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.