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Archive for Sunday, May 23, 2004

Rafters face danger, finish journey down Nile

May 23, 2004

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— A crocodile chased them, a leopard prowled around their camp, and they paddled through war zones in Sudan and Uganda -- so four men and two women were relieved when they steered their two rafts into the Mediterranean Sea to finish a 4,160-mile journey along the Nile River.

Expedition leader Hendri Coetzee, a professional whitewater rafter from South Africa, said he had been too busy to consider Friday's fulfillment of his dream, navigating the world's longest river from its source to the Mediterranean Sea in what is believed to be the first time in modern times.

"I'm looking forward to sitting down somewhere for a bit of quiet and thinking about what it all means," he said by satellite phone as the rafts were on their final miles before reaching Rosetta in Egypt.

The team set off from Jinja, Uganda, where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria, on Jan. 17 and paddled and rowed -- the inflatable rafts have two oars -- through the rapids of the first 940 miles. In Padak, southern Sudan, they took on outboard motors and steamed along the rest of the river, stopping for sightseeing, fuel and food, and to obtain security clearance.

Spokeswoman Natalie McComb said they had filmed their journey and plan to produce a documentary. The film will focus on how people depend on the Nile and how the southern Sudanese have survived a civil war.

For McComb, the best sight of the journey was when people of the Mandari tribe -- wearing little more than beads, mud and loincloths -- came to the riverbank in war-ravaged Sudan, having heard of the expedition on the radio.

"They would sing out from the banks, 'You're welcome here! You're welcome here!'" said McComb, a New Zealand tour-guide based in Kampala, Uganda. "That was really quite a moment: when people would see us traveling through these waters for the first time in many, many years. And they saw that as a sign of hope."

McComb said the team was "quite tense" when it crossed into southern Sudan.

"We had to cross about six different front lines" because control of the river alternated between government soldiers and Sudan People's Liberation Army rebels, McComb recalled. "They were extraordinarily friendly. We couldn't believe it. Everybody went out of their way to make us feel so safe."

In the other conflict zone, in northwestern Uganda, the rafters paddled nonstop for 48 hours to avoid the Lord's Resistance Army, a shadowy group known for kidnapping.

"We moved very silently. We avoided contact with people on the banks, and we were lucky enough not to see them," McComb said.

The rafters viewed plenty of wildlife in the stretch of the river that passes through the Murchison Falls National Park of Uganda.

A crocodile chased a raft below Murchison Falls. "We had to paddle quite quickly to get away from it," McComb said. The photographer, Marcus Wilson-Smith, a Briton, hit the croc with his paddle.

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