When a River is a World

A review of travel writer Robert Twigger's new book 'Red Nile'

The book cover of Red Nile by author Robert Twigger.While on a hunting expedition in the Balkans in 1859, British explorer Samuel Baker made a stop — along with his travel companion, a maharaja from India — at a slave market town in what is now Bulgaria. Baker was looking for a bit of respite from the hunt, when he chanced to pass a young Hungarian slave girl about to be auctioned. He was completely taken by her. In one colorful version of the story, an elderly Ottoman governor outbid Baker for the girl. Determined to keep the woman out of the official’s hands, Baker secretly arranged for her escape and fled with her down the Danube to freedom.

“From these extraordinary beginnings,” writes author Robert Twigger, “began the greatest husband-and-wife exploring team the world has ever seen, or is likely to see.”

Within two years of that incident, Baker and his soon-to-be wife Florence launched an expedition to find the source of the Nile. And they did it in a way that no other expedition since ancient times was able to achieve: by ascending the length of the river — upstream. That epic four-year journey, which uncovered Lake Nzige near the Nile’s source, came at the price of adventures almost too grueling to be believed: no-holds-barred battles with murderous illnesses, a showdown of wiles against one King Kamrasi (the brutish local despot of Bonyoro), and involvement in a jungle war that repulsed an army of slave traders.

That remarkable story is just one in a blizzard of tales that make up Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River. Spurning the conventional historical narrative, author and explorer Robert Twigger instead delivers a chronicle of the world’s longest river, a river with an uncanny penchant for stoking the passions of its admirers both near and far, from an altogether different perspective: by way of stories that literally, or figuratively, invoke the color red. It is not the benevolent red of strawberries and cardinals that Twigger has in mind here. He’s talking about the more fulsome, flustered red of danger, passion, and blood often linked with attempts to conquer and subdue what he suggests is not just a river, but an indubitable force of nature.

“This is a river that naturally runs red throughout history,” Twigger writes. “Most of the stories, the human stories, concern attempts, successful or not, to control this river … stories of excess, love, passion, splendor and death. Plenty of death.”

The title of the book is taken from a little-known event that unfolds once a year at the Nile’s confluence at Khartoum, Sudan. For several days each summer, the Ethiopian-born Blue Nile enters the White Nile in full flood, backing up the latter and temporarily reversing its flow. The tumultuous waters churn up the river’s colorful sediment causing the Nile to appear red. Twigger makes this phenomenon his chief metaphor from the outset of the book.

What follows is a concoction of gruesome, outlandish, and at times even humorous tales, injected with insights and moments from the author’s own journeys at points along the Nile’s pan-hemispherical trajectory. Like the river itself, the biography wanders, weaves and meanders to take in seemingly any and every drama that has so much as touched, or even insinuated itself near the banks of the hoary river. Twigger often links these events together like a wooden latticework, or an Islamic geometrical motif, creating a new dimension for understanding the Nile, redefining its extent and reach. We learn that the Nile is not just a river, a body of water, nor a pathway that leads from A to B (or from B to A). The Nile, Twigger tells us, it is a universe unto itself.

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A colossal and resolute river, the Nile begins as an embryonic trickle at two distant points: the Ethiopian highlands and the jungles of Burundi. Each of those headwaters, obeying the dictates of gravity, cuts a determined downward path through mountains, hills, and savannah, before meeting triumphantly at Khartoum. Merging there into one stream, the Nile then ploughs through the world’s greatest desert before emptying majestically — 6,719 kilometers later — into the Mediterranean in the lotus-like bloom of the Egyptian Delta.

For those unfamiliar with the true scale of Africa, the distance covered is something to be marveled at. Trying to convey that span, Twigger tells us that if Britain’s River Thames were on the same scale, “it would not end at Gravesend – it would swim the Channel, continue through Europe, cross all of Turkey and enter Iraq to issue like the Euphrates in the Arabian Gulf.”

Because it stretches across parts of Africa largely unvisited by outsiders, the Nile stokes the human imagination in a way most rivers can only dream of doing, evoking ancient civilizations, enormous creatures, and exotic cultures, all rolling through the mind to a molasses-slow soundtrack of reeds and drumming. Its obscure, rainforest beginnings and long reach have appealed to hardcore adventurers and armchair geography buffs alike. Twigger deals with the Nile’s physicality — its outward form — early in his book, providing an animated précis of the flora, fauna, and topography of his red river, followed by profiles of some of the river’s more notable animal denizens. His prose snapshots can compete with the very best documentary films on these subjects.

We are introduced at close range to a skulking troop of baboons, which Twigger likens to “young thugs in an urban graffiti zone, looking for action, unworried, bigger than you think.” If that encounter fails to intimidate, the author asks us to ponder the Nile crocodile, an “animal par excellence of a bloody river,” with a bite delivering 6,000 pounds of pressure per square inch and an ability to fly 9 feet out of the water to pull terrified people out of trees. And if insects are more your thing, well, fear not, Twigger tells us, for the Nile has those, too. Take, for instance, the dreaded ‘mbwa mbwa,’ a black fly that harbors a parasite worm that causes tumors, and which “hovers over the river in clouds easily mistaken for the smoke of a burning tire.”

This lay of the land is just the preamble, a tasty starter, for Twigger has bigger fish to fry and a more lofty obsession: the larger-than-life characters and dramas that the great river has spawned, each compelling enough to be its own feature film. Twigger must, and does, deliver some of its more usual historical suspects — Cleopatra, Napoleon, Agatha Christie, Gustav Flaubert, and Stanley Morton among the better-known. These people have been written about before (often at length), but Twigger, like a true explorer, blazes his own trail, looking at novel episodes in the lives of these characters, delivering them with a refreshingly unacademic, colloquial voice that alternates between seriousness, humor, and irony.

In a passage summing up the life of Cleopatra, whom he more than once calls “a tart” (no comment), Twigger writes:

The Cobra Queen had children by both Caesar and Mark Antony. At thirty-nine she was dead, by her own hand. In life she and Mark Antony had partied hard, very hard. They had formed a society, the Order of Inimitable Life. As the end approached they formed another: the Order of the Inseparable Death. Somehow one is reminded more of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love than the rulers of a great country.

But it is the obscure, little-known characters that provide the spike to Twigger’s narrative punch, and the book teems with them. Who’s ever heard of William Willcocks, the obsessive and eccentric 19th-century British water engineer who laid the blueprints for the Nile’s first major dam? Twigger tells us that following the Law of Unintended Consequences, Willcocks’ dam (emulated in the larger Aswan High Dam decades later) eventually helped bring disease and misery to Egypt by creating the stagnant canals that were to harbor the dreaded bilharzia virus (yet another parasitic worm). A subsequent injection campaign in the mid-20th century to help cure the bilharzia epidemic then caused an outbreak of hepatitis C, which runs rampant in Egypt to this day.

Or how about Mensen Ernst, the 19th-century Norwegian ultra-athlete who once ran from Constantinople to Calcutta — and back — in 59 days? Having done everything else, Ernst decided in 1842 to sprint to the source of the Nile — even though it hadn’t yet been found. Like almost everyone else in Twigger’s narrative, Ernst couldn’t get the better of the great river. After jogging to Egypt from Germany, he proceeded down the Nile Valley and died of heat stroke and dysentery at Aswan. In a curious and somehow appropriate afterthought, Twigger tells us, “Ernst’s motto was Motion is Life. Stagnation is death. This seems curiously true about rivers as well as men.”

Twigger’s collage also takes in: Canadian Iroquois warriors being pressed into service on the Nile (by canoe) to save a beleaguered General Gordan in Khartoum (who knew?); the murder of the polymath-savant, Hypatia, head of the ancient library of Alexandria, by a Christian fundamentalist mob; and the late Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar’s purchase of four Nile hippos, which have since procreated and now run amok across a section of the South American nation.

An occasional resident of Cairo, Twigger is a diehard proponent of genuine adventure and exploration as a way of life for everyone. His popular internet blog, which features posts with a self-help twist — on things from polymathy, to all things do-it-yourself, to the uncompromising pursuit of meaning — are inspired by a range of journeys and experiences that are well outside the realm of the routine and predictable.

His first book, published in 2000, called Angry White Pyjamas, came out of a year of martial arts training with the Tokyo Riot Police. Following separate expeditions to look for a rogue python and a rare elusive deer, Twigger made the first birch bark canoe crossing of Western Canada since Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie’s famous journey in 1793. All of these experiences were transformed into travelogues that form part of the award-winning author’s impressive repertoire of works. In 2010, Twigger led the first-ever expedition to cross 700 kilometers of the Great Sand Sea dune field of the Egyptian Sahara by foot.

In Red Nile, we get a taste of Twigger the explorer, who, like an onscreen documentary narrator (think a slightly less comedic Michael Palin), appears here and there, interspersing his often apocryphal and sometimes embellished stories with his own personal vignettes along the world’s longest river: shivering in a pool of freezing cold Blue Nile source water in the Ethiopian mountains; floating through downtown Cairo, like Huck Finn, on an inflatable raft; hearing stories of hippo attacks while splashing around between waterfalls in Uganda.

Whether writing about himself or others, Twigger is profoundly present with the reader at every step of the journey. His personality and voice, marvelously irreverent, is marked by wry humor and sardonic remarks. Commenting on ancient Egyptian birth control practices, Twigger writes:

An unusual though popular prophylactic was dung. One recipe recommended inserting it into the vagina before sex, a compote of crocodile dung, honey and/or resin. Another suggests inserting the tips of acacia twigs (which contain gum arabic), dates and honey. Try fighting your way through that lot.

Such flippancy might not be to everybody’s taste, but it provides comic relief from the Red Nile’s mainstay of anecdotes, from its “extraordinary and macabre” stories. The river takes on ever deeper hues of red with each gruesome, sometimes graphic depiction: in one instance Twigger describes the state of decomposition in the bodies of Rwandan genocide victims that had floated down the Nile’s source waters; in another notable anecdote, we are made privy to a bloodcurdling letter sent from the cruel, but cunning Sultan Baiburs (the 13th-century leader of the Egyptian Mameluks) to the European Crusader Prince Bohemond. In it, Baiburs lists the punishments exacted upon captured Christian soldiers. They include having a cannon of rock projectiles blasted into the men’s genitals, as well as freshly hardboiled duck eggs inserted into their rectums.

A few of the anecdotes, like those above, are indeed discomforting, if not shocking. Even thick-skinned readers will find themselves jolted out of their couch-induced reading postures. Does this make Robert Twigger a masochist and reveler in gratuitous violence? Not really. Although one detects more than a hint of morbid fascination in Twigger’s writing, there is no cheapness or thrill-seeking in the author’s depictions. His intent seems to be to lay bare the best stories of the Nile, whether admirable, tragic, or absurd, showing us along the way what human beings are capable of at their worst.

The book is not all blood, though. Twigger’s groveling fiends and frenzy-whipped mobs are often juxtaposed (in a Yin-Yang sort of way) by men and women of learning, who live quietly in their midst, and who work upon the world in mysterious ways. Characters like the Andalusia-born Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and the great Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham (both polymaths who took up residence in Cairo), walk the quieter byways of the Red Nile’s more flamboyant, violent dramas. Twigger tips his hat to these unassuming giants.

As the author builds this patchwork quilt of inspiring and shocking tales, he soon informs us that something magical and remarkable has struck him: the stories show signs of interweaving. “I am beginning to realize why the Nile has such a hold on people,” Twigger enthusiastically writes. “It connects up all stories.”

Herein lies one of the real pleasures of Red Nile. Many of the tales do indeed link to other stories — or to random people or events that have no obvious connection with the river. We find out how former Egyptian presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, for instance, are linked via a medley of strange relationships to Osama bin Laden. Twigger even uncovers a series of truly bizarre coincidences that connect him (and others in his book) to characters in the story of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Through this flurry of connections, Twigger puts to flight the notion of a river’s linear dimensionality and trajectory, and replaces it with a wider, deeper reality in which all things appear to be linked to all other things. By doing so, he turns the Nile into a world, a galaxy, a universe with manifold constellations, which he delineates by way of his clusters of stories. This has the effect of not only changing the way we see the Nile, or any given river, but also any given thing — including perhaps life itself.

But Red Nile is also more than a book about a river and the soap operatic dramas that spin within it like eddies. One gets the sense that Twigger, who has entered the ranks of the great Nile explorers with his book, is trying convey something else. To be sure, Red Nile is a commentary about the human condition, about causation, about consequences and the hidden connections between things. But even these layers of meaning appear to be underscored by something subtler: through all the good and the bad in Red Nile, all the dramas, all the bloodletting, the passions, the cruelty, and all the amazing achievements of the author’s more honorable personalities, is a common thread — his characters are fully engaged in the process of life — even if at the cost of catastrophic folly. The book contains the highs and lows of unrelenting and unceasing human ferment; it is a setting where life and death join hands, becoming part of one and the same stream — the Nile itself.

Could this reality of life along the banks of a tumultuous river be a somewhat deliberate juxtaposition to the overly cautious, safe, and unadventurous lives that many of us lead today? In Red Nile, Twigger suggests that although tragedy, arrogance, and death may await its pilgrims, so, too, does adventure, daring, risk, questing, learning, and the nobility of failure. Is this not the stuff that real stories are made of? Stories of lives lived to their fullest?

Without romanticizing injustice or folly, we could see this as part of Red Nile’s message: there is no sugar without salt. Real living should be an embrace of life in its totality, in spite of our fears.

At one point Twigger tells us about sneaking into the English mausoleum of the 19th-century Nile explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton to hold a midnight vigil with friends on the centennial of the explorer’s death. A brusque, but enlightened figure for his time who lived the life of a hundred men, Burton traveled like a maniac, helped uncover the source of the Nile, and wrote a plethora of books, including English translations of some important eastern classics.

Twigger and his friends brought along a copy of Burton’s masterwork of Sufi poetry entitled The Kasidah. He and his friends read passages from the epic poem long into the night, until they became too bleary-eyed tired to continue. Twigger writes:

The candles doused, the book quietly closed, we returned over the river to our lives, having gleaned something from the key text, the main clue to the extraordinary life of Nile pioneer Sir Richard Burton, the main tenet of which is, in short, be extraordinary — at least don’t be afraid to try.

“Cease, Man, to mourn, to weep, to wail; enjoy the shining hour of the sun; We Dance along Death’s icy brink, but is the dance less full of fun?

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books on October 3, 2014. 

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