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Navigation of the Blue Nile - 50 years on

  • Written by  John Blashford-Snell
  • Published in Explorers
Navigation of the Blue Nile - 50 years on
11 Sep
2018
Fifty years since the great Blue Nile was first traversed, Colonel John Blashford-Snell, a leader of the expedition, recalls the epic journey

On Tuesday 2 October 2018, the 50th Anniversary of the exploration of the Blue Nile will be commemorated at a special event at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), including a display of equipment and a presentation by Colonel John Blashford-Snell and members of the 1968 expedition. Tickets are £20. To purchase click here.

‘We have received a request from Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Chosen Lion of the Tribe of Judah... and an honorary field marshal in the British Army,’ said the mildly autocratic general in whose presence I stood. ‘He wants his Blue Nile explored,’ he continued. ‘I gather you have seen the river?’

‘Yes sir, but only briefly from a bridge,’ I replied.

‘Well, is it navigable?’

‘It might be in the right sort of boat, but it’s full of huge rapids, large crocodiles, aggressive hippo and the mile-deep gorge through which it runs is subject to landslides. It is also home to gangs of bandits.’

‘You are being negative and I do not appreciate negative officers,’ snapped the general. ‘A challenging venture like this is just what the army needs at present. We shall do this! We’ll have a committee to organise it. I shall be chairman and you can be secretary. I see no need for anyone else.’

waterfall

Thus was born an expedition, approved by the Royal Geographical Society and organised by the Royal Military College of Science, to map the little-known upper reaches of the great river and carry out a wide range of scientific studies. A 70-strong team of servicemen and scientists was assembled and the explorers set out from the main base in Ethiopia in late July 1968, reaching their goal in September of that year.

The expedition attracted widespread support. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had recently visited Ethiopia and been taken by the emperor to view the Blue Nile as it tumbled over the Tissisat Falls. Thus, the expedition was of particular interest to them when they visited the Royal School of Military Engineering and saw the boats being developed to navigate the river later that year.

To study the river, it was planned to move by boat in the wet season, when the flood water should smooth out the cataracts of the Nile (shallow lengths of the river broken by many small boulders). The lower reaches would be covered first and then the more dangerous head waters would be tackled. There were other hazards, including crocodiles and disease, but the major problem was that of re-supply. This was overcome by parachute drops from an army Beaver aircraft flown specially from Britain. Expedition mail travelled on mules, by boat and in the Beaver. Special philatelic covers were issued to commemorate the epic journey and these were posted at remote towns in the region. The Daily Telegraph sent Chris Bonington to cover the story and many British companies generously backed the venture.

The scientists included archaeologists, a vet and five zoologists. A bilharzia survey (a disease caused by parasitic flatworms) and geological studies were also undertaken. Game and crocodile surveys were made for the Ethiopian Wildlife Department.

In late July, the main base was established at Debra Marcos in Ethiopia and the explorers set out from Shafartak in four army assault crafts.

For three weeks, they battled through the cataracts, stopping at selected points for scientific work. Specimens were taken out of the gorge by mule parties, who likened their ascent to a never-ending ladder in a Turkish bath. The steep slopes were covered in loose rocks, concealed by elephant grass up to 12 feet high. Midday temperatures were around 90° Fahrenheit (32°C) and the humidity was at 85 per cent.

The last phase involved the descent from Lake Tana to Shafartak. The first 50 miles were raging white cataracts and the river party moved in Avon inflatable boats, specially constructed for this. This voyage was an extreme test of man and equipment and tragically a Scottish soldier - Corporal Ian Macleod - was drowned while crossing a tributary.

The final descent was through a completely unexplored gorge. Here there were more crocodiles, and cataracts that could not be by-passed. Over three days, the team negotiated 12 rapids, fought two gun battles with bandit gangs, and met many large crocodiles. It sailed through vertical-sided canyons and saw a land that no other outsiders had seen. Indeed, these days are a story in themselves. The expedition had lost much of its equipment, several boats and had 50 per cent casualties of one sort or another. Nevertheless, it pressed on to the finish.

On 24 September, the successful flotilla reached Shafartak. As the boats approached the great bridge, they were dwarfed by the magnitude of the gorge, however it was a proud sight as they sailed in, flying the flags of Britain and Ethiopia. Through careful preparation, excellent equipment and outstanding teamwork, the ‘Everest of rivers’ had been navigated and explored.

plane

Over 70 papers were published covering the scientific work of the expedition. The use of the Avon inflatable boats led to the development of white water rafting. The expedition film was widely acclaimed on TV and the historian Richard Snailham wrote the official book The Blue Nile Revealed.

Today, expeditions may benefit from the numerous technological advances and costs have reduced their scale, but Edward Shackleton summed it up pretty well when he said: ‘... while man today has the same urges that he has had throughout his history, he will continue to discover and explore, possibly even to the furthest galaxies thousands of millions of years away. For as a species, man has thousands of millions of years, unless he destroys himself, in which to develop and to move and to discover and to explore.’

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