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A Proper Journey
According to the best current measurements, the mighty Nile stretches 4,240 miles (6,824 kilometers) from the hinterlands of Burundi to Egypt's Mediterranean coast. And although the river has been explored and reexplored for the better part of two centuries, no one has ever traveled up the river (from mouth to source) in a single trip, nor has anyone mapped its entire length, mile by mile, using GPS. Ascending it was just the kind of challenge that McLeay, MacIntyre, and McGrigor were after. McLeay, a New Zealand expat living in Uganda, is a world-class river runner; MacIntyre operates a successful outdoors provision
company in Wellington, New Zealand; and McGrigor has committed himself to what he calls "adventuring and record breaking" ever since he sold his British crate-rental business in 2002. He currently holds the round-Britain speed record (27 hours), a feat he accomplished in a 51-foot (16-meter) powerboat.
Together the three had conceived of their expedition as a throwback to the age of discovery, complete with positively Victorian-sounding objectives: "to record the expedition for history" and "to establish the team as leaders in the field of exploration." More important, they hoped to use their GPS data to show that the Nile's longest source—that is, the source from which the river covers the most sheer mileage as it twists and turns to the Mediterranean—lies in Rwanda, not in the more southerly Burundi. In other words, they were out to prove that the world's longest river is even longer than everyone thinks.
The significance of the Nile's various tributaries remains a matter of debate, and not all river experts were impressed with the men's geographic mission. "Their claim to have found a new source for the Nile just depends on what counts as a meaningful source," says Pasquale Scatturo, whose own first descent of the Blue Nile was documented in the 2005 IMAX Mystery of the Nile. Robert Collins, river historian and author of The Nile, concurs: "They're talking about a difference of a few miles—nothing compared to the entire length of the river. These chaps are really just out for adventure, and I'm all for that."
But for McLeay, there was more to the expedition than resolving an obscure hydrological debate or taking on what might seem like the ultimate midlife challenge. McLeay, who has visited Uganda for a decade and settled there with his family four years ago, operates a successful white-water rafting company on the Ugandan Nile. Like other members of the Kampala expatriate community (including Willis, whose three Red Chilli lodges were popular with budget travelers), McLeay had found a life's calling in introducing visitors to the beauty of his adopted nation, once dubbed "the pearl of Africa" by Winston Churchill.
Uganda has had trouble attracting tourists since the 1970s, when Idi Amin's rule caused years of bloody unrest. A more stable government took control in 1986 and has had some success at luring visitors. Since 2000, foreign arrivals have nearly doubled to 350,000. (Kenya, by comparison, sees over a million.) Still, the LRA continues to menace many of the nation's potential tourist regions. Murchison Falls National Park—Uganda's largest, with 1,483 square miles (3,841 square kilometers) of African savanna bisected by the Nile—is a prime example. The park has been on the cusp of becoming a tourist magnet for years, but the U.S. State Department continues to warn against visiting precisely because the area remains a known LRA stomping ground.
As McLeay prepared for the Ascend the Nile Expedition, he had good reason to believe that things were turning a corner. Attacks in Murchison Falls had diminished, and the U.S. Embassy was planning a meeting (eventually scheduled for the very day of the ambush) to discuss lifting the travel advisory for parts of the park. Online updates and media interviews were sure to draw attention to the expedition, and McLeay had high hopes that the publicity would further speed the recovery of Ugandan tourism.
Their journey began on September 20. Supplied with generous hampers from Fortnum & Mason, high-end purveyors of British gourmet treats, the men traveled comfortably as they motored past the endless farmlands of the Egyptian Nile and across vast Lake Nasser. Even in northern Sudan they met with more annoyance than real difficulty—water so brown with silt that the engine spray looked like flying mud. In the world's largest swamp, southern Sudan's Sudd, they did encounter Nile cobras, monitor lizards, and mosquitoes so thick that thousands lay piled dead outside the men's nets every morning. But the going didn't become truly rough until they reached northern Uganda, where the Nile narrows to a few hundred yards and explodes through massive rapids into deep, crocodile-filled pools.
At Murchison Falls the river pours over 140-foot (43-meter) cliffs. To pass them, the team brought along a flying inflatable boat, or FIB, a raft suspended from a motorized hang glider that can take off and land on water and reach altitudes of up to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). The FIB's manufacturer had warned the team that it shouldn't be used to portage supplies up a fast-moving river, but this peculiar aircraft seemed their best hope for ascending obstacles such as waterfalls.
Heathcote, who had accompanied McLeay on previous rafting trips, joined the team at Murchison. The plan was to dismantle the motorized rafts and make separate FIB flights to carry each part over the falls. McGrigor piloted the contraption, and, although the craft was relatively nimble, the flying conditions were dangerous, with powerful thermals rising off the hot savanna, shearing against the cooler air over the river. Moreover, the FIB could land only on water, and the Ugandan Nile was a terrible runway—crocodiles, hippos, rocks, and rapids were virtually everywhere.
The team successfully passed Murchison Falls in early November. On November 7 McGrigor flew the FIB ahead, planning to meet the boats at an agreed upon GPS waypoint, while McLeay piloted the lead raft up a series of rapids. Boat propellers can't really bite into white water as rough as that around Murchison Falls because the water becomes too aerated as it crashes over rocks and tumbles back upon itself. The team had to gun their engines to jump over the foaming bottom of the rapids and up onto the "tongue" of each—the pure channels of swift green water that precede the froth. The tongues themselves were steep ramps of downrushing water; it took every bit of engine torque to thrust the boats up them.
Underestimating the sheer size of one rapid, McLeay says, "I leapt on at speed, traveling at 40 kilometers [25 miles] an hour, and the river just dropped away beneath me." His boat plunged into a huge trough, had its bow caught by the current, and flipped end over end into the rapid.
Swimming over standing waves, McLeay knew that hungry crocodiles waited in the pools downstream, so he struggled to climb atop the capsized boat. By the time MacIntyre and Heathcote towed him into an eddy, the tiller arm had snapped off McLeay's water-flooded engine.
They were rigging a temporary fix when McGrigor, upstream in the FIB, came looking for them. Flying in low to assess the situation, he clipped a wing on a tree and the FIB cartwheeled out of control, landing upside down on the north bank of the Nile. Its inflated raft exploded on impact, the engine's hot exhaust pipe landing on McGrigor's bare thigh. When the others ran to the crash site, they were relieved to find him alive, standing beside the destroyed FIB with only a broken and badly burned leg. That's when McLeay switched on his satellite phone and called for help.
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