Friday, June 1, 2007

John Blashford Snell

Colonel John Blashford Snell

Numero uno.

Who led the team that crossed the Darien Gap expedition first? Who led the Congo River Expedition first? The Blue Nile (in 1962), Matchu- Pitchu site (the lost Inca-City in the Andean ranges) in Peru? ‘Operation Drake’ (78-80)? And ‘Operation Relief’’ with the participation of 4000 volunteers? For all these questions as well as other 50 such queries; there is only one answer, and that is Col John Blashford Snell!

Nerve of steel.

Col Blashford Snell image courtsey:

It is said that ‘If there is a will, there is a way’, as a modern day explorer (now he is an old man in his seventies) there was will as strong as steel and a matching thirst to know what lies beyond boundaries; there was no dearth for ways, even the most unconquerable obstructions crumbled before him as a pack of cards. John Blashford-Snell was born in 1936 Hereford England as the son of an army chaplain (a member of the clergy attached to the forces). Blashford Snell too joined the army at the age of 21 and was trained at the Sand Hurst Military Academy and became a commissioned officer).

Climbing mountains fording streams.

From the very boyhood wonders of nature like great rivers, vast deserts, forests, oceans, tall mountains all haunted him like a passion. The young Blashford wandered through the Welsh Mountains as if there is some thing always new for him to see. The boy made an underwater diving setup using an old gasmask and garden hose as in imagination he went at the bottom of the ocean to see what was there. As a commissioned officer he always chose to lead teams for adventures like exploring the most remote and in penetrable locations.

A signature!

Blashford Snell image courtsey:

Colonel Blashford Snell during his expeditions always wore a special type of hard shelled hat (‘topee’ which he received as a gift from a London based firm by name Moss Bros). He used as a pan to fetch water or drain boats over and above its usual duty of protecting his precious head! The team members could easily identify their leader at a distance by this white funny contraption!

First attempt.

The first assignment Snell and his team got were to explore the remnants of the submerged ancient harbor ‘Paphos’ near Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. It was an underwater recovery project as a part of the training of ‘Royal Engineers’. The team there retrieved many trophies like potteries belonging to the ancient Rome, Greece and Byzantium Empire (containing South East Europe and Asia Minor formed from the eastern part of the Roman Empire) belonging to 15th century BC. One of the strange things they found was a cave filled with the bones of pigmy hippopotami and elephant bones.

The Eden Garden.

In 1966 the National History Museum in London decided to fill the blanks that existed in their Ethiopian collections. It was none other than Snell who had to lead the team. A team was formed of eminent zoologists for the purpose of collecting specimens. (this company helped Snell in knowing much about animals and their habitats). In Ethiopia they stumbled upon (The Rift Valley- a virtual Eden Garden) well protected from human invasion (by stealthy swamps and high mountains) animals like zebra and giraffes grazing freely without any fear of predators (they never before had seen a human being). The team returned with thousands of specimens –the most valuable treasures any museum could get).

Blue Nile Expedition.

Blue Nile Waterfall image coutsey:

It was the then ruler of Ethiopia Hailey Selassie who requested Snell to explore the Blue Nile which has the distinction as one of the most inhospitable surroundings and fierce course. The Blue Nile is a tributary of the great Nile that runs for 805 kms, through a gorge that is 1.5 kilometer deep. Snell was only happy to undertake such a daunting task which had took away the precious lives of many adventurers before.

Haile Salassie image courtsey:

Snell set-up a team with 17 zoologists and 40 servicemen with paraphernalia included aluminum assault boats, rafts made of foot-ball bladders. The journey through the river was daunting, their 40 BHP outboard engines were no match for the strong currents which kept on smashing their boats against rocks, and people were thrown out of the boats.

Finally they decided to move through the banks; there also adversities mounted, their horses got bitten by vampires, pests of all varieties were celebrating a rare occasion they got to suck fresh blood from new victims. All the way were marred by attacks from hostile tribes who never let aliens in their land. As the convoy advanced inch by inch they could realize the fact that the team has run out of ammunition (something more important than food in such a location) and they decided to return by water neglecting the fury of the Blue-Nile water! Yet the scientists could collect innumerable number of specimens to the museum.

In search of mermaids!

Dugong image courtsey:

In 1969 an organization by name ‘Scientific Exploration Society’ was formed under the leadership of Snell with the active co operation of politicians and businessmen. Their first expedition was to the Dahlak Archipelago a very rarely visited group of coral islands in the Red Sea. There; as per rumors; mermaids lived! The team reached there in the Dahlak islands to discover some sea-cows known as dugongs with human like face (mistaken for mermaids by the sailors!).

The land of the blind.

Dahlak Archipelago - The island of the Blind - image courtsey:

It was the second mission of the ‘SES’ to investigate another legend of a land inhabited by blind people! Snell with members of SES went there and what they witnessed was a very painful fact. The inhabitants were a primitive community who lived collecting shells and by fishing, and percentage of blindness among them was alarmingly high, fifty percent had defective eyesight including children. Snell led Frederick Rogers an ophthalmologist to see what was wrong; the ultra-violet radiation from the sand (with high salt content) was what burnt their eyes. The team instructed the islanders about precautions to be taken and made all remedies available for the people.

The Darien Gap.

Darien Gap Expedition

The real thing which made Snell a legend is the crossing of the ‘Darien Gap’, the portion of land that is located between Columbia and Panama. It is as its name suggests is a 160 KM (100 Miles) long gap in the Trans -American highway about 26,000 KM long that stretched from Alaska to Fuego. This area of swamps, forests, mountains river-delta etc made building of road expensive and left as a gap.

A committee of the nations which benefited from the highway suggested Snell of crossing this gap. At first Snell’s view was that it was not a feasible idea, but he consulted it with a young explorer Brendan O’ Brien who submitted a report which changed his mind he said yes.

“The project must be mounted on a massive scale, and handled like a long-drawn battle, with likelihood of high casualties”

All his advices heeded and requests granted by the committee; thus the idea of crossing the indomitable Darien Gap was born. All the team-members were handpicked by Snell and all members were subjected to rigorous training for one year. On January 17, 1972 the team set off in to the gap. A massive team with 64 British and American explorers, 70 experienced personnel from the Panamanian and Columbian forces, massive air support from the US Air force, all kinds of logistic supports from the US Army and to top it all the most advanced motor vehicles of that time.

As the caravan made progress all the obstructions they expected as well as unexpected visited them one by one, the dreaded African honey-bees of the locality which attacks victims collectively were also contributing lavishly for the agonies of the team. Five members of the Columbian army drowned, almost all members of the team escaped death by sheer luck! Snell had a fall from his mule on a river ravine and he got jammed under it, his horse (named Cromwell) was bitten by vampire bats made it bleed it profusely.

At last at the end of 3 long grueling months when they emerged out the swamp in Columbia, people of all walks of life were there to receive them, messages from all heads of states came congratulating them, and one of them was the British Queen. Snell was all praise for the team-members for their whole hearted participation which ended in a magnificent victory, while scientists who accompanied the team were with as much rare specimen they could carry! The team included five women members whose roles have been subjected to great praise as they worked as hard as their male companions.

“I want to see what’s at the top of the peak, not climb it just because it is there” was what he said. Now the hunter is home from the hills and the sailor home from the seas; let us wish a happy as well active life to the veteran celebrity.


Mr. Coulter said...

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You can write, son. And I learned something while I was here.


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Alberto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marcos Florencio said...

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Flutterbot said...

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Taym said...


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Nick Wilcox-Brown said...

The image of John in khakis is © Nick Wilcox-Brown, please contact me urgently via my web site.

Thank you

Nick Wilcox-Brown said...

Please credit the image of John correctly. It is my Copyright. This will do nicely:

Photo: Nick Wilcox-Brown

Thank you,