Explorer cheated death when hydrogen balloon flew into thunder cloud
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Explorer cheated death when hydrogen balloon flew into thunder cloud

Douglas Botting, who has died aged 83, was an explorer, photographer, biographer, film-maker, historian and amateur anthropologist.

In 1962 he took part in The Sunday Telegraph Balloon Safari with Anthony Smith and Alan Root, flying Jambo, a hydrogen balloon, from Zanzibar across northern Tanganyika and sending pictures and reports back to the newspaper. They narrowly avoided being killed when the balloon flew into a thunder cloud. On another occasion, egged on by pretty girls at Nairobi airport, they unwisely lifted off in a high wind and soon had to jettison their ballast followed by the first-aid kit and finally their lunch. Eventually the basket smashed through a thorn tree and hit the ground.

Douglas Botting enjoyed exploring wild places.

Douglas Botting enjoyed exploring wild places.

Photo: Web

Six years later Botting was with a party under the patronage of the Duke of Edinburgh exploring the jungles of South America by hovercraft, sailing up the Rio Negro from Manaus and back down the Orinoco. They returned with plants that they had seen the natives consuming as an alternative to aspirin, bark from the Caapi tree that served as a stimulant, and a bright orange "cock of the rock", a rare cousin of the crow family.

Not all Botting's travels were exotic. In 1970 he was part of a seven-man, three-woman expedition known as Operation Seashore led by Conrad Gorinsky that sailed round the British coastline, producing a detailed account of every nook and cove. The following-year Under London Expedition was an exploration of the city's sewerage network for The World About Us on BBC Two.

Balloon exhibition leader Anthony Smith,  chief photographer Douglas Botting and Cape Town University student, Charl Poul manned the Jambo in 1962.

Balloon exhibition leader Anthony Smith, chief photographer Douglas Botting and Cape Town University student, Charl Poul manned the Jambo in 1962.

Photo: United Press International Photo
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Douglas Scott Botting was born at Kingston upon Thames on February 22, 1934, the only child of Leslie, a civil servant, and his wife Bessie (nee Cruse). As a child he dug a hole in the garden in an attempt to reach an uncle in Australia, and the roars of a Messerschmitt overhead inspired his later interest in wartime history.

After Epsom Grammar School he did National Service with the King's African Rifles in Kenya. Walking along a beach one day he spotted Ernest Hemingway and complimented him on his latest book. The author, Botting recorded in his diary, "stared at me as if I was a street-corner tout. Then he took a slow gulp of Scotch and mumbled, slurring, 'Listen, limey, do me a favour. Why don't you toddle off back down the beach … And then when you get there, take a flying f--- at yourself'."

Demobbed, Botting read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. In 1956, looking for somewhere to explore, he stuck a pin on the map. It landed at Socotra, an Indian Ocean island 240 kilometres off what is now Somalia, which had not been investigated since 1899. During the trip Botting and his colleagues took more than 100 samples of the natives' blood for analysis.

As chairman of the Oxford University Exploration Club in his final year, he contacted the naturalist Gavin Maxwell, who shared his enthusiasm for wild places. Maxwell invited him around for tea, but "sat me down, poured me half a pint of Scotch, opened the drawer of an escritoire, took out a small, ivory-handled pistol and without a word clapped it to my right temple and pulled the trigger".

Maxwell encouraged Botting to publish his account of the Socotra expedition, Island of the Dragon's Blood (1958), while Botting helped Maxwell to choose the title Ring of Bright Water for his account of raising an otter on the west coast of Scotland. Botting later wrote a colourful biography of Maxwell followed by an affectionate account of the complex life of Gerald Durrell, another friend.

He also explored secret British documents on Wilhelm Mohnke, the SS general implicated in the massacres of Allied soldiers during the war. His harrowing findings were published in Hitler's Last General, with Ian Sayer, in 1989.

Closer to home there was Wild Britain (1988), a rambler's introduction to unspoilt areas of the country from the woodlands of southern England to the stark granite cliffs of the Outer Hebrides. In 2001 he published Dr Eckener's Dream Machine, its title referring to the Graf Zeppelin airship in which, in 1929, Hugo Eckener flew around the world in just over 21 days.

In 1972 Botting was behind The Black Safari, again for The World About Us, an affectionate parody of British explorers that depicted Africans touring England. In homage to David Livingstone they journeyed along the Leeds and Liverpool canal in search of the centre of Britain while examining the quaint customs of the natives.

One of his more unusual journeys was into the labyrinth of sexual attraction. He and his daughter Kate, who was conceived on an Amazonian sailing ship that was smuggling arms to guerrillas in Peru, spent three years mapping a road through the sexual jungle for their book Sex Appeal: The Art and Science of Sexual Attraction (1995).

Douglas Botting married Louise Young in 1964. The marriage was dissolved in the mid-1980s and he is survived by their two daughters, Kate and Anna, a presenter on Sky News.

The Telegraph, London

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