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The Blue Nile
‘Egypt is an acquired country, the gift of the river.'--Herodotus.
The Blue Nile pours very quietly and uneventfully out of Lake Tana in the northern highlands of Ethiopia. There is no waterfall or cataract, no definite current, nothing in fact to indicate that a part at least of this gently moving flow is embarked upon a momentous journey to the Mediterranean, 2,750 miles away. The actual outlet lies in a bay at the southern end of the lake, and it would be quite possible for a traveller to miss it altogether. The shoreline unobtrusively divides into low islands fringed with black lava boulders and overgrown with jungle, and the grey-green water slips in between. There are no villages here, and except for a few fishermen paddling about on their papyrus rafts like waterboatmen in a pond, no sign of civilization at all. The silence is absolute.
One sees a few spry grey monkeys on the rocks, and the black and white kingfisher, fluttering ten feet above the water before he makes his dead-straight drop upon a fish. Pythons are said to live in these regions, and they grow to a length of twenty feet or more and are adorned in patterns of black and many colours. If you are very lucky you might catch sight of one of them swimming to new hunting grounds along the shore, but more often they are to be found in the low branches of trees, and from that safe hiding place among the leaves they lash out to grab and demolish a monkey or a small unsuspecting antelope coming down to the river to drink.
We are here 6,000 feet above the level of the sea, and the equatorial sunshine is immenselyhot and bright. Towards midday, however, a breeze gets up on the lake, and it continues until evening when, in an instant, the sun vanishes in an explosion of lurid colour, and it can be very cold if you are sleeping out at night. The river is full of these contrasts and surprises. At the source you may feel yourself to be at the extremity of isolation and loneliness, but you can be pretty sure that some dark Ethiopian hidden in the trees is watching every move you make, and the township of Bahardar lies just around a headland to the south. Hardly half an hour away across the lake there are Coptic monasteries that have survived since the Middle Ages, and they are inhabited by priests who in the morning and again in the evening walk slowly round their circular thatch-roofed churches with the cross in one hand and the smoking censer in the other. In the wall-paintings in the sanctuary, overrun by rats, peeling with damp and decay, Christ and his Ethiopian disciples are depicted as white men, and they are attended by the half-naked figures of female saints. Only the devil is black.
In these surroundings where it can be blazing hot one minute and freezing the next, where the bronze church bell rings in a wilderness, one soon learns to come to terms with anachronisms and apparent contradictions. It is even denied that Lake Tana is the source of the river. There is an argument'indeed, it is more than an argument, it is an established and accepted belief'that the river really rises in a swamp called Ghish Abbai, some seventy miles away to the south. From this swamp the Little Abbai River courses down through the Ethiopian plateau to the south-western corner of the lake, and its waters are said to proceed through the lake itself to the opening near Bahardar which has just been described. All the early maps show the line of the river drawn firmly through the lake. All the latest maps give Ghish Abbai as the source.
But this is a little puzzling. Tana is a very big lake covering over a thousand square miles, with a drainage area five times as large. The Little Abbai, though admittedly the largest tributary, is only one of a number of others, and except for a few months during the rainy season there is no perceptible current from its mouth to the outlet at Bahardar; its waters become lost in the vast reservoir of the lake. (A somewhat similar situation exists at the source of the White Nile in Uganda, where the Kagera River flowing into Lake Victoria from the west does have a fairly well defined flow across the lake to the outlet at Jinja. But the Kagera is not regarded as the source of the White Nile; the source is at Jinja, or, in other words, Lake Victoria itself.)
This is, of course, an academic controversy, and the traveller on the Blue Nile (called here the Big Abbai) will be well advised to leave it behind him and instead proceed down the river from its quiet outlet near Bahardar. He will be blocked almost at once. A few miles downstream from the lake the water begins to boil turbulently over rocks and shallows which are impossible to navigate with any safety; and so he must take to mules and follow the river as close to its banks as the thick scrub will allow him.
The landscape is delightful, a combination of tropical and mountainous Africa; acacia trees and the lotus, the banyan and the alien eucalyptus, palms and delicate water-ferns. The baobab in these rain forests is not the smooth bald barrel of a tree which the river will meet far down below in the Sudanese deserts: it puts out broad shady leaves. We are as yet a little too far upstream for the crocodile, but there is an exuberance of birds; the fish eagle calling from the treetop in the morning, white storks with a delicate fringe of black on the wings, starlings that look like anything but starlings since their feathers gleam with an iridescent blue, the black ibis with its scimitar beak, pelicans, darters, hoopoes, rollers and kites; and the giant hornbill which is the size of a young ostrich and rather more ungainly until it lumbers into the air, and then reveals the great sweep of its wings, each tipped with white.