Walking the Nile has enticed many explorers, but Wood provides an up-to-the-minute portrait of the nations and people that claim the world’s longest river.
From the moment the author began his journey, at the alleged source of the Nile, he encountered constant conflict and hardship. His guides mistrusted each other. So-called pygmies were reluctant to accept him. He had to fight through every border crossing, and he faced the constant threats of theft, disease, and corruption. Wood is a war veteran, and he was able to improvise his way through dangerous situations, such as firefights in a Sudanese city and an interrogation by secret police. But the trek was not without tragedy: when the author agreed to walk with American journalist Matt Power for a week, Power eventually collapsed and died of heat stroke. “I wanted the cold comfort of English skies again,” writes Wood. “I wanted to be anywhere but here, thinking of the man who had died so that he could write about me on my indulgent, pointless, selfish trek.” Overall, Wood is a sharp observer and authoritative writer. He takes pains to describe the Rwandan conflict, the Egyptian revolution, the Sudanese civil war, and all the culture clashes in between. But chutzpah and empathy only get him so far. In the end, the author is unable to adequately explain his interest in the Nile, and the book does feel indulgent at times. The story is awkwardly similar to Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, while lacking the immediacy of the Afghan context. Unlike Stewart, Wood accumulated media coverage as he went. By the time he reached the Aswan Dam, he was carrying an article chronicling his passage. This kind of publicity recalls the newspaper frenzy of the Stanley-Livingstone expedition. For adventurers like Wood and Stanley, the Nile is a metaphor as much as a place.
Wood delivers a bold travelogue, illuminating great swathes of modern Africa, but as literature, it leaves something to be desired.