Born near Shrewsbury, Major John Blower went to Rossall School where he enjoyed field trips to the Lake District and joined the school cadet force. Whilst reading forestry at Edinburgh University, in 1942 at the age of 20, his studies were interrupted when he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. After six months training, he sailed to join the war in the Far East, stopping in West Africa where he underwent intensive training in jungle warfare before joining the 81st West African Division in Burma.
In September 1944, as a troop commander in 3 Field Company of the West African Engineers of the Royal West African Frontier Force, Lieutenant John Blower was in the fierce fighting in Burma’s Arakan.
The divisional commander, Major General “Fred” Loftus-Tottenham decided to send a small “Commando party” deep into the Kaladan valley to gather information on the enemy positions and spread alarm and confusion by shooting up small parties of Japanese. Thus John Blower and four Africans, two corporals and two sappers, set out on a mission from which many thought it unlikely they would return.
Lightly armed and carrying limited rations, the patrol marched through dense jungle in broken country, crossing numerous fast flowing chaungs or watercourses and had an interesting encounter with a large male tiger, who fortunately turned away. Deep inside enemy territory they managed to ambush a Japanese working party, shooting several of the enemy, but releasing a real “hornets nest” from a major position. Pursued by the angry opposition, John’s team withdrew at high speed using the fine fieldcraft for which African soldiers were reknown and a month after they had set out, having marched several hundred miles, the patrol returned intact to 3 Field Company’s base, where John was awarded a Mention-in –Despatches and 3 weeks leave.
After the war ended John, now a major, was back in Africa and took command of 36 Field Company in Nigeria. Whilst carrying out a recce in the north of the country, he narrowly missed his flight back to Lagos, which was just as well for the plane crashed and all on board died. Later, having left the Army he complete his degree and returned to East Africa where, in 1949 as an Assistant Conservator of Forests in Tanganyika he was responsible for 30,000 square miles of territory, which would become the Serengeti and Ngorongoro National Parks.
When the MauMau conflict broke out and ever eager for action, he gained a temporary attachment to the Kenya Police Reserve as an Inspector. Rejecting a paper pushing job, he formed a special band of 25 African tribal police named the “Kinyona Striking Force” or “Blow Force” for short. Supported by the GOC, General Sir George Erskine, John was tasked to hunt down the notorious “General Kago”, a prominent and ruthless MauMau leader operating in the Aberdares. After several skirmishes “Blow Force” closed with a gang of over a hundred terrorists, inflicting many casualties and killing “General Kago”.
Blower moved on to the Uganda Game Department in 1954, as a Senior Game Warden for the country. An extremely fit man and a fast walker, he spent as much time as possible exploring on foot safaris. In 1958 he oversaw the founding of the Kidepo National Park. Next, at the request of Emperor Haile Selassie he became an advisor to the Ethiopian government to survey the country for planning and establishment of National Parks.
Meeting a major Sandhurst adventure training expedition, John saw this as an opportunity for the little known Blue Nile to be explored. Thus the Emperor requested that a British Army expedition be sent out to navigate this formidable river. The Royal Military College of Science formed the 60 strong expedition and the Corps played a leading role in the venture. John Blower headed the wildlife studies and after 2 months, despite twice being attacked by bandits, the expedition successfully mapped and made the first navigation of the Blue Nile. This led to the founding of the Scientific Exploration Society.
John had many adventures in Ethiopia and on one trip John and his party, including the British Consul were taken prisoners by the Eritrean Liberation Army who were seeking to break away from Ethiopia. However, his skilful tact managed to secure their release.
Nepal beckoned in 1970 and employed by the United Nations, he travelled extensively, mainly on foot both in the high mountains and in the sub tropical jungle in the south. He oversaw the establishment of the first five of the country’s National Parks.
Moving on to Indonesia and later Burma, he faced the challenging task of finding sufficiently large and unspoilt areas where national parks would protect the remaining flora and fauna from ongoing deforestation.
After retirement, he did a consultancy in Bhutan and made a home with Wendy, his second wife in a quiet valley near Hay-on-Wye. With twenty acres to enjoy, they planted thousands of trees and created a beautiful garden. Alas, Wendy died in 2018.
John passed away aged 98, leaving four children and three step children.
Gimbi Ethiopia 1968 - The Resupply Group and Sahib John Blower’s Tin Trunks..
There were three of us in the re supply group, John Blower, Keith Morgan Jones and myself, our task to resupply the boat team on the Blue Nile some sixty kilometres away. The distance was nothing but the terrain was very challenging, more than that it was impossible, ravines, cliffs and rivers.
Now we had arrived from the UK with mule saddles, mules were going to carry all to the Nile, but sadly there were no mules to hire, just donkeys. Keith and I had backpacks, we carried all our needs on our backs. Not so John, John was not into modern trekking, he arrived with two enormous tin travelling trunks, sort of Grand Tour stuff, each almost the size of a donkey, and when it was suggested he might like to break down his things and leave the trunks behind you got that look of lofty surprise, “leave my tin trunks behind, whatever next”. The trunks were coming.
We said goodbye to the Seventh Day Adventist missionary and his very pretty daughter, we had been staying with them, and started to saddled up the donkeys with mule saddles, poor little things, the saddles bumped their necks at the front and jutted out over their hind quarters. And it was impossible to tighten the saddles. Every load was thrown, including the tin trunks. The donkey men, Keith and I picked up loads, chased after and recaptured donkeys all day, we tried to reload the animals, and finally gave up. John sat throughout with that lofty look of astonishment with a faint smile on his lips and showed no interest in chasing donkeys “Leave it to the donkey boys, dear boy” was John’s contribution. There was a moment of interest when his tin trunks landed in the mud of Gimbi. The entire population of Gimbi lined the banks overlooking the road, they just howled with laughter, they ached with pain from laughter, they rolled on the ground shrieking with laughter. We spent the night back with the Seventh Day Adventist Missionary.
We set off the next day, loads now lashed local style, saddles left behind and one poor donkey with two huge tin trunks, one either side for balance, John was not going to rough it but he was a charming English Sahib and fun to be with.
As the Scientific Exploration Society Awards Presentation was unable to be held in person in 2020, an online event was held.
The video of this event can be found on YouTube
Members of the 2018 Mongolian Baatar Expedition gathered at Motcombe on 23rd February for the ‘premiere’ of the expedition film.
Ronalda was a beautiful ten year old Brazilian girl who lived close to the small town of Humaita on the banks of the Rio Madeira. In 2001, members of the Scientific Exploration Society met her on board Kota Mama III during the epic voyage along the tributaries leading to the Amazon. She came with her mother, a sister and brother hoping for some medical help the evening before we were due to move on downstream.
We had a medical team to take care of our needs who were ever ready to give assistance to any local community along the way. What made Ronalda special was the fact that her brother was suffering from pernicious anaemia, her sister had a withered arm, while she had a double hare lip and cleft palette. Most of us who were there were horrified that one family could be so unfortunate to have three children with serious medical conditions. Ronalda had a radiant smile and the most beautiful, appealing eyes in spite of the blemish to her general looks. Sadly, there was nothing which could be done for any of the family as they all needed long-term treatment and we were just passing through.
None of us could forget her though and on returning to the UK we began to pursue several possibilities. Ronalda’s condition could be treated but it needed money. It seemed outrageous that this could be the only stumbling block to her having a real chance in life. We discovered that an organisation called Smile Train could arrange for her to have the corrective operations by the Sobrapar organisation in Brazil. Sobrapar’s hospital is located at Campinas, a town near the Atlantic coast of Brazil. It is many miles from Humaita so the problem was to get her and her mother there.
A fund was set up by my old friend Jim Masters and Society members generously collected over £4000 to cover the costs. In February 2002 Richard Drax, a presenter for the BBC who had accompanied part of the Kota Mama expedition, flew out to Sao Paolo and travelled up to Ronalda’s village during a tropical storm. By boat and bus he then journeyed across Brazil with Ronalda and her mother Rosilda to Campinas where Ronalda underwent a series of operations carried out by a Dr Cassio and his team. As a result, her face is now almost completely recovered. She needed a couple more operations as she grew up but we tried to keep in touch and help. Alas, we finally lost contact with her.
We have the greatest respect and gratitude for Dr Cassio and his team who were superb in their care and treatment of Ronalda. Sadly Dr Cassio passed away a few years ago but his work goes on.
Richard Drax shot a short film which was screened on TV South and thanks to Viscount Gough, the Society raised over £20,000, some of which was used to assist another child with facial disfigurement in the jungles of Brazil.
Yoli Cipagauta, the SES representative in Latin America continued to seek Ronalda and in 2018 heard that Marcelo Mendes, who was a Captain in the Brazilian Marines and had been our liaison officer on the Kota Mama expedition, was promoted and as a Colonel sent to Manaus in command of the Marines based there.
Thanks to Marcelo’s help we were able to find Ronalda. In October 2018 a Naval officer found her near the village of Humaita. She had married and had a daughter, sadly born with a similar facial disfigurement to Ronalda. However, happily this was corrected at a local hospital. But Ronalda was pregnant and on 10th November gave birth to twin girls, three months early. They had to be raised in an incubator but talking to Ronalda on the phone Yoli learned that very sadly both little girls have died.
Meanwhile the SES Expedition Base has been informing former members of the Kota Mama III expedition, including Richard Drax, now the MP for South Dorset. Yoli is keeping in touch with Ronalda and we have started a small fund to help her.
We were very sorry to hear of the loss of Ronalda's twins and she has expressed her thanks to all those who have helped her.