THE LAST OF THE EXPLORERS – Colonel John Blashford-Snell

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I’m sitting in my carefully selected seat at the Caleta Hotel overlooking the sea under an increasingly dusky sky, but I’m focused on my phone, which is advising me that I should address Captain John Blashford-Snell as ‘Colonel’, pronounced ‘ker-nel’ NOT ‘co-lo-nel’, of course.

Ker-nel not co-lo-nel. Kernal not co-lo-nel. Kern – “HELLO HEY Col.. Ker.. Sir!”

Right then.

Mercifully, the rest of our interview ran smoothly, offering up a cornucopia of awe-inspiring and at times jaw-dropping recounts from a man described the ‘last of the great explorers’.

81-year-old Colonel John Blashford-Snell, affectionately ‘Blashers’ to his friends, has lived – is living – a life some of us could only dream of. A sort of David Attenborough-Bear Grylls hybrid, the Colonel has led a number of expeditions that have contributed to his status as a living legend. But which of his many bravely-tackled and widely-documented expeditions stand out for the man himself? The Blue Nile – said to have been the last unexplored section of Africa at the time and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – proved to be an unexpected feat.

“Luckily we were heavily armed, so we were able to fight our way out in the end, but the combination of bandits and white water and crocodiles and hippos and landslides was certainly challenging.” Certainly. It was also on this expedition that the Colonel accidentally invented white-water rafting while attempting to traverse a river using yacht tenders stuffed with football bladders to ensure they wouldn’t sink.

However, it was the Darién Gap, an expedition of about 60 people involving Royal Engineers and scientists that quite possibly took the biscuit.

“It was in many ways more of a challenge; we’d been commissioned to try and take Range Rovers from Alaska to Cape Horn, much of which was no great problem, but the Darién Gap was the unbridged territory between Panama and Columbia. The South Americans wanted to get a road through and they wanted the Americans to pay for it, but the Americans didn’t think it was feasible, so they needed people to find a pilot to investigate and of course take a car through to show it was possible. Rover had just invented this new vehicle [the Range Rover] for which they wanted publicity. Superb in many ways, except they hadn’t really been tested to destruction before! We got from Alaska as far as Panama and then into the jungle during what was supposedly the dry season, but actually it was raining hard. The wheels stuck in the mud and the engines roared, and something had to give in the middle. We broke nine back axles. We weren’t just there for the challenge of the vehicle, we were there to consider what would happen to the people who lived in this jungle if a road was built, so we had anthropologists, scientists, zoologists, biologists and botanists with us who were investigating the fauna and the flora, and trying to work out how they’d help. There were lots of snakes and bugs and animals, and there was also a growing threat of the communist farmers in Columbia who eventually attacked our escorts, sadly killing six of them. There were many dramas, but amazingly after 100 days the Range Rovers got through on St George’s day, which was rather appropriate, and we drove on all the way through to Cape Horn and proved that it was viable and produced the maps.”

This adventure proved extremely beneficial as the Darién National Park was established to protect the environment, though the road itself was never built, and hasn’t been built to this day. Nevertheless, the Range Rovers sold like hotcakes shortly after. By this point, The Scientific Exploration Society (SES) had been established and had garnered themselves quite the reputation for cracking obstacles. The next challenge was the Congo River.

The Congo River is about 2900 miles long – the second longest on earth – and was first partially navigated by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, someone who inspired Blashford-Snell from a young age. 100 years after Stanley, the Colonel once again set out on a pioneer adventure with new equipment. One of the expedition’s main aims was to study the disease onchocerciasis (or ‘river blindness’).

“It’s carried by a nasty bug called the buffalo gnat that bites and lays its eggs under your skin. When they hatch, the worms gravitate towards the back of your eye and eat your eye away so you actually go blind. Strangely, it didn’t seem to affect as many women as it did men, so we had a team of 11 international ophthalmic experts as well as Royal Engineers and Zaire soldiers who wanted to develop a cure by studying the disease in women. Again, the problem was getting down the river. The rapids were horrendous, far bigger than anything we had seen before. Thanks to Prince Phillip we got a loan of some jet boats (they had just been invented) which were shipped over from New Zealand. The inventor, Sir William Hamilton, sent his son over with them and we used those in the final stretch of the big rapids going down Livingstone Falls. They were enormous. The expedition that followed us were all wiped out; they thought they could do one better than us by going down the middle and they were last seen going underneath, killing them all.”

It was on this expedition that the Colonel was joined by two young men from Jersey and one from America. “We didn’t normally take young people, but on this particular occasion we agreed. After the expedition, they went round lecturing to schools and colleges, inspiring the Elizabethan spirit of adventure. Prince Charles’ equerries told him all about it when they got back, and he said to me: “If you can do it with two or three youngsters why can’t you do it with two or three hundred?” As a society we came up with a global expedition involving youngsters aged 17 to 25 from all nations – there were even some from Gibraltar. The Prince announced Operation Drake and that anyone who was fit and compatible, could speak English and swim could have this opportunity of a lifetime. 58,000 volunteered. We had these very arduous selection tests involving measuring snakes and tarantulas and all sorts of things.”

Operations Drake and Raleigh

Operation Drake was named just so because it commemorated the 400th anniversary of Sir Francis Drake circumnavigating the world – the first sea captain to go right the way round.

“Part of the challenge for the ‘young explorers’ was that when they went home at the end they had to do something to help in their communities. Not only were the expeditions about conservation, wildlife studies, medical work and community aid but it was also what you did afterwards. We were trying to create young leaders. Halfway round the Prince of Wales said: ‘You can’t stop now, can’t you make it bigger and do it again?’ so again, we went back to the drawing board. The government bought us a 2000 tonne research vessel as our headquarters, again the cry went out for volunteers and again we were swamped. It continues today as Raleigh International.

“As I reached 55 in ‘92 I had to retire from the army and I went back into expeditions with the older people who irreverently got called ‘the wrinklies’ by the young. Today we go all over the world carrying out a mixture of environmental studies helping people with flora and fauna, archaeology, zoology, botany, looking for lost cities, lost people, lost everything!”

So in an opinion formed over numerous adventures, what does the developing world need most from the West?

“Education is high on the list. We always take lots of school books with us. If you can educate the people you can to some extent make them into conservationists and get them to protect their environment. We spend a lot of time trying to help the local people because if we help them, they help us, and the results will help everybody.

“Recently in this very remote area of the river I was staggered that people had televisions, DVD players in the school, cell phones… but they had no medical facilities at all and no water supply. The reason is politicians who want to get people’s votes just before an election will come around and distribute all these luxury goods – but what they don’t do is the long term essentials like clean water and health clinics. At the moment were trying to raise money to go back and put in a water supply that’s right on the side of one of the Amazon rivers – you’d think they’ve got plenty of water but of course the Amazon is the biggest sewer in the world, so they’re drinking polluted water and getting sick. What they need is a pump and filter system so that they can live healthily. Again, if you go back to education, you can teach people how to improve their way of life and sometimes what they have to do to raise their standards of living, then that’s a great step forward. We put in wells for indigenous people but the trouble is once you train up a man in the village to maintain the well he may get a small payment through the village, after a time he’ll realise he can go into one of the big towns and become a plumber and earn twice as much money, so he pushes off.”

Health

“One of the things that we do now on almost every expedition is we take a dentist; they’re invaluable as a lot of these people eat far too much sugar cane and things like that so their teeth are in an appalling condition. We took an army dentist with us to the amazon in may and he was pulling out teeth at the rate of knots. I have this team of ladies who knit all these puppets; what we do with the children is when they’ve had a tooth removed we give them a wool puppet of an animal they have in their forest and we say ‘you must look after your puppet and you must look after the animals in the forest’. It’s a way of starting to teach conservation. The trouble is the kids have clocked the idea now and they come running up to you and say, ‘Take out my tooth! I want the puppet!’

“One of the biggest curses of the world is malaria. I was with a very eminent Colombian scientists recently who is trying to develop a vaccine for malaria, a remarkable man. He reckons he’s 60% there but he’s got to prove it to the WHO that its completely effective. But then something else will come out. There are other diseases like leishmaniasis which is a terrible one. One of the biggest dangers in Mongolia is the bubonic plague – still endemic there. We went there on one expedition to try and find out a particular area which was said to be riddled with the plague. It’s carried on a flea which lives in the fur of a marmot – sort of like a hare really – it lives in hollows in the ground. We were commissioned by the Mongolian health department to go off and catch these marmots, comb the hair, take out the fleas, bottle them and bring them back for analysis to show whether these particular marmots were carrying the plague because it was killing quite large numbers of people. By the time the news got to Ulaanbaatar, the capital, it was too late to get help to them – from the point of infection to death is about 9 days. The Mongolians were just cordoning off the areas off and letting them die. To catch the marmots they gave us a Russian .22 rifle which was hopelessly inaccurate – only 1 shot in 3 tries. We then met some Kazakhs who hunt the marmots with eagles – you may have seen them in the documentary The Eagle Huntress. They lent us their eagles which would catch the marmot and bring it in. We would have to separate the marmot from the eagle and comb out the fleas, wearing protective clothing and swallowing large doses of antibiotics as a prophylactic. When we collected all these fleas and bottles them all up we then had to fly them back to England for analysis at Cambridge, and the plane we were flying on which was going via Beijing broke down! We then had to land with all our luggage and I thought ‘Oh my God.. if the Chinese examine our baggage…’ we were carrying these vials of fleas! Luckily they didn’t open then up and when we got to England we were met by a whole mass of white-coated lab assistants and police, and were escorted out of the arrival hall while the fleas were rushed off in a big van.”

There are all sorts of strange projects the Colonel has been involved with. One of them involving a grand piano. “…that was a challenge.”

“We’d gone to an area on the Brazilian border of Guyana at the request of the government to help with the dentistry and the health of these people called the Wai Wai tribe. After about a month their priest said “When you come back, which I hope you will, will you do something for me? Would you bring me a grand piano? We were 350 miles into the jungle, and I said, “Have you ever seen a grand piano?” and he said “I’ve seen a picture of one.”

“When I asked him why he wanted one, he explained that the young men had read about the bright lights on the coast and the nightclubs and all these exciting things and they wanted to leave the jungle and make their way to Georgetown to join in, potentially getting in trouble with drugs an alcohol as they had no trade, no training, they couldn’t get jobs, they were simply warriors. He said: ‘If we can produce something symbolic like a grand piano they’ll stay here and play it.’ An interesting argument.

“When I got back to England I spoke to a gathering of people at a big hotel in London and said ‘By the way, these people want a grand piano,’ and to my horror, the general manager of the hotel said “I will give you a grand piano” I was then stuck with having to do this expedition. We arranged that when we arrived there would be a hundred Indians to help carry this grand piano which weighed about 800 pounds. When we arrived there were 6 Indians there. Three of them were children. The BBC had come with us to film; we tugged and heaved and pulled this piano on a sledge over the Savannah and into the jungle where we had to build bridges and so on. We finally got to where the village should have been… but they’d moved it! They’d gone up to the top of a hill about 6 or 7 miles away, and the only way to get there was up a river. This meant loading the piano into a very big canoe and shooting up the rapids with this piano in it. By some miracle we managed to do it. When we got to the foot of the mountain then we had to get up a creek and eventually the 100 Indians appeared. I said, ‘why didn’t you come in the first place?’ and they said, ‘Oh well, we didn’t think you’d come’.

“The Wai Wai learnt to play the piano and it revitalised the whole of their village, but the most important thing was the BBC film that went out worldwide encouraged an American charity called Conservation International to come up with a couple of million dollars and turned the whole of the tribal area into a protected zone, which stopped the illegal loggers and miners and coming in and destroying the forest. Although the piano didn’t last more than a couple of years before it rotted, the impact of the film changed the whole way of life for this tribe.”

With someone so well-travelled perched in front of me, I couldn’t resist asking the cliché question: ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?’ – I wish I hadn’t.

I have eaten monkey but only under protest. I’m not too fond of it, so the macaques are quite safe there. When I was in the Darién Gap a couple of young Kuna women came into the camp one night with a baby that had the most terrible skin rash. We gave them some antibiotic cream which of course, on someone who has never had any antibiotics before, worked like magic. A couple of days later they returned to thank us. They produced a little spider monkey, and sort of handed it to me as a gift. I thought, ‘the last thing I want is a monkey’ but it would be ungracious to turn it down. I thought the best thing I can do is say ‘thank you very much’ and accept it, and when the girls had gone, let it go. [You might want to skip the next couple of sentences if you’re sensitive to graphic scenes!] So I thanked them and the girl took it back, reached under her dress, pulled out a knife, cut its throat, pushed a stick up its backside and held it over a fire and roasted it. I know, awful.”

Success Stories

“There are so many people who went through the Drake and Raleigh process who’ve made a huge success in life. The British Ambassador of Beijing was with us at 18 – she’s now a Dame. The leader of the Maori party in New Zealand was a youngster with us. Another chap called Simon Chinn got an Oscar as a producer in Hollywood. We had another girl who managed to persuade Bob Geldof to start Band Aid. She is also a dame, Claire Bertschinger. When I was with Operation Raleigh in Alaska, I was talking to a group of young people who had just finished a kayaking trip on  a very tough river and I said, “Right, now you’ve done that you can reach for the stars!” not thinking that years later one would. His name was Tim Peake, now an astronaut. There are lots of them who have gone on to great heights.  One of them married one of my daughters – so I don’t doubt it!”

So is the Colonel planning on slowing down anytime soon?

“I’m taking one group to Kenya in January to help with the movement of elephants through an underpass under a freeway using horses to herd them, building a new primary school and doing various wildlife studies in the bush, and then in July next year I go to Mongolia. Riding wild elephants during research is good because you can get amongst the herds – as long as you keep quiet. It’s very good for the adrenaline I might say! I’m also looking at the possibility of doing one in Siberia where there is some unusual botany in the autonomous republic of Buryatia.”

That’s a no, then.

“The requests for expeditions pour in all the time and we get involved with everything from looking for a well-known shipwreck or the remains of a civilisation even to the lost canal that connected the Caribbean to the Pacific through Nicaragua. I’m involved in many charities too. Some abroad, some involving inner city children in England. Half my life is involved with the concrete jungle and the other half with the green jungle.

“One keeps oneself busy otherwise I’d be growing roses or playing bridge, and I don’t fancy doing either.”