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Captain John Dundas Cochrane travelled 3000 miles on foot

Posted in Historical articles, History, Travel on Monday, 29 April 2013

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This edited article about Captain Cochrane originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 235 published on 16 July 1966.

Captain Cochrane, picture, imAGE, ILLUSTRATION

Captain John Dundas Cochrane wandered an amazing 3,000 miles on foot and married a lady from Kamtchatka

The tall Englishman trudging along the Moscow road suddenly heard footsteps crunching in the snow behind him. He turned and found two ragged, masked bandits threatening him with a musket and bayonet. One gestured to the silent, frozen forest, and unwillingly Captain Cochrane left the road. A minute later the bandits had stripped him of his clothes and few possessions and had tied him to a tree.

While the Captain shivered in the sub-zero cold of the Russian winter, the two men searched his knapsack and pockets for money and valuables. Then, having found his passport, his money and letters of introduction, they bundled his clothes into the knapsack and left him to freeze to death.

It was one of the worst moments for Captain John Dundas Cochrane during his amazing 3,000-mile walk overland from Dieppe, in France, to Okhotsk, on the other side of Asia.

Born in 1786, John Cochrane entered the Royal Navy at the age of ten. Physically and mentally rugged, he worked his way up to the rank of Captain and saw action against French ships during the Napoleonic wars. After Waterloo the fleets were reduced, and Cochrane, like so many officers, found himself without a command.

Detesting idleness, he requested permission from the Admiralty to lead an expedition to discover the source of the African river Niger. The request was rejected, so, in February, 1820, the Captain decided to undertake a journey of his own – on foot.

He had hiked from Paris to Berlin, through Poland to Lithuania, and on to Novgorod, in Russia . . . and now he was tied naked to a tree, with only minutes before the terrible cold killed him.

Luckily the Captain had strong lungs, and his cries for help resounded through the ice-spangled trees. A passing peasant heard him and cut his bonds.

The Englishman had to tramp barefoot over the snow for nine miles to a village where a kindly merchant gave him new clothes. Then, undaunted by loss of his money and papers (of which he managed to get copies later), Captain Cochrane went on his way to Moscow.

Whenever possible, he brought his diaries up to date, and from an entry in one of these we get a glimpse of the Captain’s incredible stamina: “Passing through Tschornaya Graz, I entered Moscow at eight in the morning . . . the last thirty-two hours I warrant bearing witness to one of my greatest pedestrian trips – the distance is 168 versts, or about 96 miles . . .”

From Moscow, Cochrane walked along the winter tracks to Kazan, Perm, and across the Urals to Tobolsk. Here, because of the depth of the snow and the vastness of the territory, the local governor supplied him with horses and a Cossack guide. At one point – Malaya Narymka – they crossed the frontier into China.

Finally Cochrane reached Irkutsk and, after a short rest, headed north into Siberia. Here he had to brave cold that was often 30 degrees below zero, and he had many strange adventures. Once he staggered into a village and begged a woman for a light for his pipe. To his surprise the woman and her neighbours beat him with broomsticks and drove him back into the forest, bruised and bleeding. Afterwards he learned that the village was a settlement of Raskolnicks, a fanatical religious sect who swore never to give food or fire to any traveller not of their faith.

In Siberia, Cochrane trudged steadily north to the Kolyma region, within the Arctic Circle, where he was the first European to cross many huge tracts of land. In one Siberian village he entertained the local “medicine man” to tea, but by mistake put some of his store of tobacco in the teapot, with the result that the “medicine man” thought he was being poisoned. Cochrane was hard put to it to restore friendly feelings.

While travelling over a stretch of unexplored territory with a native guide and a Cossack, Cochrane had to find the way by compass when both his companions were struck with snow blindness. For five days they struggled through a wolf-infested forest with only a few wild berries to eat. Finally they reached the Kolyma River. If they could get across, they knew they could reach an outpost that would supply them with food. The problem was how to cross the river. It was in flood, and the only vessel available was a canoe – moored on the opposite bank!

Without a word Cochrane dived into the stream and, dodging great blocks of ice, fought the current until he reached the canoe, in which he returned for his companions.

Having explored the Kolyma area, on the East Siberia Sea, and made scientific notes, the Captain began the journey to Okhotsk, on the North Pacific Coast of Asia. In a dreary, icy wilderness, starvation again faced him and his companions – until they found a wolf and a horse that had killed each other in savage combat. The frozen flesh of the animals kept them alive until they reached the Okota River.

This time there was no canoe, and the flood was too wide to swim, so Cochrane constructed a raft, tying logs together with thongs cut from his leather knapsack.

The raft was pushed out with poles. Then, caught in the fierce current, it went spinning crazily down the river for miles until it hit a submerged tree and capsized. With the three men clinging desperately to it, it was washed up on an island that shrank as the waters rose.

Cochrane and his men wasted no time. They took the raft to pieces and made a floating bridge across the channel that separated the island from the opposite shore. The Cossack hauled himself to safety, but in helping the other man, a Yakut, the Captain fell into the icy water.

“I held on, however,” he wrote later, “and was pulled ashore in such a state, from the effects of the cold, that my clothes became like a firm casing of ice. My Yakut soon produced fire by friction, but because of the height of the grass and the dryness of the wood all round, the whole forest was soon enveloped in flames. From the danger of perishing by cold, I was now hurried into that of being consumed by fire. We were obliged to work hard to prevent its being fatal to us.”

When Cochrane reached Okhotsk in June, 1821, he had covered over 2,000 miles of Siberia, apart from his travels in Europe and Russia. Much of the territory he had travelled had never been mapped.

From Okhotsk he embarked on a brig for Kamtchatka, where he landed at the capital of Petropavlovsk. It was his plan to explore this remote peninsula north of Japan, then cross to the American continent over the Bering Sea, and so continue his marathon walk which, he hoped, would take him round the world. But these plans did not work out. He spent eleven months in Kamtchatka, travelling and making notes . . . and falling in love with the beautiful daughter of a local chief.

After their marriage, he decided to bring her back to England. They arrived in London in 1823, and Mrs. Cochrane was the first lady from Kamtchatka ever to visit the city.

In London, the Captain settled down and wrote a book on his experiences which, in the manner of those days, he entitled: “A Pedestrian Journey Through Russia and Siberian Tartary to the Frontiers of China, the Frozen Sea and Kamtchatka.” But when the book was finished, the wanderlust was too strong for him, and in 1825 he left for South America on a mining venture. Soon afterwards he died of fever at Valencia, in Colombia. His widow then returned to Russia.

Perhaps the most telling insight into the Captain’s character can be gained from what he wrote at the conclusion of his book: “He is the wisest and most successful traveller who goes at once into his journey, dependent only upon the reception which the ‘ignorant and brutal’ will give him; and not the traveller who relies on a well-lined purse. I have received food from a family almost starving, and am therefore justified by grateful experience in affirming that those people who are the most ignorant and uncivilized are the most hospitable and friendly to their fellows.”

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