I was on the Pennine Way in the worst British winter for a decade. I had my phone wedged in my armpit, under my thermals and fleece, and deep inside my sleeping bag. It was so cold in my tent that all my water bottles had actually frozen solid. I’d only just been able to get my boots off by melting a pan of snow and pouring it over the laces.
This was the absolute pits.
I fished my phone out, hoping the battery was warm enough to actually have retained some of its charge, and depressed the ‘on’ button till it blinked into life.
A text came in from my Dad.
“Will, you got the Journey of a Lifetime grant. Well done.”
Then the battery died again.
I stared in absolute disbelief at the blank screen where that message had just been.
In less than two months I’d be in tropical West Africa attempting a first descent on the Sierra Leone – Liberia border. I let that sink in for a moment as a gale outside tried its best to tear my tent off the Peak District.
Things have been a bit mental lately.
I got off the Trans Papua expedition back in July last year. It had been a hugely demanding project, massive in both logistical planning and ambition, and physically and mentally exhausting to the absolute extreme. It was the culmination of five years of expeditions and research in West Papua leading inexorably to an attempt to make the first unbroken crossing of the state via a series of ancient inter tribal trade routes. Five months of remote tribal encounters, isolated forests and snakes, snakes, snakes. It was as close to real exploration as I am ever likely to get, and I figured that when it was over, things probably wouldn’t be the same again.
Over the years I had knocked on almost every independent expeditionary grant body in the country and had been blessed with some unbelievable generosity, I had also flogged articles on Papua to every magazine that would have me, wrote a blog that was read by more than just my family, and spoke at a handful of venues across the country to audiences up to 800 strong. I felt, deep down, that I was coming close to exhausting every available avenue. I could hardly complain. I had had an unbelievable run.
I was at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in Autumn last year, drinking a cup of tea with my good friend and head of Geography outdoors, Shane Winser, when the subject of what I was going to do next was brought up. Unthinkingly I told Shane I had an idea for a packraft descent in West Africa. It was unthinking because it had literally only just come into my head a couple of weeks previously, plus, until that point, I thought I wasn’t ready to start planning another project with the Trans Papua still feeling so raw. Deep down though, I knew there was something else holding me back as well. It would mean walking away from Papua. The majority of my twenties had been focused on this province. Papua had legitimised me as an expedition leader. It was my calling card, my voice and my comfort blanket. I feared that without my crutch I would be badly exposed and I was scared of walking away. But as I began to talk about Sierra Leone and Liberia I found myself overflowing with enthusiasm for the idea. I had developed much more than a passing interest in it very quickly, reading all about the region when I should have been finishing articles on the Trans Papua, and the place sounded simply incredible.
The Upper Guinea forest belt is home to a plethora of rare and endangered species: pygmy hippos, forest elephants, chimpanzees and over 250 species of bird, and yet it is one of Africa’s most threatened environments with over 70% of the forest coverage lost through commercial activity. The belt today is limited to a few isolated chunks, over exploited for timber, hunted for bushmeat, heavily mined, the future seems grim. Yet, in an area formerly synonymous with violent conflict, blood diamonds and mass amputations, one of the largest surviving patches of forests has a remarkable toehold. Across the borders of Sierra Leone and Liberia a 300,000 hectare piece of the Upper Guinean belt has been thrown a lifeline with a 5.5 million euro grant from the European Union that hopes to establish a Transboundary Peace Park and symbol of goodwill in this patch of war torn West Africa.
The Mano River forms the border of Sierra Leone and Liberia and flows right through the heart of the new park. The plan is to get my raft as close as possible to the top of the forest and then descend the Mano, along the border, through this vitally important habitat, and out, 100 miles later, into the Atlantic.
Shane suggested I try for the ‘Journey of a Lifetime Award’. This brilliant scheme with the RGS offers a grant and a chance to make a 30 minute documentary for BBC Radio 4. I didn’t think I stood much of a chance. Firstly because competition would be fierce, some fantastic broadcasts have come out of the scheme in the past, and secondly because the RGS had already taken a massive chance on me back in 2009 when they awarded my Jalan Raya project the Neville Shulman Challenge Award. But the idea felt strong enough to put in a one page pitch. At least, I figured, I could get my work on Radio 4’s radar. A couple of months later I was asked to submit a detailed proposal, then invited to a soul-searching 30 minute interview and finally brought into London for a stimulating, but extremely demanding, training day.
I’m back home from the Pennine Way now, with a killer cold virus but happily all my digits. I’ve started training out on the Fen waterways and am slowly gathering pieces of kit for the trip. I have never been to Africa in my life. I am nervous, extremely excited and am crunching through books and research material like a man who has truly realised the astonishing level of his own ignorance.
In essence there is nothing radically different about doing this work than any other job. We all find comfort and security in sticking with routine, but part of me, and I suspect a large part of most of us, eventually finds it stifling. It has become massively important to me that I find new challenges, even if it means starting again from scratch and taking a big uncomfortable step into the unknown. Of course you worry about not being equal to the task you set yourself, and everyone, no matter what they say, fears failure and ridicule. There is always someone out there who has said it better than I ever could, in this case, the heroin snorting Grandpa from the dark comedy film ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ who consoles his failed son with the words: “whatever happens, you tried to do something on your own… which is more than most people ever do… You took a big chance. That took guts, and I’m proud of you.”
I can’t let my own insecurities act as a barrier to the things I’d like to achieve for myself. After several months living back at home and reevaluating all that happened on the Trans Papua I guess I realised how much I actually loved my job. Despite the pain and suffering, the lack of a constructive career, money, car, house or relationship, I’m not ready to walk away from what makes me really happy. I love being on expeditions. I love going to new places and meeting new people and I especially love being able to tell you about it all when I’m back home. This won’t last forever, but I need to remember to make the most of it whilst it does.
I am hoping to leave sometime in late March or early April and I am going to need your help again. Get in touch if you have contacts, ideas or knowledge of the region, and please share this blog and help me get the message out there. This is one of the most maligned regions on the planet and a truly threatened ecosystem, but there is real, genuine hope for this forest and its people. This is going to be a big adventure and I want to take as many of you with me as I possibly can.