TV Times talks to Queen of the Nile Joanna Lumley about her epic adventure along the world’s longest river – just don’t mention insects…

So, Joanna, how did the trip come about?
“In 1994 I did a programme called Girl Friday for BBC1 where I was cast away on a desert island and Clive Tulloh, who produced it, brought the idea of a journey up the Nile to me and I jumped at it! I’d been to Egypt before, but not the Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda or Rwanda so it was a real adventure!”

In the first episode you ride through the backstreets of Cairo on a camel called Charlie Brown. Was it an enjoyable experience?
“I loved it! I adore that camel, so soft, quiet, gentle and huge! I’d ridden a camel before but it was thrilling to ride across a motorway on one, as there’s nobody to steer you out of trouble!”

Did you meet any other animals along the way?
“In Uganda, I see hippos, crocodiles (the Nile’s most dangerous creature), great shoebills, eagles and also a rhino and her calf, which was divine. You can’t believe how drenched with wildlife it is. I’ve been on safari in Africa so I’ve seen some of the animals before. But there’s something about being in a little boat when there are 80 hippos looking at you with their eyes just above the water and their ears moving…. They were as close as that (Joanna indicates a table a few feet away) and you realise they can tip your boat over!”

In Sudan’s capital Khartoum, you discover ‘dukhan wood’ which is used for a special beauty treatment that involves sitting over burning wood, naked but covered in a cloth bag. Was it, er, relaxing?
“I’d never heard of it before and was really tense, thinking: ‘What if it’s boiling hot and I’m sitting with my naked bum over a fire!?’ Nobody in their right mind would do that! But it only felt warm not boiling hot and the scented smell of the sandalwood that they burn was beautiful. Afterwards I said: ‘I bet my skin won’t be beautiful like Sudanese woman’s’. But it felt like gossamer, even my scabby old skin! No wonder brides-to-be there do it every day for a month before the wedding. Although their husbands do damn all, usual man thing, they don’t try at all, they just have a shave and slope off to the wedding!”

Can you pinpoint a favourite memory from the trip?
“Gosh – there were so many! In episode four, I meet an extraordinary New Zealander, Cam McLeay, who’s built a lodge in the middle of the fastest rapids of the Nile. As he hadn’t finished building all the rooms, we slept on sleeping bags sticking out over massive torrents, certain death if you fell in, and nowhere to go to the loo except the bushes! But it was thrilling! To be asleep with the river racing past and the sky dappled with stars, you just think: ‘This is the business; this is Africa’.”

Were there any scary moments?
“There was one bad night when we were camping in the Sudan. I’m a good traveller because I’m vegetarian, I was born in Malaysia and have had every injection under the sun, plus we were taking care with everything we ate and drank. But I woke up in the middle of the night and thought: ‘Holy Moly, there’s something really badly wrong’. I’d got ‘Traveller’s Grief’ to the extent that from my neck down, I’d turned into black liquid. It was as if my whole insides had melted. I couldn’t drink enough water, and was so weak and getting weaker. There are no loos, you’re in the desert and so you’re going behind a scabby, rocky hill, hour after hour. By the morning, I was nearly dead, but we had to continue filming. It was a ghastly feeling.”

Blimey!
“And one of the producers was on a drip for three days in Ethiopia, laid low with a bug. We all got something so thank God we had a medic with us otherwise we couldn’t have gone on. In Uganda, we were assailed by tsetse flies, which give you sleeping sickness. Drivers would suddenly shout: ‘Quick, close windows!’ But some still got in. They bite you and blood comes pouring out at once.”

Ouch! Anything else?
“In episode four, we journey through a completely primeval jungle to reach the Nile’s source. We had to climb over a high tree – you couldn’t get under it because there was a swamp – and it was covered with safari ants. They crawled up into my hair! The camera had to stop filming because we were all screaming and the blood was dripping off us.”

Err, lets move on… Did you bring back any souvenirs?
“I always collect bits and pieces. At the Murchison Falls, an extraordinary waterfall in Uganda, I picked up two glittering pieces of rock that glisten like Fools Gold and three immense shells from where they filmed the movie The African Queen on the banks of Lake Victoria. When I got them out at home, I thought: ‘Ah, my treasures!'”

*Joanna Lumley’s Nile screens on ITV1 on Monday, April 12 at 9pm