Meanders of a river that has cut its bed down

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kazuend cCthPLHmrzI unsplash

In the late nineteenth century, a team of English explorers from the Royal Geographical Society led by 

Major General Charles George Gordon made an expedition up the Blue Nile from Khartoum.

 Having reached a point some six miles above the junction of the Atbara River, Gordon and his companions

 found themselves beset by a single thought: they were going to have to turn back. And so they did.

Beyond this point lay unknown stretches of mosquito-infested jungle – or worse, native villages hostile to outsiders.

 “I would not send out men unarmed into such savages’ land as I might meet beyond it…” 

wrote Gordon in his journals before turning around and heading home emptyhanded.

Gordon’s encounter with the unknown was not an isolated incident. 

The Blue Nile and its uppermost tributary, the Atbara, are among the least known drainage systems on earth;

 for centuries, generations of explorers have eyed their upstream sources with suspicion and awe.

Sir Richard Burton, 

who travelled up the White Nile from Khartoum in 1857 in search of its ultimate source only to end up trapped by the cataracts downstream at Gondokoro, 

confessed that he “had often wished to descend this river to its junction with the Atbara” but had never mustered the nerve to do so.

Today, the Atbara is a major artery of commerce across western Sudan. Its great power and volume 

have created a kind of human ecology that has remained virtually unchanged since the country’s colonial heyday –

 despite being millions of years older than this part of the continent.

A century ago, we could only look at the Atbara River; today, like wild animals living in an empty zoo, we must accommodate its rhythms.

“A breeze rushing through the tall reeds makes a sound like distant surf breaking on sand,” 

wrote Ernest Hemingway in his account of hunting crocodiles in the swamps outside Khartoum 

– an eerie evocation of nature that was itself unusual during his time.

The Atbara River, 

like most of its kind, is a force flowing though a landscape with little regard for human affairs. 

Winding and meandering for some 1,300 miles from the Ethiopian Highlands to Khartoum in the north of Sudan,

 it passes through a series of immensely rich distributaries, basking in the plain that was once one of Africa’s great lakes.

According to local myth, it was here that the legendary King Solomon once slaughtered seven hundred bridal attendants when his favourite wife turned him down.

The river’s effect on the region is as great as it is vast.

 It has amassed and sculpted all of the features on its way to Khartoum, 

creating a skyline punctuated by a series of islands and sandbars that are among Africa’s most distinctive natural claims to fame.

 In 1911, the National Geographic Society sent an expedition to document the Atbara River and the small town named after it.

Its artists presented a vision of an urban idyll that had all but vanished by their time 

 when work along the entire Atbara system had already begun in earnest under colonial rule.

The town of Atbara, 

perched on the banks of a tributary just a few miles downstream from where Gordon and his team had turned back, 

was described as “a cosy little town of about 300 or 400 mud huts”.

But the National Geographic expedition saw something else: a bustling city gently directed by nature. 

In his summary, the explorer William Beebe wrote that there were no ghettos or slums in Atbara. 

“No one need go hungry and no one need go naked in this part of the world”.

Driving up the Atbara, a few miles north of where Gordon and his pals had been rebuffed, is no less remarkable. 

The river’s banks 

have been formed by sloping mounds of ooze that rise and fall like a wave as the water rolls on by. what causes meandering streams to downcut and become incised meanders?

All of these patterns are traced out by nature itself, using the Atbara River’s great force as an instrument in its own creation. 

But the river is not simply the product of this force – it is also the subject of it. 

In other words, nature has laid down its own rhythms on this small patch of earth –

 and in doing so has created another order entirely with surprising consequences for human beings.

Geomorphologists like to call this process “potholing” –

 a term popularised by the British geographer Michael Wise in his book Out of This World. 

“Potholing… refers to the formation of tunnels and caves in river banks,” he writes.

The Atbara River is one of many examples. Here, meanders – or “side channels” in geological parlance –

 have been carved out along its banks and into its sandbars, forming a series of hidden, 

subterranean water-ways that have existed for millions of years; before Christ was crucified, before Moses was born.

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