Caroline Moorehead

Red Nile, by Robert Twigger - review

Red Nile, by Robert Twigger - review
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Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River

Robert Twigger

Weidenfeld, pp. 466, £

When Bernini designed his fountain of the four rivers for the Piazza Navona in Rome in 1651 he draped the head of the god of the Nile with a loose piece of cloth, to denote the fact that its source remained unknown. Tracing the sources of both the Blue and the White Nile would become one of the most heated and consuming of all Victorian quests and the adventures and tribulations of the men — Petherick, Stanley, Baker, Bruce, Burton, Speke — and one woman, Baker’s Hungarian slave wife, Florenz, have provided rich material for many generations of writers.

What Robert Twigger brings, in this great bag of a book, taking his title from the moment in early summer when the sediment from the Blue Nile, entering the White in full flood near Khartoum, turns its waters red, is a sense of the river itself, its size and diversity, its dams and barrages, its animals and insects, and the people who live along its shores.

A one time riot policeman in Japan, a poet, a sportswriter, a canoer and the leader of an expedition on foot across the Great Sand Sea in the Sahara, Twigger approaches his subject in true buccaneering style. His intention at one point, he writes, was to swim and drink his way from end to end, but in the event good sense and logistics prevailed and he made forays up and down its 6,650 kilometre length, dipping in and out of the 11 countries through which the Nile runs.

He flew stretches in a small plane, kayaked along sections, dropped in on Jinja, where the Nile leaves Lake Victoria and where Gandhi had some of his ashes scattered, learnt about Muhammad Ali Pasha, massacrer of the Mamluks and builder of the first of the Nile’s dams, who kept his European visitors up all night with his questions, and he traced the steps of Flaubert, who spent happy hours in brothels on his journey to Aswan, and decided to write Madame Bovary when looking out across the second cataract. Like Muhammad Ali, Twigger’s curiosity is insatiable.

Nor does he neglect the long history of the quest for the source of the two rivers, rightly devoting much time to the Greeks, Romans and many soldiers, cartographers, scientists, warriors, adventurers and traders who pursued dreams of exploration of their own. Though by 1904, the Nile had been mapped, measured, dredged and damned, its modern history is no less interesting to Twigger than its more extraordinary past.

A neat historical narrative, however, was never Twigger’s aim, and the travellers whose exploits form the heart of most earlier accounts of Nile exploration get little more than potted biographies. Rather, he prefers to amass and then set out his stall of stories, anecdotes, statistics, speculations, observations, with many asides, not all of them relevant (a mugging in New Orleans, the death of an Arctic kayaker in the frozen north, how to grow giant lobelias in a British greenhouse), jumping backwards and forwards in time and place and scattering topics in bite-sized chunks.

Like the vast, fast-flowing river itself, with its waters teeming with crocodiles, hippopotami and bilharzia, so Red Nile teems with arcane facts and high-spirited asides. Few writers have described with such obvious pleasure the antics and habits of the Nile elephant, which drinks 30 gallons a day of river water, nor those of the troops of young baboons, loping along the banks ‘like young thugs’, nor those of the Nile crocodiles, the biggest animal killers in Africa, taking over 1,000 lives each year, with a bite ten times as powerful as that of the great white shark.

Twigger’s gossipy, chatty style can be intensely annoying — Moses, fleeing the Pharaoh, ‘calls a friend’, mummies are ‘wimps’, and Richard Burton is introduced as ‘not the one married to Cleopatra — Liz Taylor — but the other one’. But if you can get past the jauntiness and jocularity, Red Nile provides a feast of quirky, fascinating bits of knowledge, both funny and memorable.