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Explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison and his incredible Derbyshire challenge

PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 October 2015 | UPDATED: 09:28 22 October 2015

Robin Hanbury-Tenison in the Tenere Desert, Niger, North Africa  Photo: Paul Harris

Robin Hanbury-Tenison in the Tenere Desert, Niger, North Africa Photo: Paul Harris

Paul Harris Photography

Robin Hanbury-Tenison, one of the country’s greatest explorers, completes a herculean Derbyshire challenge

Robin (left) and the Derbyshire cavers prepare for the descentRobin (left) and the Derbyshire cavers prepare for the descent

THE accepted view is that when people reach their 80th year they are entitled to throttle back on life and take a well-earned rest. Just don’t tell Robin Hanbury-Tenison that’s what you expect him to do.

Faced with becoming an octogenarian next year, he decided to create himself a bucket list that would test a fit 25 year old. He came up with eight challenges in a five-month period, starting with running the London Marathon, then moving on to climbing the four highest mountains in the British Isles, a sky dive, an abseil down a terrifying Derbyshire shaft and then, to finish off, a quick water ski across The Channel.

For good measure he’s aiming to raise £80,000 for the charity he co-founded along the way.

It’s no ordinary challenge, but then Robin Hanbury-Tenison is no ordinary man.

Robin going undergroundRobin going underground

In 1957 he made the first overland trip from London to Sri Lanka in an old Second World War Jeep. He has crossed South America overland at its widest point – and north to south by river. He was the first to navigate the Orinoco River in a hovercraft and he has travelled the length of The Great Wall of China on horseback. He has been befriended by nomadic hunter-gatherers in Borneo, has capsized in the dark in a swamp full of caimans in Brazil and slept in a canvas tepee with the Innu tribe in Canada.

So we really shouldn’t be surprised that he decided to mark reaching 80 with such an ambitious set of challenges.

He says: ‘It really all started because of the shock of realising I was entering my 80th year and thinking this is seriously old and I’d better do something about it. I’m lucky that everything still works so I wanted to do this because I still can.

‘If you are lucky enough to still be healthy enough to do things like this then you have a moral responsibility to still do it – to spit in the eye of old age.’

Safely at the bottom - stage one of the challenge completedSafely at the bottom - stage one of the challenge completed

Even so, you might have expected a more modest list of adventures.

‘I made the list up, thinking of the toughest things I might be able to do,’ Robin says. ‘There would be no point in doing it if it was going to be easy, that has been my mantra all along.

‘I thought the London Marathon would be the hardest for me but actually the Peak Cavern in Derbyshire was more than comparable. It took the same sort of time and had the same sort of constant pain and effort.’

He arrived in Derbyshire for challenge number seven, a claustrophobia-inducing descent into the bowels of the earth – the deepest caving trip in England.

Robin in a tight, and muddy, spot on the long crawl out of the caveRobin in a tight, and muddy, spot on the long crawl out of the cave

Robin is not a man to be daunted by such a trial of courage and endurance but even he admits that it proved to be tougher than he anticipated.

He says: ‘To my surprise, it was quite the toughest, scariest and in many ways the nastiest thing I have ever done in my life, but hugely satisfying to have achieved it and my admiration for the great British cave explorers who got me through (and who do this sort of thing for fun all the time) is unbounded.’

Robin originally intended to explore the Titan shaft, but it was closed due to a cave-in, which he admits wasn’t the most reassuring start to the adventure.

Instead, he went down the nearby James Hall shaft, which is actually 1.5m deeper than Titan at 232m (761ft).

The shaft was sunk 235 years ago but was only rediscovered in 1996 by the leader of Robin’s caving expedition, Dave Nixon, known to all as Moose. Titan, which is a natural shaft, was discovered by Moose in 1999.

Robin says: ‘I have only abseiled once before, 37 years ago, and so I was a bit nervous as I followed Moose into the dark space and tried to remember which bits to attach where.

‘Having to change ropes on one of the pitches as I dangled was the most frightening bit, but we got to the bottom in a couple of hours and I thought that was it. But then we had to make our way out through the Peak Cavern (Devil’s Arse) entrance, which was some two miles away.

‘It all took six and a half hours and was in many ways harder than the London Marathon; wading and crawling through caves and tunnels, sometimes up to our necks in freezing water, seldom less than bent double.

‘The worst bit was the famous “colostomy crawl”, some 400m either on hands and knees or behaving like a walrus, squeezing along an endless muddy tube no bigger than a drainage pipe with no relief and some very tight bits.

‘I kept getting cramp and seriously thought I might die at times.’

It’s an achievement not shared by many and no-one as old as Robin has accomplished it.

He says: ‘More people have been into space than have done this. I have Googled it and 535 people have been into outer space and in terms of the shaft in Derbyshire they tell me they doubt if it’s more than 300-400.

‘Tough northerners don’t give praise lightly, but some took selfies with me in the pub afterwards.’

But Robin is quick to praise his team for making it possible.

‘I have had incredible support and help on these challenges,’ he says. ‘The cavers in Derbyshire were amazing. Andy Eavis, who is one of the greatest cavers in the world, is an old friend and it’s through him that I chose it as one of the challenges.

‘These are remarkable men. The miners’ blood is there and the determination and courage in what they do is incredible. I asked them why they do it as it’s so arduous, uncomfortable and dangerous. They told me that it’s the only genuine form of exploration you can do in the terrestrial British Isles. If you want to explore you have to go abroad or to the bottom of the sea but caves are still new and the excitement of opening a new passage and finding a cave that was made three or four million years ago that nobody has ever seen, that I get.

‘But to explore them you have to be incredibly tough and brave and I just feel privileged to have been with them for a short while. I couldn’t have done it without them organising it and nursing me through it.

‘Moose is 6ft 7ins and I don’t know how he gets through these little channels. He wriggles through like a snake and he occasionally had to pull me through like a cork when I got stuck.

‘I had Luke Cafferty behind me, who was always ready to support me, push me or catch me when I fell, my guardian angel behind me. It was their achievement. I was just a piece of baggage they pushed along with them.’

Many people could not cope with such confined spaces but Robin refused to give in to the fear.

He says: ‘I could have got claustrophobic but you just don’t allow it to happen. You don’t think about that.

‘The worst moment was after going down the shaft for a couple of hours when they told me there was a bit of crawling next. I said “How long?” and they replied “three to four hours” and I was already completely exhausted. That was on hands and knees, which were a mess as a result. You think about crawling on hands and knees across a room, let alone for three and a half hours in a place like that.’

So would Robin do it again?

‘I said to my son Merlin that the best thing about being old was waking up and knowing I never have to do that again. It was a wonderful feeling.’

But after a lifetime of exploring turning 80 isn’t going to stop Robin from embarking on more adventures.

‘I’m not 80 until next May so I will keep the donation page open and maybe take the challenges up to ten,’ he laughs.

‘It is a ridiculous age, which has crept up on me unawares, and I do not intend to go gentle into that good night.

‘Instead, I shall do my bit of “raging” by raising lots of money – with your help.’

THE EIGHT CHALLENGES

ROBIN Hanbury-Tenison has celebrated entering his 80th year by undertaking a series of eight challenges, one for each decade of his life, to raise much-needed funds for Survival International – the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights.

He says: ‘Survival, the charity I helped co-found in 1969, is the cause closest to my heart.’

He started with the London Marathon in April – which he finished in 6hrs 21 mins. He was joined by Team Survival, including his son Merlin, daughter-in-law Savannah, Amazon Indian Nixiwaka and others.

This was followed by climbing Snowdon (1,085m); Carrauntoohil (1,038m), Ben Nevis (1,344m) and Scafell (964m).

Next came a sky dive which he described as ‘terrifying and immensely invigorating’.

His seventh challenge was his deep caving experience in Derbyshire.

His final challenge saw him attempt to water ski across the Channel, by which time he had already raised £67,000.

If you want to add to the total and support Survival International or want to learn more about Robin and his work go to 
www.robinsbooks.co.uk

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