A selection of obituaries for Anthony Smith
Fearless explorer and science writer who at the age of 85 sailed the Atlantic on a homemade raft
Sir David Attenborough once said that if he were asked who was most likely to try to sail across the Atlantic on a home-made raft, with a crew of complete strangers, aged 85, he would unhesitatingly reply: “Anthony Smith”.
Whether it was that last, epic, lunatic voyage, or riding a motorcycle the length of Africa, Smith epitomised the single-minded, often bloody-minded, British spirit of adventure. He was the first to fly a hot air balloon over the Serengeti, the first Briton to take one over the Alps; he travelled in more than 70 countries and published some 30 books. None of this slaked his wanderlust.
His chief legacy was to have revived, almost single-handed, ballooning in Britain. Any appetite for lighter-than-air travel had been eradicated by the airship disasters of the 1930s, but Smith’s interest in it was inspired by a vision of drifting off over Fleet Street from his desk at The Daily Telegraph, where in the early 1960s he was science correspondent.
His first obstacle was qualifying as a pilot, having been informed that he could not do so in Britain since there were no other pilots — and no examiners left alive. Undaunted, he had a few rudimentary lessons in the Netherlands and gained his licence despite crash-landing on a dyke and putting his examiner in hospital.
Having had a hydrogen balloon made for him by a Belgian, he set out in 1962 to fly from Zanzibar across East Africa. The journey, on which he was accompanied by fellow explorer Douglas Botting and the film-maker Alan Root, was a homage to Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, although Smith’s safari lasted three months.
The party was lucky to escape being immolated when blown dangerously close to a thunderstorm and landing heavily in the Ngorongoro crater. Smith published his account of their expedition as Throw Out Two Hands.
With Sheila Scott, he founded the British Balloon and Airship Club, which now has a membership of more than 1,000 pilots. Much of this renewed enthusiasm for the sport was sparked by demonstration flights that he gave with the African balloon, Jambo, although the craft met a fiery end in 1968.
It was entirely characteristic of Smith that it should then be revealed that the balloon was uninsured, he having distracted the inspectors with a good story when asked to produce his documents. Nonetheless, in 1973 he built the first gas-filled airship to be awarded a certificate of airworthiness since R101. He also helped to fly the airship made for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Since teenage years, Smith had been haunted by a wartime story of survival. In 1940 two merchant seamen, Roy Widdicombe and Robert Tapscott, had drifted for 70 days across the Atlantic in an open boat after their vessel was sunk off the coast of Africa. Driven half-mad by thirst and hunger, they had finally reached land when washed ashore on Eleuthera, in the Bahamas.
In the late 1990s, Smith tracked down the lifeboat and arranged for it to be presented to the Imperial War Museum. Then in 2011, when he was already in his mid-eighties, he finally set about fulfilling his ambition of recreating the voyage. He fashioned from plastic gas pipes a raft measuring 40ft x 18ft, surmounted by a small cabin and a telegraph pole for a mast. He named the raft Antiki, in a nod to his age and to Thor Heyerdahl’s similar vessel Kon-Tiki — although one friend of long standing who called it a “daft” was banished from sight.
Having recruited a crew of three, Smith set sail from the Canaries in January 2011. After drifting 2,700 miles across the ocean at an average of 2 knots, the raft arrived two months later in the Leeward Islands, safe but 700 miles from its intended destination of Eleuthera.
Accordingly, a year later Smith embarked on the final stretch with four new companions. After three weeks at sea, they were blown ashore at night by a ferocious gale, to find that they had landed on the very same beach as had the two seamen 72 years earlier. Smith’s record of the adventure, The Old Man and the Sea, will be published next year.
Anthony John Francis Smith was born in 1926 at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, and grew up for a time at Cliveden, the stately home of the Astor family. His father was their estate manager. Anthony was educated at Blundell’s school and then at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read zoology. His studies were interrupted after two terms, however, when he was called up into the RAFVR towards the end of the war. He only returned to university four years later, having qualified as a pilot.
In 1950 he took part in a search for sightless cave loach (a relative of the carp) believed to inhabit underground irrigation tunnels in rural Iran. Although none were found, Smith’s account of the trip, Blind White Fish in Persia, was well received and set him on his way as an author.
A quarter of a century later, he returned to the area around Kerman. This time, much to the ire of the Iranian authorities, he smuggled out of the country in a polythene bag what he hoped were specimens of the fish.
These were sustained on cornflakes and taken to the icthyologist at the Natural History Museum for identification. Pronouncing this the second most exciting day of his life, he ajudged that it was indeed an unknown species, later named Nemacheilus smithi.
After leaving Oxford, Smith took a job on the Manchester Guardian, leaving after a year to work on an edition of the African magazine Drum in Nigeria. When this finished in 1956, rather than come home by steamer he cashed in the ticket and bought a Triumph Tiger Cub motorcycle. This he rode in five months from Cape Town to Cairo, writing up the journey as High Street Africa (1961). Some two decades later, he did it again, this time with his 19-year-old son, Adam.
While the majority of his books were devoted to exploration, his greatest success as an author was another sort of adventure — that of the human form on its passage through life. The Body detailed the workings of the organs as well as the function of such properties as sleep and imagination and displayed Smith’s skill at making the complex comprehensible. It sold more than 800,000 copies in 14 languages, was made into a documentary film, and then in 1998 formed the basis for the television series The Human Body presented by Professor Lord Winston.
Smith always had an idea on the go. He had a brief stint in the mid-1960s as a presenter of Tomorrow’s World, made TV series about zoos and the natural world, and for Radio 4 wrote more than 200 episodes of Sideways Look. By his first marriage, in 1956 (dissolved 1983) to Barbara Newman, he had three children — Adam, now chief scientific officer of the Nobel Foundation, Vanessa, and Laura, who lives in the US. By his second marriage, in 1984 (dissolved 2007), to Margaret Ann Holloway, he had a son, Quintin, who writes about video and board games. He also had a daughter, Isabelle, by another relationship.
A friend described him as being like a 12-year old boy, never satisfied with an answer until he had checked it himself. He was no snob nor did he travel in style. Indeed, he was more likely to be found in tatty plimsolls and a ragged pullover, eating tinned spaghetti to save funds.
As a result, small children in particular adored him, although he could be less good at reciprocating the admiration of adults and was always happiest when the centre of attention.