On the 21st May 2004, Quitebright Films finished the principal photography of our new documentary film, where, for four and a half months, we travelled with The White Nile Expedition team down…
…The Longest River (working title)
In 1868, the British explorer John Hanning Speke returned from Africa and announced, “The Nile is settled”. He had solved the mystery of the source of the Nile. But the Nile wasn’t settled; countless explorers since Speke’s momentous discovery have tried to follow the river from source to sea but the world’s longest river had never fully been navigated from start to finish – until now.
On Friday 21st May, an international team of rafters from South Africa, New Zealand and England crossed into the Mediterranean Sea and became the first people to have descended the full length of the White Nile – more than 5,800 km – starting on Lake Victoria, at the source of The Nile in Uganda, passing through Sudan and then crossing all of Egypt, sticking strictly to the river and its banks.
The explorers braved some of the toughest rapids in the world, crocodile and hippo attacks, a marsh the size of England as well as two civil wars on their four and a half month-long journey down the world’s longest river to complete one of man’s last great challenges.
The Nile river is highly diverse and flows through jungle to desert, Christianity to Islam, from war-torn africa to some of the most visited tourist sites in the world and the explorers have countless stories to tell from their adventure.
In the Murchison National Park in Uganda, headed by the legendary Murchison Falls where the entire Nile is forced through a 6-metre gap, the expedition team came down through thick tropical jungle and some of the most turbulent white-water in the world, while fighting off crocodile attacks with their paddles and navigating through the highest density of hippoes anywhere in the world. The expedition team also tackled another set of legendary rapids, ‘The Fola’, which have ended the few expeditions that have ever reached them in the past
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, Goddard was forced to walk large sections of the river.
Using modern rafting equipment the team has managed to run all of the sections of river missed on Goddard’s expedition, but it was not only the white water that presented the greatest hurdles. In war-plagued northern Uganda, humans presented a serious threat. There, the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army has waged a brutal 17-year war on the Ugandan government, killing thouands 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.
The adventurers were the first group of people to travel through the SudanesePeople’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Government of Sudan front-lines since the resurgence of civil war in Sudan in 1983. Though the country was at the time in cease-fire, and the SPLA and Government forces have since signed a peace treaty, crossing the frontlines was often very tense and some militias shot at them as they passed their territories in their inflatable rafts.
The expedition team also traversed The Sudd marshlands, a vast inland swamp the size of England. In this inhospitable terrain the team came up against vast un-chartered channels of papyrus, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, a phletora of other tropical diseases, and oppressive heat. Getting through The Sudd was probably one of the most critical parts of the expedition. It has historically ended many expeditions attempting to travel the full length of the river; colonial explorer Samuel Baker was trapped in The Sudd for many months in his 1865 voyage.
The expedition was more than just an adventure. 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 provide the only mode of transportation.
The explorers visited many humanitarian projects en route, including camps for inernally displaced people, orphanages and hospitals and met the people whose lives have been shattered by civil war and discovered their hopes for the future.
Along the river, the team also immersed themselves in the lives of the locals discovering the intricacies of their cultures, meeting tribal kings, observing the cattle-herding Mandari tribes and challenging the Dinkas to wrestling matches.
Once they entered Egypt the whole dynamic of the expedition changed. From here on the biggest dangers were behind them, or so they thought. In reality, some of their biggest hurdles were still facing them. Egypt is a police state which makes the bureaucracy involved in obtaining the relevant permissions to travel the river very difficult. Egypt’s economy is also highly dependent on tourism; since the attacks made on tourists in Luxor in 1997, police security required for travel through Egypt intensified. As the expedition crossed Lake Nasser into Egypt, their permits for travel were withheld, and as they anxiously waited, the team seriously questioned whether they were going to be allowed to continue.
But having successfully battled the authorities, the expedition team still found time to investigate the growing environmental threats to the river in Egypt where more than 80% of the population lives along the banks of The Nile. Water pollution on the river poses a serious threat to Egyptian society as it is almost entirely dependent on The Nile as a source of fresh water.
The building of the 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 fertliser must now be added to farmland. Upstream, in both the Sudan and Egypt, Nubian communities and ancient sites were either submerged or relocated because of the dam.
Their eventual arrival at Rosetta on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea heralded the successful culmination of an historical journey into the unknown and finally settled the issue of The Nile.
The Expedition team consisted of 6 members all of whom had lived and worked in East Africa for at least the last 5 years. Between them they have walked, driven and paddled through most of the continent. The team members were:
Hendri Coetzee, 28, South African – Expedition Leader. Hendri is a highly experienced kayaker and rafter and over the last seven years has accomplished various expeditions. He is also a student in psychology and took the challenge of leadership as a personnal test of character. He coordinated preparations for The White Nile Expedition from Bujagali Falls, Uganda, where he worked as a raft guide.Pete Meredith, 35, South African - Pete has 12 years of whitewater and expedition experience from an endless row of African and European river and overland expeditions. Hendri and Pete are age-old friends and whilst Pete is one of the best white water oar-boaters in the business, he saw his role on the expedition as backing Hendri up in tough and often controversial leadership decisions.
Marcus Wilson-Smith, 52, British - Marcus Wilson Smith is a renowned British photographer who has completed many expeditions, including the Zambezi river, which is where he met Pete. Marcus brought a wealth of experience to the expedition and showed the team what it means to remain professional in the toughest of situations.
Natalie McComb, 31, New Zealander – Natalie has 5 years expedition experience from all over Africa, Asia and Australia. With her experience in Africa as an overland leader coping with a myriad of situations, she was never intimidated by being the only woman on the team. Her organisational ability and communications expertise made her a key player in the success of this expedition.
Ian Fraser (a.k.a Bingo), 42, South African – Bingo has 20 years whitewater and expedition experience from countless expeditions in African countries. He has extensive mechanical training and is a partner in the largest and most successful commercial white water rafting company on the Nile. For Bingo, the biggest challenge was leaving his wife and two children behind to take part in the expedition.
Dr Ian Clarke, 48, Irish – Dr Clarke left Ireland twenty years ago and moved his family to Uganda where they settled in the Luwero Triangle district (The killing Fields) and built a hospital from the ground up. His accounts of this time have been published in a book called ‘The Man With The Key Has Gone”. Dr Clarke’s experience in medicine in the tropics was not only invaluable to the team but also to the people who live along the banks of the river.
The below is a draft treatment only, and we would highly appreciate your thoughts. If you would like to contact us, please email us on: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dur: 1 x 90mins or 2 x 45mins
Style: The nature of the expedition required a long-term participatory approach and a high filming ratio. Therefore the documentary was shot by a tight-knit digital video crew that was a part of the expedition and documented it in its entirety starting with the preparation stages and finishing with their arrival at the Mediterranean sea.
The film(s) was generally shot hand-held in natural light due to the restrictive nature of filming on the expedition. This will be used to portray the key moments of the expedition’s trials and tribulations. Tripod shots will be used for narrative sequences where the film(s) moves away from the expedition and onto broader issues effecting The Nile and her peoples. Therefore the expedition coverage will have an actuality, cinema verite style which will be combined with far more refined narrative sequences. Through this approach, the expedition will be used as a thread to tell the stories of the river.
Music will comprise of composed, library and locally sourced material from the regions that the expedition passes through. The music genres will complement the film(s) as they travel from East Africa, through Sub-Saharan Africa and onto Egypt.
Treatment: The documentary film(s) will follow the expedition linearly as the team members prepared for their trip, set off on their journey and travelled through Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. The documentary will cover a myriad of topics that will include the following:
The opening will include an historical look at the importance of The Nile and the race to find her source by explorers such as Speke and Livingstone. Ancient lands, old forts, temples and archaelogical sites will show remnants of a forgotten era and uncover remains of the old explorers’ legacies. A colourful history that stretches back over 6000 years and that is so inextricably linked to The Nile will be highlighted. This will include rare footage of the little visited northern Sudanese pyramids. The film(s) will also include a more recent examination of John Goddard’s expedition in the 1950s. Archive footage from past expeditions will also be used to show how the river has changed in the last fifty years.
The film(s) will give a rare opportunity to look at the peoples who live along The Nile including some of Africa’s most remote tribes, such as the marsh peoples of ‘The Sudd’ who live on floating papyrus islands in the world’s largest swamp, and the Mandari and Dinka tribes from southern Sudan. The film(s) will examine the differing cultures along the river and show how many of them have survived through war and drought with a continued dependence on The Nile. The film(s) will also follow the team as they meet tribal kings, soldiers, orphans and a myriad of people who live along The Nile.
The film(s) will show the opening up of countries along the river, such as Uganda, which has been struggling for seventeen years to overcome civil war against The Lord’s Resistance Army, and Sudan, which until now has been embroiled in the longest civil war in history which has killed over two million people.
The documentary will look at water management policies that have plagued The White Nile for decades, highlighting the issues surrounding the Nile Basin Treaty as well as debating the pros and cons of the current man-made structures on The Nile such as the Aswan High Dam, and future constructions such as the Jonglei Canal and the northern Sudan dam project.
Footage showing the expedition rafting down (and on occasion flipping in) some of the hardest white-water in the world, will be shown. Some of the rapids run have never-before been attempted. These challenges were intensified by the surrounding pools of hippos and crocodiles.
The film(s) will analyse the relationship between the team members as they try to cope with the inhospitable terrain and with living in such close quarters with each other for four and a half months. Leadership decisions were often brought to question by team members and group politics would become tense. The film(s) will also highlight the team’s successes and failures as they try to overcome language and cultural barriers to interact with people along the way.
We will show highly remote scenery that includes thick tropical jungle, vast swamps, war-zones, historical sites and deserts. This footage will include an abundance of wildlife that includes thousands of hippos and crocodiles and a myriad of exotic bird species. Amongst other african wildlife, herds of elephants were found roaming the banks of The Nile just a few feet from the expedition rafts. In short, the face of a disappearing Africa will be presented.