David Smithers is probably the greatest hovercraft explorer ever. He led the 8000km Trans-Africa hovercraft expedition and was also the leader of the equally ambitious Amazon hovercraft expedition where they tried to find a new access route to the Caribbean. This route was supposedly non-existent as the Amazon has no connection with the Caribbean.The expedition’s goal was to become the first vessel ever to voyage by inland waterways from the Amazon to the Caribbean via the unexplored rainforests of the Casiquiare and Orinoco.
It was the newly discovered Casiquiare Canal – the largest river on the planet that links two major river systems, a so-called bifurcation – that changed it all….and made a unique hovercraft trip reality!
From Manaus to Port of Spain by SNR6 Hovercraft
Roland Graham Clarke was the hovercraft’s main pilot on the dangerous Negro and Orinoco rivers in South America.
Accompanying him and his co-pilot, Capt Stuart Syrad of the Royal Marines, were scientists, biologists, newspaper reporters, a BBC documentary team, staff from the National Geographic and Brazilian military observers, plus a crew which included an engineer and an electrician.
The journey would prove to be even more treacherous than the Trans-African hovercraft adventure as Clarke had to negotiate a great deal of unknown highly treacherous rapids. It made it one of the most difficult journeys ever undertaken by a hovercraft.
The expedition was intended to demonstrate that the hovercraft — an SRN6 of the British Hovercraft Corporation — could successfully travel the long distance of 2,500 miles from Manaus, in Brazil, to Port of Spain (Trinidad & Tobago) while at the same time mapping a waterway route previously unknown.
The Route: Rio Negro, Casiquiare & Orinoco
The starting point of the expedition was Brazil’s amazon capital city Manaus. From there they sailed the hovercraft up the Amazon river.
The route that Clarke and the members of a National Geographic expedition then took led them up the Rio Negro, the largest blackwater river in the world. From there it would lead them into the newly discovered Casiquiare Canal.
The Casiquiare river was the new kid on the block as it is a bit of an oddball in the world of rivers. It is a distributary of the upper Orinoco flowing into the Rio Negro. As such, it forms a unique natural canal between the Orinoco and Amazon river systems and it is the largest river on the planet that links two major river systems, a so-called bifurcation
It was the uniqueness of the Casiquiare that would make this unique journey possible. However not less dangerous….
Great cannibal dangers & logistical problems
As no one had ever tried this route by nautical vessel there were a lot of uncertainties.
Navigation was by aeronautical charts and a local guide, who had also established fuel dumps at pre-planned stops.
There were two principal hazards: the rapids at San Gabriel on the Negro, and the Maipures and Atures rapids, just above Puerto Ayacucho on the Orinoco.
While the first did not present a problem when the hovercraft passed, those on the Orinoco required an air reconnaissance in order to select a passage through some 40 miles of rapids. Negotiating them in the latter stages required all Clarke’s skill and experience, since the craft could not travel at less than planing speed if it was to avoid steerage problems which would send it crashing into the rocks.
There were other dangers too: cannibals!
On one occasion, deep in the jungles of South America, David Smithers exchanged his Marks & Spencer Y-fronts for a cannibals prized nose feather. “Sometimes I used to catch the natives looking at me as I was washing by the river,” he explained. “I wondered if they were thinking I would make a good lunch.” A visiting German poet, he reported, had proved too appetising for the natives to resist.
After 2,500 miles hovering over treacherous waters, crossing all of Venezuela they reached the Carribean Sea. The last section following, Venezuela’s coastline towards Trinidad & Tobago’s capital Port of Spain was a breeze.
The Last Great Journey on Earth: Documentary & Book
The successful journey was the subject of a BBC documentary, The Last Great Journey on Earth. We have searched far and wide for it but the documentary is impossible to find anywhere. If you have any possible clues as to where it could be viewed of found we would happily hear from you!
Brian Branston, leader of the BBC team aboard the hovercraft wrote a great adventure book about the expedition too: “The Last Great Journey on Earth: Two Thousand Miles into the Heart of the Amazon”
As one local reader reviewed the book:
“A wonderful book, with detailed narrative on how Brian and team went from one destination to another. If you’re looking for Amazon culture, skip this one. If you want adventure on a trip that won’t be duplicated (too many laws, now) – this is a must read for you. I grew up here and can attest to the factual content of The Last Great Journey. Truly a great journey!”