Thursday, 29 January 2015

Walking The Nile

I've written about the River Nile before, when Simon Reeve chose it as the first of his Sacred Rivers. But this programme wasn't just selected highlights of the river, it was someone walking its entire length. All 4,250 miles of it. And while Simon Reeve chose the Blue Nile to explore, Levison Wood chose the White, presumably because it gave him further to go in more hostile terrain.
I say no selected highlights, but they did have condense several months of monotonous walking (and seven million steps) into three hours of television. And I only watched the last of them, when Lev (as he introduces himself to his friends) reaches Egypt after crossing the entire Sahara desert on foot. Lev is either a little bit mad, or an incredibly strong-willed human being. He is certainly a teensy bit full of himself.

What is amazing to me when he reaches Aswan is how empty it is. When we docked our ship there at the end of our cruise down the Nile, to reach the quay we had to walk through at least ten other massive boats moored alongside ours. The water was higgledy-piggledy with feluccas and the bazaar teeming with people. The famous Old Cataract Hotel (where Agatha Christie wrote Death On The Nile and - I hasten to add - not where we were staying) was booked up for months. Today, the river is deserted. Lev is the only guest at the Old Cataract. The fragile political situation in Egypt really has made people stay away in droves.
The Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan
Feluccas vying for trade

Busy Aswan, with cruise ships parked in the background

The risk of unrest also means Lev is closely guarded by police. One van drives in front and another behind. When Lev sees the officers throwing sticks to knock dates off a tree to serve as a somewhat meagre lunch, he makes them a pile of sandwiches, but otherwise he finds their presence intensely irritating. For one thing, they are making him walk along a Tarmac road rather than the river, which is dull, choking with traffic fumes and at times downright dangerous (at one point he has to cross a bridge balancing on its parapet). And - as he needs to cover 25 miles a day to keep to his strict schedule - it is also giving him massive blisters. Even though Lev has all the relevant permits, other police officers keep stopping him to ask what the heck he is doing. Tourists aren't generally allowed to pass through the area between Aswan and Luxor unless they are on a boat or an overnight train. There seems to be a genuine risk that Lev could be shot by insurgents, but he is having none of it. The police are only trying to protect his welfare and keep him alive. They are often just offering him a lift. But stubbornly determined to cover the whole distance on foot, he wishes they would "f**k off", which instantly rises his audience's heckles and dooms his programme to be shown after the watershed.

Lev responds a little more graciously to the locals. One man is very keen to show him his cows. Lev attends a service at a mosque marking the end of Ramadan, only his "fixer" Turbo has to drag him away when police arrest some suspected Islamic militants and things turn ugly. He is asked to appear on Egyptian television at a government reception at the Pyramids of Giza. The town governor and a sizeable entourage accompany him on his last few metres to the Mediterranean coast at Rosetta, the estuary of one of the larger tributaries of the Nile Delta.
The backdrop to Lev's Egyptian TV appearance

He finds the view on the last leg rather disappointing, claiming he was hoping for a nice beach and some palm trees. In the background appear to be a nice beach and some palm trees. Never mind, soon he is charging into the Med wearing a Union Jack like a superhero cape. This does look a tad colonial. His parents show up to celebrate with him. Speaking as a mother, I suspect they have spent the past few months sick with worry, especially as Lev has crossed several war zones, dodged gunfire, and a journalist walking with Lev for three days in Uganda died of heatstroke. But I am not sure how much attention Lev has paid to their feelings. He certainly hasn't let them hinder his spirit for adventure. Much as I would like my daughter to grow up with a love for travel, I'd prefer it if she would stick to destinations where I, if left behind at home, can sleep at night.

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