SA trio conquer the Nile

2004-05-28 07:04

Rosetta, Egypt - The Nile has been conquered.

And by South Africans to boot.

An international team lead by professional South African canoeist, Henri Coetzee, braved since January 17 a tough and at times dangerous battle against rapids, exotic animals, insects and various armed gangs to conquer the river Nile from its source in Uganda to its end in the sea in Egypt.

The two other South Africans in the team were Pete Meredith, also a professional canoeist and Ian Small, owner of a canoe adventure company operating on the Nile. Other members include Marcus Wilson-Smith, a British photographer, Dr Ian Clarke, an Irishman who has been working in Uganda for the past 18 years and Nathali McComb, 31, an amateur canoeist from New Zealand.

The expedition set out in order to draw international attention to remote communities along the banks of the Nile whose survival depends mainly on the river.

Care International, a non-government organisation involved with the upliftment of these communities, provided logistical and administrative support for the team.

For the rest they had to rely on their own survival instincts and techniques. Their arrival at the Mediterranean Sea in Rosetta was met with relief and congratulations.

The following are a few excerpts from McComb's diary:

17 January 2004

(Jinja, Uganda)

We start our journey on a lovely warm day and friends and family see us off. The first leg of our adventure starts without any problems.

21 January (Uganda)

At 09:00 we decide to visit Namasagali, a village on the banks. We buy chapattis (flat bread) and sweet mandazi (doughnuts) to gobble down later with cups of hot, sweet tea. The town has electricity and we use the opportunity to reload our satellite telephone and send and read e-mails.

22 January (Uganda)

Today we struggled to paddle through dense papyrus. Later Henri got out and swam ahead to try and find a route through. Back in the canoe he discovered to his shock that his body was covered in leeches. Between laughing and crying we all managed to rid him of the pests.

Much later we pitch camp on a small, rocky peninsula. We had barely dropped off when a voice in the dark woke us up. At first we ignored it, but when I recognised the sound of a gun being cocked, I was wide awake. They were local askaris (guards) who thought we were rebels from the north. Henri went with them to sign a register, showing we were legally in the country.

28 Janaury

(Okwechi, Southern Uganda)

Today we met an interesting man called George. He originally came from Gulu in the north of Uganda, but is now in Okwechi here in the south. The war drove him here.

Some of his family had been kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army (a rebel group) and he doesn't know whether they are still alive. He has been waiting here for three years for the war to end. Apparently it is cheaper for the rebels to chop up children with pangas than "wasting" expensive bullets on them.

30 January (Uganda)

Henri escaped within an inch of his life today. He got stuck in a maelstrom and lost his paddles. Luckily the rapids eventually spat him out, but it was a wake up call to all. The Nile is unlikely to surrender her virginity easily.

1 February (Uganda)

Can things get worse than the day before yesterday? Yes. We had barely started rowing this morning, when a crocodile came charging at us out of the blue.

When it came within a metre of the canoe, Henri gave it a hard bang on the snout with his paddle. That seemed to cool its anger, but we never swam for the rest of the day.

21 February (Southern Sudan)

By 18:00 we came to low clouds of smoke. In the smoke we saw the strange Mandari shepherds. Totally naked and with their bodies painted from head to toe in white ash and cow dung, the men stood proudly next to their long-horned cattle. The smoke comes from cow dung fires used to drive off flies and mosquitoes.

26 March (Khartoum, Sudan)

Today we are visiting a camel farm. On the way to the place where we can rent camels, we unexpectedly come across an oasis. Beautiful!

This piece of greenery on the flat, dry plateau of the desert is truly like heaven. The green vegetation conjures up pictures of harem girls peacefully lying in the shade.

Finally we reach the farm where there are about 50 camels standing in the midday sun. Their owner greets us and explains that it is a breeding farm.

After a long conversation we beg him to take us for a short camel ride. He refuses. The mere idea that I as a woman should ride one of his camels, is just too much for the old man.

27 March (Sudan)

I don't know what people have heard about the Sudan. My advice is to put this country at the top of the list of countries to visit. The people are extremely friendly. They like talking to strangers and are quick to invite you into their homes.

They drink tea everywhere - even on the streets - and the atmosphere is one of friendliness and prosperity. It is hard to believe this is a war-torn country.

Everybody smiles. The so-called civilised world has much to learn from these people.

13 April (Aswan, Egypt)

We are entering the country of the pharaohs. We are in Aswan and need special permission to cruise on the Nile. While waiting for the letter that apparently has to come from Cairo, we explore the nearby ruins.

One can feel the history. Everything is very old.

My only complaint against Egypt so far is the rude way that men stare at me. I constantly feel their eyes on me. They are also not shy in whispering suggestive remarks in my ear while I'm walking in the shops or vegetable market.

5 May (still in Aswan)

After weeks of waiting due to the red-tape of Egyptian officials we heard this morning that our letter of permission to continue with our Egyptian expedition has been issued. We fetched the letter from a Mr Ashraf from the information ministry in great relief. We were astounded when he told us we could not take the letter along with us! He said it would be a safety hazard.

I asked him what we were supposed to do if police boats stopped us on the river. With a shake of the head and the invocation insh'Allah (God willing) he assures us the police will know we are there with permission. We have to trust that the police will do their job - insh'Allah.

6 May (Egypt)

It feels good to be back on the river - everybody is smiling again. Cultivated fields stretch for kilometres along both sides of the river. We plan on stopping at the Kom Ombo temple within the next four to five hours. Meanwhile we take turns sleeping and steering. The heat is exhausting.

8 May (Egypt)

I got up early and saw three hot air balloons floating over the Valley of the Kings. That is something I would love to do.

Since leaving Aswan, we are constantly escorted by police boats. Some of the policemen appear so aggressive that I'm not always sure whether we are under arrest or whether they are protecting us.

Later today Henri and I visited the Luxor temple. What a wonder! A massive obelisk, carved from a single rock, stands pointing straight up into the air - almost as if it was a landmark. The temple and surrounding ruins and art works are breathtaking. It is quite difficult to describe. You have to come and see it for yourself.

If everything goes according to plan we should reach Rosetta by May 21 and I'm looking forward to it more and more. It will be great to see my friends and family again. Four months on boats and in tents is getting a bit much.

21 May (Rosetta, Egypt)

(McComb's comments by telephone): We have arrived! The experience has been incredible. I found the south of Sudan the most interesting. Those people are desperate for peace, they have been through so much suffering. It's great to be here.

I have seen some of my family again and I had a nice cold beer.