The world, once a planet of empty places and
far-off horizons, now seems small, dangerous and overcrowded
BLASHFORD-SNELL, Colonel John Nicholas. The surname suggests PG
Wodehouse characters such as Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton or Lord Wot
Wotleigh, but he is a renowned explorer, expedition and youth project
Sandhurst-trained, and commissioned in the Royal Engineers, he
has spent much of his life battling through inhospitable regions
occupied by poisonous snakes, equally lethal mammals and insects and,
sometimes, less-than-impressed natives on over 40 expeditions. He has
been up the Blue Nile, White Nile, Zaire River, South American jungles -
you name the place, Blashers has had, or would like to have, a bash at
The co-founder and now chairman of the Scientific Exploration
Society, he is a friend of the Prince of Wales and invented white water
rafting, an exhilarating, white-knuckle activity designed to clear the
head and form the character of anyone who survives.
Aged a tirelessly-trekking 65, he is now trapped in a web of
controversy over his latest expedition into the South American jungle,
apparently in search of the usual lost Inca city. He has been accused by
Juan Faldin, a Bolivian archaeologist, sent by the country’s Institute
of Culture to supervise part of the expedition, of making "discoveries"
that were "scientifically worthless" and, even worse, from an
eco-sensitive aspect, damaging dense jungle by blithely dynamiting a
ten-mile tourist trail through it.
The marvel, the controversy reveals, is not that Blashers, like
Indiana Jones, is likely to escape the clashing jaws of archaeological
and other critics, but that there is any part of this overcrowded and
trodden-on planet left to explore.
The occupation of explorer is not one that nowadays would command
the interest of a mediocre pop star. It was different in the 18th, 19th
and early 20th centuries, when explorers grabbed the minds of the
These were periods when spaces on world maps were labelled terra
incognita, and there seemed a never-ceasing supply of explorers - mainly
men, although Samuel Baker, seeking the sources of the Nile, took his
tough, Austrian-born wife with him, and David Livingstone, the
missionary-explorer from Blantyre, in Lanarkshire, was said by critics
to have "dragged" his long-suffering wife and children with him on some
Off went Mungo Park, of Foulshiels, Selkirk, to west Africa,
where he traced the Niger’s course and was drowned in a canoe with four
European companions after a fight with natives. Away went explorers like
Richard Burton, John Speke and James Grant to try to solve the world’s
great geographical mystery - the source of the Nile.
Exploration - often followed by colonisation - was in the 19th
century air. In 1869, Henry Morton Stanley, of the New York Herald, was
told by his employer, JG Bennett: "I want you to attend the opening of
the Suez Canal, then proceed up the Nile ... Then go to Jerusalem,
Constantinople, the Crimea, the Caspian Sea, through Persia as far as
India. After that, you can start looking round for Livingstone. If he is
dead, bring back proof of his death." And if he found the Nile’s source,
he would, doubtless, mention it.
That Yankee go-getting spirit had equivalents in Britain and
other countries. Grim-jawed, frost-bitten, snow-covered, near-exhausted
explorers like South Pole seekers, Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest
Shackleton and Roald Amundsen trekked across icy, blizzard-buffeted
wastes while the American explorer, naval commander Robert E Peary was
first to reach the equally uncongenial North Pole.
They sought mythical Eldorados, other Edens, areas of scientific
or sociological interest or countries rich in natural resources, where
natives could be trusted while you still had a supply of trading beads,
coloured cloth and cheap tin trays.
Former mysterious and mythical lands have largely been uncovered
by earth exploration or space satellites. No reputedly uncharted area is
now likely to be without the wildly-gesticulating TV wild-life experts
and presenters, along with their camera crews, explaining and filming
the sex life of Nicaraguan termites or the social structure of the
The world, once a planet of empty places and far-off horizons,
now seems small, dangerous and overcrowded. Instead of seeking
unexplored areas, perhaps mankind should probe the fetid swamps and
tangled jungles of its mind to discover how humans can live together
without the prospect of blowing itself into jigsaw-puzzle fragments.
Perhaps Blashers would explore the thought.