Who Reads Warning Signs Crossing the Nile?


In traveling, as in life, there are some things you simply don’t tell your parents. Going beyond what happens at the hostel stays at the hostel, some things you just keep to yourself.

Including things that would keep your mom up at night and lead to a blizzard of reminders about safety and links to every scary news story that originates from whatever continent you happen to be on at the time.

On the other hand, some things can be discussed if spun correctly. 

For instance, when I nearly walked straight into a massive hippo while drunk, I casually mentioned in a message: “Saw a hippo grazing after dinner the other night. Pretty cool.” 

I adopted a similar approach when talking about crossing the Nile. The official version was, “Took a ferry across the Nile delivering a Land Rover for Jonathan. Pretty neat even if it was a long way from the pyramids.”

Here’s what really happened.


Mud obscured everything on the road sign except for one word: Warning.

The Ugandan ferryman waved me forward, his yellow rain slicker bright against his black skin and the dark gray rain clouds. I paid the toll and steered past the rusted carcasses of discarded road graders and bulldozers toward the barge that would carry me across the Nile.

The barge looked rusty but solid with a wooden deck and a rickety railing running around the perimeter. Between the rain and the river, the barge was entirely soaked.

A thick cable anchored on the far bank ran through a stout iron ring welded to the ferry. No reason to think it would snap today…

The barge rocked as I eased the front tires of the Land Rover onto it. I hit the brakes. The ferryman flashed a million-watt smile and motioned to me to keep going. I drove the rest of the way onto the barge, which settled closer to the swirls of muddy water near the bank. I lowered the window and looked around.

The river was smelly and oily, far less grand than what I had imagined when I was told I would be crossing the river of the pharaohs. In my excitement, I had forgotten that the pharaohs had ruled several thousand miles north of here.

Still, it was the Nile. I wasn’t going to swim in its cold, muddy water, but I wanted to at least be able to say I dipped a toe in it.

The ferryman yanked the starting cord, the cable held, and the barge moved out of the cloud of black smoke spewing from the two-stroke motor and toward the other side of the river.

The ferry moved smoothly across the river’s surface. We weren’t going to set any speed records, but slow and steady was perfect for what I had in mind.

I slipped off my sandals and stepped out of the Land Rover and into the pelting rain. The ferryman stood in the bow, looking toward the far shore.

The wooden boards of the deck were slick beneath my feet. I edged over toward the railing and eased a foot over the side.

Just then, the river’s current caught the barge, which shuddered and lurched. I was in up to my knee before I knew what happened. The railing made a sickening creak when I grabbed it, but it held.

I got my stupid ass and wet pants back in the Land Rover ASAP.

I waited for my heart rate to drop before opening the Thermos I’d filled that morning. Sipping Earl Gray tea and munching Glucose Biscuits as the two-stroke labored to pull the barge across the river, I resolved to omit that particular episode from my next letter home.

The far bank was deserted. Neither animals nor humans were out in the downpour. There was nothing to see except the red clay of the road and the neatly trimmed grass on either side.

The barge bumped against the bank. I waved to the ferryman and pulled off the barge. I stopped to secure the lid on the Thermos before heading out. As I did so, I noticed a familiar word on a sign in my side-view mirror: Warning.

There were two more words at the bottom of the sign: No Swimming.

In between was the silhouette of a crocodile.


© Copyright Jim Latham 2021
Photo credit: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nile