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) mines.  


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 tributary. 


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.