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 thinking.”

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 altogether.” 

“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 country properly.”

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 them.”

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 them.

“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 done.”

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.”

(© ITV.com)