Rafters complete Nile journey

2004-05-21 17:47

Cairo - A crocodile chased them, a leopard prowled around their camp, and they paddled through war zones in Sudan and Uganda - so four men and two women were relieved and a little proud on Friday when they steered their two rafts into the Mediterranean Sea at Rosetta, northern Egypt, to finish a 6 690km journey along the Nile River.

Expedition leader Hendri Coetzee, a professional whitewater rafter from South Africa, said he had been too busy with last-minute arrangements to consider the fulfillment of his dream, which took nine months of planning and forced him to quit his job.

The team set off from Jinja, Uganda, where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria, on January 17 and paddled and rowed - the inflatable rafts have two oars - through the rapids of the first 1 500km.

In Padak, southern Sudan, they took on outboard motors and steamed along the rest of the river, stopping for sightseeing, fuel and food, and to obtain security clearance.

Friendly people

Spokesperson Natalie McComb said they had filmed their journey and planned to produce a documentary for television distribution.

The film focuses on how people depend on the Nile, and how the southern Sudanese have survived a civil war that began in 1983 and was close to being settled by peace negotiations.

For McComb, the best sight of the journey was when people of the Mandari tribe - wearing little more than beads, mud and loincloths - came to the riverbank in war-ravaged Sudan, having heard of the expedition on the radio.

"They would sing out from the banks, 'You're welcome here! You're welcome here!"' said McComb, a New Zealand tour-guide based in Kampala, Uganda.

McComb said the team was "quite tense" when it crossed into southern Sudan, because of the war.

"They were extraordinarily friendly. We couldn't believe it. Everybody went out of their way to make us feel so safe."

Crocodiles, hippos

In the other conflict zone, in northwestern Uganda, the rafters hunkered down and paddled nonstop for 48 hours to avoid the Lord's Resistance Army, a shadowy group known for kidnapping and looting.

The rafters viewed plenty of wildlife in the stretch of the river that passes through the Murchison Falls National Park of Uganda, and they heard hyenas and saw crocodiles and hippopotamuses in the Sudd swamps of southern Sudan.

But the northern two-thirds of the Nile were barren of big game, McComb said.

A crocodile chased a raft below Murchison Falls. "We had to paddle quite quickly to get away from it," McComb said.

Coetzee said the most dangerous part of the expedition was navigating the Murchison park rapids owing to their depths, the vegetation that prevented one from getting to the bank and the hippopotamuses surfacing unexpectedly.

The final crew comprised Coetzee; McComb; Wilson-Smith; Peter Meredith, South African; Daniel Prior, British; and Pauline Larre, French.