he reaches as high as possible.

The world’s longest river, however, is not all passable, as Morrison finds out, and some of the biggest hurdles aren’t the ocean-sized waves in the rapids, but the bureaucracy he must wade through to get his visas and permission to travel. It’s a waiting game, in equatorially hot lonely villages where there just isn’t much going on.

His hardy pal and best friend Schon Bryan sticks with him for the first third or so, then he can’t take it any more, he’s too beat up, and bails out. This leaves Morrison the lone western white man for miles. He spends weeks hanging out waiting in desolate towns where nobody is going anywhere until the dreaded bus or ferry comes back.

The book’s pacing is such that you really feel for him when he has to wait. And his personality is one that invites the people he meets along the journey to share the details of their lives with him. We would highly recommend this book for anyone who loves a good journey, or who is interested in the lives of people who live so remotely, in the farthest reaches of Sudan and Uganda. His perserverance and detailed observations on people’s lives in these parts of Africa provide a vivid picture of their lives.

An Excerpt selected by Dan Morrison from The Black Nile:

The deacon grabbed me as I rounded a corner of the covered market near Old Kampala. His wide eyes were intense, wild—bereft—and they bored into mine as if we two were alone on the damp and teeming walkway, maybe alone on the earth.

I’d been searching for a bush hat among the acres of flip-flops and mounds of Chinese denim piled in the stalls of the market district; it was the last item on my list, a broad-brimmed canvas number to deflect the sun that my old blue walking cap would not, and I was about to give up when I was seized by the man in the worn black blazer and ivory shirt.

He took my wrist in bony fingers, the knuckles swollen, their skin cracking, and brought his sweating face near to mine.

Long boats like this is how supplies are sent up river in a land where there are no roads to speak of.
Long boats like this is how supplies are sent up river in a land where there are no roads to speak of.

A stream of weekend shoppers adjusted its course around this new obstruction. A child stopped to stare and was pulled away by her mother. The deacon ignored them, just as he ignored the thunder rolling down from the hills surrounding the capital. “Do you,” he panted, his pupils and nostrils dilated wide as dimes, “believe in Jesus?”

Schon Bryan, standing beside me in a sweat-blotched golf shirt and devastated Carhartt work pants, gave a snort and walked to the railing. He lit a filterless Camel, adjusted his $200 sunglasses and looked down into the scrum of buyers and hawkers one level below.

I had seen these Pentecostal preachers gyrating on street corners all over Kampala, usually in the late afternoons. It looked like an exhausting line of work. “You know,” I told the deacon, twisting slowly away, hoping he would allow my arm to come along for the ride, “that’s a complicated question, and I’m a little busy right now.”

He increased the pressure on my wrist and raised a Bible over our heads with his left hand, his breath fogging my glasses as the Muslim call to afternoon prayer began to echo from the nearby mosques. “Renounce Mohammed,” he shouted in his sawdust voice. “Renounce the devil, and come now to blessed salvation.”

Two women—one wearing a short stretchy neon blue skirt, the other in a longer, more traditional orange-and-black print dress with exaggerated poufs at the shoulders—watched from the doorway of a clinic selling herbal treatments for HIV. “Jesus!” the woman in the neon skirt called out. I glanced in her direction. “Save me,” she cried.

Nile boatman met en route.
Nile boatman met en route.

“I mean no offense,” I said, turning back to the deacon. “I’m just not interested. I’ve got something to do, and I’ve got to go.” He slackened his grip, his pupils and nostrils contracted, and his form shifted ever so slightly from one of madman to man.

He gave a short breath and asked in a matter-of-fact tone, “What have you to do?”

“I’m looking for a hat.”

“But what is your purpose here? You are not a missionary. I don’t think you are an NGO. That is why the whites come. Why are you here?”

A woman in a nurse’s smock opened the clinic door and shouted over the market’s clamor, “Godfrey! He will see you now.”

The deacon looked to her and again to me. “Why are you here? Tell me your purpose.” He dropped my arm and lowered his Bible. It started pouring, and the market grew louder as more people pressed inside to escape the wet. Rain hammered the center skylight and the corrugated steel roof. “Tell me. I don’t have long.”

The new boat that was made for the author in the Congo before his departure.
The new boat that was made for the author in the Congo before his departure.

His simple request struck me in a way his evangelical hysteria had not. I cringed, and almost confessed, “I’m a hack journalist with something to prove, and I’ve brought my best friend to Africa to keep me company while I prove it, but I’m not sure he can handle what’s to come and I’m not sure I can either, and I’m terrified we’re going to get our fingers and lips chopped off in the north, or that we’ll be shot by bandits in southern Sudan, or that we’ll be arrested and beaten for snooping around in Khartoum. I couldn’t live with myself if I got Schon killed—I’d have to commit suicide.”

Instead I said, “I’ll tell you,” and my posture improved with each word. “I’m going down the White Nile, the length of the Nile, from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean. I’m going to paddle a boat from Jinja to Lake Kyoga, maybe even as far as Karuma Falls, and then I’m going to trek through Murchison Park to Lake Albert, where I’ll find a fisherman to take me north to Nimule and into Sudan.

From there we’ll follow the river to Juba, where I’ll hop a barge through the Sudd marshlands—we’ll fish off the side, Schon’s a great fisherman—and on up to Khartoum. I’ll follow the river north from there and visit the Sudanese pyramids and, hopefully, the Merowe Dam, carrying on through Nubia, past Aswan to Cairo, and then finally Rosetta. I figure I can make it in three months.”

Schon Bryan.
Schon Bryan,the author’s best friend, who bailed out after completing just part of this long voyage.

It was my hand in the air now, tracing the Nile’s course from the equator to its exit in North Africa, more than three thousand miles away. The deacon ignored it, just as he ignored my flowering confidence in the plan, such as it was.

His brow bundled into confusion, hurt even. “Why?”

“It’s just something I’ve got to do. No one’s made the journey in decades, at least not like this.” After years as a freelance reporter, I was tired of struggling for crumbs of piecework from a fastshrinking roster of newspapers and magazines. The hustle made me feel small. I needed to do something big, something unrelated to the American news cycle, something deep and wide and untrammeled.

The Nile beckoned—not the Nile of the six-day Egyptian package tour, with its unctuous guides and sunburned Germans, but the African Nile, the one nobody hears about, the river born of giant equatorial lakes and massive continental rains a lifetime away from Cairo, a region poised unsteadily between peace and war, where decades of conflict may at last have run their course.

Buy this book from Amazon: The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World’s Longest River

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World’s Longest River” by Dan Morrison. Copyright (c) 2010 by Dan Morrison.

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