UVic Torch -- Fall 2004
Spring 2005,
Volume 26, Number 1

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Paddlers Cross “Holy Grail” Paddlers Cross “Holy Grail”
Les Jickling, BA '90, and a teammate are the first to paddle from the Blue Nile to the Mediterranean Sea.

“FAILURE WAS NEVER AN OPTION. But on a daily basis, failure looked possible,” says Les Jickling, sounding relaxed on the phone from his office in Vancouver. He deserves to feel good. He’s survived malaria, crocodiles and the sheer mental and physical anguish that sets in when you’ve paddled the length of the world’s longest, most famed river.

“It was really, really difficult. We were sick a lot and it was a logistical nightmare,” says the 1990 political science alumnus.

But he and his teammate, Mark Tanner, did it. On Jan. 29 they reached the Mediterranean Sea after a 148-day epic that took them 5,000 km through some of the remotest corners of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. They are the first to complete the journey, which began at Lake Tana, Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile rises.

“In paddling, the Blue Nile is generally thought of as the Holy Grail of rivers,” says Jickling. “Numerous people have died trying to run the river’s Northern Gorge.”

Surviving that section was a triumph on its own. What followed in the days and weeks ahead was grueling and often frustrating.

They encountered crocodiles who displayed a hungry interest in oars. They went through civil war hot spots in Sudan. Some of their team members caught malaria. They met bureaucratic resistance and skepticism as they tried to get the dozens of permits and visas they required. They consumed six to eight litres of water every day.

“Everything we had done in our lives to that point, we seemed to need,” Jickling says. “We had to draw on all of the skills and resourcefulness we could find.”

Jickling, employed by Vancouver’s Absolute Software and Tanner, from New Zealand, started out with a team of 11 paddlers with rafts and folding kayaks. All of the others dropped out along the way.

By the time they reached the sea it was “an anticlimax. We were so fatigued. There was a huge element of disbelief that seemed to eclipse everything.”

The paddlers are now focusing their efforts on drawing attention to issues of access to clean water for communities in the Nile Basin. A book is in the works and they plan to give public talks about their journey and fresh water conservation issues. The expedition’s Web site is at www.niletrip.com.

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