After hitch-hiking from London to Johannesburg before he was 21, and two further years hitching around every country in South and Central America, John never really shook off the travel bug. He studied Latin American History and Sociology at university before becoming a language teacher in Spain and Portugal. He then worked as a tour guide for Journey Latin America, taking small groups to South America, and bringing most of them back.
It was during this time that he started making his own expeditions – especially to the Amazon. A lover of wilderness, he has also canoed in Africa, Europe and North America.
‘Up the Creek: an Amazon Adventure’, originally published in 1986, and was reissued in February 2012, was an account of one of these journeys, and ‘Into the Amazon: an incredible story of survival in the jungle' was published in 2011.
The film ‘John Harrison Explorer’ was made for the ‘Voyager’ series by National Geographic in 1991, about a canoe journey on the Rio Ximim-Ximim in Brazil.
John has written and presented several radio programmes for the BBC, and contributed articles to many magazines and newspapers.
He has entertained audiences with more than 200 lectures over the last 25 years, including four talks at the Royal Geographical Society in London, (where he has also chaired three seminars on tropical forest expedition logistics), plus motivational seminars and visits to schools and Luncheon Clubs. He has also been an on-board speaker for the Cunard, Silversea, Seabourn, Holland America and Fred Olsen cruise lines.He lives in Bristol in the UK with his wife and two children, where he has his own construction company.
My article in The Sunday Times 3rd March 2013. (Sir Ranulph Fiennes's evacuation from Antarctica made me nostalgic for a less technological age. Wouldn't be surprised if he misses it too.)
Crotch powdered, boots polished, now for the piranhas.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes has been evacuated from Antarctica to receive medical attention to a hand that became frostbitten when he briefly took off his glove at -30C to fix a stubborn ski binding. It must be a crushing disappointment to abandon The Coldest Journey expedition and leave his companions to carry on without him.
It was a tricky evacuation, delayed by blizzards, and needing assistance from Belgian and Russian Antarctic bases, and a Russian plane to Cape Town. "I would like to thank the Belgian International Polar Foundation for their assistance in transporting me here, and also International SOS for their role in getting me seen to medically as soon as I landed in Cape Town," Fiennes said from hospital. "I have undergone a number of tests on my frostbitten hand and I feel very lucky to have been treated with the utmost care by extremely well-trained professionals and have felt in safe hands throughout."
The fact that it is possible to summon help, and engineer an evacuation from such a remote place, shows how much the world of exploration has changed. Few explorers these days will undertake an expedition without radios and satellite phones to call for evacuation when things go wrong.
It would be regarded as foolhardy and reckless to travel without such technology, but only 30 years ago few expeditions had that safety net, and 60 years ago no expeditions did.
Without doubt this has changed the game. There are many extraordinary exploits still taking place, but it is undeniable that the presence of a satellite phone or radio provides a psychological comfort. No team member has to weigh up
whether he or she is willing to embark on a trip where bad luck can result in death. Except mountaineers, it seems, who can carry all the gizmos they like above 20,000ft and still be out of reach of any rescue.
I made several long canoe expeditions to the Amazon in the 1980s and early 1990s with no radio or back-up of any sort, often 400 miles from the nearest settlement and spending five months with just one travelling companion. I am not saying this as a boast, but to explain some of the pleasures that will be lost.
Expensive, cumbersome radios were available at the time, needing a car battery to power them, but it all seemed a bit of a faff, so we opted to go without. We would muddle through somehow, take the safest options when we met danger, look after each other and we would be all right. It gave us a little frisson of fear sometimes when we realised how far we had climbed out on that limb, but an element of danger and risk has always been part and parcel of any expedition. And it heightened the experience. One moment of carelessness, or a stroke of bad luck could have been fatal. An inoffensive appendix might turn into a lethal weapon, or a hernia strangulate, and nothing in our comprehensive medical kit
would be any good. (Actually, a Russian at an Antarctic base in the winter of 1961 got acute appendicitis, and as he was the only doctor on site, operated on himself with local anaesthetic, and survived. So we always carried a little diagram showing where the incision should be made and what to look for.) It was a hazardous world with sharp knives, machetes, shotguns, open fires, fierce rapids, deadly snakes, piranhas, electric eels and jaguars. The canoe might get smashed up. We could get lost. All we could do was be careful and watch out for each other. We did that zealously — neither of us wanted to be left up there all alone. There were unexpected pleasures, too, in being isolated and out of touch. Five months of total ignorance of what was happening in the world. On our return home big news events such as the Hungerford shootings, or the death of actors or rock stars would filter in months later.
A friend takes the prize for missing one of the biggest events of the past 20 years. In December 1997 he returned from several months in the rainforest and we met him in a London pub the day after his return. An Evening Standard was lying on the table with the headline "Diana's memorial fund reaches £50m".
"Who's Diana raising money for?" he asked innocently, so we told him the news.
I remember the incredulous silence that fell over the crowded pub when he cried: "What? Princess Diana's dead?"
And of course spending months with just one person, with no entertainment, and with books rationed to three each (for weight), tested one's conversational skills and forged and tested friendships.
When I see people in the cinema or restaurants turning on their phones to check for messages, I wonder whether many could stand being cut off these days. Months with no internet, no news, no social media, no television, no games, no films. Just six books, three of which might be dodgy because your companion chose them. (Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners’ once)
One positive benefit of the internet has been in the planning stage. Twenty-five years ago getting information about a region or river, or finding out who might have been there, was difficult. Even the maps were hard to come by and inaccurate. Letters were sent, and replies took weeks.
Before my first expedition to the Amazon I wanted some information about doing a trip without local guides and with the minimum of equipment, but could not find anyone for advice. Eventually the Royal Geographical Society suggested I contact a retired army officer who had fought the Japanese in Burma. I penned him a long letter outlining my plans and fears.
A few weeks later a reply arrived. Two sentences long.
"These things are never as daunting as they seem. Just keep your boots polished and your crotch powdered."
It is a long time ago. It might have been the other way round.
Of course I do not take this nostalgia for the past to its logical conclusion by going to the Amazon eschewing any anti-malarials developed in the past 60 years, or to the Arctic dressed in a Harris tweed jacket. Equipment and clothing get better and better, and I use them without hesitation. I made a couple of trips to the Tumucumaque Hills of northern Amazonia where the young Frenchman Raymond Maufrais disappeared in 1950, and visited the remains of a cabin on the Thelon River on the Canadian tundra where Edgar Christian, just 17, starved to death in 1927.
For five months my parents got no word at all from me. It must have been agonising, especially as they knew that I had gone to a part of the world with a fearsome reputation .
Then one year I developed a plan to make it easier for them. In the last Brazilian town before we set off into the jungle, I composed a few letters, dated a few weeks apart which began with phrases such as "Just met a missionary who's heading for town tomorrow", or "We're at an Indian village with an airstrip and a pilot will take our letters . . ." and then I left them with a trustworthy local with instructions to post them at intervals. That worked beautifully for several years. My mother said it was such a comfort that I no longer went to those places where I was so out of touch.
Then it all went wrong. One Brazilian misunderstood my instructions and posted all the letters together.