Review of "The Black Nile," by Dan Morrison

By Tahir Shah
Sunday, October 17, 2010

THE BLACK NILE

One Man's Amazing Journey

Through Peace and War on the World's Longest River

By Dan Morrison

Viking. 307 pp. $26.95

It was during the mid-'80s that I first got Africa under my skin. I was studying African dictatorships in Kenya, spending every spare moment hitchhiking through some of Africa's most dysfunctional lands. The lure was a place starkly at odds with the Occidental world I knew, a realm whose rulebook had been ripped up long before. In the years since those first heady days of close calls with vigilantes and stoned-out soldiers, with gold-smugglers and gun-runners, I have returned time and again to the place I hold so dear.

What I find so tragic, but in some ways wonderful, is that Africa doesn't change. I was reminded of this while reading Dan Morrison's new book, "The Black Nile." It's packed with narrow scrapes, humor and brazen feats of sheer adventure, all set against a brilliantly described backdrop. Reading it, I found myself slipping into the world of a good Rider Haggard novel because, after all, Africa is the continent par excellence of rip-roaring adventure.

Overladen with questionable and unnecessary gear (including "a Wal-Mart tent the size of a surface-to-air missile"), Morrison and his best friend, a California bartender named Schon, set out on an epic journey. Their aim was to travel from the supposed source of the Nile at Jinja on Lake Victoria to the dazzling waters of the Mediterranean, almost 4,000 miles to the north. From the outset, there's an implicit homage to Alan Moorehead's classic narratives of historical travel, "The White Nile" and "The Blue Nile," both published half a century ago. But unlike Moorehead, Morrison trains his eye on the history of the moment. Having waited weeks for a plank-boat to be built, he and Schon finally take to the water, stop-starting their way up the first few miles of the longest river on Earth. The description of the resulting journey is interwoven with recent history, gritty, no-nonsense observations and a cast of vivid characters.

Traveling northward through Uganda, Sudan and then Upper Egypt, Morrison skillfully shows us the Africa we rarely glimpse in the mass media. "The Black Nile" gives a snapshot of ordinary life in the hamlets and villages along the waterway, lives shaped by hardship. The true value of the book is the way it reveals fragments of close-up reality, the micro rather than the macro.

Morrison's experience as a journalist shines through, as does his use of humor, which frames subjects of utter horror. These include intertribal conflict, pestilence, and the dams and deforestation that have destroyed swaths of East Africa's ancient habitat. In the southern Sudanese town of Juba, Schon cooked up his last plates of oily spaghetti and came clean about not wanting to go on, especially since "on" was into the "malarial tinderbox" of the Sudd swampland, where "the war wasn't quite finished in Upper Nile state -- antagonistic militias stewed in camps while their leaders grappled for political power." After his childhood buddy leaves, Morrison continues alone, and, now that the author can turn his full attention to the landscape around him, the travelogue steps up a notch. What's impressive is how well he describes without judging. The Africa he depicts is a place where tribal rivalry complements religious and political friction; where illness, disease and utter poverty shape the lives of the majority, who lack the safety nets that so often catch Westerners when we fall.

As the journey progresses, it becomes much less of a whimsical jaunt and much more of a hard-edged report. This is Morrison at his best, lean and hungry in wild wastelands of Africa's Sahel. His description of the Sudanese capital is memorable : "A dense static of orange grit came screaming from the desert; it filled the sky and trapped Khartoum's eight million souls in a suffocating and radiant silica heat."

"The Black Nile," which will resonate with old Africa hands the world over, deserves praise for the way it considers the ordinary on a continent so often forgotten by the world at large. May it inspire the next generation of adventurers, luring them to the journey that is out there ready and awaiting them.

Tahir Shah's latest travel book is "In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams."


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