Short of money and short of time I started eating a Mars bar as I drove to Gattonside to catch a lift to Peebles with my friend David.
Colonel John Blashford-Snell would be regaling us about his famous circumnavigation of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, pictured below, with a team of soldiers and scientists.
When we walked into the Tontine Hotel I looked through the large open doors into the lounge bar, where I noted an elegant elderly couple sitting near the fire. They stood out among the other hotel guests and I knew straight away that I was walking towards the colonel and his wife, Judith.
The lady at the reception pointed towards an unsightly heap behind the front door where she said we would find an umbrella that had not been claimed. We giggled because the abandoned umbrella was a shocking pink. Still it kept out the rain that fell under the street lights in puddles and Judith remarked how the shops were decorated for Christmas – orange, sparkles, tinsels softened in the night-time thoroughfare.
After warm food and conversation we were seated in the theatre and after John’s first amusing tale, told with his rich voice, the auditorium is filled with laughter. After reference to the Burn’s supper celebrated with the chief of a Panama tribe and his topless women, John tells us of the very strange first meeting with Haile Selassie.
The men had been instructed to bow to the emperor three times on their arrival at the throne room and not to turn their back on him when they left. This, we are told, was a worrying departure due to the collection of pet lions lying on the floor. They were advised to bow low, so they may observe where the lions are resting when their heads were bent down.
For the rest of the journey they had to keep their heads up and aware because the expedition was dogged with roaming bandits and wildlife. Bandits in twos seemed to be able to be satiated with gifts of Mars bars. These were being carried in great quantities because they were sponsors of the expedition.
Less appetising were the meagre survival rations that John described with great sarcasm, consisting as they did of powders and grease and a tin of sardines that were cooked by punching a whole in the top and using some fluff as a flint!
Was the alternative of eating local delicacies a more fulfilling one? It would have appeared not. The look on the faces of a group of tough adventurers trying to swallow raw goat meat and rubbery bread told its own story.
Amid the tales of besieging bandits and preying crocodiles and hippopotamus was one story that was highly emotive, partly because it was unexpected and partly because it juxtaposed excitement and the fun.
Ian Macleod was being crushed by the rope around his waist as the menacing torrent which is the Blue Nile pulled him away from his fellows. The order was given to cut the rope, but one of the party decided to jump in to rescue him.
They were swept downstream dangerously near a huge waterfall.
The rescuer caught a rock with one arm but the force of water pulled the now unconscious Ian from his other arm. He flowed with the torrents to his death where they tumbled to the next section of river.
Also lost was a find of ancient artefacts which Chris Bonnington had retrieved from man-improved caves part way up a vertical wall of stone.
These were left when John was last to quit a camp that was heavily under fire. What John seemed to lose during that experience was the ability to stay put and to watch people around the world suffer.
I cannot replicate the assured style of this man’s eloquent speech. He brought to life this episode of his life in 1968 as if he had just returned from there. He made us feel emotionally engaged with the river and the natives patrolling the river banks; natives who lived as outlaws to avoid paying income tax.