It was arrest No. 2 on the 3,250-mile, 114-day expedition, and the latest in a series of detours that threatened to abruptly sink it in its interminable tracks.
"They'd been waiting for us for four days. They knew we were coming," recounts expedition leader Pasquale Scaturro. "They'd spread out across the river, and the moment we crossed the 20th parallel, they started up their motors, came right toward us, and one guy goes, 'Welcome to Egypt. Get out of your boat.' They took us straight to the army base and told us we were either turning right around and going back to Sudan or going to jail."
No one takes his own boat across Lake Nasser, the giant reservoir on the Nile created by the Aswan High Dam. It's one of the most highly secured bodies of water on the planet, stretching more than 300 miles to Aswan and the gates of the Egyptian Nile -- the journey's final leg. The two-man expedition team had a couple of options. They could deflate their boats and board the weekly ferry to Aswan like everyone else. Or they could grapple with the Egyptian authorities until they lost their minds, and then deflate their boats and board the ferry to Aswan.
Scaturro and cameraman-expedition partner Gordon Brown had come too far. Trying to become the first to descend the Nile from the source of the Blue Nile to the Mediterranean, they'd been attacked by crocs, stalked by hippos, shot at by bandits, feasted on by gnats, baked by the Saharan sun, and beset by infected wounds. They'd blasted down one of the world's most remote canyon systems and survived monster rapids. They'd already been on the Nile for more than 2,000 miles.
At this point in the trip, what was an absurd face-off with Egyptian bureaucracy? They got on the phone. With the Ministry of Defense. Ministry of the Interior. State Security. National Security. Military High Intelligence ...
Everest of rivers
In a day when every other A-list adventure "first" has been climbed, crossed or circumnavigated at least seven or eight different ways, as of early 2004 no one had claimed the first full descent of the Everest of rivers -- the Nile and its primary southern leg, the Blue Nile -- from its sacred source at the Springs of Sakala in the Ethiopian Highlands to the Mediterranean.
"There are fewer and fewer of these gems to pluck," says Eugene Buchanan, publisher and editor in chief of Paddler, who's got a few first descents under his own belt. "They're becoming much more obscure or increasingly involved projects like this one."
But how did an oversized trophy like the Nile not get snatched 50 years ago? Most of the credit belongs to the raucous Blue Nile, which provides more than 86% of the Nile's water supply after converging with the longer but hydrologically feeble White Nile at Khartoum. Reported to be the source of the Nile by hard-luck Scotsman James Bruce in 1770, the Blue Nile has been a curse for most visitors who've tangled with it, including Bruce. His claim to have found the source of the great river was met with ridicule and disbelief (the White Nile got the honors).
Portions of the Blue Nile had been run, but not the whole river. In 1968, Capt. John Blashford-Snell led a British army team that became the first to complete the passage of Ethiopia's raging Blue Nile canyon. Putting in at Lake Tana, they "ghost-boated" (minus people) large sections of the river that were too horrifying to run, and otherwise tried not to drown (one of them did). Two firefights with bandits ensued before they called it a wrap at the end of the Blue Nile Gorge, about 70 miles south of the Sudanese border. That served as the benchmark Blue Nile voyage. Several attempts since had resulted in fatalities.
Scaturro, a Denver-based guide for the adventure company Mountain Travel-Sobek and a geophysicist whose resume includes a list of major river descents (several in Africa, including some firsts), had designs on doing the whole river, but a venture like this isn't cheap. Enter MacGillivray Freeman Films. The Laguna Beach-based company known for its Imax features had a large-format film about the river, "Mystery of the Nile," in the works. Scaturro already had his own designs on a first Nile descent when he got a call from film company headman Greg MacGillivray about the possibility of running the river. Scaturro was packed and ready in a month. Cameraman-safety kayaker Gordon Brown joined up as his partner on the core expedition team.
"It was amazing to find out that this expedition had never been done, or even attempted," MacGillivray says. "The expedition's main importance was to observe the environment all the way down the river from beginning to end -- how the Nile Basin has changed over the 35 years since the British expedition."