In 1983 I quit my job as a magazine editor in London to travel the rivers of Africa by public transport. This article about the Upper Nile was written for and sold to The New York Times.  Sadly, it was never published – most likely considered too fringe for the Sunday Travel section. 

Despite the rigors of the trip, those were halcyon days, passed in a rare interval of peace between northern and southern Sudan, and well before the sleepy towns described here were torn apart by competition for oil and civil war. I have left the article unchanged, in homage to a unique place in time, forever gone, and to what was once a slightly bigger world.

Even the booking clerk wasn’t sure.  “Maybe one o’clock, maybe two o’clock.  Maybe tomorrow,” he replied without enthusiasm when asked the departure time of the boat to Juba. ‘Inshallah,’ the clerk behind him added, which evoked a conspiratorial smile between the two: God willing.

We were lucky. We’d been waiting only a day in Kosti, the northern terminus of the Sudan’s Upper Nile ferry service.  Others had been waiting almost three weeks for the boat to take them upstream to Juba, the country’s southernmost city.  The service plies nearly 800 miles of river, almost to Uganda, making a tenuous connection between the Arab, Muslim north of the Sudan and the black, African south.

There had been rumors all the way from Khartoum, 150 miles to the north.  The boats left on Wednesdays; on Saturdays; every other week; there was a fuel shortage so they left whenever they could; they weren’t running at all.  In Africa, and particularly the Sudan, one haggles not only over prices, but also facts.  To arrive at the terminal fresh from Khartoum and purchase a first-class ticket on the supposed day of departure was a stroke of pure luck.  We sat down to wait, and were still there two days later.

Sudd postcard
Steamers and barges stuck in the Sudd swamp, from an old postcard.

With the exception of the Lake Nasser steamer from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan, the Kosti to Juba run is the only regular public transport operating on the Nile.  It remains a rarity in African river travel, and has but one real competitor:  only the 950-mile bi-weekly service from Kinshasa to Kisangani on the Zaire rivals it for sheer distance and duration. As a means of transport, the rivers of Africa have remained almost untouched since the first colonial enthusiasm exhausted itself.

Certainly, little apparent change has occurred between Kosti and Juba – that part of the river known as the Upper, or White, Nile – since the regular passenger service was introduced in 1903 by the Steamers and Boats Department of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium government.  Propulsion is still by paddle wheel, though powered today by diesel, not steam.  The 120ft stern-wheeler Hurriyah (in English, Independence) pushes three rusting deck-class barges ahead of her; two barges for first- and second-class passengers flank her sides.  Devised in the first decade of the century, the six-boat convoy is still considered practical for coping with the rivers’ often narrow, twisting course.

The barges have remained virtually untouched since their launch on the river 45 years ago. The British royal crest still decorates the cut-glass windows, even though the screens on the upper deck are torn, the doorknobs fall off, and poor Sudanese camp where English colonial officers once sipped gin.  And though the restaurant’s walls are now covered in soot from the kitchen’s cooking fires, and light at night comes from one dim, naked bulb, a service call button remains next to each table, another reminder of a once-elegant way to travel.

Hurriyah is youthful by comparison. A three-decked stern-wheeler commissioned in 1955, she was virtually the last vessel to be built for use on the Sudanese rivers by Yarrow and Company of Glasgow, the firm which first supplied the English adventurer Samuel Baker with paddle steamers for his explorations here in the 1860s.  “Passengers are forbidden to board this vessel,” reads a sign on board, blithely ignored by scores of the 1,500 people making the voyage.  No Sudanese who can afford an air ticket to Juba uses the boat any longer, but the bi-weekly trip remains a major means of transportation for many poor Southerners who come north to work at menial jobs. The southern railhead lies at Wau, far west of Juba; the cost of a lift by truck remains prohibitive.  Even if it didn’t, most of the roads become virtually impassable for four to five months every year once the rains begin in May.

The White and Blue Nile Rivers.

“Take two buckets,” someone had said. Use one as a latrine, the other for scooping water from the river to drink.  The reason for the siege mentality became apparent after boarding the boat that first morning.  As we opened the door to our first-class cabin, a rat ran out.  The reading lights had been torn from their fixtures. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, and dirt and graffiti were smeared across the walls.  “We spent 13 days on the river from Kosti to Terakeka,” someone named Frank Waskech had written, and my heart sank.  The only concession to new passengers was a clean sheet flung onto a mattress without stuffing. My cabin-mate, David, a social worker from San Diego who pronounced “Khartoum” as “Cartoon” – though whether deliberately I never discovered – looked equally unimpressed. We had discovered too late that the true first-class cabins were on the other barge, for which tickets had to be purchased in advance at the booking office in Khartoum North.

The departure whistle blew at last, late on a Saturday afternoon.  In two days of waiting, the boat had become a village.  Women washed clothes and infants in three-foot-wide pans; men mended fishing nets; young mothers suckled children; crones sat, half-naked and serene, smoking wooden and brass pipes.  Salesmen set up shop, offering batteries, candy and soap.  “These are for buying! Selling!” a man named Haroun told me with a toothless smile, holding out a pack of Sudanese cigarettes.  Soldiers played cards, or slept.  Cassette players and transistor radios echoed across the decks from 7am until dark. Charcoal-burning tin stoves were set up in every corner; strips of raw beef hung from the railings to dry in the sun.  Livestock was everywhere: sheep on the foredeck of Hurriyah, goats aft, 13 chickens next door to our cabin, together with a rooster who thought dawn came at 3:30am.

We were the entertainment. “Howaja,” one would hear when passing along the crowded decks, and people would turn to watch the white man, children grabbing at a sleeve or, at night, the flashlight.  We were eight to their 1,500: four Britons, of which two were women, a Canadian, a Frenchman, and David and myself.  Once the only way to central Africa, the White Nile has regained popularity today as a route for overland travelers with plenty of time on their hands.

At first the river is several hundred yards wide, its brown waters bordered on either side by yellow grasslands stretching back to a line of trees on the horizon.  Several high, rocky jebels, or hills, lend variety to the landscape, but they are soon left behind and the savannah stretches away again uninterrupted.  The boat passes cattle grazing on the foreshore; the reed huts of the Shilluk people; a dugout canoe lying on the bank. Fires rage across the marshland, torched by herdsmen to burn off the old grass and encourage new growth.  The horizon at night is indigo and orange.

The days went by.  We were up by 7:00; it was impossible to sleep any later with an audience of children peering in through the screens.  A shower came first – water pumped directly from the river, but refreshing.  Then breakfast in the restaurant: an omelette, ful beans, bread baked onboard, and hot, sweet tea – every day, without deviation, for two weeks. In the mornings we would sit the roof of Hurriyah and read, and when it got too hot, move to the wheelhouse and talk to the crew.  The hottest part of the afternoon would often send us back to the cabin for a nap, but if the energy could be summoned, there were clothes to wash in the river.  It made one feel industrious, if nothing else; clothes weren’t really necessary, except for a pair of shorts.  And in the evenings, when the western sky turned the color of pearl, we would visit the restaurant again for stew and the inevitable ful, then return to the cabin to read, or stand by the rail watching the moonlit scenery, drinking locally made date wine and talking of traveling.

Sunset on the Upper Nile.

We reached Malakal, four days out from Kosti and the last town of any significance before Juba.  Malakal is the last chance to stock up on tinned food and fruit, and the last place for drinking water – but at the end of the dry season, which coincided with our visit in March,  one would be lucky to find any.  We cajoled a restaurant owner into parting with two bucketfuls; two days later we finished it and began drinking river water.

Just upriver from Malakal, where the Sobat River enters the main stream, the ferry swings west onto the last stretch of open river anyone will see for almost 250 miles and four days.  The vegetation changes almost overnight, and by the time the boat reaches Lake No, an expanse of interconnected pools where the Bahr al Ghazal empties into the Nile, the wide, flat marshland has given way to the reeds and papyrus of the Sudd.  The river loses itself in this swamp, and winds and winds, looking for a way out.  Off to the east and west can be seen other channels and sheets of water, broad as lakes, into which the main stream has been diverted: wetlands of roughly 3,200 square miles, into which the state of Delaware would fit comfortably. You will have to climb on to the roof of your barge to see it, though, because the feathery tops of the papyrus stretch 12 feet high and the plants enclose the main channel like a wall.  They screen out the wind, as well, and in the afternoons the sun is so hot that you cannot put your hands on the metal railings.

Even today, the main channel of the Bahr al Jebel, or River of the Mountain, the name given to the White Nile south of Lake No, is a mere 45 or 50 yards wide.  Only since 1901 has there even been a consistently clear route through, when a gang of Sudanese prisoners was employed to remove about 20 large blocks of vegetation – sudd is Arabic for ‘barrier’ – cutting the swamp into rectangular pieces and hauling them out with grappling hooks and steamers to float away downstream. Before that, everyone trusted to luck.

The traders in the mid-1800s, sailing south from Khartoum for ivory and slaves, counted on a month and half to reach Gondokoro, a gritty, malaria-ridden outpost that stood opposite the present town of Juba.  Samuel Baker, on his way to Gondokoro in 1871 to annex the Upper Nile for Khedive Ismail of Egypt and suppress the slave trade, was stuck in the Sudd for three months, finally resorting to building a dam behind his boats to raise the water level enough to float them off and continue south.  “The White Nile is a veritable Styx,” he wrote of the journey. “During the dead calms in these vast marshes, the feeling of melancholy is beyond description.”

Mandari fishermen in the Sudd.

With the completion of the Jonglei Canal project, history will have come full circle.  The 225-mile channel will serve as the main line of navigation for the River Transport Corporation’s vessels, and the Sudd, for the most part, will be allowed to revert to its rightful owners – the dank vegetation, the crocodiles and hippos, the mosquitoes.

First mooted almost 80 years ago, the Jonglei Canal is one of the biggest engineering projects ever undertaken in Africa.  When completed, at a cost of over $200 million, it will divert 20 million cubic meters of water a day from the swamp, drawing it off at Bor and returning it to the main stream just south of Malakal for eventual irrigation use in northern Sudan and Egypt.  Its history, however, is one of numerous delays, and although more than a third of it has already been dug, that much has taken more than five years.  The completion date of 1985 looks increasingly optimistic.

The once-promising, now moribund, Jonglei Canal Project.

The Sudd begins to lose its grip near Bor, and as the town recedes, the dusty grasslands take over again.  Herds of long-horned cattle and temporary camps, marked from afar by the chocolate-smelling smoke of cooking fires, appear at almost every bend.  This land is used by the Mandari, a pastoral people numbering some 15,000 who graze their herds along these banks from March to May, and celebrate the boat’s passage with a laugh and a sprint along the riverbank.  When the boat has pulled up to the bank at night, they stream aboard, naked except for a belt of colored beads and a smearing of ash to keep the flies away, to examine the passengers.

We arrived at Terakeka, 50 miles beyond Bor.  “Two weeks on this boat already,” my journal entry for the day begins.  It describes how, for two days, the crew split the barges up to move them through the narrow sections of the simsima, a region of shifting sand banks; how that day we made only a thousand yards; how the Mandari laughed at us.  It does not describe everyone’s increasing impatience, but that is the dominant memory today.

Mandari cattle camp.

That second night, the patience ran out.  Several dozen soldiers, all Southerners and traveling deck class, dressed up in their uniforms and, shouldering their rifles, marched up to the bridge to confront the Arab crew.  They demanded to be taken immediately to Mongalla, just short of Juba, where we had been told the voyage would terminate owing to the river’s low level.  Finally, after half an hour of shouting and pushing, the captain convinced them that the boat would arrive in Mongalla by noon the following day.  They accepted that and drifted off, but the memory of the incident persisted, an ugly reminder of the unsung civil war between North and South that lasted for 17 years and ended only in 1972.

The captain kept his word.  Just before noon the following day, as women finished dyeing elaborate henna designs on their hands and feet in preparation for arrival, Hurriyah and her barges slid to a stop at the Mongalla waterfront.

The road takes over from there and so, for the first time in two weeks, does the demand for decisions.  Juba is still several hours away by charcoal truck, with 14 Sudanese and a goat.  The road winds through acacia-covered hill country, past clusters of reed huts and villagers eager for a lift.

The last city in the Sudan lies on the far side of the river, a place where delivery men strap three-foot Nile perch across the backs of their bicycles; where handless leper women sell marijuana from a tin shack for five piasters, and where travelers sit under the mango trees at the Hotel Africa, offering stories of pygmies, black market deals and hints of revolution in the Mountains of the Moon.

Header image: Nile steamer and its barges in the Sudan. Courtesy of Visual Hunt.

4 thoughts on “Steaming through Africa

  1. Brilliant article! I did this trip from Kosti to Juba 1974. Sadly I don’t have any photos but this article brought back those memories vividly. Only difference was I travelled third class!

  2. Hi Bruce,

    I really enjoyed your article. I did the same trip with the same boat – maybe not at the same time exactly, but it was in 1983. I traveled with my Citroen 2CV from Paris to Nairobi. I published a book in Denmark 1989. I have now rewritten my book in English, and hope to publish it.

    Did you do the trip from Egypt to Kosti, or did you start up in Kosti? (or Khartoum)?


    1. Dear Hanne,

      Please forgive my extremely delayed reply to your note. For some reason I missed it entirely (although I don’t often check in on this site, so that’s probably the reason). In any event, James Tregay — whom I believe you know — wrote to me the other day about the article, and mentioned that you had written some time ago and not heard back from me. My apologies; I try to reply to everyone who takes the time to tell me they read my pieces.

      We must have just missed one another in Sudan. I also did my trip in 1983, and was there in the February/March timeframe. I would have very much enjoyed meeting you; your trip by 2CV sounds fascinating. I would very much like to read your book in English if and when you publish it. Please keep me posted.

      To answer your question, I started my trip at Victoria Station in London, and my goal was to travel the three major rivers in Africa by public transport, wherever public transport existed. I did not get to the Congo or the Niger, but I did finish up my trip in Mombasa, which ended up taking me about three months in total from London. Since posting the Sudan article on my website, I’ve heard from a smattering of people around the world — Ireland, Australia, the UK and now Denmark — who also did the trip. I love hearing from each and every one, and smile at the thought of sharing that adventure.

      I since went on to study African political economy at graduate school, but then got lured back to the corporate world and ended up spending some years in Paris and then the UK again. The USA eventually called me home, and I am now retired and living on Cape Cod — still writing, though, currently a book on Africa and Portuguese maritime history.

      Thanks so much for getting in touch. Please let me know about your book in English. My email is

      Warm regards,
      Bruce MacDonald

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s