The Complete Guide To: The Nile

From central Africa to the Mediterranean, Harriet O'Brien takes a trip back in time
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The Independent Travel

THE WORLD'S LONGEST RIVER?

In theory, yes. And staggeringly big it is, too. The Nile pips the Amazon to the post in world league tables, measuring some 6,695km (4,160 miles), as opposed to the South American river's 6,516km (4,049 miles). The valley coversmore than five times the surface area of France. Of course, such statistics depend on where you actually deem this mighty African river to start. The measurement above is taken from the Kyaka river, a headstream in Burundi. However, opinions vary as to the exact source of the Nile; indeed the subject became something of an obsession for Victorian explorers.

Matters are somewhat complicated by the way the river begins as two substantial branches: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The former is the longer (and arguably rises in Burundi), although the latter contributes substantially more water to the Nile proper into which it flows from Ethiopia. The White Nile turns a whiteish grey from clay suspended in its waters as it flows through southern Sudan, hence its name; the Blue Nile is so-called because it is purer and, well, bluer. These rivers merge near Khartoum in Sudan, and the Nile then continues northwards into Egypt, where its fertile flood plains have supported centuries of civilisation (indeed, the name Nile comes from the Greek nelios meaning "river valley").

At Egypt's wide Nile delta beyond Cairo, the river divides into a mass of waterways which drain into the Mediterranean, the principal two being the Rosetta and the Damietta.

AH, THE SOURCE OF THE NILE...

In the 19th century, the search for the source of Africa's greatest river centred on the origins of the White rather than Blue Nile. Leaving aside this river's remote headstreams in Burundi and Rwanda, the longest branch of the Nile can be understood to begin at Lake Victoria. Just outside the town of Jinja in southern Uganda, the lake's waters spill northwards on the start of the long journey to the Mediterranean. A significant commercial centre with a laid-back atmosphere, Jinja is about an hour's drive east of the capital, Kampala. The actual start of the White Nile is a rather uninteresting dam, but the town attracts adventure travellers who come for the rafting, kayaking and bungee jumping on offer.

Although pleasant enough, Jinja is not one of Uganda's prime spots for visitors. The country's biggest attraction is the mountain gorilla area of the south-west and the few, albeit growing, number of UK companies that arrange trips to Uganda concentrate on this region. However, Tim Best Travel (020-7591 0300; www.timbesttravel.com) can combine gorillas with a Nile excursion. An eight-day independent holiday, for example, takes in a tented camp on Lake Mburo, gorilla tracking in the Virunga volcanoes, the Sipi waterfalls in the east near the Kenyan border and allows scope to visit the "source of the Nile" at Jinja. The trip costs from £2,150 per person based on two sharing a room (as are all prices in this article). This includes flights from Heathrow to Kampala, transfers, accommodation (variously in tents, lodges and hotel in Kampala) and most meals.

AND GOING BLUE?

The Blue Nile makes a dramatic start from Lake Tana in the central Ethiopian highlands. The Tissisat Falls tumble more than 45m (147ft) over a sheer basalt cliff surrounded by dense greenery that is home to monkeys and an assortment of vibrant birds. The amazing force of the fall causes a wide curtain of spray, often with rainbows, hence the name, which means "smoke of fire".

The largest lake in Ethiopia, Lake Tana itself is well worth touring. It is dotted with some 35 islands, many of which have striking 14th- and 15th-century monasteries decorated with the colourful murals characteristic of the medieval Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Excursions run from the shoreside town of Bahar Dar.

Lake Tana and the Tissisat Falls are some of the highlights of the Ethiopian Odyssey trip offered by Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk). The 10-night holiday includes a visit to Axum, the centre of early Ethiopian civilisation and held by many to be home to the Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant; an excursion to the Temple of the Moon at Yeha; and a trip to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Lalibela with its extraordinary churches hewn out of rock more than eight centuries ago.

There are scheduled to be seven group departures in 2007, costing from £1,795 per person. The holiday can also be arranged as a private journey, costing £2,295 per person (note that Orthodox Ethiopia celebrates its millennium in September 2007, which may be an atmospheric time to visit). The prices include flights to Addis Ababa from Heathrow, all transfers, full-board accommodation and guided excursions.

HOW ABOUT HEADING FOR KHARTOUM?

Much of troubled southern Sudan is best avoided. A few companies, though, offer trips through the north of the country down to the point where the White and Blue Niles merge just outside Khartoum. Among its other Nile holidays, Explore (08703 334 001; www.explore.co.uk), for example, has a veritable expedition of a trip all the way from Cairo to Khartoum, departing on 18 December (the trip will not run in 2007).

You follow the Nile by train from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan, taking in the highlights of the land of the pharaohs and then begin a voyage into Sudan. This section starts with a ferry crossing of about 200 miles over Lake Nasser to Sudan's bustling town of Wadi Halfa. You then proceed by overland truck along the Nile, camping at night and visiting ancient Nubian and Coptic Christian temples, villages set among sand dunes, petrified desert forests, the ancient site of Naga and Khartoum's amazing souk.

The trip ends with a sunset cruise to the point where the White and Blue Niles meet. The three-week holiday costs £1,799 per person and includes flights from Heathrow to Cairo and return from Khartoum (with regional UK connections available); all transport; nine nights' hotel accommodation; nine nights' camping; one night aboard a ferry; most meals; and the services of a tour leader.

LIFELINE OF EGYPT?

It was because of the Nile that the civilisation of ancient Egypt developed, lasting around 3,000 years from about 3,200BC. The flooding of the river valley from July to September made the land extremely fertile, an annual blessing jointly attributed to the ruling pharaoh and a god named Hapi. The valley's agricultural richness resulted in great wealth and ensured economic stability. In turn these two ingredients gave rise to the great monuments that remain today, from the pyramids of Giza (constructed around 2,600BC) near Cairo, to the Temple of Karnak (about 1,900BC) near Luxor, and the great temples of Abu Simbel (about 1,250BC) beyond Aswan. In an impressive modern twist on the original feat of construction, some of the temples in the Aswan area (including Abu Simbel) were painstakingly removed and rebuilt (in the correct position relative to the sun) when they were threatened with submergence in Lake Nasser during construction of Aswan's High Dam in the 1960s - the dam, in turn, serving as a modern and more mundane version of the god Hapi in controlling the Nile's floodwaters.

The Nile also acted as a thoroughfare for the kingdom, and until at least the 19th century there was little transport by land. Today the river may no longer be vital for trade but it does provide one of the most romantic ways of seeing the highlights of the country - most of the Nile cruises are between Luxor and Aswan and take in some of the country's most glorious landscapes and sights.

THE NILE IN STYLE?

Among a host of Nile boats oozing glamour and luxury is the recently launched Sonesta Star Goddess. This elegant, four-deck vessel has just 33 suites complete with private terraces and flatscreen TVs, while her facilities include a bar, restaurants, an infinity pool and the somewhat surreal addition of a jogging track. A three-night cruise in these sumptuous surroundings comes as part of a six-day Egyptian package offered by Audley Travel (01869 276 222; www.audleytravel.com) from £1,180 per person. The cost includes flights to Cairo from Heathrow; two nights' B&B accommodation at the Mena House Oberoi overlooking the pyramids at Giza; the cruise; all excursions; and internal flights from Cairo to Aswan and return from Luxor.

Meanwhile Abercrombie and Kent (08450 700 612; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) has its own fleet of Nile cruise boats. Its Sun Boat IV has just been relaunched after an extensive, $1m (£535,000) makeover: the Agatha-Christie-meets-modern-chic decor features polished teak floors, floor-to-ceiling windows in the 40 cabins and a heated swimming pool. Three nights on board this floating haven come as part of a week's package from £1,552 per person. The cost includes return flights from Heathrow to Cairo; four nights' accommodation at the Mena House Oberoi; flight to Luxor; full-board cruise with trips to the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Sobek and the lovely Temple of Philae set on an island between Aswan's old and new dams; and flight back to Cairo from Aswan.

AND FOR LOCAL COLOUR?

Sleep under the stars on a felucca, a traditional single-masted Nile boat, and let the wind propel you by day. Among UK companies offering such trips, Exodus (08702 405 550; www.exodus.co.uk) has an eight-night Nile By Felucca holiday, which includes four days' sailing. The holiday starts in Cairo, from where you take an overnight train to Aswan, with a day to explore the town and the outlying Temple of Philae. The felucca journey starts from Aswan and takes in Kom Ombo temple en route to the Temple of Edfu, dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed god. From there you are transferred to Luxor nearby, where you make excursions to the Temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. You travel back to Cairo by overnight train, spend the rest of the day exploring the Archaeological Museum and the city and return to London the next day. The price, from £694 per person, includes flights from Heathrow, train travel and other transfers, and three nights' comfortable B&B hotel accommodation as well as the felucca trip.

WHAT ABOUT EXPERT INSIGHT?

Archaeology specialist Andante Travels (01722 713 800; www.andantetravels.co.uk) offers winter tours of ancient Egypt from next year. The 15-day trip is with Dr Paul Nicholson, who has conducted excavations at Tell el-Amarna (a city near the Nile built around 1,350BC and abandoned less than 20 years later) as well as other areas in Egypt. From Cairo to Aswan, the tour will visit the classic sites of ancient Egypt including the pyramids at Giza, the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Philae, as well as the Tell el-Amarna site. There will also be an opportunity for felucca-sailing on the Nile. The holiday costs from £2,250 per person, which covers flights from Heathrow to Cairo; transfers; hotel accommodation; most meals; and excursions and guidance. The April trip is already full, but another is planned for October. Other companies offering archaeological tours of Egypt include Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com), whose Ancient Egypt trip from Cairo to Abu Simbel also visits the Aswan High Dam, one of the engineering wonders of the 20th century, contrasting with the wonders of the ancient world.

HOW ABOUT NATURE?

Sights on the Egyptian Nile are by no means limited to manmade monuments. From kingfishers to sunbirds and bee-eaters, the river attracts some spectacular avian life along with the ubiquitous egrets, which seem to have an instinctive sense of how best to place themselves so as to decorate the landscape. Naturetrek (01962 733 051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) offers an 11-day journey around Egypt in November (this year and next) to take in the country's major sites of both ornithological and archaeological interest. The trip includes visits to the Sinai desert and the Red Sea as well as four days exploring areas of the Nile around Luxor and Aswan, taking in the Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel to complement the bird-watching. The holiday costs from £1,995 per person, which covers flights from Heathrow to Cairo, all transfers, all guidance, hotel accommodation and all meals.

AND THE ULTIMATE TRIP?

You can travel all the way overland from Cairo to the source of the Blue Nile with adventure experts Dragoman (01728 861 133; www.dragoman.com). The seven-and-a-half-week trips leave on 27 November and 7 January and cost from £1,820 with $540 (£289) payable to a communal kitty - or, for a cheaper option, you can make the trip in reverse, Ethiopia to Egypt, from £1,660 per person. Prices for the "Cairo to Addis Ababa" journey cover land transport in a truck and accommodation in hotels and hostels, plus camping some nights. The trip takes in classic sites along the Egyptian Nile before you cross Lake Nasser and proceed through the Nubian desert to Khartoum, stopping at the Kush pyramids en route. From Sudan's capital you proceed to the Ethiopian highlands, visiting the Simien mountains for a two-day trek, Axum and the Lalibela churches, before reaching Addis Ababa from where you make an excursion to the source of the Blue Nile at the Tissisat Falls. The 27 November departure will also coincide with Orthodox Ethiopian Christmas (7 January), when around 60,000 pilgrims travel to Lalibela.

DR LIVINGSTONE, I PRESUME?

The quest to find the source of the White Nile effectively began in 1855 when Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke mounted a great African expedition. After being attacked by Somali tribesmen they abandoned that venture but, undaunted, they returned to Africa a few years later.

After months of tough going they finally arrived at Lake Tanganyika, where a sick Burton collapsed. Speke pushed on and "discovered" Lake Victoria, which he named after his Queen, having become convinced that this was the true source of the Nile. Burton, however, vehemently disagreed with his theory.

The controversy prompted David Livingstone to mount his own expedition, however, he all but disappeared. Some years later the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley (pictured, right) set out to find him. In October 1871 he finally came upon the explorer in Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania - and recorded his famous meeting, and greeting, in his diary. The two men became close friends and, after Livingstone's death two years later, Stanley continued the search for the source of the Nile, circumnavigating Lake Victoria in the process and confirming Speke's records of its great size and its importance to the Nile.

Today, Ujiji is a bustling market town and dhow-building centre. The spot where Stanley and Livingstone first met is marked by two mango trees, supposedly grafted from the very tree under which the American journalist uttered his presumptious question.

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