Skip to main content

Blue Nile: Ethiopia's River of Magic and Mystery


Blue Nile: Ethiopia's River of Magic and Mystery

In 1999 Virginia Morell, a correspondent for Science
magazine, embarked on an expedition with a group from National
to the wild and relatively uncharted region of the
Blue Nile. They had high hopes of traversing the length of this
river from its headwaters to the Sudan where it joins the White
Nile, the "Nile" that is most familiar to the rest of us. It wasn't
a journey to be taken lightly --- many had perished in the river or
disappeared within the interiors of this rugged terrain, never to
be seen again. Those who had managed to survive a partial excursion
told horror stories about bands of marauders attacking their camps,
flood-swollen rapids swamping their boats, and crocodiles that
feasted on the less fortunate of their exploration party. That
anyone would even want to attempt such a trip is beyond the
understanding of this reader. But then, we armchair adventurers
will probably never grasp the overwhelming compulsion to explore
firsthand some formidable unknown.

While the White Nile is the one most often credited with irrigating
the arid areas of northeastern Africa, it is really the Blue Nile
that brings the life-sustaining flood waters that rush through
nearly 600 miles of untamed geography before joining its well-known
sister. Void of dams that could have made significant use of its
power and water supply, it has enticed explorers for centuries, but
none had managed to document its entire length until now. What the
National Geographic team achieved is amazing, and the story that
Morell tells of their perilous journey is a fascinating travelogue
of prose. Relating the history of the region as far back as
Biblical times, Morell creates a panorama of the ancient land and
the people who live along its boundaries that reflects a mixture of
old world and new.

"On the near shore was the land of Gojam. The Blue Nile encircled
it like a moat, and it was easy to see how in the past warring
kings and princes had used the river like a barricade... Gojamis,
the people of Gojam, were proud and independent-minded... In their
isolation, they regarded themselves as the keepers of the old
empire's true culture; their spoken Amharic was the purest, their
poets the most clever. Theirs was the land, too, of wizards and
magic, and of the buda, people cursed with the evil

Morell also relates the hardships they faced along the way, not the
least of which was the politics of the region. Continuous upheavals
by warring factions that date back centuries make it an unstable
area for outsiders, regardless of how innocent or benevolent their
reason for being in the country. The myriad documents needed to
satisfy each territorial ruler who exerted authority in a given
area is mind-boggling. It was not unexpected for soldiers carrying
weapons to accost the travelers, demanding proof that the group had
received permission to cross their domain. Although their posture
was threatening, the author makes it seem more of a nuisance to
endure than any real threat to their safety, but perhaps time and
distance have mellowed her fears to a degree. Yet, as treacherous
as this sounds, there is also a warmhearted picture of the
Ethiopian people woven into the narrative that sheds light on a
culture few readers could have encountered. From the curious
villagers who appeared on the cliffs to get their first glimpse of
white-skinned people, to the children who tagged after the team,
offering goods for sale or assistance to the weary, there is an
undeniable love for this country that dominates Morell's

"In many fields small groups of men, women, and children squatted
on their haunches, weeding each row by hand. Some stared as we
passed; others rose and made three or four quick bows in greeting.
One farmer stopped his team of oxen...and whooped the news of our
arrival to his neighbors down the valley. Others felt compelled to
rush up to shake our hands and offer us thick slabs of [bread] or
invite us to their homes for coffee."

Her colorful descriptions of each group of native people they
encountered gives readers some real insight into the complexity of
customs and the diversity of heritages that have evolved within
Ethiopia. For that matter, some of their flair for fashion is
reminiscent of images in our own current culture.

"We loved studying the women, as much as they loved looking at us.
Several of them had round, decorative scars on their cheeks, and
wore jewelry cleverly fashioned from bits of Western flotsam ---
the blue caps of ball-point pens, gun-shell casings, burned out
flashlight bulbs, metal watchbands, zippers, and safety pins."

And there's that indomitable spirit of adventure that captures
those dramatic moments with such clarity that readers will hear the
snap of the crocodile's jaws or sense the thrill of a white-water
plunge. Despite how daunting and dangerous this undertaking was,
the author's delight with her adventure is apparent:

"Borcik set our boat up for the wettest run possible, and when we
crashed into the hole, it felt like we'd gone over Niagara Falls. A
mountain of water fell over my head and back, knocking off my hat
and sunglasses. I screamed, I laughed, I gave the photo-victim
shots my all. Then we were airborne over the top of the wave and
crashing up and down the next set like a tiny boat on a big

Fun? Well, not for the less hardy. Nevertheless, Virginia Morell's
account of their incredible expedition down the muddy, roiling
river and her breathtaking descriptions of the "bowers of star
jasmine, tumbling through the branches of acacia trees..." make for
engrossing, entertaining reading about the majestic and mysterious
Blue Nile.

Reviewed by Ann Bruns ( on January 21, 2011

Blue Nile: Ethiopia's River of Magic and Mystery
by Virginia Morell

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2001
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: National Geographic
  • ISBN-10: 0792279514
  • ISBN-13: 9780792279518