FROM MY NEWSPAPER COLUMN
First published Daily Telegraph
‘Benedict is someone who’s almost died nine times,’ someone once observed, rather dramatically - but it might even be true. I was shot at in Columbia, elsewhere was robbed and left to die; once, in Sumatra, I stitched myself up with a boot mending kit. But then, quite suddenly in the Arctic, having been separated from my dog-team while alone on the pack-ice, I decided to call it a day. Time to go home and raise a family – and this is what I did, over the years enjoying the thought that my children too were ‘explorers’ - albeit only of Twickenham.
But then a chance encounter with Frank Gardner, the BBC Security Correspondent: over a meal at the Traveller’s Club, he told me he’d always wanted to get to Papua New Guinea to see their famous birds of Paradise. And though I had none of Frank’s enthusiasm for birds, and though I’d lived in PNG’s interior long enough to know that negotiating the humidity and mud of the interior would be no small order - even if you didn’t happen to be a wheelchair user with severe spinal injuries – somehow I was much taken by the purity of Frank’s dream. Here was someone prepared to undergo huge discomfort, and probably pain, for seemingly little reward. Put another way: I might be burnt-out, but this person deserved a chance – the same chance that I’d once had.
Sometime later, off we went, film crew and all. This wasn’t my sort of expedition – a cavalcade of logistical support, Frank up on a litter carried by four sturdy locals – but as soon as I was among the trees I saw what I’d been missing all these years. It wasn’t the birds of Paradise – the spectacular feathers of males, their frantic displays to indifferent females, their exuberant chortles, or despairing cries – it was the forest itself that spoke to me. Once again, I was immersed in life – everywhere plants were battling it out, wasps with yellow legs dangling before us, the ants marching silently by.
In the rain forest, so much is hidden – yet the greater truth made plain to see: life is glorious, life is surprising, and sometimes life is short. I had wasted much time and must soon head off again, sharing my experiences with those who had neither the ability – or frankly the inclination - to come to such wondrous far-flung places.