Meeting Dorset's very own Indiana Jones: John Blashford-Snell OBE
PUBLISHED: 10:54 22 April 2016 | UPDATED: 10:54 22 April 2016
Adam Lee-Potter meets Dorset's very own Indiana Jones who is celebrating his 80th birthday with an expedition to find a mysterious Yeti-like creature in Mongolia
Men don’t come any more derring-do than Colonel John Blashford-Snell OBE.
This is the decorated soldier-turned-adventurer who founded Operation Raleigh, invented white-water rafting on the Blue Nile and once dragged a grand piano through the Amazon jungle.
A born leader, he inspired British astronaut Tim Peake, an old Raleigh cadet of his. He recalls: “We were in Alaska together in 1991. I said to them all: ‘One of these days, I’ll see one of you going to the stars’. I meant it as a joke but just look at Tim, there he is now.”
Get any more masculine than Blashford-Snell and you’d have to live up a tree. Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a chum, Prince Charles an admirer.
And so, it is hardly surprising that Blashers - as he is fondly known - is celebrating his looming 80th birthday, not with a nice cup of tea and a Saga catalogue, but with three gruelling expeditions: to Colombia, Burma and Mongolia, where’s he off to hunt the mythical, Yeti-like Almas.
As he says: “It’s better than growing roses. My wife would only have me doing the garden, otherwise.”
The colonel lives - when he’s not off exploring - in Motcombe with his wife Judith, their Dorset home for 20 years.
The house is studded with gutsy mementoes of his travels: the tusk of a giant dugong, Stanley’s original compass and a display table showing off the back end of a Katyusha 122mm rocket that just missed him in Oman.
In the downstairs loo there are photographs of him with Prince Charles, President Mobutu and Haile Selassie.
The adjacent barn - his self-styled HQ - houses the so-called Blashford-Snell fitness centre: an elderly cross-trainer on which he works out for an hour every day, watching old wildlife documentaries.
“Fitness is everything,” he says. “I’ll carry on adventuring as long as I can walk. On these next expeditions, I’ll be carrying 30lb of kit and walking up to 20 miles a day.”
After 37 years in the Army, he’s got the energy of a man half his age, pink with wholesome living: fizzing with boyish enthusiasm and bonhomie. He’s a cross between Just William and Indiana Jones - living for adventure and good deeds.
The walls of his office are covered in plans, maps and photographs. There are pictures of double-nosed dogs and two-headed snakes.
His expeditions are twofold: exploration combined with aid. He takes with him biologists, engineers, doctors and dentists. In Colombia, he has helped raise money to build a much-needed, mountaintop school for the Wiwa tribe.
“They call us the younger brothers who are destroying the earth. But, slowly, they’ve warmed to us. They badly need dentists - up until now they’ve just been hacking out teeth with pliers.”
During the three-week trip to Colombia, John - who will take with him 17 self-funding volunteers - will oversee the completion of the £13,000 school building as well as surveying possible bridge and water systems.
In July, he’s off to Mongolia. Again, he will be taking a medical crew, as well as searching for hidden treasures. “There’s a huge amount of archaeology in the area. And, of course, there is the Almas. People out there talk about this strange wild man. If you don’t look, you don’t know whether it’s true or not.”
This is all bread-and-butter to Blashford-Snell, who - 20 years ago - led an expedition to track down the Loch Ness Monster. “We had an airship and a sonar barge. Suddenly, these two 20ft long objects started gunning up from 800ft down. I really thought we’d cracked it.
“But they stopped just 14ft from the surface and went back down again. Now, logs don’t do that. I’d love to have another go. There’s nothing I like better than a mystery.”
In Burma, he is travelling by boat up into the northwest corner to investigate sightings of a new species of deer. But this will be - thanks to the recent change in government - the trickiest expedition of them all.
“It would have been much easier before,” he says. “You need state approval and I knew the last government quite well - the minister for forests was an old chum of mine. He once almost broke my nose at Sandhurst.”
And that is quintessential Blashford-Snell. He seems to know everybody. And those he doesn’t, he quickly charms.
He is dedicated to helping young people. In 1969, he founded the Scientific Exploration Society after a successful descent of the Blue Nile in inflatable boats - his own invention.
In 1978, together with Prince Charles, he founded Operation Drake, a rolling, round-the-world sailing adventure. Operation Raleigh followed which took more than 4,000 people across 27 countries, and continues today as Raleigh International.
Then, in the wake of the UK riots of 1981, he set up a special Army unit in the Scottish Highlands, the Fort George Volunteers, to give young people a greater sense of purpose. The idea began when, at Prince Charles’s suggestion, Blashford-Snell met with some Rastafarians in London.
The meeting was fast turning ugly until the colonel let slip that he’d met their idol, Haile Selassie. “It was pandemonium. They said: ‘You touched him, so we touch you. He’s God to us.’ There were no problems after that.”
His two pet projects are the Merseyside Youth Association - “I have a soft spot for Liverpool, a lot of my Sappers were scousers” - and the Moorlands Community Development Project in Brixton, a charity devoted to supporting children.
But his favourite story - and mine - is his grand piano tale. Back in 2000, he was tasked with taking dentists out to the Wai Wai, a small and endangered tribe in Guyana.
“We went out at the request of an old cadet friend of mine who’d ended up as a general there. So we pulled out some teeth and then the chief priest said: ‘When you come back, can you bring me a grand piano.’ He explained that a lot of his people were being tempted away to the coast and getting into trouble but that a piano would persuade them to stay.”
Impressively, John managed to secure a free grand piano, gifted from a ritzy London hotel. And so began yet another epic journey.
“We landed on a tiny airstrip on a small freight plane and had to drag this piano on a sledge over the plains, down the river, through the jungle and up the mountains. I’d arranged for 100 tribesmen to come and help. But when we got off the plane, only six had turned up.”
Nonetheless, the trek was a triumph. The piano is still there today.
But, as ever, there was a more serious end. On a tide of publicity, an American conservation society pledged $2million and turned the area into a protected zone, free from unscrupulous loggers and gold miners. “The warriors became rangers,” says John. “It really was the making of this tribe.”
Blashford-Snell - who grew up in Herefordshire and Jersey - is very much the product of his parents: his father (‘Bish’) was a tough Army padre, his mother delivered hot meals to schools during the war. And the Army finished the job.
“I was allowed to go off adventuring in between tours, and my CO would say ‘so long as you take a dozen soldiers with you and get some training in, you’ve got three months’. So off we’d go exploring.”
Curiosity drives him still; that and the doting indulgence of his wife, Judith who he married in 1960 after meeting at Sandhurst. “She was a cadet in the Army and we met at a party. She told me: ‘I’ve got a map reading exam on Monday and I can’t read a map’. So I gave her a crash course. And that was that.”
He adds: “She loves elephants so she’ll always come with me to India but she doesn’t much like the mud, South America or the jungle. And she absolutely will not ride a camel.”
He says it all with a twinkle in his eye and his trusty battalion of office volunteers - mostly women of a certain age whom he religiously calls “the girls” - clearly adore him.
His oldest adventurer is an old soldier of 86. Blashford-Snell is the recruiting poster boy extraordinaire for a neglected army of elderly talent that, without him, would no doubt go to waste. He’s like a macho Miss Marple.
“Who doesn’t love a quest? When someone says to me ‘there is a rare plant on top of this mountain that, if we find it, might have the cause for cancer’, it becomes a challenge I can’t resist. We all need adventure.”
So what would he love most to track down, the Almas or the Loch Ness Monster?
“Neither,” he says. “They would, of course, be the icing on the cake. But if there’s one thing I really want to achieve, it’s to establish a base for those kids in Brixton. That’s more important.”
And with that, he’s off to pack. I am delighted to learn of his first two travel necessities: a bottle of Scotch and a Swiss Army penknife. “The corkscrew’s essential,” he says. He really is my kind of man.
Find out more
Signed copies of John’s autobiography Something Lost Behind the Ranges are available at £12.50 + £3.00 p&p from the Scientific Exploration Society (ses-explore.org). For details of John’s after dinner and motivational talks contact Anne Gilby on 01747 854456 or johnblashfordsnell.org.uk where you will find details of all John’s expeditions.
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