Conquering the hellish river that refused to be colonised
In 1968, a British team embarked on what would become one of the greatest expeditions of the 20th century
In 1966 Captain John Blashford-Snell was leading an expedition of British Army cadets in Ethiopia when he received a summons from Emperor Haile Selassie. As he entered the throne room, he was instructed to bow three times, and keep an eye out for the pet lions. After exchanging greetings, Selassie fixed him with his gaze: “I should like you to explore my Great Abbai.”
The infamous river, otherwise known as the Blue Nile, cuts a 1,524km gorge through the highlands of Ethiopia, running from its source near Lake Tana for some 800,000km towards Sudan.
Blashford-Snell had previously seen the river, but knew that it had never been fully explored and was filled with crocodile, hippo, horrendous rapids and murderous tribesmen; no European explorer had ever succeeded in navigating its full length, and some had lost their lives trying.
The colonel, now 81, recalls his immediate response to the emperor’s request: “It was rather like asking an average hill walker to climb Everest.”
Despite his reservations, when he returned to Britain and reported the conversation, the idea was quickly seized upon as just the thing for army morale in an era of waning British global influence.
A committee was established, and Blashford-Snell ordered to amass a 70-strong team of soldiers and scientists. On August 2 1968, they embarked on what would become one of the greatest expeditions of the 20th century.
Blashford-Snell is one of the most prolific explorers Britain has ever produced. He has crossed the Darién Gap in Central America, navigated the Congo River and transported a grand piano to a chief in the Amazon jungle on a mahogany sledge. But the Blue Nile expedition fired the public imagination like no other. The Daily Telegraph was among the chief sponsors.
The newspaper dispatched the then 34-year-old climber and budding photojournalist Chris Bonington as its man in Africa (now a knight of the realm). He was tasked with sending news reports every three days via Morse code, as well as writing a series for the Telegraph Magazine, in which he described the Blue Nile as “the last unconquered hell on earth”.
To succeed where others had failed, Blashford-Snell split the expedition into two parts. First they would navigate the lower 443km of the river in four aluminium assault boats between Shafartak bridge and the town of Sirba. Then the expedition would be transported back by air to the top where a specially-equipped “white water team” would take on the dreaded and totally unexplored rapids near the source of the river, before meeting up with the assault team inside the Northern Gorge to progress together back down to the Shafartak bridge.
They departed in the height of the rainy season. Blashford-Snell, who left his wife Judith and two young daughters behind in England, hoped the rapids would be smoother, and had also been advised by the Natural History Museum that the huge Nile crocodiles would be migrating south to Sudan. “Unfortunately, the museum got it wrong,” he says. “The crocodiles all came north to us.”
Soon they were in the thick of churning rapids and whirlpools. As Pat Smith, one of the team’s zoologists, observed: “When we were tossed through rapids or submerged by heaving masses of brown water, the importance of zoological matters paled alongside the task of just hanging on to the boat.”
The second stage of the expedition commenced on September 8. Bonington was among the nine-man white-water team sailing in an inflatable boat called Charity with SAS Corporal Ian McLeod. The team quickly sustained several serious injuries in the upper torrents, including McLeod, who gashed his leg on an edge of volcanic rock. A few days later on September 18, when crossing the Abaya, a tributary of the Blue Nile, the already weakened 27-year-old was swept away and drowned. His remains have never been identified.
When the rafters reached further downstream, they would discover Blashford-Snell and his men held hostage on the riverbank by tribesmen. To appease their captors, they distributed Mars bars and set up a mobile health clinic: Blashford-Snell recalls one of his men proffering 30 laxative tablets to the leader of the tribesmen, who complained of stomach cramps. “We never saw the chap again,” he grins.
After negotiating the release of the bulk of the group, Blashford-Snell and the rest managed to sneak off in their boats at dawn. But as they progressed deeper into the Northern Gorge, hooting and bugle blasts told them they were being followed. Later that day, the ambush was sprung by tribesmen firing rifles and hurling spears and slingshots – one of which struck Bonington in the back. Huge boulders the size of a kitchen table also began to rain down.
Blashford-Snell gave the order to man the boats and opened fire with his pistol clearing an escape path. Remarkably, they made it down river without any serious casualties.
That night they camped on an island, surrounding themselves with a fence of thorns and ensuring their weapons were loaded. The inevitable attack came at 1am when, through the darkness, a mass of armed men came running towards them.
After an exchange of gunfire, the men raced to their boats and plunged into rapids in the pitch black. One boat was flipped and its crew nearly drowned. Blashford-Snell remembers being hurled on to a sandbank and a crocodile slithering away.
At first light, the crew pitched off. With no supplies left, they were eventually forced to shoot one of the numerous tailgating crocodiles and cook it on a metal plate greased with engine oil. A few days later the starving men received an airdrop: some biscuits, cheese and several gallons of whisky. It was on this giddy buzz that the crew – battered, bloodied and suffering the onset of septicaemia – rounded the final river bend to see a welcome party awaiting them on the Shafartak bridge.
The expedition was hailed a huge success, not least for its scientific gains, with 1,000 specimens captured and a total of 70 scientific papers published. “Blue Nile Conquered at Last” declared the ensuing Telegraph headline. It was, reflects Blashford-Snell, quoting the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, “a close-run thing”.
– © The Daily Telegraph