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Colonel Blashford-Snell’s thoughts on the explorer’s most useful qualifications

Posted in Adventure, Africa, Exploration, Historical articles on Monday, 30 July 2012

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This edited article about modern exploration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 756 published on 10th July 1976.

Blashford-Snell's Congo expedition, picture, image, illustration

Colonel Blashford-Snell’s Congo Expedition by Graham Coton

The massive hippo watched the approaching rubber boat with interest. Her tubby six-month-old calf nuzzled against its mother’s muddy side. As the craft got nearer, the noise of the outboard motor worried the hippos. Indeed, to them it looked as if a strange, bulbous, grey animal, making a buzzing noise, was coming to attack.

The hippo mother decided she must act. Pushing her youngsters firmly aside, she opened her great mouth, revealing sets of enormous teeth – and charged!

The men in the boat had only wanted to get a close look at this interesting African river beast, but now to their horror they found themselves gazing straight into its awful jaws as it bore down on them with frightening speed.

The hippo’s first bite tore a wide hole in the bow, releasing the air that kept the tubes of the rubber boat inflated. The hissing effect angered the beast even more, so she bit her enemy again. This time she destroyed the boat’s stern, and with her next attack, she demolished what remained of the craft.

But by now the hippo had swallowed so much of the escaping compressed air that she backed away and gave a long burp! Very luckily another boat was nearby and the men were rescued in the nick of time! Everyone was very shaken and the boat was destroyed.

This was just one of the many exciting incidents that happened to members of a large British expedition that travelled down the 2,700-mile (4,300-km) Zaire River last year.

This expedition was trying to find out about many terrible diseases that affect people in Africa, and it was hoped to show how they might be cured. The members of the team, among whom were soldiers and scientists, and who included some girls, were also studying the animals, the flowers, the insects and the minerals of the region.

Zaire is a huge country, over 12 times the size of Britain, and like many areas of the world has yet to be completely explored. Although man has seen almost every area of the Earth, there are many scientific mysteries, and the remains of long dead civilisations are still being unearthed.

Meanwhile we need to find more oil and minerals to keep us alive in comfort, so geologists are always seeking new supplies. Because it is only in recent years that humans have been able to stay under water for more than a few minutes, the exploration of the ocean bed is far from complete. Wrecks of Spanish galleons carrying gold have always excited people, but today the real treasure beneath the sea is oil. However, whilst some of us are exploring beneath the waves, others have already reached the Moon, and one day perhaps we might even get our minerals from there!

There is no doubt that much of the exploration is very exciting, but there is also a lot of research that has to be done in laboratories as well as paperwork too. Before going on the Zaire River Expedition, we spent four years on planning and preparation!

I haven’t mentioned mountaineering expeditions, about which we often hear. This is because I think that these are more of a personal physical challenge than the purely exploration expeditions. Most explorers I know believe that it is their curiosity and questing spirit that drives them on, rather than a feeling of wanting to overcome some very difficult terrain. Nevertheless, explorers sometimes need to be mountaineers to reach their goal.

Although today we have many new machines and pieces of equipment to help us, we still face some of the same problems that confronted men like Livingstone and Stanley a hundred years ago. Modern expeditions can use special heated tractors to cross the freezing Polar regions, and Land Rovers can motor over the deserts. A British invention, the Hovercraft, has enabled us to glide over the surface of great swamps, and, of course, aircraft and helicopters are also very useful.

However, we have yet to find a vehicle which will carry us through dense jungle. Elephants are the best animals for this, as I discovered during a visit to Nepal recently, but otherwise you simply have to walk. This is not much fun, because in jungle areas it is very hot and sticky.

There are risks from wildlife, but although a lion has jumped over me and a crocodile once had a go at my leg, I assure you the most dangerous animals are usually insects. They attack all the time and eat you alive! The bites of some of them can cause serious illness, and most explorers have to put up with many injections to prevent them from getting sick. Snakes are also plentiful in jungle areas, although they are very rarely aggressive, but in April this year a vampire bat attacked me whilst I slept on the coast of Panama and drank my blood before I woke up. As a result, I had to have 23 injections in a month to prevent me getting a killer disease called rabies.

Modern cameras make it possible for us to take good photographs under these trying conditions, and a new invention, the video camera, enables us to send aircraft ahead of the main parties on a difficult journey and return with instant film so that we may see the difficulties that lie in front of us.

It is extremely useful to be able to record what you see, therefore, when I am asked what qualifications are required to go on an expedition, I usually list “being able to take good photographs in difficult surroundings” as one of the more important skills. This means being able to use most sorts of camera on land and even underwater.

Sometimes there may be problems with local people and because you cannot depend on shooting your way out of trouble, I recommend that if you wish to become explorers or travel, you work hard to learn a language whilst at school.

You will find Spanish most useful in Central and South America, whilst in Zaire you will need French. Arabic is difficult to read and write, but you can easily learn enough words and phrases to get by in about 12 lessons. You will be surprised how useful it is to be able to speak even a little of the local tongue, and people are often very much more friendly when you do.

You can also win the confidence of primitive folk by giving them some genuine medical treatment. However, to do this properly and safely, you should attend a good first-aid course. It also means that you will be better trained to look after yourself! Although I hated doing it, I once had to inject myself, and in the jungle you will find plenty of bites and stings to treat.

Very few are fortunate enough to be able to earn a living as an explorer so you will need to have another job as well. That is why many explorers are schoolmasters, scientists or servicemen who can depend on their employer keeping them in body and soul whilst they are on an expedition.

There are a great many problems to be faced but it can be most exciting overcoming them. And you need not think that all the exploration has been done. There is a very great deal remaining, particularly in the field of scientific work. If you are an adventurous sort of person who has an enquiring mind and a healthy contempt for difficulties and dangers, then I do hope that you will go on at least one expedition in your life. There is masses of work to be done, and I wish you all the very best of luck.

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