I first read about Jasper Evans in a book by the explorer John Hare called Shadows Across the Sahara.
Hare set out to retrace an ancient trade route from Lake Chad to Tripoli, a three month south-to-north crossing of the Sahara — 1,462 miles of barren desert known in the days of slavery as a place strewn with the carcasses of men and camels. The route was last crossed by Hanns Vischer in 1906, and no one had thought to attempt it since.
John Hare needed a camel expert, and he called on Jasper Evans. Born and raised in Kenya but of English descent, “Japper” was old settler stock, a farmer and camel breeder with deep roots in the land, and old school values when it came to travel. A National Geographic article about that same trip opens with Japper lying calmly on his back while another expedition member cut encrusted sand out of his eyeball with a razor blade. He was 76 at the time. Guys like him were a vanishing breed, and I wanted to be cast in that mold.
I next encountered Japper in another John Hare book, The Lost Camels of Tartary, where his skills had been called on for an expedition into uncharted regions of China’s Gashun Gobi.
The book also made mention of a “camel handling manual” written by Evans. That single line immediately caught my attention. Practical camel information is hard to come by, and so this book was something I had to get my hands on.
As luck would have it, I was able to interview John Hare for the Going Hard column of Outpost magazine. When I asked him if copies of this mysterious camel manual still existed, Hare suggested I write to Mr. Evans and passed me his address.
I don’t think I ever expected to receive a reply, but 6 months later a wrinkled blue airmail letter covered in Kenyan stamps arrived in the post. And this began my 3 year correspondence with one of the world’s leading camel authorities.
Japper had one copy of his manual left, and he would arrange to have it delivered to me via a friend—he wouldn’t trust it to the post office. And no matter how many times I asked, he refused to accept payment for it.
His letter came at a time when I was struggling to carve out my niche as a writer. To receive such encouragement from someone of Jasper Evans legendary stature meant a great deal to me. I was a camel novice with just two expeditions under my belt, but he took me seriously and expressed genuine interest in my travels. He wrote:
“You have done some very interesting trips and I’m very glad to know that you have a real feeling for the wonderful camel. Apart from exotic trips with John Hare I have done a good many thousand miles with them in Northern Kenya, mostly in inaccessible places to motor vehicles, always with huge appreciation and affection.“
I was surprised by his kindness and warmth. In that first long letter Jasper also took the time to scribble down a list of books: “I enclose a slip with titles of books that I have found really interesting and by people who really understood camels. Some I’m afraid probably unobtainable.” That small list saved me months of research.
It took nearly 3 years for the camel manual to reach me. I tried to coordinate my trips to Europe with those of his friends, but schedules have a way of changing, and they never really line up.
Each time he wrote me, Jasper would open with an apology that he hadn’t forgotten about me or the manual. And each time I had to smile at his sincerity. I was just happy to receive another letter and to hear more of his story.
“I wonder if you did your trip to the Sahara?” he wrote. “I would very much like to hear about it if you have.”
I can’t tell you how encouraging it was to be taken seriously by a traveler and explorer of his stature, especially when no one else believed in what I was doing. And I think Japper was happy to know that someone out there still loved this method of travel simply for its own sake.
“My big regret,” he wrote, “is that having recently had my 83rd birthday I am getting rather out of strength for long camel expeditions, much as I would love it.”
I finally received the camel manual a few weeks ago. A nephew of Jasper who lives near Toronto saw him in England late last year and carried it over for me. We met for drinks, and he passed me the book. But he also passed along the sad news that Jasper Evans had died at his ranch in Kenya several weeks before. He was 84 years old.
I’ll always treasure those hand-scrawled blue airmail letters he sent me, filled with encouragement. I appreciated them more than he ever knew.
RIP Jasper Evans June 6, 1925 – February 25, 2010
I’m so sorry we never got to raise a glass together in Kenya.