/ 2 December 2003

White-water maniacs

A group of South African rafters is preparing for the first ever trip to navigate the length of the world’s longest river from source to sea, 142 years after British explorer John Speke identified the source of the Nile.

Using a variety of vessels, from traditional dhows to the latest state-of-the-art rafting boats, they will attempt to negotiate the 6 690km of water that runs from the Nile’s source at Lake Victoria in Uganda, through Sudan, up to where the river spits into the Mediterranean off the coast of Egypt. The expedition will be launched on January 15 next year and is expected to take about four months.

In spite of the daunting logistics of such a feat, the team of four South African men, whose ages range from 28 to 42, and a 31-year-old New Zealand women, say they have it pretty much worked out.

“There were a lot of unanswered questions about how we’re going to carry food and equipment and about security in southern Sudan,” said the group’s leader Hendri Coetzee. “But a lot of that has now been settled. We did an aerial survey of the Ugandan stretch and as much research as we can about the Sudanese part. We have a very good chance of completing this.”

In addition, they have attracted sponsors, who are supplying boats, equipment and money for the launch. They also enjoy support from the governments of Uganda and Egypt, who are only too happy to cash in on the tourism potential. They’ve reached an agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which controls southern Sudan, and are close to striking a deal with the Sudanese government in Khartoum.

The expedition is daring, to say the least. It will take the crew through some of the most powerful surges of white water in the world — including the rapids on either side of Uganda’s Murchison Falls, where the entire Nile is squeezed through a 6m gap. This stretch is said to be especially dangerous because of the number of rapids and because of its inaccessibility owing to the thick surrounding jungle. It is also rendered hazardous because of the abundance of hippos that live in the area.

The first leg of the trip passes the Bujugali Falls — a travellers’ paradise that was recently visited by Prince William when he sneaked a short rafting holiday in Uganda in July last year. After that, the horror starts.

“The river gets pretty wild,” said team member Peter Meredith. “The only bit that really scares me is before Murchison Falls. Only in the last six years has rafting technology been good enough to make it feasible. It’s only been tried twice and the guy we know said he’s not going near it again”.

The trip will also land them in the crocodile-infested Sudd marshlands of southern Sudan — an unexplored assemblage of papyrus swamps roughly the size of France, ridden with malaria and other exotic tropical hazards like yellow fever and the Tsetse fly. “We’re expecting it to be pretty miserable,” Meredith said, “papyrus reeds closing in around you, crocodiles, all those different channels with dead ends”.

Besides water, wild animals and disease, the group’s major concern is the war in southern Sudan. Nearly half of the territory they want to cross is a war zone and the would-be explorers plan to travel through parts of Sudan populated by militia groups and armed bandits that would have made even the great explorers shudder.

Yet their proposal comes at a time when Sudan appears to be closer to peace than it has for 20 years. SPLA leader John Garang recently returned from peace talks in Kenya announcing that “the road to peace is irreversible”. Sudanese Vice-President Ali Osman Taha said the decisive deal on security arrangements between the factions has finally been struck.

“The timing could hardly be better,” said Coetzee. “The Khartoum government and the SPLA are very positive about the good publicity this trip will bring to the Sudan peace process.”

In true Victorian explorer style, the team says they want dabble in a bit of archaeology along the way. “We’ve got a full-time researcher attached to our film crew in Nairobi,” said Coetzee. “We think there could be some derelict steamships just south of Khartoum from when General Gordon was governor of Sudan. We’d love to bring them to light.”

From his station in Khartoum, General Charles Gordon ran British imperial ships up and down the Nile before he was killed by a rebellion in Khartoum in 1885, prompting General Horatio Kitchener to launch an attack to regain Sudan four years later. Since independence in 1956, Sudan has been too volatile for anyone to explore the southern region of the Nile where the ships used to pass.