by David Halford

Party games are not something I would necessarily have associated with Adrian, but his ‘Waorani blowpipe challenge’ on one of Elizabeth and my first visits to Batch Farm proved memorable. Having mastered the art of darting a favourite cushion, we were given a hands-on lesson as to how Amazon rainforest tribes had hunted for centuries. As we extracted several misdirected darts buried deep in the woodwork of the stairs, it became clear what a potent weapon it was. When I started testing the sharpness of a dart, he mentioned casually that he would not advise it, as the darts were curare-tipped, so still potentially fatal. However, it was said with his characteristic mischievous smile that left you uncertain as to whether it was an elaborate leg-pull. There was always a sense of quiet anarchy about him, and I never found out the truth.

I met Adrian long after many of you here today, while on a fortnight’s Earthwatch trip to the Berenty Reserve in South-Eastern Madagascar in 1995, where he was filming ring-tailed lemurs and Verraux’s sifakas. A man who had lived and breathed natural history from an early age, he granted this non-scientist a brief but fascinating insight into a world I had mostly viewed through a television screen.

Adrian was never a man to blow his own trumpet, and stories often had to be wormed out of him. As I got to know him better, a picture of the ‘ultimate action hero’, (a description he would of course have hated) began to emerge. Casual questions about skydiving’s effect on his ears eventually produced the information that his eardrums had ‘only’ burst twice in 2,000 jumps.

On one of his numerous trips to Venezuela he was mugged at night by a taxi driver and his accomplice, half way up the lonely road between Caracas Airport and the city. Instead of getting out cautiously, grateful to be alive, after handing over his cash, Adrian refused to get out until all his bags had been offloaded too. Not content with saving his life and equipment, he returned to the airport the next day, reported the incident to the police, and then found the taxi drivers waiting for their next victim. He was able to show where their weapon was hidden, and both men were arrested.

Over the years we met his boys Sean and Oliver, and other members of his family, including his late mother. At the end of one rather bibulous evening with her, and well past midnight, Adrian suddenly remembered that she should have been delivered hours earlier back to the local care home where she was staying. Driving and alcohol regulations were thrown to the wind as she was thrown into the car, and she was sneaked up to bed through a back door.

Adrian’s chance meeting with Dae in 1995 in a Bristol restaurant, while looking for someone to do a Thai translation of his ‘Nightmares of Nature’ films, was to change both their lives. She was finishing her doctorate in inorganic chemistry at Bristol University, and so any extra income was welcome. This led on to voiceover work and a dinner invitation … and the rest is history. They launched Last Refuge a few years later, while Luke became their most significant production achievement in January 2005.

With more time in the U.K., Adrian applied his wide-ranging talents to photographing and writing about this country, teaching Dae to take high quality aerial photographs while he skilfully flew their Cessna 182 out of ‘Panborough International’, the little grass airstrip down the road from Batch Farm. Their first results appeared in a series of large format paperbacks, written by Adrian, designed by Dae and published by Myriad. This gave them the confidence to go into publishing on their own account. Their ‘England’ book was first up, both in a large, and later a very successful small, format, with Adrian creating the text and Dae doing the design and production.

After flights over the Celtic fringes of Britain had produced a mass of further stunning photographs, Adrian very trustingly asked me and Elizabeth to write the accompanying text – a chronological history of Britain, for what became their second mini-book of aerial views.

Meanwhile, not content with publishing their own material, he and Dae became midwives to various other projects from friends, including Audrey Colson’s book ‘Land’ on the dispossession from their ancestral lands of tribal peoples in Guyana, and David & Madeleine Spears’ ‘Unseen Creatures’. In addition, they generously hosted the photography of various friends on their Last Refuge website.

Adrian flew countless hours in light aircraft, having obtained his Private Pilot’s Licence through the RAF nearly 40 years ago. A commercial pilot’s licence followed in the late 1990s. One of his rare flying errors was to let me take over the controls of the Cessna while circumventing Glastonbury Tor. Such was my concentration that I failed to see Adrian pulling a face at Elizabeth in the back while mouthing: “We’re going down, we’re going down”, before smoothly resuming control, and side-slipping elegantly past high-tension cables onto the Panborough grass airstrip. Yes, a small part of me wanted to be Adrian, but my rational self fortunately told me that I could never cut it.

He flew solo sorties out over the wild waters of the Pentland Firth to photograph prehistoric sites on Orkney and Shetland, while other trips took him across the Atlantic from Morocco to the Canaries, over mountains in Rwanda, and of course latterly around the tepuis of Venezuela. He was not just a pilot but a true aviator, very much in the spirit of pioneers such as Sir Alan Cobham and Amy Johnson, or great French aviators such as Antoine de St.-Exupéry (author of ‘Le Petit Prince’.) The poem ‘High Flight’ - written by John Magee, a young American serving in the Royal Air Force in 1941, who was killed soon afterwards in a mid-air collision - reflects extremely well the visceral exhilaration of this type of flying.

Adrian brought a meticulous focus, energy and an uncompromising professionalism to each commission he accepted, both the filming and, where appropriate, the flying. He was also highly literate and, most impressively, was both persuasively articulate in print, and on and off the lecture platform, on a wide range of topics, often beyond the immediate areas of his academic and professional expertise.

Adrian’s first and last field trips were to the North-Eastern corner of South America, to the Guyanese and Venezuelan border area characterised by spectacular tepuis – dramatic sandstone table-top mountains up to 1,300 metres high that are the survivors of millions of years of erosion. He returned there several times during the past 40 years, producing first a tourist map of the area, before starting his planned major work on the tepuis. Because of all his other commitments it has been a long time gestating, but by late-April this year he had produced a very complete first draft. I very much hope that, between friends and family, a way can be found to publish it in a form of which he would have approved, as a memorial to all his work in this area over four decades.

Through Adrian my education about natural history continued down the years, either when discussing his trips, or by his producing a slow worm at the lunch table, and by proxy when encouraging his apprentice naturalist, Luke, to take us to see the garden’s spiders. My most vivid recent memory of Adrian is from a crisp, clear afternoon this January on the Somerset Levels, sharing the experience of watching huge flocks of starlings, some hundreds of thousands strong, swirling in great skeins against the dusk sky, before sinking as one to their nocturnal roosts.

I received the news of Adrian’s death while on a military airfield in Turkey. Looking down, my eye was caught by a small, bright yellow butterfly, which alighted momentarily in front of me. It occurred to me that, by chance, I was watching two of the things – alongside his family – that had given Adrian most pleasure in life, flying and the natural world, two worlds that without him will certainly be the poorer.

Today we celebrate the life of someone who was full of passion and energy, an irreplaceable friend to all of us here today, and to many who couldn’t make it. He will remain a huge influence on many lives for years to come, not least upon those of Dae, and his sons Oliver, Sean and Luke.

When I asked him a few weeks ago, while there still seemed a chance of his surviving his ordeal, what he would do when he recovered, he didn’t hesitate. He immediately replied that he would take Luke and Dae to Africa, to see something of what had so inspired him over the years. I can only hope that, metaphorically if not metaphysically, they will know that he will be accompanying them on that journey, when they choose to make it.