Sonning explorer heads to the unknown Amazon for a voyage of discovery


A wildlife conservationist is fulfilling a dream to go on a remote Amazon adventure led by his hero, legendary explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell.

Sonning’s own Bear Grylls and acclaimed environmentalist, Professor Alastair Driver, was due to set off for Columbia last Wednesday.

He will spend three weeks sleeping in a hammock slung in native villages’ open sided huts. On some nights when he treks into dense jungle to set up cameras to film wildlife his hammock will be slung between trees.

He abandoned a plan to try out his hammock overnight in his Sonning garden on Monday when temperatures dropped to near zero. In Columbia it will be 31ºC in the day, 20ºC at night.

Hazards Professor Driver, 60, faces include snakes, scorpions and spiders, vampire bats carrying rabies, suddenly rising rivers and heat illness.

Childhood holidays with his biologist father on a Welsh island with no electricity or running water were useful experience.

“I spent a lot of life living in a fairly rough way off the land. We ate a lot of rabbit, fish and seafood.

“Of course, this expedition will be in a different context in the jungle. I am though probably more Bear Grylls than anyone I know, but not as extreme. I won’t be drinking my own urine unless I’m desperate,” he said before he set off.

He has limited experience of working in the jungle.

Professor Driver did more for river and wetland habitats in the UK than anyone of his generation, he was told when he retired as Environment Agency national conservation head last year.

Now he has more time for adventures.

“I’ve known John Blashford-Snell, who’s 80 now, for many years. He’s tried to get me to go on his expeditions before. When he told me about going to Columbia I thought it didn’t get much better than that. I’m really excited,” he said.

He will travel by boat up an Amazon tributary visiting native villages. The expedition’s 15-strong team also includes doctors, dentists, builders, engineers and an agriculturist, all aiming to help people in the area. They are delivering a much needed ambulance boat to get people to hospital quickly.

Professor Driver said: “My role will be to record and photograph wildlife. All sorts of wonderful creatures there have never been surveyed or recorded properly before. We should see pink river dolphins, they’re weird looking things.

“There are also giant river otters six ft long, the biggest otters in the world.” Professor Driver led otter conservation on the Thames, helping the Columbians’ UK cousins return to the river.

“In fact the Sonning lock keeper told me he’d seen one last week,” he added. In Columbia he also hopes to see and capture images of secretive jaguars, tapirs, different monkey species and huge anaconda snakes.

“It’s important in any part of the world to know what wildlife is there. There may be things which don’t occur elsewhere. It’s our duty to make sure we know about them.

“There is pressure for eco-tourism and we need to know what to protect and how to do that,” he added.

In Sonning Professor Driver created a nature reserve which was named Ali’s Pond in his honour. He has loved every element of his career.

“I could be advising government on a wild life policy and the next morning be dealing with a village pond,” he said.

Depending on communication links you can catch up on Professor Driver’s time in Columbia at: