Book Review: ‘Mystery of the Nile’

Mystery of the Nile: The Epic Story of the First Descent of the World’s Deadliest River. Richard Bangs and Pasquale Scaturo. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 2004. 294 pages. 16 pages of color photos. No index. ISBN: 0399152628. Available from Amazon.com for $10.38.

This book is unfortunately titled, perhaps in an effort to deceive the armchair Egyptologist into picking it up. It’s not a tale of the unearthing of a mummy, or even the history of the discovery of the source of the Nile (which, while for hundreds of years considered ‘the holy grail of human exploration,’ has been known since 1862), but rather a rollicking tale of adventure. “Running The Nile” would have been much more apropos.

Which isn’t to say that author Richard Bangs doesn’t treat the reader to various history lessons throughout the book, but its main purpose is to take us on a harrowing journey down the most dangerous river in the world, as adventurer Pascale Scaturro seeks to become the first man to descend the Nile, a quest on which “many perished trying, and in recent years three explorers were shot, many drowned, and another simply disappeared.” Rather than the ‘holy Grail,’ its become the ‘Mount Everest’ .

You’ve read about citizens of the “fourth world – that free spirited territory where time has no weight, the true religion is exploration, and the inhabitants are rogues, nomads and pioneers.” You’ve read about mountaineers – men and women who attempt to climb Mount Everest and the other 8,000 meter peaks, you’ve heard of skydivers, bungee jumpers, and other thrill seekers. Less famous are those adventurers who attempt to navigate the “great wild rivers of the world, sometimes from source to sea.”

Pasquale Scutarro and Gordon Brown are two such adventurers. For six weeks in 2004, they were featured players in an IMAXÃ?® Theatre production – also titled Mystery of the Nile. The film showcased the great river, “from its Blue Nile source in Ethiopia to Sudan, where it swings past the black pyramids of Meroe, to Egypt , where it flushes through Cairo and then debouches into the Mediterranean near Alexandra in a plexus of narrow channels.”

After the filming was over, Scutarro and Brown set off on a project of their own, to “make a try at running the whole of the river, some 3,200 miles from source to sea, an exploration dreamed of for centuries.” This dream of “running” this river had led to the deaths of dozens of adventurers over the last several decades, including a friend of author Richard Bangs.

“Deep within a gash in the skin of the continent, in the middle of a fast, brown river twisting through a dark inner gorge, Pasquale Scutarror was hanging on to his life by a rope, kicking to stay afloat in the cold water, his stout arms stretched to their limits. While a skein of currents blasted about his chest, he gripped with one hand the end of a seventy-five-foot long yellow safety rope anchored to a basalt boulder upstream. With the other hand he clenched the black neoprene handle of an upside-down sixteen-foot, three-hundred-pound rubber raft, the lifeboat for this ambitious, perhaps imprudent, expedition.”

So begins Bangs’ chronicle of Scaturro’s adventure, as he and a handful of men make the journey, through the difficulties not only of the river itself but also of the bandits, wild animals (hippopotamus and crocodile) and political turmoil along the route.

Pasquale Scaturro has been leading rafting and mountaineering expeditions around the world for years. He has run major rivers around the world, including the Zambezi, Colorado, Bio-Bio, and Omo, and made the first descent of thee Tekeze in northern Ethiopia. In 2001, he led the National Federation of the Blind Mount Everest Expedition that summitted blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer . (That feat is also covered here in some depth.)

Scaturro is used to taking chances, and he does so quite a bit in this adventure. The adventure is gripping, for all that Richard Bangs writing style is a bit too ‘poetic’ at times. For example Pasquale “considers the options in the last lozenge of daylight.”and “The river slipped illimitably between narrow cliffs, convergence waves rippling like the hide of a beast.”

Bangs also explains some rafting terms but not others, “At one point I watched from the boat behind as Pasquale made a rough run through a Class V rapid and was pitched into a violent hydraulic – a wide, recirculating step of water – and for an instant I feared a repeat of the accident that had taken my friend so many years ago on this river.”

It’s the story of Pascale Scaturro, of his wife and three children, of his quest for adventure. Its the story of dynamics of a team, as leaders Scaturro and Gordon feud on their way down the river until they learn to respect each other. It’s the story of the countries through which the team passes, from Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan, into Egypt, and their people. And eventually, it’s a story of success.

It can be chilling at times. For example at one point on their travels Pasquale approaches some cattle herders and offers them “a handsome fee for the chore of carrying the rafts and gear.” The herders refuse. Team member Baye says he’ll take care of it, and returns to the cattle herders with his AK-47. Minutes later the herders arrive, bow, and “volunteer their services.” Reading this left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Author Richard Bangs and Scaturro are close friends and colleagues, and Bangs was in constant contact with Scaturro during the project. In addition to Bangs’ writing we are treated to Scaturro’s journal entries.

For armchair adventurers, for anyone who wants to know what it’s like to live in a culture very different from that of the West, this is a great read.

Richard Bangs is a co-founder of Mountain Travel Sobek, an international adventure travel firm, and director and producer of several award winning documentaries. He’s also written 14 other books.

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