The first complete descent of the world's longest and most romanticized river nearly unravels at Black Gorge No. 6. There, expedition leader Pasquale Scaturro watches in agony...
The first complete descent of the world’s longest and most romanticized river nearly unravels at Black Gorge No. 6. There, expedition leader Pasquale Scaturro watches in agony as an avalanche of whitewater buries one of his two rafts, sending gear and crew caroming down Africa’s dark-green Nile.
As Scaturro scrambles for a rescue line, he hears the scream, “Azo,” which means crocodile in Amharic. Could it get any worse? Yes — Scaturro’s shaken, mostly novice whitewater crew, having escaped death on this sulfurous day, was about to turn mutinous.
This white-knuckle scene, one of many in “Mystery of the Nile: The Epic Story of the First Descent of the World’s Deadliest River,” raises a disturbing question about Scaturro and his unquenchable thirst for extreme adventure: What business does he have taking inexperienced rafters — some who can’t swim — down the length of the Nile, a feat that no one in 2,000 years of recorded history has ever achieved. After the scare passes, Scaturro’s brooding partner and cinematographer, Gordon Brown, erupts: “I think you should be more careful, or people will get killed. You put us at risk. You’re dangerous.”
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Scaturro is no Capt. Queeg, but his judgment and temperament are examined in this book by prizewinning outdoor writer Richard Bangs (“The Lost River: A Memoir of Life, Death and Transformation on Wild Water”). It was Bangs, producer-editor of Microsoft’s Great Escapes, a travel Web site, who invited Scaturro to join him on the Nile for the filming of a new IMAX production about the mighty river.
In six weeks of IMAX filming, Scaturro, Bangs, Brown and a team of whitewater cowboys raft through what can only be described as some of the most exotic and breathtakingly hostile landscape on Earth.
“Mystery of the Nile: The Epic Story of the First Descent of the World’s Longest River”
by Richard Bangs and Pasquale Scaturro
Putnam, 294 pp., $25.95
In late 2003, as the early footage is wrapped up, 50-year-old Scaturro becomes convinced that he and his crew will now raft the entire Nile, an unprecedented journey of some 3,200 miles from the highlands of Ethiopia to the Mediterranean Sea, a descent “as linear and pure as possible.”
In documenting the journey that follows, Bangs relies heavily on his friend’s river journals, his own extensive whitewater experience and hours of interviews.
In opening chapters, Bangs tries mightily to weave together the IMAX project, Scaturro’s history and the first wobbly steps of the expedition. It’s all good stuff, but the narrative jumps madly about, making for a convoluted start to an otherwise fascinating outdoor book.
Woven throughout a tale of grit and just plain stubbornness is Bangs’ examination of the environment the expedition will face. He chronicles the Nile’s indelible stamp on Africa’s geology and politics and hints at the river’s uncertain future — it is being tamed, tapped and polluted.
Scaturro turns out to be a full-throttle world traveler, a man in search of adventures that free him of life’s mundane baggage. Twice Scaturro climbed Mount Everest, summiting in 1998. On his third ascent in 2001, his team led blind climber Erik Weihenmayer to the top of the world. It was a feat some Himalayan veterans, including author and climber Jon Krakauer, urged him not to attempt.
Similar concerns about Scaturro’s judgment are raised about his descent of the unforgiving Nile. Many had tried it and failed, and many had perished. The powerhouse river has two punishing trunks: The White Nile flows north from Uganda’s Lake Victoria; the Blue Nile starts as a modest creek high in the Ethiopian Plateau, then dizzily plunges to Khartoum, Sudan, where the branches merge.
Scaturro asks Mike Speaks, a 20-year river guide, to join him on the Blue Nile, which Speaks has rafted. But on a trip Speaks took in 1996 through the deadly Northern Gorge, an Ethiopian crewman drowned. “You couldn’t pay me enough to run that gorge again,” Speaks warns. “It’s a death trap.”
Richard Bangs and Pasquale Scaturro
The co-authors and adventurers will discuss “Mystery of the Nile: The Epic Story of the First Descent of the World’s Deadliest River” during showings of a documentary of the same title produced by an IMAX camera crew. From 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Pacific Science Center IMAX Theaters, 200 Second Ave. N., Seattle, free with admission (206-443-2001), and at 7:30 p.m. Monday ($5 admission for Monday screening).
They will also appear at 6 p.m. Sunday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, FREE (206-366-3333).
In desperation, Scaturro fires off 35 e-mails to friends. But just two join: Kurt Hoppe, a friend with little river experience; and Mike Prosser, who runs his own whitewater-rafting company. Both men will rue their decision.
In just days, the team hits a ferocious bend named the Crux. Scaturro realizes they can’t row back out and portage the rapids, and the canyon walls are too sheer to climb out. They’re stuck. After inching down the banks, the team plunges in. Scaturro yells to a quaking Prosser to follow behind. Prosser’s raft is swallowed up. When it pops up, he’s gone.
Finally, the Nile spits him up. “He’d been sucked to the bottom of the river, spun around like laundry, then tossed back up just as his lungs were about to burst,” Bangs writes. That night, bivouacked in a 25-foot notch, Prosser says he is through — he leaves the next day. Hoppe already left several days earlier.
At this point, shouldn’t Scaturro chuck it and fly home, too? After all, he has a wife and three kids back in Colorado. Why risk death?
But Scaturro and Brown don’t flinch. In coming days, they are attacked by voracious crocs. Bands of roving militiamen threaten. And in one bizarre scene, baboons pelt them with rocks.
Eventually, all but the two men are left. As dependent as they are on each other, they are stressed by the physical challenge and their own mental demons. They bicker, and their fighting nearly derails what is to be a brutish, 114-day marathon through searing temperatures.
What is the payoff for confronting such punishing odds? The book offers only bits of introspection. Perhaps the adventurers need just one more finish line, another mile marker in the memorable lives of two adrenaline-soaked adventurers.
As Scaturro and Brown try to patch things up over a celebratory drink, Bangs sums them up: “They were tough, stubborn, resilient, skilled, impatient, impulsive, hot-tempered, resourceful, tenacious and fair. Leaning downstream with an appetite to know it, battened to each other, they were perhaps, the only two-person team that could have made the first full decent of the Blue Nile and beyond.”
Mark Higgins is an assistant city editor at The Seattle Times.