A Brief History of Nile
MYSTERY OF THE NILE captures the epic story of the team
that became the first ever to navigate the waters of the Blue Nile from
source to sea. But how is it that this “last of the great firsts”
took so long to finally be accomplished?
It hasn’t been for lack of trying. In fact, the Blue Nile has been
an obsession that has driven many explorers – yet never with successful
results. The massive Ethiopian rapids often stymied those without modern,
world-class whitewater skills; the ever-shifting political situation often
left explorers exposed to flying bullets, off-limits borders and insurmountable
dangers; and numerous Blue Nile expeditions were spooked by the “terrible
trio” of exploring: accidents, injuries and fatalities.
The entire history of Nile exploration is filled with legendary stories.
Even in ancient Greece, the source of the Nile was considered one of the
earth’s most compelling mysteries, written about extensively by
the 460 BC historian Herodotus, who believed the river sprang from between
two massive mountains. Later, the Emperor Nero ordered his Centurions
to follow the Nile in search of this rumored source, though these brave
early explorers were bogged down in the swampy marshes of the Sudd (near
the Ugandan border) and got no further.
Historians explain that between the 4th and 17th centuries, the upper
Nile in Ethiopia was largely forgotten by the rest of the world. Only
missionaries, merchants and adventurers reached the Ethiopian highlands.
By the 17th century, attracted by the legend of a Christian kingdom isolated
in the heart of East Africa and surrounded by Islamic warriors, Portugal
sent missionaries and soldiers to help the Ethiopian rulers and to protect
the faith. It was the first contact for centuries between Europe and the
old, exotic Ethiopian Christian kingdom (mentioned in some chronicals
as the “Preste Juan” kingdom). The Portuguese built castles
and bridges and provided cannons to ward off the Islamic conquerors. At
that time, a Spanish missionary was the first to visit and describe the
Tisissat Falls and the upper section of the Nile.
By the 19th Century, the great Victorian era of African exploration, finding
the source of the Nile became known as “the Great Prize.”
With the river’s massive, maze-like structure, the source of all
the water remained hidden from view, and many believed that finding it
would hold out the quarry of tremendous hydrological power ready to be
harnessed by the discoverer. Some of the most courageous and innovative
explorers of this era set out to accomplish this crowning achievement
of human knowledge. Among those who searched are:
• Padre Páez (-1622): This brave Spanish missionary, who
was sent to Ethiopia in the beginning of the XVII century to convert the
Ethiopian Orthodox Church to Catholicism and who became a close friend
of the Emperor Susinios, travelled through the country undertaking many
risky expeditions. He was the first westerner to “discover”
and to describe the source of the Blue Nile. Páez saw the sources
of the Blue Nile on April 21st, 1618: “I confess I feel fortunate
and happy for seeing what Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and the Kings
Ciro and Cambesses desired to see in the past but never accomplished”.
Padre Páez was a very humble person who never proclaimed his achievement
as a “discovery”. He always explained and wrote in his notes
that he “saw” the source of the Nile, given the Ethiopians
already knew it and venerated its sacred waters. They called the source
“Guish Abbay” and the first section of the Blue Nile the “Guelguel
Abbay.” Padre Paez has been recognized in 2003 by the Ethiopian
authorities as the first European to visit the source of the Blue Nile.
Years after, the explorer James Bruce knew the story of Padre Páez,
but still proclaimed himself as the “discoverer” of the Blue
• James Bruce (1730-94): This Scottish explorer set
off from Cairo in 1768 and after a long, hard journey arrived at Lake
Tana in 1770, confirming for the first time that this mountain lake is
the origin of the Blue Nile – though at that time no one in Great
Britain knew this was actually the primary source of the entire Nile River.
• Samuel Baker (1821-1893): Baker was an English
explorer who became the greatest expert on Egypt and Sudan of his day.
His 1860s hunt for the source of the Nile led to the European discovery
of Lake Albert in Central Africa.
• Richard Burton (1821-1890): the legendary storyteller
and explorer joined up with John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) in 1858, to
search for rumored great lakes in Central Africa that might be the source
of the Nile. Their journey took them to Lake Tanganiyaka and the challenging
Mountains of the Moon. In mid-journey, Burton took ill and rested, while
Speke pressed on, eventually becoming the first European to ever lay eyes
on Lake Victoria, then considered the main source of the Nile.
• Bruckhart Waldekker: A little-known German explorer,
Waldekker quietly proved in 1937 that the main source of the Nile is the
Ethiopian highlands, which contribute more than 85% of the river’s
water, while Lake Victoria contributes only 15%.
In the modern era, numerous expeditions have been attempted
on the Blue Nile, with several intrepid river-runners attempting the dangerous
route from Lake Tana to the Mediterranean Sea. Some of these have included:
• 1902 Expedition: American big-game hunter W.N.
Macmillan and Norwegian explorer B.H. Jenson became the first to try to
run the Blue Nile, but their boats were wrecked beyond repair almost immediately
upon entering the strong current.
• 1968 Expedition: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia
sponsored the British Army to attempt the first descent of the Blue Nile
in 1968. A massive 60-man team was assembled by Captain John Blashford-Snell,
who also had a support plane, Land Rovers and assault-style rafts at his
disposal. Even so, the cumbersome expedition soon met its match on the
river. Because of the enormous Class V rapids, the entire Northern Gorge
had to be portaged. The team faced tragedy when one of their key members,
Ian Macloed, drowned while trying to cross a tributary. They were then
forced to evade attacks from bandits while camping in the Grand Canyon
section of the Blue Nile, and evacuated the region.
• 1972 Expedition: A sleeker 4-man British team,
under the leadership of highly experienced kayakers Mike Jones and Mick
Hopkins, ran many of the monster white-water Ethiopian rapids that the
1968 expedition had found impossible. Nevertheless, they left the river
after 12 days, after being attacked repeatedly by crocodiles and gun-wielding
• 1999 Expedition: This National Geographic Society
expedition ran 500 miles of the Blue Nile from the second Portuguese Bridge
to the Sudanese border, the first time this length had been covered in
an unbroken journey. Veteran river guide Michael Speaks led the journey
which also ran into numerous hazards, including crocodiles and large rapids
that had to be portaged in extremely remote country. National Geographic
Magazine depicted the area’s people and landscape in an article
about the expedition – the first time most Westerners had ever seen
the spectacular beauty of the Blue Nile.
So why did Pasquale Scaturro and Gordon Brown succeed where all others
have failed for thousands of years? Modern equipment, exceptional experience,
strong wills and a healthy dose of luck all likely have something to do
with it. But their triumph in paddling from the highlands of Ethiopia
to the sea at Alexandria without disaster may simply be another MYSTERY
OF THE NILE.