An awfully big adventure

IN the entire American continent, the Darien Gap is pretty much the last place you’d want to find yourself. A 250-mile stretch of hellish jungle and mosquito-ridden swampland between Panama and Colombia, it’s a place even the region’s native Indians generally steer clear of – though it does have an itinerant population of guerrillas, drug runners and other desperados who’ll finish you off if the treacherous landscape doesn’t.

Not really somewhere to try and drive a car through, then.

Colonel John Blashford-Snell, the world-famous British explorer, nevertheless did just that in 1972 – he led a team crossing the region in Range Rovers, an almost impossible task. He mentions the “terrain, insects, disease, weather, bandits, mechanical breakdowns and human exhaustion” as factors that made it the toughest challenge he has ever faced.

Forty years on, Blashers (as he’s known) – a figure in the great tradition of eccentric British adventurers, and still leading trips into far off places like Ecuador, Mongolia and Burma – is being toasted in the rather more genteel milieu of the Swiss watch industry.

An eagle-eyed Zenith employee spotted an old press cutting revealing that Blashford-Snell and his team were supplied with Zenith El Primero watches for the Darien expedition. As a result, a commemorative edition of Zenith’s ruggedly handsome new sports watch range, the El Primero Stratos Flyback, has been created in his honour. It’s something that should appeal to those with a yen for a bit of jungle adventuring.

“A watch is essential for an explorer, and it must be robust, luminous, waterproof and reliable, and ideally self-winding,” says Blashford Snell.

His original El Primero was all those, and appears to have been robust in particular – not only did it continue ticking away in the jungle while the cars were suffering serious technical faults, it was worn regularly on subsequent adventures too and has required servicing just once.

Blashers has now donated the watch to Zenith’s archive in Neuchatel in Switzerland, where it will feature in a planned Zenith museum.

The Stratos is essentially a juiced-up, armour-plated housing for Zenith’s re-invigorated El Primero movement, often hailed as the best chronograph mechanism ever created. It’s just the kind of sturdy-but-sophisticated thing you can imagine wearing while crashing about in the jungle, though its flyback function (one press of a button resets and restarts the chronograph stopwatch, rather than the normal three presses of two buttons) is actually designed for quick use by pilots.

There’s an aviation link to the materials too: as well as a steel edition, the Stratos can come in black Alchron, an ultra-tough alloy used in jet fighters.

For those able to pay a bit more, there’s the Striking 10th version, in which the central chronograph second hand whips around the dial every 10 seconds, measuring time to one 10th of a second.

But one suspects it’s the Blashford-Snell limited edition that will appeal to chaps who savour a bit of old-fashioned British derring-do.

Just leave it to the professionals to take such a watch anywhere near the Darien Gap.

Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback from £4,800; Blashford Snell limited edition £5,500.