Photos by Richard Bangs
Vintage photo taken on the Euphrates during the first descent in 1978.
Left to right: John Yost, Richard Bangs, Jim Slade, Tom Cromer.
Photo contributed by Richard Bangs.
Responsibility for the Great Aramcon Assault on the Euphrates River of 1979 rests squarely on the shoulders of Charlie Franck, American ExPat teacher working in Abqaiq at the time for Saudi Aramco, and Richard Bangs, adventure travel guru, founder of Sobek Expeditions, and later co-founder of Expedia. Had it not been for Bangs and his fellow adventurers from Sobek successfully descending the Upper Euphrates River in eastern Turkey in 1978, Charlie Franck over in Arabia would never have heard of their adventure nor dreamed of trying to duplicate it one year later. Sans Bangs and his cohorts as inspiration, he would never have proposed undertaking a similar float trip to his fellow teachers in the Kingdom.
Following the lead of the Bangs/Sobek Euphrates Expedition, 11 Aramcon fledglings mounted a hair-raising-but-successful float trip of their own through a mighty gorge splitting the very heart of what was once a part of Kurdistan in eastern Anatolia. Bangs later described that stretch of rugged landscape in his book, Adventures with a Purpose: Dispatches from the Front, as “the Grand Canyon of Asia Minor, the Kemer Khan of Turkey’s Adiyaman Plateau, a spectacularly striated gorge of sedimentary and volcanic rock through which the upper Euphrates cut and purled for tens of thousands of years. It was such a stunning passage, it hurt my eyes and stole my breath away.”
In a 1981 article for Saudi Aramco World, Bangs described the unlikely moment when the idea of challenging the Kemer Khan was first proposed, “however queerly, in a sticky jungle in New Guinea, during a three-day portage on the Yuat River. The temperature was 110 degrees, in humidity so high our fried eggs came out poached, and the flies were swarming over us as we wrenched our inflatable raft over the slippery, sharp rocks that littered the banks of a mile-long unrunnable rapid—and dropped it, ripping a four-foot tear in the bow. Then our guide fell, breaking his ankle, and the other raft, yanked loose from its mooring, plunged over a waterfall. I turned to John, my partner, and asked, ‘What next?’ Slinging sweat off his face, he said, ‘How about the Euphrates?’ ‘Right,’ I said, and a year later we touched down at Istanbul’s Yeshilkoy Airport, headed toward the Euphrates.”
Bangs and his fellow “rivergods” at Sobek were in the midst of completing a mind-boggling run of 35 first descents that began in 1973 when they successfully ran the length of the Omo River in Ethiopia, navigating their way through the lairs of hippopotami and lions and crocodiles and proving that a feat long thought impossible could be accomplished with the requisite preparation, equipment, and expertise wedded to an undaunted determination to succeed. Their general plan beyond the Omo was to make their way down dozens more white water-flecked rivers as yet unconquered by any of their contemporaries scattered around the globe. The rivers they chose included flows in diverse corners of the world like the Upper Euphrates and Çoruh in Turkey; the Yuat in Papua New Guinea; the Omo and Awash in Ethiopia; the Zambezi in Zambia/Zimbabwe; the Bio-Bio in Chile; the Manso in Argentina and Chile; the Indus in Pakistan; and the Kayan and Boh in Borneo. For normal mere mortals like most of us, conquering any one of them would qualify as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But then, Bangs and his co-conspirators at Sobek were anything but normal, as his personal account of challenging two rivers in Turkey in 1978 proves conclusively.
Being a carpe diem sort of person ill-suited to letting great opportunities pass him by, Bangs seized upon the idea of running the Upper Euphrates and somehow made it happen.
“I wanted to test the Euphrates as a potential rafting run,” he wrote in a 1981 article published in Saudi Aramco World. “…The Euphrates springs from central Turkey. Its largest affluent, the Murat, leaps to life in the perennial snows of Mt. Ararat, Turkey’s highest peak at 16,946 feet. After that, though, it turns into a flat, fat serpent slithering toward its merger with the Tigris and its exit into the Gulf. But for some 300 miles through the escarpment of the Anatolian Plateau, the Euphrates drops like a steep, twisting staircase, kicking Whitewater spray up against sheer canyon walls and darting down narrow gorges. Midway, the feisty flow has been arrested by the Keban Dam, a power project completed five years ago, but below the reservoir runs the longest, deepest canyon of the 1,800-mile-long river. This canyon had to be our target.”
Bangs carefully assembled a mixed team of John Yost and Jim Slade, experienced pros from Sobek; Tom Cromer, math professor and veteran of several exploratory expeditions; and Micki McEwen, a medical professional from Marin County who signed on as trip doctor. Yost and Slade were in the middle of completing a float trip down a river in Papua-New Guinea and wouldn’t be available for an attempt on the Euphrates for another 10 days. In their absence, Bangs and the rest of his crew hastened to Turkey to get a head start on preparing for their descent down one of the world’s most historic streams.
“As we squeeze through Immigration at Yeshilkoy,” Bangs wrote of their arrival in Istanbul, “two thoughts prevail: can we clear our gear through customs, and will somebody meet us? Sure enough, we sweep the waiting crowd and a smart hybrid of Mark Spitz and Omar Sharif, complete with Middle Eastern mustache and nervous cigarette, holds up a sign hand-lettered with my name. He is Mustafa Nurettin Suleymanfil, or Nuri for short, an agent for what, apparently, is the only tour company desperate enough to react to the telegrams I had sent. With his help, we get through customs unscathed and grab a taxi before a taxi grabs us.…
“There’s a lot of arranging to do, like sending Tom off to ride public buses on a 600-mile circuit of the Euphrates watershed. His job is to learn as much as possible about the river, its flow, obstacles—anything. Officialdom has yet to yield anything concrete about the river, so we are gambling that first-hand contact with local people and actually looking at the river will tell us something.
“It does. A week later, Tom phones us in Ankara. He’s fine, travel conditions are fine, and the main Euphrates below the Keban Dam looks terrific—but too big to handle without a crack crew. That means Slade and Yost, who aren’t due from New Guinea for another 10 days. So what to do until then? Why, take a raft down the Çoruh River in northeastern Anatolia. It’ll be good training for the Euphrates, and besides, according to one guidebook, the Çoruh River’s scenery ‘is enough to bring the most blasé to a halt, with forests, peaks and precipices unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.’
“So we fly to Erzurum, hire a minibus and, after a long, hot ride over high passes and along broad alluvial fans, get to the Çoruh River. The noisy laboring engine fades down the road into silence; suddenly all we’re left with is the small sound of the river gurgling. All the chaos and clamor—of airports, Istanbul, Ankara, Erzurum, taxis, carts and buses—all that is left behind. It’s just the river and us.”
“Before we go,” he went on, “I have to give Micki, Nuri and Vic, another recruit, some paddling pointers, but then we assume positions—two in the bow, two middle-stern, and me in the far aft acting as paddle captain and rudder—and shove off. It’s a quiet launching: no fanfare, no whoops of delight. The current grips, pulls us sideways as we fumble with the paddles to coordinate strokes. After a few slipshod riffles, though, we seem to be getting the hang of it. We’re not exactly in total command, but we’re ready....
“The first day is quiet, the river rolling softly past stark landscapes and indescribable vistas, but the next day more character creeps into the canyon. … We continue downriver, moving like rusted toy soldiers, singing songs to keep our spirits afloat. The map shows a town coming up, so we round each bend with necks craned. Until, at last, we see a huge, yellow, medieval castle. Pointing to the clouds, perched on a crag above a gray brown village, it’s a fairy-tale picture, and we’re entranced—so much so we don’t even notice the rapids ahead.
“‘My God, look!’ Tom screams. Immediately downstream the river is going berserk, kicking brown water skyward in chaotic sprays. It’s definitely a major rapid, bigger than anything we’ve encountered to date and, from its looks, as formidable as the Colorado. We paddle frantically, but it’s quickly evident we don’t have the arm power to get to shore. So, on command, we jump into the frigid water—which luckily is only waist deep—and tug the boat to safety. We moor, and set dripping, off to town, collecting the curious along the way.
“Isper is a town lost to another epoch. Dominated by the enormous Seljuk castle we saw from the river, the town looks and feels like a living tableau from another age. Veiled women pad through the muddy streets, while the men congregate in crowded, smoke-clouded tea houses and feverishly pitch backgammon dice between swigs of tea from tulip-shaped glasses. …
“The next day, June 6, is declared a holiday in Isper so everyone can come watch the Americans odyssey down those rapids that surprised us before. Everybody is excited because the Isperians, who call the Çoruh ‘the crazy river,’ claim nobody has yet survived the rapids. More than 500 people crowd the bridge, and more gather on the shores as, at nine o’clock, with a swell of cheers, a soldier shoves us into the current—where we’re quickly swept downstream into the gullet of the rapids. Instantly we crash into mountainous waves, list one way, heave another, broach, churn, and, to a thunder-roll of applause, emerge right side up at the bottom.
“But now the river kicks into overdrive and our audience, following us on a dirt road along the river in a parade of bicycles, vans, trucks and cars, frantically waves a warning. We manage to swing in, and sure enough, an unnavigable rapid blocks our passage.
“Portaging on most rivers is a grueling, time-consuming task. But here, we discover, Turkish hospitality makes the chore a snap. Thirty men and boys help us hoist everything to the road in minutes, where it is loaded onto a van. Then we rock and roll down the road, past the obstruction, listening to a current Turkish pop singer on the tape deck. Exploratory rafting was never so cushy. Half an hour later we’re back on the river.
“The rapids continue, ever increasing in frequency and magnitude. Cedars join the life zone; the canyon is growing greener. At noon we park under a suspension bridge and walk up to the local post office building, where Mehmet Giiltekin, a retired school teacher, offers us tea and bread. … As we return to the river, the sunshine breaks through for the first time in days. Magnificent vistas, Grand Canyon-like, are around us. Swirling around one bend we look up to see the highest peak in the range, Katchkar Dagi, some 12,800 feet high.
“The next morning we go on again, digging the paddle blades through a gorge stratified with textbook geology; the earth has done some fancy dancing here. Every inch of level ground at the river’s edge has been cultivated, so we’re never more than a few deft strokes from peaches, cherries and a raft of vegetables. Starvation is not one of our chief concerns. As we glide past we yell ‘Merhaba!’ to astonished farmers.
“The rapids are now so formidable it seems a miracle each time we come out of them intact. Tom says they’re the biggest he’s ever run—and he spent eight years as a Colorado River guide through the Grand Canyon. His remark doesn’t seem to sit well with the tyros of our crew. After a five-minute rapid—the longest I’ve ever navigated—we pull in beneath another castle for lunch and Vic measures the current: seven miles an hour. The Colorado averages four. On that news, lunch is a brief affair as anxiety overrides appetite. The ferocity of the water is only matched by the wildness of the canyon, and we seem lost in the Pleistocene. …
“Late in the afternoon, we approach yet another cataract hiking spray high into the air. Our established routine at this point is to paddle feverishly in a cross-current traverse to shore just above each rapid, where our phlegmatic Vic heroically leaps to shore, throws the bow line around an anchoring tree or rock, and holds tight. Then as Vic holds the rein, Tom and I scout the impending rapid, to plot a course between the holes, waves, rocks, whirlpools and eddies.
“This time, though, the current suddenly double-clutches into high, pulling us toward the killer curve like a swaying trailer on a mountain grade. There can be no worse feeling than entering an unreconnoitered, unknown rapid out of control.
“Niagara Falls could be around the bend. I suddenly remember the Australians in Papua-New Guinea who tried rafting the Fly River without proper scouting. As the river, without warning, poured into a limestone cave, so did they—and only a punctured raft poured out the other end.
“On that note, we smash into the initial wave, a monster that pitches Vic over the prow and snatches his paddle. Micki lunges for Vic and pulls him back, but the paddle swims away. I toss Vic a spare, but as I stick mine into the froth we drop into a sharp souse-hole. I’m snapped forward, a pellet in a slingshot, against the front thwart. I scramble back to my position, but another hole sucks us down and this time I’m whipped backwards into the boiling water with my legs draped over the back tube. Tom drags me in just as we swirl into a soft eddy at the rapid’s end. No one argues when I call for camp.
“The next day, more rapids. They’ve ceased to be fun. Each one brings a flood of difference, of apprehension. Midday is spent in a series of three portages. By three o’clock Tom is bent over the gunwale vomiting; the sky looks as though it’s about to do the same. ‘Euthanasia! Give me euthanasia,’ Tom babbles, and Nuri is puzzled. ‘But you’re only 27. You are youth-in-Asia.’ That does it. We call it a day.
“Friday, a drenched Nuri accompanies me, for the first time ever, in scouting a rapid. It’s nothing compared to some of the past runs, but still mean. Nuri stares and trembles.
“‘Let’s go do it.‘ I slap his back.
“‘It’s too fast... We can’t.’
“‘We’ve run bigger.’
“A powerful admission for a proud man. But I’m scared, too, and have been for days. I tell him that and we return to the boat, canvass the crew, and with mixed emotions elect to end the trip here. We want to save something for the Euphrates, even if it’s only our necks.”
Making it down the Çoruh River alive was a notable, penultimate feat in itself. But an equal-if-not-greater—indeed, what proved to be their ultimate challenge—awaited Bangs and Company 350 miles to the southeast: the Grand Canyon of the Euphrates, the legendary Kemer Khan. Based on his June 1978 adventure, Bangs sent out a flyer later that year to prospective clients for Sobek’s services offering guided float trips down the Upper Euphrates. One of those flyers somehow made its way into the hands of Charlie Franck, setting in motion a new assault on the Upper Euphrates the following year.
Prepare yourselves, then, as AXP embarks in the next article in this series on two back-to-back rides of a lifetime, the 1978 and 1979 Euphrates expeditions—inspired by Richard Bangs and Charlie Franck respectively—that challenged the Kemer Khan and won.