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The Empire and the century/The Longest River in the World


THE LONGEST RIVER IN THE WORLD[1]

By SIR WILLIAM E. GARSTIN, G.C.M.G.


Few, if any, of the earth's chief waterways have aroused such universal and sustained interest as has that great stream which, rising at the equator, flows due north, through thirty-one degrees of latitude, to the Mediterranean. Almost from the dawn of history, the Nile has formed the basis of endless conjecture, and the subject of many a myth. The earliest writers vied one with another in relating legends regarding its sources, the dwellers on its banks, and the countries through which it passed.

This is easy to understand. Those pioneers of civilization who settled in its northern valley, and who, by the help of its beneficent waters, converted the desert into an area unrivalled for its agricultural prosperity—thus amassing the wealth which enabled them to form a mighty Empire—were aware that this river had its beginning in a land far away to the south, barred to them by an intervening wilderness of sand and rock. Experience also taught them that its annual rise and fall occurred with an almost mathematical regularity, and that they could foretell with exactness the periods when its waters should overflow their fields and enrich them with their fertilizing deposits. They understood these facts, but they knew little or nothing more. It is not, then, to be wondered at that they sought to explain these marvels by inventing wild fables concerning the life-giving stream, bestowing upon it various appropriate names, and representing it as being under the special care of a tutelary deity.

Long after the Pharaonic Dynasties had passed away, and had been succeeded in the Nile Valley by those of other conquering races, the mystery which shrouded the sources of the river was maintained inviolate, and its secrets remained unrevealed. Rumours that its birthplace was located in a land of great lakes and ice-clad mountains, inhabited by strange people and by savage beasts, from time to time reached the outer world. These stories were, however, either disbelieved, or were treated as travellers' tales. It was not until the last century that the veil was finally lifted by the efforts of intrepid explorers, and that the sources of the Nile were defined beyond dispute.

As our information regarding the hydrography of the Nile is extended we begin to comprehend the complexity of the causes which produce its constancy of supply and its regularity of rise and fall. Our knowledge of these causes is of very recent date, and, indeed, is only now being perfected. It tends, however, to emphasize one fact—-namely, that the Nile, in its entire system, is a far more wonderful river than was even that mythical stream evolved by the imagination of the early searchers after its sources.

At its outlet from the equatorial lakes its discharge is considerable, and is largely augmented by the numerous torrents which feed it in its passage through the country of mountain and forest. It enters the marshes a noble river. It issues from them a comparatively insignificant stream, having lost more than half of its volume in its struggle through 500 miles of swamp. Midway between its head-waters and the sea it is joined by another great river, which at times brings down an amount of water six times greater than that of the Nile itself, but which at others fails entirely. Finally, during the latter half of its long course to the north, its volume is not augmented by that of a single tributary, and it traverses 700 miles of desert, wilderness, and mountain, its course barred by cataracts and rapids, before it arrives at that land which owes its existence to its precious waters.

It is proposed in the following pages briefly to describe the Nile sources, and the general characteristics of the countries through which it passes. The subject is one that has been frequently treated of by competent pens, but, as the present account is confined to the impressions actually gathered on the spot during travel, a summary description of this marvellous river may be of some interest to those who have not had either the time or the inclination to study the large amount of literature which exists regarding it.

It is assumed that the Nile has its origin in the equatorial lakes. This assumption is a legitimate one, as the Bahr-el-Gebel, with its continuation, the White Nile, is the true river, and forms the real source of the constant supply; while the Blue Nile, like the Atbara, is nothing more than a very important flood-tributary of the main stream.

The White Nile has two great systems of supply. Of these by far the more important is the immense sheet of water, situated under the equator, and covering an area of 26,000 square miles—known as the Victoria Nyanza. The other, and secondary, system is that which comprises the two smaller lakes—the Albert Edward and the Albert Nyanza—with their connecting river, the Semliki. These last all lie within that remarkable fissure in the earth's crust termed the 'Albertine Rift,' which bounds the western edge of the Uganda plateau, and follows a north and south line for nearly 1,000 miles.

The two systems unite at the north end of the Albert Nyanza, whence their combined waters issue as the river called, in its upper reaches, the Bahr-el-Gebel, and afterwards the White Nile. It has been stated that the Victoria Nyanza system is the principal source of the Nile. About this there can be no two opinions. This lake, occupying an immense depression in the centre of a wide plateau, bounded on all sides by mountain ranges, naturally receives the drainage of the entire area. The tropical rainfall which for some three-quarters of the year deluges this region forms the source of supply. Lake Victoria is fed by numerous rivers, which drain the uplands. Its principal affluent is the Kagera, by some considered to be the real source of the Nile. This important stream rises some three degrees south of the equator, in the wild and remote country adjacent to the chain of volcanoes which bars the 'Rift' valley across, between the lakes of Albert Edward and Kivu. Further south than this the Nile sources cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be located, as these mountains form the watershed between the streams flowing south into Lakes Kivu and Tanganyika, and those flowing north to feed the Nile.

The outlet by which the Nile leaves the Victoria Nyanza is situated at the north-west corner of the lake. Here it falls over the rocky barrier of the Ripon Falls, with a drop of some 15 feet. The river, from this point to its junction with Lake Albert, is called the Victoria Nile.

The catchment area of the Albertine system is smaller than that of Lake Victoria, as the 'Rift' valley is narrow and enclosed by high mountain ranges. One source of supply, however, exists here which is wanting in the eastern system—namely, that derived from the melting of the snowfields and the glaciers of Ruwenzori. This range, known to the earlier geographers as the Mountains of the Moon, rises out of the very centre of the 'Rift' valley. It is girdled on one side by the Albert Edward Nyanza and on the other by the Semliki River. Its snow-fed torrents have consequently no other outlet than either the stream or the lake, and their waters must therefore help eventually to swell the volume of the Nile.

To those who have never visited Uganda it is difficult to give any but a faint idea of the scenery of the country in which the Nile has its birth. Every variety of landscape is here met with, and the beauty of this region can scarcely be surpassed elsewhere.

Lake Victoria is bounded on the east and north-east by a chain of lofty mountains, from which long spurs run down to the water, ending in a succession of noble headlands of bold outline. The scenery of this portion of the lake is grand and impressive, differing from that of the opposite shore, where the landscape is softer, and possesses the charm due to low-rounded hills and to an undulating and well-wooded country. Here there are no abrupt elevations, and the numerous bays and inlets are fringed to the water's edge with a tropical vegetation. Behind the coast-line stretches an expanse of alternating hill and valley, densely populated and richly cultivated, bearing evidences of much prosperity.

The Victoria Nyanza presents an endless series of contrasts. In the open water, where no land is visible, it more resembles a sea than a lake, and the storms, which frequently lash its surface into waves of consider able size, tend to impress this resemblance vividly upon the navigator.

Near the coast, however, the islands are so numerous and so close together that the dividing expanses of water are practically land-locked, and so sheltered that storms can have no effect upon their secluded havens. Many of these islands cover a large area, and contain hill-ranges of considerable height. Others are mere rocky elevations rising from the lake, a few acres in extent. One and all are clothed with a rich carpet of verdure, extending from the heights almost to the water-level. The shores of these islands are almost invariably belted by a dense growth of bush and forest, or by groups of the graceful 'raphia' palm. The reflection of the trees and palms, mirrored in extreme detail upon the surface of the placid lake, combined with the picturesque background of hills, produces an effect of fairy-like loveliness and peaceful beauty hard to rival, and still harder to describe. Amongst the trees tiny hamlets nestle, while every clearing reveals well-cultivated fields, bordered by groves of rich bananas. In each bay and channel the canoes of the fishing population add life to the scene.

The prevailing tone of this island scenery, and, indeed, of the whole of Uganda, is green, of every shade imaginable, from the darkest olive to the most delicate emerald. These tints contrast delightfully with the patches of vivid red, observable wherever the surface-soil, or the underlying ironstone, is exposed, and their monotony is still further relieved by the vermilion bells of the many flowering trees which form brilliant spots of colour in the enchanting picture.

The region lying to the west of the Victoria Nyanza, between it and the 'Rift' valley, may be best described as a succession of terraces, rising one above the other to the escarpment of the Albertine depression. These terraces are much broken by rocky ridges, some of considerable' height, indicating the 'fault' lines of the period of the great dislocation, when the whole face of this portion of the earth's surface was changed. Much of this area is covered with primeval forest, many of the trees being of exceptional girth and height. The undergrowth is everywhere extremely thick, and overhead the branches meet so closely that, into the heart of these forests, the sun's rays barely penetrate, and a gloom resembling twilight prevails throughout their dark recesses. The air is hot and steamy, and the trees are entwined in the embraces of snake-like creepers of great thickness, which hang down in fantastic loops and festoons, and make progress extremely difficult. In these sanctuaries large herds of elephants wander at will, and in almost complete security. Their remoter strongholds are the home of the chimpanzee and many rare species of monkeys.

In some of the valleys the bamboo grows in luxuriance, but more often than not the hollows separating the ridges are filled with papyrus swamp, through which a sluggish stream slowly filters.

In the vicinity of Lake Albert Edward these ridges rise into a succession of mountain ranges, some of the higher peaks attaining a height of nearly 9,000 feet above the sea. At such altitudes the air is fresh and bracing, while the views are magnificent and of great extent. The slopes of the lower hills resemble terraced gardens, so profusely are they strewn with wild flowers. Like most plants in Uganda, these flowers are of large size, and in order to top the grass and reach the sunlight their stalks attain a height of several feet The effect of these varied masses of colour is extremely pleasing, and the traveller is reminded of Swiss mountain scenery when the 'alpen rosen' and the gentians are in bloom. Thick clumps of tall forest trees fill the valleys, and in these shady retreats brightly plumaged birds of many species are to be met with.

As the escarpment of the rift is approached the character of the landscape changes completely. The trees, the flowers, and the birds disappear, and a barren expanse, or table-land, of lava, interspersed by black and jagged rocks, extends to the very summit of the cliffs. The scene here is a remarkable one. The surface of the plateau is seamed by the inverted cones of extinct craters, many hundred feet in depth, close to one another, and frequently separated only by a ridge a few yards in width at the top. The simile of a gigantic honeycomb, of which the cones form the cells and the ridges the dividing walls, is irresistibly suggested. The sides of these craters are very steep, and, in almost every case. are covered with thick vegetation, their green slopes contrasting sharply with the sterility existing above ground-surface. Some of them contain small lakes, and, looking down from above into the pellucid water far below, the reflection of the trees and palms which border their shores is charmingly reproduced The traveller in this part of the country cannot help conjecturing as to what must have been its aspect when the many volcanoes, of which these craters once formed the outlets, were in full activity, and were all spouting flame, or throwing up streams of molten lava.

The remote sheet of water, known as Lake Albert Edward, although its general aspect is one of loneliness and gloom, is, nevertheless, at times invested with a wild beauty, visible on those rare occasions when the thick haze, which usually hangs over its surface, lifts and permits a view of its surroundings. On a clear day the views are very fine. At its southern extremity a tract of bare, lava-covered plain, in which geysers throw up jets of water and steam, rises sharply to the mountain range dividing the valley of the Albert Edward from that of Lake Kivu. Over the hill-tops a cloud perpetually broods, due to the smoke emitted by the craters of the still active volcanoes. West and north-west the Wakondio mountains form a noble background, rising apparently to the skies. This chain is among the finest in Central Africa, and its spurs descend, in a series of sheer precipices, to the shore of the lake. These mountains are, however—more particularly in the Semliki Valley—dwarfed by the imposing mass of Ruwenzori, which entirely dominates the landscape. The snow-clad peaks of this, the highest mountain in Africa, tower above all else, and stand out in distinct relief above the rugged summits of the secondary ranges. High up the western slopes of Ruwenzori, and across the deep gorge in which the Semliki skirts its base, extends an outlying area of the great Congo forest, the scene of Stanley's wanderings, and the home of the pigmy, the gorilla, and the strangely marked okapi. The eastern slopes are devoid of trees; but in almost every valley and cleft a glacier-fed stream tears down into the lake in a series of cascades of clear, icy-cold, and sparkling water.

The third and most northerly of the great reservoirs of the Nile is the Albert Nyanza, which, as has been explained, receives the waters of Lake Albert Edward, by means of the Semliki River. In shape the Albert Lake is long and narrow, and is chiefly remarkable for the grandeur of the mountains which confine its waters, like the walls of an immense rocky cistern. Looking across from the summit of the eastern cliffs, the panorama is a very striking one. The lake lies spread out a couple of thousand feet below, each bay, creek, and headland being distinctly visible in the clear atmosphere. On the western side tier upon tier of hills rises, one above the other, many of the peaks being of picturesquely irregular outline. The bases of the lower ranges are washed by the waves of this storm-haunted and desolate-looking lake. The eastern cliffs, like the plateau itself, are covered by thick bush, or forest, and descend almost perpendicularly to the flats below. The rivers which feed the Albert Nyanza, one and all, leap down the face of the escarpment in a series of grand waterfalls, some of the drops being many hundred feet in height.

Into the northern end of Lake Albert the Victoria Nile discharges itself, thus uniting the waters of the two great systems which together form the Nile sources. The actual outlet by which the river finally issues forth is situated a few miles to the north of this junction.

Before describing the course of the Nile, a few words regarding the different races which dwell within the land of its birth may not be out of place. If the scenery is varied, so also are the types of the inhabitants.

The north-eastern shore of Lake Victoria is the home of the Kavirondo, a tall, good-looking people, resembling the negro in nothing but the colour of their skin, and disdaining any attempt at clothing beyond a few beads. To the north of the Kavirondo country, on the Nandi plateau, dwells a fierce race, somewhat resembling the Masai of East Africa in its customs, cast of features, and its love of fighting, and not, as yet, acknowledging the supremacy of the Government. Both these peoples are in marked contrast with those inhabiting the country to the west of Lake Victoria—namely, the Baganda, a race of Hamitic origin. The Baganda have attained to a considerable degree of civilization, being decently clothed and expert agriculturists. Their dwellings are well built and comfortable. The chiefs are mostly of the Bahima blood. The Bahima are the aristocracy of the Uganda Protectorate, and are supposed to be originally of Galla stock. They are large cattle-owners, and are said to share with the Masai the practice of drinking the blood of the living animal They are a tall and handsome people, slightly fairer than the Baganda, and as a rule hold themselves severely aloof in the seclusion of the southern hills.

The shores of the Albertine lakes, and the valley of the Semliki, are occupied by races of mixed blood and inferior type, probably throwing back to that of the original inhabitants who occupied this country prior to the great Hamitic invasion. In the fastnesses of Kuwenzori are found the Bwamba—those ape-like men described by Sir Harry Johnston—while in the adjacent Congo forest dwell the strange dwarfs known as the Pigmies. Throughout the entire length of the Nile Valley, until replaced by the Arab far to the north, the dwellers upon either bank are of pure negro blood. The Nilotic negroes, although the several tribes differ much with respect to their customs and habits, are all of one common type: all exceptionally tall, and all coal-black in colour. The males go naked, and the clothing of the women is limited to a scanty apron of grass or hide. Although much given to fighting among themselves, the negroes of the Nile Valley are a good-humoured race of people, very indolent, and only cultivating the soil to an extent absolutely necessary to support life. They pass most of their time in hunting and fishing.

This digression finished, an endeavour will now be made to give some idea of the general course of the river from its source in the Victoria Lake.

The Nile, after its first leap over the beautiful Ripon Falls, traverses a hilly country, in a narrow channel, its stream being much broken by rapids and falls, and its bed rocky and full of reefs. On emerging from this region it passes through a chain of swampy lakes, succeeded by a tract of woodland country, and eventually encountering a fresh series of obstructions in the shape of rapids. Over these obstacles it dashes impetuously, with an increasing slope and velocity, until it reaches the 'Rift' escarpment, where it throws itself over the cliffs in the magnificent cascade—the finest throughout its entire course—to which Sir Samuel Baker gave the name of the Murchison Falls. Here the Nile, after rushing, like a mill-race, through a cleft in the rocks, under 20 feet in width, falls nearly 150 feet, in a double drop, into the pool below. The roar produced by the fell of this immense volume of water is deafening, and can be heard for many miles; while above the pool a perpetual cloud of spray, illumined by the iridescent colours of a rainbow, rises high in the air, like the steam from a boiling cauldron.

Leaving the falls behind, the river glides on with a swift current, between wooded hills, to the Albert Lake. Into this its waters discharge themselves across a reedy bar and through wide papyrus swamps. Thus far it has compassed a distance of 255 miles. Five miles to the norm it leaves the lake, and reassumes the appearance of a river. From this point of its course it is known as the Bahr-el-Gebel, or Mountain River, and this name is applied to it as far as Lake No, north of which it is known as the Bahr-el-Abyiad, or White Nile.

After issuing from Lake Albert, the Nile passes through a region of very varied aspect. At times it flows, with a narrow, deep section and a swift stream, between bush-covered but stony hills, a favourite retreat of the surly rhinoceros and the bush-loving antelopes. Again, for many miles, the high land recedes from the channel, and the river wanders sluggishly through wide, shallow, and reedy lakes, the haunt of the hippotamus, the crocodile, and a myriad water-fowl.

Eventually, after the narrow gut of Wadelai and the fever-stricken post of Dufile have been left behind, the grand range of the Kuku Mountains approaches the valley on me west, and diverts its course. A few miles further on—at the British post of Nimuli—it turns sharply to the north-west, and enters afresh upon a region of cataracts and rapids, which for the next hundred miles obstruct its flow, and render its course a tempestuous one.

Throughout this portion of the Nile Valley the river scenery presents a series of beautiful pictures. The mountains bar the stream on the west, rising almost vertically, with scarred and scarped faces, like a Titanic wall. To the east low, wooded hills run parallel to the river—at times, little more than stony ridges, but occasionally rising some hundred feet above the water. Many tributaries join the main river here, unfordable torrents during the rainy season, but for the rest of the year deep and ragged gashes in the general surface level, the boulders in their dry beds heap up in indescribable confusion.

The channel of the Nile is much broken by rocks and islands, and the rapids follow one another in constant succession. Both banks are fringed with a dense belt of bush and high reeds. Looking down any one of these reaches, the tumbling, indigo-coloured water, streaked with foamy threads of white, the purple background of hill and mountain, the sombre greens of the forests and the lighter tints of the reeds, with the brilliant blue of the sky overhead, present a combination of wild river scenery not often to be met with, and not easily to be forgotten. Occasionally, the remains of old forts and entrenchments are to be seen, crowning the summits of rocky elevations which command the stream. Some of these ruins bear historic names, such, for instance, as Laboré, Muggi, and Kiri, recalling the times when Emin Pasha and his lieutenants devoted all their energies to the introduction of a semblance of good government among the wild tribes of the Shuli, the Madi, and the Bari.

Past all these places the river flows on, at times raging at the obstructions placed in its path, and testifying to its indignation by the turbulence of its waters at every fall and rapid; at others, pursuing for a brief period an undisturbed course, between wooded islands, where small villages find shelter under a leafy shade. Again it tears through wild and narrow gorges, bounded by precipitous cliffs and rocky crags, until at length, as the mountains recede farther from the valley, it winds through a rolling expanse of woodland, much broken by ravines and ridges, the favourite abode of the lord of these forests—the mighty elephant. With each succeeding league the country becomes more open, and the granite hills are more isolated and further apart At length the conical peak of Rejaf is sighted—a sign that the mountainous country is coming to an end and that the land of the marshes is approaching. Finally, at 445 miles from the Ripon Falls, and not far from the station of Gondokoro, the river issues from the region of rapid, rock, and forest, through which it has for so long followed a troubled course, and enters upon the second and more peaceful phase of its career. At this point the scenery changes abruptly, as does the character of the stream itself

The narrow, rocky bed, the straight course, and the heavy fall in the levels, are replaced by a muddy bottom, a flat slope, and a broad channel, winding through grassy islands in a constant series of bends and sharp curves. Instead of high banks, bush-covered hills, deep ravines, and forest land, on either side now extend wide swamps, full of tall reeds, and interspersed with shallow lagoons and innumerable channels.

The width of the Nile Valley in the marsh country is considerable, in places being as much as eight or nine miles from high land to high land. Through and across this dreary expanse of swamp the river wanders, at times approaching one bank and then again the other. It rarely touches either, but crosses the marshes backwards and forwards in an exasperating succession of loops and twists. On both sides of the valley the dry land is marked by a belt of thorny bush, varying in width from a few hundred yards to several miles. Beyond this bush immense flat plains extend, covered with high class and scattered patches of forest These plains are intersected by shallow depressions, swamps during the rainy season, but connected one with another by reedy channels, which drain slowly into the Nile as it falls.

In this length of river the European stations of Mongalla, Lado, and Kivu—the last two Belgian—are situated. None of these places can be described as health resorts. Miserable as the general aspect of this portion of the Nile Valley is, there is worse to come. At 718 miles from Lake Victoria the Bahr-el-Zaraf, or Giraffe River, branches off from the main stream through the swamps to the east, and the Bahr-el-Gebel enters that dreadful tract known as the 'sudd' country. The word 'sudd' in the Arabic language means a barrier, and this name is now applied to the entire area in which the river is liable to be blocked by the water-weeds which break into its channel from the illimitable marshes through which it strives to force a tortuous passage. Throughout its entire length through the 'sudd' the Bahr-el-Gebel has no banks at all, and its water surface is flush with that of the swamps on either side.

It is difficult in words to give a fair conception of the general appearance of the 'sudd' country. Its utter desolation baffles any attempt at description. Even the most arid desert seems a desirable spot by comparison with this horrible morass. Its confines once entered, all trace of high land shortly disappears, and a dead-flat horizon meets the view in every direction—a sea of reeds and a waste of water. For nearly 800 miles the Bahr-el-Gebel wanders between hedges of tall papyrus, much of which stands quite 15 feet above the river surface. Occasionally a palm-tree or a stunted mimosa is visible in the far distance, indicating the existence of a dry patch of land; but such objects only intensify the general flatness. The 'sudd' blocks form obstacles of a most serious nature, and if not cleared away as soon as they form close the river altogether. These blocks are chiefly caused by the breaking loose during stormy weather of large areas of the reeds, which find a nursery in the shallow lagoons so common in this locality. These water-plants, mainly consisting of papyrus and two varieties of tall grasses, grow in the beds of the lagoons. The attachment of their roots, however, is not a very stable one, and in strong winds, especially if accompanied by a rise in the water levels, they become easily detached. The result is a floating island, formed by a mass of vegetation, closely bound together by creeping plants, and by the earth which still adheres to the roots of the larger reeds. Should such an island drift into the river channel, it is carried along by the stream until it reaches a sharp bend or a narrow point, when it comes to an anchor. Other islands of the same nature probably follow it, and are similarly arrested, the area of the original obstruction being by this means enlarged. By the pressure thus caused, the floating mass is gradually compressed into a smaller space, its thickness below water being consequently augmented, and the waterway beneath it proportionately diminished. This necessarily causes an increased velocity in the contracted water section, and as fresh portions of 'sudd' float down the stream they are sucked below the surface, and so tend still further to add to the thickness of the obstacle. With each fresh addition the area of the waterway is diminished, and the compression increases until the entire mass becomes wedged into a solid block of crushed reeds and earth, sometimes as much as 20 feet thick, and so solid that a hippopotamus can cross it with impunity. Experience has proved that the best way of removing such an obstacle is to commence from the down-stream end and cut the surface by means of trenches into blocks of some 10 feet square. Round the block thus cut a wire hawser is bound, and the steamer to which it is attached goes full speed astern. This operation is repeated until the block is pulled out. It is then allowed to float down-stream, and another is removed in the same manner. The work is long and laborious, but when the 'plug,' so to speak, of the obstruction has been removed, the pressure of the water assists the process, and at length the whole mass bursts and finds its way down the stream.

One striking feature of this region is the almost entire absence of all kinds of life. Not a fishing village or a canoe is ever seen. Even the hippopotamus and the crocodile appear to shun this locality, and water-birds, elsewhere so plentiful, are, with the exception of a few night-herons or an occasional cormorant, rarely met with here. If, however, this solitude is to be deplored by day, the same complaint cannot be made during the night—as far, at all events, as insect life is concerned. With the disappearance of the sun the mosquito makes his appearance in countless myriads, and his hum resounds through the entire period of darkness. The air swarms with these pests, and on a still night life is made a burden by their attentions.

The general feeling of all those whom an unkind fate has obliged to spend any time within the 'sudd' region is one of relief when they have passed through it, and have issued again into the open river and into an atmosphere comparatively clearer and less unwholesome.

In spite of the drawbacks connected with climate, mosquitoes, and monotony of landscape, it must, nevertheless, be admitted that even this dismal country occasionally produces a spectacle which goes far to redeem the depressing influences of its surroundings.

At certain seasons the thick growth of creepers which entwines and covers the papyrus bursts out into a glory of blue and purple flowers, resembling the convolvulus in appearance. The effect of these masses of brilliant colour, set in a dark green background, is a very lovely one.

Again, as the sun sets, particularly during the rainy season, when the western sky is ablaze with orange and crimson, and the water reflects the colours of a fire-opal—the glare below being separated from the paler tints of turquoise in the sky above by bands of claret-coloured or purple clouds—a glamour is cast over the melancholy marsh-land, which temporarily obliterates the repulsiveness of its general aspect.

At night, when the moon is at the full, the enchantment is even more potent As she rises above the mists, a soft golden light is diffused all around, and against the radiancy of this glow the reeds and tall grasses stand out in strong and dark relief, each delicate thread of the papyrus fronds being distinctly traceable. To add to the magical effect, glittering points of light like tiny stars flit about in all directions through the reeds, marking the path of the fireflies, and deepening the gloom of the background. The stillness is intense, only broken by the occasional splash of a fish. The scene, under such conditions, is most impressive in its weird beauty; so much so, that the observer is for the moment apt to forget that this region is one of the most fever-stricken and desolate upon the face of the earth. With the return of daylight, or the disappearance of the moon, the spell is broken, and the feeling of depression revives.

Everything at last comes to an end, and even the 'sudd' country is eventually traversed and left behind.

At 985 miles from the Ripon Falls the Bahr-el-Gebel emerges into the shallow, reedy expanse of water known as Lake No, nearly 60 per cent. of its discharge having been wasted and evaporated in the endless marshes through which it has lately passed. It is here joined by the Bahr-el-Ghazal, or Gazelle River, from the west From this point it is called the White Nile. The character of the river scenery now changes, and, by contrast with that recently passed through, improves. The stream is broad, open, and fairly straight, and although bordered on either side by wide areas of swamp, the dry land is visible beyond, sometimes marked by a belt of forest, but more often extending to the horizon in a high, grassy plain, upon which many native villages are located. There is now plenty of life upon the banks, as the Shilluks, who occupy the western shore, own large herds of cattle which they bring down to pasture in the marshes. They themselves are to be seen in numbers fishing and hunting the hippopotamus or the crocodile. The country to the east of the White Nile was formerly the home of the powerful Dinka tribe, but these last, during the dervish occupation, migrated inland, and are now only beginning to return to the river-bank.

Some fifty miles down-stream of Lake No the Bahr-el-Zaraf rejoins the White Nile, and at 1,060 miles from Lake Victoria its largest and most important tributary, the Sobat, enters it on the eastern bank. This stream largely influences the discharge of the main river, and from May to the end of November brings a larger volume of water into the Nile than ever succeeds in passing through the southern marshes from the equatorial lakes. The colour of the Sobat water, when rising, is a creamy white, changing, when in full flood, to a brick-red. Its stream tinges that of the White Nile for many a mile below the junction.

The next 800 miles of river merit but a brief description; indeed, any attempt at a detailed account of the dreary scenery here met with would be monotonous to an extreme degree, and would involve endless repetition. A few isolated granite hills stand out from the surrounding plains, and occasionally rocks crop up in the riverbed. The section of the stream is wide and shallow, and the current is feeble. The marshes continue on either side, varying in width according as the channel recedes from or approaches the high land. The grass plains, which extend to the east and west, are separated from the river by a band of bush and forest. In certain localities villages are fairly numerous, but, on the whole, this area is thinly populated, and its wide pasture-lands are chiefly occupied by herds of wild-buffalo, giraffe, and many species of antelope. North of the Sobat the elephant, except during the rains, is rarely met with near the river. He prefers the solitude of the interior, where he is not disturbed by his enemy, man, and where food and water are plentiful This reach of the Nile contains the posts of Taufikia, Kodok (late Fashoda), Renk, and Goz Abu Groma. Close to the latter station is the ford of Abu Zeid. Here the depth of water is, at low Nile, so small that through navigation at times is arrested, and ^portages' by land are rendered necessary.

At mile 1,370 the large island of Abba (once the home of the Mahdi) divides the stream into two branches. At this point the 'sudd' vegetation and the marshes—properly so called—come to an end. The river-banks now consist of long shelving beaches, flooded at high water, but in no sense of the word swamps. The forest becomes thinner, and is replaced by bush, while the soil is lighter, and more sandy.

Here, too, the country of the negro ceases, and that of the Arab commences. It is perhaps worth mentioning that, right across Africa, north latitude 13° marks the dividing-line between the Arab the camel owner, and the negro the cattle proprietor. North of this line the camel forms the chief source of wealth to the nomad tribes; south of it his place is taken by the ox and the sheep. As soon as the Nile has crossed this parallel of latitude, the change in the life of the people is apparent Whereas in Negroland cultivation on the river-bank is entirely unknown, in the Arab country the entire population migrates to the Nile in summer, bringing with them their flocks and herds, and cultivating the foreshores and the mud flats. As the water falls, the scene at such times is a busy one.

North of the station of El-Duem (mile 1,458), villages are numerous, the beehive grass 'tukl' of the negro being replaced by a more substantial structure, built of mud, with a dome-shaped roof. To the west lies the country of the Baggara Arabs, and the east, or Ghezireh, is inhabited by a population of mixed blood.

The width of the White Nile now increases, until it resembles a lake rather than a river. The forest land entirely disappears. The river here is thronged by immense flocks of pelicans, storks, geese, ducks, and other water-birds.

Eventually the palms of Khartoum and the roofs of Omdurman are distinguishable in the distance, and the historic tree—mentioned by the earlier travellers as the spot where all fleets starting for the south used to assemble—makes a good landmark on the eastern bank. Gradually the different buildings show up through the shimmer of the mirage which hangs over these plains, and a few miles further on—after rounding the long low point of land which, from its supposed resemblance to the trunk of an elephant, gives its name to Khartoum—a strong stream, coming from the east, is felt, and the Blue Nile and the White Nile unite.

At this junction the waters of the White Nile have traversed a distance of 1,580 miles from the outlet of the river in the Victoria Lake. Looking east, the picturesque river-front of Khartoum presents an animated scene. The Blue Nile is filled by craft of every description—from the small native skiff to the large stern-wheel steamer plying between Khartoum and Omdurman.

Except during the period prior to the annual rise, when the Blue Nile is practically dry, and the waters of the White Nile fill the empty channel, the stream of the eastern river, being much stronger than that coming from the west, forces the waters of the latter right across the western shore. At all times the effect of the meeting of the two rivers is a striking one. In flood the Blue Nile brings down an immense volume of chocolate-coloured water, and holds back the discharge of the White Nile, ponding this river up and flooding the marshes for many hundred miles up-stream of the junction.

Even during the winter months the contrast between the waters of the two streams is a remarkable one. The colour of the White Nile never varies, and is at all times an olive-green—almost gray; while, when the Blue Nile flood has passed away, the water of that river is exceptionally clear, and in sunshine the reflection of the sky causes its surface to assume a brilliant blue. A hard-and-fast line marks the meeting of the two currents for a long way down-stream of the junction.

No description is here necessary of either Khartoum or Omdurman. Interesting as both these places are, full details of their environments are to be found in almost every Egyptian guide-book.

Space does not permit of more than a very brief account of the Nile in its journey to the north, conveying the united waters of the two great streams which combine to form that single river to which Egypt owes its prosperity. As, moreover, its valley north of Wadi Halfa is now almost as well known as that of the Rhine, the scantiest allusion will suffice for that portion of its course.

North of Khartoum the trough of the Nile is of considerable breadth, and full of sandbanks and of large islands, many of which are highly cultivated. To the west the desert stretches an expanse of broken ground, relieved by occasional rocky ridges and ranges of low hills. On the east the country is flat, and, although now waste and bush-covered, its soil is good, and only requires irrigation to render it capable of producing excellent crops. This area forms a portion of the famous island of Meroe—in ancient times renowned for its fertility—comprised within the triangle formed by the Nile, the Rahad, and the Atbara.

At rather less than forty miles below Khartoum the Nile enters the narrow gorge of Shabluka. Here the stream passes, with a deep section and rapid current, between two ranges of hills, which rise sharply from the water on either side. The length of this pass is about four miles, and at its northern extremity the Shabluka Rapids, formerly called the Sixth Cataract, commence. Even at half-flood this obstacle is navigable for steamers, but care is at all times necessary, as the only safe channel is a very crooked one, and the river-bed is much studded by rocks. The scenery of these rapids is beautiful. The Nile is split up into several branches by islands, all thickly covered with trees and a luxuriant undergrowth. Through this foliage the shining black surface of the granite rocks projects at intervals, making a sharp and agreeable contrast. The trees are completely swathed in bands of lovely creepers, which entirely mask their shape, and hang down in graceful festoons, resembling a rich green velvet curtain. At times these creepers are resplendent with bright blue flowers. The colour of the near hills is a purple-red, and of those at a distance from the river a deep violet.

The rippling water is full of ever-changing lights. Shabluka is certainly one of the most charming spots upon the Nile, and it is to be regretted that tourists nowadays are obliged to make this portion of their journey to Khartoum by rail, and consequently miss seeing this picturesque reach of the river. Between Shabluka and the Atbara the river-banks are high, and the country is generally flat, except where broken by ridges of stony hills. Bush covers the greater portion of this area, but the remains of large villages and of former cultivation show that it must once have been prosperous and thickly populated.

This reach of the Nile contains the old towns of Shendy, famous for its pyramids and ruined temples, and Metemmeh, notorious for the wholesale massacre of the powerful tribe of Jaalin Arabs by the dervish Emir Mahmoud in 1898.

The Atbara River, now spanned by an iron railway-bridge, joins the main stream on it eastern bank at 1,790 miles from its source at the Ripon Palls. This is the most southerly of the tributaries of the Nile, and between this point and the sea, a distance of nearly 1,700 miles, it does not receive the water of a single affluent, either small or great. The Atbara, in flood, brings down a large addition to the volume of the Nile, and its waters are highly charged with deposit.

After passing Berber, the point upon which the caravan routes used to centre, and Abu Hamed, where the Soudan Railway leaves the river and runs across the desert direct to Wadi Halfa, the Nile takes a great bend to the north-west, forming a loop some 587 miles in length before arriving at the open water below the Second Cataract. Within this loop, in which the river-bed is an almost continuous succession of cataract and rapid, is situated the Province of Dongola. To the west extends the great Bayuda Desert, the home of the Sawarab, the Hawawir, and the Hassaniyeh tribes, while further north the long depression known as El-Kab, the habitat of the Kababish Arabs, extends parallel to the Nile for several days' journey. To the east of the river the desert covers the country in a continuous sheet, broken by ranges of granite hills, to the coast of the Red Sea. After traversing the wild, inhospitable, and rocky region inhabited by the Monasir, Robatab, and Shaghyieh Arabs, the Nile at last passes Merawi, the southern extremity of the Dongola Province. Between this point and Kerma, a distance of 200 miles, its course is open, and unbroken by either rock and reef.

Merawi, the ancient Napata, is picturesquely situated opposite to the fine mountain of Gebel Barkal, whose bold outline shows above the surrounding landscape as if guarding the ruins of Queen Candace's capital. The extent covered here by pyramids and monuments testifies to the former importance of this once famous city.

hs Between Merawi and Kerma many places bearing well-known names are passed. Korti, Debba, New Dongola, and Hafir, all recall memories of the two British expeditions to the Soudan, while old Dongola was the stronghold of the priest-kings of Ethiopia during the nine centuries in which Christianity flourished throughout this region.

Throughout this portion of the Nile Valley, in spite of the narrow width of the cultivated area, there are evidences of considerable prosperity. The population is increasing, and the province bids fair to return to that state of fertility for which it was formerly renowned.

At certain seasons of the year a small fly appears in myriads in the Dongola Province, and makes life almost intolerable. So bad is it that the natives when at work in their fields hold a brazier of live coals in front of their faces.

The Danagla, or Dongolawi, are a race of very mixed blood, in which Arab, negro, and Berberi all have their share.

Near Kerma, at Hannek, the cataracts recommence, and continue uninterruptedly as far north as Wadi Halfa, a distance of 240 miles. The river scenery in this region is extremely wild, but also in places extremely beautiful. For the last 100 miles up-stream of Halfa the Nile traverses that desolate extent of sand and rocks called by the Arabs the 'Batn-el-Hagar,' or Belly of Stone. A grimmer or more savage region than this it is impossible to imagine. In every direction black, fantastically-shaped peaks and boulders arise, apparently thrown haphazard upon the surface, the wild confusion extending into space. Not a tree, or even a bush, breaks the barren expanse, and so impossible is this country that the line of railway which connects Kerma with Wadi Halfa is to be taken up and relaid elsewhere, the gradients and curves, necessitated by the conformation of this wilderness, having baffled even the ingenuity of the engineers to adjust.

In the immediate vicinity of the river the scenery is fine, rendered more so perhaps by the contrast with the sterility of the adjacent landscape.

Deep gorges, foaming rapids, wooded islands, and sandy or pebbly beaches are passed in constant succession. Here and there a small village, in the midst of a minute area of cultivation and surrounded by groves of date-palms, gives a pleasing idea of peace and calm amidst the turmoil of the general surrounding. Occasionally the remains of old fortresses are visible upon the crags. Some of these correspond with the advent of the Mamelukes, but others are of fax older date, constructed by the Bosnian soldiers despatched by the Sultan of Turkey to the King of Ethiopia in the fifteenth century. Among the many beautiful spots in this portion of the Nile Valley may be instanced Dulgoh, with its Rhine-like scenery; Khaibar, with its wall of black granite spanning the river-channel, and flanked at either end by the Keddain hills; Dal, with its noble rapids and green islands; and Sarras, the former frontier station, with its picturesque reach of river.

At 2,500 miles from its sources at the equator the Nile emerges from the long rapids of the Second Cataract and passes Wadi Haifa, the terminus of the Soudan Railway. In its course from Khartoum to this point the fall in the bed-levels has been as much as 850 feet. From Wadi Haifa to the First Cataract, a distance of 200 miles, the river is open, and navigable throughout the year. This region is that of Nubia proper—a country of rocky hills and golden-coloured sand, with occasional stretches of cultivation, and many date-palms. The colour of the sand is one of the most striking features of Nubian scenery. By daylight it has a peculiarly warm orange tint, which makes the black of. the rocks show up sharply, and by the light of a Nubian moon it seems to glow with a ruddy hue, resembling a snow-field, just tinged by the rays of the rising sun. Throughout this reach of river tiny villages may be observed perched among the rocks, well above water-level. Below them, on the narrow strip of level, are small areas of crop, fringed by continuous lines of palms. By day and night, throughout the season when the river is low, the drone of the 'sakia,' or water-wheel, is a sound that rarely ceases.

Barren as is the soil, and scanty as are his means of living, the Nubian loves his rocky home, and can with difficulty be induced to leave it, even if he is offered a more kindly climate and surroundings. This portion of Nubia contains many monuments of an earlier civilization, among them the temple of Abu Simbel standing out pre-eminently, with its fine facade and its grand colossi hewn out of the solid rock.

At Korosko—half-way—the influence of the Nile reservoir is first felt, and the inhabitants have constructed new dwellings, at a higher elevation than their old ones, so as to be above the highest water-level under the new conditions.

After passing through the Kalabsha Gate, with its contracted river-channel and fine granite cliffs, a length of some thirty miles brings the temples to Philæ and the palm-trees of Shellal into view. Here the last cataract—that of Assouan—commences, now spanned by the great dam, with its five locks for navigation.

Some few miles down-stream the town of Assouan, with its fine hotels and charming river-front, is reached, the Nile having at this point traversed a distance of just 2,700 miles from its outlet at the Victoria Nyanza.

For the 600 miles of river between Assouan and Cairo no description is necessary. Twelve miles to the north of the city of the Caliphs the Nile bifurcates into the two branches of Rosetta and Damietta, and between them lies the area known as the Delta, so renowned for its fertility and its prosperity. At the apex of the Delta are situated Mougel Bey's two barrages.

The distance from this point to the sea is about 160 miles, and the total distance between the Ripon Falls and the Mediterranean is consequently rather more than 3,400 miles.

The Nile, in making this journey, probably passes
map of the Nile
through more varied conditions of country, soil, and climate, and affords existence to a greater variety of races than is the case with any other among the main waterways of the world.

To describe it in any detail would fill a large volume. Much has been written regarding it, but much remains yet to be recorded. It must always—not only on account of its physical characteristics, but also because of the place which it has maintained throughout the world's history—be one of the most interesting of the great streams which water the earth's surface.


  1. This title has been given advisedly. The Nile, in its course from the Ripon Falls to the sea, traverses a distance of some 8,400 miles. Treated as a single river, then, it stands first as regards length among the principal streams of the world, the Yang-tse-Kiang coming next with 3,300 miles. If, however, to the mileage of the main rivers be added that of their longest affluents, then the Mississippi, with its great tributary the Missouri, comes first, with a waterway of 4,100 miles, and the Nile— even taking into account the united lengths of the Victoria Lake and the Kagera River—only fills the second place, its total length not exceeding 3,900 miles.