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Tag: Timbuctoo

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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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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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