The series which follows the literary adventures of the world's great writers. This week, Sir Richard Burton risks all in search of the source of the Nile

Sir Richard Francis Burton, linguist, writer and explorer, was born in 1821. In 1842 he joined the East India Company and, while stationed in India, learned Persian, Afghan, Hindustani, and Arabic, enabling him to translate the 'Arabian Nights' and the 'Kama Sutra'. The extract here is taken from an account of an expedition he made with the explorer John Hanning Speke to discover the source of the Nile; they located Lake Tanganyika in 1858 but the enterprise ended in acrimony. Burton died in 1890.

On the afternoon of January 18th, 1858, I was seized with an attack of fever, and then paralysis set in from the feet upwards and I was completely hors de combat. There seemed nothing left for me but to lie down and die. One of my chief porters declared that the case was beyond his skill: it was one of partial paralysis brought on by malaria, and he called in an Arab, who looked at me also. The Arab was more cheerful, and successfully predicted that I should be able to move in ten days.

On the tenth I again mounted my ass, but the paralysis wore off very slowly, and prevented me from walking any distance for nearly a year. The sensation of numbness in my hands and feet disappeared even more slowly than that. I was, however, determined to press on. So we pressed.

We had now left the "Land of the Moon" behind us, and entered upon a new district. The road before us lay through a howling wilderness, and the march lay along the right bank of a malarial river, and the mosquitoes feasted right royally upon our bodies, even in the daytime.

A good deal of the ground was very swampy, and it then stretched over jungly and wooded hill-spires, with steep ascents and descents. Everywhere was thick, foetid and putrescent vegetation. The heaviness of this march caused two of our porters to levant and another four to strike work. We dragged on for the next week, throughout the early days of February, a weary toil of fighting through tiger and spear grass, over broken and slippery paths, and through thick jungle.

On February 13th we resumed our travel through screens of lofty grass, which thinned out into a straggling forest. After about an hour's march, as we entered a small savannah, I saw our Arab leader running forward. Presently he breasted a steep and stony hill, sparsely clad with thorny trees. Arrived at the summit with toil, for our fagged beasts now refused to proceed, we halted for a few minutes and gazed.

"What is that streak of light which lies below?" I inquired of Seedy Bombay, one of our porters.

"I am of the opinion," quoth Seedy, "that is the water."

I gazed in dismay. The remains of my blindness, the veil of trees and broad ray of sunshine illuminating but one reach of the lake, had shrunk its fair proportions. Prematurely I began to curse my folly in having risked life and health for so poor a prize. Advancing, however, a few yards, the whole scene suddenly burst upon my view, filling me with wonder, admiration, and delight. My longing eyes beheld the Tanganyika Lake as it lay in the lap of the mountain, basking in the gorgeous tropical sunshine. Our journey had not been in vain.

From 'The Mammoth Book of Travel in Dangerous Places', edited by John Keay. This anthology also includes accounts by Wilfred Thesiger, Mungo Park, Ernest Shackleton, Captain James Cook and many others and is publishedby Robinson,price £7.99.

Follow in the footsteps

Trains, boats and planes

Burton's expedition set off from Dar es Salaam. African Odyssey, from Travelbag Adventures (01420 541007; www.travelbag-adventures.com), gives a taste of Africa for the intrepid traveller, using 4WD vehicles, train and steamship to reach the heart of the continent. You fly from Gatwick to Lusaka in Zambia, and then travel to Lake Tanganyika via Kasanka National Park and the David Livingstone Memorial. For the next stage of the journey, you board the MV Liemba, a restored First World War steamship, for a fascinating voyage across the lake to Kigoma. The 23-day trip also includes a visit to the Gombe Streams National Park at Kigoma to see the chimps made famous by Dr Jane Goodall, and a classic train journey across the vast East African bush to Dodoma, Tanzania. The trip costs from £1,439 per person, including return flights with British Airways, all other transport, a mixture of accommodation (lodge, hotel, ship's cabin and overnight train), most meals and the services of a group leader.

Road to the forbidden city

In 1853 Burton, who had become fluent in Arabic, undertook the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca ­ the hajj ­ disguised as a Pathan. Birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, Mecca is the spiritual centre of Islam, and every Muslim who can afford it is expected to undertake the hajj at least once in their lifetime. The most holy site in the city is the al-Haram mosque, which houses the Kabah (the Black Stone). Mecca is forbidden to non-Muslims, and Burton's journey still remains the most famous example of non-Muslim infiltration 150 years on.

Crack of the whip

Burton is well known as an Orientalist, but he also travelled in America, giving a comprehensive report of his experiences in The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California. The starting point for Burton's tour in 1860 was St Joseph, Missouri; his stagecoach travelled via Salt Lake City to San Francisco, the same route as that taken by the Pony Express. Burton's account describes in detail the Nevada Pony Express stations he visited in October 1860. For more information on the Pony Express, which was in operation from April 1860 to November 1861, go to www.xphomestation.com.

A tent for a tomb

Burton is buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Mortlake, south-west London, in a tomb shaped to resemble an Arab tent. His translations of Eastern manuals of erotic arts, such as the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden of Sheikh Nefzaoui, were greeted with shock and outrage during his lifetime, partly because he gave a literal rendition of the texts, without bowdlerising them or resorting to polite euphemisms. Ironically, Burton is buried near one of Britain's best-known porn stars, Mary Millington.

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