“Welcome to Africa my river people. You must begin to exercise your flexibility in all ways: mentally, physically and spiritually. When we push off the beach, you will climb many rungs down from the top of the food chain.” The trip leader spoke with a huge smile on his thin, very tanned face, but with absolute seriousness in his eyes. Continuing the welcome speech, you could hear our TL’s fading Scottish accent behind the many years spent boating all over the world where his language was now that of the river. We looked at each other knowing this speech was coming from someone who has seen shit hit the fan. I grabbed my phone to start an audio recording for posterity’s sake.
Later that evening in the only hotel in town, we took advantage of the sketchy internet to write some emails home attempting to explain our new knowledge of the next 34 days, to the ones we love but ultimately just telling them we love them. Nervously we repacked our drybags while talking over the TL’s welcome speech, stopping every now and then to wonder in awe how tomorrow we were pushing off in an attempt to be the first successful, full descent of the Blue Nile from its source at Lake Tana to the Sahara desert on the South Sudanese border. And the TL had just told our group more ways we could die than I could count on both hands.
We had already driven through the raging political turmoil taking place in Ethiopia at the time. The government, in giving permission to large Chinese contractors to factory farm the rural lands, was displacing and disrupting local life to the breaking point. The riots and uprisings across the countryside had been kept hush-hush from the global media.
We learned in the welcome speech that two weeks prior to our arrival in Addis Ababa, a western journalist had been killed while documenting the military suppression of the riots. The country was still under curfew. We had waited four days for our bus driver to finally feel safe enough to agree to drive us 12 hours across the rural lands to Bahir Dar. When we did make the drive, the smoldering wreckage of burnt-out vehicles, flipped-over busses, and Molotov-cocktailed buildings all flashed through the windows. We crossed our fingers and hoped we wouldn’t be next.
At the military checkpoints, we grew accustomed to guards waving AK-47s in our faces or the military police tapping on the windows as they checked our passports. We answered the endless questions they all asked about our purpose for crossing the countryside. At the end of the trip, the gear truck took five days to drive from the South Sudanese border back to the capital. For two of those days, the authorities detained him in jail for reasons unknown to us. We were told ahead of time that all checkpoints prohibited cameras and taking pictures, making documentation difficult, but the warning kept us from having our cameras confiscated before we even arrived at the river.
Even before putting on, malaria had already impacted our trip. And this particular danger exponentially increased as we came closer to the river and the mosquito’s paradise of post-rainy-season river banks. Our anti-malarial medication had been a priority in prepping for the trip, but even the daily pill regimen for cleaning the liver-based parasite out of our system was not 100% guaranteed to prevent infection.
Our TL informed the group at breakfast the day after his speech, and our last morning not on a riverbank, he was positive for cerebral malaria from his river trip 10 days prior. Again, looking at each other, we had no idea this particularly gruesome version of malaria would force us to spend the next few days seeing him in sheer agony, pale and shivering in the 110-degree sun before the treatment began to relieve him. Spending so much time in Africa, he opted for treating malaria when infected rather than live with the harsh effects on your liver, enduring stomach pains/cramps and the wildly vivid and dark dreams the anti-malarial medication creates when regularly ingested.
My particular pill was a chemo pill for liver cancer designed to kill everything, all the time, not solely aimed at malaria. The dreams became so real and frequent, I could only sleep a few hours at a time by the end of the trip. Deep in REM, they dredged the memories I least wanted to think about while mixing them with the day-to-day terrors of the river in seamless and cruel scenes.
Later that same day, while gingerly scooting our boats off the razor-sharp, basaltic rocks the upper kilometers of the Blue Nile flow through, the true consequences of the Class IV and V whitewater ahead came into focus. Not only did the rocks cut through the rafts with ease, they cut through gear, skin, shoes and everything else mercilessly. Adding this to the intense hydraulics of the Northern Gorge, which previous expeditions had skipped altogether or run via portaging all drops, the “make no mistakes” mantra rang true.
A few days later we scrambled over the near-kilometer-long Gauntlet drop. An intricate flume barely two-rafts wide, funneling the entire river into caves, undercuts, ledge holes, helicopter eddies and mixed polished/razor-sharp rock. After successfully ghost boating four of the five rafts through, we seriously contemplated running it, and then our fifth raft mysteriously stalled mid-run on a boil only to completely disappear into an undercut and resurface with damage moments later downstream. If an 18’ boat disappears unpredictably, maybe a tiny kayaker is better off setting safety below the drop.
That was just the beginning of the gorge. Later in the gorge, a raft missed the planned eddy for portaging the Black Wall Cavern, a class V rapid ending with a river-wide, 8-foot-drop ledge hole. Both the passenger and captain washed out of the raft, the raft pinned mid rapid and an all-day rescue effort for my best mate Curtis and me as safety kayakers ensued.
The scariest part, though, the passenger aboard the raft, a 70-year-old paying client, ended up swimming the entire rapid and washing more than a kilometer downstream. To all of us in the eddy, this was watching an expected death, but fortunately, a fast-acting trip member ran the 400 meters of rocky bank, blindly dove in the outwash of the ledge hole, swam like an Olympic swimmer to catch the 70-year-old client who was miraculously alive, though injured and in shock.
By the end of the Northern Gorge, the character of the river began to change with larger eddies, patches of still water along the shore and less frequent large hydraulics. The change in character was the ideal habitat for the Nile Crocodile. This particular form of the grim reaper haunted our river time by day and our dreams by night with the knowledge that most of the crocs on the river would remain hidden from us. The infamous apex predator needs no introductions or explanation of its danger. We quickly developed our “croc eyes” where every nerve became alert to the difficult-to-see snout of the beast lifting ever so slightly above the surface of the murky waters of every eddy. And that is if the crocs surfaced at all.
On more than one occasion, we confused driftwood or wind ripples for a snout. But caution doesn’t get eaten by a croc, so everything was a snout until proven otherwise keeping our awareness exhaustingly heightened for the entirety of the trip. Our rapid rating system began to include the number of crocs seen in the eddies above and below the drops where we often spent a good bit of time as we each waited our turn to paddle the rapid and waited, again, at the bottom for the next boat to come through. For example: “This is a class IV, C3 drop.”
Later in the trip, through our translator, we learned from local villagers that a crocodile had eaten a boy eaten while he sat at the water’s edge two days prior. The boy sat in the very eddy we had parked our boats for the night. We passed through another known maneater’s territory at dawn. Notoriously named “The Gatekeeper” to the Black Gorge, we floated through in complete silence, kayakers all perched on the rafts with buckets of rocks and paddles at the ready. We entered the Black Gorge with only a warning charge and tail-whip from the enormous and ancient guard.
Each of us had personal encounters too close for comfort as well; one where a croc charged Curtis mid-river and he managed to jump from his kayak to the raft faster than humanly possible. Another time, I had a croc pop its head up a paddle’s length away while setting safety in an eddy at the bottom of a drop. In the end, we saw a total of 603 crocs with our own eyes. The Blue Nile is the birthplace of the Nile Crocodile, after all, it’s their home, we were merely passing through.
As the trip continued and our progress downstream took us deep into the most beautiful and untamed jungle, another harsh reality hit us right in our empty stomachs. We didn’t have enough food for full meals for the majority of the trip. Our food scarcity came from a number of factors including the obvious: bulk food shopping in Ethiopia is nearly impossible. No Costco, no Sam’s Club, no bulk ice to buy and pack coolers with, no central place for really anything at all. Working with a limited budget, during the delay in Addis Ababa we bought as much food as we could both afford and successfully carry down the river.
Once on the river, nearly all of the produce wilted and perished within a few days and the coolers became well-insulated Petri dishes for mold. Most lunches consisted of splitting a can of shredded beets or green beans between pairs with some crackers and cheers’ing with a snickers bar, the only available “granola” bars in Africa. Watching the perfect equatorial sunsets with canned tomatoes over rice became our dinner ritual.
When feeling particularly celebratory on two occasions, we bought a sheep or goat off local villagers, killed and butchered it on the riverbank and cooked it on the open fire. While chewing and cherishing the goat gristle one night, Curtis told stories of guiding on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River where cocktails, appetizers and Dutch oven prime rib were average nightly menu items. Needless to say, the Nile diet plan was effective and I came home 18 pounds lighter.
As campfire stories each night became a mandatory way of decompressing, we began to process the sheer wild beauty of the jungle we were passing through. Deep into the mother jungle now, we understood why the name Ethiopia was chosen by its people, meaning “The Mother” or “Mother Land.” One particular night around the fire several in the group exclaimed at the same time: “Whoa, what is that thing!?” As a large off-white Scorpion-Spider darted into our inner circle around the fire. “That thing looks like it’s out of an Alien movie!” Said Dakota, one of the raft captains on the trip, as he itched around the open sore on his neck created by the Nairobi Eye.
The jungle with its rawness, infinite splendor and Kodak moments came with an abundance of life not all friendly to humankind. In addition to the unlimited and often venomous spiders, mosquitoes, snakes and creepy-crawlies at large, the now infamous Nairobi Eye was a constant hot topic. A flying, ant-sized, red and black bug carrying a tail filled with necrotic acid, which caused massive open sores to anyone unfortunate enough to instinctively swat instead of the now required brushing or blowing of all bugs off the skin. Not to mention the constant threat of infection from the bacterial life in the Nile itself, which turned all open cuts, bites and wounds into a yellow, pus-filled sore to be cleaned with bleach water every morning and night.
At this point on the trip the feeling of our lives back home, our families and friends, existed in the world seen when looking through the wrong end of a telescope: distant, small, out of reach and so, so far away. We leaned on each other to get through the bouts of loneliness and heartache that often accompanied the hunger, fatigue, stress and remoteness of daily life on the Nile. As the days stacked up, it became the longest consecutive river trip any of us had ever been on, a not totally unheard of 32 days in the end. Yet, the added elements of the jungle and Blue Nile wildness made the month seem much, much longer and much farther from home than a few thousands of miles.
Though the adventure held much of what we expected when planning and packing in the U.S., the reality was much more intense and foreign to us once immersed in the jungle and weeks from put-in. It became a ritual for Curtis and me to listen to music from our phones together right before bed, singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we tried to forget about the constant state of adventurous stress—our new normal. We hugged each other often and reminisced about our favorite foods or the flavor of non-bleached, clean water.
Though water-borne illness also threatened us constantly, we managed to avoid the most potent parasites and bacteria by triple filtering all drinking water. Along with much-needed baths, we filled our bottles from cleaner side streams when possible and used Alum to settle sediment first. Next, we used ceramic and R-O filters and ended by bleaching the water for extra safety. Everyone on the trip experienced some sort of stomach bug. My personal bout was the worst: 24-hour vomiting, followed by 24 hours of extreme effects of dehydration, body aches, chills and exhaustion. We relied on each other to remind everyone to stay hydrated, take salt pills and help with the vital daily task of creating potable water. Even small cuts exposed to the river water became major infections when not treated immediately and most of the group suffered trench and some to a major degree.
It took a while each night to fall asleep, and each morning greeted us with an explosion of sound. The sheer ambient noise along the river left no moment uninterrupted. Birds made up the majority of the soundtrack with non-stop calls from sunrise to sundown. Day also brought the barking of baboon troops along the banks, at times numbering 50 or more, buzzing of insects, roaring of jungle fires, and the human noises of villagers exclaiming to us as we floated by. Night also contained its own cacophony of sounds with the howling laughter of hyenas and fluttering of wings from innumerable winged creatures. (And the frequent vocals of Freddie Mercury of course.)
But perhaps the most ominous sounds came from the quietest of still pools as we pushed rubber through the lower canyons. Daring to barely speak, heads on the swivel, we would silently float through the hippo pools with ears wide open for the spurt of watery nostrils as the enormous creatures performed a ballet around our rafts. Our first hippo encounter actually came on day one. Only Curtis saw the creature, and I only experienced the anxiety that came from hearing the excited, yet fearful, shouts of the other kayakers as the hippo surfaced right behind me and was back underwater by the time I could paddle around.
Another close call came at the camp we henceforth named Hippo Cove as a resident hippo surfaced and bumped our rafts around a bit only to retreat and leave us to our dinner as she went somewhere else for hers. By take out, we had experienced 61 hippos. Beautiful and terrifying, after all, hippos are the number one wildlife-caused death in Africa and we were in their ballroom.
Nearing the last couple hundred kilometers of the trip, one of the coolest parts of the trip became talking to local villagers on the river. This was only possible through our translator hired in Addis Ababa, Baraket, and armed guard Tashomé from a village near the put-in. Baraket means blessing in Amharic, the native language of Ethiopia, a mix of Arabic and Hebrew, and incredibly difficult to speak well as an anglo speaker. He truly was a blessing. His calming presence and laid-back demeanor were capable of diffusing any situation no matter the initial tension.
Not only did the duo help translate our interactions with the villagers, especially considering Tashomé spoke the local dialects, but they also took the constant presence of guns and armed villagers in stride and created common ground between our group of foreigners and the villages of locals. Ingratiating us to the point where we stopped hesitating when approached by armed Ethiopians and knew we could sit and listen to their stories. Our group learned the Blue Nile is a corridor for weapons moving between South Sudan and Eritrea.
Guns were omnipresent throughout our journey; treated as a mix of currency, badges of respect, and a way of life. Though the most endangered we felt was not from villagers, it was from the military checkpoints where we never knew what the attitude of the guards would be that day. Guns are a part of the region, no doubt about it, but fortunately, a smile, wave and friendly greeting in the local language are often greeted by the same.
Our trip was staged to not only be the first successful full descent of the Blue Nile*, but it was also to be the last full descent due to the flooding from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Known better as the GERD; the GERD is the largest dam ever built in Africa and the third-largest in the world, creating a reservoir nearly 300 kilometers upstream from the gates on the South Sudanese border. The gates were set to shut in 2018, within six months of our expedition.
As we passed the lowland villages in the flood zone, Baraket and Tashame translated conversations with the villagers and we learned the danger of the reservoir flooding is far beyond the loss of incredible endemic wildlife and spectacular gorges. While it was no danger to us on this expedition, the local villages had no concept of the river rising, no warning of the all-consuming super-lake soon to put their huts and lives under 100 meters of water. Learning the government has provided no clear plan for displaced communities and the sheer concept of stopping the forever flowing and sacred Gion River (the indigenous name) puts all lower Blue Nile peoples in clear and present danger.
As we approached the monolithic construction site of the GERD, our trip and success came to a close. There is no way to tell the whole story of this expedition in anything short of a book. This piece is a mere sampling and the dangers of the river are only a part of this incredible expedition. We had many moments of fun, awe and happiness for being in a most incredible place despite the dangers we experienced and for most, even anticipated, though the intensity of the danger was much, much higher than any of us knew while planning.
It’s the stress, novelty, extreme-ness, duration and yes, the danger, of a trip like this that strips away the filters and noise of everyday life back home. Removing the things not immediately necessary to live, exposes the true nature of what is important, what you are not willing to give up. This experience strengthened my sense of self in a way nothing else ever has and the shared anxiety and stress, and the process of facing that anxiety together strengthened the tie between my mate Curtis and me in a rare and wonderful way, and of course with others on the trip as well. Those 34 days exposed our strengths and weaknesses openly to ourselves and to each other.
We knew we were either coming out of this expedition with a lot of stories to tell, or just the one told about us. Thankfully, with our hearts’ fiercely beating three years later, we still have fresh stories to share about our river time. With love from the Ethiopian Jungle, paddle on river people. Paddle on and be true to yourself.
Author’s Note: A “First Successful Descent” is declared by being the first known full descent of the Blue Nile from its source at Lake Tana to the military restriction zone at the South Sudanese Border where the GERD mega Dam is being built. All members of the party completed the entirety of the trip, no death, no life-altering physical injuries and all members recovered to full health in due time after takeout. Prior trips did not meet either “Full Descent” requirement or had mishap resulting in members of the expedition unable to remain with the trip.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Scott Lacy is a Colorado native, raised on western rivers each summer and Nordic skiing every winter. A graduate of Dartmouth College, today, he’s a professional biathlete based in Bozeman, Montana. In between a full-time ski training schedule, he has a paddling passion for promoting backyard adventures, preferably car/gas-free, and raising awareness on the importance of clean watersheds and increasing water usage issues. Follow Scott on Instagram: @scottysbiscotti.