John Blashford-Snell: ‘You’ve got the lives of other people in your hands’

  • What is your earliest memory?
    Being washed in a hand basin in a vicarage in Herefordshire. It must have been just before the war; I was small enough to fit into the basin. I was fascinated by the big brass taps.

  • Who was or still is your mentor?
    As a youngster, I was fascinated by the stories of Livingstone and Stanley, and much of my life has been spent following some of their journeys in Africa. General Sir John Mogg, commandant at Sandhurst. When I went back as an instructor, he made me the adventure training officer. He rose to be deputy supreme commander of Europe and later on, when we started Operations Drake and Raleigh [youth expedition organisations], he became chairman. A very outward-going, sporty man, great fun, a real leader.

  • How fit are you?
    My doctor seems to think I’m pretty fit. I’ve got a cross trainer and another exercise machine. I try to walk a mile or so every day.

  • Tell me about an animal you have loved.
    Honeyblossom, an Asian elephant. She was very courageous on safaris in Nepal when we went out counting tigers, and she would stand up to a charging tiger, using her trunk like a whip. She was quite hard to handle. When I approached her, I would always take a banana and start to talk so she would recognise my voice. When I said “Good morning, Honeyblossom,” out would come this great trunk, looking for the banana. She was probably the most intelligent animal I’ve ever met. There was a real feeling of love between us.

  • Risk or caution, which has defined your life more?
    Caution. On an expedition you’ve got the lives of other people in your hands. If you make a mistake, somebody may die.

  • What trait do you find most irritating in others?
    I detest selfishness.

  • What trait do you find most irritating in yourself?
    According to my wife, I’m too single-minded and, as a result, I tend to forget some of the simple matters and family things.

  • What drives you on?
    Curiosity. And the need to solve problems. If someone says something can’t be done, I want to know why. As a Royal Engineer, my job’s always been to find solutions.

  • Do you believe in an afterlife?
    Yes, definitely.

  • Which is more puzzling, the existence of suffering or its frequent absence?
    I’m not puzzled by the existence of suffering. I admire people who handle pain stoically, philosophically, with composure.

  • Name your favourite river.
    The Blue Nile used to be wonderful, but there’s a great dam across it now. The Congo, last time I went down it, was pretty filthy. My favourite is the Karnali, in west Nepal. It comes tumbling down from the Himalayas. There are all sorts of wonderful animals around: muggers, great big crocodiles, bird life and the golden mahseer, which I have fished for many times. The river is a challenge, great fun for white-water rafting.

  • What would you have done differently?
    I’d have learnt to fly. I have flown aircraft once a qualified pilot had taken off, and recently I flew in a Tiger Moth. The pilot let me take the controls. It was a wonderful experience.

  • John Blashford-Snell CBE is the founder of the Scientific Exploration Society. His book “From Utmost East to Utmost West” is published by Bradt Guides

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