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Tag: mind

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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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Exploration

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.



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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.



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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 www.yousendit.com, 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. 



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Photography

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…



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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.



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Niche

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.



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Stay Primed

In this blog I may not be giving you pearls, but this is something worth listening to. It, or rather the lack of it, is the reason why most creative people suffer. It’s why artists don’t paint, musicians don’t compose and why writer’s don’t write. It’s all about being ready, being primed. My father wrote a lot of books, and he did that by writing them back to back. If you check the copyright dates you find at least two per year through the sixties and seventies. He was an engine then, knocking them out. And just like an engine that’s running full tilt, it’s hard to stop… because you gather a momentum of your own. But I remember a conversation with my father a long while ago when he told me that there had been periods of not writing in which he wondered if he would ever get back into it again. The engine had gone cold. But I’ll let you into a little secret. In my experience, although you get very worked up about getting the crankshaft moving again, it’s actually not that hard. The secret is to sit down for five minutes before you have to run out and collect the kids from school (or whatever), and write a single line. End it with … And you’re back. Or take note of Anthony Trollope, the prolific Victorian novelist, you always began a new novel on a day on which he finished one.



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Be Interested

To tag on from a previous entry: something I find immensely rewarding is doing work that’s interesting. When you write a travel book, as I have spent the last ten years or more doing, it takes about two years from the conception to publication. That’s a long time, and you have to spend hundreds of hours researching, writing, editing and proofing the text. The only way I can get through the thing is if it tantalizes me in the most enchanting and base way. For example, with my book House of the Tiger King, I still don’t know whether Pancho, our Machiguinga guide, really knew where the ruins of the lost city of Paititi were or not. I love that sense of unknown. It keeps me thinking as I toss and turn to sleep at night.This sense of mystery is so important, and when you don’t have it, things can go badly wrong. Take this example: I have a great friend, Robert Twigger, who was commissioned to write a book about a species of deer caught up in the Boxer Rebellion. It wasn’t his idea, but his agent’s, and he took it on because he needed the cash. Of course he needed the cash: he was a struggling author. But even with the solid advance, he found he had no interest in the idea and it had been dreamed up by an agent who was totally clueless about good ideas. So he agonized for months, many many months. The book that was finally created, The Extinction Club, is probably Twigger’s finest. I’d say it’s a work of genius… because he found interest in the subject by exposing his mercenary tactics.



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