In the Footsteps of Mrs. Baker
She must have been a rare woman. The mist cleared and the sheer violence of the sight in front of me took my breath away. The awesome breadth of the mighty Nile, forced through a narrow gap in ancient rock thundered and raged, shaking the stone to its core. Uganda’s Murchison Falls contains the highest natural force of water in the world, but I was not the first female adventurer to behold its power… In the late 1800s, the western world had become transfixed over the last great unsolved riddle of exploration: the source of the River Nile. Herodotus had envisioned an oasis beyond the cataracts of Egypt, Ptolemy had spoken of mystical snow-capped peaks that fed the river from the heart of the continent, but for over a thousand years no explorer had found the answer to Africa’s biggest secret. By 1870, the Blue Nile’s source had been found in the highlands of Ethiopia, but the longer White Nile remained an enigma, hidden by some of the most inhospitable jungle on Earth. Like his contemporaries Stanley and Livingstone, Sir Samuel Baker set off into the unknown to search the African interior for the source of the Nile. Unlike his counterparts however, his wife came with him. The daughter of an aristocratic Hungarian family, Florence Baker saw her family killed in a revolt in 1848 and was later sold into slavery, destined for the harem for an Ottoman Pasha. But Sir Samuel saw her while walking through the slave market and was instantly smitten. He tried to buy her away from the Pasha but was outbid. He then proceeded to bribe her guards and carry her to safety. But safety was not what she craved; she wanted adventure. Fluent in Turkish, English, German, and Arabic she married Sir Samuel and accompanied her husband to the ends of the Earth. She carried pistols and machetes, and rode camels and horses through the bush. A beautiful explorer with a dark past destined for a continent of great beauty and danger. As her boat slowly made its way up the Nile, local villagers spoke of a cataract of such intensity that the very Earth itself shook in terror of its wrath. They continued on upriver until they found their way barred by what Sir Samuel described as the “most beautiful sight in the world”. Beautiful it was, but deadly. It also proved as daunting an obstacle as anything Herodotus or Ptolemy could ever have envisioned. Unable to portage around it, the Bakers turned back towards Khartoum, but not before christening the chasm Murchison Falls after the President of the Royal Geographical Society. I climbed down from the pinnacle of rocks that formed the rim of the precipice, the spray of the Nile still glistening on my hair in the African sun. The Captain joined me and together we headed for the ferry terminal that bridges the Nile as it splits Uganda’s largest National Park in two. From the southern bank, we hopped into a launch to retrace the final moments of Mrs. Baker’s trek: up the Nile to the very base of the Devil’s Cauldron, that massive whirl of water at the base of the falls. Green jungle and grassy savannah glided by, Elephants drank from the riverbank and crocodiles basked in the afternoon heat. The awesome force of Murchison Falls kills almost anything that plummets over its rim, but Nile Perch are an exception. Their armored scales protect them from the fall but it leaves them stunned and disoriented. That makes them easy prey for the crocodiles waiting beneath, and the steady supply of massive stunned fish has given rise to some of the largest crocodiles on the continent. It was like stepping back into an age long forgotten, surrounded by the beautiful splendor of nature at her most breathtaking, but most deadly. Mrs. Baker would have been proud.