In 1972 a British colonel led two Range Rovers, 28 horses, 12 murderers and a Series IIA across the Darien Gap. LRM caught up with him 45 years on
Like many a crazy adventure, this one began with a liquid-fuelled lunch. The venue was Canning House in London. “Colonel Julian du Parc Braham, eyeing me through his monocle, asked: ‘Have you ever thought of driving from Alaska to Cape Horn?’ ‘No, but I do not imagine there would be much of a problem, simply a question of time and petrol.’ ‘Then you do not know about the Darien Gap,’ he said sharply. I didn’t!” This excerpt was taken from Blashford-Snell’s autobiography Something Lost Behind The Ranges. In it the Colonel devotes two chapters to the now-legendary Darien Gap crossing by the British Trans-Americas Expedition in the early 1970s. For those in the dark, the Pan American Highway system is roughly 17,000km long, stretching from snowy Alaska in the north, to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of Argentina. Even today the highway remains incomplete, thanks to the Darien Gap in the middle. It measures only 250 miles in length but the swamps, highlands, hornets, creepy crawlies, vampire bats, deadly snakes and hand-sized spiders are enough to make even the toughest man call for his mamma or a medevac. Both of the expedition Range Rovers were of the left-hand-drive variety as they were built for the Swiss market. They were repainted for the expedition but if you pop the hood you will still see the original Sahara Dust paint in the engine bay. Both made it home to Britain and today one can be seen at the Heritage Motor Centre while the other forms part of the ever-expanding Dunsfold Collection. They were both stock standard but because the expedition needed maximum storage space, the rear bench was taken out and replaced with a Rover P6 saloon seat. Over to you Colonel.
Give us a little more detail as to how this whole expedition came about?
It all began with that Canning House lunch in London that you've already mentioned where several Latin American countries gave the UK a little challenge – cross the Darien Gap using a couple of 4x4s to show us where to build our road. In 1962 Chevrolet tried the crossing using Corvairs, and they had to leave them behind. Now it was not in the Americans' best political interests to have a road linking North and South America as they were pretty involved in Panama at the time. So at that lunch the decision was taken that the UK, which had a rich history of exploration and adventure, would take on the challenge.
Why did you lead the expedition?
Initially they decided that a certain young, able navy officer would lead the expedition but he could not get time off work. At the time one of my side jobs was looking after Army expeditions, so they rang me up at the Ministry of Defence and asked if I would be interested in leading it? I had never been to South America before. I didn't know an awful lot about jungles but I did know a bit about Land Rovers and expeditions. My commanding officer thought the expedition would be good for morale and gave me the go-ahead.
What about a recce?
We got hold of a young, well-travelled mad Irishman called Brendon O’Brien. He had recently overtaken a police vehicle at great speed in London and was to keen to get out of town for a while. We gave him £100 and off he went. By some miracle he walked through the gap, returning three months later, thin and haggard. For two hours I listened to his story and examined his photographs. In the end he said ‘Well, I think you can do it, but don’t ask me to come with you.’ With that he was rushed off to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. He is now a stunt pilot and flies a bi-plane that lands on trucks. Based on his report we made our plan.
Who took the decision to use Range Rovers? Motoring journalist Tim Nicholson, an expedition scribe, already had an established link with British Leyland. He had written a number of books, including one about taking the first car into Abyssinia. The Darien Gap would be a great way to showcase the capabilities of the recently-launched Range Rover.
How did your go about recruiting your team?
We were being officially supported by the British Armed Forces. Much of the recruitment took place at my own regiment, the Royal Engineers. We wanted soldiers that were very tough, extremely fit, highly practical and resolute engineers. Our vehicle mechanics came from the 17/21 Lancers and they were trained up on the Range Rovers by Land Rover. Our expedition numbered about 60 in total, including scientists, aircrew and a few Americans.
What about the use of locals?
To supplement our workforce I purchased a dozen ex-murderers from a prison in Panama for a case of Black Label Whisky. We promised them freedom in exchange for work. They were terrified of our Gurkha Sergeant, Limbu Partapsing. He would run his Kukri (fighting knife) across his throat as a warning to any of the lazy prisoners. They were terrified of him and nobody dared run away.
You almost lost one of the Range Rovers to a river?
It fell into a hole in the fast flowing Tuira River. Luckily one of the guys had a Tirfor winch that I still have today. We attached it to the back and got it out. One of our mechanics took 36 hours to get it going again. A remarkable feat considering all its electronics and complexities. Everything had to be taken apart and put back together again.
That wasn't the end of the problems?
At one stage the expedition ground to a halt due to broken rear differentials. It was a desperate worry because the mechanics had done all they could. Range Rover Project Engineer Geof Miller flew in from the UK with re-designed differentials. Up until then we had broken nine rear differentials and Geof bought with him nine new back axles. He spent a week or two with us fitting them. When they broke they literally exploded with bits coming up through the floor. Luckily no-one was sitting in the back seat.
I heard you had tyre problems?
Initially we had the wrong tyres. We did replace them with ones boasting a more aggressive tread pattern for traction. When the engine roared and the tyres gripped, something had to give and it was the diffs. As Geof correctly pointed out, the Range Rovers were overloaded.
How did you make a track for the Range Rovers?
Originally we used Hillbillies, which essentially are tracked wheelbarrows. You stand behind them and push them with the help of a little petrol engine of course. We tested them in the UK and they worked fine, but out there it was so hot, they overheated and the mud caked in the tracks causing them to jam. We had to leave them behind.
We needed to make another plan. Our contact in Panama managed to find a Series IIA that had recently rolled, but was otherwise sound. It was flown into Sante Fe and we now had a new pathfinder vehicle. We made it as light as we could and it was loaded with the engineer’s gear such as cables, saws and chains. It then went ahead to make a new track. The Series IIA saved the expedition and without it we wouldn't have reached the end.
We know that both Range Rovers returned to the UK. Where is this IIA?
When it was all over we flew it back from Colombia to Panama in a DC3. There it was presented to the local commander of the army. He jumped into it and drove away. We had forgotten to tell him that the brakes didn’t work and so he crashed into a wall. Fortunately he was okay. I don’t know what happened to it after that.
We have heard that the Queen has a soft spot for this IIA Yes?
After the expedition we were invited to lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Darien Gap expedition. As we sat down she leant over and told me that she did like the picture of the Series IIA on the raft with our Union Jack flying above it. She had seen it in the papers. At that same event Prince Phillip told me that he had used a similar raft when courting the queen so that he could get across the water to see her.
A Range Rover can only carry so much. What did you do with the rest of the supplies?
We had 28 marvellous horses and most of them survived. To protect them from the bats we made special blankets, using parachute material, for them to wear at night. Years later when I went back to Colombia I saw for myself how the 28 (only two lucky stallions in that number) had become hundreds as they bred on the edge of a little frontier village. What about getting supplies along the way? A Beaver plane was critical to the success of the mission. It was leant to us by the Army and was able to fly anywhere. It assisted with critical reconnaissance and parachuted supplies in to us.
Any threats from the wildlife?
One night hundreds of wild pigs attacked the camp and the horses. There were pigs everywhere and you can't just go at them with machine guns as you might kill your own forces. The wild pigs are carnivorous, so they will bite and eat you.
What about security?
Luckily we were English so the Panamanians and Colombians got on with us, despite the fact that they hated each other and the Americans. So we had carte blanche really and could move about freely. It was really an extraordinary situation. Today the gap is a no-go area because of the FARC revolutionaries.
Did you have special protection for the swamp section?
The Colombians provided us with a manned gunboat. You need to remember that they had already lost six men when a boat turned over, yet they kept going. This was the low point of the trip because these guys had come to help us succeed in our mission. We had one man on the overturned boat but he managed to swim ashore.
What about the rate of attrition?
Despite the fact that we were a fairly experienced bunch, we still had a 50 per cent casualty rate due to the dangers of the jungle. Fortunately none of the British expedition members died but sadly we did lose 12 Colombians. At the start of the expedition our vet weighed 19st and at the end he weighed 15st. We all got the most awful foot rot as our feet were wet all the time. This was despite the fact that we had the best boots. I think that without a doubt it’s the hardest thing I have ever done. Even today when I recruit people for tough expeditions I always ask their referees: ‘Would you take this man into
You got through the gap just before the big rains came
It was a close run thing. When we reached the end of the Gap on St George’s day, it was time for parties, girls and beer. I got into bed around 2am and woke to what sounded like an earthquake. The rains had come and the swamp started to fill. If we had not made it through the previous day, we wouldn't have made it at all. We joke today that we made it by just eight hours on the 100th day after setting off.
Did you ever consider giving up?
It was that sort of expedition where if common sense had prevailed, we'd have packed up and pulled out. However once you were in there, you couldn't really get out unless you abandoned your vehicles. We were already receiving calls from Toyota saying they'd loan us a vehicle, but that wasn't an option of course. The Range Rovers were remarkable once we got them moving. Their power meant they could get up just about any slope or hill.
What would you say to anyone thinking about doing something similar today?
Even today the Darien Gap is one of the most dangerous places on earth thanks to the FARC forces. I recently read a book about some orchid collectors who went to the area and were captured by the FARC. After realising they were penniless, they were released. Not all stories in the Darien Gap have a happy
ending like that.45 YEARS OF LAND ROVER
England changed for ever in the middle of June 1970. In the space of five days we lost the World Cup to our greatest rivals and saw Harold Wilson’s Labour Government suffer a shock defeat at the General Election to Ted Heath’s Conservatives. Some political commentators blamed England’s defeat to West Germany for the election result! With the country in such turmoil, you’d expect other events from that period to pale into insignificance. Yet sandwiched between England losing the World Crown (June 14) and the Tory victory (June 18) a car was launched that would rock the world. On June 17 1970, in Cornwall, the original Range Rover was launched. Unlike Sir Alf Ramsey’s football squad and Ted Heath’s administration, it’s a vehicle that is as relevant today as it was 45 years ago. Perhaps more so, because in 2015 the Range Rover family is Britain’s most successful automotive export. But who was to know that on that fateful day when the new car was unveiled? Back then, the world’s first luxury 4x4 was seen as an oddity. Who would pay the eye-watering asking price of just under £2000 (about £25,000 in today’s money)? The answer was a lot of people.
From the moment it went on sale in September that year, Land Rover couldn’t keep up with the demand. Why the excitement? Well, it could have had something to do with the disc brakes all round... the coil suspension... the lusty 3.5 V8 engine... But for many it was simply the distinctive good looks of the new car. It looked so good and was so popular that it remained in production for 26 years – even after its successor was launched. That second generation successor, the Range Rover P38A, wasn’t as universally loved as the original (which was badged the Range Rover Classic while the two models overlapped). But the P38A hinted at the future of the model by introducing a whole host of sophisticated new electronics – arguably a little too sophisticated, for they quickly earned a reputation for failing. The P38A was replaced in 2002 by the third generation Range Rover, the L322, which was planned and developed under BMW’s ownership of the company and launched after Ford had become the new paymasters. It turned out to be massively successful and was joined in 2005 by the first of the model’s derivatives – the Range Rover Sport, which shared a platform with the Discovery but debuted with the marque’s fastest-ever production engine – the 140mph supercharged V8. It was followed by the smaller Range Rover Evoque in 2011. In 2012, the fourth-generation full-sized Range Rover, the L405, with levels of luxury unheard of back in 1970. Prices start at just under £74,000. Yet the evergreen Range Rover Classic has never been more popular with enthusiasts and secondhand models are changing hands for ten times what an original would have cost new in 1970. England may never win the World Cup and governments will come and go. But the Range Rover is a perpetual winner that will live for ever.CONTACT DETAILS:
The Colonel still gives illustrated lectures entitled the “Darien Breakthrough.” For more details contact Anne Gilby at the Scientific Exploration Society (SES) on 01747 854456 or firstname.lastname@example.org
You can purchase a copy of his autobiography Something Lost Behind The Ranges through SES for £12.50 + £3.50 p&p. The Colonel still leads expeditions today with a strong focus on helping youngsters, providing water where needed and elephant-back safaris. For more see www.ses-explore.org