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‘The Longest River’
The first full descent of The White Nile from source to sea
Friday May 21st, 3:30 PM
CAIRO – An international team of rafters, from South Africa, New Zealand, Britain and France, have finally reached the egyptian port of Alexandria after braving rapids, crocodiles, hippos and civil war on an epic trip down the world’s longest river to complete one of man’s last great challenges.
The six-member team, led by Hendri Coetzee, are the first people to have rafted the full length of the White Nile — more than 5,800km — starting on Lake Victoria, at the source of The Nile in Jinja, Uganda, passing through Sudan and then crossing all of Egypt.
“It has been an unbelievable adventure and the success of this expedition is due largely to the unity of the team we pulled together and the peoples of Uganda, Sudan and Egypt who have helped us make this possible” said Hendri Coetzee – 28, Expedition Leader from South Africa.
The adventurers are the first groupo f people to have travelled trhough the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Government of Sudan front-lines since the resurgence of civil war in Sudan in 1983. They survived being shot at by militias, fought off highly aggressive Nile crocodiles with their paddles and passed through Murchison Falls National Park, which has a combination of the highest density of hippos and some of the most turbulent rapids on the planet, as well as passing through the world’s largest swamp, The Sudd.
“Getting through The Sudd was probably one of the most critical parts of the expedition. It is the world’s largest marshland and has historically ended many expeditions atempting to travel the full length of The Nile. Basically, The Nile slows and disperses as it reaches the stagnant, crocodile-infested sea of papyrus, ferns and rotting vegetation. If we had a problem in The Sudd it could have become very serious because of the terrain and remoteness of the region” said Coetzee.
The voyage is more than just an adventure. There is a documentary film being made by Quitebright Films about the expedition which will cover many of the issues surrounding The Nile and highlight the lives of the people who live along its banks. For the millions of people living along the Nile, the river is a social and economic lifeline. Local communities fish the waters for Nile Perch and Tilapia. Irrigation supports the growth of cotton, wheat, sorghum, dates, citrus, sugarcane and other agricultural products. In some places, ferries and barges may prvide the only mode of transportation.
The explorers have been visiting humanitarian projects en route. They hope their journey will particularly draw attention to the plight of people living in war-shattered areas along the Nile River.
“The White Nile passes through some of the most war-torn areas in Africa to areas with some of the highest tourism on the continent. It goes from jungle to desert, poverty to wealth. the stories to be told about The White Nile are endless” said Daniel Prior, 27, English film director for the expedition’s documentary.
Lake Victoria, the source of The White Nile, was discovered by British explorers John hanning Speke in 1858. Since that time there have been many attempts to travel the river from source to sea.
The August 1995 attempt on the river by the South African, Isabindi White Water Rafters, was terminated by two crocodile attacks. Just one year later, another attempt failed despite being heavily financed with the most modern equipment available today. The only expedition to have travelled along the river from source to sea was led by US explorer john Goddard in 1950; However due to the equipment limitations of the time, he was unable to run the larger rapids. As a result he was forced to walk large sections of the river.
Using modern equipment the team has managed to run all of the sections of river missed on Goddard’s expedition, but it was not only white water that presented the biggest hurdle. In war-plagued northern Uganda, humans presented the greatest threat. There, the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army has waged a brutal 17-year war on the Ugandan government, killing thousands of people and driving a million from their homes. The expedition slipped through this region by rowing through the nights. Once across the border into Southern Sudan, the risk factor intensified as the expedition still had to pass through rebel held Governemnt front-lines.
“All the aid agencies and the UN security advisers we consulted about going from SPLA into Government territory didn’t know what would happen to us because no one had done it before. It wasn’t just once, we had to pass through several front-lines to get down the river. The times we were in no-man’s land were the strangest. We would have to say goodbye to our escort from one camp before rowing throught the front-line into his enemy’s camp”, Prior said.
Once in the government held town of Juba, in southern Sudan, the rafters visited a camp for internally displaced people, many of whom had lived there for 20 years or more.
“If peace is signed, they will go home, but to what?” McComb said. “There will be nothing at home for them. They will have to carve out a new existence for themselves once more.”
Near the Sudanese capital Khartoum – the point where the White Nile is joined by the Blue Nile, which flows from the Ethiopian highlands – the travellers visited several other camps for displaced people.
“The conditions there were severe with the camps being located on the hard desert plains”, McComb said. “Many mud-brick houses had been destoyed in a government undertaking to establish a planned town. No notice was given to occupants. Some poeple only had a few minutes to gather their possessions and move on.”
In Khartoum, the team received an unexpected gift from a local businessman: a new, large raft with a canopy and room for chairs. Other gifts have presented a problem for the expedition. At a small garrison town in southern Sudan, the rafters received a live goat as a gift from the locals. When the animal began defecating all over the boat, the rafters managed to give it to their host in the next town.
Further down the river in Fashoda, the King of the Shilluk (a people who inhabit the west bank of The Nile in southern Sudan) gave the rafters a ram as a parting gift.
“We tried to get rid of him”, McComb said, “but everyone knew the King had given him to us and no one dared to take him”.
In Egypt, where more than 80% of the population lives along the banks of The Nile, the documentary film about the expedition hopes to highlight the growing environmental threats to the river. Water pollution on the river poses a serious threat to Egypian society. Egypt is almost entirely dependant on the Nile as a source of fresh water.
The building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1950s had a profound impact on the environment. While controlling flooding and drought, the dams virtually stopped the movement of silt from upper areas of The Nile valley into Egypt. As a result fertiliser must now be added to farmland. Upstream, in both Sudan and Egypt, Nubian communities and ancient sites were either submerged or relocated because of the dam.
“The whole way has been a constant bombardment of the senses”, McComb said. “The river is unbelievably long and so diverse. It’s absolutely fantastic.”