Die Nyl: A source of confusion

Intrepid and hung over, our explorers set out to find the South African root of the world’s longest river.

A few years ago on a more responsible voyage, at Jinja, on Lake Victoria in Uganda, my fellow travellers and I had questioned that town’s absurd claim that it was home to the source of the Nile.

How, we had wondered, can any lake be a source of a river? Wasn’t it the other way round?

Mark Twain said “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Armed with this obscure fact in washed-out Limpopo Province a few weeks ago, the same intrepid, but this time slightly hung-over, explorers set out to buy some headache powder and then, lest we forget why the nearby town was once called Nylstroom, to find the oft-ridiculed South African source of the world’s longest river.

You know the story. A bunch of Voortrekkers from the Great Marico, determined to escape the vexations of the British and terrified of ending up with bit-parts in Bosman’s Oom Schalk Lourens stories 50 years on, stomped away in search of the Holy Land.

To their astonishment, only 250 crow- kilometres from home, they stumbled across a mountain in the shape of a pyramid with a stream nearby. Schalk’s your uncle: there it was! Die Nyl. They decided they were close enough to Israel and built a town. Job done.

One hundred and fifty years later, pottering through the same storm-soaked bushveld, we had been wondering, if Warmbaths could become Bela-Bela overnight, whether the Springbok Flats might not now turn into the Protea Apartments, when suddenly a sign popped up in old Dutch, pointing to the right.

Die Nyl Zyn Oog. It had to be done. We veered off in search of a pyramid-shaped mountain.

Turning on the navigational device, we were feeling so Egyptian that we half- expected it to tell us how to find the Mummy of a latter-day Toet-en-Garmin and for the screen to read ‘Turn left after the Sphinx and follow the road until further instructions’ in hieroglyphics. Or for Moses to come streaming across the muddy run-off in a basket.

I suppose we should have known it would rain in the Waterberg but this was exceptional. It had been raining for five days and the bakkie was Orange-river coloured, as we puddled along the banks of the Nile in search of its eye.

The roadside was punctured with farm entrances and the occasional grandiose wrought-iron gates, set in boulder walls and croquet-flat lawns, of the hunting lodges with fearsome Biblical names Rehoboth, Dalmanutha, Golgotha .

We slogged bravely on through the sludge, ignoring the throbbing brain-pain and the gargoyled entrances; searching instead for the gurgle of a spring that might indicate the Nile’s eye. The road washed away and left us lurching in and out of unfathomed puddles and drifts as we eyed without envy the piteous cattle and sodden sheep .

But of the pyramid, now called Kranskop, and the source, there was no sign in the mist. Instead there was a sign pointing back the way we had come. Die Nyl Zyn Oog, it read.

Another sign next to it and pointing back to Nylstroom had been changed with a spray-can to read Modimolle, but of course we knew that already. Just as any Voortrekker worth his salt knows that the Nile is a river in Egypt, the pyramids are in Giza in the Western Desert and geysers are, paradoxically, found in rivers.

Modimolle means Place of Spirits. Forget the Nile and the headache pills. Pass the gin.