Ex­plorer Colonel John Blashford-snell re­mem­bers con­quer­ing the Blue Nile in 1968

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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 cat@ses-ex­plore.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

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