Understandably considered to be the ‘father of African rivers’, the River Nile is quite simply awe-inspiring. Rising from south of the equator in Uganda and winding through north-east Africa all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, it is not just Earth’s longest river (though some have contested it’s beaten by the Amazon), but indisputably one of the most historic and diverse.
The Nile is formed from three principal sources: the White Nile, Blue Nile and Atbara. The White Nile begins at Lake Victoria, Uganda, and is the most southerly source. The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana, Ethiopia, and is its secondary source, flowing into the White Nile near Khartoum. Lastly the Atbara River, which begins around 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Lake Tana, is the third and smallest source, joining the other two bigger waterways at the eponymous Sudanese city of Atbara.
Combined, these three primary sources create the River Nile, which today is naturally split into seven distinct regions ranging from the Lake Plateau of eastern Africa down to the vast Nile Delta that spans north of Cairo.
These areas are home to diverse peoples and cultures, exotic flora and fauna, as well as a variety of notable physiographical features ranging from fierce rapids, through to towering waterfalls and lush grassy swamps.
While the Nile flows through many countries including Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia – among others – the country it is most affiliated with is Egypt, the most northerly and the last it passes on its course to the Mediterranean.
It is here in Egypt that historically the Nile was at its most variable, with the river flooding annually. While the river still floods, thanks to the construction of the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, it only does so in southern Egypt, with the lower-lying north remaining relatively protected.
The flooding is largely caused by the rainy season in the Ethiopian Plateau, an area from which both the Blue Nile and Atbara draw their water. As such, when the floodwaters enter Lake Nasser in late-July, the Blue Nile accounts for 70 per cent of all water, the Atbara 20 per cent, with the White Nile only accounting for ten. This flooding sees the Nile’s total inflow rise from 45.3 million cubic metres (1.6 billion cubic feet) per day up to a whopping 707.9 million cubic metres (25 billion cubic feet).
Crucially, while the dam at Aswan prevents annual flooding in Egypt, it does not stop its historical uses, which remain to this day incredibly wide ranging. The Nile is used as a source of irrigation for crops, water for industrial applications, transportation via boat and the cultivation of region-specific goods like papyrus. It’s also an ecosystem for many unique plants and animals and a vital source of power, driving turbines that generate electricity. H
Search for the source
While today the sources of the Nile are well documented and clearly visible by satellite imagery, before the advent of such technology its source remained one of the planet’s greatest mysteries, with various historians, geographers and philosophers speculating on its origin.
Arguably the earliest attempt to discern the source of the Nile was undertaken by Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484-425 BCE), who as part of his Histories recounts theories he gathered from several Egyptians. Unfortunately, while many of the tales are accurate to a point – with most describing the Nile to around modern-day Khartoum – none reveal its true origins, with Herodotus assuming it must begin in Libya.
This confusion and speculation continued with the Romans, with natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) picking up from Herodotus stating the Nile’s origin lay ‘in a mountain of Lower Mauretania’ – an area that correlates with modern-day Morocco. Indeed, this confusion remained right up until the 19th century, when a series of European-led expeditions slowly began to unearth the truth. These expeditions came to a head in 1875, when the Welsh-American journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) confirmed that the White Nile, which was considered the one and true source, did indeed emanate from Lake Victoria in Uganda.
Animals of the Nile
Dromedary camel – The second-largest species of camel, the dromedary has come to be a key image associated with Egypt. They are technically Arabian in origin but are now kept and used domestically throughout Egypt. They are commonly used to transport both goods and people, and are also a popular source of milk.
Red spitting cobra – This venomous snake is a native resident of Egypt’s southern regions. It preys primarily on amphibians like frogs, however records indicate they will also take on birds and rodents. Human attacks are recorded too, with bite symptoms including muscle pain, numbness and disfigurement of the skin.
Hippopotamus – Hippos are found the entire length of the Nile, but due to many decades of poaching, their numbers are dwindling. The species is semi-aquatic, inhabiting the river itself, its many lakes and swamps as well as the fertile banks. They are one of the most aggressive animals in Africa, often attacking people on sight.
Grey heron – A large bird that frequents various parts of Africa, the grey heron is a common sight along the length of the river. Standing at approximately 100 centimeters (39 inches) tall and sporting a pinkish-yellow bill, the heron can typically be found on the Nile’s banks and throughout the Egyptian Delta, where it feeds on fish, frogs and insects within the shallow waters. The bird appears in a lot of Ancient Egyptian artwork.
Nile crocodile – A dark bronze-coloured species of reptile, Nile crocodiles frequent the banks of the river throughout Egypt and other east African countries. These crocodiles are the largest found in the continent and are agile and rapid predators, feeding on a wide variety of mammals.
Plants of the Nile
Papyrus – This species of aquatic flowering plant belongs to the sedge family. The tall leafless grass has a greenish cluster of stems at its tip and has been used historically to produce papyrus paper.
Plume thistle – Found all over Egypt, but especially around the Nile, the plume thistle is a tall biennial plant that consists of a rosette of leaves, a taproot and a flowering stem. Traditionally, the stems were peeled and boiled for consumption.
Chamomile – This is a daisylike plant from the family Asteraceae. There are many species of chamomile, however the one common to the Nile is Matricaria – a type commonly used in herbal remedies.
Blue Egyptian water lily – The “blue lotus’ is one of the most iconic plants on the Nile. With ^ broad leaves and colourful blue blooms, this water lily stands out amid the sandy tones of Egypt. It had a spiritual link to the Ancient Egyptian deity Nefertem.
Opium poppy – As the name suggests this is the species of poppy from which opium is derived – the source of narcotics like morphine. The plant has blue-purple or white flowers and silver-green foliage.
Journey down the Nile
Lake Victoria – The Nile begins in the world’s largest tropical lake, Lake Victoria. The lake is so big that it ranges over three countries – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – with a total surface area of more than 69,400km2 (26,795mi2). The lake is fed by a number of small spring sources in Tanzania and Rwanda.
Victoria Nile – The White Nile, one of the River Nile’s two main tributaries – here referred to as the Victoria Nile – leaves Lake Victoria to the north at Ripon Falls, Uganda.
Murchison Falls – From Ripon Falls, the Victoria Nile proceeds northward for approximately 500km (311mi), through the shallow Lake Kyoga and out the other side over the Murchison Falls, which is part of the East African Rift System (EARS). The Murchison Falls sees the river drop 120m (394ft) over a series of three cascades.
Lake Albert – At the bottom of the Murchison Falls the river proceeds 32km (20mi) west through the Murchison Falls National Park until it reaches the northern tip of Lake Albert – a deep, narrow lake with mountainous sides. Here the river waters merge with the lake before exiting to the north towards the Sudanese town of Nimule.
Fula Rapids – The now-called Albert Nile then passes through Nimule and proceeds to the city of Juba over a 193km (120mi) stretch that is typified by narrow gorges and a series of rapids – eg the Fula Rapids. Past Juba the river passes over a large clay plain that during the rainy season is completely flooded.
Bhar al-Ghazal – After the clay plain the river is joined by the Al-Ghazal River at Lake No. Beyond this large lagoon the river proceeds through the Sudanese town of Malakal. From here on in it becomes known as the White Nile.
Blue Nile – The Blue Nile originates on the high Ethiopian Plateau, where it proceeds on a north-north-west course from 1,800m (5,905ft) above sea level. The Blue Nile begins properly at Lake Tana, a shallow lake with an area of 3,626km2 (1,400mi2), and continues through Sudan.
White Nile – Starting at Malakal, the White Nile heads for 800km (500mi) to Lake Nasser – of which it supplies 15 per cent of the total inward-flowing volume. Prior to entering the lake it is joined by the River Nile’s other primary source: the Blue Nile.
Khartoum – Near Khartoum the two primary rivers converge to create the River Nile proper, and proceed north for 322km (200mi). At this point the Nile is joined by the Atbara River, the last tributary, which supplies roughly ten per cent of the total annual flow.
Lake Nasser – The Nile then enters Lake Nasser, the second-largest man-made lake in the world. With a potential maximum area of 6,735km2 (2,600mi2), it covers approximately 483km (300mi) of the Nile’s total length. The lake also sits on the border between Sudan and Egypt, with the Nile passing by the famous temples at Abu Simbel.
Aswan Dam – The cause of the vast Lake Nasser, the Aswan Dam is a huge embankment situated across the Nile at Aswan, Egypt. The dam was built to control the river’s annual tendency to flood the lowlands of central Egypt in late-summer. The Nile’s flow is controlled through the dam, continuing on a northwards course towards Cairo.
Cairo – For 322km (200mi) after the Aswan Dam the River Nile passes through an underlying limestone plateau, which averages 19km (12mi) in width. After another 322km (200mi) the river flows through the bustling city of Cairo, the capital of Egypt.
Nile Delta – After flowing through Cairo the River Nile enters a delta region, a triangular-shaped lowland where the river fans out into two main distributaries: the Rosetta and the Damietta. These distributaries are named after the coastal towns where they depart the mainland.
Mediterranean – Finally, after around 6,650km (4,130mi), the Nile comes to an end in the Mediterranean Sea, a body of seawater that spans 2.5mn km2 (965,000mi2).