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When @she recommended a book, From Utmost East to Utmost West: My Life of Exploration and Adventure, just published by the explorer John Blashford-Snell, I had no idea that by purchasing his book I would be joining his journeys that rivaled any Indiana Jones story. @she wrote a short but intriguing book review that motivated me to learn more about this man’s story, and I wasn’t disappointed. That he survived his many trips with all the danger and challenges he faced, often with gallantry and a sense of humor, was amazing. I suspect he had feline blood in his background.
The book was packed with adventures taken all over the world, which presented me with the monumental task of selecting the tales and activities that drew me more and more deeply into the book. I can’t possibly do justice to his work. He organized the book by continents—Africa, the Americas, and Asia—which allowed me to navigate those landscapes, and for anyone who was interested, the dates of expeditions were included.
This will give you a taste of his achievements:
In 1969, he and his colleagues formed the Scientific Exploration Society, which became the parent body for several worldwide ventures launched by HRH the Prince of Wales. JBS then raised funds and selected a team to run Operation Drake, involving 400 young explorers from twenty-seven countries on a two-year circumnavigation. Ultimately, a much larger global youth programme was organized by 1992 Operation Raleigh, as it was then called, had enabled 10,000 young people from fifty countries to take part in challenges and expeditions around the world.
And that was just the beginning. He’s been involved with expeditions for over 60 years.
What intrigued me most from reading about JBS, as he was called by some?
He was always drawn to exploring places that had never been formally visited. Although he realized the dangers inherent in these projects, he accepted most of them, preparing as best he could to avoid the worst dangers.
In one story, he explained an exceptional meeting:
…we were summoned to an audience with His Imperial Majesty Hailie Selassie, King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Emperor of Ethiopia and also an honorary Field Marshal in the British Army.
When JBS’ new boss, Major General Napier Crookenden, Commandant of the Royal Military College of Science, told him that Hailie Selassie had written to him and that he wanted the Blue Nile explored, JBS hesitated:
It’s packed with rapids that have never been navigated and is the home to bandit gangs, huge crocodiles, herds of hippo and suffers from massive landslides. There are also rumours of radioactive gas.
When he protested further, the general responded:
Quite an adventure, good for morale, just what the army needs. And I’m told it’s one of the last unexplored parts of Africa. So, of course we must do it. We’ll need a committee. I’ll be chairman and you can be secretary. I see no need for anyone else.
JBS writes, “And so it was that Haile Selassie’s challenge was accepted and I embarked on the expedition that would change my life.”
And he encountered every danger that he anticipated.
At other times on his many expeditions, they came upon raging rapids, dangerous waterfalls, man-eating piranhas, impassable jungles, unbearable heat, and humidity. Ironically, a most serious danger could show up in unexpected places:
Meanwhile, an advance party had sent up a tented camp in Caledonia Bay where they joined other youngsters. Directed by the eminent archaeologist, Dr. Mark Horton, they braved the heat, mosquitoes, sandflies, and scorpions, to clear the site of Fort Saint Andrews. The main danger, however, came from falling coconuts that could easily split a skull and so everyone was issued with hard hats as protection.
Many of his expeditions were research trips, usually combined with assistance to the local populations. In South America, he wrote of tackling the Darien Gap in spite of its impenetrability. Scientists from the four countries involved—Britain, Colombia, Panama, and the US—sent scientists who would be researching botany, biology, geology, geography, entomology, and zoology. Medical and veterinary goals were explored and the local indigenous populations were studied.
The doctors and scientists often developed a valuable rapport with the locals:
Later, when Graham was extracting a local barber’s rotten molars, he discovered the man had no salon in which to work, so he bought him a donkey with which to earn some money to build a mud-walled hairdressing shop. The barber was understandably delighted and showed his appreciation by naming it Terry’s Salon after the president of Graham’s Rotary club.
At other times, people would hire planes out of their own money for emergency transport; locate medical services to save a person’s life (from the expedition staff to the local population); and make amazing commitments: a grand piano was delivered to the Wai Wai community in Guyana. The expeditions would dig wells, provide clean water, provide medical and dental services, and provide books for schools.
The conclusion of many expeditions was especially noteworthy:
The expedition ended appropriately with a Burns Night dinner. Haggis and copious quantities of Scotch were airlifted in and in the warm, moist night we toasted the immortal memory. Piper Little of the Scots Guards excelled himself as we danced and reeled beneath the stars. Our Panamanian guests were totally confused. Most had thought it was going to be a birthday party and came with presents.
Once people understood the purpose of the occasion, they danced all night.
* * * *
There were so many more stories I could have shared, and I came away with great admiration and respect for John Blashford-Snell and the people who joined him on these missions. The conditions were almost always demanding, filled with hazards and the unexpected. Fortunately, only a handful of people lost their lives, surviving mainly due to his planning and care.
I’ll end with a quotation that JBS used, said by the Chief US Engineer in the Canal Zone:
“Only those who attempt the ridiculous can achieve the impossible.”Published in