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Tag: Incas

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First Days

On the first days you must step forward to the plate and exert yourself the most. It’s then that a sense of routine is developed, and then also that everyone tests those around them, not least the person who’s pushing them forwards. Try to get an idea of who is going to be faithful or trustworthy, and who’s going to give problems later on. In my experience, these first impressions are never entirely accurate, and people change — good become bad, and bad ease into good. Show that you are fair, but first, and that you won’t stand for anyone who deviates from the goal. You can demonstrate humility, and kindness, by bandaging the porter’s feet yourself, for instance, at the end of the day.



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Travel

I’m going to be travelling in Latin America these next few days and so the posts will be shorter than normal.



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Hiring a Team

The team are the make or break for your expedition. The key thing here is enthusiasm for the work. And it’s unlikely they will ever be quite as enthusiastic as you, but it’s key to find people who have a good attitude from day one. I remember one man we had with us in the Madre de Dios jungle… his name was Pedro, and he was always willing to help others and to carry the heaviest load. He never complained. I can’t stand complainers, whether in deep jungle or at home in a town. When searching for people, try to get a sense of motives. It’s not enough if someone is coming along merely for the pay. You need people who have a sense of adventure, who want to see stuff and do stuff that’s new. Of course you are looking for people who can carry heavy loads, but you also need people who can fulfill other tasks. For example, on one jungle journey I had a man called Giovanni who did the cooking as well as being a porter. He was an average cook but his strength was that he made the men laugh. He told them jokes in the evenings and they laughed until tears rolled down their cheeks. That made Giovanni irreplaceable. Try to spend as much time around the team before you get going. It’s never too late to lay someone off or rethink before going. On one trip I realised the guide was an extremely dodgy character and I cancelled the entire expedition and stopped dead in my tracks as we were leaving the base point. It cost time and money but I eventually found new people and was stronger for it. And another thing to bear in mind is that if you hire five or six friends from the same area, they will already have a pecking order and a relationship. This may be a good thing or a bad one. It could turn out that they turn against you, but in my experience it’s better to have friends, as when things get tough, they will look out for each other. This is contrary to the old idea of divide and rule, which also works. But that’s a whole different ball game.



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Local Purchases

These fall into three basic areas: food, camp equipment, expedition equipment.

Food: Think about weight, as in all likelihood the food’s going to be lugged forwards on backs at some point. Dried beans are good in protein and are light. Anything dehydrated is the best. Rice for instance is good as well, although quite heavy. Pasta is excellent although it’s key to select packaging that won’t split. Remember that in the jungle there’s water all around and a bag of pasta that’s open will rehydrate and be useless in seconds. You will always need much more food than you imagine, and the more food you have, the longer you can continue. Getting food locally out of the jungle is not easy, believe me. It is time consuming and hunting takes time. All the animals get scared away as a loud jungle expedition pushes forwards. The other key thing is, as I have said previously, to think quantity. You will never have extra food but if you did, you could share with locals. Food is currency. Also buy nuts, many kilos, mixed with raisins for small breaks. Coffee is a luxury, but one which goes down well, as is aguardiente, a potent fire water alcohol. You can never have too much. Spam, sardines, and some canned food is good to give taste. A single can of sardines will turn a huge pot of plain pasta into something pretty good. Sugar is used by porters in an enormous quantity. Also take a few bars of chocolate but never show them to the men and bring them out in times when morale is at rock bottom. Also, take a lot of spices and stock cubes… this is a way of turning river water into broth to warm cold men up after trudging all day through water. Hot sauce reduces the amount people eat if you REALLY spice up the food. A few bags of ultra cheap sweets are also good as hand-outs after a meal. If they give these after the main course, the porters will forget about going for seconds of meat and whatever savory dish you’re serving.
Camp equipment: You will need bowls, spoons, knives, tin cups, a lot of lighters, buckets, spades, tarpaulins of good quality, blankets. All this stuff can be Chinese-made and cheap.
Expedition equipment: this includes — rope, machetes (at least one for each man), sharpening stones, hammers, mallets, saws, shovels, parachute cord if you don’t have it, canvas, medical equipment (including morphine), a lot of plastic sheeting, candles, batteries and lamps, lanterns and fuel for them, more fuel. You will also need to buy rubber boots for the men. I always find that in Latin America a size 10 American will fit most men. You can buy socks as well, but rugged ones. And you can hand out sweaters. Remember that the jungle gets cold at night, and depending on where you are, it can be very chilly during the day as well. Cheap fleece sweaters are worth their weight in gold as they are easy to dry out and they don’t absorb water even when wading through rivers.
   All this may seem like a lot of stuff, but remember that once you get going you shouldn’t actually be spending much cash. You can get prices down, and if in doubt, buy the cheaper brand. Now you are ready to hire a team.


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Departure Point

The preparations continue, and they fall into several key areas… buying local equipment, finding a team, possibly renting a boat, getting permits if needed, and much much more. Stay calm through this time and account for every buck you slide out to someone. This is the point where your real leadership starts and you have to think of yourself almost like a military commander. Be focussed. Never ever let your eye stray from the goal. From this point everything is aimed at getting you up that river or over that mountain, or whatever. As I have said before, the towns  on the fringe of a jungle usually have amazing shops crammed with cheap Chinese-made stuff. You can pick this stuff up and outfit an expedition easily, and quite inexpensively. I’ll go into specific supplies tomorrow. For now, you need to plan… plan numbers and calculate. If you are going to have a base team of eight men, for example, you must work out how much they are going to charge, and how much can they carry. Work out that if you continue for 30 days, how much food weight will each man eat a day… obviously, the more men you have, the more food you need, and the more food you have the more men you need to carry it. It’s a vicious circle. There’s other equipment as well, like tarpaulins, pots, pans, ropes etc. You are always going to find that the men eat three times what you had planned… so scale up rations. In the jungle there’s nothing so important for boosting morale as hot food. You’ll also need stuff to hand out to local people and possibly tribes, and you will need fuel. As you start equipping, it becomes very daunting very fast. But keep your eye on the goal and, again, stay calm.



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Zigzag

Gearing up to set off into the jungle requires a great deal of organisation. It feels as if you’re racing fast forward in a mad-cap effort to solve problems. And this is the time when your problem-solving expertise has to start shining through in a big way. There are problems on all sides… with the goal, with getting people, supplies, permits, and just about everything you can imagine. All you want to do is to get going, but there are a great deal of hurdles to surmount first. It’s a time when you’re vulnerable, because everyone knows that the jungle expedition in preparation is weak, open for attack. Keep the zigzag method going and exploit it. Be sure not to think in a linear way as that’s going to reduce creativity. Please believe me on this. Your zigzag approach will start paying dividends. You should find one lead who will take you to another, and then another and another… and with a bit of luck you will come across a big character, someone on the ground who believes in your idea as much as you. They may want cold hard cash, but try to play to their ego… give them a sense that this is the journey of a lifetime and you are giving them a huge opportunity to take part. Use that person to help you arrange stuff. Remember though that they will probably be of limited use in logistical matters. At the same time, it’s key not to get the official authorities too clued in about what you’re doing. They will no doubt see you as a gravy train to clamber aboard, smother, and suck the life-blood from. So you have to be a little subversive and throw out red herrings regarding where you are actually going. With a bit more luck you will get yourself to a base point. You may still be a way from the jungle, but it’s here that you’ll start getting supplied and in the right frame of mind. More on all this tomorrow…



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On the Ground

This is how it works. You have your ticket, a massive goal in mind, some second-hand equipment, and a pocket full of cash. In high spirits you go to the airport, board the plane and, at 38,000 feet, you find yourself munching an inflight meal. You wash it down with a passably bad mini bottle of white wine, and you get thinking. Well, rather than thinking, it’s worry. The pilot announces that you’re beginning the descent, and you feel the air pressure change. Next thing you know, you’ve had your passport stamped by an enormous official, and you have a baggage trolley full of your stuff… You push out into the waves of unfamiliar faces, everyone and anyone offering to be your taxi driver. And you think to yourself — ‘Oh my God… what have I done?!’ At this point it’s important NOT to panic. Really… believe me. I’ve been in that spot a thousand times. I’m going to tell you here what to do… how to join up the dots. The first thing to do is to get yourself to a base camp of some sort. Find a hotel room, but in a reasonably rundown area. Don’t go too plush. Go plush and you kill the contact networks off. So you find some dive. It doesn’t have to be too cockroach-infested, but a bit of discomfort will ease you into something that’s going to get very familiar. Go get your hair cut at some low-end place. Maybe take a few taxis around, short trips… have some coffees, at different places… go to some bars. Check out the local people, get talking to them if you can. Get an idea of how you’re going to plug in. It’s in these first few hours that your sensors are on hyper-mode and that’s a good thing. Use the fact that you have fresh eyes. Let people scoop you up and take you to the next contact. Don’t be afraid. Get ready to exploit your greatest weapon… Zigzag travel. By this I mean that everyone will take you to the next step. OK, some might take you three steps backwards, but you’ll be all the stronger for it. But the main thing is to keep your head calm, and remember your goal. You may not have any idea at all how to get started, but believe — really believe — and everything will begin to configure around you.



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Other Preparations

Make a list. Keep it simple. (1) Ticket (2) Basic equipment (3) Inoculations. Tick off ticket and equipment if you have covered those. Now you’re at inoculations. OK, right from the start, I’m not a great believer in inoculations. I do get Yellow Fever and Hepatitis A/B, and I take along some stuff for malaria, but never end up using it. It’s better to take some good syringes and needles and some high spec DEET, and a preferred brand of antiseptic. The Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London used to sell good tropical medical kits. They were quite expensive but gave you a sense that you were cool as hell because of the forceps and the brain drip. Better than that stuff is to get your hands on some morphine and know how much to use and how to use if you have a man go down with a broken ankle or something… but in my experience it’s much cheaper and easier to get that sort of stuff on the ground. Regarding water purification: it really depends on where you are going. As your body gets used to the water, you learn to not be so queasy about drinking river water even when it’s black with sand. Those horrid little water tablets they try to sell you at the counter at the crap expedition equipment shop ought to be shoved down the grinning salesman’s throat. They score high on the crap scale, as does anything within six feet of the cash till. Avoid those tempting tidbits at ALL costs. From time to time I’ve had a water purification pump, but they always break eventually. My friend Col. John Blashford-Snell once advised me to buy a millsack… a sack you hang over a pot which filters water in a rudimentary way. It was a good thing and showed that his army training put him on the right wavelength.



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Equipment

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.



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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.




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