Wrapped in the ingenuous blanket of youth, we decided to make an expedition to navigate the upper waters of the great rivers of Ethiopia, and perhaps start a concern dedicated to exploring and celebrating the wild places of the earth. But while rich in will and vision, we had no money. There was, however, a vague notion that expeditions were often financed by sponsors, so we decided to explore that path.
We knew there would be a lot of bugs on the rivers of Ethiopia, and that some perhaps were unclassified, so that gave me an idea. I called the Smithsonian Institute’s department of Entomology and asked if they might be interested in a sponsorship in exchange for collecting bugs. They thought it an interesting idea, and suggested I come in for a meeting.
This put the pressure on for a name. I felt we couldn’t present ourselves to potential sponsors without a proper name, and after some deliberation I came up with one I thought quite clever. I had recently seen the Thor Heyerdahl documentary on “The Ra Expedition,” his attempt to cross the Atlantic from Africa on a papyrus reed boat (“Ra” was the ancient Egyptian sun god). So, I figured we would be the R.A.W. Expedition. It would be an acronym: Reconnaissance of African Waterways. It would be a play on Heyerdah’s high-profile expedition; it was a celebration of the times (streaking was a rage, as was nude rafting); and it evoked the state of our enterprise—lean, crude, raw.
But when I wound my way through the inner corridors of the Smithsonian, ending in a room facing a line of white lab coats, and announced I was with the R.A.W. Expedition, I was met with blank stares. The most senior researcher, Dr. Spangler, put his arm across my shoulder and walked me to a corner. There he gave me some advice: lose the name. If we wanted the Smithsonian—or any prestigious organization—to be involved, we needed a more earnest name.
So I spent the next several days at the Library of Congress, poring over books describing the many ways we could die while rafting in Ethiopia, and thinking about a name. I learned there were a raft (forgive the pun!) of nasty obstacles that might do damage. The rapids were certainly a given. They were likely big, and dangerous. But then there were hippos, second largest land mammals after elephants, and infamous for turning over boats and snapping their occupants in two. The wild buffalo in the region had a reputation for charging unprovoked. I read about puff adders, black mambas, and spitting cobras, and about legendary 20-foot pythons that capsized canoes. And there were a score of documented exotic tropical diseases, from Onchocerciasis (River Blindness) to Elephantiasis; from Tripanisomasis (Sleeping Sickness) to Trichurus (whipworm); from yaws to several fatal forms of malaria. There were the local peoples, some with fierce reputations. The Blue Nile, the only river previously run in Ethiopia, had taken a toll of victims who fell prey to the ruthless shiftas, roaming bands of bandits who ruled the outback. In 1962 a Swiss-French canoeing expedition was attacked in the middle of the night. Four of the party escaped in a single canoe under a hail of gunfire, while the rest lay dead in the campsite. And during the 1968 British Blue Nile expedition there was a similar shifta attack, but the expedition escaped without serious injury.
But the one danger repeated over and over, in print and voice, underlined and accented, was the risk of death by crocodile attack. The ancient Greeks called it kroko-drilo (“pebble-worm”), a scaly thing that shuffled and lurked in low places. The most deadly existing reptile, the man-eating Nile crocodile has always been on the list of “man’s worst enemies.” It evolved 170 million years ago from the primordial soup as an efficient killing machine. More people are killed and eaten by crocodiles each year in Africa than by all other animals combined. Their instinct is predation, to kill any meat that floats their way, be it fish, hippo, antelope or human. To crocs, we were just part of the food chain. Crocodile hunters, upon cutting open stomachs of their prey, often discovered bracelets and bits of jewelry and human remains. Huge, ravenous predators, armed with massive, teeth-studded jaws, strong, unrestrainable, indestructible and destructive, crocodiles, if given the chance, eat people. It’s their nature. The river is their turf, and we would be trespassing. I found myself in cold-sweat nightmares imagining the yellow, chisel-sharp teeth of a giant croc ripping my skin apart. This would be the most awful way to die. But I thought about the alternative—law or graduate school, leading to a “real” job—and facing crocodiles seemed the delightful evil of two lessors.
I read as much as I could find about crocodiles that month, though I quickly discovered not many people had ever navigated whitewater in Africa, and of the few who had, and survived, less than a handful left reliable accounts of their experiences with crocs. I discovered there were two major schools of thought about how to cope while floating a crocodile infested river: 1) Be as noisy as possible when passing through a crocodile pool to scare them off; 2) Be as silent as possible when passing through a croc-infested area so as not to attract attention. The rationale for the latter method was that since crocodiles have fixed-focused eyesight—meaning they can only see things clearly at one specific distance—a noiseless boat floating past at the proper distance could probably go unnoticed. One expert at the National Zoo even warned not to laugh in a certain manner, as it resembled the sound of an infant croc in trouble, and the noise would alert all larger crocs with hearing distance to rush to rescue. He demonstrated the laugh, and it sounded eerily like John Yost’s high-pitched nervous laugh, so I silently vowed to keep topics serious if sharing a raft with John.
It was while casting about for a name that a thin book in the Library of Congress on the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt wrought inspiration. There was “Ra,” the sun god, but that had been taken. There was “Hesamut,” the hippo goddess depicted in the act of demolishing a crocodile. But “Hesamut Expeditions” didn’t resonate. One chapter spoke of the crocodile god “Sobek,” worshipped along the middle Nile. A temple was built to the deity on the island of Kom Ombo between Aswan and Luxor, where mothers of children eaten by crocodiles felt privileged to have provided something for Sobek’s delectation. And there were sacrificial pools on another island called Crocodilopolis. The story went that once upon a time Menes, first king of all the Egyptians, was set upon by his own dogs while out hunting. In his flight he came to the Nile, where lay a large croc baking in the sun. The croc, rapidly sizing up the situation, offered to ferry the desperate king across the river. With all saurian ceremony, Menes was sculled over to found the city of Crocodilopolis, about 3,000 years B.C. Henceforth, it was believed that if Sobek were appeased, he would allow the fragile papyrus boats used to ply the Nile to remain unharmed. About 300 B.C., when the army of Perdiccas was crossing the Nile at Memphis, it forgot to pay Sobek homage, and 1000 soldiers were killed and eaten. Naming our enterprise after a deity that would protect boats from sharp-toothed serpents seemed like a good idea to me, so Sobek we became.
And with my return visit to the Smithsonian, I announced our name, and it seemed fine to the insect men. Dr. Spangler said they would officially sponsor our little expedition. This was quite exciting news, and I asked exactly what that meant, dollar wise.
“Nothing,” was the reply. It meant the Institute would supply us with a load of bulky and delicate insect collecting gear, for which we would be responsible. It meant if I found some new genus of bug they might name it after me. And it meant we could use the good Smithsonian name in soliciting from more commercial concerns. But it didn’t mean money. Nonetheless, Sobek it became, and knock on wood, the crocs have looked kindly on our passages ever since.
Following Sobek Expeditions 1973 christening on Ethiopia’s Omo River, they would go on to confront many of the world’s most challenging and legendary rivers, making first descents on Chile’s Bío-Bío, the Zambezi River in Zambia, Peru’s Tambopata, and many more. Sobek Expeditions joined forces with Mountain Travel in 1991, forming Mountain Travel Sobek.