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Journey to the source of the Nile

  • Lake Victoria, near Jinja in southern Uganda, is considered to be the place where the life-giving river originated
  • In 2012, British travel show Top Gear embarked on a modern-day expedition to locate the source of Nile, complete with a camera crew, and claimed to trace it to Tanzania

White-bellied cormorants at an island off Jinja.
White-bellied cormorants at an island off Jinja. (Alamy)
The blue and white sign indicating the source of the Nile at Jinja.
The blue and white sign indicating the source of the Nile at Jinja. (Alamy)

Discovering the source of the Nile became a colonial obsession as soon as Europeans arrived in mainland Africa. The river cut across 11 countries during its course from central-east to north Africa, making everything it touched fecund with its rich black silt and freshwater, propelling the Egyptian civilization into becoming one of the richest. Where did it originate? Many a Victorian explorer attempted to solve that enduring mystery.

English explorer John Hanning Speke—with a piercing stare and a luscious beard—was one of them. Despite three failed expeditions in east Africa, he managed to reach the shores of Lake Victoria, a massive waterbody that straddles Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, near a dusty town called Jinja, on a sunny July day in 1862. Standing on its banks near a roaring waterfall (which he christened Ripon Falls), Speke had a hunch that he had finally traced the river’s source.

Despite Speke’s claims, numerous theories persisted about the Nile’s origins, and still do. And the allure of discovering the river’s source has never lost its sheen.

Recording his observations that July day in his journal, Speke wrote: “the roar of the waters, the thousands of passenger-fish leaping at the falls with all their might; the Wasoga and Waganda fishermen coming out in boats and taking post on all the rocks with rod and hook, hippopotami and crocodiles lying sleepily on the water…"

More than a century later, standing on the shores of Lake Victoria in Jinja on a sunny afternoon in July, what I saw was nothing as momentous. Present-day Jinja is a far cry from Speke’s time. Ripon Falls is now only a memory; it disappeared when a dam was built downstream in 1947. A smattering of shops selling garments, wooden knick-knacks and rolex—a Ugandan street-food star comprising omelette rolled in chapati—welcome the visitor on both sides of the tumble-down arrangement of concrete steps that descend to the lake’s bank. The jet-black coat of a piapiac (an African ground crow) glistens in the afternoon sun as it skitters by, chasing an insect. At a distance of about 500m from the shore, beside the grassy knoll of an island, a blue and white sign reads “The source of R.Nile, Jinja."

Standing in the shade of tropical trees, near a concrete bust of Mahatma Gandhi unveiled in 1997 by then Indian prime minister I. K. Gujral—commemorating the time in 1948 when Gandhi’s ashes were scattered in the Nile—I consider my options. Realizing, after some mental calculation, that a 40-minute ride to the island with the blue and white sign in boatman Paul’s creaky motorboat would cost me upwards of $50 (about 3,600), I wonder whether the ride is worth it. But it is one thing to avoid a boat ride because it is touristy and quite another to pass up an opportunity to visit one of the sources of the Nile itself. I decide to hire Paul. Some pleasures are perhaps worth giving in to, despite how eye-wateringly expensive they are.

The swelling, untamed water of Lake Victoria is still an awe-inspiring sight. Today, Western tourists in twill shorts, straw hats and sunglasses arrive in hordes. I had driven 2 hours east from the capital city of Kampala, on impossibly undulating roads fringed by tea, sweet potato and sugar-cane plantations. Jinja welcomed me with the sight of the hulking fermenting tanks of a beer brewery at the town’s entrance, belonging to the much loved and ubiquitous Ugandan beer brand Nile.

On the boat, I trail my hand in the water, which is neither cold nor warm. As we bob along, I see a middle-aged man cradling his ageing guitar sitting on a plastic chair on a raised concrete lookout and watching me from behind his sunglasses. His gaze is suggestive of mid-afternoon languor. The July sunshine falling on the water bounces back like fireworks in the daylight. I raise my phone to click a picture, wondering if I am breaching this private moment by violating it for an Instagram picture, and decide to let it go.

In 2012, British travel show Top Gear and its goofball hosts (Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May) embarked on a modern-day expedition to locate the source of the Nile, complete with a camera crew, and claimed to have traced it to Tanzania. In 2006, three explorers, Neil McGrigor, Cam McLeay and Garth MacIntyre, claimed to have tracked the Nile’s origins deep in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest.

The fact that Lake Victoria is fed by numerous water sources—particularly the Kagera on the Tanzanian side, the Ruvyuronza on the Burundi side and the Nyabarongo on the Rwandan side—makes it difficult to ascertain the source of the Nile. Technically, the origins of these rivers can also be termed the origins of the Nile. Nevertheless, Jinja marks perhaps the more accessible of the Nile’s sources.

By now the lower-Equatorial sun has descended on us but the breeze still feels comforting. The caramelized smell of the roasted bananas I had bought earlier from a hawker rises to fill the boat. An open-billed stork pokes around on the bank, looking for crab. Long-tailed cormorants and pied kingfishers with a smattering of black polka dots on their white feathers dive headlong into the waters to fish. A huge monitor lizard slithers into the water.

The boat struggles against the current towards the island. On reaching the grassy knoll, I am greeted by a shop selling the same paraphernalia as the shops on the shore. Another rocky island nearby looks whitewashed with bird excrement.

When I finally walk up to the signboard announcing the source of the Nile, I am struck by the ordinariness of it all. At the edge of the island, a shipwrecked boat provides photo-ops for tourists. I take off my sandals and sit on the ground, dipping my feet in the water. Lake Victoria’s waters fill the horizon as far as the eye can see, before being interrupted by the greenery of Ugandan mountains.

Jinja has certainly lost its charm with expeditioners since you can practically drive up to Lake Victoria’s bank now. In the larger scheme of things, Jinja remains one of the many sources of the Nile. But since I am only on an expedition-lite version of Nile exploration, it doesn’t feel anticlimactic. Nevertheless, what is remarkable is that in the era of untrammelled exposure to every nook of the planet, some mysteries like the source of the Nile persist.

Prathap Nair is an independent journalist based in Frankfurt, Germany.

A memorial with a list of countries in the Nile’s path greets visitors at the entrance to Lake Victoria.
A memorial with a list of countries in the Nile’s path greets visitors at the entrance to Lake Victoria. (Prathap Nair)

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