for National Geographic News
After John Hanning Speke in 1858 encountered a magnificent sheet of water in the heart of East Africa, the Scottish explorer announced that he had found the source of the Nile.
The world's longest river, Speke declared, originates in the lake he named Victoria, and ends 5,584 kilometers (3,470 miles) later in the Mediterranean Sea.
Speke may have solved one of the greatest mysteries in 19th-century geography. But in the 136 years since his discovery, no one is believed to have ever traveled the whole length of the Nile river, which snakes its way through some of the most rugged and remote terrain on the planet.
Now, an international rafting team could soon join the select few to navigate the Nile from source to sea. The seven rafters left Bujagali Falls in Jinja, Uganda, on January 17. After negotiating their way through rebel territories and down raging cataracts, they recently left Sudan and crossed into Egypt. Now down to six people, the rafters expect to reach the Mediterranean Sea later this month.
The voyage is more than just an adventure. Sponsored by the aid agency CARE, the explorers have been visiting humanitarian projects en route. They hope their journey will draw attention to the plight of people living in war-shattered areas along the Nile River.
At first, "it was just about a few friends going on an adventure," Natalie McComb, a 31-year-old team member from New Zealand, said from a stop in Aswan in southern Egypt. "However, the more research we did, the more apparent it became that we had [an opportunity] to shed light on the awful civil war situations in Uganda and in Sudan."
For the millions of people living along the Nile, the river is a social and economic lifeline. Local communities fish the waters for Nile perch and tilapia. Irrigation supports the growth of cotton, wheat, sorghum, dates, citrus fruits, sugarcane and other agricultural products. In some places, ferries and barges may provide the only mode of transportation.
Technically, the Ruvyironza River of Burundi, which leads into Lake Victoria, is the ultimate source of the Nile. The landscape along the river runs from rain forests and mountains in Uganda, to swamps and savannas in the Sudan, and finally to barren desert in most of Egypt.
Only a few days after taking off, the rafters found themselves navigating the rough white waters of Murchison Falls in Uganda, which proved tougher than they had expected. (The team portaged around impassable sections.) Scores of hippos and crocodiles made things extra difficult.
In war-plagued northern Uganda, humans presented the greatest threat. There, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army has waged a brutal 17-year war on the Ugandan government, killing thousands of people and driving a million from their homes.
"It was pretty tense at times," McComb said. "We [were] the first crazy people in years [to go] through there."
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