Geographical Geekery on the River Nile

Geography teachers often get a bad reputation.  Although the traditional image of a bearded man sporting a tweed jacket with elbow patches might actually be considered a step into hipster fashion currently, the clichés of spending all of their time colouring in maps and teaching the next generation about the formation of ox-bow lakes hasn’t disappeared, which doesn’t make it out to be one of the coolest of pastimes.

Despite this slightly un-cool factor, I am a huge advocate for geography as a subject, and proud to say that I am a qualified geography teacher (although none of my jackets have elbow patches, so perhaps I’m doing it wrong!).  I love teaching geography, and although I am sure that you can be a perfectly functional and successful human without knowing what hard and soft rock have to do with the creation of coastal landforms, I think the global issues of climate change, immigration and sustainable development, are issues which every young person should have a good, unbiased grasp of by the time they leave school and head into the wider world.

Alongside these important global issues, there are certain locations on earth which hold remarkable geographical significance.  The Great Barrier Reef, or the Grand Canyon, are both examples of natural features on the earth’s surface which have been created completely independently of any human interference; these places inhabit a special place in our collective consciousness as examples of the powerful natural processes which continue to shape our planet with little regard to what are doing.

 Geographically Significant, Lake Tana in Ethiopia , the source of the Blue Nile...

Geographically Significant, Lake Tana in Ethiopia , the source of the Blue Nile...

Whenever possible whilst travelling, I try to track down these locations to take pictures and document what they are really like for my own selfish geographical geekery, but also in the hope that one day these photos and stories will help me plan a lesson with a little more context than a dusty example from a dated textbook.

Khartoum was no different.  Now we were legally registered and had the paperwork to prove it, we were free to explore, and so we set out to find one of these geographically significant locations, a location so important that without it Khartoum would never have been built; we were going to find the confluence of the Blue and the White Nile.

Leaving the ministry of tourism and wildlife where we had just secured our photography permits, we headed west in the hope of hitting the White Nile – this is the more famous of the two Niles, and the one which has its source in Lake Victoria over 1000 miles to the South.  Our plan was to intercept the river, and then follow it North until we found the famous confluence where the Blue Nile joins the flow to becomes simply The Nile, considered by most people to be the longest river in the world.

 The unremarkable muddy patch of ground where the Blue and White Nile finally meet to become the infamous River Nile...

The unremarkable muddy patch of ground where the Blue and White Nile finally meet to become the infamous River Nile...

Today was Friday, and as such a holiday in Sudan, which meant most of the shops were closed save for the hustle and bustle of a loud, dusty, bus station the likes of which I find so alluring.  We sourced some juice and yet more shawarma, and I managed to barter for some cheap sunglasses to stop me squinting the whole time (when I am a wrinkled old man remind me that this is why!).  The bus station was a good reference point on our map, and confirmed we were heading in the right direction, so we continued with our confluence quest and after a good hour of walking in the sun, stumbled upon the Khartoum Hilton and a plethora of shiny new skyscrapers which wouldn’t have been out of place in Dubai, nestled next to an impressive looking mosque alongside which we could make out the mighty White Nile.

We had met the river near the White Nile bridge, an impressive structure situated just upstream from the confluence, a perfect place to take a picture from, or so we thought.  At the entrance to the bridge was a large sign politely informing us that taking photos of or from the bridge was an arrestable offence with or without our shiny photography permits.  Despite admiring the entrepreneurial spirit of the chap next to the sign who was selling postcards picturing the confluence, we wanted to try and take our own picture, so to avoid getting in trouble we continued downstream to try and find another vantage point from which to get the shot.

Just downstream from the bridge was a slightly tired looking amusement park, normally this wouldn’t have been somewhere we would have visited, however after spying the ancient Ferris wheel slowly turning towards the sky an idea started to form in our heads, so we paid our entrance fees to the sleepy man behind the gate and made a beeline for the rusty attraction.  Alton Towers this was not, but there was a small queue of people waiting to get on the Ferris wheel, which gave us enough time to contemplate our photography plan.  With some hasty trigonometry it rapidly became clear that the wheel wasn’t as tall as it had appeared from outside, and any possible view of the confluence from the wheel would almost certainly be blocked by a row of inconveniently placed acacia trees. 

 Basking in the geographical geekery of it all...

Basking in the geographical geekery of it all...

If I were a more cynical man, I would have suggested that these trees had been planted in this position deliberately, but I am an eternal optimist so instead we headed towards the trees to investigate if there was a way through them down towards the river.  As we walked towards the dappled shade, a security guard approached us and asked if we were looking for the confluence (it would seem we weren’t the first people to have been lured in by the Ferris wheel!) He explained that for an additional ‘entrance fee’ he could open up a gate in the fence which would allow us to walk down to the water’s edge and onto the actual confluence itself – perfect!  We handed over a couple of pounds and walked down the slippery bank where sure enough the vegetation gave way to a muddy beach where one river joined another to become one of the most famous rivers on earth, we were at the meeting of the two Niles.

We took the obligatory photos and spent some time revelling in the geekiness of it all, whilst pondering the courses of these two great rivers.  Although the White Nile is the wider of the two, the Blue Nile provides most of the Nile’s volume, carrying water hundreds of miles from highlands of Ethiopia to the East.  It was particularly poignant to be standing here as four weeks previously we had stood at the source of the Blue Nile and had watched as the water poured out of Lake Tana over a series of powerful waterfalls starting its long journey towards Khartoum.

 Weeks previously at the source of the Blue Nile, watching water pour out of Lake Tana starting on its long journey westwards towards Khartoum...

Weeks previously at the source of the Blue Nile, watching water pour out of Lake Tana starting on its long journey westwards towards Khartoum...

Pictures taken we headed out of the amusement park and towards the Corinthia hotel, better known in Khartoum as ‘Gaddafi’s Egg’ thanks to it being funded by the Libyan government.  The Egg is a modern looking hotel which dominates the skyline and is supposed to have the best view of the Nile in the whole of Khartoum, an opportunity we couldn’t really pass up.  Walking through the grand doors we immediately felt out of place.  We were surrounded by the Sudanese elite, and our creased and sweaty clothes weren’t really cutting it.  Still, like we had done on previous occasions, we adopted a confident stance, and marched towards the glass elevator in the middle of the giant lobby like we knew what we were doing and ascended to the 17th floor.   As the doors opened, we found ourselves in a small café and were shown to a table with uninterrupted views over the confluence of the Nile, and down onto Tuti island.  The views were certainly impressive if not slightly blue thanks to the tinted windows which had to be installed to avoid the sun blinding the guests. 

 Khartoum's Corinthia hotel, or Gaddafi's egg if you prefer...

Khartoum's Corinthia hotel, or Gaddafi's egg if you prefer...

We stayed for a coffee, and a spectacular (blue-hued) sunset, which topped the day off nicely.  We considered staying for the delicious looking all-you-could-eat Asian buffet until we saw the price tag at which point we decided it might be time for us to leave in case we accidentally bought something which we couldn’t pay for.  As we left the hotel and headed back towards our slightly humbler accommodation, we considered what lay ahead.  From this point on our journey would, by and large, be following the River Nile through Sudan into Egypt, and eventually to the point where it meets the Mediterranean Sea.  The Nile is integral to the history and culture of this part of the world and following this geographical lifeline through the deserts to the North would allow us a glimpse into that fascinating world - my inner geography teacher couldn’t contain his elbow-patched excitement.

 Blue tinged confluence courtesy of the 17th floor...

Blue tinged confluence courtesy of the 17th floor...

© Andy Browning 2018