Explorer Colonel John Blashford-snell remembers conquering the Blue Nile in 1968
Colonel John Blashford-snell on the Nile, 1968
WE AIMED TO undertake a scientific study while being the first to voyage the unexplored Blue Nile, which plunges for 500 miles through the highlands of Ethiopia and runs through a gorge that is over a mile deep in places. This photograph was taken during the last phase of our expedition – the descent from Lake Tana to Shafartak. We were trying out these Avon inflatable boats, which later led to the creation of white-water rafting as an international sport. The trip was partly financed by The Telegraph, and the newspaper’s photographer, Chris Bonington, had to stand on the bow and lean backwards on a rope to get this picture.
Coming down through the northern gorge, we were attacked by shifta (bandits), who held us prisoner for a bit but didn’t actually disarm us. There were 10 of us and 40 of them, so we couldn’t escape. Luckily, a local policeman came down and tried to talk sense to these bandits, most of whom he knew. As he left, he whispered to me, in perfect English, ‘Keep your guns by you, and in the morning, when everyone is asleep, jump in your boats and go like hell down the river.’
I said, ‘Where the devil did you learn to speak English?’ And he said, ‘Hendon Police College.’
Early next morning we jumped in our boats and raced off. But the shifta could run very fast, and around midday they caught up with us in a gorge and attacked, and we had to fight our way out. The only casualty was Bonington, who got hit by a rock, which cracked a rib.
We went on down the river paddling like mad until we reached an island where we made camp, and to our horror, at one in the morning, we were attacked by a large, well-coordinated group, and that developed into quite a hefty hand-to-hand fight. Even though it was the middle of the night, we had to get off the island, so we dived into our inflatables and went off downriver in the dark. One of the boats then capsized behind us; my boat crashed into a sandbank and I shot out and landed on something rather rough and scaly, which turned out to be a bloody great crocodile.
As dawn broke we set out once again, and when we came round the bend, there in front of us was this assault boat – the one in the picture – captained by John Wilsey, now General Sir John Wilsey, who had come to our aid, jumping the cataracts upstream rather like a salmon.
We were jolly glad to see him, but we’d got no food and very little ammunition left, so he called for an airdrop. The Beaver airplane dropped a four-gallon container of whisky, which they were taking as a gift to some Ethiopian general. Unfortunately this broke when it landed and was leaking, so we quickly had to have a cocktail party. They also dropped some Ritz biscuits. So we had two Ritz biscuits and half a pint of whisky each.
We started back down the river absolutely starving, and in the end, much against his better judgement, our chief zoologist shot a crocodile. We cooked its tail in candle fat and engine oil, and ate that and kept going.
So this photograph was taken when the assault boat was towing the inflatables behind it. We eventually got to Shafartak bridge, which was the finishing point, and staggere d ashore to be greeted by reporters and a couple of American tourists – a very large lady and her very small husband. As we were walking up the beach, she said to him, ‘Elmer, these guys are nuts!’
And he said, ‘ Hush, dear. They ’re British.’ — Interview by Jessamy Calkin The 50th anniversary of the Blue Nile expedition is to be celebrated at the Royal Geological Society on 2 October 2018. Blashford-snell’s autobiography, Something Lost Behind the Ranges (Harper Collins), is available from the Scientific Exploration Society; email firstname.lastname@example.org
I shot out and landed on something rather rough and scaly, which turned out to be a bloody great crocodile
On boat, from left Zoologist Colin Chapman, staff sergeant John Huckstep, John BlashfordSnell, John Wilsey and academic Alastair Newman