Tisisat Falls, Blue Nile, Ethiopia

“The river was like a mirror, much wider now and slower, only a gentle wave or two disturbing the surface... I had just spoken to Nigel, the deputy leader now safely at base, when I saw Joe’s mouth open.  ‘Oh, my God,’ he said.  Looking up, I saw a leviathan of a crocodile literally galloping with its legs extended.  The giant reptile plunged into the water and came speeding straight at us, its great head causing a bow wave.”

Ever since he was a young boy in the early 1940s, hunting imaginary lions in the long grass of a Herefordshire churchyard, John Blashford-Snell hankered after adventure.   His father was the rector of a rural parish, and the young John, ably assisted by his pet monkey, made sure that none of the local cats ever snoozed in peace.  

Thirty years later, and now an officer in the Royal Engineers, Blashford-Snell was preparing to lead a team of explorers down the Blue Nile.  The idea had been dropped like a conversational hand grenade by the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, and Blashford-Snell had picked it up with alacrity.  Tracing the Blue Nile from its source?  Navigating crocodile-infested swamps, tracking leopards of colossal proportions, searching for lost tribes amid caves full of glittering gems, while battling with thousands of poisonous snakes?  Before Indiana Jones had even been born, John Blashford-Snell was eagerly rolling out his map to see where to start.

The treacherous waters of the Blue Nile - ‘my Great Abbai’, as Haile Selassie called it - carve a canyon 5,000 feet deep through the highlands of Ethiopia, boiling over rapids and waterfalls before emptying out into the sands of the Sudan.  In 1968 much of its course remained uncharted, and judging by the fate of previous explorers, many of whom had met a grisly end, this was a challenge requiring courage and military precision.  Just to add extra spice, there appeared to be a civil war going on.  “You will be very careful,” said Her Majesty the Queen rather doubtfully, when Blashford-Snell had explained his idea. 

What John was planning to do would have given most people nightmares.  Even his army comrades, accustomed as they were to his madcap escapades, must have blanched slightly when he told them about his brainwave.   It had come to him a couple of years previously, while camping with his wife by the Piccolo Abbai river:

“We all went up to Bahadar, partly to fish, but also to view the great falls of Tisisat, where the Blue Nile tumbles 150 feet into its canyon.  The mist thrown up by the falls may be seen for miles, hence the name Tisisat, ‘smoke of fire’.  I watched the river cascade over the polished black basalt with a mighty roar... ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ said Judith, who had been watching me.   ‘Do you?’ I smiled and said slowly, ‘It might be possible with rubber boats.’”

This is how, in August 1968, John Blashford-Snell and his carefully chosen band of companions embarked on a voyage down unknown and hostile waters, through largely unknown and hostile territory.  Experienced servicemen accounted for 70 members of the group, and they were joined by a number of zoologists and medical officers, an archaeologist and an ornithologist.  In his capacity as a photo-journalist, the British mountaineer Chris Bonington was one of the party;  he described the region as “the last unconquered hell on earth”. 

For the first stretch they travelled in four army assault vessels, but once they reached Lake Tana they continued their journey in three inflatable boats - in effect, they invented white-water rafting on one of the most dangerous rivers of them all.  No one could have foreseen the ordeals that lay ahead:  the bandits who fired at them from the banks, the deeply suspicious tribesmen who held some of them hostage, or the thundering waters that claimed the life of Corporal Ian Macleod, to the horror of those who tried to rescue him.

What is remarkable is that they succeeded at all.  They endured exhaustion, illness and injury, and learned how to operate as a small military unit in order to survive.  They also found that, even in a rapidly-deflating boat, the banks of a river look much less inviting when they are lined with dormant crocodiles. 

On 24th September, after nearly two months, the battered but defiant little group began their final run towards Shafartak, where a reception party awaited them.  For Blashford-Snell, although it had cost him dearly in terms of grief, this journey would be the first of many, opening a door onto a lifetime of expeditions that would take him to the farthest and remotest corners of the world.

“At 1620 hours the [de Havilland] Beaver came skimming over the river and we knew we were close.  Ten minutes later we ran ashore and the champagne corks flew.  A large lady from Texas was amongst those who had come out from Addis Ababa to see us arrive.

As we staggered up the beach she turned to her husband and said, ‘These guys must be crazy.’  ‘Hush dear,’ he replied, ‘they’re British.’”

In 1971 John Blashford-Snell was awarded the Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society “in recognition of his leadership of the Great Abbai Expedition 1968, the Darien Gap Expedition 1971/2, and the Zaire River Expedition 1974/5.”


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Article by Jo Woolf for the RSGS, January 2015

Quotes from:   ‘Something Lost Behind the Ranges’ by John Blashford-Snell