But it’s really most interesting in South Sudan where it doesn’t behave itself, doesn’t stay within it’s banks and that is where we are today - on the Nile, headed for the Kingdom of Shilluk.
Shilluk is in the state of Upper Nile and if you asked me to point to a place where north and south Sudan meet I would probably point to Upper Nile. We arrived into Malakal early in the morning because we have to take boats to Shilluk. Driving through the streets of Malakal we hear the Friday prayer call from the old mosque built in the days when Egypt still ruled the place, dodge Arab shopkeepers in the white Jellabiahs of the north on their way to prayers, and hear Arabic on the streets – not the Juba Arabic of the south but something closer to the real thing from the north. But then we also dodged a pig or two and there are shops selling beer.
When we get to the river the sun is scorching hot on the brown, flat waters that carry islands of tall floating grass and plants past. The channel of water narrows and widens but it is almost impossible to know where the true banks of the river are since these floating plants extend it. When the passing wake of a boat causes the water to stir the ‘riverbank’ bobs and moves like a waterbed waving off into the distance.
Great flocks of river birds take to the air as we pass and tall, white herons hitch rides on small islands of floating plants that wind their way with the current. Our IT girl is on the lookout for crocodiles which a passing trader told us they’d seen not far from here. Hippopatumuses also lay with their bodies submerged and just their backs and heads floating on the surface twitching their ears at flies.
It is a peaceful place, the Nile. The only sound is of insects, frogs and the engine of our boat as we plow against the slow moving current. All I can think is that if you had told me when I was a child that my job would be to live in such remote places, eat unappealing, mushy vegetables, and being eaten by mosquitoes I would not have believed you. But, if you also told me that I would get paid to spend my days floating down the Nile to visit places that hardly any other soul on earth will ever see I wouldn't have believed you either. I still can hardly believe my luck.
The Nile in the morning reminds me of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem:
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this:
Here such a passion is as stretcheth me apart
Lord, I do fear thou’st made the world too beautiful this year"
The mist clings to the trees and the banks as we pass. Our Sudanese maternal/child health coordinator waves her hand around and ask, ‘What is this? What do you call this?’
‘We call it fog," I say. But somehow the word doesn’t seem to do it justice. This other-worldly, smothering grey reflected in the glassy smooth river that parts as we pass and then closes again around us.
There is something timeless and comforting about the Nile. It has been there since time immemorial - since Miriam float Moses amongst the rushes, since it's waters ran with blood - and it will keep flowing to the Mediterranean Sea long after we are all gone.