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The most major mistake these days is to weigh yourself down with fancy expedition crap from fancy expedition crap stores. London’s full of those shops and I detest them more than almost anything I can think of. Everything’s in neat little pouches, with overly enthusiastic, grinning helpers fawning all over you and eager to swipe your credit card. They talk you into buying $300 boots and tins of wax and camel drinking systems and goose down sleeping bags and mosquito nets impregnated with DEET, and gators made from Goretex, and dry wash, and special socks that keep you warm, or ventilated folding sun hats, and candles that can’t be blown out, ever, and… well you know what I mean. Prick up your ears here as you’re just about to get saved about a thousand bucks and you’re going to thank me later on. ON NO ACCOUNT BUY ANY OF THAT CRAP. Resist all temptation. You don’t need it. None of it at all. Instead… withdraw a maximum of $200 and go first to a hardware store and buy yourself a big roll of what are called rubble sacks. They are extremely thick polythene bags and can be used for just about anything. And snap up fifty metres of parachute cord and some good quality duct tape. Another good thing to buy if you find them are high quality Ziplock bags (nip by a supermarket for these)… and then go straight to an army surplus store. The basic point you have to understand here is that equipment — all equipment — on a jungle journey must be able to be cannibalised into something else. Army surplus stuff (and, again, not chichi fancy surplus stuff you find these days on many high streets, but the rougher looking shops with psycho would-be soldiers behind the counter), are the bees’ knees of the expedition world. With your remaining money, buy your two pairs of rip-stop trousers and a couple of good quality long-sleeved shirts. Don’t buy anything that you love too much, as you’re eventually going to rip it up. If you can’t resist the need for shameless consumerism, then buy yourself a mess tin and an enamel cup, but you will be able to get these later. It’s good to get an army issue sleeping bag if you see a lightweight one, a very good flashlight, and a compass. Try to resist buying a GPS, but buy a cheap one if you feel you have to, as it’s only going to get stolen later on. Save almost all your money for the destination, as jungle fringe towns have great shopping… especially Chinese-made hardware, which is fabulous.



The Goal

The quest for exploration begins with a goal. And it’s something that you have to consider with extreme care. I am a believer in setting goals high. Astronomically so. Because the bigger and more challenging it is, the greater the journey will be. And you don’t need to be a brain scientist to understand why. The more impossible to target, the greater the problems, and the more insurmountable the task of drawing your team and yourself forward week after week. I have detailed some of my quests in my books. There have been others, too, that I have never written about. Some quests are best kept to oneself. Equally, I find that a great explorative undertaking begins as a kind of personal crusade. It’s something that soaks into your blood and fills you with a crazed and even deranged fervour. So when you are looking for the spark, the catalyst, to get you going, ask yourself if it’s something that you’d get up out of a soaking wet sleeping bag after a terrible night’s sleep for… are you totally obsessed with it? If you’re not, then go back and search for something else. My personal quests have included a search for the great lost city of the Incas, Paititi, in the Madre de Dios jungle, and for the so-called ‘Birdmen’ of the Upper Amazon, who use the hallucinogen Ayahuasca to give a sense of flight. Those journeys were harsh, and taught me a great deal about running an expedition, about managing people, and pushing myself. I rate them both highly on the steep learning curve scale. The important thing when you are deciding where to go is to look for that hook, that point of passion. But, equally, the other thing that’s so extremely vital is not to ask the opinions of others. You’ll find that all your sensible friends will frown on you and try to either poke fun, or talk you out of it. So, make a pledge from the beginning that you won’t ask advice, but rather broadcast the fact that you are already in preparation. Never breathe a word until you have a non-refundable, non-exchangeable airline ticket to a distant destination in your hands.




The media has always sought to put on a pedestal explorers who brave harsh conditions in search of the unknown. Through history these intrepid trailblazers have risked life and limb to push to boundaries of knowledge. I cannot overstate my great preoccupation with the eighteenth and early nineteenth century European explorers. I have written about some of them in my work: Men like James Bruce, who travelled to distant Ethiopia and Mungo Park, who expired on his search for Timbuctoo; and Samuel White Baker, Richard Burton, Rene Caillie, Heinrich Barth, Stanley and Isabella Bird. Such explorers really deserve to be feted for their work under impossible conditions. Just as I venerate the greats, I frown on the legions of celebrity ‘explorers’ who crowd our airwaves and cable channels. They take with them mountains of television equipment, crew, stylists and all manner of comforts. There’s no sense of spontaneity as the whole series has usually been planned and written in advance to the journeys. If anyone out there is reading this, I want to stand on my soap box again and implore you to understand something: it’s not that hard to grab a few essentials, and a couple of maps, book a few weeks off, and go in search of a lost city, a fabulous treasure, or anything… and in the next week or so I’m going to tell you how to get started, and what problems to be ready to solve.



Jungle Journeys

Over the next few days I’m going to write about running a jungle expedition because for some reason it’s on my mind. I have made a number of expeditions through the Upper Amazon and the Madre de Dios river systems, and think there’s a lot to be learnt from the subject, much of which can be applied in general life… such as maximising peak performance and getting the best out of the team.


Technical Stuff

Regarding photographic technical stuff… With the new digital cameras I am a fan of the small viewfinder-less models, and used one to great effect in Afghanistan recently, as you can take pictures without people noticing. The drawback with some models though comes with the size of images. Now that more and more megapixels are available, editors have gone megapixel mad. If you can afford it, buy a digital SLR and try to negotiate for a wide angle lens as standard, taking into account that conventional wide angles are not as wide when used with digital. I remember when everyone was all excited with zooms but they’re really not that great for journalism in my opinion. If the picture’s worth using, then you’d be better to get near (unless of course it’s a distant shot of Osama Bin Laden). Editors like wide angle shots especially for double page spreads, and the more potential DPS material you give them, the more space you’ll get and then the more cash you’ll make. Oh, and something I didn’t say yesterday: remember to take a range of portrait and landscape pictures, as this gives editors more layout arrangements to work with. Sadly, film has just about gone out of fashion, although last week in Syria I worked with a French photographer who still uses transparency film. Trailing around after him reminded me how arduous the medium is, although I am a great lover of film and processing, and have always had a darkroom myself. If I’m taking pictures of a person, for a story about them, I take a series of portraits which somehow link in to their work. If they are a painter, then have their work in the background, or a writer holding a copy of his first book perhaps. make sure you get the lighting right and spend time on that. Check the background and don’t be afraid to rearrange the subject or his environment if needed, as you may not be able to come back later. It’s a good idea to take pictures on the highest resolution possible (or on raw), and then it’s also good to load the pictures onto a web site gallery so an editor can flick through. Generally speaking, no editor likes being bombarded with images by email, unless they have asked for them that way. When I send individual pictures I do so by using an FTP upload, or I send them by, which has been a trusted friend to me. And, as with text, I make sure I am selling photos on a one-use basis. And remember that the photo editor is going to need caption information, and so make an effort to keep this ready and supply it. The more organised you are in terms of numbering and filing your pictures, the more successful you will eventually become. 



I’ve been meaning to write about photography for a while. Because, as I said previously (One Man Band), it’s important to try and take care of the pictures yourself. The best way to learn about what’s needed is to buy some magazines, or better still to go to a library and check out a big stack. With photography there are a few different editorial niches. There are the articles that require a single picture, and those which need you to tell a story using pictures. I specialised in features and so I needed to give a set of imagines that could be used to illustrate the text I had written. If you look at some magazines, you’ll usually see that they have used a variety of sizes and different types of image. The sizes are generally a full page, a double page spread (DPS), a half page, a quarter page, an eighth and even a sixteenth. The important thing is to give an editor as much to play with as possible. Give photos that can be used as a DPS, as well as for close-ups. For example, if I was doing a story about a magic market in Fes, I’d give some wide shots of the bazaar itself, and of one or two stalls, preferably with shadowy figures clustered around (i.e. foreground and background). Then I’d give shots of the salesmen, doing various things, like weighing dried chameleons, or taking money, or sleeping between customers. And I’d take other pictures for details, like a handful of exotic powders, or the rows of jars all lined up. If the article was a long one, I’d try and take pictures of some of the clients as they explained how they took the medications, and so on. The really key thing with photography when you’re working for magazines, is to give them as much colour as possible. If there’s a bright red wall, or a turquoise door, get a picture of someone interesting (and associated with the article) standing there. A note on technical stuff tomorrow…


Foreign Correspondent

When you turn on the TV or open the international section of the newspaper, it always says that so-and-so is the foreign corespondent. It sounds very grand and prestigious. But i’s actually a lot easier than you think to become a foreign correspondent… depending of course where you live, and for whom. During the long miserable years I lived in London, I had a niche for myself writing weekly columns for several newspapers as their London correspondent. I would write 1200-word pieces every week on (a) culture (b) general life and (c) travel tips, and I’d sell the same piece to publications all over the world. This was all done on the back of making a few phone calls, and quick meetings with local editors when I was visiting new York, Rio de Janeiro or Ulan Batur. OK, I’m not saying I was in the top bracket, but I was making money doing something that was fun and only took a couple of hours every week. And I was giving lesser known publications (like the Ulan Batur Herald or the Nairobi Standard a chance at bragging to their readers that they had a man at the ready in one of the greatest capitals of the world.



I wrote about this before, but it’s something that has huge application in the media, and in journalism as a whole. If you can develop a niche of expertise for yourself, then editors in specific departments will call on you again and again. I have a friend who writes for food magazines, and she’s very good at it. But she also gets work writing culinary pieces for inflight magazines, for newspapers, as well as blurbs for food companies. Over the years she’s got pretty well known in her field, and is now invited on press trips, which are free trips (usually to exotic destinations) in the hope that she’ll write about the place later. And, even better in my opinion, she gets asked to write culinary books, cause she’s got a track record in the field. When developing a niche, the thing that’s so important is to follow a subject on which you’re passionate. Ask yourself what you’d write about for free. There must be something, whether it’s travel, or food, or railways or even knitting. Then set about thinking where you could pitch stories, and what angles would be good to cover. With the internet it’s much easier than before, and great because you can start at once by writing a blog.

July 6, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


A man is sitting in the shade against the battered pink city wall of Marrakech. He sits there everyday, wrapped in a fraying brown jellaba made from camel’s wool. It looks as though he’s baking, but there’s no perspiration on his wrinkled face… just a look of glazed fatigue. On the ground before him there’s a few inches of grey cloth. Upon it is a coin.
The man was born in a village in the mountains. In his youth he was strong and and lean. He would run through the valleys, streams glistening from melted snow, birdsong loud all around, laughing with his friends. Sometimes, on dark spring nights, they would sit together out in the meadows, away from the adobe homes, and tell stories. They would dream, plan adventures, swap tall tales, talk of the women they would marry and of the happiness they’d find.
Years came and went, and the man tilled the land that his father had tilled, and his father before him. He was wed to a girl from the next village, a girl with a pleasing smile and a kindness. He became a father, and the days and weeks and seasons rolled on and on.
Then one day the man’s crops were blighted by disease and by drought. The wheat and the potatoes died first, then the sheep grew weak and slipped away. The man taught his children to trust in God, to work hard and to keep on the right path.
Another season came and went and, with it, more drought. The village was at the point of starvation. One morning a trader came from far away Marrakech and offered a little money for tribal possessions. He came into the mud-brick home and offered three hundred dirhams ($50) for all he could carry away. He took the pots and pans, the chairs, the table, and even the front door, said he could sell them to foreigners who were moving into the medina down in Marrakech.
More time passed, but not as gently as it had done before. The man’s wife grew ill and she succumbed. No one quite knew the cause of her ailment. There was no money for medicine and in any case no one else had any to spare. The man struggled to feed his children and he grieved. He thought about sending word to his relatives who lived in a bidonville near Casablanca, but he had too much pride. If they were to visit him, he would have to cook a banquet in their honour. And there was certainly no money for that.
So the man sacrificed a chicken, his last possession of any value. And he said a prayer to God. He prayed that the drought would end, replaced by happiness, and that his children would know a different future, one touched with hope.
That night, the man had a dream. He dreamed of a path wending its way through the mountain valleys down to the city. The next morning, he gathered up his sons, together with what they could carry, and they started to walk.
Within a week they had reached the frenzied sprawl of Marrakech, teaming with transport and tourists. The man was too proud to say it aloud, but he missed the solitude of the valley. He found a room for them all to sleep in, searched for work, and began a new life of servility. 
With time the boys grew up and left the nest. The man doesn’t know where they are. But he lives in hope, hope that they were well, and that one day they will return, their own dreams fulfilled. His sight is not good now, but he has very little needs… a little bread dipped in oil satiates the pains of hunger when they come. He clings to what little hope he can muster. Because, as his father had taught him so long before, when the valley was green and the crops abundant, a life without hope is not a life at all.
July 5, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


To know about swamps you have to travel with mules. I mean it. Without one, you can’t really understand the other.

I had never been in a swamp before, not a proper one, until I ventured to western Ethiopia with Samson, my guide, and friend. I’d picked him up in Addis Ababa weeks before. Or, rather, he’d picked me up in his taxi. I was on the quest of the lost mines of King Solomon and Samson knew about gold, or so he said… so we went off together.
The trail eventually led to Tulu Wallel, a godforsaken craggy mountain towards the border with Sudan. I knew that if we could get to the mountain, and then up it, we’d have a chance at finding a secret mine once worked by the inimitable British trailblazer Frank Hayer, back in the thirties.
So we hired mules. Half a dozen of them. And we pushed forwards on to Tulu Wallel, a cloud-capped mount protruding from an ocean of green. From the first strides, I could see that these were animals with a sense of what was going on. I am not a horseman, but I know that horses are flighty, frisky, that they can’t be trusted when push comes to shove.
Very soon the rain began to fall. Torrential rain. And then the cold came.We were in a forest by this time and it was dusk. It was a wicked enchanted forest, the kind of place where grown men feel frightened out of their wits. And that’s just what we all were, although we were putting on brave faces.
Suddenly, there was a frantic call from Samson behind. He was wrestling one of the mules forward, steering it, pulling the reins to the left. Now, the amazing thing about mules is that they find their own path, and they keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs. The best thing to do is to let them go, and they will lead you through the horrors ahead.
The problem was that we had a muleteer who seemed ignorant of the genius of his herd. He drove them straight into swamp, a kind of swamp that verged on quicksand. To watch a strong, laden beast go down into a quagmire is one of the most terrible sights imaginable. The she-mule’s front legs sunk in deep, and she went down fast. Before she knew it, and we knew it, her muzzle was plunged in. She cocked it back, wailing, heaving, as the girth bindings were slashed with Samson’s knife.
I ran forward with him, and we both found ourselves being sucked in too. What a feeling, a feeling of utter helplessness, as if the end had come. Then a second mule came forward, answering the distress of the first. It sank as well.
Darkness was upon us, the sound of bats in the trees.
No light, just fear.
We must have been protected that night by some magical force. For we all made it out alive. I don’t know how because all the odds were stacked against us. It was as if we were lifted out of there, preserved by a greater power. It may sound mad, and it does, but I have always felt secretly that we were saved, all of us, by a patron… by the patron saint of mules.