I am a baby-boomer and a rock’n’roller. In 1951, my year of birth, Ike Turner and his ‘Kings of Rhythm’, a rhythm and blues band, recorded ‘Rocket 88’. Nobody really knows why, but today, Rocket 88 is said to have been the first rock’n’roll song. It does have that back beat but so did other songs of that time. In the sixties, the Rolling Stones picked up that beat and I grew up singing and dancing with them, “I know it’s only rock’n’roll, but I like it”. Ike Turner became the husband of Tina Turner and together they were highly successful with their ‘Ike & Tina Turner Revue’ which, frankly, lived off Tina. In 1966, they had a big hit called ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. Fifty years later, in 2016, the first year of my retirement in Kenya, it became the soundtrack to a trip Bilha and I had planned for some time. Together with a friendly couple and my brother and his wife, we drove around Lake Victoria, Africa’s biggest lake. And in Jinja, Uganda, we visited the source of the river Nile. Lake Victoria is only a few meters deep where the source of the Nile is marked by a signpost on a small island at the river’s exit from the lake. Neighboring Rwanda claims that the real source of the Nile is the source of its Kagera River, which feeds into Lake Victoria. And neighboring Burundi has a river that is still further up-stream and feeds into Rwanda’s Kagera River. – On that trip, once waiting for a ferry on the shore of the lake, I ate the best Tilapia fish of my life. From Uganda, the Nile or ‘White Nile’, as they call it, flows through South Sudan. There on its bank, when visiting Juba during my tenure as the first Swiss Ambassador to the youngest African nation, I used to eat the other fish you find along the run of the Nile and throughout East Africa, the Nile Perch. I like it less than Tilapia; it tends to be soft and a little bit fatty. And from South Sudan, the White Nile flows on to Sudan, where at Khartoum, the ‘Blue Nile’ joins it. I remember from a short visit to Khartoum a long time ago, that over a long stretch downstream from the convergence of the White Nile with the Blue Nile, you still see two parallel water streams of two different colors in the Nile. It’s rather shades of brown than actual white and blue.
The source of the Blue Nile is also in a lake, Lake Tana in Ethiopia. During my tenure in the country, I used to take visiting friends there to see the Coptic island monasteries in the lake, and the Blue Nile Falls, at the river’s exit from the lake. You can also eat fish on the shores of Lake Tana. Further downstream on the Blue Nile just shy of the border to Sudan, in 2010, Ethiopia began building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The dam will be the largest in Africa, 145 meters high. So there, we will at least know how deep the Blue Nile is. Vast amounts of water will be stored, and the dam is expected to generate thousands of megawatts of electricity. But ever since construction began, the two downstream countries have been at odds with Ethiopia over how much water the dam will leave in the Nile for them. Particularly Egypt, through which, from the Sudan, the Nile flows into the Mediterranean Sea. From South to North, the Nile cuts a nourishing valley for plant and animal life through the lifeless lands of the Sahel and the Sahara. Water is life. From its source to its delta, the Nile is 6’800 kilometers long and not only Africa’s but also the world’s longest river.
Africa being so big, it has two more rivers that make the world’s top 20: At 4’700 kilometers, the Congo River is the second longest river of Africa and gives the country in which it flows, the name. It starts in the south-eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo or Congo-Kinshasa or formerly Zaïre, on the border to Zambia. From there, the Congo River flows North, crosses the Equator, goes on almost as far North as the Central African Republic, turns South-West, crosses the Equator again and, along the border of the other Congo, the Republic of Congo or Congo-Brazzaville, exhausts itself into the Gulf of Guinea, on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo with Angola. Covering an area of 2.3 million square kilometers, the country is the second largest of Africa and more than half the size of the European Union. And the Congo River Basin is the epitome of Africa’s tropical rainforest, one immense and multifarious jungle. The Niger River is the lifeline of the Sahel in West Africa. It flows over 4’200 kilometers out of the forests of Guinea, north-eastwards through Mali all the way to Timbuktu, then it turns South-East and flows through Niger and Nigeria into the Gulf of Guinea, at Lagos.
Africa’s fourth longest river is the Zambezi, 2’700 kilometers long. It is only 31st in the world. From the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, it flows south-eastward through Angola and Zambia, and then along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. There it makes the famous Victoria Falls and continues East and through Mozambique, into the Mozambique Channel between the continent and Madagascar. – The Swiss are proud that two of the great rivers of Europe find their origins in the glaciers of their Alps. The Rhine is, of course, the first of these great European rivers, 1’200 kilometers long, 130th of the world, not half of the Zambezi. The Rhone, at a lousy 810 kilometers, is the other. Things are big in Africa.
Everyone knows that Switzerland is defined by her mountains and in this regard, I am lucky. The family house near Bern, where I live when I am in Switzerland, gives me a singular view of the center piece of the Bernese Alps: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. In spite of the three mountains always being referred to as a trinity and having a monk standing next to a virgin, the Jungfrau has nothing to do with the Christian Mother Mary. She was viewed being ‘virgin’ because like no other mountain she is always covered with deep white snow and due to that, was long considered unclimbable. In 1811 she was deflowered and since then, the Swiss have built a railway up to the saddle between her and the Mönch taking tourists to the ‘Top of Europe’, in the middle of the Bernese Alps. In 2018, they topped one million visitors for the third time. – When you talk of Africa, barely do mountains come to mind. But the Atlas Mountains, south of the Mediterranean Sea on the tectonic African Plate, is the geological counterpart of the Alps on the tectonic Eurasian Plate, north of the Mediterranean. They both represent the wrinkles left behind when the two plates started colliding, 30 million years ago, and the Mediterranean Sea is the fault line between the two plates. The Atlas stretches through the Maghreb, the countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and its highest peak, Jebel Toubkal in Morocco, is only a few meters short of the Jungfrau. The Atlas encloses the Sahara in the North-West. But in its center, the Sahara has its own mountains, the Ahaggar and Tibesti Mountains. In its South-East, the Sahara is again confined by mountains, the Ethiopian Highlands.
And there are many mountains in Africa that reach much higher into the sky than the Atlas or the Swiss Alps. Most of them are volcanic, stand-alone mountains or part of volcanic massifs. Certainly, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is Africa’s most iconic mountain. It stands alone and at 5’895 meters above sea level, it is Africa’s highest mountain, 1’700 meters higher than the Jungfrau. I have never been on it, but I have repeatedly admired its grandeur from the lodges in the Amboseli Park at its northern foot, in Kenya. Ernest Hemingway, and Susan Hayward and Gregory Peck, would all be very disappointed to learn that eighty years after the short story and seventy years after the film, ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ are disappearing. Like the glaciers of the Swiss Alps, they are melting. Only faster. Climate change is vehement in Africa, particularly in the middle of the tropics, along the Equator. Just 300 kilometers North of Mount Kilimanjaro, we have another stand-alone, cold volcano sitting dot on the Equator: Mount Kenya, 5’199 meters high. I find it more impressive than ‘Kili’ and to climb its two highest peaks, Batian and Nelion, you must master technical climbing. I did some of that in my alpine infantry training while serving in the Swiss Army, but I never took real pleasure in it. So, climbing Mount Kenya, I would settle for the third peak, Point Lenana. This is a steep walk-up and you can reach its 4’985 meters without harness, rope and carabiners. Having been on Point Lenana several times over the years, I know that on a clear day, you can see Mount Kilimanjaro from there. And I have seen how the glaciers of Mount Kenya have diminished. Since the turn of the century by more than half, as scientific measurements confirm.
Still in East Africa and above 5’000 meters, we have the Ruwenzori Mountains, on the border of Uganda to Congo-Kinshasa, and 500 meters less high, the Virunga Mountains, on the border of Congo-Kinshasa to Uganda and Rwanda. On the Ruwenzori, you go trekking from the tropical rainforest all the way up into alpine vegetation and, ultimately, the glaciers. Melting, also there. The Virunga Mountains in the Congo is where I saw the mountain gorillas. Further North in the Ethiopian Highlands, the Simien Mountains are higher than the Swiss Alps. So are the Bale Mountains to the East of the Great Rift Valley.
Mountains and rivers create valleys. Human evolution and tourism have defined two big African valleys. One is the bed of the mighty river Nile that runs north from East Africa into the Mediterranean Sea. The other runs south through East Africa, from Djibouti to the Mozambique Channel. The Great Rift Valley doesn’t have a river but two strings of large and small lakes. The first runs from Djibouti through Ethiopia and Kenya to Tanzania. And the other, in a fork around the plateau on which we find Lake Victoria, runs along the border of the Congo, from Uganda through Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, joining the first string at the northern end of Lake Malawi, and continuing all the way to Mozambique.
And the fact that things are big in Africa also applies to the Great Rift Valley. While working at the Swiss Mission to the United Nations in New York, I became friends with an American of Italian origin who had schooled in Switzerland and who would spend his summer vacation at his family house in Vevey, on the Lake of Geneva. He was an English language teacher in Pennsylvania who wrote poetry, and his family, he said, was part of that other Italian family which also has branches in the United States. And since he had refused to marry a cousin, as both families had arranged for him, he was no longer considered to be part of either family. But he still had access to the family houses in Italy, in Switzerland, in the United States and in Grenada. One summer when we were vacationing together in Switzerland, we founded the BAM, ‘la Brigade Alcoolique Militante’. Our Headquarters was in Aigle, a small vintner village on the southern slopes of the Rhone Valley. There, we decided, we would come together every year in August and enjoy the light white wine, which, in a good year and drunk fresh, would not quite sparkle but form some ‘stars’ on the top of the glass. The valley the river Rhone has cut into the Alps from its glacier to the Lake of Geneva, is 170 kilometers long. For Switzerland, this valley is of such a geographic dimension, that we just call it ‘Le Valais’. Let’s put this into an African perspective: The Great Rift Valley of Africa, from Djibouti to the Mozambique Channel is more than 5’000 kilometers long and at many places along its run, Le Valais fits into it crossways.