After the Shafartak Bridge, the muddy Blue Nile rages through the Black Gorge - one of the wildest and most remote regions of Africa. We would cover hundreds of miles and see no other humans, whereas upstream locals had appeared from nowhere in the most unlikely places almost every day. It was just us and the guards in the two rafts, paddling between the towering walls of the gorge and through dense, ancient jungle.
Attempts to paddle the Blue Nile west of the Shafartak Bridge span back to 1903, when American millionaire and big-game hunter, W.N. McMillan, constructed three steel boats to tackle the gorge. Just a few miles in, his boats crashed against rocks and sunk. In 1930, an Austrian paddler's courageous endeavors ended abruptly when he capsized and was devoured by a crocodile. There was no other attempt until after World War II, when a young Australian sculptor lashed together a raft of wooden planks and forty-gallon drums, only to abandon his hopes shortly after starting. In 1954, a group of German tourists cut short their attempt as they were so distressed by the attacking crocodiles. In 1962 a French-Swiss canoe mission set off from Shafartak and almost made it to the Sudanese frontier before they were attacked by shifta who slaughtered two of the team, with the other four narrowly escaping. Two years later, Arne Rubin, a Sudan-based Swedish economist working for the UN, canoed solo from the Shafartak Bridge to just past the Sudanese border in Roseires in ten days, apparently only pausing at night and without ever lighting a fire. He was attacked by crocodiles, but made it through. He attempted the Northern Gorge with a friend in 1966 but paddled only fifteen miles before capsizing in a whirlpool and nearly drowning. Although the Northern Gorge is considered the most notorious leg of the Nile, the chances of dying west of Shafartak Bridge in the Black Gorge weren't slim either and we knew we could never get too comfortable.
The rich volcanic soil, high rainfall and intense heat in the Black Gorge support an abundance of wildlife. With so little contact with humans, the animals were curious and much bolder than those upstream. Bands of more than fifty Olive Baboons leaped from the trees and scurried to the boulders along the banks to catch a glimpse of us. Baboons were sacred to the ancient Egyptians, and are scribed and painted on their temples and tombs. They were a representative of Thoth, the god of letters and scribe of the gods, and were mummified and entombed. Although we saw thousands on the banks of the Blue Nile, there are none left in Egypt.
Large game stopped beside the river to stare and sniff at us. There were families of warthogs and hundreds of birds and monkeys. Unfortunately it wasn't just the land dwellers that were bolder; the crocodiles were the most daring of all. At one point Scott, Adam, the two guards and me sprawled out on the yellow raft trailing fifty yards behind the others. Scott rowed at a leisurely pace while Adam and I reclined on the tubes, whistling as we marveled at the tranquility of the lush gorge. All of a sudden there was a shattering snap six feet from me.
© Copyright 2012 Mark Tanner
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