THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest and toughest expeditions ever to be undertaken in a car. 

The British Trans-Americas expedition, led by Col. John Blashford-Snell in 1972, saw members of the British Army embark on a grueling 18,000-mile journey along the Pan-American Highway, stretching across the Americas from Alaska through to Patagonia in a Range Rover. 

Most dangerous and famous of all during this arduous trip was the Darien Gap – a 250-mile passage linking the Americas, dense in jungle and, to most, impenetrable. 

Bournemouth Echo: The Range Rovers caked in mudThe Range Rovers caked in mud

The team, consisting of 64 people, including 46 soldiers, dentists, a doctor and even a vet (for the 26 horses which carried the kit), battled their way through torrential rain, glutinous mud and treacherous rivers. 

Part of the team was Lt. Col. Phil Church, a retired royal engineer who lives in Creekmoor, Poole. Now aged 87 and with a fiercely sharp mind, he told the Daily Echo of his experiences on the relentless expedition. 

“We started off in January and the seasonal rain was late – we had a lot of rain,” he said. 

“On the first day we didn’t get too far. The cars were heavily ladened with equipment and the cars would get bogged down.” 

Bournemouth Echo: Range Rover approaching a riverRange Rover approaching a river

The crew started with two Range Rovers – a car built during the British Leyland days and notorious for its reliability issues. At the start, the cars had the wrong tyres on – this was soon fixed after a designer for the car recommended normal road tyres. 

Two aluminium ladders made at MEXE in Christchurch were stored on top of the cars. The reason? “If you found big ditches or muddy patches, you had to get across them. They were lifesavers,” Phil said. 

When fording a river, Phil said there was a special technique to measure the depth without drowning in the violent currents. “We took a couple of horses across the river to measure the depth. As they didn’t go under, we knew thought we’d be alright.” 

Bournemouth Echo: Fording a riverFording a river

Naturally, the team came across their fair share of wildlife. There were bullfrogs which would croak all night (“If they stopped croaking, there were predators around”). 

The team had to be wary of the snakes, too, and even packs of peccary pigs. “They were dangerous when in packs on 10,” Phil added. 

Before the trip, the team were told, ‘Things that live in the jungle are as frightened of you as you are of them.’  

Phil, skeptical at first, soon realised this was true. “The only thing it doesn’t apply to is ants. And the smaller the ant, the bigger the bite.” 

Food, which arrived via parachute, was in short supply and mainly consisted of rice, sardines and biscuits. Cooking conditions were far from ideal.  

“We learnt as we went along that when you want to eat a rice dish and you didn’t have any fresh water, eat it in the dark because you couldn’t see the colour of the rice,” he said. 

Bournemouth Echo: Part of the crewPart of the crew

The expedition wasn’t short of its problems. Phil reluctantly had to be lifted out of the jungle twice (once for pleurisy and once for dysentery, after he lost 20 pounds). 

Around 50 per cent of those involved went out one way or another. 

The Range Rovers, too, experienced the hardship. Frequent breaks of the differentials and half shafts slowed progress down. “The going changed from time to time. Some days we could do two miles a day. Other days we could do 11.” 

Eventually, after 96 hard days, the crew reached Colombia’s capital city Bogotá - marking the end of one of the greatest expeditions in a lifetime. 

Reflecting on his time in the jungles of the Darien Gap, Phil said: “It was damn hard work. I learned a lot about other people and especially a lot about myself.  

“We relied on each other. I learned their weaknesses (there weren’t too many I'm pleased to say), but goodness you could see their strengths. 

“It was the most wonderful experience of my life – I will always remember it. I feel honoured and proud to have been chosen to do this expedition.”