The Mystery of 4,000 Miles
Cam McLeay has been obsessed with the Nile since his childhood in New Zealand. When his Ascend the Nile expedition headed south last fall, the adventurers hoped to be the first to sail the length of the river. They faced difficult rapids, charging crocodiles, and angry hippos. In Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park, lions stalked their campsites every night. And then on November 7, about 3,300 miles into the trip, local rebels ambushed the expedition, killing colleague Steve Willis.
Despite such dangers--or perhaps because of them--the Nile has drawn explorers for millenniums. The world's longest river, it's also the only major river to flow south to north. From its source in the highlands of Africa, the river flows more than 4,000 miles to the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times, everyone from Egyptian pharaohs to Rome's Nero sent expeditions south to find the Nile's source. But it took the nearly manic obsession of Victorian Britons to reveal the river's secrets to the world.
An inland sea. The obstacles were tremendous. The river's upper reaches were blocked by hostile tribes and thousands of square miles of swamp. In a bold move, Richard Burton--a linguist who scandalized British society with his translation of the Kama Sutra--decided to avoid the river entirely. In 1857, he and fellow explorer John Speke set out from the eastern coast of Africa on the trail of a "great inland sea."
The eight-month journey nearly killed them. By the time they reached the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Burton was nearly unable to walk, and Speke was temporarily blind--and deaf, after digging a beetle out of his ear with a knife. Burton was convinced they had found the headwaters of the Nile, and he left to recover. But Speke pressed on. In 1858, he found an even larger lake he dubbed Lake Victoria. The ensuing feud over which lake was the river's true source was a national obsession.
To settle it, the Royal Geographical Society called on David Livingstone, a missionary. Livingstone set out in 1866 and wandered the heart of Africa for six years, unable to send dispatches home. In a publicity stunt, a New York newspaper sent reporter Henry Stanley to rescue Livingstone. Stanley found the emaciated missionary in Ujiji, in present-day Tanzania; his greeting--"Dr. Livingstone, I presume"--has become one of history's most famous quotes. Stanley then went on to Lake Victoria, confirming in 1872 that it was the Nile's source. Speke had been right after all.
This year, McLeay and his teammates resumed their trip. On March 31, they reached a small spring in the mountains of Rwanda that they claim is the farthest tributary of the Nile. If confirmed, their journey would extend the known length of the 4,184-mile river by 66 miles.
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.