The origin of the world’s longest river has fascinated explorers for centuries. But could McGrigor, McLeay and MacIntyre succeed where Livingstone and Stanley failed? Lisa Grainger joined their quest.
The safest place to sleep was on the bimini canopies of the boats
It’s 8.45am on March 23 in Rwanda, and an hour and a half into the journey north from the capital, Kigali. My driver, John, is looking increasingly worried. We’re on a small, winding, rock-strewn road, and no one along it appears to have heard of our destination.
Our main problem is that our map – while the most recent, topographically detailed available – is a photocopy of a 1:100, 000 version printed by Rwanda’s Belgian colonial government in 1937. Consequently it shows only a few roads and none of the modern towns – not that there are any nearby. It does mark contours, rivers, altitudes and bridges – jolly useful if you’re exploring a river, as the three explorers who have sent it to me are doing.
But not much use, frankly, if you’re haring around cloud-capped mountains trying to find them.
Fortunately, in the aptly named “Land of a Thousand Hills”, the gods join us. As we turn the umpteenth bend, and look down at the rust-coloured river below, we spot three tiny white inflatable dinghies in the water. And as we get closer, three white men in filthy shorts and T-shirts stand out from the hundreds of Rwandans gaggled on the river banks. The locals have come to see with their own eyes the mzungus (white men) who could be about to rewrite history.
The three, Neil McGrigor, 44, Cam McLeay, 43, and Garth MacIntyre, 43, are on a mission which has been attempted in parts by some of Britain’s finest explorers – Speke, Grant, Gordon, Baker, Livingstone – but never fully achieved: to follow the Nile all the way back to its “longest” source way above Lake Victoria. When I join them, they are about 4,100 miles from their starting point at the Nile Delta.