There's people who've had an adventure, and then there's people who make it their life's work. Colonel John Blashford-Snell is one of the latter, and no matter what your craziest story is, he's probably got one that can beat it.
Born in 1936, the former British Army officer has descended the Blue Nile, crossed the infamous Darién Gap, driven from Alaska to Patagonia, and wrung adventure out of every corner of the world. So we rung him up on the telephone (yes, the old-fashioned way) to get some of the juiciest tidbits. Enjoy.
Let's talk stampeding animals.
Oh, I've been charged by an elephant, buffalo, big cats... I've only been attacked by one crocodile. He wasn't big – just about three metres long – but he was fast! It came up and grabbed the end of my rifle in it's jaws. Luckily, I had the mind to pull the trigger.
You've encountered some wild animals... but you still say man is more dangerous.
Of course! A beast will generally only attack out of self-preservation (although watch out for the African Cape Buffalo – they're vicious creatures.) Man is more malicious. During our descent of the Blue Nile, a group of bandits captured us and held us ransom for taxes. Had to fight our way out of that one.
You're just back from Cyprus. Sounds like holiday...
North Cyprus. A bit of holiday, and a bit of reconnaissance – I'm working with a charity that's looking at putting in deep fresh-water wells in areas they can't get clean water.
Your favourite part of the world is...
I do love New Zealand. My mother and father lived there – he started the local Boy Scouts and she the Girl Guides. Back in the 20s, it was a wild place. These days, the terrain is quite well-known, but it's still a wild, wonderful place to explore. It's like a giant version of Scotland.
Was the Blue Nile the most dangerous thing you've ever done?
No, that was falling out of my hammock last week! Yes, the Blue Nile was probably the most dangerous. We didn't have a clue what we were doing – trying to go through whitewater rapids before whitewater rafting was invented. Just a few years ago, your guy [Red Bull athlete] Steve Fisher came to talk to me about the Blue Nile, specifically the part we didn't do – the Grand Inga Rapids. I gave him maps and a bit of archived 8mm footage, which made the movie. Nice young chap – but he never took his Red Bull hat off! We were beginning to wonder if he had a head problem.
And you've seen his movie now?
Just last month! Very dramatic stuff. I remember those big whirlpools – we lost an entire boat in one of those, and just barely rescued the crew.
The biggest advantage today's explorers have is...
GPS. Stopping every mid-day to shoot a line and get your coordinates takes a lot of time. And lightweight, waterproof gear – what explorers back in the day would do for a pair of today's jungle boots!
Any dream trips left?
I'd like to go to the Kamatchka Peninsula in Eastern Russia to see the Siberian Tiger. Now's a good time of year to go – lots of mosquitoes, but much more bearable than winter. And easier than when I had to have the KGB escort me through Russia's Lake Baikal, 20 years ago, where you can see the only inland seal in the world, and we built a holiday village for children evacuated from the Chernobyl disaster. I had to show the KGB guys around in London not long after. They went to Harrod's, and left with enough to fill five London taxis.
You also like to encourage new explorers...
We want the next generation of young explorers to go off and do something fun and challenging, providing they do something for mankind at the same time – and we give grants to make that happen. That's the most of my work now, so that when I'm sat on an elephant, they'll be able to carry on. But that hasn't happened yet – I'm off to Peru next month to see the spectacled bear, which is, as I'm sure you know, the only bear in South America!
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