A Brief History of Nile Exploration

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 Nile source.

• 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 Shifta bandits.

• 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.