What made you want to take this journey on?
“I travelled on
troop ships as a child and we always used went up and down the Red Sea,
through the Suez Canal. I always knew that Egypt was just there
and the Nile was in the middle of the desert.
“The horn of Africa and its travelling nomadic people is a part
of the world that I’ve always been fascinated with. I
wanted to understand their way of life. We all used to travel,
it’s in our genes. That’s why I think we still love
travelling and holidays. Whenever we get a chance for a break we
say, ‘Where shall we go?’ I believe we’ve all got
this passion in us for travelling.
“In Africa there are 25 million pastoralists. They keep
travelling and occasionally put up a hut. But if the rains come,
or they are dried out then they just abandon it and walk off. It
seems crackers when you think people spend a fortune on a house
here. Pastoralists spend nothing. They build it and then
just leave it, they don’t sell it. It’s a different way of
What were you expecting before you took the journey on?
“What thrilled me
but also made me terribly apprehensive was the length of the
journey. I mean it’s 4200 miles. What really made my
heart jump were the five countries we’d be visiting.
Everybody thinks that the Nile is Egypt and they never remember how far
it goes. So I thought that would be a real sense of discovery for
me and for thousands of viewers.
“The first episode is fascinating. It’s Egypt as you
would imagine but with different elements. But as cross over the border
and get into Sudan it gets darker and it’s a different would
“We had a very good briefing before we went because some of the
countries we went to are pretty jumpy. We had to learn all kind
of things including how to behave in a hostage situation and what
happens if you meet someone who has bombs strapped to them.
“A lot of the Sudan is not safe at the moment, so we had to
respect that and not put anyone in danger. Especially not our
fixers, our crew or even ourselves. There’s no point making
a film when you spend six months banged up in a Sudanese jail. So
we did it very respectfully.
“We got the comforting news that no matter what happens, if we
got kidnapped the British government would not pay a ransom.
There were some SAS people there who said that after a couple of weeks
they would come and get us out so we said, ‘Thank you very much,
that would be marvellous.’
“It was lovely trying to think of small bits and pieces to take
as gifts for people. The poorer the countries, the more generous
they are. Quite often it’s difficult when you’re
travelling, especially with so much equipment. Your personal
baggage shrinks to nothing and it’s hard to think of tiny things
that make nice presents for people.”
How did you find the journey?
“Well, Egypt is
luxurious and then it gets a bit wilder because you go camping.
We were driving on un-made up roads and encountering all kinds of
amazing temperature changes. The temperature in the Sudan is
phenomenally hot and then you’re up in the Ethiopian highlands,
where it’s very cool at night.
“We all got some bugs but luckily we had a trained male nurse
with us who we called Matron. And thank god because one of the
producers was on a drip for 3 days. I had to have all kinds of
things because I had some sort of lurgy. We were often so far
away from hospitals, so we had to take everything with us, which made
things exciting actually.”
“The train in Egypt was extremely comfortable. The Aswan
ferry to Sudan was not remotely comfortable. It was jam packed
and terribly exciting to travel like that and to know people travel
like that all the time. A little ferry banging up and down Lake
Nasser twice a week, taking migrant workers back home. It’s
a very un-touristy ferry which is lovely as you feel you get to see a
What was the most amazing country you visited?
“I think the most astonishing country was Ethiopia. Over
here we only ever see Ethiopia connected with a starving child and a
begging bowl. We think that it must all be sand and failing crops
but Ethiopia is lush, verdant and mountainous. It’s crossed
by rivers, lakes and streams and it has more animals than you can
imagine. It’s got phenomenal mountain ranges and rough
roads. It was absolutely beautiful.”
“Sudan was so vast and so hot. Matron left his watch out
which also measured the heat and it stopped working at 53
degrees. You drank water and it literally poured out like a
colander. We were streaming sweat. It was like an extreme
sauna. And it didn’t get cooler at night because the sand
and the rocks absorbed the heat. If you switched a fan on it
would just move boiling air around like a hair drier on your
face. It was unbelievable and I can’t believe people live
in that heat.
“The people are staggering courteous. The Egyptians were as
friendly and as generous as you can imagine but wait until you cross
into the Sudan. The generosity the kindness of the people there
defies description. On our first night in, the man who met us off
the ferry insisted that we all stayed with him and his family. He
debunked his children and made his house available to us. It
makes you think about how we behave in this country. We put the
chain on the door and peer through the crack.”
What is the most surprising thing you found out about the Nile?
“The width of it and the size of it. It’s huge in
Egypt and as you move down there’s Lake Nassa which is a colossal
lake, more like an inland sea. You think the Nile might be very
small coming into the lake but it’s a wide river all the way
through the Sudan and right down into Uganda. It’s joined by the
rushing, dashing Blue Nile which comes out of the Ethiopian
highlands. These two different waters meet in Khartoum. One
is so fast and vigorous, flooding once a year. The other is
placid, slow and never dries up.
“The other thing I loved was the respect and love everybody had
for it. Not just because it’s a water source but because it
seemed to have a God like quality about it. They adored it and
it’s very unusual for people to think about a river like
that. But the Nile their life and without ‘it’ there
is no life.
Tell us about the camel, Charlie Brown?
“His keeper was impressed actually because I spoke in a low voice
and because I love animals. I could see him listening to my voice
and noticing how gentle I was with him. Animals are clever and he
thought, ‘Here’s a kind person.’
“I loved his whiffling kisses, huge teeth and whiskers. And
I loved the softness of his feet. Camels feet are like sheepskin
slippers. No hooves, no toe nails, just a soft pad. And
when they walk there is complete silence.
“They are extremely beautiful and people who have looked after
camels are just crazy for them. I remember my father telling me
during the war about the mules they lived with in Burma. They
were the beasts of burden in the terrible Chindits campaign. The people
who looked after them became absolutely besotted with their
animals. They loved them above all and cared for them before they
cared for themselves. When they were killed or died, their owners
wept bitterly as if they’d lost a member of their family. I
think it’s the same with camels. They are extraordinarily
clever and reliant. You can form a really good bond with
How did you find fasting during Ramadan?
“We often we got up terribly early, so at midday you’re
thinking, ‘I’ll have a little snack’ but you
can’t have anything. I have such respect for the fact they
don’t drink either. I wasn’t allowed to do it because
I wasn’t used to the heat. So I was allowed to drink water
but I never drank in the streets in front of people because I respected
“It’s a difficult time for them, 40 days of fasting is a
big sacrifice. No wonder they have feasts in the evening and wake
up early for a huge breakfast. A lot of people put on weight in
Ramadan because they all gorge.
You met some people who have
returned to the Nile every year for the past 20 years. What is it
about the Nile which captures the imagination of so many people with
cruises and holidays?
“The Nile as it runs through Egypt is absolutely stunning.
And it’s amazing to think that Thomas cook, a Derbyshire boy,
started the first one. It’s the only part of the Nile that
you can have these pleasure cruises on and you will not be disappointed.
“It’s very beautiful. And it seems to be completely
unspoilt because the banks of the Nile aren’t built up with
trading estates. There are just bull rushes, date palms and
little boys swimming. Villages you pass are tiny. When you
dock, you go to a fantastically ancient monument. Something so
grand and so old you can’t believe you’re there. You
get off the boat, onto a bus and travel inland to see this thing of
immeasurable beauty and antiquity. So there’s something
quite private about it. It feels like your river.
“Added to that is the incredible Egyptian hospitality, the boats
are beautiful and the food is immaculate. And if you’re
sick as a cat on water, even on the Serpentine, you won’t be sick
on the Nile. There seems to be no movement at all, it’s as
flat as a millpond.
What did your family think of you going on this journey?
“Oh, Stephen [Joanna’s husband] and Jamie [Joanna’s
son] were both jealous, they’re both tremendous travellers as
well. We filmed in three sets of three week chunks so I could
come back in between and bore them to death with the bit I’d just
When someone speaks about the Nile what will it conjure up for you in the future?
“One the very last day of our shooting we had to hack through the
most unbelievable jungle to get to the source. I don’t
think we had any idea of what we were up for. There were fallen
trees, safari ants, long grasses and a swamp up to our knees. We
were crashing and hacking through and suddenly we came to this little
solemn glade where there was a wooden sign saying, ‘You are now
at the longest source of the Nile’. It made tears come to
my eyes as it struck me with such force. It’s what
explorers have been doing all through history. People have
doggedly gone on to find things we didn’t know about.”
Some of the people you spoke to believed there were spirits living in the river
“In Ethiopia we spoke to a couple of farmers and two things
struck me about the conversation. I asked one of them where the
river goes. It had come from Lake Tana and was on its way through
Ethiopia, Khartoum and then onwards up into the Mediterranean.
“The farmers said that they had climbed the mountain and found
that it goes round the other side. It touched me so much because
in their world that’s all they needed to know.
“They also believed that the river had a God and they still
sacrificed animals to it. They thank it for the pasture it gives
to their cattle, for the fish it yields and for the blessing of clean
water. They treat the Nile like a God.”
It must have been amazing meeting the nomad family on route to the Bayuda Desert and find out about their way of life?
“For over 20 years I’ve had a photo pinned over my desk of
African people in a dwelling with a fire burning beside them which
almost mirrored the scene when we met this family. The people
were living with their goats and donkeys in a twig covered hut, with
animal skins and bits of cloth neatly laid out inside.
“It was such a humbling experience. The first thing they
did, to a total stranger, was to offer me a drink of their fresh
goat’s milk yoghurt. There was a Granny in there and she
said her job was shunting a contraption forwards and back to make the
yoghurt. She had the skin of a goat tied off at the legs, like a
drum filled with yoghurt. It sounds rather gruesome but this is
how they do things out there.
“It was such a privilege to meet those beautiful, fine,
people. There was a little girl with wild, curly hair who was
wild, strong and hardy. She was how we all were once, running
around and free.
“To be honest everywhere I went, I kept thinking, ‘This is
how we lived in England once.’ So although I was meeting
new people, it seemed I was meeting my own great-great-great
grandparents in a way.”
Did you enjoy trying the local beauty treatments where you sat over a burning fire?
“This was a treatment for brides to be. You tie a huge
black sack around your neck and you’re naked underneath.
You make a little sandalwood scented, charcoal fire and you sit on a
stool over the fire with your sack for up to 2 hours. They say
this shrinks your nethermost regions thereby giving men greater
pleasure, so brides do it.
“It also makes you smell very sweet. Muslim girls in the
Sudan who are preparing for marriage take every hair off their
body. So along with the smoke and burning fragrances, their skin
is as soft, sweet and smooth as baby skin. So I had a go at it
but I was a bit anxious about it. I thought, ‘Will this
make my bum like a flame thrower?’ But it didn’t and after
being in the Sudanese desert it was fairly mild compared with that
heat. There was something very relaxing about sitting out in the
evening courtyard with two lovely women sitting talking with me.
The brides do this every day for a month before they get married.”
Who was the most interesting or fascinating person you met on the trip?
“The Simian girl runners have stuck in my heart. These 14
year old girls live up in the Ethiopian highlands and don’t even
have one sock to hold against another. They’ve got nothing
and yet they’re training to run long distance in the
Olympics. They were stunning, beautiful, courteous, incredibly
modest and so good natured.
“They train for about two and a half hours every day before
school. The odd one might have plastic shoes or run
barefoot. But essentially they’ve got nothing at all and
yet they’re so disciplined. They’re training at about
nine and a half thousand feet. So when they come down to sea level they
will be off like a rocket. I’m putting my money on the
Simian girl runners.”
Will you ever go back to the Nile?
“Oh I hope so. They say if you’ve drunk Nile water
then you’re caught in its spell and I drank the water right up by
its very source.”
Why should people watch this documentary?
“Just like me, I don’t think people have the smallest idea
of what the river Nile really is. You start off with the thrill
of Egypt and then see it progress through these phenomenal
countries. We go to the heart of Africa which most of us
don’t see. It’s full of surprises, full of unexpected
things and has a beauty that must be seen.”