Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice We want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re talking to eccentric explorer, Colonel John Blashford-Snell.
Felice Forget Harrison Ford. JBS is a real-life Raiders of the Lost Ark figure…
Peter Wearing his Victorian pith helmet, he’s never happier than when he finds himself astride an elephant in India or paddling a dugout canoe in the South American rainforest.
Felice Or shooting rapids in the crocodile infested waters of the Nile.
Peter During his military career and beyond, he spent 60 years mounting numerous scientific expeditions while encouraging young people to reach out for fresh horizons.
Felice His many stories are legendary. We caught up with him at his home in Dorset in the south of England, and persuaded him to share a couple of his experiences.
Peter John, welcome to our podcast. You spent your early army career launching adventure training schemes and organising all kinds of military scientific expeditions. The navigation of the Blue Nile in 1968 was the first of these to receive global recognition. How did that come about?
JBS The army then started adventure training as a set program. And whilst this was going on, I took several expeditions to Ethiopia and on each one we met His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie. He was a remarkable man. Very luckily, my godfather had known him and had helped to look after him when he was exiled to Britain during the war. So when I was looking for some really exciting place where not many people had been, my godfather wrote to Haile Selassie and asked if I could come to his country and do something useful. Amazingly, the reply came back. ‘Just send your godson out here with these cadets. We will do our utmost to provide a good task.’
The Natural History Museum in London were very eager to get specimens of various creatures ranging from bats, beetles, quite large animals – in particular a Nile crocodile and one or two other things. So we formed up these conditions that went out. And on the very last one, Haile Selassie had us all to an audience, and that was quite remarkable because I said to the minister of court, ‘When you go to meet an Emperor, what is the protocol?’
And he said, ‘Well, it’s quite simple. When you enter the throne room and there’s a 50-yard red carpet and you must walk singly up the red carpet and you bow three times as you go up – once at the door, once halfway up the carpet, finally just in front of the throne – at which point His Imperial Majesty may shake hands with you and will probably speak to you in French. Then when you come to leave the presence of so great a person, you’re required to walk backwards. You must never turn your back on him. So you walk backwards down the carpet bowing three times in reverse.’
I thought, ‘Well, that’s not too difficult, with well-drilled cadets.’ And he said, ‘Yes, there are one or two hazards you’ve got to watch out for.’
I discovered that Haile Selassie was an animal lover and in the throne room he kept an ever-shifting population of lions. So the chances of tripping over a ruddy lion and getting eaten for your pains, was really quite high. We got to the throne room with all 60 cadets, and one by one we marched in fine. But I was very lucky because I asked the Minister of the Court how we were to avoid the lions. He said, ‘Well, it’s quite simple. When you bow to the Emperor, you must cast yourselves down low and you press your forehead upon the carpet.’
I said ‘Hey, stead, we’re British. We don’t normally do that sort of thing. I mean, a simple bow is usually all that’s required.’ He said, ‘Oh no, I’m not suggesting you be obsequious, but if you look between your legs when you’re bowing, you will see the lions that are lurking behind you.’ So all 60 cadets got in and out without incident and in fact, it even led later on to taking the lions out in the marketplace – but that is another story.
As I came to shake hands with him at the end and say goodbye, he said, ‘I do hope you’ll come back and do more work in my country.’ I said, ‘What would you like us to do?’ And he said, ‘I’d like you to explore my Blue Nile.’ Well, that was rather like asking an average hill walker to climb Everest, I’d seen the Blue Nile, looking down on it from a bridge, I didn’t really think one could take on a challenge like that lightheartedly. But I muttered something, hoping it sounded polite, and bowed my way out.
I returned to England and a little time later a letter reached the government from Haile Selassie saying he wanted his Blue Nile explored. It had not been fully explored at that point, and in fact, no one had really survived going through it. It was a mile-deep gorge full of crocodiles and everything else. He pointed out that he’d spoken to me about it and indicated that on behalf of the government, I’d accepted to do it, which wasn’t quite true. I was summoned by my General, who was a rather splendid sort of prickly little man, a nice chap, but he wasn’t one you argue with.
He said, ‘We’ve had a letter from His Imperial Majesty, the King of Kings, one of the Tribe of Judah, and also, by the way, a Field Marshal in the British army. He wants his Blue Nile explored and I gather you think you can do it.’ I said, ‘Well, sir, it’s not quite that. First of all, it is full of hippos, there are lots of very, very dangerous crocodiles, bandits galore, and the gorge through which it runs is a mile deep and is subject to landslides containing radioactive gas.’
He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘You’re being very negative. I don’t like negative officers. I looked into this and I think it’s just the sort of thing we need for the morale of the army and it would be a good thing to do it. We’ll get it in the papers.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Right,’ he said. ‘We’ll have a committee to run it. I shall be chairman and you will be secretary. I see no need for anyone else.’
So the Blue Nile Expedition was born. Of course, it did take an awful lot of preparation and it did produce a huge amount of publicity for the army. Luckily, most of us got through. Sadly, we did lose one soldier who was drowned while crossing a tributary – not on the main river. But an enormous amount of scientific knowledge came out of it, which was of value to Ethiopia. The only real problem was that we did run into some of the bandits that we had been warned about, but very luckily, being a military expedition, we were armed. So we had two quite interesting gunfights with these chaps and managed to beat a retreat. I gather Haile Selassie wasn’t best pleased with these people who attacked us, but that’s another story.
Peter I believe you had a standoff with bandits at one stage, and you tried to resolve with a Mars Bar. I should say, for the benefit of our North American listeners. Mars Bars are kind of like Snickers.
JBS We were exploring a cave in a very narrow part of the Northern Gorges, and we were in a rather exposed position on a beach with high cliffs above us, when a group of tribesmen arrived and started shooting at us from the top of the cliff. And I thought that was some terrible mistake, so I ran out onto the beach. Fortuitously, I had a loud hailer with me – one always has a loudhailer – and I shouted out to them in a few words of Amharic that I knew: ‘We come in peace. Would you like a Mars Bar?’ Because we had a surfeit of Mars Bars provided by the Mars Company as sponsorship, so we had Mars Bars coming of everywhere.
Anyway, the leader of the opposition stopped the men firing and then he bowed down, took his pith helmet off – they all wear them, I took my pith helmet off and we both bowed to each other. And then the wretched man put his rifle up and fired a shot which landed between my feet. So I decided at this point, the only thing to do was to return fire and get out of there, which is what we did.
So that was really the Blue Nile, but it also led to another innovation. To get down this river, which no one had succeeded in doing, we needed a special type of boat. Well, we designed two boats: the first one was a type of Royal Engineer assault boat which, on a visit to Chatham, the Queen and Prince Philip saw. Prince Philip got down on his knees and said, ‘This isn’t the way to get a boat to do this. I’ll show you how to do it.’ So he took a lot of trouble to tell us about the design of this particular boat. The Queen just smiled happily at it.
Of course, the upper reaches which were covered in rocks, were another matter altogether, but we reckon that perhaps a rubber boat would get down, would bounce off the rocks. So I went to the Avon Company in South Wales who made yachting tenders. And I said, ‘Do you think you could make a rubber boat that would bounce off these rocks?’ And they said, ‘Well, we’ve got a yachting tender. Why don’t you take one and try it?’ And we took it up to a weir in mid Wales, Llangollen, and we tested it. We bounced it off rocks and over there dozens of times and we didn’t puncture it. So that was to be the main whitewater boat and we stuffed football bladders inside the main tube – two very large valves – so the thing was virtually unsinkable.
And these boats managed to get to these incredibly difficult rapids and cataracts of the upper reaches; the assault boats got to slightly easier reaches lower down. When we went back, of course, with all the publicity and all the magazines and film that came out, everyone realised that if you wanted to explore whitewater rivers, you could use a boat. And so this started the industry and Avon sold an awful lot of boats as a result of that.
Peter That was the start of whitewater rafting?
JBS That was the start of whitewater rafting, yes.
Felice And then I think you had a run-in with a big fish back in Britain?
JBS I was commanding the Junior Leaders regiment at Dover, which was a regiment of young soldiers. My Sergeant Major was a marvellous character who had been on the Blue Nile expedition with me, and he had a father or an uncle who lived in a village called Hickam, which was not very far from Dover. He heard this story that a well-known goldfish breeder was losing his entire stock of prize goldfish because of some predator that was coming in, particularly at night and gobbling them up. He was quite convinced that it was a Russian plot – the Russians had somehow infiltrated British waterways with a predatory fish, which was destroying Britain’s stock of goldfish and something should be done about it.
Well, my regimental Sergeant Major was never one to miss an opportunity. So he came back to see me the next day and he said, ‘Sir, there’s this terrible tragedy going on up the road in Hickam. Do you know about it?’ Did you realise that the entire stock of British goldfish are going to be wiped out by some Soviet predator?’ So I said, ‘What do you suggest?’ And he said, ‘I think it’s our duty to go and get rid of it. I’ll do a reconnaissance if you like.’ So I said, ‘Yes, go off and have a look, come back and tell me what you think.’
He came back a few days later and he said, ‘Well, I’ve been to the pond and it’s quite a large pond and it has got some goldfish in, but there are not many left. There’s obviously been something pretty hungry in there because there were 3,000 goldfish not so long ago. The police had been down because they thought it might be a poacher. We think that there is some sort of giant fish in there.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s a simple thing to do. You just put it in small charge of explosion, set it off. But the goldfish that are in there will be destroyed as well.’ He said, ‘But there aren’t many left and we can collect the goldfish and put them in a safe place while we set off a small controlled demolition.’ I thought it sounded quite a good idea, a way to liven up the boys’ training. So I rang up the public relations officer of the Ministry of Defence, whom I knew, and told him about this, and he said, ‘That’s a splendid idea. I must go and talk to my boss.’ So he went off to see the Brigadier who said, ‘My God, that’s what we need for the army to be doing something useful for the local population. And yes, tell them let’s get on with it.’ So we set up this exercise and I left the Sergeant Major to it, and I went off on some other jaunt.
On the way back in my staff car, I called in at Alf Leggett’s farm, see how it was going. And to my surprise, the entire drive was packed with parked cars, labelled ‘Press’. And obviously this public relations officer in London had run away with it and had alerted most of the press corps of Britain to this act of saving the British goldfish. Anyway, on the lawn of the rather nice manor house farm was an armoured car, which had already cast deep ruts in this priceless lawn, along with this machine gun poking over the hedge towards the pond. There were several junior soldiers clad in their frogman’s outfits standing nearby, the sergeant major was running out cables from a demolition charge in the water, and on the bank overlooking the pond were about 30 or 40 cameramen and journalists. Alf Leggett, the owner of the pond, came over and I said, ‘Do you object to this at all? It’s your pond and we might do some damage?’
‘Oh, no, no,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind at all. We had a terrible time with this predator and in fact, only the other night it nearly cost the life of our local police officer.’ ‘How was that?’ He said, ‘Well, we were both sitting up in that tree, which was on a little island in the pond, with shotguns, watching for the predator and the policeman fell asleep and fell off the branch. He fell into the pond and might have drowned, but we managed to get him out.’
‘Alright,’ I said to the Sergeant Major, ‘OK, give the order to fire.’ And there was an enormous sort of thump as you get from an underwater explosion and geyser water rose about a hundred feet into the air, accompanied by a few goldfish and various bits of weed and bodies from the pond. I’m happy to say that the wind had changed in that moment so most of it fell on top of the assembled press who were now drenched to the skin and not looking very happy at all.
At that point, Alf Leggett said: ‘What now?’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s going to take several hours for the water to calm down and once visibility returns, we can put the frogmen back in and they can search and try and find the carcass of your predator.’ The press were very disappointed about that because they obviously thought that we were going to produce this dead thing in front of them. I said, ‘No, no, you won’t have to come back tomorrow.’ So they all sloped off. But Alf Leggett also ran a care home and he wasn’t going to miss this opportunity for some publicity. So he said to the press, ‘I’ve got some Champagne up there.’ Well, of course, they all turn backed immediately.
As we started across the lawn back to the manor house, there was an old lady sitting in a chair who was clearly very deaf and she leaned over towards Alf and said: ‘Mr Leggett, I seem to remember that I heard a bang just now.’ ‘Yes, dear.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘what was it?’ And he said,’ Well, it’s an atom bomb they dropped on London.’ ‘Oh, will that mean I won’t get my paper in the morning?’
Anyway, I went back to the farmhouse which is now packed with the assembled Press downing Alf Leggett’s Champagne, and the telephone rang and a voice said, ‘Can I speak to Mr Spencer?’ He was the public relations man, so I passed it over to the MOD public relations man and I saw him nodding and saying, ‘Yes sir. Yes of course. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’ So I realised he was clearly talking to someone very senior.
When he came away from the telephone, he said to me, ‘We’ve got a bit of trouble.’ I said ‘Really? What’s that?’ He said, ‘Well, did you realise that the President of the United States is arriving at Heathrow this morning?’ I said ‘I don’t know him well, but what’s that to do with us?’ He said, ‘Well, do the main story,’ which the government decided to put out, was going to be about the arrival of this great man.
But as it happens, they then happened to pick up that you were going to blow up this fish and all the newspapers they got onto the cover the arrival of the President of the United States and said they were off to Hickam to film this, and that has upset one or two people in Whitehall. So the Brigadier has said we’ve got to call the whole thing off. So I said, ‘Well, it’s a bit late, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘Well, I tried to explain that to him, but he doesn’t see the point of it.’ He just said he just kept shouting, ‘Stop it, stop it! Call it off!’
The next morning, the headlines were about the predator being wiped out, but of course we had no predator at this stage. So the story continued for several days, during which time the Sergeant Major got frogmen back into the pond and they couldn’t find a single thing, nothing. And then the fishery department came down from Canterbury and they had an electric fishing device. And with this, they managed to discover a rather stunned giant carp that was actually buried in the bank and was not in a good shape at all. So they lifted this thing out into a tank of water and took it off to the reservoir outside Canterbury, where, to the best of my knowledge, it is to this day. So there was a giant carp and it probably had eaten all the goldfish, but I can’t say that it was actually a Russian invention.
Felice Isn’t there a story about you taking Beethoven on an expedition to a remote jungle village in South America?
JBS A friend of mine called General Joe Sing I’d been a cadet when I was teaching at Sandhurst and he was from Guyana. And later in life when he wasn’t in rank, I met him in London and he said, ‘The defence of Guyana is very difficult because much of it is under dense jungle and we’re having problems with intruders coming in from Brazil. I’m very dependent on a tribe called the Wai-Wai who live in the south of the country, for warning me about these Brazilians coming over the border.’
And he said, ‘I have to leave a permanent radio station up there with a one-eyed Lance Corporal listening out for messages to send them back to me. You see, I don’t pay them anything, but I try and do a few favours for them. And they’ve recently been infected with malaria and dental problems. What they would like is some sort of medical help. So would the Scientific Exploration Society, which I was now chairman of, would they like to undertake an expedition with the medical side to help the Wai-Wai?’
So we did, and we took dentists and doctors and the Wai-Wai were fairly primitive but very nice people and spoke a sort of quaint Victorian form of English. They entertained us and we went to their church services; they were rather evangelical. On the last day we were there, having pulled out most of their teeth, we were talking to the high priest and he said, ‘You know, when you come back, which I’m sure you will, would you do us a favour?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘What we need is a grand piano.’
I said, ‘A grand piano?’ Have you ever seen one?’ ‘I’ve seen a picture. You see, the young people here are tempted by the stories of sinful life on the coast and all the nightclubs and disco bars and all that sort of thing. And with the young boys, they have no trade to offer they’ll get in trouble and they end up there. But they’re very musical and what they need is something musical to really focus their attention on. At the moment, they’ve got drums and flutes and sort of violin type things, but a grand piano would change their life.’ For these chaps were 350 miles into dense jungle over an uncharted piece of South America. I said, ‘Well, I’ve made no promise, but we’ll see what we can do.’ And I returned to England.
I was giving a presentation in the Millennium Hotel in West London. I was talking about the Wai-Wai tribe, and I was particularly trying to get people to invest in some of their handicrafts, which unfortunately were largely made out of endangered species so that wasn’t very helpful. But the end of my talk, I said, ‘What they really want is a grand piano.’ And to my horror, the general manager of the hotel said, ‘I will give you a grand piano.’
There was an airline there called Bee-Wee who fly across the Atlantic to the West Indies and they said, ‘We will fly it as far as Guyana.’ So the press again took up the story. I was then with the problem of recruiting a team. So I go on to my friends at the Royal Engineers and I found a doctor who could play and tune a piano. I found various others to form the team and we had the piano tropicalised and duly flown out by Bee-Wee. When it got to Ghana, we made a wooden sledge out of mahogany and then we had to fly it in a much smaller plane, a little thing called a sky van, as far as the nearest missionary’s trip to the Wai-Wai village. We arranged with the Wai Wai people carrying messages and forked sticks that they would meet us with a hundred or so warriors to carry this grand piano, which weighed about 800 pounds, to their village which was a distance of about 10 kilometres through jungle.
My main assistant, another former Sergeant Major in the Royal Engineers, had a look at the ground and he said, ‘You’re never going to get a grand piano through that. It’s full of ravines and swamps and so on. I’ll go look for an alternative route.’ So he went down to the river and he found a very large canoe and said, ‘You know, I think if we could get this piano into the canoe, we could actually take it up river. There’s only one problem. There’s a set of rapids and we’ve got to go up against the rapids.’
By now, I was waiting for the 100 warriors to come and carry the piano and six had turned up and two of those were under 15. So we had to drag this piano over the savannah into the jungle, build a few small bridges, get it across some of the ravines, and we finally got to the bank of the Essequibo River, just below the rapids. This huge dugout canoe was produced; we loaded in the piano, which was in a large box. We’d taken the legs off it. We had a little outboard motor that the Indians owned, which is about an eight horsepower, not really ideal for getting an 800 pound piano up a rapid, but the Indians seemed confident and they decided to take advantage, by which time most of the children in the village had jumped in the canoe as well, so that didn’t help.
And we set off halfway up. We almost stalled. We were literally hovering, the engine going full blast. We’re not going to make it. We’re not going to make it. We’re not. And then we suddenly got through the rapid and out the other side. I must admit, it was a very close run thing. And we then tried to get through the jungle up to the top of the hill where the new village was and unfortunately, there were other problems in getting up. But we did finally get to the foot of this hill and there were the hundred warriors. I said: ‘I thought you were meant to come to the airstrip?’ ‘Oh, no, we didn’t think you’d ever come.’
But they then carried the grand piano up the hill and we sang our Royal Engineers marching song as we went up, and when we got to the top, we took it out of its box, put the legs back on. Although it had made a few loud bongs, as we’ve been carrying it, it was complete and it worked. And the doctor sat beside it and played a few tunes. And in the two weeks we were with them, we taught the young people to play the piano and it became a huge success. The BBC did a recording of it over a satellite phone. People couldn’t believe this thing was sitting in a jungle clearing in the middle of South America.
Two years later, we had a message from the tribe saying ‘We need the piano tuned.’ So we went out with a new expedition consisting of three adventurous piano tuners, and we tuned it and finally we got it playing again. There are more stories about that. But the one good thing that came about it was when the film that the BBC made of this called A Grand Adventure, which is still on YouTube, when the film came out, an American charity saw this and decided that they would help this tribe. And so they subscribed two million dollars, which enabled the tribe to turn their tribal area into a protected zone and protect the trees, the animals, the plants, and keep out the intruders and the gold diggers and so on. And so a good word came of it and we did several other expeditions with the Wai-Wai and remained friends of them ever since.
Felice What an amazing story.
Peter John, you’ve written 16 books, I think. Is that right?
JBS Well, I’m working on the 16th at the moment.
Peter Have you got big plans for the future?
JBS Well, depending on covered everything else, we are supposed to be going to Mongolia at the end of August, God willing, dozens of people want to go. But of course, it’s all going to depend on whether we can travel. And after that, we’ve got another one in Bolivia, which is scheduled for the end of November. And after that, we’ve got one schedule for Nepal for next year. But it all depends on the Covid problem.
Peter Can I be very rude to just ask you how old you are?
Peter You’ve led a remarkable life and a lot more of it to come, I hope.
JBS Well, we stagger on.
Felice How can people find out more about you and your expeditions?
JBS Well, there’s my website. If you look up, John Blashford-Snell, and also the Scientific Exploration Society. The Scientific Exploration Society, we founded it after the Blue Nile and it is still going strong and has members all over the world. And that has its own website and I have my own website, and obviously the two are linked. I’m no longer the chairman of the society, I’m just the president so I don’t have to go to all the meetings. So the website address is www.johnblashfordsnell.org.uk
Peter Colonel John Blashford-Snell, thank you very much indeed for appearing on the show. And we hope you’ll come back and tell us some more stories in the near future.
JBS Good luck to both of you and keep up the good work.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]
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