Colonel John Blashford-Snell Interview: The Life Of A Maverick Explorer

The legendary explorer on his most dangerous expedition, crossing the Darién Gap and being a prisoner

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Soldier and adventurer Colonel John Blashford-Snell OBE is one of the world’s most respected explorers.

His expeditions include the first descent of the Blue Nile, the crossing of the Darién Gap and a complete navigation of the Congo River.

Next year, he’s off to Peru. He is 77.

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Afternoon, Colonel. Are you well?
Yes, indeed. Jumping around as usual.

How did you become an explorer?
Simple, I was a Royal Engineer. The army encouraged one to go off and make maps and find ways across mountains, swamps, jungles and deserts. I was also the Adventurous Training Officer at Sandhurst. My job was “to send cadets overseas”, as the then-commandant said, “to the benefit of their character and at the least possible detriment to the Empire”. They’d come back having collected all sorts of rare creepy-crawlies, and so the Natural History Museum got involved. And this led to the founding of the Scientific Exploration Society.

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What was the most dangerous expedition you’ve been a part of?
To the Blue Nile. It was said to be the last unexplored section of Africa. But no one knew how to get down it. So we pioneered the use of inflatable boats. We borrowed these old yachting tenders, filled them up with football bladders to make sure they didn’t sink, and that more or less created the white-water rafting industry. But that was where we had to fight our way out. You can have  great scares from animals, but when it’s humans that are after you it’s rather more frightening.

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Who did you end up fighting?
Bandits. Tax dodgers; they didn’t want to pay income tax. I had some sympathy with them. They were really anti-Haile Selassie. Because we were flying the colours of the Emperor — which we had to — on the boat, they took us prisoner for a time and hoped they could swap us for permission not to pay income tax.

How long were you prisoners?
Three days. One morning, our captors were a bit slow getting out of bed, and our boats were still tied alongside. We pretended to be going about our business in a normal way, and then, quick as a flash, we leapt into our boats, cast off and went like hell.

And what was your most difficult expedition?
The crossing of the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia. It’s 250 miles of swamp, jungles and mountain. The Range Rover had just been produced and they were terribly keen that we took some on a meaningful expedition. So we drove them 17,000 miles from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. But when we got to the Darién Gap, we had endless problems — the back axles began to explode. It wasn’t easy. It was a feat of blood, guts and engineering.

And there were bandits in the Darién Gap as well?
Not only bandits but also Farc terrorists. They ambushed us and killed about six Colombian soldiers. A Colombian Navy boat was also turned over, and most of them were drowned. So there was a certain cost to the expedition. Luckily all the Brits got through.

And what came after the Gap?
The big expedition after that was the Congo. This was to tackle onchocerciasis, or river blindness — a disease that affected around 20 million people. We had a multi-national team of 11 eye specialists. We travelled down the river on inflatable boats, and later on we pioneered jet craft. President Mobutu helped us, and it’s good that he did — the people were fairly hostile in places, but we’d say “Mobutu” and they’d bow and stop shooting at you.

You were shot at?
Oh, occasionally. Nothing too serious. We didn’t fire back. We’d put on displays to frighten [attackers]. We used to fly aircraft down the river and drop bricks out of it. We had engineers hidden in the bushes who would set off sticks of dynamite to give the impression that the aircraft could drop bombs. Bit of theatrical action.

Where are you off to next?
Peru – an area called the Yanachaga, a wildlife reserve known for the spectacled bear, the only bear in South America. The problem is they come out of the forests and raid the local people’s crops, so they shoot them. We’re trying to persuade the people not to kill the bears.

And you’re a member of the Centre for Fortean Zoology?
Yes, I’m Life President. I’m always fascinated by mysteries. For instance, no one’s ever really got to the bottom of the Loch Ness monster. I took part in several expeditions there. We had a Goodyear airship – it had advanced sonar detection, underwater gear and so on. And we got sightings that couldn’t be explained; large, animate objects moving around in the loch. One lot I remember, we were right over it, and it came within 14ft of the surface.

Is there anywhere in the world you’ve yet to visit?
I’ve always been rather fascinated by going to Eastern Russia. And I’ve been to almost all of South America except the two little Guianas at the top – the Dutch one [Suriname] and the French one. I’ve been a lot in the British one [now Guyana]. We took a grand piano out for a tribe once.

Pardon?
A tribe deep in the rainforest was very musical, and their one desire in life was to have a piano. So we took a grand piano out. Hell of a bloody thing to move, it was about 800lbs.

What do you always take with you on any expedition?
A Swiss penknife and a bottle of scotch! And a good pair of boots.

Any advice for people thinking of exploring?
Yes. Go now. Certainly for younger people. And while you’re there, try to do something to make the world a slightly better place.

 

John Blashford-Snell is an honorary member of the Champagne GH Mumm Cordon Rouge Club

 

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