…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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On the brink

22nd April 2013IMG_2517

10:30pm, Medina Village, Gola Rainforest

My hammock is on the ground. There is nowhere to hang it in this mud-brick village but it doesn’t matter. I’m knackered.

My plans had just changed dramatically. I thought I had a couple of days grace before the jungle hauling started but, in fact, I’ll be heading out at dawn.

Medina village spreads out on a gentle slope. A large mango tree casts a gentle late evening shadow onto the doorstep of the local imam and disco beats from a battered PA hum out from a covered concrete square.

Behind it all the forest waits.

‘I’ll be in that tomorrow’, I thought to myself, trying to force out the music and weld my eyes shut.

Originally my plan had been to get a lift a little further up the Park, at least to a spot where I might be able to get my gear and guide on motorbikes, before setting out on foot a day later in pursuit of the most easterly point on the river.

At sundown Sakpa, my guide, approached me with the news that there was in fact a smaller forest track leading direct from this village north in the direction of a deserted settlement called Peyama. “From there the river is close” he explained, “the locals here talk of an old abandoned fishing hole on the Moro.”

It sounded great, no need to mess around with bikes or stay in another village outside the park, we could get going immediately on this hidden pathway and the fishing hole was bang on the point the river forms the border: the exact starting position I was hoping for.

Any plan that simplifies travelling logistics on an expedition is a good one and by the looks of the maps it would only add a couple of miles of extra walking, yet save us an entire day of faffing around with vehicles on unreliable roads. I was more than happy, doubly so when Sakpa revealed he’d also found a man to help carry my supplies. On introduction I couldn’t help but notice the additional member to our party was missing an arm, but he demonstrated his superior power by fluidly flicking my 30-kilo backpack onto his head. “Too easy”, he added with a smile. He was going to be fine.

A tiny puppy nuzzles the edge of my hammock, barely able to co-ordinate its paws it flops forwards, face planting on my enormous bag of food and falls asleep. I wish it was that easy for me. I check and recheck the mixer and microphone, acutely aware that I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I’m a photo and video journalist, a writer at a stretch, this kit is totally alien to me. I could easily press the wrong button and mute the entire recording without even realising it.

Focus on the positives Will.

I had immediately liked my guide Sakpa. He had come highly recommended from the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP). He was bright, funny, a supreme conversationalist and had an excellent knowledge of the forest born from his days as a bush meat hunter. Crucially though he completely understood what I was trying to do and what I needed to succeed. He had investigated the possibility of quicker forward tracks to the Moro independently and days later would be pushing me on upstream to ensure I made it to the furthest possible point on the river. Regardless of the weight of kit he carried, the terrain, or our accommodation, he never once complained. “No problem” was always his answer in the face of any adversity.

Finding good guides is something I have struggled with in the past. I always pay above the going rate and try to foster a positive and inclusive environment, but expeditions, by their nature, are intense, and building the sort of instant relationships of trust you need is tricky when you are asking people to carry heavy weights in extreme environments and have, in their eyes, totally nonsensical reasons for conducting your project in the first place. It was refreshing to have someone on board who seemed so positive and switched on.

People seemed clued up in general in this area. I had sat in the wings of the GRNP Community Development Roadshow watching as groups of children enacted plays in English describing the carbon cycle and the process of punishment for an illegal bush-meat hunter. It was incredible. How many nine year olds in the UK could speak with such knowledge on the effects of global warming in a second language?

Afterwards the elders took over the mantle and harangued the Gola Rainforest representatives: “what happens if your conservation causes the number of chimps to quadruple and they eat all our cocoa?” shouted one elderly gentleman, “can I shoot animals that stray outside the park?” retorted another, following with “what do I do if a forest buffalo (a protected species) is destroying my crops?”

“You must exercise patience!” exhorted Fumba over the melee. He clasped the microphone with intent. Fumba was a former teacher working with the National Park community department, ferociously intellectual and confident enough to command the attention of the entire room in spite of his slight build. “You cannot shoot animals in the park, you cannot even carry a shotgun in Sierra Leone – it is completely prohibited to hunt the chimpanzee, if you have a problem with a buffalo take your complaint immediately to the local government authority or the forest guards and you will receive an immediate response but you can not, you must not, take matters into your own hands with protected species!”

As a starry-eyed animal lover I found it hard to see chimps as a pest, but if I was a poor cocoa farmer who had just had his crop destroyed by a marauding family of apes I’d want justice too, and I would be unlikely to file a complaint with a government body first. I collared Fumba afterwards.

“People need to realise that the forest rangers we are employing are here not just to enforce laws and arrest local populations” he spoke quickly, emphasising every other word, crowbarring his opinions onto my recorder, “we are working on a plan to plant the crop that the chimpanzee love all around the park boundary, so instead of going into the community the chimpanzee will feed on the crop far away from people, but no one likes people who are there to enforce the law!”

The Gola Rainforest National Park had only been established in 2011 and this was the first time this community development department had organised road shows of this nature to visit these forest edge communities.

“If the community follows the rules they will realise some serious benefits, which will be better than just killing animals – you can not survive on just eating elephant for a year, a month or even a week, but you can survive on the forest forever. Even with things like freshwater, the removal of trees in West Africa is now directly affecting the communities access to drinking water. This stream over here…” Fumba pointed out in the darkness to a brook hidden behind the mango tree “…is drying up! For the first time ever!”

“The community gets money directly from the National Park and the Community Development Fund for infrastructure, education initiatives and sustainable farming. Forget about killing animals, protect the forest and you will get even bigger benefits in the future!”

Perhaps it seems too good to be true for these people. With local populations swelling in number any restriction on access to bush resources was always going to be contentious. The Gola Rainforest National Park is not without funding issues and a large portion of the finances for their plans remain tied up in a carbon credit scheme that is pending payment. It could take months, if not years, to implement schemes such as the crop buffer zones, by which point these communities may have already lost patience. The government talks a good game but in 2011 two associates of the Vice President were filmed taking corrupt payments in exchange for timber concessions in protected areas, it looks as bad as it sounds, and helped feed a prevailing feeling that the government could change its mind over the level of protection afforded to its National Parks, redraw boundaries, and allow the resumption of commercial logging and mining. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Fumba or the aims of the GRNP for a second, perhaps those in power will continue to support conservation, but without money and meaningful policy the GRNP won’t be able to deliver on their promises and will quickly lose any trust they have fostered between themselves and the villages.

Many of the GRNP employees have come from the communities around the Park’s borders, received an education of sorts, and found employment in the town. Off the record I was told an uncomfortable truth: “many of the new generation in these villages aren’t looking to actually better their lives here in the forest, they want access to the sorts of resources that will help get them and their families out of this area for good. No one will care what the chimp eats when you are living in the town and people will have far fewer children when they don’t need the manpower to continue to farm these fields.” Then you’ve solved your conservation problem as well: the people who are in conflict with the aims of the GRNP will have largely moved on and the remaining population would be small enough to be completely self sufficient without ever needing to enter the National Park’s portion of forest, but that costs far more money and takes more time than this critically endangered environment actually has: elsewhere in West Africa up to 90% of the Upper Guinean Forest belt is already gone.

It’s a tough argument. You can’t fence off a National Park and enforce the rule of law with an iron fist, but equally is it right to protect our perception of the rights of forest people to the extent that you are effectively imprisoning them in a life of rural poverty? In the West we like the idea of the tribal idyll, but when you’ve already choked their food supply with the removal of 90% of a forest environment it is hard to justify the maintenance of an ineffective human zoo. At least humans have a choice to move on, the animals that come increasingly into contact with the forest edge communities don’t and are being persecuted to the brink of extinction as a result.

The music stops at 4am and is replaced immediately by the crowing village cockerels. Soon I can make out Sakpa walking across the courtyard towards my hammock.

This is the beginning of another massive adventure.

Tune in 11am on the 13th and 20th September for the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of the live recordings from the expedition – http://bbc.in/1dSo54b 

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

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With Superstitious Minds

IMG_2794“Bro, it’s true, we don’t have any religious tension here!” my motorcycle driver was shouting over his shoulder, eyes off the heavily potholed road ahead, making his point in the most terrifying way imaginable. He then removed a hand from the handlebars so he could use his finger to point skywards:

“Up there bro, one God. Christian, Muslim, it’s all the same bro, no problem”

Except we did have a problem, I’d missed my stop by some significant distance and this man was driving like a complete mentalist.

“What religion are you?”

I hate that question.

Not because I’m ashamed of my atheism, but rather that admitting a lack of religious belief in countries where faith is extremely strong is sort of like saying you don’t believe you actually have a head on your shoulders. The question is never: “Do you have any religious belief?” because that is accepted as irrefutable fact. I hadn’t been in Sierra Leone long enough to know for sure if being a Godless heathen was acceptable and didn’t really want to drop the bombshell with a man who was hell-bent in engaging me in face-to-face theological conversation whilst driving his motorcycle taxi one-handed.

“Christian”

I felt immediately bad.

That was a big fat lie.

At least, I remonstrated with myself, I had been christened and had gone to church for most of my childhood. I was sort of part of the club, more Christian than Muslim at any rate. I gulped hard. That was a weak excuse. If my driver caused me to meet my maker now that answer was going to seriously cost me at the pearly gates. It’s one thing to openly deny God’s existence, quite another to pretend to be religious to curry favour with a motorcycle taxi driver.

“How about you?” I moved the conversation on.

“Christmus” he replied.

Ah ‘Christmus’. Neither Christian nor Muslim. An occasional attendee at a mosque that enjoys a Sunday service and Easter celebrations but has fundamentally accepted that there is just one God overall. A Christian Muslim: a ‘Christmus’.

Religious beliefs in Sierra Leone and Liberia were a constant source of fascination to me. By the end of my stay I observed that although the nations seemed to subscribe to one of two mainstream religions, beliefs were often underpinned by deep-set shared animist and supernatural tribalistic values. These were most obvious outside of the major towns but were by no means restricted to rural areas. Animinism, and particularly beliefs in magic and spirits, were widespread and absolutely unashamed. Many politicians think nothing of conferring with a juju man ahead of elections and many of the friends I made spoke of consulting witch doctors at times of strife and illness, then, of course, there was the presence of the black magic beliefs in the media, typified by the newspaper headline: “Lumley Man arrested with Witch Gun Becomes Snake, Escapes”.

As in my expeditions in the forests of West Papua it was the connection between animals, the forest, the spirits and the fate of man that captivated me above all. In Papua the majority of animist beliefs revolved around the notion that specific tribal groups could become their totem on death: the hornbill tribe would become a hornbill, the cassowary tribe a cassowary and so on, and those animals were afforded special protection from hunting as a result. In the bush bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia things differed slightly. It was believed some hunters, and especially during the war, some fighters, had the ability to shape-shift into certain species to avoid being seen. Most prevalent of all was the belief that certain animal parts could grant access to the very traits displayed by the creature itself. A local chief I met prescribed the scale of a giant pangolin to mothers whose children insisted on eating dirt: “just tie the scale around their waists, then, like the pangolin, when they put mud in their mouths they will remain free of illness”. I was told to ward my pregnant friends off eating monkey meat, lest they wish their babies to be born with the behaviours and looks of our primate cousins, but if they wanted a fat baby a necklace of the bones of the highly endangered pygmy hippo would sort it; bad harvest? No worries, just bury a special soapstone carving of a figurine: “with big head and lips” called a ‘Nomoli’, “if it doesn’t work we flog the stone,” explained my guide.

It is easy to pour scorn on these beliefs when your life isn’t under any real obvious daily threat. If I lived in the far eastern bush full time I’m absolutely certain I would place my faith in a spirit or object simply to stop myself from actually going insane with worry. However, there in lies a problem. In a society where, more often than not, illness, misgivings, bad luck and uncertainty are explained by black magic, curses and bad spirits, which can, in turn, only be interoperated by a selected few practitioners of the ‘dark arts’, the delay between receiving professional medical care is often extended well beyond the point of no return and paranoia and mistrust are rife. People die in West Africa and New Guinea every single day because they put their faith in the village witch doctor. The cycle is self-fulfilling. Death is not explained as a failure of the witch doctor, but a particularly tough curse, and incidental survival is lauded as a major victory for the dark arts. With local medical facilities woefully inadequate, or impossibly expensive, it seems many have little choice but to place their faith in the spirits and, as a result, suspicion of others can spread like wildfire. I once arrived at an internet café in Kenema just as a man was being accused of using black magic on another’s laptop. The entire place had erupted in argument till a young teenager remedied the problem with the old ‘switch it off and turn it back on again’ technique, but a horrible atmosphere hung over the room for most of the morning. It might seem comical but at the extreme end of the belief system is female circumcision, severe beatings in coming of age ceremonies, the coveting of albino body parts, and, especially in Papua, tribal war.

“There are some things Will. That you will never understand about our culture.”

The motorcycle driver was right of course.

I am just a judgmental outsider. A western reductionist searching for meaning when I don’t have the capacity or requisite experience to understand. The depth and intimacy of this aspect of culture was far more detailed and far more complex than I could ever hope to comprehend, also, in the case of initiation ceremonies, hidden from my view and conducted in secret.

“I was inducted to my tribe” he added, baring his scars: large welt like nodules right down his spinal column, “but I’m not having it for my son. It is not God’s way” he concluded as we screeched to a halt at my stop.

My personal interest in tribal spiritual beliefs began with a voyeuristic attraction to the complete ‘other’, yet, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, I also witnessed an inspiring open-mindedness when it came to religious and historical tolerance. This was exampled by the ‘Chrismus’, but truly personified by the collective capacity for forgiveness for war crimes. “Forgive but don’t forget”, I was told, moments after meeting a woman who could point across the room to the very man responsible for slaughtering her family.

Instead of fetishising and seeking meaning in alternative religious practise I should be focused on the bigger picture: this wide population who have transcended religion, geography and tribal identity to prioritise peace, acceptance and exoneration within nations that had previously been at the brink of destruction.

Tune in 11am on the 13th and 20th September for the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of the live recordings from the expedition – http://bbc.in/1dSo54b 

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

King Solomon

solThe wall outside the Gola Rainforest National Park office brought me here. It is covered in a heavily detailed mural; a hand painted paradise where conical thatched huts converge with dark forest. Every one of the forest’s celebrity species makes an appearance: pygmy hippo, python, the picarthes and the elusive leopard. It is as impossible to ignore this wall as it is the huge clock tower and the Kenema town sign, all are covered in rainforest scenes and animals, yet all emanate from the artistic talents of just one man’s hand.

I tracked Solomon down to his workshop of curling wrought iron walls in the centre of a bright and bustling suburb. He didn’t work alone. Hand selecting local talent to join him on his projects he had covered everything from t-shirt printing to signpost design and carpentry. If you live in Kenema and have artistic flair the chances are Solomon will try to take you in. Out the front two boys were shaving each other’s hair into Mohawks with a single razor blade. They wanted to join Solomon’s workshop when he had space, but till then he had told them to: “sort out their hair because it looks like a forest.”

Solomon greeted me warmly. A larger than life personality with an infectious booming Frank Bruno-esque laugh, Solomon has had his fair share of hardship, losing an arm and suffering bad burns down his right side in the build up to the war, but that was never going to stop him.

Solomon took me on a whistle-stop tour of his workshops: a shed filled with strings of white t-shirts imploring people to “go for free malaria treatment in all government hospitals”, piles of wooden signs waiting for the UN logo, and yet more signs drying in the sun depicting village scenes of correct hand washing procedures under the heading: “Welcome to Landoma – absence of toilet in a community is a disgrace to human dignity”.

We stood side by side admiring his handiwork.

“People from Sierra Leone are quite direct aren’t they Solomon?”

“Yes, they have to be,” Solomon pointed at the hand washing sign, “maybe someone uses toilet in the stream and other people drink it, or wash their clothes and get lots of brown spots…”

Like I said, people in Sierra Leone are quite direct.

Solomon introduces me to his head of woodwork, a small man in blue overalls sporting a pencil thin moustache. He was halfway through sanding a chair leg. “It’ll take three more days,” he said, looking a bit glum. “I have been here twelve years.”

I thought I should leave him to crack on with it.

wall“One has to be engaged, one has to belong” Solomon said once we were outside, he leant into the microphone, fixing me with deadly serious eyes as he warmed to his theme. Art, he argued, is without prejudice. Young, old, beggars, the physically disabled, men and women, are all welcome to work here, and he revealed grand ambitions to expand as soon as possible

“What is the option? You beg till you’re 40? You look back and what do you have? What have you learnt? Nothing. All those people in the carpentry workshop are illiterate but they have skills now, they have a trade. Everyday I talk to my staff, ‘be self reliant, try to do something for yourself, for your old age, for your community, for the government’ ”

When he lost his arm it could easily have been the end of his career. He retrained his one arm with ruthless determination, sat his o-level in art, and then went off alone, eventually pulling in contracts from every major organisation in Sierra Leone and contesting for a seat on the local council in last year’s elections.

I asked Solomon how he engages and inspires the youth in his workshop.

“I do comedy, I run, I am a singer, also, I have an album” he dropped in, casually.

“You have an album!” I was seriously impressed, “Solomon, I would love to hear it!”

My interview would finish crammed into the front seat of Solomon’s car with big reggae beats from his ‘all amputees’ band blaring from the speakers.

“This song is talking about peace and hope…we have fought the war…nobody won…drop the guns let us unite….” Solomon was shouting over the music, “ohhhhoooo…never lose ‘ope” “yes! “never lose ‘ope!”  “hence there is life we still got ‘ope! ‘ope! ‘ope!”

Like the blogs? Join the Downstream Chimp facebook group and follow Will on Twitter for regular updates, photos and stories from Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone’s only magpie

diamondKenema feels vaguely familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on precisely why until today.

Spaghetti westerns.

This place is all over-hanging railed balconies and storefront shutters. Throw in the fact that this is very much the last major settlement between here and the Liberian border, as well as the prevalence of Lebanese diamond merchants, and the picture of a Wild West outpost idyll is complete. As I strolled up Dama road I could almost imagine a drunken gunslinger being thrown from the roof of Mr Bongoman’s diamond emporium.

I arrived on Sunday and took a brief walk around the town grid. Hawkers and horns, football tops, electricals, mangoes and motorbikes, Kenema is a town of constant commerce. Even on a day when the supermarkets were closed large crowds were gathering around three key sources of entertainment: the poster depicting the recent finalists in a local beauty pageant, a tiny TV set playing the very latest Sierra Leonean pop music videos, and a non-descript windowless shed at the outer edge of town. At least 30 men were gathered outside. I walked across and found a sheet of A4 pinned to the wall listing every single Premier League and La Liga match of the day in thick green marker pen. “1000 Leones per view” advertised an adjacent note – roughly 15 pence.

“Who ya like brother?” A large man dressed in a singlet sauntered over as I scrutinised the listings. I was keen to catch the northeast derby: Newcastle vs Sunderland, both embroiled in a relegation battle and desperate for points. I’d sort-of supported Norwich City as a child, it was, after all, my closest Premiership club, but as soon as the Canaries fortunes went south I looked north and settled on the Toon army for no other reason than my best mate at Primary School was a big fan.

“Newcastle my friend, what was the score?”

The man scrunched up his eyes and pursed his lips in trance-like concentration. The crowd of men pulled in tight around my shoulders. This was a rare spectacle. A genuine English football fan, sharing precisely the same post-match anxiety felt across this country every weekend in this nation of football fanatics.

Channelling the result from the 12 ‘o’clock kick-off direct from St.James Park to this dusty West African outpost my new friend eventually settled on the unfavourable outcome.

“3-0”

“To who!?”

“Sunderland”

Shit.

I removed my hat and stared to the sky as our patch of pavement erupted in hysterical laughter.

“My God! A Newcastle fan! Wait here!” shouted my host, as sympathetic hands slapped me on my back and squeezed my forearms.

Moments later he returned with a very elderly man who wandered over looking more than a little confused.

“This is the only other Newcastle fan in the whole of Sierra Leone!” was the gleeful announcement. Sweat was pouring liberally down my friend’s arms as the elder gent’s face finally cracked into a broad smile.

“Are you really!?” I asked, not even sure if this man understood English.

He gripped my hand in his and pulled me in close. Silence descended once more.

“What IS Pardew doing this season?” he whispered, simply.

It was magic.

Kenema is my jumping off point to the Moro and Mano rivers. I’m based in a spacious flat on the main drag through town, very kindly provided by the RSPB, and have been carefully piecing together my plans for the coming weeks. Things, dare I say, are looking fairly positive. I have my approvals in place and bar a few sundry items my kit is good to go. I have been introduced to a couple of excellent local contacts who will help get me started on the riverbank, a motorcycle ride and half day walk through the North Gola section of Parkland, and, surprisingly, it appears that I may have even overestimated the distances involved in getting through the Park. All being well I am hoping to get finished roughly two weeks after setting off, but this is the rainforest, so there are no guarantees, ever. My biggest challenge is likely to be language. The packraft can’t take anymore than myself and my kit, which means I will be entering villages alone, but one of the research technicians here has suggested an ingenious solution: simply record video clips on my camera with one of the Mende speaking National Park workers explaining who I am and what I’m doing, for ready playback to the village chief on arrival. Simple. In addition I’m considering getting a translation for the following:

“Dear tribal member. I understand something has upset you. Please hold up one finger if this is because Will Millard is camped illegally on your land, two fingers if he is fishing in a sacred hole and three if he has inadvertently stumbled into a forest initiation ceremony. Feel free to draw the appropriate compensation in the sand. Mr Millard apologises sincerely for any inconvenience he may have caused.”

Dr Monde I presume?

monde“The local people here, they have a special relationship with the forest…” Dr Monde paused and closed his eyes, placing his words
in his mind before he spoke “…that is almost spiritual.”

Tucked away on a side alley off Congo Cross, an exceptionally busy intersection to the west of central Freetown, the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) offices are pretty tricky to find. After I’d pushed through a halo of red dust thrown up in the wake of my motorcycle taxi I wormed my way into a quiet residential area of tin-roofed houses till I noticed a crack in a steel gate revealing the Society’s logo and an aggressive mongrel guard dog.

The bespectacled Doctor and Director sat behind his desk in a spartan office, welcoming me in warmly and not batting an eyelid when I asked if he wouldn’t mind conducting the interview in front of his desk, having just discovered my microphone lead wouldn’t quite stretch.

“Of course, I shall sit in the plastic chair” he laughed, leaving the leather backed swivel chair behind and scooping up a flimsy replacement, “but now you will see just how tall I really am!”

The Society was established in 1986 and had a major hand, alongside the RSPB and Birdlife International, in finally establishing the Gola Rainforest as a National Park in 2011. The Gola makes up a significant clump of what they hope will one day become the ‘Peace Park’, a giant National Park conjoining Sierra Leone and Liberia’s portions of the Upper Guinean forest belt and very much the object of my desire for this entire expedition. Needless to say I was interested in what the Doctor had to say.

“We are here to promote the best use of Sierra Leone’s natural resources and national pride in the country’s rich biodiversity.”

Dr Monde spoke throughout in lilting Creole-accented English, his neat notes balanced on his knee, his eyes fixed firmly on the microphone. I could have listened to him all day.

“The Gola forest was under extreme pressure: mining, logging, land grabbing, bio fuel projects, agricultural encroachment. The people were not able to stem this tide alone. We are trying to bring sanity for the wise use of resources and also make sure that those people living in the forest areas are provided with the means to improve their livelihoods.”

A balance has to be struck. The days of fencing off and guarding National Parks by force are through. Dr. Monde explained that communities need to be involved directly in the benefits of conservation, everything from improvements in infrastructure, education and healthcare to aid and advice in the improvement of their agricultural practices. Without community support a meaningful National Park that protects and conserves the ecosystem within its boundary is simply not possible. “Local people must find meaning in conservation and not continue to live off exploitation of the forest. The Gola is the best example of our efforts.”

Huge challenges remain but if Dr.Monde and his partners can find success in the Gola then the project could be a model for conserving the remaining patches of forest right across Africa. The implications for the preservation of forest wildlife and their communities would be massive.

I flicked the recorder off and Dr. Monde relaxed. He told me he had spent time being educated at Aberystwyth University in mid-Wales before working his way through local and national politics in Sierra Leone to become a Security Minister and the Minister for Agriculture in the last Government. He has held high positions within several Non Governmental organisations and taught Genetics at the University in Freetown. I couldn’t help but wonder what had drawn him towards the position of Executive Director at CSSL, when his previous experience could be making him a small fortune in the rapidly commercialising capital.

“I have many options” he answered, “but here I see direct results, I can see the relationship between my efforts and the benefit for humankind.”

I asked him about his time in Aber, a town I knew well enough from my time working in Cardiff, he told me he had been there in the early 70s, his eyes gleaming as he recalled his days punting a VW beetle around the Welsh countryside.

“You must have been quite the local celebrity” I nudged.

“I was very popular” he replied, with a sparkle.

 

 

Fear and loathing in Sierra Alone

guinea wormA couple of weeks before I left on this trip I properly got ‘the fear’.

It is a taboo subject in the expeditionary world, actually admitting weakness, but I can guarantee that every single explorer past and present will have been struck down with anxiety at some point.

Mine crept up on me whilst I was lying in my bed back home in Norfolk. In the weeks leading up to an expedition my days are filled with preparation, the acute stress of not having received a critical piece of gear usually superseding any opportunity to engage with the project on a psychological level, that is, until night falls. In the sensory deprivation tank of a darkened room grisly images of my certain demise start to flick madly through my mind.

It is horrible.

Knowledge is power, I thought, and reached for Tim Butcher’s excellent account of his walk through Liberia and Sierra Leone in the footsteps of renowned writer Graham Greene. The page fell open on the following passage:

“Guinea worm is one of Africa’s nastier parasites and is caught by ingesting its larva from rivers…Swallowing or even just splashing in the rivers can cause infection, as it allows the waterborne larva to enter the body through abrasions, cuts or breaks in the skin. When inside a human the grubs grow into worms that can reach prodigious lengths, sometimes as long as three feet, inflicting agony on the host who has the feeling of snakes worming through their lower limbs…the worms eventually cause a painful boil to grow on the victim’s skin which erupts spewing out thousands of fresh larvae. To remove it from the human body, you have to dig around in the boil cavity, find the tip of the worm and attach it to twig which is then turned, drawing the creature out as if balling string. It’s a delicate manouvere and if it breaks, leaving part of the worm still in one’s body, the resulting infection can kill.”

I delicately replaced the book by my bedside and metaphorically, yet completely, shat myself.

I struggled to reconcile in my mind which part of the Guinea worm account was the worst – the use of the word “nastier” instead of “nastiest” or the thought a massive worm circumnavigating my central nervous system before spewing out thousands of little maggots from a massive boil. I imagined it would be a bit like that scene in Alien where the little one that looks a bit like a nob bursts from that man’s chest, except with about 10,000 more nob-shaped aliens.

Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep, and there in lies the fundamental problem with being scared of the unknown – especially if you are woefully addicted to the sorts of places where stories like the above are commonplace.

There is nothing wrong with the ‘right’ type of fear. In reasonable quantities you can channel it into your physical and mental activity. It can give you an edge, a sharper focus, and an all-important dose of respect for real dangers, but if you allow fear to overwhelm the senses it has the exact opposite effect. It is debilitating. It bleeds into your daily routine, clouds your judgment, makes you irrationally terrified, and massively affects your ability to properly rest – something you desperately need whilst on any expedition and, with most of your movements stopping after nightfall, one of the only essentials you have in relative abundance.

So what to do?

For the most part my friends and family are just as worried about these projects (if not more so) as myself, so I feel a bit of pressure to put a brave face on it and look elsewhere to pull myself out of my mental Rubik’s cube. This usually involves a full and frank private admission that “I am scared” followed by a process of figuring out how rational my fears actually are. Usually by placing them into two broad categories:

1. Things that are real that I can legislate for – e.g getting malaria can largely be avoided my taking the appropriate anti-malarial, wearing long sleeved clothing, and using DEET based repellents.

2. Things that are real that I can’t legislate for – e.g crocodile attacks – which are pretty impossible to actually survive (poke them in the eyes apparently, good luck with that) but, having researched the area, I know the chances of being attacked here are almost zero.

If you are panicking it becomes impossible to differentiate between the two categories and inevitable and avoidable errors creep in as a result of being overtired, plus, you generally end up hating the entire expedition.

Now I am actually in West Africa, seeing the environment for real and making excellent contacts, I have started to relax; the West Africa of my nightmares being replaced by a warm, friendly and very helpful reality. Even so, I have a couple of things up my sleeve to cheer me up when I’m sad, some stock motivational phrases passed down from friends, nothing too high-brow, just simple stuff like: “every single day on expedition is a victory” and “you are still here and that’s all that counts”, also I continually remind myself that the pressure I put on myself to pull off a project is mine and mine alone. I will always come back with a story, but it is coming back that counts. Experience has taught me that tales of both success and failure are as interesting as each other and that ultimately it comes down to how comfortable I feel with the risks. I can always turn back.

I received an email today from Phil Harwood, a highly experienced adventurer who became the first person to canoe the length of the Congo, he wrote:

As far as motivation goes, for me, the first criteria is simply to be 100% committed, you want to be there more than anything else in your life…every difficulty was simply a challenge to be overcome, totally believing that the harder the challenge, it may just take a little longer to overcome … BUT IT WOULD BE OVERCOME.

Altering the way you think and approach problems isn’t something that comes overnight, but simple straightforward strategies help me immeasurably. I’m not saying I am completely over my fears by any stretch, but they will be overcome, and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

…and now a few messages from our sponsors

IMG_2375-1Some of you have been asking for a blog on the sort of kit I take with me on expedition so here’s a run through of some of the key pieces I’ll be bringing with me to the Upper Guinean belt this spring. Some of it’s new from trusted brands, some of it is old favourites. Gear is constantly evolving so I tend to chop and change quite a bit but my rules for selection are absolutely rigid:

1. It has to be durable – my stuff always takes an absolute hammering. Descending rivers by packraft leaves the kit prone to being crushed by rocks as I slam into banks, I pull my bags around an awful lot when I’m steering the raft as well, and more often than not I just end up sat on top of the lot. Walking in through the forest places even more pressure on the equipment; the jungle tears into my bags, crawling under logs crushes my pack from above, falling over all the time smashes it even more, and yet, in spite of it all, I can count on one hand the pieces of kit that have actually broken.

2. Water resistant or waterproof – my expeditions are predominantly in tropical forests, a highly humid environment as it is, but combine that with a river descent of often ungraded white water and you are on a one-way street to guarantee the total submersion of everything you possess at some point on your journey. Not everything I take is waterproof but you would be surprised how water resistant a lot of pieces of gear, even technical equipment, can be these days. It goes without saying decent drybags are absolutely essential and I am a big fan of zip lock bags for proofing everything else as best you can. More is less: double bag if you need to, and I’ve even used Tupperware with lock-tight ‘o’ ring type systems when I’ve wanted a rigid waterproof case. It is a good idea to take handfuls of silica gel to get rid of any excess moisture, particularly in cases carrying tapes and technical gear.

3. It must be light – I operate unsupported and am often totally self-sufficient. Every piece of gear has to be as light as possible without being flimsy. Equally every single item must pass the “is this more important than food” test. It may seem insane to leave out items of first aid or safety equipment, but you simply cannot take everything to cover you for all the risks you might encounter as you will end up forsaking the basics, or worse, crippling yourself with ludicrously heavy load bearing.

It has got easier to find support from equipment partners as my experience has grown, and these days, with exposure from the articles and images I get published, I do have at least something to offer back, but I’d still rather pay for a piece of really good kit than take something sub-standard for free.

Here’s my top ten:

Alpacka Packraft – what can I say? A simply vital piece of kit. The raft I take is the un-rigged explorer. It packs down to the size of a two-man tent and weighs only a couple of kilos. This item has done more to open up the most remote environments on the planet than anything else I own. I bought mine after a kind loan from the Colorado based company for the Trans Papua and have never ever regretted it.

Lifesystems deet and puritabs – I am yet to find a deet based repellent that matches the lifesystems brand for being genuinely effective as well as well packaged. The bottles are solid and, crucially, they don’t leak the chemical all over your stuff in transit – an inferior brand once melted right through the waterproof liner of my rucksack just before a trip. I’ve got a bunch of stuff from their Lifeventure range that I’m looking forward to testing out, including a new money belt to replace my old Lifeventure one that was still going after 11 years of battering. Also, I’m using their Chlorine Dioxide tablets in conjunction with a funnel filter (to remove the worst of the suspension) for my water purification – they’ll kill cysts and viruses as well as bacteria, which is a greater range of baddies than straight chlorine and won’t leave that ‘swimming pool’ aftertaste.

Aquapac – I used an Aquapac camcorder case on the Trans Papua and found it so reliable I ended up storing all my film tapes in it as well. Big news for packrafters, they’ve just brought out waterproof duffle bags – a combo of a drybag and a big duffel holdall –  I’ll be taking that alongside their drybags and waterproof pouches. An incredible amount of thought has gone into design: colour coded drybags and translucent materials help you to select the right drybag without needlessly opening every bag you own and rooting around, waterproof ipod pouches and headphones are a really nice touch, and air vents on the duffel allow you to remove excess air and compress your bags right down. Sounds nerdy, but more than anything I am grateful for the strong loops and numerous points to bind my bags to my craft. The thought of watching your bags disappear down an isolated river due to a broken binding is the stuff of expeditionary nightmares.

Brasher boots – I’ve got Ahklun GTX boots on this expedition – a good hybrid boot that’ll take a crampon. Great for those of us that don’t have heaps of disposable cash to splash out on every boot type in the adventure-sphere, plus top quality Vibram soles as standard.

Arcteryx rucksack – “if you’ve ever thought there was a weakness in your rucksack then this pack has got it covered” said Callum after we invested these packs in 2009. We’ve both pushed them waaaay beyond expectations since and they are still going strong. The straps are incredible – we carried 45 kilos each in atrocious conditions for the best part of two months last year, this simply would not have been possible without these bags.

DD hammocks– Spacious with a mossy net integrated into the design plus really strong cord fittings and bungees to keep the net off your face. Inferior designs will leave you touching the side of the mossy net in the night, which renders it pretty useless as most insects will just go ahead and bite you right through the mesh. I’ve never had an issue with these hammocks. Buy the snakeskin sheath, it totally streamlines setting up and breaking camp.

Expedition foods – the best calorie to gram meals on the market. I got badly caught out with my nutrition (or lack of) in 2008 and 2009, becoming so sick of the food I was carrying that I was unable to swallow. If I’d made the same mistake in 2012 I wouldn’t have made it out of the forest. These rations were delicious and very much the highlight of our day when we were having the shittest time ever on the retreat in Papua last April.

Mora frost knife – first recommended to me by Andrew Price of Dryad Bushcraft, this Scandinavian blade is unbelievably sharp and very much my knife of choice for all my expedition needs from cutting grooves for hanging hammocks to slicing through strangler vines, plus, you can pick one up online for around a tenner. An absolute bargain when you consider bespoke products can set you back £250.

Go Pro – Technical kit can be a total ball ache but if you want to make any money back on your projects, and help your cause for future funding, you are going to need good film and images. Costs have come down in recent years but you are still going to have to try hard to find something that doesn’t cost the earth and won’t fall apart from the slightest knock. I can recommend the trusty sony a1 (perhaps a bit outdated these days with its mini dvs but it’ll take some colossal punishment) and I carry the canon g12 for my stills, but if I had to punt for one piece of kit it would be the Go Pro. This little camera thoroughly deserves to be everywhere in the adventure market these days – matchbox-sized, HD shots and you can stick them almost anywhere if you’ve got the right clips. The turnover in the range is quick enough that you can get some absolute bargains on the earlier Hero2. I recommend spending the money for the little silica gel sleeves to go in the housings if you are taking them into a humid environment – any shift in temperature will cause the lens to steam up instantly and totally ruin your shot.

Craghoppers – The Nosi Life range is brilliant. Tough trousers with zip-off lower legs and shirts with a discreet vent at the back to ease your sweats plus useful pockets and strong buttons – I have only once torn the arse clean off, and that was after a 30 foot fall down a cliff, so I think its fair to say that this range deserves its reputation for durability.

Duct tape – in documentary production the phrase “if you can’t duc’ it f**k it” was held up as the gold standard rule of thumb for any piece of equipment requiring a temporary repair. The same applies to packraft expeditions.

So there you have it, good quality kit on its own isn’t going to get you to the end of a project in one piece but it really does help – really really good luck to anyone heading out, I leave in three days! AAAAAARGH!

Will x

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Will Millard's Blog

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