The Exploration of the Blue Nile

The 50th anniversary of the Blue Nile Expedition is to be celebrated with a lecture by John Blashford-Snell and surviving members of the expedition and a display of equipment at the Royal Geographical Society on 2nd October 2018. Tickets are available from the Scientific Exploration Society via our contact page or direct here

When the Scottish explorer, James Bruce, located the Gish Abbai spring in the Ethiopian Highlands in 1771 he was led to believe this created a stream which flowed through Lake Tana and then with much increased volume became the legendary Blue Nile. However, the falls, rapids and sheer sided canyons prevented Bruce and other explorers from following the historic waterway through the mile- deep gorge, leading it to join the White Nile at Khartoum. It was called the ‘Everest of Rivers’ and was said to be the last unexplored part of Africa.

Thus, much of the river valley was not completely explored or mapped until 1968. Then at the request of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie 1, Emperor of Ethiopia, a 70-strong expedition of servicemen and scientists was organised by the Royal Military College of Science.

HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh had recently visited Ethiopia and been taken by the Emperor to view the Blue Nile as it tumbled over the Tisisiat Falls. Thus, the expedition was of particular interest to them when they visited the Royal School of Military Engineering and saw the boats being developed to navigate the river later that year.

To study the river, it was planned to move by boat in the wet season, when the flood water should smooth out the cataracts. The lower reaches would be covered first and then the more dangerous head waters would be tackled. There were other hazards, including crocodiles and disease, but the major problem was that of re-supply. This was overcome by parachute drops from an Army Beaver Aircraft flown specially from Britain. Expedition mail travelled on mules, by boat and in the Beaver. Special philatelic covers were issued to commemorate the epic journey and these were posted at remote towns in the region. The Daily Telegraph sent Chris Bonington to cover the story and many British Companies generously supported the venture.

The scientists included archaeologists, a vet and five zoologists.  A bilharzia survey and geological studies were also undertaken. Game and crocodile surveys were made for the Ethiopian Wildlife Department.

In late July, the main base was established at Debra Marcos in Ethiopia and the explorers set out from Shafartak in four Army Assault craft.

For three weeks, they battled through the cataracts, stopping at selected points for scientific work. Specimens were taken out of the gorge by mule parties, who likened their journey to the ascent of a never-ending ladder in a Turkish bath. The steep slopes were covered in loose rocks, concealed by elephant grass up to twelve feet high. Mid day temperatures were around 90 Fahrenheit and the humidity 85%.

The last phase involved the descent form Lake Tana to Shafartak. The first fifty miles were raging white cataracts and the river party moved in Avon inflatable boats, specially constructed for this.

This voyage was an extreme test of men and equipment and tragically, a Scottish soldier Cpl Ian Macleod was drowned whilst crossing a tributary.

The final descent was though a completely unexplored gorge. Here there were more crocodiles, and cataracts could not be by-passed. In three days, the team negotiated 12 rapids, fought two gun battles with bandit gangs and met many large crocodiles. It sailed through fantastic, vertical sided canyons and saw a land that no other outsiders had seen. Indeed, these days are a story in themselves.

The expedition had lost much of its equipment, several boats and had 50% casualties of one sort or another. Nevertheless, it pressed on to the finish.

On 24th September, the successful flotilla reached Shafartak. As the boats approached the great bridge, they were dwarfed by the magnitude of the gorge, however it was a proud sight as they sailed in flying the flags of Britain and Ethiopia.

Through careful preparation, excellent equipment and outstanding teamwork, the ‘Everest of rivers’ had been navigated and explored.

Over 70 scientific papers were published covering the work of the expedition. The use of the Avon inflatable boats led to the development of White Water rafting. The expedition film was widely acclaimed on TV and the historian Richard Snailham wrote the official book “The Blue Nile Revealed”.

 On Thursday 28 March 2013, The Scientific Exploration Society welcomed Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and over 700 members and guests to the Royal Geographical Society in London.  HRH has been a member of The SES for many years.  Colonel John Blashford-Snell gave a fascinating and entertaining lecture to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone.  John recounted Livingstone’s travels, challenges, achievements and family life in remarkable detail, with wonderful illustrations and images to capture the hardships encountered.

The evening ended with Garry Batt auctioning lots ranging from an elephant to a fabulous holiday donated by Mantis group, who kindly supported the evening.  Over £10000 was raised, and a contribution from these funds will be used towards the restoration of the Livingstone Memorial at Chitambo, Zambia. 

So many people worked so hard to ensure a successful and thoroughly enjoyable evening, and it is dangerous to name any at the risk of missing others.  But we must of course mention John and Judith Blashford-Snell, Alan Campbell, Lucy Thompson, Dave and Val Smith, Jim Masters and Mel Hyatt-Steel from The SES, Paul and Ian Gardiner from Mantis, Garry Batt from Dukes Fine Art in Dorchester and Charlie Morison and her Campbell-Bell team, the staff of the RGS and the army of volunteers who worked so hard behind the scenes.

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© Colonel John Blashford-Snell OBE DSc(Hon) DEng(hc) FRSGS