Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Blue Nile - part zero

Many years ago, not long after I met Ashley, I had so many adventures that I wanted to do that I came up with a "bucket list" of trips before the term "bucket list" became common.  Before that and since then I've had the good fortune to do a lot of good adventures around the US, Canada, Asia, South America, and Europe, but a big void for me was Africa.  The vastness and diversity of the entire Africa continent is pretty overwhelming; it could fit the US, Mexico, India, China, Japan, and Western Europe all with its land mass!
So with such a huge area and so many different countries, climates, and things to do I was a little overwhelmed with where to go and what to actually decide to do there.  So on my bucket list I simply wrote "Do Africa".  Which Ash of course thought was hilarious: to this day every once in a while she'll come home and say something to the effect of "did you do Africa today?" or "Are you doing Africa next week?" And the truth is that after all that time, and all the options that doing Doing Africa represented, I still haven't been there.  Long ago I did a few memorable weeks in Egypt which is of course technically on the African continent, but it's much more Middle East than what I consider to be Africa (what do I consider to be Africa?  I barely know).

However, the day has come:  I'm finally off to Do Africa!

But of course, not quite.  I'm headed to Ethiopia,

where I'm going to join my old buddy and nutjob river explorer Rocky Contos to float the Blue Nile, which - along with the White Nile forms (not surprisingly) The Nile, the longest river on the planet.  It's not the biggest (the Amazon is by far the biggest in terms of discharge, putting out more water into the Atlantic than the next seven biggest rivers combined!) but the Nile is probably the most important in terms of populations of people that depend on it for life.
After the confluence with the White Nile it flows through the rest of Sudan and all of Egypt, where most of that country's population lives within a few miles of the river bank.  
Rocky has been on a tear for the last few years: he's been doing multiple trips per year down the Rio Maranon in Peru (biggest source for the Amazon) and been working on trying to stop the multiple dams that threaten that, the Salween in Mynamar (one of the biggest rivers in Asia), the Ususmacinta (Mexico's biggest river), the Grande Colorado in Argentina (one of the biggest rivers in South America after the Amazon), this year he did the Rhone (one of Europe's biggest), and also fit in a trip down the Grand Canyon with Eric Weihenmayer that was recently chronicled in his new book "No Barriers" (Eric is blind; a big challenge to successful kayaking, and he mostly followed the soft-spoken Rocky down the rapids!).  Rocky has become a legend in the riparian world; even before his global gallivants he was famous (infamous?) for his solo river escapades (here's an article I wrote about Rocky in a 2007 issue of American Whitewater) and even today's (and yesterday's) professional kayakers (if there are such people any more) would likely agree that Rocky is the most intrepid river explorer of his time.  That said, over the last few years Rocky has spent less time doing his legendary solo descents and spent more time enabling others to join him on these big trips, partly because it's what he does, and partly because many of the rivers he's doing are endangered by dams.

The Blue Nile is no exception.  Ethiopia is in the final stages of completing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near the Sudan border; it's the 7th largest dam in history, will take 5-15 years to fill, and has been very controversial since it was first proposed years ago.  As mentioned above, Egypt is absolutely dependent on the Nile, and they are naturally very distrustful of a neighbor who will soon retain the ability to mete out water on its own terms and Egypt has actively sought to stop construction since it was first proposed in the 1950's.  As it's being finished Egypt is still trying to deny it; here is an article from July where Egypt is freaking out about the fact that there's a pool forming behind the dam.

Rocky did a recon trip down the Blue Nile in July (at higher water during the summer monsoons) and asked me to join him for that, but given the awesomeness of the trip I thought Ash would want to go and high summer doesn't work for her, so we signed on for a longer raft trip in November.  However, she couldn't do a monthlong trip and we assumed that there would be other people coming in and out of the river, but as it turns out all the participants have figured out a way to spend a month on the river, so she'd be on her own going in and out, and that - along with a few other reasons - was a bit of a deterrent for her.  Rocky isn't able to go on that trip himself but is going down on a trip in October, and once that all became clear I decided to change course and go down for the October trip.  It kinda kills me to miss October in Utah; as with a lot of places it's one of the best months to play in both the mountains and the desert, but so it goes.

As we discussed this trip and other fall plans, Ash had still had time blocked out for a trip and we discussed a bike tour as we've done the last few falls, and when we determined that I was going to be in a fun, beautiful, interesting, and warm place post-monsoon we decided that she can come meet me for a bike tour in Ethiopia.  So after I am off the river she will make journey down - with my bike, as well as hers - to do a bike tour.

After our tour of Vietnam a few years ago where we felt like we didn't nail our route choice very well (we weren't able to glean beforehand the amount of construction and busy-ness on the roads we chose) and the fact that blogs about cycling Ethiopia talk a lot about dodging rocks thrown by locals in some regions we thought it would be helpful to get some on-the-ground beta by someone who knows the area well, and found Richard of Tadele Travel, who is indulging our "we don't want an organized tour" mentality (even as I'm going on an organized river trip) and helping us design a good route.  I hope to be able to meet Richard in person; he's a former British Olympic runner (2:10 marathoner) and his partner on another deal in Ethiopia is Haile Gebrselassie, who is arguably the greatest distance runner in history.  

Speaking of organized trips, I keep saying how much I love simple, self-contained kayak trips, yet keep finding myself going on big raft trips!  But every time I do, I don't really anticipate how much fun I'll have with the varied folks on the trips, and this one - at a month long! - will let us all get to know each other very well, for better or worse!

One of the interesting aspects of African rivers - indeed, maybe a lot of places in Africa? - is the presence of large animals that have no problems killing people.  Rocky saw 274 crocodiles on his recon trip (yes, he counted them all) and crocs have been known to kill kayakers, and hippos pose a pretty big (so to speak) problem as well.  After my experience this past spring with another large animal that has no problem killing people I of course am a bit concerned at their ability to out-athleticize kayakers:
Thanks to Bryan Tooley, whose son William is on the trip as well, for this daunting imagery!
But there are good ways to mitigate this danger....mostly, when the river is flat (where crocs tend to lurk)  I'll likely be sunning myself on the raft instead of in the kayak!  And today I'm starting to take steps to alleviate the dangers associated with the second-most dangerous animal on earth:
that kills 750,000 people per year!

The most dangerous animal?  Us!  Between war, genocides, and homicides we are particularly deadly.  Which was particularly acute last week, when a friend of Rocky's was killed on the lower Amazon by bandits (this UK news story's video was shot by Rocky in June).  Floating rivers in tropical zones where foreign river runners (rightly) are perceived as rich and intrusive is not the same deal as our relatively remote and civilized Western rivers.  But Rocky has paved the way for a good relationship with the river's occupants and the cultural aspects of this journey should be a highlight.

I am leaving today, hoping to easily check a Liquid Logic hardshell kayak (I should be bringing my pack raft!) and six Cataract oars in addition to my own river bag onto the plane, but it will be a good test for Ash checking two bike bags in a month. I may have a chance to throw up a quick blawg post from Addis Ababa (the capital city) before we head for the river, but more likely I'll update at the end of October when we get off the river.  In the meantime, here are some of Rocky's pics from his July descent.

Finally Doing Africa!


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