Walking the Nile by Levison Wood

Walking the Nile is an extremely good travelogue detailing Levison Wood's 9 month journey from the source of the Nile in Rwanda's Nyungwe Forest to the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt by foot. Travelling close to 6,700 kilometres through tropical forests, swamps, mangroves and deserts, Wood's achievement amidst civil wars and bureaucratic nightmares fully deserves to rank among the best of modern day exploration feats.

In the footsteps of other great explorers, Wood decides that he will walk the length of the Nile from its furthest tributary to where it terminates in the Mediterranean Sea simply "because its there". This true source of the Nile, have previously been claimed to have been found by the Ascend the Nile team after travelling the length of this most beguiling of rivers southwards from the Mediterranean by using cars and boats in 2005 and 2006. In a classic show of one-upmanship, Wood decides to do reverse the journey and complete it by only using the power of his own two legs.

Wood's journey takes him through six uniquely different countries. Beginning at a mere trickle of water in the tropical forest of Nyungwe, Walking the Nile provides a good primer on the genocidal atrocities that occurred within Rwanda and how the country is still attempting to cope with the aftermath more than 20 years later. Travelling briefly through Tanzania to where the river empties into Lake Victoria, Wood then marches to the widely held beginning of the (Victoria) Nile at Jinga in Uganda. En route he provides good background information on the ongoing AIDS epidemic in Uganda while visiting an AIDS orphanage. 

From here, he presses on to the world's newest country, South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Still embroiled in an ongoing civil war, Wood finds himself in the middle of a fire fight in Bor, which isn't too surprising given South Sudan rates as the worst country, even worse than Somalia, in the Fragile States Index (formerly known as the Failed States Index) by the think tank Fund for Peace. Making his way to Sudan, Wood finds a country which rates as one of the most hospitable in the world and one which is home to the Meroe Pyramids which are now firmly ensconced on my Bucket List. On ever wearying legs, he limps into Egypt and has to contend with the newly installed Police State regime and ensuing bureaucratic and corruption issues, before journey end.

Like the two Victorian-era explorers John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton, who are credited with "discovering" the original source of the Nile, Wood also has been immortalised, although in his case through a Ugandan rap song, called Muzunga Tembula. Meaning the White Walker, this instantly conjured up images of the White Walkers from Game of Thrones, which amused me no ends.

Wood is an ex-British Army officer who represents a new breed of explorer/author and one who follows in the well trodden footsteps of Henry Moreton Stanley, Henry Bingham and Percy Fawcett. However, rather than relying on newspapers and the wireless to announce his achievements to the public, Wood's travels are relayed through TV documentaries. Which brings up a rather odd thing with regards the book. At no point do you ever really feel that there is any TV crew accompanying him. In fact, if you had no knowledge that there was a TV crew in tow, you would believe he has taken his journey on his own, albeit accompanied by some amazing guides, and at times friends and acquaintances of his.

It's not often that I can describe a travel book as a real page-turner.  But cliche's aside, this perfectly describes Walking the Nile. By devoting itself to providing information around the countries he travels through, the people he meets and the myriad of interesting things that happens to him along the way, the book flows beautifully, much like the river which is his constant companion. What also makes it work as a narrative piece, is the omission of large chunks of his journey, thereby ensuring that we are not subjected to a feeling of repetitiveness, which I'm sure did occur as part of his travels. 

However, also like the river Nile, the book is far from flawless.  There are passages where Wood's writing isn't so polished and oftentimes it comes across as lacking somewhat in emotion, most especially given some of the events that take place. Additionally, at times some of the descriptions of the events appear a bit contrived and over dramatised in order to make a good narrative/TV piece. But all of this is forgivable due to the fascinating story that is told and the ease with which we are able to take it all in. All I need to do now is find a way to watch the TV documentary of the same name before tackling his next journey, Walking the Himalayas.

4 stars out of 5

Credit: Banner photo by Valerian Guillot