The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - The Conquest of the Blue Nile, 50th Anniversary Celebration

Scientific Exploration Society

Tuesday 2nd October 2018

The Scientific Exploration Society

18:00 - 20:00 at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR. Tickets £20.

A commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the first descent and exploration of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. This major expedition of the 20th century resulted in important scientific discoveries and the development of white water rafting.

An exhibition of equipment will include one of the original Avon white water boats and items used on the expedition. There will be a reception (with a cash bar) attended by members of the expedition and an illustrated presentation by the leader of the expedition Colonel John Blashford-Snell and some members who took part.

Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite:

Eventbrite Tickets - The Conquest of the Blue Nile, 50th Anniversary Celebration.

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 I, 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 Tisissat 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 through 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.

First Published in News File Spring 2018

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