Travel literature review: The Black Nile

The Black NileThe Black Nile by Dan Morrison

4.5 star

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

Steve Waters has hitched the Sahara with Algerian truck-drivers, ridden on the roof of the mail truck to Tombouctou, and strangled the odd Tusker in downtown Nairobi.

"One man's journey through peace and war on the world's longest river" actually begins as two men's. New York journo Morrison invites his fishing mate Schon for the trip of his life, tracing the route of the White Nile from Uganda's Lake Victoria to Rosetta in the Egyptian delta. What commences as a buddy story, as the duo concoct crazy schemes to canoe down the river, quickly morphs into a gritty chronicle of the troubles facing a modern Africa.

Schon plays the perfect foil to gung-ho Morrison and it's through these early interactions with his friend as they hang out in Kampala, or cross Lake Kyoga that the man behind the writer is revealed. As the fear and loathing mounts after entering Sudan, Schon hits eject, and Morrison switches into foreign correspondent mode as he calls in increasingly desperate favours from a mounting list of contacts.

The Black Nile offers a fascinating and harrowing look at a country that continually makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Morrison does his best to explain the historical events, tribal intricacies, external pressures and internal tensions that haunt Sudan today. Ok, not every traveller can flash their press card and jump a UN chopper, but then they normally wouldn't end up under the bed sheltering from a firefight between local militias either. Morrison's trip through Sudan becomes a quest for understanding; an attempt to unearth the truth behind his experiences as he interviews rebel leaders and local headmen, academics and taxi drivers, archaeologists and tour guides, all the time cadging his way a little further downstream. In Khartoum, where the Blue Nile tumbles down from Ethiopia to merge into the Nile proper, Morrison's quest takes him to the birthplace of Mahdism, an interview with a national hero, and a run-in with the ever-watchful secret police.

It's clear that civilization comes as a disappointment, and Egypt gets rather short shrift as the writer cruises across it by train. We never do learn anymore about Morrison the man (his wife who he meets in Cairo is called "my wife"), and it's pity that he doesn't include any of Schon's diary notes as these may have been as revealing of the writer, as The Black Nile has been on Sudan.

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