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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 2 - White-knuckle exploring days numbered

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 leader.

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 it.

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 masses.

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 expeditions.

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 caracal lynx.

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.

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