The wildest frontier

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Crossing the Tuira River in the Darién Gap, with the Avon raft flying the Union Jack and the Panama flag : credit: © John Blashford-Snell
The British Trans-Americas Expedition was a brave PR stunt by Land Rover for its then brand-new Range Rover: luckily it paid off. Now 50 years on, the expedition leader, Colonel John Blashford-Snell CBE, shares his amazing story

Travelling through the world’s most inhospitable terrain – the Darién Gap – the now infamous crossing had all the makings of a classic adventure story: endurance, impenetrable undergrowth unmapped to any humans, wild animals, ill health and, of course, Land Rovers. Fifty years later, I’m fortunate enough to catch up with expedition leader, Colonel John Blashford-Snell CBE, for a trip less down memory lane than along a track slashed through unconquered jungle.

Although it was five decades ago, Blashford-Snell’s recollections of the expedition remain crystal clear. Trying to forge a navigable route through uncharted jungle, with two broken Range Rovers languishing behind, he counts it as one of the toughest challenges of his long and fascinating career.

“It was a race against time,” he recalls, from his permanent Expedition Base in the Dorset countryside, from where, aged 85, he still plans annual expeditions to South America and Mongolia, between writing books and preparing lectures. “With the Range Rovers out of action, we were losing time and we only had 100 days to get through before the rains started.”

Just months earlier Blashford-Snell, then a major in the Royal Engineers, had been brought on-board with the British-led Trans-Americas expedition, a pioneering journey that would see two of British Leyland’s recently-launched Range Rover models drive from Alaska to the southernmost tip of Chile, Cape Horn.

Explorer and founder of the Scientific Exploration Society, Blashford-Snell was tasked with forging a vehicular route through 250 miles of unchartered South American jungle and the Great Atrato Swamp.

Half of the six months allotted to the 18,000-mile journey were dedicated to its toughest central section, which had been a long-standing impediment to the dream of a Pan-American Highway, running the length of the continent. This inhospitable isthmus spanning Panama and Colombia – the expedition’s greatest challenge – had to be navigated in a narrow three-month window between the seasonal rains which rendered the area impassable.

The expedition route through the Darién Gap

​​​​​​With that all-important window already diminishing because of unexpectedly late rains, the team set out from Panama’s Cañita – the end of the highway’s northern section – sliding in mud tracks which Blashford-Snell compared to the battlefields of the Somme.

Such terrain was initially well-handled by the state-of-the-art Range Rovers, fitted out with motor-driven capstan winches, roll-bars, ‘cow-catcher’ bumper extensions, roof-racks and even coffee machines. The Darién Gap, however, was always going to be their ultimate test. And, once into the jungle terrain that had seen previous attempts abandoned, the Range Rovers’ differentials started breaking every few miles.

“They went off like a shell exploding: once, the teeth from the differential came through the floor like shrapnel. Luckily, no-one was in the back because we had removed the rear seats,” Blashford-Snell recalls.

Left: Heading down the steep riverbanks was far easier than getting back up them again, though the special Royal Engineers alloy ladders (right) were used 400 times during the expedition to good effect

After getting through nine differentials, both Range Rovers were stationary. “We phoned Land Rover and said we have a technical problem – the diffs are exploding – so at Solihull they tried to recreate the conditions that had made this occur,” he explains. British Leyland flew out spares, including custom-made parts, along with engineer Geof Miller, then employed in Land Rover’s transmission department. He oversaw fitting the new differentials and working out what had gone wrong, namely that the vehicles were too heavily overloaded for the terrain. 

Initially the Range Rovers had been modestly-laden with interconnected aluminium ladders, water tanks and the crucial inflatable raft, custom-designed for the expedition to carry a vehicle. Fuel and additional equipment were loaded onto motorised, tracked wheelbarrows from the Forestry Commission and an inadequate number of horses provided by Panama. Neither the horses nor the wheelbarrows had been in the jungle before, with the former proving unsuitable and the latter forcibly abandoned, as the mud that seeped through the tracks set like concrete in the heat.

This had led to excessive reliance on the expedition vehicles to carry equipment. “The Range Rovers had very powerful engines but something had to give, and it was the diffs,” Blashford-Snell relates, adding that the Firestone swamp tyres also proved inappropriate and needed to be replaced with all-terrain versions.

Captain Ernie Durey of the Royal Engineers helped carve out a route for the Range Rovers to follow using the Pathfinder

While the Range Rovers were stalled, Miller worked tirelessly on them for three weeks, much to the delight of the expedition’s botanists and scientists who could freely explore the jungle. At the same time, the US Army helicoptered in an old Series IIA Land Rover, that had been rolled in Panama City.

“We stripped it down to reduce its weight so six strong men could lift it, then fitted a winch, and it was ideal for the job,” recounts Blashford-Snell. “We called it the Pathfinder and used it as a tool carrier – for chainsaws, picks, beer and other vitals – and to build a pilot track in the hope that, once the Range Rovers were fixed, they could pick up the trail fast.”

On reflection, he muses, “Old Land Rovers would have been a better vehicle in which to attempt this expedition. But British Leyland wanted the Range Rovers tested and it was a big launch. Every car manufacturer wanted their vehicles to be the first to cross the Darién Gap.” The team found the remains of an old Chevrolet Corvair – entirely unsuited to the terrain – from an earlier attempt abandoned in the jungle, absorbed into the flora and home to jungle ants, a poisonous snake and a giant spider. When word about the Range Rovers’ issues got out, Toyota offered to step in with replacement vehicles. “Halfway through the expedition, Toyota contacted us, saying if you want to change vehicles, we can supply you with new ones,” Blashford-Snell says with a chuckle. “Land Rover were not happy!”

The Pathfinder forging its way through the dense jungle

The Pathfinder had, meanwhile, forged 100 miles ahead, thrashing out a basic route. Once the mechanical problems were rectified, the pack-horses more heavily-laden and the team more reliant on the British Army Beaver aircraft supporting the expedition for fuel and supply drops, the Range Rovers made good progress catching up.

“Once we overcame the problems, the Range Rovers were magnificent vehicles,” Blashford-Snell says. They were also magnificently thirsty, averaging just four miles to the gallon. Over the course of the Darién Gap breakthrough, 15,000 gallons of fuel were used, mostly parachuted in from the Beaver, along with 10 tons of army rations, 2400 cans of beer, 80,000 cigarettes, sacks of horse fodder and boxes of dynamite.

“We had some exciting moments with the parachutes,” Blashford-Snell recalls. Rendered invisible from the air by the jungle, the team deployed late-WW2 technology – bright orange gas-filled balloons tied to long strings and eased up above 100-foot-high trees – to alert the aviation team to their position.

“We would pull the balloon up and down and they would try to bomb it with the parachute, beneath which the fuel drum was connected by 100 feet of cable because, although the parachutes would get stuck in the trees, the drum would still hit the ground,” he reveals. “Several times, we were almost hit by fuel drums but the nearest miss was at the end, near a Colombian settlement, when a parachute caught in the wind and the fuel drum went through the roof of a communal house with an open fire. It missed the fire and all the people, went straight through the floor and plummeted into the mud below. No-one was hurt but, my god, it was a terrifying moment. If it had hit the fire, it could have been like a bomb.”

One Range Rover was almost washed away – it took 36 hours to dry it out

The Range Rovers’ durability was proven when one vehicle sank into a hole while crossing a fast-flowing river and, half-submerged, was under threat of being washed down-river. Video footage shows Blashford-Snell in his trademark pith helmet issuing instructions through a loudhailer to the rescue party, which successfully retrieved the Range Rover with the help of a Tirfor jack which Blashford-Snell still has to this day. “We got the car out and luckily the sun was shining and it was hot. The engineer stripped it right down and, in 36 hours, got it going. That says something for the Range Rover.”

Blashford-Snell knew the expedition was going to be tough from the man who undertook its reconnaissance. “I had this mad friend, Brendan O’Brien, who wanted to get out of the UK for a while, so I gave him £100 and told him to walk through the Darién Gap and tell us if it was possible to put a vehicle through,” recalls Blashford-Snell. “When he returned, he looked ghastly – he’d got every disease known to man – and I asked if it could be done. He replied: ‘I think you can do it, but don’t ask me to come with you!’”

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Two days of jungle training with the US military had proved scant preparation for what lay ahead. ‘The Darién – a godforsaken place full of snakes, insects, heat, rain, bandits… Several expeditions had failed to cross the complete gap but we were determined to succeed,’ Blashford-Snell was to write later. ‘This was without doubt the most challenging expedition of my career and a very close-run thing’.

Temperatures hitting 38° Celsius with 85 per cent humidity were nothing compared to the constant menace of mosquitos, stinging caterpillars, black scorpions, giant spiders, ticks and deadly snakes.

The vehicles were now in good health, but the team increasingly were not. During the three-month expedition, almost half were struck down by jungle fevers, wounds, exhaustion, sickness, trench foot (despite their US Army jungle boots) and septic bites, with casualties evacuated by boat or light aircraft. There were also fatalities among Colombians bringing in supplies; five were lost in a boat accident and another six killed by guerrilla fighters from the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) group.

Left to right: Blashford-Snell (or JBS), Ticky Wright RE and Columbian Major Alberto Patron in the Atrato Swamp

Facing a manpower deficit, Blashford-Snell came up with a unique solution after visiting a local jail, mainly populated by Colombian smugglers. He suggested taking them off the Panamanian prison’s hands so they could work their way back to freedom in Colombia, helping cut the track. After sealing the deal with two crates of Black Label whiskey, 15 prisoners – unexpectedly including a woman – joined the expedition, which had also acquired an American hippy, on the run for tax evasion.

Pressing on through unceasingly merciless terrain, the forward party was led by “veteran obstacle breaker” Captain Ernie Durey, hacking out a 10-foot-wide track using machetes, dynamite and power saws, felling vegetation. But the going was gruelling, with the team averaging just three miles a day. Ravines were bridged with aluminium ladders – used more than 400 times during the expedition – and the Range Rover capstans, along with Tirfor jacks to haul the vehicles up some of the steeper slopes.

Nearing the Colombian border, however, they hit an impassable barrier of hills – near the aptly named Devil’s Switchback. Blashford-Snell met with locals and several colonisers who had ‘gone native’ in a small village, one of whom was called Charlie Thompson. When Blashford-Snell asked him if there was a route round the team’s current impasse, he mentioned the ‘Monkey Crossing’ – a smugglers’ trail leading to Colombia – saying: “If you can get up the cliff and find the trail, you’ll get through.”

Reaching this involved driving through river shallows and rafting the vehicles when the waters became too deep and eventually facing the escarpment. “We winched the Land Rovers up the cliff, inch by inch, at 60 degrees – and that is quite some slope to climb – with someone behind the wheel of each,” Blashford-Snell remembers. “First went the Pathfinder and then the Range Rovers.”

The Pathfinder being ferried across the Atrato Swamp on the Avon raft

The team found the Monkey Crossing and motored on to the border, emerging at the edge of the Great Atrato Swamp a fortnight later than intended but with spirits buoyed by having survived the jungle.

The swamp, approximately the size of Wales, presented a new terrain challenge, with its thick covering of weed – a type of water-hyacinth. “We used detonating cord with sticks of dynamite to break through, lassoing this out as far as possible (about 30 yards) and then backing off and igniting it,” explains Blashford-Snell. “The explosion would crack up the cellular structure of the weed, which we could then part aside to bring the raft [carrying the vehicles one at a time] through, and then we’d have to do it again. Once through, the weed would close behind us.” The Range Rovers braved driving the last sections of swamp atop a four-foot thick crust sitting above waters running at least 1000 feet deep.

The team victoriously emerged on St George’s Day – 99 days after setting off. “We made it by eight hours because that night the rains came,” recollects Blashford-Snell. “So many things went wrong – equipment breaking, people getting sick, trying different routes and then the swamp. Most mornings, alone at 6.00am, I feared the expedition could fail. But, we didn’t go to fail!”

Queen Elizabeth II was amongst the first to send congratulatory messages and there were huge celebrations in Colombia, including a motorcade through the capital Bogota, along with wreath-laying to commemorate the Colombians who had lost their lives during the expedition.

Mud from the late rains clogging the Range Rovers

The two Range Rovers then set off for Chile. Having successfully navigated snow, mountains, desert, jungle, swamp, more snow and crossing a lake in Chile on a makeshift raft, on 9 June they reached Cape Horn and sent the message ‘Mission Accomplished’.

Despite the expedition’s success, and a $150million funding pledge from the US, the pan-American highway was never completed. A 200-mile road was eventually built through Panama but the final 60-odd mile stretch, including the Atrato Swamp, has kept that highway a dream. Today, the area is described as one of the most dangerous in the world, infamous for drug- and people-smuggling, and largely the domain of bandits, left-wing members of the National Liberation Army and right-wing paramilitaries. Migrants still cross this route on foot trying to reach North America and, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, some 133,000 migrants, including 19,000 children, attempted this journey in 2021, with at least 51 reported missing or dead.

And what became of the three vehicles which thrashed their way through the jungle? The two Range Rovers were brought back to England and, at the request of Land Rover (supported by the British Army, who saw it as a great recruitment opportunity), Blashford-Snell spent a year driving one around England, giving lectures at museums, events and county shows, adding: “By that time, it was doing 11 miles to the gallon, but luckily the army paid for the fuel.”

Today, one is on display in the British Motor Museum, with the other held in the Dunsfold Collection near Guildford (read about it's recent prestigious appearance at the RAC Club in London here). Dunsfold trustee Richard Baddall told LRM that the Range Rover is always a popular, attention-grabbing exhibit at their annual open days, saying: “It’s also a vehicle that did something quite extraordinary – driving the Darién Gap was a hell of an expedition – and, apart from replica ladders, it’s exactly how it was.”

The trusty Pathfinder which saved the Darién expedition met a more unfortunate end. Battered, dented and missing a front light section, it was – of course – still working. The expedition presented it to the chief of Panama’s national security forces who enthusiastically leapt behind the wheel to drive it across the square. Alas, he was too swift for the team to warn him the brakes no longer worked, and the Pathfinder ended the short test-drive embedded in a wall.

There have been a lot of advances in motoring engineering over the last 50 years, so how capable does Blashford-Snell think new models would be at undertaking a similar challenge?

“The modern Range Rover is so complicated I wonder how it would stand up to the humidity and mud of the Darién. The more complicated and electric things are, the more there is to go wrong,” he muses, having driven a new Range Rover around a compact ‘jungle course’ up in Solihull. “On balance, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take brand new vehicles on expeditions like that because, if something goes wrong, it could be a big problem and could collapse the whole expedition.”

Overcoming challenges is what makes an adventure but the Darién breakthrough was also crucial to technological advances of the time; developing the ladders, raft and other jungle equipment, as well as giving the British Army jungle experience. And, not only was it the first expedition to successfully take two Range Rovers and one Land Rover through the jungle and across the swamp, to this day it remains a feat repeated only a handful of times.

 

Find out more

Already the author of 16 books, Colonel Blashford-Snell’s latest, From Utmost East to Utmost West: My Life of Exploration and Adventure, was published in October 2022 by Bradt, and he will be lecturing on the Darién expedition throughout the next two years.

The Hundred Days of Darién by Russell Braddon (1974) is available second-hand.

 

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