Africa’s On-Going Attraction: Levison Wood’s “Walking the Nile”

My immediate response to Levison Wood’s 4250 mile walk of the Nile was jealousy. Oh, to be a younger man, to have seen so much of Africa. Fitbit has sent me a couple of congratulations, informing me that I have walked 3000 miles twice, which isn’t the same thing at all. But still, I can dream. Levison (an English writer and explorer) walked the Nile (although I’d say there are a couple of caveats about that trek) over the course of nine months, beginning in Rwanda in late 2013 and ending at the Mediterranean, in Egypt, all those months later. Since I’ve been enamored of Africa for more than fifty years, Walking the Nile was pretty compelling reading.

For decades, the Nile’s origin was in dispute. Down through the years, several countries claimed its origin. Wood sides with Rwanda, in a remote village named Nyungwe, south of Kigali, which he passes through before entering Tanzania and then Uganda. He provides details of the travels of earlier explorers and plenty of information about each country he passes through. Thus, in Rwanda, he summarizes the details of the genocide in 1993. And that tragedy will reverberate later when he reaches Lake Victoria, in Northern Uganda, and remark that “In May 1994, the first bloated corpses of those Tutsis who had been cast into the river and not eaten by crocodiles had begin to reach Lake Victoria.” There are chilling details like this throughout the book, such as an orphanage in Kasansero, a village in Uganda, where AIDS in said to have originated. Seventy percent of the population still suffer from the scourge.

The details of Wood’s trip are often chilling and, at least once, tragic. He has to be careful of snakes, fire ants, and scorpions; he eats beans and wonders about their taste only to discover that they have were infested with maggots; he observes massive deforestation in northern Uganda. Thus, there are plenty of obstacles he must overcome. The continent itself is clearly not doing well, rarely addressing its numerous problems. Still in Uganda, at Murchison Falls, he writes about the decline of the large hoofed animals, especially elephants. The temperature nearby reaches 49 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit). During the first several countries, a Congolese guide, named Boston, accompanies him. The worst incident in the first half of the book is the death of one of his friends, Matthew Power, from dehydration, who had chosen to accompany Wood on one leg of his trip through northern Uganda. It’s a disturbing scene with Wood’s remorse haunting him the rest of the journey.

Even before they enter South Sudan, the country’s problems are obvious. The civil war—in Africa’s newest country—has resulted in a massive refugee exit, as thousands of people flee into Uganda. walkingnileBoston informs Wood of one major source of the war: government corruption, billions of dollars “gone missing.” Still, the two of them proceed to walk through the country, entering at Nimule, at the border, and on to Juba, where they are arrested. There have been problems with authorities earlier, in spite of their visas and local guides and the men they hire to carry their provisions. There’s time in jail, but local authorities are eventually convinced that Wood is not a spy, but an explorer, with the perhaps foolish plan to walk the Nile, but nothing particularly threatening about that.

The South Sudan situation, however, is the most precarious thus far, with Wood regretting that he has let Boston continue so far with him. He’s worried about his guide’s safety, the possible risk to his life, and eventually decides that he must return home. The war between the Nuer and the Dinkas makes it unlikely that Wood can continue his trek, but for a time he does (again, with local guides), recording the destruction he observes everywhere. At Bor, which has changed hands several times, he encounters rubble as far as he can see, mass graves, crude, racist graffiti about the upheaval, and this telling moment: “ATMs [at a bank] hung from walls like eyeballs from their sockets.” He is repeatedly warned not to continue north, where the worst fighting is going on. Finally, he realizes that he cannot walk through a war zone, so he flies to Khartoum (well beyond the border) and then backtracks to the southern most part of Sudan, where he can continue walking the Nile.

By Khartoum, also, Wood is in exhausted, his feet and legs suffer from “blisters, sores and cramps.” He has second thoughts about the entire undertaking: “I woke every morning, feeling sick to the stomach at the thought of the long months of nothingness, of endless dunes and unchanging horizon.” Some of the worst territory is still to be traversed. The several days he spends in a number of the larger cities does little to reinvigorate him. Yet, he persists, with new guides and carriers, north of Khartoum, where a side-trip takes him to the Meroe pyramids, in the Bayuda Desert, “the capital of the Nubian Kingdom of Kush for hundreds of years.” The temperature reaches 132 degrees Fahrenheit. Even following the Nile is impossible. At Abu Hamad, the Nile veers west for a couple of hundred kilometers and government installations at a dam are off limits. Thus, it’s necessary to cross the Nubian Desert in order to reach the northern most part of Sudan where the Nile flows north again just before entering Egypt.

Crossing the Nubian Desert is the most difficult part of the trek. Along with two friends who join him for this portion of the trip, his Sudanese guide and two men to watch over three camels that have been purchased, they diagonal northwest only to learn that the local guides have never taken this route. They encounter a huge sandstorm, or Haboob, the local name, that Wood describes as “a land tsunami.” They fear their water will run out but rain follows the Haboob, followed by heat that reaches 143 degrees. Just as their water totally runs out, an oasis appears, but not until they have experienced a fear that they will be burnt to death. And then, shortly after being saved by the oasis, they reach the Nile, not so far from the border that will take them into Egypt.

There’s a brief bit of comic relief as Wood and his friends leave their two Sudanese camel handlers and their guide through Sudan, and then sell the three camels. They are informed that no one is permitted to walk over the border but must go by boat. Wood ponders how he can be walking the Nile if he can’t walk overland for this important juncture into Egypt, the final country. After his friends leave him, he learns that “tourists” are not permitted to wander outside of certain permitted zones, namely the cities: “Aswan, Luxor, Cairo, Alexandria and the Red Sea resorts.” Their mobility has been totally confined because it’s only a month after Morsi was disposed. After the Arab Spring, the country has returned to a paranoid police state. So how can he cross the country, walking?

Once he passes through Egyptian customs, there’s another shakedown. His possessions are all confiscated. But with the help of a country guide, named Turbo (who loves fast cars), he makes arrangements to complete the final thousand-mile walk through Egypt. But this is where I had a major problem with Levison Wood. Turbo’s fee for this assistance is $34,000. Whoa! Suddenly Wood provides us with this revelation: “If I didn’t pay then the past seven months of walking, and several years of planning, would be a complete waste of time. There’d be no film, no book, and no money to give to the charities I’d wanted to support. In effect, it was pay or give up.” Was I naïve to believe that Wood had undertaken his elaborate trip by himself, only with the aid of local (paid) guides and carriers but not fixers?

I searched my computer and discovered that a four-sequence movie with the same title as the book has already been shown on British TV. The preview for the sequence, on U-Tube, is spectacular, but begs the question of whether Wood and his friends, guides, and carriers where ever in the dangerous situations he describes if a film crew followed them around. And what does that say about Matthew Power’s death? Did the film crew just watch him die of dehydration? There’s no way for me to tell. Possibly the film crew wasn’t present all the times there were worries of death (such as in the Nubian Desert). Still, I believe that Wood needed to be up-front with this information about the TV crew, not tossing it out as a fact when he has to pay $34,000 to cross the final country.

Police shadow Wood and his guide every minute of his thirty-day walk through Egypt. They’re always off in the distance. “My every move was being watched, my every word recorded, my every action noted.” Still, he raptures about the kindness of individual Egyptians who helped him during his trek, giving him food, putting him up for a night—in short, their incredible friendliness. He could never have made the trip without the kindness of perfect strangers all along the way. And the length of the trip? 271 days. But then, he was finally able to frolic in the Mediterranean.

Obviously, my reaction to Levison Wood’s Walking the Nile is mixed. I loved what I read, but then I thought that the rug had been pulled out from under my feet. Yes, contemporary explorers need support systems to carry their provisions—and, I suppose, GPS systems, also revealed late in the narrative. And they need local guides who speak the languages and can facilitate any difficulties with the indigenous people. But film crews, who might also offer assistance when needed?

A detailed map would have been helpful in order to follow Wood’s impressive undertaking.

Levison Wood: Walking the Nile

Atlantic Monthly Press, 368 pp., $26.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.