Cruising to the Confluence
August 8th, 2010
We drove the 11.5 hours to Khartoum in one day, mostly to make up for lost time spent waiting at the border. We were camping at the Blue Nile Sailing Club, which was much less posh than it sounds. We spent a couple of days there, mostly trying to adjust to the heat. Since leaving the mountains of Ethiopia, we’d dropped from 11,500 feet to barely over 1,500 feet, and it was hot. Afternoon temperatures were regularly above 40¬∞C. It was hard to believe that less than a week earlier we’d been huddled together in sleeping bags and long underwear to try and stay warm. Water was the drink of choice, followed closely by Coca-Cola. It’s actually ridiculous how much Coke we’ve found ourselves drinking, but it’s just so refreshing in such scorching heat. It’s also an easy way to get some sugar into our systems, which can be a good thing.
The major geographical significance of the city of Khartoum is that it sits at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. The two rivers flow together, mixing the reddish brown waters of the Blue Nile with the dark blueish waters of the White Nile. I know — the naming doesn’t seem to make sense in those terms to me either. But that’s how it is. We signed up at the Sailing Club for an evening boat cruise to see the confluence of the two mighty rivers. It sounded like a great idea. We expected to be treated to a slow meander downstream for an hour or so to where the rivers join, where we would see the brown and blue waters streak and collide before dissolving together. After that, we thought we’d simply turn around and make our way home, taking in the sunset as we went. What we got was somewhat different, and slightly hilarious (but more so now looking back on it than when it was actually happening).
Things started off well. Our driver (who spoke no English at all) steered our large pontoon boat out into the current of the Blue Nile, and we drifted down towards the confluence. We kept to the left of a very large island that divided the Blue Nile on its way to meet the White. After about half an hour we came into sight of the bridge that spanned the White Nile, and we knew that we must be getting close. Excitedly we all got our cameras out. We lined the rail and strained our eyes into the distance. And then our driver did something rather unexpected: he turned around. We were within 10 minutes of our ultimate destination, and he decided it was time to go home. We tried to impress upon him that we hadn’t yet seen the only thing we came out on the boat to see, but made no ground. Finally we managed to get his boss on the phone, and explained to him that we were turning around short of our goal. We had arranged for a 2.5 hour cruise, and here we were, 45 minutes in, headed for home. The boss got on the phone to the driver, and he reluctantly turned us back around and headed towards the meeting of the rivers.
We relaxed. It was sorted, we thought. As we approached the mingling of the rivers, we noticed next that our driver was hugging the near shoreline all the way down. The confluence came and went, and still he stuck to the shoreline, refusing to pull out into the middle of the river to afford us views of the mixing waters. Again we tried to explain our desires to him. Couldn’t he please just turn around, pull out into the middle and then head back to camp? No dice. We showed him a map. We gestured wildly with our hands. We sat along the rail and moped. Nothing worked. Our course was unalterably set down-river, and we gathered eventually that we would be heading back up the other arm of the Blue Nile towards home. There was nothing for it. We were now about an hour and a half in, and our goal had come and gone. A cloud of fine sand started blowing across the river, just to cheer us up a little.
We came to the end of the island whose shore we’d been following. The driver swung the boat out into the current and pointed it back upstream, and we very quickly discovered the reason that he’d refused to pull out at the confluence. With all 140 horses of outboard motor power engaged, the boat was doing an average speed of about 2 km/h — backwards. No matter how many times he banged down on the throttle, the driver could not get the boat to make any headway upriver. It didn’t help that he seemed sadly ignorant of a few basic facts about river currents: we were wallowing helplessly in the middle-outside flow of a bend in the river, where the water moves fastest. After about 20 minutes of this, he called his boss on the phone. Luckily, this resulted in some transfer of good advice, and he started to steer the boat towards the bank along the inside of the bend. Our speed situation improved — now we were doing nearly 2 km/h in the right direction. However, whenever we got a bit of momentum up, the driver would inexplicably pull out into the current again, and suddenly we’d be drifting in reverse. This happened so many times that I decided to try and go to sleep on deck, just so I wouldn’t have to watch it anymore.
Sunset came and went, and still we plodded up the river at a snail’s pace. We tried to play charades to pass the time, but soon it was too dark to see what we were doing. The driver helpfully tried to start the onboard generator so that we could have electric light to play by, but when he stepped away from the wheel to start it up, the boat veered off course and plowed heavily into the bank, nearly throwing us all off of our feet. The driver leapt back to the wheel, and suddenly the engine started coughing and sputtering. It was only then that we realized that we were dangerously low on fuel. We managed to explain to the driver that we didn’t need the electric lights, as we were much happier to use the fuel to get home rather than to power a generator. As a side note, none of us could figure out why the lights didn’t run off of the boat’s battery, instead of having to use fuel to run a massive generator on deck. We figured it made about as much sense as sending a large group of people out into the Nile on a boat whose motor wasn’t even powerful enough to go upstream. We stopped expecting things to make sense.
About twenty minutes later, we did actually run out of fuel. The driver anxiously tilted and shook the fuel container, but there were only fumes left. We had been on the phone to his boss again, trying to make him understand that we had no intentions of swimming back, and could he please do something to help out? After all, our 2.5 hour cruise was now nearly 4 hours old, and we were getting a little hungry and a little tired of it all. Soon, a small speedboat (one with a big enough motor to handle the current, apparently) came streaking across the water with a large jerry can of fuel in the passenger seat. We cheered for him as he climbed on board. We were going to make it back after all.
Back on shore, we had to laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. I’d recommend that anyone visiting Khartoum who is interested in seeing the confluence of the Nile should skip the boat cruise. I think the view would be much better from the bridge that we’d seen over the White Nile, and I’m sure that the taxi would have enough fuel and power to get you back in time for dinner. If, on the other had, spending over 4 hours on an underpowered, under-fueled pontoon boat in order to completely avoid seeing the thing you’d set out to see in the first place is the type of thing that excites you, then perhaps this is the cruise for you. Hey, at least Khartoum looked rather nice from the water — guess that’s something, right?