Nile Explorers

… where the Nile foams, froths, thunders and falls …


From ancient times, rivers have been a source of interest, inspiration and guidance for many peoples. The 4 largest / longest rivers of the world:

Amazon, Ghanges, Yangtze and the Nile have drawn pilgrims and explorers from many and varied countries and times. Often they all had a common question:

Where do they begin?


This has probably been the most contentious of all questions, and as this is the longest river of the world, finding the source can be rather confusing and indeed misleading.

But what is defined as the “source” (headwaters) of a river?

* upper tributaries

* the water from which a river rises

* beginnings

* place furthest in that river from its mouth/estuary

Trying to trace backwards up the longest river in the world, through what people referred to as the “dark continent”, has been quite a treacherous endeavor for many explorers….


  • A Greek Merchant (1st Century) This nameless person was apparently the first to speak of huge areas of water inland from the East coast of Africa. This news was passed on to:
  • A Syrian Geographer who apparently recorded all this information
  • Ptolemy (2nd Century) then attempted to put these 2 great inland seas in the interior of Africa on a map, which were said to be at the foot of the “mountains of the moon.”

Then there is a quiet gap in the history until:

  • A Moroccan Berber traveller Ibn Battuta (1300s) thought that the Niger was the source
  • Portuguese missionary Paez arrives in Ethiopia (1600s) settles near Lake Tana: source of the Blue Nile
  • A Scottish travel writer James Bruce (1790) traced the origins of the Blue Nile to the springs of Gish in Ethiopia

and then came THE VICTORIAN EXPLORERS: (1856 – 1876)

Burton, Speke, Grant, Baker and Florence, Stanley and of course Livingstone!

The quest to discover the source of the Nile (White Nile) became an obsession of the mid 19th century.

  • 1856 Speke and Burton made their first voyage to find the “Great Lakes” in the centre of the continent. They began in Zanzibar and made their perilous way and found the first of these lakes: Tanganyika.
  • 1858 Disease, fights, blindness, deafness and many other troubles resulted in only Speke arriving at Lake Victoria, and being the first European to see it. He could not accurately record and map it, but was convince this was the source.

On returning to England, there was much dispute between Burton (who claimed the source was in Lake Tanganyika) and Speke (Lake Victoria). So the question rose: is Lake Victoria the primary feeder of the White Nile, or is there a river flowing out of the North side of Tanganyika? The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) wanted the answers.

There was much jealousy, flinging of accusations, anger and bitterness that lead to a huge feud and rift between Burton and Speke.

1860 – 65 Speke and Grant returned to Lake Victoria and found the Nile flowing out of it on the Northern side: and named it Ripon Falls (1862): the place where the Lake begins to move and become the White Nile. However, he did not follow the lake the entire way around.

Baker and Florence: they discovered Lake Albert and the Murchison Falls.

1864 Criticism and arguing continued until a debate to “settle the Nile” issue was to be held, between Speke and Burton, but Speke’s accidental death the previous day meant this did not happen.

1874-1877 Stanley was sent to finally solve the crisis and enable the RGS to fill in blanks on their maps. He took a boat around the entire shore of Lake Victoria and established that Lake Tanganyika was NOT connected to the Nile. He explored the headwaters of Lake Edward and declared that Speke was correct:

The White Nile flows from Lake Victoria via the Ripon and Murchison Falls, to Lake Albert and then on to Gondokoro……. although admitting that the lake has several feeders.

1934 Waldecker (German) traced the Kangera river back to the Hills of Burundi

2006 McGrigor (British) stated that the most distant source of the Nile was the start of the Kagera River, which he said was in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda.

2013 Levison Wood (British) walked the Nile from source to sea, and began his journey in the hills of Rwanda!

National Geographic has declared that the outlet of Lake Victoria is not the source of the Nile. The true source is the source of the largest River flowing INTO the lake, that being the Kagera River (Rwanda/Burundi: it has not finally been confirmed)


People have been debating and arguing over the true source/origins of this incredible river for centuries.

We have the Blue Nile, (Lake Tana) filling from the skies, powerfully pouring down the mountains. This is the Nile that caused the flooding of Egypt: shorter (1450 miles) yet mighty.

We have the White Nile, rising in the Great Lakes of East Africa, (with the most distant source still undetermined: Rwanda or Burundi) (4 230 miles).

These 2 rivers join in Sudan (Khartoum) where it flows through a vast desert after Atbara, without being replenished for 1 200 miles by a single tributary.