The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 22nd June 2006

Down the Blue Nile in Boats (1968)

Given by - Richard Snailham

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


Richard Snailham is indefatigable. In May he delivered his sixth (and final) address as Society Chairman; in June, he was star speaker reliving for us the great Blue Nile Expedition of August/September 1968.

What an event this expedition was. The expedition’s objective was to navigate the whole length of the river in Ethiopia – from Lake Tana and the Tississat Falls through the four cataracts of the Northern Gorge all the way to the modern Italian constructed Shafartak bridge and then through the Black Gorge to the western cataracts as far as Sirba, some seventy-five miles from the Sudanese border.

Up to now (1968), this had been a dream. No-one had ever made it. Many had tried: in 1962, 1964 and 1966. All failed. Bandit (shifta) attack accounted for two murdered and four severely injured in Dr. A. Amoudruz’s Franco- Swiss expedition of 1962. The river itself put paid to the French Zodiac inflatable dinghies of the Sutton expedition. Their bottoms were ripped to pieces by rocks. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

Murderous bandits, raging torrents, jagged rocks – the Blue Nile, the Great Abbai as the Ethiopians call it, was a truly savage opponent. Only a military response might succeed, “might” being the operative word.

Richard took us through the background. The idea for the expedition came from John Blower, Adviser to the Ethiopian Wild Life Conservation Department in Addis. This automatically gave the expedition a scientific dimension. Of the 65 members of the expedition, eighteen were non-military. These included a geologist, an archaeologist and several zoologists.

‘Embedded’, to use the modern term, in the expedition was a reporter working for the Daily Telegraph, one Christian Bonington. This is the same Chris Bonington of mountaineering fame. The only connection between the river and Bonington’s real love, mountains, was that provided by the expedition’s commander, Capt. John Blashford-Snell who described the Blue Nile as ‘The Everest of Rivers’.

Richard Snailham was also a non-military man. In his account of the expedition (Something Lost Behind the Ranges, Harper Collins 1994), Blashford-Snell writes: “My first recruit was Richard Snailham, a Civilian Lecturer at Sandhurst. I knew him well and found him one of the most amusing and likeable men I had met. It was Richard who was to become the Chief Nilographer, reading up everything he could find about the area and helping to write the prospectuses and begging letters that we put out to gain sponsorship and support. He would also write the official history of the expedition and act as Treasurer.”

This, Richard has done. His chronicle of the expedition, The Blue Nile Revealed (re-issued by Signal Books, Oxford, 2005) is a ‘must-read’. As for being Treasurer, Richard modestly lists his role in the affair as just simply “£ s d”!

Richard outlined the ‘battle’ plan. After months of planning and reconnaissance, Blashford-Snell ordained a two-phased operation. Headquarters were located at Debre Markos, air and road-linked to Addis and situated roughly mid-way along the Blue Nile’s passage through Ethiopia forty miles or so away from the Shafartak bridge on the northern bank. More than a dozen supply bases were created along the length of the river from Bahir Dahr to Sirba. They were reached overland by specialist groups and were to be supplied from the air.

Air supply turned out to be a most dangerous hazard. “Richard Snailham – struck by a box of Compo on the banks of the Blue Nile, August 13th. 1968.” This self-composed epitaph was very nearly reality. As he told us, supplies were just pushed out of the CL 44 on low level supply drops. The important thing was not to be directly underneath. Easier said than done!

Back to the battle plan. Debre Markos (8,136 feet) headquarters was to be in radio communication with Bulford, Wilts and then on, for Bonington’s newspaper articles, to Fleet Street; all Blue Nile bases and boats were to be in communication with Debre Markos and, of course, in inter-communication with each other.

Boats used were Avon Redshank Army Assault craft. They were pre-tested at the Fluids Laboratory of the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham where a simulated Nile cataract was specially constructed. These craft have stood the test of time and were successfully used, Richard said, in the Falklands campaign. Four Redshanks were employed: Kitchener, Wingate, Sandford and Cheesman. Richard was assigned to the latter. Each craft conveyed eight expedition members.

The plan called for the river to be navigated in two phases: from Shafartak (midway) to Sirba (near the Sudanese border) – phase one; and from Lake Tana, Bahir Dahr (the beginning) to Shafartak – phase two. “It’s like covering the alphabet”, said Richard, “by covering M to Z first and then going on to do A to L”.

You might feel that treating the expedition as a military campaign was a ‘bit over the top’. You would be wrong. Commands, orders, military experience enabled Blashford-Snell to deal with two potentially murderous assaults by shifta. It was truly a miracle that life was not lost – on either side. In both assaults, dozens of rounds were fired at the expedition party. Unbelievably, the worst that happened was that Chris Bonington was lightly injured from a direct hit (to his back) from a rock thrown by the marauders.

What was the motive for the attacks? Who knows? The most likely explanation was the prospect of plunder. Another possibility was that the party, with their (worthless) official letters of laissez-passer, were regarded as demonic tax-collectors in disguise. The goodly folk of Gojjam Province had erupted into virtual civil war against Central Government over just this issue.

Another reason for military professionalism was the sheer force of the river. An overnight fall of rain could see levels rise by as much as 15 feet the next morning. An already raging torrent became twice as dangerous. It was in this type of scenario that a Reconnaissance Officer, Corporal Ian McLeod of The Black Watch drowned. The 27-year-old lost his life near the K2 cataract in the Northern Gorge in phase two of the expedition. Richard’s book, the official chronicle of the expedition, is dedicated to his memory. McLeod failed to make it across when attempting to join Alastair Newman, a geologist in the party. Newman had just made the swim to fix a line between the two banks.

What did the expedition accomplish? From the military side, knowledge acquired in respect of boat worthiness was valuable; scientifically, Dr. Patrick Morris, the expedition’s Director of Zoology, had the honour of a bat new to science, Miotis morrisii, named after him. Thousands of flora and hundreds of fauna were sent back to London for scientific investigation. The Blue Nile Gorge was, after all, said to be a unique eco-system. Above all, the expedition was a success; it accomplished what it set out to achieve – the first complete navigation of the Blue Nile.

People say that it took many years for the Napier Expedition a century before in 1868 to recoup its expenses. This was largely done at the expense of the taxpayer. Two pence or so in the pound was levied. Richard Snailham, “Mr. £ s d” of the Blue Nile Expedition, had no recourse to such a simple and effective device. Richard told us that the expedition had been completed a full year before every last bill was paid.

Every conceivable thing was done to raise money. Special stamps were issued for £3 a set; begging letters were sent here, there and everywhere – with positive results. The Americans donated marquees and a helicopter; the Ethiopian Wildlife department, a Land Rover, and generally help was forthcoming.

The expedition ended, according to Richard, on a rather hilarious note. His Imperial Majesty, Haile Sellassie I held a reception at the Imperial Palace for the victorious members of the expedition. Apparently, not a few of these battle and river-hardened individuals were quaking in fear of the lions freely roaming round His Imperial Majesty’s Court. The expedition’s gift to His Majesty, a Chihuahua, also seemed a little edgy: it peed all over the Imperial Throne. Fortunately, for one and all, especially the Chihuahua, His Imperial Majesty was not without a sense of humour.

Thanks were expressed to Richard for his wonderful talk and all the fascinating illustrations that accompanied it. The expedition has obviously left a deep impression on Richard which has funded his passion for Ethiopia to this day.

First Published in News File Winter 2006

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