…a packrafting journey into the heart of Sierra Leone and Liberia's Peace Park…supported by the RGS Journey of a Lifetime grant

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The end.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the expedition blogs as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them, If you are new to the blog then feel free to scroll through the pages to get a little more background and stories on my Journey of a Lifetime in Sierra Leone and Liberia and check out thIMG_2543e Facebook group for loads of images from the project at Downstream Chimp.

I will be speaking all about the expedition at St Saviour’s Church in North London on October 3rd with all proceeds going to the charity Street Child of Sierra Leone – tickets are available here. Or, if you are a member or Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society you can come down to my Monday Night Lecture on October 7th, more details here. I’ll be going on a small UK tour in 2014 (Brecon – 24th Feb, Darlington – 25th Feb, Keswick – 26th Feb, Southampton – 27th Feb, Stamford 5th March) so keep across the ‘speaking’ tab on my website here, for further details later on this year.

I owe a huge debt of thanks to Simon Elmes at BBC Radio 4, the Royal Geographical Society, especially Shane, Catherine, Alex and Joanne and everyone involved with the Journey of a Lifetime grant scheme, seriously apply if you have a travel idea that you think would make great radio. I also want to thank my kit sponsors Aquapac, Brasher, Lifeventure, Lifesystems and DD hammocks for their support, and everyone that donated money towards my satellite phone on the Kickstarter campaign – it probably saved my life. My heartfelt thanks to everyone at the GRNP office in Kenema, especially Sakpa, Annika, Guy, Hannah, Frazer, Fumba, Patrick and Sheku, you guys made me feel extraordinarily welcome and my project wouldn’t have come anything close to being a success if it wasn’t for your help. I also want to thank all my new friends in Freetown for being there for me in between the bush and the hospital, especially Tim and Lynn who quite literally threw their doors (and fridge) open to me throughout my stay, and Gill and Catriona for the fun times. Jeremy, Richard and Nicolas at the RSPB helped enormously with facts, contacts and permissions throughout my journey and I had fantastic support in Sierra Leone and Liberia from Dr Monde at CSSL, Kate and Amos at the Sierra Leone Forestry Department and Michael and Alex at SCNL. I would also like to personally thank all the guys who helped me with vital information in the build-up to leaving the UK – Lev at Secret Compass, Tim Butcher, Rob Penn, Phil Harwood, David Gordon Mac-Leod, Will Lorimer, Harry Cox, Paul Taylor and Leona Cowley – finally I would like to thank all my friends and family for their neverending support.

I have absolutely loved the opportunity to get to know Sierra Leone and Liberia a little better and feel enormously privileged to have had the opportunity to tell some of its stories.

I really hope you enjoyed the radio broadcasts, but I could never do this place the justice it deserves in two 30-minute broadcasts so you should just go and see it for yourselves.

I have been deeply affected by this trip. I knew there would be tough times and that I was going to have to graft and dig deep on the expedition but I didn’t anticipate that I would ultimately be tearing myself away from West Africa with such a heavy heart at the end of the trip. The enormous shared sense of fun, happiness and humour that defined my trip in Sierra Leone and Liberia were the undoubted highlight in a journey filled with many wonderful moments.

The best is yet to come for Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The Descent

IMG_277429th April

12:25 – I woke at 2am with a splitting headache and couldn’t get back to sleep. At 6:30am I got up feeling groggy and have slightly recovered at lunch. Am treating the symptoms with ibuprofen and paracetamol and hoping it is just fatigue. If I worsen tonight I’ll take my malaria treatment and look to abandon the project.

20:00 – A beautiful camp by the wide river Mano. I have made my target but it hardly matters right now. I’ve had a dip into the river to bring my temperature down and have taken another couple of paracetamol and ibuprofen. I am really worried about my health. My mouth is filling with ulcers. I can’t eat.

I was getting into serious trouble. I was looking at just another four days to the river mouth and the end of the expedition but I knew that unless I made a remarkable recovery in the night the project was over and I’d have to figure out a way of extracting myself from the forest.

*            *            *

“When you have made up your mind to go to West Africa the very best thing you can do is to get it unmade and go to Scotland instead but if your intelligence is not strong enough to do so, abstain from exposing yourself to the direct rays of the sun, take 4 grains of quinine every day and get an introduction to the Wesleyans; they are the only people on the Gold coast who have got a hearse with feathers.”

So said a veteran of 7 years on the continent in the 17th century. As British colonist dropped like flies through the early establishment of Sierra Leone as a colony in 1808 the region was given the unenviable moniker: ‘the white man’s grave’. Of course health standards have elevated since but both Sierra Leone and Liberia remain at the base of the United Nation’s Human Development Index with one of the highest rates of maternal and child mortality in the world and regular outbreaks of hepatitis, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever and of course the biggest killer of all: malaria.

As my headache developed into a fever I started to fret, not least because among the last words of warning given to me before heading solo into the bush was the tale of a lady who had complained of flu-like symptoms, not gone directly to hospital, and died, with an undiagnosed hemorrhagic fever, 48 hours later. I was truly in the middle of nowhere, utterly alone and getting sicker by the minute. I needed to make contact with someone on the Sierra Leone bank and find my own way to the road: my lifeline to the hospital and proper treatment.

30th April

06:25 – feeling worse than ever. Abandoning the descent. Now I guess I’ll find out how tough I really am.

In your satellite phonecall to the Gola Rainforest National Park office include the following:- 

  • Where I am, message with GPS co-ords
  • Where I’m going
  • Exit plan
  • Don’t panic my Dad

I started to paddle out. I was aiming for the village of Wunde. At roughly 12km directly downstream it would take most of the day to get there, the other option I had was a bit of a wildcard. Frazer, a British volunteer at the National Park’s office, had written the word ‘Tolo’ in fat black letters on the final section of my laminated map of the park. It was much closer and sure enough, one hour later, I saw a break by the riverbank at the precise spot Frazer had penned, a girl was stood staring out across the river directly at me – Frazer, when I see you next I am going to kiss that big beardy face and buy you more beer than even a gang of binge-drinking Kei Kamara fans could devour in a single sitting at the NP filling station.

My headache had worsened to the point that I could barely keep my eyes open and the pain in my joints was bordering on the spectacular. My bones felt like they were grinding to dust with every movement plus I had developed a massive abscess on my ring ringer: an angry, explosive looking pustule the size of a Cadbury’s cream egg from nothing more than an aggravated hangnail.

I have never experienced pain like it before.

Frankly I could not believe the villagers of Tolo let me in at all.

I was essentially mute by the time I set off through the forest. Unable to open my mouth due to the ulcers and fully focused on simply moving forward, I gave out all my spare food, hired two porters and staggered on for two and a half hellish hours through the jungle. We arrived at a slightly larger village where I slumped on the floor as an acute stabbing pain tore at my kidneys. I thought I was going to die.

“I need two bikes, one for the bags, and one for the kit, to get me to Tigbema.” I stammered.

“How much money do you have?” uttered the chief dispassionately. I looked around. I was not among friends. About ten men were sat swinging idly from hammocks, no one looked remotely bothered.

I negotiated a price well over double the asking rate and two men eventually got up to get their motorcycles. I had a phone call from the National Park office. They had gone above and beyond to help me out and had sent a driver with a 4×4 down the dirt tracks to Tigbema to get me out, if only I could make it there.

I don’t know at what point I lost consciousness or for how long, but what I do know is that when I came round there were still no bikes.

“Where are the bikes?” I asked.

The chief looked on disinterested, “oh, you want to go now do you?”

Well.

Clearly the indeterminate amount of time I had just spent passed out had delivered me a vital injection of life because I, quite frankly, fucking exploded.

“YES! I want to go NOW! Do you want a dead white man on your front door?!! – get those boys, get those bikes and get me out of here immediately!”

I wasn’t proud of the outburst in the slightest. It was probably the first time I have ever lost it properly on expedition, but an hour later my motorcycle rumbled into the village to the waiting 4×4 and two days later I was on a drip in Choitram’s Memorial Hospital Freetown wondering what the hell had just happened to me.

*            *            *

Expeditions rarely finish the way you imagine. Especially mine. But this was not the end for me. I still had a radio documentary to record and this was always going to be a journey of two halves. With the adventurous descent behind me now I had to focus on the people, the politics and the future for the Peace Park itself.  The pursuit would lead me to the highest echelons of the Liberian Department of Forestry and knee deep in the mud of West Africa’s grimiest bushmeat markets, I would return once more to the forest and finally find hope at the doorstep of one of the most extraordinary bird species I have ever seen. But that’s all saved up for the broadcasts, right now I want to talk about Risk. Yep, that’s right, strap in.

I did not die in the forest because I had planned my evacuation procedure to such a level of accuracy that when I did in fact get sick I didn’t really have to think at all. At every stage of the descent I knew where my nearest way out was, where the best villages for connections to the main road were, and approximately how long it would take me to get there. I carried a satellite phone that geo-tagged my messages with GPS data and contacted my emergency contacts every 24 hours. I also carried a comprehensive medical kit with malaria treatment and prevention, antibiotics and a trauma kit. Before I started this expedition I spent time with Shane Winser at the Royal Geographical Society’s Geography Outdoors department scrutinising every hazard and reducing the long list of ways to meet a premature end to six major risk areas before looking at effective controls for dealing with each aspect. I won’t go into specifics here, but if you are planning something similar or are simply curious then get in touch and I’ll send you what I have, one thing I would say though is that no solo expedition will ever be 100% safe. I would like to think that progressively I have got better at reducing risk over the last six years of extreme expeditions, certainly I put myself in less riskier situations as time passes, but there still have been so many times when I have had to question whether it is really all worth it. If you find yourself knowingly going into a situation where the risks far outweigh the rewards really you should start questioning whether what you are doing is sensible. The help I received from the guys at the Gola Rainforest National Park office hastened my journey from riverbank to hospital considerably. I owe them a huge debt of thanks for everything they did for me on my project. It goes without saying that finding local partners with the logistical capability and experience to help you out of a sticky situation should absolutely be your priority before heading into the back of beyond, but you should also consider whether your journey is of such great importance that it is fair to call on the stretched resources of third parties should you get in trouble. I guess that’s one of the many things I’m mulling over as I consider my future.

The two part Radio series for BBC Radio 4 is available here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z

Will will be speaking in London on October 3rd for the charity Street Child of Sierra Leone, tickets are available here: http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/

The rock and a hard place.

IMG_2745In the forest I have nothing to fear.

The worst of the animals are not aggressive, they will not seek confrontation nor are they overtly curious, I can adjust my shelter to deal with the worst of the weather, I’m competent, almost in control, but people, people are totally unpredictable.

I allow my kit to dry on the rocks for most of the morning. Just before mid-day the mixer screen blinked back into life <fist pump> I pack up and leave that rapid behind me. One of the only good things about being on really immersive expeditions is that you don’t have time to dwell on your last experience, once it’s done it’s done, learn from it and move on. In March 2012 I was making a first descent of a whitewater river in West Papua when my partner Callum was sucked clean under an overhang and pinned underwater for almost a minute. It was the single most terrifying experience I have ever had on expedition and had it happened during training would have signaled the end of the day, if not week, of paddling. He popped up in the middle of the river, ashen faced and soaked through. I had grabbed his raft as it free-floated downstream, we found his paddle and even his hat, he took a couple of deep breaths and then we got on with it. It was bizarre looking back, he could’ve been killed, easily, but we hardly even talked about it, in fact, we’ve never really talked about it.

I had lost so much time I decided to skip my break that afternoon and paddle on through the heat. At mid-day I rounded a corner and my stomach dropped. There, consuming the Liberian bankside, was a massive open pit full of huge blokes. After several days of total, untouched, isolation it was shocking in itself but I knew I had further reason for worry. This, almost certainly, was an illegal diamond mine. As I got close I could make out at least 30 men stood on top of a massive bank of excavated sand, staring me down, a generator whirring in the background, pumping water out of the pit and back into the river.

This was certainly going to be a test. I was totally alone. A white man who had already been mistakenly assumed to be a neo-colonial exploiter or a member of the GRNP, no one could guess the nigh-on inconceivable reality that I was in fact a professional adventurer here to make a radio program about the forest. It wasn’t like I could avoid the camp either; it took up half the river.

It’s hard not to talk about Sierra Leone and Liberia without reverting to the ‘blood diamond’ crutch. It’s a lazy stereotype, yet a bad reputation sticks. There are no more ‘blood diamonds’ in Sierra Leone or Liberia. The practice of mining the region’s diamonds to finance the conflict ended along with the war over a decade ago. However, the industry remains largely unmechanised with 80% controlled by 300,000 artisanal miners who mainly mine by hand. As such the Government makes little: only $3-4 million from an estimated $100 million industry. Smuggling and illegal activity are rife and, as I was about to find out, the industry remains largely unpoliced and unregulated.

I paddled up to the mine with my heart in my mouth. I shouted ‘hello’. No one answered. They were talking in raised voices among themselves, more people poured from the tarpaulin tents at the back, crowding to see this ridiculous and unlikely scene. I couldn’t look beyond their muscles, like coiled steel cables on impossibly large frames, some had towels on their heads, ripped t-shirts and shorts, no one had shoes. I didn’t want to think it but I couldn’t help it. This was illegal activity on a massive scale; I was a solo, unannounced and almost certainly unwelcome intruder. This suddenly felt very very dangerous indeed.

Diamonds are typically formed in the region of 90 to 120 miles below the earth’s surface under intense pressure and heat over a period of 1 to 3 billion years. The only way anyone can ever hope to get access to them, even with cutting edge mining equipment, is when a massive subterranean volcanic eruption forces them up towards the earth’s surface. Control the spout of the volcano and you control the mineral, just ask Cecil Rhodes who in 1871 discovered a 83.5 carat diamond on his farm in South Africa’s Kimberley, used the profits to buy up the claims of other small holders in the region and established ‘De Beers’, today the largest diamond mining and trading corporation on the planet. Sierra Leone had a volcanic eruption on the scale of the Kimberley at some point, and certainly had the equivalent number of diamonds, yet a total lack of infrastructural development meant this eruption went unnoticed and with one of the heaviest rainy seasons on the planet the precious stones were spread right across the eastern province. Diamonds could be found virtually anywhere by anyone: cleared roads, housing foundations and increasingly in riverbeds, where the stones had slowly washed downstream. The diamond rush, when it came, caused thousands to down tools and walk from their farms in the hope of finding a life-changing gem. Food shortages became a massive problem as a result and then, of course, there was that war.

I kept shouting “hello” as I approached before finally receiving a friendly enough “good morning” in return. That settled me down a bit but it was obvious I was not welcome. There was nothing I could do; this confrontation was literally unavoidable. I was hauled out of the raft and taken to the top of a huge bank of mud. I decided to just go for the jugular from the off:

“So have you found any diamonds?” I asked jovially,

“Yes” came the response from one, which was immediately adjusted to an emphatic “no” by another.

Listening back to the recording it was incredible that they were forthcoming with answers at all. I had literally come from nowhere, waltzed onto their illegal mine with a recorder and huge fluffy microphone and started asking them about their work. You wouldn’t get away with that in the UK that’s for sure. I asked a few more questions, a couple of the guys spoke up: “we are just prospecting, we dig and look for the gravel where the diamond lives. Then we wash the gravel through the shaker…”

They had been there for two months digging by hand with shovels.

“You guys are all so big! I was scared!” I declared wimpishly. Honesty, in such situations, is the best policy.

Everyone laughed. I felt less intimidated and switched off the recorder to introduce myself properly and work out how, or if, I was going to be able to get this incredible story on tape.

A wily middle-aged man who introduced himself as ‘the boss’ approached me: “who do you work for?” he asked me straight up and everyone fell silent. It was a very fair question. I explained what I was doing, about the adventure and the BBC. It was clear he still thought I worked for the National Park, it was equally clear what the consequences would be if I did, but the two things going distinctly in my favour was the radio kit I had in my hands and the fact that I was alone. “Whites from the National Park are never alone” the boss man eventually concluded. My supreme stupidity had saved me once again.

What followed over the next hour was actually perfectly pleasant. I chatted to most of the workers, asked who was the best digger, had a go at digging my own diamond and generally carried on like I was presenting a Blue Peter special on illegal mining and not in fact, a door-stepping journalist way out of his depth in the middle of a remote forest.

It was staggering what they had achieved in two months. The pit was big: 30 metres long and at least 18 foot deep with sheer mud sides, all dug by hand. Water poured in constantly, ensuring work always took place in a thick dirt pudding, plus everything they needed (fuel, generators, shelter, food, tools) had to be carried in from the town, five hours away through the forest. “It must get very hot,” I said, pointing out the obvious whilst stood in a tent no more than 6 x 6 foot intended for 8 people. The noise of the generator was deafening but the heat, at midday, with no overhead cover, was bordering on the intolerable. At one side of the pit stood a four-foot high pile of gravel, the grand sum of two months of toil on less than a dollar a day. It was enough to justify another month’s investment from the big boss in Kenema. Find a stone and it is party time, find nothing and you at least leave with a few dollars, which is more than most of these ill-educated lads could hope for otherwise.

A range of men worked the mine, mostly though they were in their twenties, all with kids, and at least one wife. I met one 18-year-old still wearing his school football top. It was his first time in the industry, he liked it but didn’t want a wife yet, not till he was ready, he said. The only man who hadn’t stopped working in the entire mine was also the oldest, 69 years old, and up to his knees in mud.

“Has anyone here ever actually seen a diamond?” I asked as I made my exit.

“No”, came the universal response.

I thought about it afterwards. I couldn’t believe it was true. Some of these men had spent their lives digging for diamonds, it was the ultimate discovery, but they weren’t so rare that not one person in a fifty strong team was yet to lay eyes on one, it would be commercial suicide. In these circumstances the actual ‘cut’ of the sale you would receive as a digger would be small, certainly not enough to hang up your spade for good, but probably enough to keep you hanging on for more. Admitting you had seen or received money for diamonds you’d found in the past could be a potentially divisive move, especially when working in a diamond mine with others who were yet to find their first stone. I wouldn’t want to jeopardise the camp atmosphere in a three-month stint of shoveling by revealing my work experience and past riches. Just as likely though, from their perspective I was a journo outsider possibly looking to stir up trouble, maybe even looking to steal, why would they tell me anything?

Mining is one of the biggest threats to the Gola and the Peace Park, but it was difficult to reconcile the image of the big, bad destructive industry with this clutch of impoverished Liberians. They were just looking for work, any work, and a regular wage. They treat me with a degree of warmth during my hour, which I certainly didn’t feel I deserved, particularly as they insisted on washing my feet as I climbed back into my raft. Increasingly on expedition I have discovered the people actually getting hands-on in illegal industries are among the world’s friendliest, risking life and limb whilst someone else becomes a millionaire.

I just listened back to my recording, at one point I ask the boss if he has a wife:

“yes” he responds.

“It must be difficult?” I continue, meaning, it must be difficult being away all the time.

“yes, married life is difficult” he replied, to much laughter.

 

Without a paddle

IMG_2739I swing back and forth across the top of the rapid, teetering in the neutral area where I can still fetch the raft back from the lip of the sliding water, trying to pick the cleanest line but really just building up the courage to take down the drop.

I’m looking for the tongue of the cataract; a v-shaped flume of flatish water that if I nail head on will see me through this last piece of danger and safely into my camp for the night. My nerves have been shredded over the last few days. I’d had some close calls, hit some rocks and once even found myself wedged up hard against a submerged tree, but I’d held on through the worst of it and was starting to feel a bit more confident in my ability.

One last look. There are three potential lines and I cant see the full run on any of them, the rapid plateaus awkwardly in the middle before dropping out of sight for the last ten foot before the splash pool. It isn’t ideal. I decide to go for the middle for no other reason than it looks slightly less rocky, a bit cleaner maybe. I turn the raft in a long circle, straighten and go for it.

It’s all fast. The rumble of water on rock fills my ears, focuses my sight; I’m holding my breath with hands tight round the paddle. I drop into the plateau cleanly but from the blind spot a black rock emerges dead ahead. I dig hard into the foam down the right side of the raft, pressing back, desperate to adjust my line before a devastating impact. The raft buckles before it bends to my will. The nose turns hard, I flip to the left side and drive forward, straightening and rounding the rock in a nanosecond. Suddenly I’m through, the splash pool sanctuary is directly ahead but so is another rock. I can’t do anything this time. The raft smashes in headfirst and my entire 130-kilo load is lifted free of the water like a Polaris missile. Everything slows as we roll. I hold my breath as my world goes black.

*            *            *

Into my second week on the river I knew which rapids I could take on by sound alone. A flat ‘burrrrr’ sound, like a washing machine spin cycle, was a good one, a dull burble was always too shallow, a heavy jet engine was deadly and must be portaged but it was the dull rumble I feared the most, those were the fifty-fifties and by far and away the type I encountered the most.

I had left Sakpa at Vangaima, a three-tiered giant of a waterfall with clouds of black fly swarming above every churning pool. It had been a scary approach to the falls. I could hear them a mile off, an imperious guttural roar through the forest, a truly prehistoric beast. The lip was hidden from view behind a barrier of rock. The water lapped round into a small funnel, an inviting innocuous looking siren disguising the ultra-violence that crouched just metres away. I knew a mistake here would be deadly. Sakpa watched from the tree cover on the right bank as I headed into the funnel and pumped my arms hard across the lip of the waterfall. “You’re a long time dead,” my mother’s words rolled through my mind.

I remember doing a day at the whitewater centre in Cardiff back before the Trans Papua in 2011. I had been stunned at how close you could get to a fall and still rescue your craft, if only you knew how and where to paddle. The trick is to paddle directly across, don’t fight the flow by trying to go against the swell but do try and keep your nose angled slightly upstream – that and pump hard, really, really hard. Sakpa and I broke down the gear and carried it by hand to a white sand beach at the base of the drop and said our goodbyes for the last time. From there I headed into the heart of the forest utterly alone, the next time I’d see Sakpa would be at the end of the expedition, whenever that may be.

The next few days drifted between the sublime and the ridiculous. The jungle continued to deliver scenes of unparalleled beauty: I encountered my first troop of Diana monkeys, a gloriously decorated primate with grey fur merging with a rust-red back, white breast, black face and long black tail. I startled the group as they drank from the riverside, they scattered and resumed their chirruping call, reassuring and regrouping just out of sight. Time merged in those middle days. Long paddles among a backdrop of 70-metre trees, I never knew what I might see round the corner; I heard my first chimps, encountered catfish the size of Staffordshire bull-terriers, saw snakes hunting frogs, eagles snatching fish, and was continually awestruck by the constant whirling presence of hundreds of different bird species: hornbills, herons, egrets, the stalking Tiger bittern and giant wooly necked stork, an array of ducks, the pygmy kingfisher and the brilliant blue cuckoo-shrike. Then there were the animals I didn’t see but was continually made aware of: the micro-second flashes of colour, the creaks, croaks, thumps and grumbles from the bushes and the large animal that I felt sliding along my packraft base as I drifted free in one particularly deep and dark pool.

Those days were not without problems: my sleeping mat was doubling as a useful cushion on my packraft base but after numerous collisions it simply punctured, the stove I had picked up in Kenema (ironically named ‘the safety camping’) exploded on one of my afternoon breaks, I faced down an enormous midnight storm, tore my raft base on the rocks and continually spilt, dropped and lost things, classically I would pack away all my kit and discover something vital staring me down outside the drybags or something I needed for the day was buried deep within the raft. Slowly though I gained control and momentum. I found simple fixes for my problems, I was putting in longer days, growing in confidence and had my portage routine down to a fine art, realising I could leave the heaviest bag tied in the raft base and use the straps to carry the load and raft on my back simultaneously became a real timesaver.

The night before the capsize I washed in the river then lay back on the warm stones to dry out. I lay back, looking at the clearest of night skies full of all the familiar constellations of the northern hemisphere and drew comfort from the fact that all my family and friends were under the same set of stars. I felt less alone in that moment and more determined than ever to pull this off. My greatest tests though, were waiting right round the corner.

*            *            *

I popped up in the middle of the river. I had stupidly strapped my mixer and mic to my chest yet had somehow managed to keep them above the water by thrusting them skyward as myself and the raft plunged under. My feet scraped the riverbed. It wasn’t deep and I could arrest my journey downstream by jamming up against the rocks, finally I was safe, now where the hell was my raft?

I looked ahead. It was base-up free floating down the river. I turned around to see my paddle, rolling over and over at the bottom of the rapid, trapped in a small whirlpool. I had to think fast: without the paddle my rafting expedition was over but the raft had my food, the shelter, the medical kit, my navigation equipment, the satellite phone and all the recordings. Without it the project was doomed. At least if I only lost the paddle I could survive out here and have a record of my story, with just the paddle and no raft I was finished.

I started after the raft, ditching the radio kit on a large rock in the middle of the river. I half swam and half strode downstream in pursuit. The raft looked like it wasn’t moving that fast but I just couldn’t seem to make up the ground and save it, it felt like I was swimming in porridge and reminded me of a recurring nightmare where I am running from an unseen assailant with all my friends and suddenly I forget how to run and the group slowly leaves me behind to my fate. The raft stalled in the shallows. Gripping the bungee cords holding the bags in place I tried to flip it over. The weight was unbearable, an extra gallon or so of water sloshed in the base and added another ten kilos, but I just managed it, my body shaking with adrenaline, full of fear that my bags might have somehow come loose, abandoning me to my fate. A cursory glance confirmed everything was still in its place; even the suncream I had wedged in my boots and the morning’s fish I had caught and placed inside an empty ration pack. I had strapped everything down just well enough and had been extremely lucky.

The evening drew in as I placed all my belongings out along the rocks in the last of the day’s sunshine. The dry bags had done well, the Aquapac duffel exceptionally so, and I had even managed to retrieve the paddle, but there were casualties: the sound mixer had taken on water and the screen had stopped working, I had lost one empty drybag and my older Arcteryx rucksack was soaked right through. I realised I could be the first person to win this Award and then destroy the kit. “People have taken this recorder to the Himalaya and come back fine” said Simon Elmes, the Creative Director of Radio 4, as he handed me the equipment in Broadcasting house. I stared at the blinking screen one more time before removing the battery pack, the mic, headphones and anything else that might stop the release of moisture. I’d try and dry it in the morning heat tomorrow. Heat it up and pray. It was all I could do.

That night I knew I had to find the fight. People draw strength in different ways. I read through a page of notes I had written before I left, kind words from friends and family, the poem Invictus, a few quotes, some music – just enough to make me feel buoyed again without being too self-indulgent. Then I went through exactly what had just happened, re-visiting my mistakes and analysing what went wrong without beating myself up to the point that I become too afraid to continue. The fact the rapid was small gave me the hope that I was unlikely to flip again in the future, but it also acted as a warning that even the smallest of obstacles could take me out. I reminded myself of a word of caution from a man named Wyndham Jones, who I had met while working on a series about the British woodland: “it’s felling the small trees that ‘ull kill ya” he muttered, beneath his impressive grey beard. Relaxing or underestimating the smaller dangers on an adventure are often where you run into trouble. I promised myself I would take more care. No more fifty-fifty calls or unnecessary blind descents. Unless I could see all of a run, forget it, get out and portage. It wasn’t like I would run out of food, progress had been incredible so far.

I was lying back, surrounded on all four corners of my tarp by giant plate-sized tarantulas that had crawled out of holes in the bankside, when suddenly I became aware of lights on the river. I quickly flipped off my headlamp and peered out into the gloom. I could make out two men working the far bank. They were using their lamps to try and find ‘eyeshine’, the reflection off a mammals eyes, and a dead giveaway for any hunter looking for an easy kill.

I was beyond the halfway mark now and coming back into the realm of man. This was the first sign of illegal activity I had seen and was a warning of things to come.

Catch up on the first episode of Will’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z and tune in for the second at 11am on the 20th September on BBC Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03b2zb1   

Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for the charity Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/

Mokbaima

IMG_2617A series of rapids began in the wake of the rocky island I had camped on the previous night. I had to learn my limitations immediately; some of the rapids I could shoot but others required a long and arduous portage, forcing me to break down my kit, shoulder the raft and then put it all back together on the other side of the obstacle. It was physically demanding time-consuming stuff that would eat massively into the distance I could cover in a single day. The temptation always was to take on the rapid; a skilled run could see me move through a hundred metres in less than a minute, avoiding heavy hauling of up to an hour, but if I got it wrong and capsized the consequences were unthinkable.

Temperatures at midday were around 40°C. I had started off barefoot and in shorts but by the end of the second afternoon my skin was bright red with sunburn, from that point on I wore trousers tucked into socks at all times and ducked out into the shade for the middle two hours of the day. I looked forward to this break more than any other. In the evenings all my time was taken with repairs and fixing camp before collapsing exhausted into bed, midday was the one time I could properly relax and, as I soon discovered, the river was full of fish that were easy to catch with a piece of rehydrated chicken strung onto a hook or a flashy metal lure.

I had broken the journey down into stages: stage one was just to make it to the village of Mokbaima on the Sierra Leonean bank. To give myself a fairly easy introduction to the river Sakpa was walking back through the forest to the village to meet me. If I had encountered any terminal problems I had an easy out, plus, he could warn anyone he met that I was on my way downstream. Stage two was to make it to the Mano river junction and stage three was to make the sea.

At sundown I could hear voices on the river ahead. Darkness was quickly overwhelming the forest and the cacophony of noise from the night creatures was an aural reminder that it was high time I was safely off the river. I pulled round one more final sweeping bend onto the population and silence descended abruptly. I switched on my recorder:

“I can see people, and not a moment to soon, because it is almost dark…”

As I cornered I became aware that about 30 people were stood up to their waists in water and staring directly at me. They were silent for three reasons: number one, a white man was floating towards them from an area of river that no man had ever descended, number two, this stranger was also about to plough straight into a massive rapid right before their village, and, number three, they were all completely naked.

“This is either the Gola forest nudist colony or the Mokbaima village bathing area…” I continued recording.

I negotiated the rapid okay and then almost punctured the raft on a thorn-filled bush (no pun intended) before discovering there was, in fact, another village hidden on the Liberian bank. I shouted ‘hello’ again and finally got a friendly response. Everything was going to be fine; Sakpa had done his job very well.

“We are here to assist!” shouted the band of naked men who trotted over and started manhandling the raft. We had a quick chat and I explained I was actually staying on the opposite bank, handily, everyone in Liberia speaks English, they helped me ease the raft back over to cross but as I moved out into deeper water a man started screaming: “Pumoi money!”

I pretended I couldn’t understand. It was impossible. He wanted me to return to the Liberian bankside immediately and was gesticulating wildly. “Just get in!” my new friends whispered in my ear imploringly, “Pull in!” the crazy man shouted furiously.

I thought it through quickly. I could go back, calm things down and inevitably end up paying money or getting into an argument, or I could continue to cross into the deeper water where, unless this man could swim (which was highly unlikely) I wouldn’t be followed. In the end I did a mix of both, sort of shouting across a few friendly remarks, whilst very clearly moving off to the opposite bank.

I found Sakpa waiting under the village mango tree grinning ear-to-ear.

“No problem Will!” he smiled coolly.

*            *            *

Night fell and I was sat down in a wicker chair and given a small fish to eat. Children crowded around along with a goat and dozens of tiny chicks. I had, as instructed, headed directly to the chief’s hut and was waiting for an audience with the man. Eventually he emerged from his hut and sat down opposite me, wearing a smart white skullcap and grey gown. Things quickly got serious.

“The Gola Rainforest National Park have not delivered on their promise to build a feeder road connecting this village with the main road.”

I was about to discover that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I reached for the recorder and Sakpa offered to help translate my questions into the Mende language.

The nearest road, I was told, was sixteen miles directly through the bush.

“So what do you do if you need healthcare or education?” I asked.

“When people get sick we have to place them in a hammock and carry them to the feeder road. Also, we have a lot of children here.” It was true, there were at least 30 stood around me, watching quietly in the dark in grubby t-shirts and ripped shorts. “None of them have access to education…give us the feeder road and we can take our commercial products to sell in the market, get the finances we need and send our children to school.”

I asked if there had been any improvements in their lives since the Gola Rainforest became a National Park.

“No” he answered flatly.

“We used to use the forest products to educate the children but now we get no benefit whatsoever from the Park, the situation is ridiculous. We go to meetings but nothing ever happens. The patch of forest that we are allowed to use is insufficient. We are really suffering.”

This was at odds with what I had been told so far. Working closely with the researchers at the GRNP offices in Kenema had shown that a great deal of thought and compromise had gone into establishing the 2011 boundary line between the National Park and the Community forest so this very situation would not arise. The GRNP argued these communities hadn’t entered the region designated as National Park prior to the war and had worked carefully with local chiefs to draw a boundary line that would not infringe on their activities in the future – yet two years down the line the chief of Mokbaima was absolutely adamant the National Park had caused them increased hardship.

“There were 32 houses here before the war, everything got destroyed, we’ve barely rebuilded, and now Gola has taken over and restricted our access to money – there are no old people here, every one of our elderly was massacred – maybe if we still had our important elders alive we could build the pressure and political will to help us rebuild, but they are dead and we don’t have access to the right contacts.”

I was curious, just over on the other side of the river the Liberian forest was considered ‘protected’ but was not yet officially a National Park (a fact that had considerably slowed the establishment of the Transboundary Peace Park), if they truly had suffered as a result of the National Park on the Sierra Leonean bank then surely the most obvious comparison would be with their neighbours in National Park-free Liberia.

“Yes. Of course they are better off. They can do what they like” responded the Chief.

With that answer I had just flushed a week of chilling on beaches at the end of my expedition directly down the toilet. Whatever unfolded on the rest of the journey I was now committed to an arduous overland journey across the border and into Liberia and then back into the bush on their side of the riverbank. I had to find out if that comment bore any weight. I wasn’t here to just journey down the river, I genuinely wanted to learn something about balancing community development and conservation and as I was now getting directly conflicting responses to my questions I knew I’d have to just go and see for myself.

There was no getting away from the fact that people out here were poor, among the poorest in Africa, so whether or not people were better off in Liberia was purely relative. The question really is who, ultimately, is responsible for the plight of these people living in the bush? The GRNP are the target of these peoples anger as they are the only outsiders they regularly come into contact with but it seemed to me that the GRNP were having to take up the considerable deficit in rural development without ever really having adequate financial or human resources to fully meet the multitude of demands from these border communities. The Chief blamed the National Park for their suffering but it was clear from taking in the demographic of the village that the vast majority of young adults, the strongest and most vital workforce for this deeply physical environment, were already missing from the scene, with or without the National Park. Weeks later I raised the point with the paramount chief of the neighbouring district in Liberia, having experienced an identical set of circumstances over the border, she answered: “you grow up out here, you covet education and jobs, you get an opportunity to leave and earn hard money in the town, gain experience and look to the big city for the big break, you provide for your family from outside of the village, but you don’t come back if you have the opportunity to leave.” Furthermore, on my return to Kenema and the GRNP offices, it became clear that this village had never in fact been promised a feeder road and many of the present residents had moved to the area from outside to search for diamonds. The fact is there has never been a worst time to be a hunter-gatherer. As desertification squeezes the amount of fertile land at the top of the sub-saharan region, land-grabs for bio fuels and soy mop up enormous amounts of what’s left below. Rural-to-urban migration is happening on an unprecedented scale (Africa has the highest rate of urban growth in the world with a handful of the fastest growing megacities already established in the continent this decade) and the specter of providing food for an ever-swelling population looms large across most of the region. However, relative to the rest of Africa, Sierra Leone and Liberia’s populations are very low and their natural resources and forests remain quite intact – if they can be managed responsibly the future could yet be bright.

I tried to wrap up the interview but before I could the chief made one more comment:

“Thanks for explaining your purpose to us. When we saw you, a white, coming down the river, we felt that maybe you were coming to take over our river along with the forest you already taken from us.”

Sakpa started laughing, giggling uncontrollably in fact, but the chief wasn’t laughing and I had gone bright red. I explained I was actually doing the expedition mostly for fun in fact. I changed tack slightly and asked him what he would do for fun if he had the money.

The chief considered the question for a moment.

“If I was a rich man I would take an adventure in the western world. New York I think” suddenly the chief switched to English, “ I definitely would not go rafting.”

Catch up on the first episode of Will’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z and tune in for the second at 11am on the 20th September on BBC Radio 4. 

Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for the charity Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/

Jungle Book

IMG_2576My addiction to this feeling is what keeps me coming back.

I climb into my raft for the first time, wedging myself at the back, my legs straddling my load as I force my oar tip into the sand bank and push off into the current. An immediate sharpening of the senses follows. A hyper awareness to every ripple, ruffle, sight and sound coupled with an overwhelming sense of total freedom. I was on my own and precisely where I wanted to be.

Soloing on big expeditions can be very daunting. I had not had an enjoyable experience alone on the second leg of the Trans-Papua last spring, but already this project felt different. I had gotten off to a near-perfect start with good people helping me at every stage and vital support from the government, my kit was in great condition, I was physically fit and psychologically up for it.

The river was perfect too; no signs of the whitewater, rumbling cataracts or raft swallowing whirlpools that had hindered progress on previous packraft journeys. It was just deep enough to carry the load and me, and just quick enough to offer assistance without being overwhelmingly fast. It seemed I had timed my descent (just before the rains and at the end of the dry season) to absolute perfection.

I screwed my GoPro camera to the nose of the raft and wedged Dr Hiller’s Primate identification card under a bungee cord. I didn’t know how long it would take to get to the sea, or even if I would make it at all, but I didn’t care, for now all that mattered was the task at hand. I counted in my strokes and concentrated on keeping the nose of my boat nail straight.

That first day was truly glorious. In one afternoon paddling I saw more wildlife than I had in my entire first two weeks in country. The forest was alive with activity: dragonflies’ hunted insects on the wing, innumerous butterflies danced on the riverbanks, egrets and herons stalked the shallows and large striped tigerfish hunted the slacks. The river provides fresh water, a food source, and a home to thousands of creatures: for me it was the perfect transport network, free of forest detritus and a natural break in the landscape that allowed a glimpse into this most complete of ecosystems. Quite simply, it was a storybook rainforest.

As the sun set on my first day the sky filled with thousands of swallows and blue-cheeked bee-eaters, skimming and dive-bombing the surface of the river, drinking, eating and socializing before returning to roost. I set up my camp on a large rocky island in the centre of the river, erected a tarp tight to the bushes and unfurled my mossy net for my first night alone.

Catch up on the first episode of Will’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z and tune on for the second at 11am on the 20th September on BBC Radio 4. 

Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for the charity Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/

Damned if you do, dead if you don’t

IMG_25286:30am Medina village, day of departure…

“Will”

“Yes, Sakpa…”

“The man who was going to carry the load, he’s not here.”

“Yes, I can see that Sakpa”

“He had a big fight with his wife at the disco last night and she has banned him from coming.”

“I see.”

I plunged into the forest just after dawn with Shariff, an able replacement who shouldered my pack with the oars and raft with ease, and, right on my heels, chatting away about diamonds, his ex-wife, the path ahead and Liberians, Sakpa followed, with 35 kilos of dehydrated ration packs balanced on his head whilst he nonchalantly swung his arms from side to side as if we were going for a Sunday stroll.

“These paths Will, they connect all the villages to the border with Liberia, the bush border, where we can cross and trade in the forest without a problem.”

No need for a passport here then.

A few weeks later I had to cross on the official international border. It took two excruciatingly tedious hours where I was stopped no less than 9 times by police, the military, customs, and immigration, for various stamps, bribe attempts and relentless hounding to change currency on the black market. It was even worse for the locals who were charged an informal ‘tax’ if they were engaging in commercial activities, which, of course, almost everyone was.

Here, deep in the forest, there is no policing, the border is utterly fluid and at points you could simply lob a stone from one side of the river to the other.

At mid-day we approached a clearing in the forest. “Vaama village” Sakpa announced. I paused, suddenly feeling a little nervous. This was my first proper forest community of the expedition. “Are they friendly?” I murmured.

“Yes” responded Sakpa, before adding the cryptic qualifier: “too friendly.”

There was no time to ask for clarification. We were heading in.

A cluster of five straw roofed mud-brick houses were grouped around a small thatch covering where the chief swung idly in the shade. I trialed the Mende word for “hello” that Sakpa had been drilling into me all morning.

“Kai Goma!” he replied smiling and extending his hand expectantly. Of course I completely let myself down at this stage of proceedings and went for the standard shake only to be slickly outmaneuvered as his palm slid across mine, up, down, twice over with a slap and then an attempted finger click as he retracted his hand from my limp-as-lettuce grip.

Tribal handshakes: You never know where you stand.

I took in my surroundings. One of the huts had curling yellow posters for both Liberian and Sierra Leonean candidates pinned to the wood. I felt a frisson of excitement. I was finally getting close to the border. This whole area had been pivotal to maintaining the grinding conflict of the 90s and early 2000s. A large permeable unpoliced boundary where blood diamonds could cross freely through an impenetrable forest with innumerous hiding places and a free supply of food: an enormous natural supermarket where no one need pay for the goods, except, of course, for every single indigenous forest resident who were either murdered, fled, or took up a near permanent state of hiding for years on end. Today, after ten years of peace, things had settled back to a sense of utter timelessness and the communities had largely returned in this corridor between the Gola North and Central forests.

Chickens scrabbled around in the dust for insects and seeds, a tightly woven fish-trap full of finger size fish stood in a corner and two women ground a pot of stringy fibrous looking roots into a thick viscous oil. I recorded a small piece with a half dozen children looking on in wide-eyed incredulity at this white man who had just popped out of the forest. It felt warm, welcoming, idyllic even. I was almost half way through a syrupy piece to radio before Sakpa arrived with the charred hindquarters of a vulnerable species in his hands.

“Duikers!” announced Sakpa gleefully.

Still covered in fine brown hair with hooves the size of my thumb-tip, this small forest antelope is relatively common to the forest and one of the most highly sought after bushmeat species. It was probably a Maxwell’s duiker but it was hard to tell as it was already partway through the smoking process: cleanly gutted with ribs standing proud, and blackened inside with wood smoke. The village was surrounded by community forest; the all-important natural buffer between the National Park where hunting with traps and snares was legal.

A young man sat down next to me on a small stool. He was dressed in a basketball singlet and smart long trousers, but unlike the others in the village he didn’t make eye contact and stared instead at his bare feet. The atmosphere changed markedly.

“This is my friend” began Sakpa solemnly. “He has a bad sore. He is trying to get to the nearest medical place…” as he spoke the man slowly pulled his trouser leg up.

I have seen some serious infections in rural communities in my time but this was easily amongst the worst I’ve ever encountered. I was absolutely shocked. Almost all of the flesh and skin on his calf was missing, his wound was red raw, exposed and badly infected. In short, even if he got medical attention right now, and had access to antibiotics, the chances of him keeping his leg would be slim.

“It is very dangerous as he is not even able to walk a short distance. He is trying to get money but he is financially broken” continued Sakpa.

I asked a few more questions but really the reason for the presentation had already dawned on me.

“He wants to go to Kenema but he has no money” Sakpa repeated. I wasn’t being forced, but it was expected that I would pay. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation and it never gets easier. What is the right thing to do? On the one hand you have a very sick man in desperate need of medical attention, that, for the price of a round of drinks in London I could help immeasurably, on the other, I have a village full of people with other treatable ailments, if only for a little money, and many more similar encounters to come in the future of this project. I know I can’t help everyone and am very wary of establishing the notion that any individual westerner to pass through a village is a cash cow for solving the village’s financial problems. We’ve all been there, every one of us, from the times we are approached on the street by homeless people to the cold calling and slew of junk mail that pours yearly through our postbox, the quandary of where and what to give to charity is omnipresent. Some argue giving money to a charity and not an individual is a good way of spreading a donation to a collective of those in need, whereas others are happier to give out occasional handouts to individuals in the knowledge that the money may be spent more directly on a specific problem. If I give money now, I wondered, is my motivation partly to assuage my own guilt at being better off? To move the problem on in my mind and maintain the village idyll I had established on first entering the clearing 20 minutes ago? I was full in the knowledge that a one-off payment will make little overall difference, that secondary infection from open wounds is most commonplace to anyone living a hunter gatherer lifestyle in this sort of environment, that all I’m doing is fixing today’s problem whilst doing nothing to help in the long term, but what really, I asked myself, is my purpose in being here? In spite of my lofty idea that I’m raising awareness of this region by reporting back I knew that deep down I was also partly motivated by a selfish desire to further my own career. I found myself reaching for my wallet.

“He needs to pay people to carry him in a hammock” continues Sakpa.

“Won’t his friends carry him for free?” I retorted.

“Times are very tough, some people do that but some people refuse”

“I see”

I did see. Time away from the farm and forest is time you are not actively providing for your own family. Everyone has their problems. I say I’ll try and help and hand out enough for a course of antibiotics and the portering.

“He has been cursed” says Sakpa. The sick man nods along, “I was healthy”, he says, finally speaking with my cash clutched in his hands, “and very strong.”

“Someone here was jealous…I was struck down.”

My concerns turn immediately to exactly how my money will now be spent, fearing it’ll simply go into the hands of the local witch doctor who will conduct an investigation into the spiritual source of the curse as septicemia consumes this man’s body. I reiterate the need to get to Kenema, to purchase antibiotics and Muhammed nods back in agreement. Who now, I wonder, is placating whom?

I vow to give a donation to one of the medical charities here and leave the village feeling awkward.

Seven hours later we made it to the village of Levuma. The remote abandoned fishing hole is still a half days walk away but I take the opportunity to get one last big meal in me before I move onto rationing on the river tomorrow. That night I clasp eyes on the Moro for the very first time. It is wide, slow and achingly beautiful. We wash and I swim naked across the international border and pick a flower from the opposite bank, returning the souvenir to the non-swimming Sakpa in commemoration of my illegal international travels. 

Catch up on the first episode of Will’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z and tune on for the second at 11am on the 20th September on BBC Radio 4. 

Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for the charity Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/

Will Millard's Blog

...life is a mystery to be experienced. Not a problem to be solved.

Downstream Chimp

...a packrafting journey into the heart of Sierra Leone and Liberia's Peace Park...supported by the RGS Journey of a Lifetime grant

Trans Papua Blog

...the dreamers of the day are dangerous men