The team of explorers ambushed in Uganda have returned to the Nile to continue their ascent by boat
The team of explorers ambushed in Uganda have returned to the Nile to continue their ascent by boat. Before they left, expedition leader Neil McGrigor spoke to PBO about the risks, the challenges and the horrific attack by rebels, which killed British man Steve Willis.
‘We have to go back, otherwise the whole trip would have been a waste,’ said Neil. ‘We’d done 5,500km of the 6,600km voyage, and were the only white men to have got that far. We can’t just give it up.’
The team’s bid to ascend the Nile was brutally curtailed in November last year by rebels, who opened fire at their vehicle in Murchison Falls National Park. Neil recalls the events that led to the attack:
‘A friend had arrived from Kampala to help us transport the RIB. It had a hang-glider attachment so we could fly it over the rapids but I’d crashed it and broken my leg. We needed help moving the gear, so I’d asked for porters, and Steve Willis, who runs a hostel in Kampala, arrived with 10 security guards. Having loaded the Land Rover we set off, and Steve began to tell me about three whites who had been shot in previous months. Until now, the fighting had been black on black, and we hadn’t really taken into account the danger of being North of the Nile. But just as I asked him to describe an ambush, there was gunfire at the vehicle, and Steve drove off the road and crashed into the ditch.’
Neil’s recollection of the events that followed is sketchy. He was last to escape the vehicle, being jammed in the middle, and having broken his tibia, it was all he could do to fall out and crawl for cover. ‘I didn’t get far. They dragged me back to the van and made me kneel down. I thought that was it, I was going to die. They took my shirt, and indicated as if for my shorts, but it was my knife they were after.’
The rebels didn’t kill Neil. They used his knife to slash the ropes of the roof rack, so they could raid the van. They then stacked the vehicle with straw and set it alight before making off with their gear. ‘All I could think about was salvaging the first aid kit, as I’d seen blood on the back seat and knew someone was hurt,’ said Neil. ‘I pulled out the burning straw and started a fire in front of the van to create a diversion. I then found the satellite phone and called Cam’s wife Kate in New Zealand, who would know who to contact.’
It was soon after that Neil had the shock of finding Steve’s body. ‘He wasn’t moving. I checked for signs of life, but he was clearly dead. Still, I reached for the saline drip then thought “What am I doing this for”. Someone else was hurt because there’d been blood in the van and I had to find them.’
Neil searched for Cam, Garth and George, not knowing if they were alive or dead. George emerged from the bush shortly after with Garth, who had a head injury where a bullet had grazed his skull. The Ugandan army came to their aid, and searched for Cam, who was found five hours later having run 25km through the jungle without shoes.
The team returned home to a sombre Christmas, and Neil waited for his leg to heal. Despite the ordeal, they wanted to return to finish what they’d set out to do. ‘We’re going to be the first team ever to ascend the Nile. We want to measure its length using GPS and establish the source, which I think is recorded wrong,’ said Neil. ‘Already we’ve found the Nile to be 125km longer than mapped.’
Neil’s twin boys are too young to understand their father’s absence and the risks he’s taking, but his wife is right behind him, and told him not to let her be a barrier to what he wants to do.
The team have seen Sudanese ruins accessible only by boat, in places that no living white man has been. ‘There are civilisations probably thousands of years old, but not logged, and no-one can get to them,’ said Neil. ‘We saw that type of thing everywhere.’
Some days the team called on villagers to help them drag the RIB through bush and rocky outcrops, and on the water they had to negotiate fearsome rapids, curious hippos and charges from crocodiles. They used satellite imagery to pick their way through swamps, often having to back-track, but found the best pilotage tip of all was to look for the track of the water hyacinths, which flowed downriver.
Hardest bit yet to come
The remainder of the trip will take around 31 days, but Neil says the hardest bit is yet to come. ‘We’ve done four fifths of the journey but only reached an altitude of 2,500ft. The source of the Nile is 8,000ft. It’s going to be slower, colder, more humid and there are plenty more rapids. In those conditions we’ll be susceptible to illnesses like foot rot, which I had for a week and is like walking on hot coals, plus malaria and giardia, which the other guys have already suffered.’
The tragedy of the first part of the trip has not discouraged the team in any way, nor do they say they’ll do anything differently the second time. ‘I have absolute confidence in the guys,’ says Neil. ‘We’ll finish this trip in Steve’s memory.’
The three-man team: Neil McGrigor, Cam McLeay and Garth MacIntyre left Rashid, Egypt, in September 2005, with extra team members George Heathcote and Juma Tiri joining them in Uganda.
After the ambush in Murchison Falls National Park they flew home, and on 3 March this year returned to Uganda without George, starting further upriver at Karuma Falls.
The men are travelling in three Zap Cats – small, inflatable twin-hulled boats – and are buying fuel and supplies en route. Previously they were using a flying inflatable RIB (FIB) to lift them over the toughest rapids, but as they crashed this, they’ve since been airlifted over the falls by helicopter.
The team aim to discover the longest source of the Nile, believed to be in the Rwandan jungle. To follow their adventures, log on to the website: www.ascendthenile.com