White water rafting trip down
the Blue Nile with Wilbur Smith.
This short account, of
course, does not give an account of the day-to-day adventures; and it’s these
adventures that I wish to one day write down – including people we met along
the way and the time we were attacked by road agents who had heard of our trek
down the river and were lying in wait.
Nevertheless, this is an overview.
In 1994 I received an
email from Wilbur Smith asking if I would care to join him in Ethiopia, while
he did some research for the sequel to a novel he had just completed,
“River God,” which was
to be published the following February.
The novel he was re-searching
became “The Seventh Scroll,” published in 1996.
Having first met Smith
at Victoria Falls in December of ’79, he knew that I was in love with Africa,
and having followed my stint as a Reuter’s journalist and photo-journalist
reporting from Israel during the Gulf War, and that I also had a good working
knowledge of Jewish history, would I be interested in visiting the monastery
believed for a time to have housed the Arc of the Covenant. Then he added: “and
joining me in a white water rafting trek down the Blue Nile.”
We met in Nairobi eight
days later; where we checked into the Safari Park Hotel. This, of course, is the hotel that William
Holden and Stefanie Powers made their headquarters when working as managing
directors of their Mount Kenya Game Ranch.
Wilbur stayed in the William Holden Suite and I stayed in the Stefanie
Powers Suite. I spent twenty days with
Smith; nine-and-a-half rafting down the Blue Nile, from Lake Tana.
From Nairobi, Smith and
I flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, checking into the Hilton.
After careful selection
of the 10-man (fully armed) crew and arranging for provisions, the rafting trip
began six days later – and it was a once in a lifetime thrill.
The trip required three
rafts; four persons in each raft. Smith
rode in one raft and I in another. Meals
during the trip were courtesy of the automatic weapons and some fishing gear
provided by the crew. Fortunately two of
the crew members were excellent chefs and the gourmet prepared meals were
worthy of three stars by the Michelin Guide.
Before starting down the
Blue Nile, on Lake Tana we visited the ancient city of Axum where we found a
large walled compound surrounding two churches.
Between these two churches, both dedicated to St. Mary of Zion, are the
foundational remains of an ancient church and a strange looking, fenced off and
heavily guarded “treasury” said to contain the true Arc of the Covenant.
Ethiopian legends say
that when the Queen of Sheba made her famous journey to Jerusalem she was
impregnated by King Solomon and bore him a son – a royal prince – who in later
years stole the Ark which eventually ended up in Axum. The land of Sheba has long been identified by
scholars as today’s Ethiopia and the location of King Solomon’s (gold)
Traveling by daylight
only, our trip down the Blue Nile would be taken in stages, whereby we would be
hiking past the two cataracts and bypassing three sections of the white water
rapids where no person has attempted to trek and lived to tell about it.
Our crew, armed with
AK-47s and 9mm handguns, were responsible for our wellbeing. They would pack the rafts and equipment
overland where necessary, cook our meals, and pitch out tents at night. For safety, in some cases the rafts were
unloaded of equipment before entering certain white water rapids and the
provisions hand carried down river by the crew.
At first look, I
wondered why the river that tumbles out of the Ethiopian highlands should be
called the Blue Nile. It is not
particularly blue. Perhaps it should be
called the Summer River, because for most of the year it provides little water
compared to the White Nile, but in summer it is very much the dominant
Perhaps it should be
called the Canyon Nile, because over half of its 800 km course from Lake Tana
to Khartoum is through an impenetrable gorge.
The canyon over much of its length is over 1500 km deep, just as deep as
the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in Arizona. But there is one difference between the two
rivers: many people enjoy the raft ride
down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, but no one has ever floated down
the entire length of the Blue Nile, including Wilbur Smith and me, and lived to
brag about it.
It took us nine
and-a-half days to travel the Blue Nile from Lake Tana to Famaka, Sudan, the
latter located slightly across the border.
Famaka is the point where the Blue Nile empties into the lake formed by
the Roseires Dam, at the small city of Er Roseires.
The reason it took so
long is because we did not travel at night and we always stopped for lunch and
a nap; which because Wilbur and I were a part of the rowing team, we much
needed. Hiking around the cataracts and
bypassing those parts of the river where rafting would have been certain
suicide; also took considerable time. Of
note, between Khartoum and the Aswin Dan in Egypt, there are six such cataracts
on the Nile River.
I was amazed by the
meals our guides were able to prepare.
Other than some pancake mix, butter, syrup, fresh eggs, bacon, vegetable
oil, preserves and seasonings, we left Lake Tana with no food that I was aware
of. Yet, at noon and every night we had
our fill of deliciously tasting meals, including fish and wildlife dishes, all
cooked in the pots and bans used to bail water from the two rafts. Obviously, the weapons and fishing lines
carried by the crew came in handy. To
this day, my mouth still waters at the thought of some of these meals.
When we finally reached
Famaka, we were met by the two Land Rovers that had dropped us off at Lake Tana. They would haul the equipment and crew back
to their headquarters in Gonder, Ethiopia, while Wilbur and I would take the
char-tered Cessna 172 to Addis Ababa, where we would recuperate for a day
and-a-half at the Hilton, before catching a flight to Nairobi and from there on
to our respect-tive destinations.
The Cessna flight was
divided into two stages, interrupted by a refueling stop at Mendi,
Ethiopia. During the first leg, I had
the back seats to myself and stretched out and slept soundly – while in the
front the pilot let his passenger handle the controls. At Mendi, Wilbur and I exchanged seats and I
had a chance to fly the aircraft to within 15 miles of Addis Ababa, at which
point the pilot took over.
After landing in Addis
Ababa International Airport and being cleared by customs and immigration, Wilbur
couldn’t help from asking which, of the two of us; was the better pilot. I still remember his answer. “Mr. Smith has the steadiest hand; which on a
com-mercial flight would allow the passengers to sleep in peace; whereas Mr.
Stevens is consonantly testing the controls to make sure that they are all
functioning correctly.” To this day,
Wilbur has never let me live down that critique.
The trip was enormously
expensive and since we each paid our own expenses, I spent the next 18 months
paying off my Visa card.
I’m sure that my
adventures with Wilbur Smith would make a great short story for Readers Digest or some other
magazine. I have a lot of photos of the
trip and perhaps one day I will post them on the Cinema Arts Website.