It's a myth that exploration is something belonging to the past – some Golden Age in which explorers stalked the earth in pith helmets, or some earlier time of the Ancients when man sailed the oceans wondering if he was going to fall off the edge of the world.
It's true that the land surface of our planet has been well-and-truly mapped – by satellite if not on the ground. But we know the surface of the moon better than the surface of the ocean floor. Only one or two people have reached the bottom of our major ocean trenches. That said, the great romantic journeys are done. We simple can't ride off by camel and expect to see the totally unknown. While there remain a handful of uncontacted peoples – really only in the Amazon now – there are next to no encounters with unknown worlds to be had. Exploration of the planet – what I'd define as the quest to push barriers of the known, and report back that information – then comes down to two types. 1. Science in ever increasing detail and complexity – there are perhaps 10 million species on earth (maybe 100 million if you include bacteria etc) and we have only named 1.5 million of them, let alone learnt to understand their function and ecosystems. 2. Interpretation of far off distant or inhospitable places and peoples that we have a hazy or wrong ideas about. This is my personal focus. When Livingstone explored Africa, much of it was a place well understood (although un-charted) by the Africans, and well known to the Arabs. What he was doing was bringing an interpretation of it back to Victorian Britain, and wider scientific world. In the same way (maybe to a lesser though still valid extent) we must keep interpreting these remote "exotic" lands for our current age. Hence I try not to take navigation aids and backup from the UK. IF you want more than just an adventure, this type of exploration must be about immersing yourself in these alien environments and trying to bring a picture of them back to your people.
Capt. James Cook - a navigator of genius, but also wonderfully able to see the Natives simply as people. He was very good at not judging - a real man of the Enlightenment. Like when he came across a Maori warrior, and walked up to him and gave him a hug, and rubbed his nose with him in the traditional greeting.
Nansen - the great Norseman, and one of the great early Arctic explorers. He was the guru really of Amundsen, the first to the South Pole, and taught him "what was what" in the extreme cold - with the result he made an easy job (also due to his professionalism) - of getting to the Pole. He knew the key was simply to adapt to the place – which meant relying on dogs and skis - and to be thorough.
I'd be an artist, I think. I almost went to art school. What I'm trying to do, through my books and expeditions (I rarely write articles, and the TV is just a tie-on) is simply trying to make sense of the world for myself, like any other person with creative drive, perhaps.
I've often thought about this, and it's important that I keep doing so. I think my approach of going alone means I have little direct impact on remote people; the sad truth is that the places I visited two decades ago have severely changed regardless – loggers, gold miners, and the outside world generally have moved in. And my justification for intruding (and by the way I think travellers nowadays do have to justify their travels – the world is no longer a playground, or shouldn't be) is that I'm recording worlds that are fast disappearing. However, there is a wider effect of my TV programmes – obviously I help encourage people to want to go. I don't know of anyone who has ever followed quite in my footsteps, but nonetheless all travel programmes are guilty in this respect. The thing is to fight the BBC and others who broadcast silly ones – which effectively exploit the locals through making them a source of entertainment. Even if the producers don't aim to do this (and many presently most do) you can imagine the impact of each film crew (which will typically include cameraman, soundman, director, government "minder" and four or five drivers and those having to lug all the equipment etc. NONE of these – including the presenter – will have a sensibility or knowledge of the area, which is brought about only through time, not just a week or month in the region)
Some whom I know want to become famous, or Make Their Mark, like sportsmen, others are scientists or specialists looking for something in a remote place, or sometimes, like me, there is just something about their personality that drives them to have adventures. I have never understood why I risk my life by trekking through the Amazon, or walking across the Gobi Desert with camels. I know some explorers who've had an unhappy childhood, and they've wanted to prove themselves to their parents who didn't love them, or died young. But in my case I had a happy childhood. Yet I feel "driven" - my "soul," if you like, seems to long to be out in the middle of nowhere, where I am forced to confront "nature." It's very difficult to give a good reason. But after having had one adventure, the feeling you get having succeeded against so many obstacles - eg having walked up the Skeleton Coast with camels, as I did in Namibia for instance - is so wonderful, that eventually you want to go back and try a new challenge.
Definitely. There are many more people out there - we have more time, more opportunity, more money than our forefathers did 100 years ago. Exploration used to be done by a few people who were specialists. Now adventure is much more democratic, in a sense. Anyone, with very little money, can jump on a plane and disappear into Africa. The places aren't so remote, but there are the adventures still - white-water rafting, etc...
Maybe 6-7 times I've almost died. On my first journey, after I set out aged 22, for example – and not just when I stumbled out of the forest alone at the end. I took a lot of risks on the trip – and was essentially out of control much of the time. The locals looked after me – but I was relying, in my innocence, on luck. Looking back, I'd never do it again, even with all my experience! Looking back on my career generally, I've obviously had to think about what my life means to me a lot, and what I want to do with it. Effectively, I've now got a career as an adventurer, so in that broader sense as well my journeys have changed my life. But most of the changes to my life have been gradual - it hasn't been about the terrible moments, being lost in the jungles of the Amazon, it's been the rest of the time, when I've just had to learn to be patient, sitting in remote Indian villages, or learning over many weeks to handle camels. This is what being an adventurer is all about - not falling off a cliff (as I did in the Arctic) or being shot at by drug barons (as I was in the Amazon) but learning to adapt to a different world, so you are better prepared for whatever happens next.
My first two series (Skeleton Coast, Edge of Blue Heaven) were shot on Hi-8, others with a Sony PD100 – but it's out of date now, and I'm out of touch with what's best.
Remoter/less "acculturated" people I have not, as a rule, filmed as I arrive amongst them. Instead I've brought my camera out slowly, once I have been given some sort of trust and feel it would not cause alarm/discontent. So there has been little problem generally filming people who, after a couple of days, have become companions. I think the key here has been that I've come (a) alone or with just local people and therefore don't cause much disruption to a community or family I've appeared amongst, or if I have I'm perceived simply as a fairly harmless curiosity rather than intrusion; (b) on a mission which has generally been to get to know individuals as friends to learn from, rather than to study as subjects. Of course, the results are not objective, and my field observations would match up poorly to that on an anthropologist, but there again, in the end my story is all about conveying an experience - mine specifically, and more generally, mine of another peoples' world. It's about how I saw the world, and less a depiction of that world per se. When I have filmed secret/sacred rituals - particularly for the BBC series Last of the Medicine Men - I have spent weeks or months getting to know the individuals, and generally have purposely focused on getting to know an individual or two, before filming their ritual. I've never felt the need to talk to them about how the film might be shown to millions - their understanding has always been that this record of mine is escaping the community, and being released to the outside world. Whether to one whiteman or a billion, has not been an issue: the importance has been that I'm being trusted to use it responsibly. Incidentally, I have often been encouraged by shamans to film them - partly I think because this has added to an individual's prestige (they might like the idea of being singled-out by me as having sacred knowledge) but also, poignantly, because these individuals feel their role/knowledge is becoming less important to the community nowadays, and they have enlisted my support to bolster their "cause" (as among the Huichols of Mexico) or even wanted me to make a record, lest it was soon gone for ever (as among the Mentawai of Siberut Island).
Filming is highly intrusive in terms of completing my physical objective - in that it takes a lot of each day, and was actually the most dangerous part of my 1000 km Siberia trip, because it was breaking every rule in the book to leave my dog team, set up the camera, and then retrieve it while alone in the Arctic.
In terms of intruding on my personal experience: I've found the camera a rather endearing and useful companion. I just spill out my thoughts, and (for example when I thought I might die having lost my dog team while alone in the Bering Strait) am startled and interested by the extra perspective it gives me, once recalling the journey back home. I am not a "presenter" - I'm just recording what's going on during my journey, so this visual record gives an extra layer to the whole business of bringing back the experience to those of my culture, once back here.
As for the intrusion caused to local people I encounter: interestingly, the camera has turned out to be a great bond. This sounds counter-intuitive, because it's a obvious piece of alien technology of course, and can produce dramatic responses when you play back filmed tapes to a community. But I've found that, by filming myself then handing the camera around for everyone to see the resulting tape, I show I'm happy to share in the procedure of recording/being recorded. Next move often is to film children, and let them film themselves. Parents often then gather round the camera, wanting to take part... Conversely, a stills camera (ie just for pictures) I've found gives the opposite result - the act of taking photos seems to be innately aggressive, a capturing activity.
I haven't had much experience of acting up - generally, my subjects haven't been filmed before, and anyway I film whatever is happening, and no more. "The truth is always the most interesting" is the dictum. If someone is battling with a truculent horse, I go up and film it. If I havre to eat the guts of a rat, I film that too. The secret is having months in which to observe interesting things happen - and being alone and isolated. On one expedition - they take perhaps six months - I might end up filming 400 hours of tape!
I should emphasise that my approach is not to use a film crew. Film crews cost something like £1000 - £1500 a day , and so activities - rituals, interviews, travelling sequences - have to be pre-arranged. In my experience (eg of presenting a film for the BBC series Great Railway Journeys), if there isn't acting - up, then there is certainly an element of acting - the film crew can't afford to wait around for something to happen. And the idea is to fit it into a pre-arranged story perhaps thought up in Shepherd's Bush somewhere.
Editing is where I think an element of distortion necessarily creeps in. I am really proud that my series are fairly factually correct, or to the best of my knowledge so. Simply put: whatever happens gets filmed and may be included in the programme. But here's the problem: if you don't film enough of a particular storyline or incident, or in an interesting enough way, it won't make the final programme. So whole chunks of my experience might be cut out, just because the camera broke or I made a mess of filming it. Furthermore, there are always distortions of time - in Mongolia I filmed for 7 months and this was concentrated into 3 hours of TV. You simply have to simplify the story - and this is of course a type of distortion. And I do from time to time find myself having to allow the editor to move a shot of my camels, for example, to a totally different sequence - because I failed to get the right shot in the original scene. The only alternative is often to cut the scene altogether, and, I argue, that might be a worse distortion of reality. But nothing is pre-arranged, or acted out and no sound is faked - these elements are rare in documentary TV. The exception is the travelling shots : I have to set the camera up, and travel through the shot with dogs/camels etc. But I think the public accepts this is part of the language of TV.
In conclusion, I'd say that my "self filming" technique has certain advantages - and disadvantages. I score better with capturing "reality" - whatever happens, happens. I capture best the nitty gritty of the experience - the ups and downs, the texture of emotion. A cameracrew simply couldn't get the access I can get with time and effort and isolation. But I can never capture the polished beauty that a camera crew can - with my little Sony PD 100 I never pan my camera, and never zoom - nor the sound quality of a dedicated sound man.
Many. Large parts of Raiders of the Lost Lake especially trouble me. Generally, my allowing myself to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones figure was a little naïve – but the programme was actually incredibly honest and did have a certain valuable freshness. I do regret that I didn't put into context one incident in particular: a large ocelot, or small jaguar, gave me a scare (because I was alone in a rarely visited part of the forest and the Indian guides refused to accompany me out of fears of the cats there) and this comes over as pure exaggeration. It was, though, the truth as I saw it at that moment, and the programme as a whole was groundbreaking in the degree of "immersion" I achieved with a TV camera in an alien remote world. If it's any comfort, I only got paid a £1000 for the programme – it cost me £5000 – and never get a fee for repeats. Perhaps that's as well - and if I had my way it would never be broadcast again!
My advice is to get an agent. Publishers get so many hundreds of manuscripts every week, and they are unlikely to give your work much consideration without someone who has put some thought into which editor should take on your work. Even agents get flooded with manuscripts – a friend works in a very small one which returns 20 manuscripts a week - though she says most of these are "rubbish"). So, first secure an agent – because the publishers trust and listen to them. A good agent will always pay for themselves anyway – they take 10-15%. And you get their advice and encouragement too. Best source for an agent is the Writers and Artists Yearbook, published annually. Curtis Brown is just one example - large, but has a good reputation.
Regarding the actual manuscript: You'll need to offer a synopsis of the book – ie a chapter by chapter summary – and then a couple of polished chapters. Ideally, you'd write the whole book – but I wouldn't recommend submitting a rough draft, or even draft – loose grammar etc is not going to help them reach a favourable decision. (Obviously if the publisher likes the gist, they will edit it, but you need to help them enjoy it.) However, writing a whole book is time-consuming, obviously, and a more practicable tactic is to pick out the two most engaging chapters – preferably the first two, so they can get "into" the narrative. The publisher can always ask for the rest.
The key is, of course, to have a story which is special. To be very blunt about it, there are any number of people who have had adventures – there are even any number of people who have been up Everest or plodded to the North/South Pole. Why does your experience stand out from the others?
I haven't had much time to think about usage of indigenous medicines for Western travellers, sadly. Here are a few thoughts. Hope I'm not disappointingly conservative to you - I used to be much less cautious about these things.
I have used all sorts of things given me - and mentioned them sometimes in books - but I've always kept descriptions vague because I'm not much of an expert on the subject and it's a very complex matter, especially as "cures" in many communities I've visited are often sought by tackling what are perceived as spiritual problems that manifest themselves in physical sickness – as opposed to a chemical or biological problems, as we tend to see things.
I've been given various barks to brew up in hot water and drink as a sort of tea, to alleviate fevers (which might result from malaria for example) but don't recall their names off hand. My rule now is that I will take local "medicines," but generally nowadays I've very cautious when alone. Years ago, I was much more casual about these things!
As a rule, I'd say that "local" medicines - that is, concoctions of herbs and so on - are NO substitute (for the Western traveller) for our own remedies. I take with me malaria tablets, I take broad and narrow spectrum antibiotics - for anything from severe chest infections to blood-poisoning. That is not to say these indigenous and local medicaments are useless, but:
(1) we know what "our" medicines are meant to do. It helps a doctor (when eventually he/she is located) understand what is necessary for treatment if you are, say, half way through a course of anti-biotics and you are not responding.
(2) we do not know what side affects the local stuff might produce - unexpected unpleasant/dangerous or just misleading side-effects and so on.
Generally speaking, I follow the premise that the West is best when it comes to (a) surgery; (b) chemical treatment. And other local/ Eastern medicine is better when it comes to more holistic matters - treating the mind/spirit, and whole body.
In a nutshell, if I was walking now alone through the Amazon and got struck by a fever, I would see what I had in my medicine kit first, and turn to whatever local medicine was suggested second - certainly I would not ignore what the locals had to offer, especially as many local brews can be very affective in, say, relieving symptoms. But I would never assume local herbs were actually a CURE, and substitute them for Western medicine if this was available.
My experience in Siberut (written up in Last of the Medicine Men) gives more of an idea about the complexity of treating with local physical/spiritual compounds.
(These are some thoughts in response to a medical aid worker, who felt she didn't totally "belong" back home anymore:) Yup, I often feel the odd one out. And it's inevitable. I think the first step must be to recognise that!
Writing is, for me, the answer. Each time away can be captured, shared, distilled within the page. It's extremely cathartic. Each expedition brings with it inevitable trauma - the separation, the estrangement. And the book helps heal that. In your case, it might be harder to justify a book - my expeditions are specifically designed with that publication in mind.
Perhaps you should think of yourself in the same way, though - that is, as an artist, carried by your muse, your inspiration (whatever drove you to work with Medicin Sans Frontieres ) not as someone within society.
I like your line about feeling you are growing outwards rather than upwards. Surely not a bad thing?
If you are unable to distil your experiences to friends, release them to strangers, as I am able to do through writing books. You do mention that you write, but there are many other creative outlets of course.
In the end, there ARE no complete answers. I have all the angst that you mention. I am extremely driven - it's why I've pushed myself to the limit around the world. And I suppose I, like you, have to accept that the peacelessness is part of the whole process. Without being too grand or self-conscious about it, perhaps think of yourself as a shaman - shamans are always outsiders. That is their role - and it brings insight to them, and anguish and loneliness. Same with Picasso, same with anyone who has reached beyond the ordinary. Hard to accept, but part of the whole "deal" as certain East Coast Americans would say.
Yup, I have more or less kept up with friends. They are very forgiving. I make a hopeless Godfather, and so on. And like you I always had a lovely family to launch from when I was younger.
So, no very helpful answer, from me. But you are accumulating all this experience, and I think it will show itself, perhaps in things you write, talk about or do in later years. That will be your eventual consolation - a considerable one...
I don't think I'll keep doing expeditions til I'm old - I'll hide away and write or explore home. Maybe you'll also not feel the need to run for the far hills, to see the horizon. Is that a comfort? I'm not sure. But I enjoyed hearing your thoughts and your own dilemmas. You are not alone!
The crocodile marks generally have helped me integrate – as " white" people like me are commonly viewed as outsiders who are likely to exploit the locals, ie the indigenous people. Thus the situation has changed from one in which so-called "tribal" societies were at war with one or other of their neighbours – at this stage these "tribal" markings helped define who belonged and who didn't - to one in which all "small" peoples are up against a common enemy – the outsider. Although missionaries are commonly seen as being to blame for undermining cultures of remote people, this is a gross oversimplification, in my experience. Missionaries are often the only friends indigenous people have. The problem is with outsiders looking to cut down rainforests, dig gold or oil. Very often we, or the national government, are sponsoring these activities in the name of progress or simply for personal gain. So identifying yourself with one indigenous group or other has, ironically, had its advantages elsewhere – the Aboriginals of Western Australia saw my crocodile marks as my passport to their community: I'd been given the "thumbs up" by another group of people who were not "white."
That said, I'm talking about a time when it was possible for someone like me to sink into an extremely remote society. Now we are in the age of Mass Tourism, and only very few communities anywhere are outside the all-pervading "Global Village." Despite what our TV presenters and journalists continue to tell us, there is NO WHERE in New Guinea, for example, with "uncontacted" peoples (let alone cannibals) - however much they might want the locals to be such.
It's hard for me to offer an advice service – a question of time, I'm afraid. I get 30 out-of-the-blue queries a week – sometimes many times this number. I enjoy reading them, I really do – but it's so difficult to find time for a really good, well thought out reply. Besides, my type of travel is unlikely to be similar to the sort most people undertake. I go alone, usually over many months (often staying put in the same community for most of this time ) and don't favour the use of a GPS or satellite phone. It would be foolish, perhaps, for the inexperienced hiker of Remote Parts to follow my lead. Nor is my motivation "travel" per se, but largely about learning skills that will allow me to push myself to the limit and record that experience of a remote world. I suppose I mean that I don't go for enjoyment, but because I feel driven to go – as if nothing would stop me - though of course I know it's a privilege to see these far-flung places, and do have very wonderful times.
Sources of advice: The Royal Geographical Society offers the information body called "Geography Outdoors" (formally, the Expedition Advisory Centre) at www.rgs.org - follow the links Our Work, then Fieldwork and Expeditions. For specialist medical equipment, look up www.travelpharm.com
In a word YES. There's been much, generally exaggerated, talk of side-effects, particularly from Larium. Most of these problems have been ironed out now. For malaria advice, see the website www.malariahotspots.com
First of all, yes, it's true that I'm no fan of the GPS or satellite phone - or all the rest of that wonderful techno equipment that modern travellers favour. It's simply an extension of my "philosophy" of travel: it seems to me that if you call yourself an adventurer – let alone an explorer - you should be disconnecting yourself from home, and testing yourself (or simply experiencing) what is unfamiliar to you. These gadgets maintain the umbilical link with familiar territory. Travel for me is all about breaking that link. But let me say I do understand that these gadgets offer security and a phone does connect people – for example, members of the same expedition - in a wonderful way. All I mean is that, if your objective is to test yourself, or immerse yourself, then taking these devices is to miss the point somewhere: mentally, you are not adjusted to the world you are in.
I'm not encouraging anyone to take unnecessary risks – rather, I'm saying that perhaps travellers shouldn't go so far off the beaten track, if they are relying on others to come and rescue them or offer them moral support. By the way, if I take risks, they are calculated risks (in theory!).
Am I a bit backward? A romantic belonging to a previous era? Some would say so. I'd say I was being true to what we are all non-scientist "explorers" are surely trying to achieve in the end – genuine immersion in a place - and many of these people today have been led astray. If you want to call yourself an "explorer" now, and – as I say - you are not a scientist, somehow you have got to experience that other world and not bring these comforting props from home along with you. Actually, I have used a GPS on some expeditions – and even been forced by the BBC to use a sat phone for a while on my trip. But I'm not very happy with them – it's map and compass for me!
Another thing to say is that I do have backup – but that backup is the local network of contacts, and also the skills I've built up out in the Amazon or where-ever, rather than a team of outsiders waiting to come to help me. Local trappers, hunters and indigenous groups are far more likely to of assistance than a "search and rescue" party launching from some H.Q. miles away. Similarly, what happens if your GPS breaks, your batteries run down? Better to rely on skills inside your head that allow you to tap into the local environment, allow you to see it as a resource, rather than somewhere to try and survive.
They are not explorers at all! They are athletes. I don't mean to say these people don't often accomplish very great achievements. But they are the achievements of sportsmen or women. I have no interest in walking to the Pole – it would be no different from running along a running track. Visit the Arctic or Antarctic, yes, trek across it yes – but you can't claim to be an explorer unless you bring back some new insight. That's why I've called Sara Wheeler an explorer of Antarctica, though she didn't trek anywhere. What she did instead was document the male scientific community that has colonised that continent!
I have a whole range!
Control Your Destiny, or someone else will. (This saying is not originated by me – but I've found it's true that everyone else has their agenda, and we all tend to get distracted from what we want to do with our lives. ) Linked to this:
The world steps aside for someone who knows where he's going. Again, it's not my phrase – but it seems very true to me.
BUT my favorite version of this is: "Follow Your Own True North" – it was the advise of a friend who was worried I was getting distracted by the agendas of others. We should navigate our way through life with our compass – ie following our instincts - but be aware that there is Magnetic North – but also TRUE (geographical) North. And be aware of magnetic anomalies (if you know about geology, these are lodes in the earth which create false magnetic readings) - distractions and falsehoods...
I get asked about how to get an expedition onto telly about once a week - that shows what the competition is like.
Perhaps the best answer is to get in touch with one of the independent TV companies ("Indys" ) and work up an idea with them – if they are interested. Even then, only one idea in twenty that is submitted to a broadcaster will be accepted.
TV is, though, essentially a medium full of falsehood when it comes to travel! I've written about this elsewhere, but the golden days - when I was doing my self-filmed expeditions – are gone. Instead, there are only – almost without exception – presenters making programmes with their film crew circus entourage. The problem is that, because a film crew is anything from five to ten people (with vehicles, battery chargers, government minders, translators etc etc ) and highly expensive, this means "managing" an expedition into a 3-4 week shoot and, of course, creating the drama that viewers nowadays expect. Then there are ethical issues of how local people are depicted or exploited by television. Some genuine expedition stuff (I mean with genuine jeopardy and isolation) does get on the TV – but it remains rare. So I'd stay clear of TV, if you are trying to make a life as an authentic traveller.
One idea is to forget TV and go for the Journey of a Lifetime Award (I'm on the selection committee) , which is a Radio 4 project in conjunction with the RGS. If you win, you get training, equipment to take, and your programme is broadcast.
Again, it comes down to what my ventures are about: immersion. If I have to wear a hat saying "Typhoo Tea" or have a DHL slogan over my camels, I feel I would have spoilt my objective. Advertising a product or service from home seems to me to erode my ethos.
And is it really necessary to "sell-out" – as some would see it - by advertising some probably unnecessary sports product anyway? If you want to keep your journey "pure", I'd say that where there's a will there's a way, even without any telly profile – as Chris Bonington and Doug Scott also found... If I was setting out on this career now, I'd draw comfort and inspiration from these people, I think. I kept a poster of the latter in my bedroom – it kept me going at times. People forget that I wrote five books before I made any TV or radio programmes – and if I can survive 15 years without any other permanent job, so, I feel, can you! It's DEFINITELY POSSIBLE if you are determined. Take heart...