After a year and a half of non-stop traveling with Human Planet, it appears that for me this particular journey is now over.
It’s been an amazing experience and one that has brought me into contact with our incredibly diverse species across almost every inhabitable environment on the planet. I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to learn that I can report back that human beings are the same the world over… individuals dealing with their own versions of personal struggles to secure food, find a mate, put a roof over their heads and protect their offspring. I’m also sure that you won’t be too shocked to discover that no matter where I went in the world, doors were opened to me, food was shared with me, knowledge was exchanged freely and help was offered unconditionally.
I’ve really enjoyed blogging about my experiences… so much so in fact that I have decided to continue doing it on my own website. So, if you would like to carry on following my travels and read about the other work I do outside of the BBC, then please click HERE, or alternatively you can join me on Facebook.
In the meantime, I will leave you with my personal Top 40 roundup of favourite photos from my Human Planet journey to remind you of some of the amazing stories that will be appearing on the programme when it hits your screens in January 2011.
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This will be my last post on this blog. For those of you who would like to continue following my work on my new blog, please click HERE. planeta humano
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Residents of Java are well accustomed to the presence of volcanoes in their lives. Take a dawn climb to any one of the island’s 40 or so peaks, and a glance to either the east or the west of you will normally reveal a scene worthy of the set of Jurassic Park as you will see a line of prehistoric chimney tops trailing off into the distance above the early morning mist.
From the infamously destructive Krakatoa off the far western coast, to the mystical peaks of Merapi and Lawu at the centre of the island’s indigenous magical traditions and on to the tourist’s favourite photo opportunity of Mount Bromo in the east, this chain of volcanoes forms part of the western section of the Pacific region’s so-called Ring of Fire , a destructive circle of tumultuous geologic activity forming the extreme borderlands of this immense tectonic plate and incorporating such world famous peaks as Japan’s Mount Fuji and Mount St. Helens in the USA.
So, after all this time travelling around the world for Human Planet, it is atop the heights of the far east of Java that my journey has finally come to an end amidst the fantastical moonscape of Mount Ijen.
Ijen’s topography is breathtaking, a landscape that has arisen from the effects of incredibly powerful forces, the presence of which you can feel lurking ominously within the terrain beneath your feet as you descend into the smoking crater towards its turquoise acidic lake.
Spending time among the phenomenal panoramas of Mount Ijen on this trip has reminded me once and for all that deep down, I am a mountain person, an opinion shared by every one of our 5-strong team on this shoot who admitted that their hearts also lie in the loftier regions of our incredible planet. That’s not to say that Ijen by any means offers a high altitude experience. Every day, a plethora of tourists come here in all shapes and sizes, dropped off at the end of the tarmac road ahead of the 2 hour trek up the side of the mountain, each conquering the steep walk with differing degrees of success. Upon arrival at the rim, the number who choose to continue on into the crater is somewhat diminished, with just a handful each day making the full journey 500ft down to the lake, something that I would urge anyone visiting this place do so for no other reason than to gain some kind of genuine empathy with the incredibly tough men, both young and old, who make a living here mining sulphur.
If you happen to be a sulphur miner working here, your day probably starts at about 4.30am when you have to grab your baskets and jog up to the volcano rim (possibly stopping for a quick cigarette on your way as you pass colleagues on their way down from the night shift) then down into the crater where the sulphur is to be found bubbling out of the ground. Far fewer men work the night shifts, so there are rich pickings to be had at first light when the sulphur deposits have had a few hours to build up untapped.
Upon arrival at the sulphur pits, the game of cat and mouse with the choking, poisonous clouds will begin as you try to prise chunks of sulphur from the pits with iron bars whilst avoiding inhaling the toxic smoke bellowing from the ground beside you. Unfortunately, you probably won’t have any proper breathing apparatus, just a wet rag over your mouth and since there’s no sulphur without smoke, you will have to rely on unpredictable changes in wind direction to time your digging forays.
No matter how hard you try, however, you will inevitably end up regularly inhaling harsh sulphurous smoke into your lungs and the sulphur dust deposits left on your eye lashes will make your eye balls feel as if they’re on fire every time you blink.
After about 45 minutes chipping away at the sulphur you will retreat from the pits in order to consolidate all your sulphur pieces and arrange them in baskets so that they will balance on your shoulders successfully. If you are an old man, you will probably be intending to lift about 75kg, but if you are fortunate enough to be a strapping young fellow, your performance-related pay slip will certainly reflect this fact since you may be able to carry as much as 100kg per load.
As you walk away from the smoking pits with the incredible weight on your shoulders, you will no doubt glance up towards the crater rim, some 525 feet above you, and you may well choose to temporarily block that image from your mind at this point, choosing instead to concentrate on the next step in front of you…
…as you begin the climb.
After nearly an hour of pacing upwards… a chance for some respite and cleaner air. Atop the crater, the pathway levels out and you begin a much more up-beat rally towards the side of the volcano, and the beginning of the 2 km path through the woods down the side of the mountain.
The view down into the forest below is lovely, but you will rarely take your eyes off the path in front of you. You still have 2 km of walking left before you reach the processing factory below.
At the end of the forest path, the way flattens out and this is the sign that tells you that you’ve reached your destination. But don’t get too excited just yet. That was only your first run today.
Now go back and do it all over again.
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So what kind of pay packet should you expect for this kind of work?
Well, the going rate for a kilo of sulphur mined from the volcano is 600 rupiah. After watching these men for a few days I can see that the average load is 80kg per run, so that’s Rp 48 000 per load (about $5).
Just to put that into perspective a little. A large mocha at a popular American chain of coffee shops in the nearby city of Surabaya is Rp 47 500.
At these wages and under such harsh working conditions, one would suspect that there would be a high turnover of workers at Ijen sulphur mine but, incredibly, these guys actually think themselves quite lucky to be working here on piece rates that are well over twice the money they would be earning if they chose to serve the world’s caffeine-consuming populace by working on a nearby coffee plantation, which is the other main option for an income if you’re a local in this part of East Java.
My hat comes well and truly off to these guys.
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Interested in more stories from Indonesia? Try HERE TASEARCHINDONESIA
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My Top 5 most memorable Human Planet camp sites
Thanks to Iceland’s recent explosion in exports of Volcanic ash, I had to cancel my last Human Planet trip back to Mali, and since our filming schedule is now slowly beginning to wind up, I thought I’d plough through the picture archive and dig up some snaps of my favourite camping locations from the last year and a half’s travel.
So, here we go with my top 5 favourite lesser-known camping spots.
No. 5 Zanskar River, Jammu and Kashmir, India
During our foray up the Zanskar river a few months ago, my tent remained redundant for all but one of the nights spent out on the ice. Before this point, the penultimate night of the trip, I had been staying in caves and mountain houses during my time in Zanskar. This particular camping spot is well-known by the local Ladakhis who, lacking their own tents, still tend to sleep in one of the handful of caves that flank it on either side. However, we arrived here late in the afternoon to discover that all the caves were already full, and being the large team that we were by that point, we opted for setting up our tents at this fantastic spot beside the frozen river. One day’s walk from here is the beginning of the road back to Leh, so everyone was in great spirits and the weather was really mild… only -12°C at night which was actually quite warm compared to the temperatures further up the river.
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No.4 Niger’s Sahara Desert, near Lake Chad
On our trip to Niger last year, we set up a small camp in the middle of a gathering of a thousand or so Wodaabe nomads. They had all travelled there to attend a week-long Gerewol during which most of them slept very sporadically, in between lengthy bouts of dancing and singing. Our camp was very simple. One tent for kit, a small dome tent for each of the crew and a few mats and cushions on the floor for dining. Since the weather is always fine at that time of the year, some of us slept outside under the stars as all of the Wodaabe did, which is the reason why this camp has remained so memorable.
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No.3 Dogon Country, Mali
Our camp in Dogon Country was magnificent in as much as we got to wake up to this view every morning. Dwarfed by the huge escarpment dotted with ancient dwellings above us, we were nestled in the trees just to the right of view in the picture above. Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of our camp in Dogon country I’m afraid. I do have a good reason though. Before I’d had the inclination to document its serene setting, an incredible storm blew in and completely destroyed it. By chance however, I had a time lapse camera set up and running as the storm blew in. You can see what happened here…
(Excuse the rather abrupt ending – I had to make a run for it!)
What you can see here is a 1000 ft wall of sand engulfing us. The storm began out in the desert, the winds stirring up the sand and driving an ever enlarging dust cloud towards us. It came in with such speed and force that the camera only managed to capture 28 frames before becoming completely engulfed by the sand cloud. Inside the cloud it went completely dark for about 2 minutes before the huge deluge of torrential rain arrived.
The next morning, a crocodile was proudly swimming at the spot on which our camp formerly lay, by then 3 feet under water.
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No.2 Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
In Ethiopia’s Simien mountains we were filming farmers who grow their crops on the incredible steep slopes you can see surrounding our camp above. If working on a sheer cliff wasn’t enough, they also had to fend off the many packs of devious resident Gelada Baboons, hell-bent on stealing their barley before they managed to harvest it. It was a beautiful camp, even if we did need to keep one eye out for our mischievous neighbours.
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No.1 Gobi Desert, Mongolia
When it comes to all round amazing camping spots, Mongolia has got it topped for me. However, if I were to pick one, it would have to be this little gem from our recent trip to the Gobi Desert which resides at number one on my list of favourite campsites. For our crew, the way in and out of this incredible location was via the valley you can see far off in the distance in the top right of the picture beyond the sand dunes, beneath the snow-capped peaks. The problem with a topography like this of course, is that it is very hard to travel as the crow flies. In fact, to arrive at this point, we actually had to drive about 2 hours to the left hand side along the dunes where there was a small thoroughfare navigable with a vehicle. The dunes are continuously shifting and the way through wasn’t always in the same place, something that we discovered first hand when trying to rescue our cameraman Terry during a violent storm one day.
For a more detailed look inside this Mongolian Human Planet camp click HERE
To see a video tour around a Human Planet camp on the Arctic sea ice click HERE
It’s a funny old world we live in. Today I’m sitting writing this in a hotel room at São Paulo airport, our flight home cancelled indefinitely because a volcano has erupted in Iceland, almost 10,000 km away. Yesterday, on our boat in the Amazon, if you’d have asked me to make a bet on the possibility of this particular reality transpiring, you’d probably be smiling your way to the bank right now with a fist full of very easy money.
It’s always a strange transition, traveling back to the urban environment from isolation in nature. The Amazon river is a formidable force of nature that consumes you with its magnitude and majesty, much like the awe-inspiring images of Iceland’s bellowing clouds of ash that I’ve seen here on CNN in the last few hours. I can’t help being reminded that whilst we continue living the somewhat strange contemporary lifestyles that many of us now do, it’s so easy to forget that we are still very much an intricate part of Mother Nature, even whilst we are sitting drinking a cappuccino in some faceless airport departure lounge. She can reach out to us at any time and completely redirect the course of our lives in a moment, something that the people with whom we’ve spent the last two weeks filming know only too well.
We have been living with a small community of 4 families who live on a small sand bar on the Rio Negro, about 2 days’ boat ride up river from Manaus. Our story here has been centred around the trials and tribulations of this isolated community who live within the ebb and flow of the largest fresh water mass on the planet. The seasons of the Amazon basin result in great changes in the volume of water surging down its arterial waterways. At this time of the year the people of the Rio Negro are preparing for the coming of the high waters and for our new friends here, this means the yearly ritual of saying a temporary farewell to the terra firma of their island existence as they retreat to their stilted houses for the 2-or-so months when the river surge completely floods the forests around their village, forcing them to adapt to a waterborne existence.
What none of us really understood very well before we came here, is that this small group of people have built up a beautifully inspiring relationship with some of the other non-human residents of the Rio Negro, and it is this story which has completely consumed me on this trip and the one that I have chosen to recount here.
On the day that we arrived we were greeted by our new hosts and promptly taken to see the water cages in which these people are nurturing thousands of young river turtles to be released back into the wild. It is a community run project attempting to swell the numbers of wild turtles in the Rio Negro which form an important source of food for the local inhabitants. By rescuing the buried eggs from well-known spawning beaches around the area and then allowing them to hatch within the safety of their own village, these people are safe guarding the young turtles from a short, hard-boiled life destined to appear on the dinner plates of local villagers.
Whilst we were standing waist deep in the Rio’s black waters observing the baby turtles, a dark shadow brushed past my leg and to my amazement, promptly swam up to one of our hosts and nudged her dangling hand with its long beak. ”Botos”, she mumbled as she grabbed its protruding nose with both hands, bursting into laughter as they momentarily play-fought in the water.
Botos are the Amazon’s resident river dolphins. At many spots along this part of the Rio Negro they are a common feature of people’s day-to-day lives due to their incredibly friendly nature. According to Wikipedia, ‘The brain of the river dolphin is 40% larger than a human brain‘. Now, whilst I can’t back up that fact with any of my own scientific evidence, I must admit that after a week of intimate interaction with these fabulous creatures in their natural habitat, I have to say that there is definitely something other-worldly about an experience within their wonderful auras. I feel very much more connected with the natural world right now.
The other day as I was resting on my bed in our boat, a small brown nondescript moth flew into my cabin and landed on the wall beside my head. Mesmerized, as I lay there staring at it, I realized that for the first time in absolutely ages, possibly even since I was a young boy in my family garden, I was looking at it with a genuine sense of awe and fascination. Such a seemingly mundane and insignificant creature had become an incredible manifestation of the beauty of nature with a huge beaming personality to boot! I am sure that it has been my interaction with these terrific river dolphins over the last week that has prized open that childlike side of me again.
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A close encounter with a wild animal is always a humbling experience. Dolphins, however, appear to be one of those rare organisms on our planet that genuinely appear to want to reach out to our species. There’s a reason why dolphins have captured such a special place in hearts of many of the world’s cultures and that’s something that I hope will continue for many millenia into our shared futures.
If you ever want to feel like a kid again, go out into the world and see if you can meet a dolphin. You won’t be disappointed.
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After the last few weeks of misadventures in Ladakh, I finally said my farewells to our Mountains team a couple of days ago, leaving them nursing their blisters and brittle noses in our Delhi apartment. Forty kilograms of luggage lighter, I decided to backpack it alone to my next destination of Jaipur, but not before paying a quick visit to a familiar Delhi haunt of mine, Pahar Ganj.
When you’re booked on a 5am train out of New Delhi Central, there’s no better place to lay your head than in a 250 rupee a night room in PG’s main bazaar. A short walk from the train station, I’ll be the first to admit that Pahar Ganj will not be to everyone’s taste, but if like me you love a bit of timeless Indian chaos, then you should fit right in.
There are three things that you can always count on during a visit to Pahar Ganj. Namely, an all-you-can-eat 40 rupee thali at Sonu Chat House. Your very own personal 1 minute acrobatic hoop dance from a tiny bendy Indian boy with a painted face if you dine on the street outside Madan cafe. And an unnerving fleeting glance from that French guy with the full facial tattoos who never smiles and always seems to be in the main bazaar whenever I am passing through.
On rarer occasions you may be privy, as I was a few years ago, to a full on bovine battle between two bulls jousting down the main street, sending market stalls flying and knocking sari clad women from their rickshaws. Rarer still, you might even watch in horror as a spaghetti mesh of overhead power lines overheats and then explodes, sending high voltage electrical fire balls flying around the street, narrowly missing passing school children, as I also did once. On a lighter note, if you happen to be passing through during India’s wedding season then you will be unable to miss the fantastic nightly matrimonial processions of proud grooms atop their white stallions flanked by surely some of the loudest brass bands in the world.
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Notwithstanding my return to Delhi’s familiar city culture, my real reason for descending from the Himalayas has been to come to Rajasthan’s famous pink (ish) city, Jaipur. It’s a mission emanating from our Urban team, who have been filming the mischievous lives of this city’s resident monkey populations.
Over the years, Jaipur’s monkeys have got quite a bad reputation in certain areas of this metropolis and having now spent three days running with one troop, I can certainly understand why. I have to admit though that I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for them, especially since I was a really mischievous kid once myself, always getting into trouble for doing the wrong things… never maliciously mind you, just by my nature. Saying that however, it is easy to understand why your average hard working Jaipurian can get a bit miffed by neighbours that, as far as I can see spend their days, eating, stealing, sleeping and having sex.
Let’s not forget that India is a nation of tolerant souls. The monkeys can also thank their lucky stars that the Hindus amongst Jaipur’s populace consider them a manifestation of the deity Hanuman which will afford them a plentiful turning of conciliatory blind eyes for a long time to come.
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Zanskar, Indian Himalayas
Every now and then, as a photographer I shoot a story that really touches me deeply. You can never tell which one it’s going to be and often you only realize it when you are looking back through your pictures in hindsight. Sitting here in the warmth of my hotel room, I have to admit that the last week I have spent in Zanskar has been one such assignment, one that I will carry with me for ever.
Zanskar’s mountainous landscape is an unforgiving place in winter. Temperatures can plummet to minus 40 at night and avalanches are a frequent occurrence. Add to this the fact that the only road in and out of the area is completely impassable for 6 months of the year and the result is a community of Zanskaris whose hardiness and resilience cannot fail to make an impression on you. It never ceases to amaze me how people who live in such harsh conditions can be so friendly and accommodating. One could hazard a guess that over the years their overly active survival genes would tend to make them selfish people but the reality is the complete opposite. In Zanskar the communities are strong and warm. A knock on a stranger’s door will always result in food and a bed for the night, such is the way of their mountain culture.
In recent years, Zanskar has become somewhat a mecca for trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Those that venture here in winter do so with certain preconceptions, the main one being that it can be a very dangerous place that is not to be taken lightly. Like our team, with them foreign visitors tend to bring state of the art survival gear, cooks, porters, tents… sometimes a whole battalion of helpers designed to make their experience as comfortable as can be. What most of them discover when they arrive and start walking is that they share these pathways with local Ladakhis who are just living their day-to-day lives as they have done for hundreds of years.
Our story here has centred around a group of children who are making their journey to boarding school in Leh. For the winter term, with no vehicle access to their homes there is only one route available to them and that is down the Zanskar river. With the consistently sub-zero temperatures, at this time of the year the waterway forms a frosty road that the locals call chadar meaning ‘veil’ by reference to its icy covering.
Walking the chadar can be a treacherous task that has already claimed the life of one foreigner so far this year. The ice covering is unpredictable and can change its consistency over night as our team discovered when heavy snow fall caused a series of avalanches that resulted in a temporary dam in the river which, when it finally broke, sent a torrent of water down the valleys, flooding the ice and leaving them stranded at high altitude for 7 days.
For the local Zanskari girls and boys, the walk to school takes several days with nights spent in caves . Accompanied by one or other of their parents, many are expected to carry their own possessions, often on home-made sledges that double up as backpacks when the ice gets too uneven to pull on. On such an arduous journey one might expect to hear regular cries of protest but not once did I hear anything of the sort. Led by the most experienced adult the children were always upbeat and resolute, sharing the burden of their bags, the older ones holding the hands of the younger.
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When we face hardship it is never more apparent than in the eyes of children. The Zanskari children I have spent the last week with have been a most amazing inspiration to me. The smiles and laughter. The instinctive sharing of any food they have. A concerned eye as you veer towards thinning ice. These kids are absolutely incredible and there’s no doubt that they inherit their wonderful temperament from their parents. I don’t have children yet myself, but when I do, if they blossom into anything near to the kind of human beings I have met here in Zanskar then I will die a happy and content man.
Yesterday we finally arrived in Leh after a 2 hour drive from the end of the ice, the jeep packed full of children laughing and singing folks songs at the tops of their voices. I’ll leave you with a snap that I stole of a sign hanging above the headmaster’s desk in his office at school this morning. For me it says it all.
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Interested in more stories from Ladakh? Try HERE TASEARCHLADAKH
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I have been here in Ladakh for 3 days already but today was the first day I’ve actually managed to get out and do a bit of sight-seeing. This has been due to the inevitable bout of altitude sickness that has inflicted me these past few days like many people who travel here directly by aeroplane from Delhi, some ten and a half thousand feet beneath us. In fact, the last time I came here, shortly after I arrived I was ill in bed for almost two weeks, so I’m actually quite pleased with my recovery this time round.
I’m here to hook up with our Rivers team who have been traveling with a Ladakhi family across the mountains in Zanskar, to the south of the provincial capital Leh where I am staying at the moment. Unfortunately, they have been somewhat held up by bad weather and consequently our rendezvous has been set back by 5 days meaning that I will be waiting here in Leh for another few days before I set off to trek to the meeting point.
I’ve never been to Ladakh in the winter time before, an experiential short falling that I evidently share with much of the travelling community as I can report back that there is hardly a foreign soul to be seen anywhere around here right now. There are reasons for this of course. Ladakh’s summer tourist season is a short 3 to 4 month affair, due in the most part to the fact that the only two roads into the area, via Srinagar in the west and Manali in the south, remain closed and impassable for much of the year. In winter the only way in is by plane so the number of foreign visitors declines drastically, especially of Ladakh’s backpacking community who prefer the cheaper routes in by road. Couple that with the fact that it’s very cold and that most of Leh’s guesthouses and cafes are closed and you are left with a travellers’ consensus opinion that this part of the Himalayas does not make a particularly enticing tourist destination at this time of the year.
Well, I have something to admit to you. Having now been out and about a little, I must say that this is most definitely a great time of the year to visit Ladakh, and that coming off-season will probably give you the most rewarding experience you could ever have up here. OK, it’s going to be a little harder than in the summer. If you turn up unannounced, you’ll probably have to knock on a few doors before you find a cheap guesthouse that will take you in, and don’t bargain for the smell of freshly baked croissants wafting past your window from Leh’s German bakery first thing every morning. However, what you can expect are beautiful snow dusted landscapes, quiet monasteries and beaming locals who appear genuinely pleased to see you braving the winter temperatures.
Being stuck in Leh is no bad thing for me, even if my favourite coffee shop is closed. Last time I came here I spent 2 months riding a motorcycle through this amazing landscape which is something I would heartily recommend to anyone who really wants to have a good look around this astonishing corner of India. Back then, I bought an old Royal Enfield Bullet from an American couple in Leh for about 400 dollars and promptly sold it at the end of my trip to a Swiss couple for exactly the same amount of money. During my 2 month adventure I managed to take a peek at most of Ladakh’s quieter corners including a myriad of local festivals, isolated glacial lakes and even a rare chance to see the Dalai Lama give teachings in the remote Nubra Valley, accessible only by negotiating a somewhat light headed drive over the infamous Khardung La pass, currently the highest motorable ‘road’ in the world at 18 380 ft.
Prior to that trip, I had never ridden a motorcycle before, so don’t think that you need to be an experienced rider to travel the Himalayas on a motorbike. Yes, the first few days in the saddle were scary, but then again it wouldn’t be such a rewarding challenge without a little fear to propel you along. In fact, I would say that of all the places to start riding a motorcycle in India, Ladakh is probably the safest due to the limited volume of traffic on the roads compared to the rest of the country. The main things to watch out for are sand and potholes in the road plus the occasional unbarriered extreme drop off you find flanking a few of the roads, all three problems being easily solved by just driving slowly. It’s important to plan your trips well too, measuring precise distances on maps before you set off since there are only a few petrol stations in Ladakh. You will need to carry extra fuel with you on your panniers, especially if you plan to explore Zanskar, which had no functioning refuelling station when I was there 3 years ago.
Many people who visit Ladakh by bike travel here from Delhi along the notorious Manali road which has become somewhat of a rite of passage for motorcyclists throughout India. It’s a tough two or three-day journey including no fewer than four over 16 000 ft passes, countless water crossings, glaciers and some stomach turning sections of high altitude sandy desert.
There is no way to describe in words the feelings you experience cruising down a deserted mountain road alone in the saddle flanked by some of the world’s tallest snow-capped peaks, wind in your hair, a huge smile plastered from ear to ear. For me, riding a motorbike rates as one of the best ways to move through a landscape briskly whilst remaining connected with it and as a photographer it is such a brilliant way to explore a remote environment like Ladakh, giving you the freedom to stop at will and check out every little unmapped road to nowhere you might discover. One day I pursued such a road that went on for absolutely ages. Determined to find out where it went, after nearly three hours I was about to turn back when the faint cry of a young lady on a distant ridge caught my attention and lead me to the end of the track, and her fantastically hospitable family farming cashmere goats at a sensational spot in the middle of nowhere.
I ended up staying there for 2 days, working with the family by day, and sleeping with them on the roof of their house under the stars by night. It was a truly memorable experience, the likes of which I would never have been gifted were it not for my trusted Enfield.
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This morning, I found myself sitting around in the hotel twiddling my fingers so I had a little root around in my laptop and to my surprise I found an old iView MediaPro catalogue file from that last trip to Ladakh. So, as an ode to my previous summer bike tour around these parts, here are a few pictures from that journey.
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Interested in more stories from Ladakh? Try HERE TASEARCHLADAKH
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Papua New Guinea
I’m back in the sweaty forests of Papua New Guinea again, although this time I’m with the Mountains team. It’s true. Strictly speaking we are actually in the jungle, but as it goes, we’re also in the mountains, so for once it looks like rock beats paper on this occasion.
The realization of this particular story began life back in 2007 when Jane Atkins, our researcher for the desert/grasslands programme happened to be flying over this area in a MAF plane on her way back from a shoot for BBC’s South Pacific in the Sepik river basin. What eagle-eyed Janie spied in the jungle from her window seat prompted an inquisitive investigation that has, 2 years later, led us to happen upon the very same spot.
Now, as far as I can tell, this story has never been documented on film before, so in the interest of suspense and intrigue I’m not going to reveal the details here. However, I will show you a picture of what Jane, and subsequently our team saw from the air, and maybe you can work it out for yourself…
All around this sparsely inhabited region of dense jungle, the ridges are dotted with unusual gaps in the tree line. Needless to say, there are always people living close by and I am happy to say that they are very lovely people to work with, albeit a little superstitious in their cultural ways. Indeed, this part of PNG is famous for its history of cargo cults, a practice that as far as I can see is all but extinct here.
As those anthropologically inclined of you will no doubt know, Cargo cults were the response of many remote tribal communities in the Pacific region to the sudden appearance in the 20th century of technologically superior cultures into their communities. The cults focused mainly on magical rituals designed to imbue the tribes with the material wealth they saw belonging to the foreign visitors, believing that it was intended as gifts for them by their own particular deities and gods. Although the cults have vanished, the deities still very much persist. In fact, they appear to be having a bit of a get-together at our camp as it turns out. At least that’s what the hushed tones of a few of the shadier locals would have us believe. Only 10 dollars to keep the gods happy I can report back.
We haven’t paid yet.
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Interested in more stories from Papua New Guinea? Try HERE
Photographer Kieran Doherty in Dubai
While waiting for the sun to set on a snowy Stonehenge, I received a phone call from Tim, ’Do you fancy an eight day trip to Dubai to shoot a story on an urban falconer?’ When someone asks you that question as you are sitting in minus 10 degrees cold, there is really only one answer. So two days later I arrived in Dubai to meet Human Planetʼs Urban team, consisting of Mark Flowers, producer/director, Mark MacEwen, cameraman, the invaluable Andrea Jones, production co-ordinator and Julia Wheeler, the BBCʼs middle east correspondent.
Hereʼs an interesting fact. One third of all the worldʼs construction cranes are currently in Dubai. I imagine itʼs every architectʼs dream to design a building for Dubai. They come in all shapes and sizes. Everywhere you look you can see office blocks, skyscrapers, apartments with penthouses that have swimming pools on the 47th floor. Hotels have motorised gondolas to ferry you from one part of the complex to another. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Verons and Bentleys sit parked outside hotel lobbies. I felt a bit like Jim Carreyʼs character in the Truman Show. Is all this real? Maybe this is the Dubai experience everyone was telling me about? Stepping inside the 7 star Burj LʼArab hotel was just that… Fountains filled with glycerine so that the water doesnʼt separate when it arcs everywhere. Forty seven sushi chefs in the Japanese restaurant alone… Well believe it or not, even with all this wealth, technology and state of the art know how, Dubai still suffers from pigeon infestation and there is only one way to clear them out properly.
This story centred around falconer David Stead, and the schedule of sequences required by the team were too numerous to mention, suffice to say that David probably experienced what it feels like to be George Clooney. Every format of camera angle was afforded him, from helicopter cineflex to steadicam, crane, car mount and tripod… I just had to shoot the stills.
And so for the next six days we rose with the light and shot David flying his beautiful falcons against the impressive skyscraper backdrop that is Dubai. Falcons are the fastest birds of prey in the world, so filming and shooting them mid flight was fraught with difficulties. Trying to keep focus with a hand held 400mm lens on a bird that drops out of the sky at over 100 mph is pretty full on. And I had it easy compared to cameraman Mark, who was having to operate his camera on a tripod. These birds are like thoroughbred horses and can tire very quickly while being directed for the film crew. If we averaged about 4 minutes air time per bird, a day’s shooting could be over in just a quarter of an hour. Each falcon had a personality that kept us all entertained.
David is the most extraordinary of falconers, a man who cares passionately about his birds and their welfare. His ability to control them while they are flying has to be seen to be believed. On our final afternoon of filming, we witnessed Nimr disappearing for almost two and a half hours while she devoured a pigeon squab, only for her to return to David in almost complete darkness, something that had never been done before. This in itself was a very special moment as eye contact and visibility is paramount between falcon and handler.
We were also lucky enough to ascend the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man made structure (at almost 3000 ft ) in the world. So if you are squeamish about heights…..look away now.
The last time I worked with a camera crew was in Baghdad while covering the immediate fallout from the Iraq war. This assignment was totally different in every sense but both camera crews strived for the same goal… To tell the story. The rushes looked amazing and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Urban team for allowing me to poke my lens in, around and under them all as they were filming, and of course to David and his sporting cast of falcons.
Two weeks into 2010 and I am back from my one month break over the holiday season. As is the tradition for photographers around this time of year, I have put together a small portfolio of previously unseen pictures from 2009… one from each Human Planet shoot last year.
Yesterday I left my home town of Bristol deep in snow. Today, I am filing this post from a hot and humid Changi airport in Singapore on a stop over with the mountains team on our way to the highlands of North Eastern Papua New Guinea where we will be shooting for the next 2 weeks. Right now, I am also pleased to say that we have British photojournalist Kieran Doherty shooting a high rise story for us in UAE’s capital Dubai with the urban team and he’ll be posting a blog in due course.
Happy New Year to you where ever you are in the world and I hope you enjoy this selection of pictures from a year of travel in 2009.
To see more pictures from the Human Planet journey so far, click HERE
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There are two frequently quoted buzz words in the Human Planet offices… man, and nature. By man, we are of course colloquially referring to the human race and not just the male denomination of our species. By nature, folk here tend to be alluding to animals in the first instance, and then to our environment if the zoological aspects are less obvious. Not surprisingly, in the 21st century, with many of us completely cut off from our natural environment living in towns and cities, genuine cultural stories of humankind’s reciprocally advantageous relationship with mother nature are becoming few and far between.
And so I find myself once again in Mongolia, a country that over the last year has completely captured my heart for ever. From sandy desert to lush grasslands and now to the snowy Altai mountains in the far west, I have arrived at a remote Kazakh community that is home to amongst others, Mongolia’s fabled eagle hunters.
Six months ago, a Human Planet film crew journeyed here in order to film a father’s search for a golden eagle for his young son. This involved climbing down a portion of a 500 ft cliff face to collect the flightless chick from its nest and then the subsequent documentation of the adoption process during which the two species, man and bird, both impressive hunters at the top of their prospective food chains, became partners in a mutually beneficial relationship.
That boy was called Berik. That’s him in the photo at the top of the page hunting foxes for the first time with his majestically grown up golden eagle.
Coming here to photograph this narrative, I imagined that it would be the story of a father’s tutorship of his son in the ways of eagle hunting. What has actually transpired for me is a beautifully intimate tale of a boy’s relationship with what must surely be one of the most magnificent flying creatures on our planet. We have travelled on horseback through the mountains watching in awe as Berik and his father hunt with their eagles, tracking animal prints in the snow and then launching their deadly co-workers from these monumental high peaks to capture their prey.
Observing a golden eagle at close quarters is a rare delight for a British fellow like myself. Prior to this trip I had only ever seen these glorious beasts down the barrel of a very long lens in a Scottish wilderness. Now I find myself unusually blasé as I sit eating breakfast in one of our gers, a bird perched either side of me, one rubbing its beak repeatedly on my shoulder. Mongolia is a truly fantastic place. This will be my last trip here for Human Planet, but I will most certainly be back some time.
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Interested in more stories from Mongolia? Try HERE
Firstly, apologies for missing a week with my posts to this blog. It was probably a little ambitious of me to expect a decent internet connection from the middle of the South China Sea. That’s not to say that such a thing is impossible, just extremely inconvenient and quite tricky when you’re living on a small out rigger, equipment perched perilously close to the surf and a plug extension block shared amongst 7 voltage hungry colleagues.
I’m back on terra firma now with a fresh case of land sickness after our amazing time at sea. It’s tempting to say that I’ve just experienced one of the most memorable weeks of my life, but then again I’m well aware that I keep saying things like that on this blog, so I’ll just tentatively mention that the exceptional people that I’ve met these last days and the things I’ve seen here have affected me very deeply.
To understand the full story of our time here in the Philippines, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until Human Planet hits the screens next year. Needless to say, I’m sure you’ll be as amazed as I was at what you will witness happening 120 feet below the surface of the sea. This particular segment of the Oceans program will also be accompanied by a ‘Making of’ film that will show you how our underwater cameramen managed to capture the astonishing footage contained in the sequence.
My next port of call with be Mongolia again, to the mountains this time. Stay tuned.
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To see a video clip from our time at sea in the Philippines click HERE
I must admit, I wasn’t expecting to see this sight when I woke up this morning. We’ve been suffering the periphery of typhoon Parma since I arrived here in Sabah, shrouding the Celebes sea in rainy grey clouds and dashing any hopes I’ve had of shooting pictures from our helicopter which has spent the last 4 days parked redundantly at the local airfield. Today however, during an unexpected break in the weather, we managed to get some quality time in the air out searching for Bajau villages…
OMG! What an incredible sight to behold… hundreds of small stilted communities perched on reefs a few kilometers out to sea. One of the most impressive sights I have witnessed on this whole journey so far.
These dwellings belong to amongst others, Bajau sea gypsies who have chosen to live a sedentary life, renouncing their nomadic existence on ocean boats in favour of a front door and neighbours. Tomorrow we are going to meet them in their homes… and then at work…
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Interested in more stories from Sabah? Try HERE
Indonesia is one of my favourite countries in the world. I spent a lot of time here in my twenties, just roaming around, visiting as many as I could of the seventeen odd thousand islands that make up this immense archipelago. Back then, coming to the remote island of Lembata would probably have involved a gruelling week long journey sleeping on the deck of one of Indonesia’s fabled PELNI cruise liners that were the preferred form of long distant transport for backpackers like myself at the time. That’s not to say that in 2009 getting here is an easy task, not least from Mombasa, my last port of call for Human Planet, which, as you would imagine, is by no means a well trodden path. It took four days as it turns out, each one adding to the growing expectation of what I might discover in the famous whaling village of Lamalera, which was to be my final destination.
Lamalera’s Whaling tradition is quite well documented, often cited as being a good example of a sustainable whale cull due to the local fishermen’s reluctance to embrace modern whaling technology, preferring instead to stick to their traditional method of hunting with paddle-driven peladang’s and bamboo harpoons. The concensus opinion suggests that the best time to come here to experience a whale capture is between the months of May and September when the seas are at their calmest, but in reality, whales are caught here all year round on an as-and-when basis, forming just one portion of the immense plethora of nutritious bounty prised from the waters around this island destined to end up on the dinner plates of Lamalera’s inhabitants.
Arriving at our house overlooking the beach last week I was greeted by BBC cameraman Jon with the surprising news that no whales had actually been caught here for over 2 months. He arrived a week before me and was already well accustomed to the daily ritual of going to bed at 8pm then rising at 5am to begin 10 hours of searching for ways to pass the time whilst keeping one eye on the ocean for the chance of glimpsing the distant plume from a whale’s exhalation on the horizon and the possibility of filming this age old Lamaleran spectacle.
As I write this, I’ve been here nearly two weeks and still no sign of any whales. Maybe they finally got wise to the fact that swimming near Lembata is not a good idea at this time of the year. If they have then they are certainly alone in this wisdom amongst their oceanic co-inhabitants. Judging by the size of catch that fishermen here are pulling in every morning I think it’s fair to say that the waters around here are not facing any impending environmental catastrophe. Below is a photo I shot this morning of an average night’s net fishing from a small paddle boat just off the coast from where I’m sitting. I say average because last week one fisherman came limping home with his boat practically submerged due to its bounty of 7 huge marlin, a couple of them topping 7 foot in length.
I can think of worse places to be stuck twiddling my fingers. Lamalera is a friendly village, currently playing host to no fewer than 3 camera crews from France, Malaysia and the UK as well as an American photographer and myself, which can make for an interesting comedy of errors when anything remotely interesting happens in the vicinity. Luckily, packs of playing cards are plentiful here and many of us had the foresight to load up our hard drives with unwatched AVIs, the current favourites doing the rounds being the brilliant Flight of the Concords and a beautifully funny documentary called King of Kong which charts the sublime lives of a group of ageing world class classic video gamers in the States
3pm every day signals the traditional cut off point for any potential whale capturing activities by the fishermen and offers us all the opportunity to get out of the house and into the ocean for a spot of fun, for myself a chance to live out some personal Big Blue fantasies that I’ve been suppressing for quite a while since the last time I visited a pristine turquoise ocean. Evidently I’m not alone in this desire, sharing it with amongst others, Paul (below), a lucky intern from the UK working with our underwater team and currently missing the new university term in order to stay on for this ever-expanding waiting game.
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Interested in more stories from Indonesia? Try HERE
Photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith in Norway
We join the Sami people of Arctic Norway at an intense time of year: for the next 2-3 weeks the Sami will be herding their reindeer, who have been roaming free for the summer, down from the snow dusted mountains and preparing them for crossing open waters in search of winter pastures. It is no easy task and the whole community rallies together to corral the animals, marking them by cutting their ears to work out which animal belongs to which family, giving them anti-parasitic drugs, and preparing them for the journey ahead. It is a total mystery to me how they tell which reindeer even have which markings, but this is a talent learned over centuries. Although they may use quad bikes where their ancestors walked on foot, the knowledge and the love of the reindeer is in their blood. I’m taken aback by the energy rushing from the scene unravelling in front of me, and by the harshness of the environment in which they work. It is pelting with rain, which at times arrives horizontally, occasionally turning to hail before calming until the next gust whips up the mud from the floor.
I am wearing approximately 8 layers of clothing, desperately clutching my cameras underneath my raincoat to try and protect them from the elements, and the mud being spattered from the thunder of the hooves spinning around me in the corral. But the Sami seem oblivious to the environment, only caring to make sure the deer are all in order, and calm before crossing the water. Over the course of the week a few hundred deer are moved each day. Asking the Sami how many reindeer they have is akin to asking someone in Britain how much money they have in the bank. The animals are their currency, as well as their livelihood, culture and history.
Ella, our main character, tells me of her family holiday to Turkey this year, which she found too hot too bear, and made her realise beyond a shadow of a doubt that her place rests among the Sami and their deer in the Northern Troms. Often one of the most under-rated pleasures we get from travelling is realising that what we have right under our noses is to be treasured.
Coming to Kenya with the BBC’s natural history unit you’d be forgiven for assuming that I was here to spend a few weeks on safari. For sure, the BBC’s cameramen and women have had a long and fruitful relationship with Kenya’s amazing wildlife over the years, resulting in some of the most sensational wildlife sequences ever seen on TV, a particular favourite of mine being the awesome spectacle of thousands of wildebeest crossing the Mara river during their yearly migration filmed for Planet Earth.
Not withstanding this age old tradition, we have indeed come here in part to film Kenya’s wildlife, we just aren’t staying in a stilted safari lodge nor whizzing around the plains in an open top four wheel drive. We’re in Mombasa, and for the last 3 days I’ve been wading through mountains of rubbish in this city’s sprawling waste dump.
On our first morning at the dump we arrived at dawn and I spent the first few minutes clambering over the twilight debris looking for a suitable high vantage point from which to shoot a panorama with the first light from the rising sun. Atop the largest pile I could see I came across this quiet scene. I shot a few frames and then climbed down.
I don’t know anything about this boy… what his name is, or how old he is. I don’t know if he has a family. The clicking of my camera didn’t wake him. Sitting here now writing this at a desk in my hotel room I wish I could tell you something about this young soul other than the fact that he is one of quite a number of youngsters who live and work at the dump, days spent sifting through Mombasa’s refuse looking for food and things to sell to middle men for recycling.
Since that first morning here, a steady stream of people have stopped their work to come and talk with us about life on their dump. Many of them just come to chat, seemingly oblivious to the notion that there is anything that the outside world can do to help them other than continuing with its culture of rampant consumerism. It’s a cruel irony, but the reality here is that this is their life and work and it provides them with an income that keeps them alive. There’s no doubt that the majority of people living here would rather be somewhere else; the sad fact however is that their farewell would inevitably herald the arrival of a replacement in no time at all. Walking around this waste land, I am reminded once more that mother nature is not prejudiced. Scavenging at a dump is an environmental niche that she invites all species to inhabit, our own included.
As part of the Jungles program on Human Planet we have come to Cambodia to investigate a place where nature has reclaimed the site of a former human civilization. That place is the 200 square kilometre area of Angkor in Central Cambodia, former home to, amongst others, the great Khmer empire of King Suryavarman the second. Satellite surveys suggest that Angkor once comprised an urban sprawl of some 3,000 square kilometres, making it by far the largest preindustrial city the world has ever known. The notion that a place of this magnitude could ever become abandoned is a fascinating prospect, the concensus agreeing that it was a combination of the declining Khmer empire and one final conquest by the Thais in the 15th century that caused a shift of power over to Phnom Penh in the east, thus sealing Angkor’s fate as a forgotten city, destined to be reabsorbed into the surrounding jungle until its modern day resurgence as the seat for Cambodia’s most recent all-conquering empire, early 21st century tourism.
Control of this phenomenal stone-built metropolis has passed between nations over the years, most notably between the Cambodian Khmers and the Siamese (Thais), the modern day tenure currently residing within the hands of the rubber and petroleum giant Sokimex, who own the right to profit from Angkor’s highly lucrative tourist industry. Ask any local and they’ll insist that Sok Kong, the owner of Sokimex is Vietnamese and therefore this deal represents yet another conquest of Angkor by a foreign invader. Having never met Mr. Kong myself I can’t confirm this, but whatever the truth, it is certainly a bone of contention in this neck of the woods which will no doubt add more fire to Angkor’s intriguing history.
Yesterday we spent all day filming within the ruins of Ta Phrom, possibly Angkor’s most visually stunning ruin. Many visitors before us have also acknowledged this fact, most famously Paramount Pictures, who used it as a backdrop for a number of scenes in the video game inspired blockbuster Tomb Raider, a production which appears to have employed almost every local resident of Angkor if they are to be believed. I had a quick look at said scenes today and I must admit that I really love what they did with the lake in front of Angkor Wat - the largest temple in the complex, bringing it to life with a mass of boats and floating water lilies. Large Hollywood productions invading ancient temple sites is definitely not to everyone’s taste I know, but you have to admit, it really does look absolutely amazing.
If you are planning on making a photographic pilgrimage to Angkor, be prepared to share your space with a number of like minded enthusiasts. Don’t let this put you off however. There are still loads of temples that get overlooked by the package tour groups who tend to stick to a well trodden route. Similarly, if you turn up at sunrise or sunset you’ll not only be blessed with the best light, but also complete solitude in my experience, and Cambodia is a nation of early risers so you’ll have no trouble getting a tuk tuk to drive you out to the temple complex before first light.
Whether you like it or not, the urge to photograph a monk amidst the overgrown ruins will no doubt overcome your sensibilities at some point, and when it does, make the most of the experience by spending as long as you can engaging in some friendly banter and cultural exchange. The monks I have met here are very cool cats. They quietly put up with a hell of a lot of probing lenses and they aren’t all touting for dollars as many foreigners will have you believe.
I am leaving you with this picture of 75 year old Kong Di, from Ta Phrom monastery (famously, background monk no. 7 in the scene where Lara Croft arrives at Angkor Wat by boat from across the lake) standing in another ‘famous’ Tomb Raider set location. For those of you who are more photographically inclined, you might be wondering why I used a fisheye lens to shoot this picture. Simple. Last year, a raised wooden viewing platform was built just 3 feet away from the doorway, complete with security guard and a rope barrier to keep tourists from clambering onto the tree roots. Using a 15mm lens was the only way I could get wide enough to edit it out of the photograph. Beware the subjective eye of the photographer!
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Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea’s fantastic cultural heritage has been drawing a steady stream of photographers to its shores for many years now. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my own particular passion for travelling to remote places was substantially inspired by images from this magical island which have been residing quietly in my subconscious since I first laid eyes on them as a youngster within the pages of National Geographic and the like.
The trouble with visiting places like this in 2009 of course, is that the phenomenal cultural changes that our world has seen in the last 30 years are inevitably much more evident and visible within these so called developing nations, and as such, these days a documentary photograph can be rendered journalistically redundant in just a few short years.
Visiting PNG for this first time, I was quite nervous about what I might discover here. It has always struck me as one of those places that would definitely have succumbed to the brute force of western cultural imperialism, especially since, of all the tribal societies in the world, PNG’s surely must possess some of the most visually stunning apparel on the planet, the absence of which would be all the more obvious in these changing times.
Well. I can report back that culture in Papua New Guinea is absolutely not dead, in fact it’s authentically thriving, vibrant and still as visually stunning as ever. Sure, don’t expect to see people walking to the local supermarket on a Tuesday morning dressed like this, but then again, when was the last time you donned your poshest outfit to pop out and get your weekly groceries (Paris Hiltons of this world excepted).
We have come here to investigate the significance that the bird of paradise still plays within New Guinean indigenous culture, which has involved spending time in a remote village and following the locals as they prepare for one of the many occasions on which they are required to dress in their tribal fineries. As part of our filming we visited the Mount Hagen Show, a yearly gathering of over 100 tribes that was initially orchestrated in the 1960s by missionaries seeking to calm PNG’s ever present tribal tensions by bringing the people together in one huge cultural event. In its 21st century incarnation, complete with banks of long lens photographers and sponsorship by Coca Cola, it would be very easy to patronize this event, reverting to the seasoned travellers’ mantra of “They’re only doing it for the tourists“. However, I have to say that if you make the effort to dig under the surface a little and spend some quality time with the people who make up this fantastic spectacle, you will soon realize that this is in fact a genuine display of PNG’s cultural heritage done by the people, for the people… which happily includes those of us who don’t have our own tribal heritage back home.
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Interested in more stories from Papua New Guinea? Try HERE
Papua New Guinea
Today I can report back categorically that there is definitely no easy way to get to the centre of Papua New Guinea from the UK. At the last count my journey here involved 4 planes and just over 30 hours of flying. Consequently, this week’s post is going to be very short and simple, and I couldn’t help posting this photo that I stumbled across today because I think it sums up perfectly how my mind and body feel right now.
PNG is an incredible place. However… Mix it up with a healthy dose of jet lag and it’s an incredibly surreal place!
Tune in next week folks, by which time I will hopefully have deciphered where I am, and what the hell is actually going on here!
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Interested in more stories from Papua New Guinea? Try HERE
The story behind the image
In terms of my photography, the most common question I am asked is “What is your favourite picture that you’ve taken”. It’s a very easy question to ask, but as those of you who shoot pictures regularly will no doubt understand, it’s an incredibly difficult one to answer.
In order to categorize a picture so precisely, I think it’s probably worth mentioning that according to me, ‘favourite picture’ doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘best picture’. The former suggests a degree of sentimental value, whereas the latter would probably best be judged by the objective eye of an experienced stranger and not by that of the image’s originator.
So, after quite a bit of thought, and for many reasons, sentimental and other, I have decided that this image is my favourite from my archive.
For those of you that are familiar with my back catalogue, I’m sure that a few of you reading this may be a little bemused by this choice of image. After all, on surface inspection it is quite a demeaning and derogatory photo – a style in which I am not renowned for shooting. However, for me the beauty in this photo lies in exactly that uneasy predicament that you are confronted with as a viewer, and one that may make more sense after I’ve elaborated a little on the circumstances surrounding its inception.
I shot this photo about 5 years ago for inclusion in the fantastic BAFTA-nominated documentary Taxidermy Stuff the World. The film follows the fortunes of a handful of taxidermists from around the world as they find, ‘stuff’ and eventually show their best work at the fantastically glitzy World Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois, USA. The photograph shows taxidermist Jeanette Hall from Spring Creek, Nevada, standing with her pedestal mounted Appaloosa horse outside her hotel room in the corridor of the Crown Plaza hotel in Springfield.
Jeanette ended up playing quite a prominent role in the film, not least because she has such a brilliantly interesting and honest character. Amongst her talents at the time, she was most renowned for her love of diligently mounting the testicles of various animals on small varnished plaques, something that the armchair psychologists amongst our crew identified with her recent status as an embittered divorcee and one that her free-standing freezer choc-a-bloc full of frozen testicles certainly alluded to.
Nevertheless, after spending some time with Jeanette over the course of our filming it soon became apparent that she, like many of her contemporaries in the world of taxidermy whose passion often required them to kill wildlife, was in fact blessed with a strangely genuine love of animals. For me this paradox was a fascinating revelation to discover and one that I feel gives this portrait of her and her cherished horse so much more poignancy. For sure, it’s hard to ignore the brutal symbolism of the severed white horse’s head but it is somehow eclipsed by the delicate intimacy evident in the way she’s holding its reins. Similarly, the Mona Lisa smile of both Jeanette and her treasured horse beguile the tragically large and prominent 3rd place rosette pinned to this carefully manicured nape. Of course, quite a large factor in the initial attraction to this image comes from the simple fact that at a swift glance it is surprisingly easy to overlook the ‘minor’ detail that this beautiful horse is not actually alive and indeed doesn’t even posses any body below its neckline.
A few months after I got back from the shoot this particular image was included in an exhibition of photojournalism and ended up framed in a London gallery sandwiched between photographs from the war in Afghanistan and the Asian Tsunami. In my experience, most people’s initial reaction to the photo is one of either disdain or mockery and this was very much the case at that time. At the private view I remember wondering what Jeanette would think if she knew that people were sniggering at her portrait in a well-to-do London gallery. It was an uncomfortable feeling, so I tracked down her contact details and sent her an email asking for her opinion. Her reply was swift and brilliantly comforting. She wrote that she absolutely loved the picture and that her horse looked beautiful. She said that she had given framed copies to her family and friends and that in fact, her personal copy took pride of place on her mantelpiece at home. She didn’t care what other people thought of her picture.
I think that is why I like this picture so much. To some it’s disgusting, to others beautiful. For me it is deeply ironic… for Jeanette it’s just a lovely picture of her and her beloved Appaloosa horse. It can mean so many different things to different people but most importantly, it does so without actually causing offence to the person who originally posed for the photo in good faith, something that I think about a lot when people allow me the opportunity to photograph them. All in all it’s a picture full of paradox and irony and I like that. Ironic too that the picture I have ended up choosing as my favourite was, out of necessity, shot with flash, something I normally can’t stand and almost never use in my photography.
I suppose that one of the prominent qualities that keeps me enamoured by a picture is whether or not, as I study it more and more, I discover things about that image that I would like to change… things that I feel would improve it somehow. In the case of this image, after quite a few years I am still happy with it just the way it is. Well, almost. I’ve often secretly wished that Springfield’s Crown Plaza Hotel had had a slightly more garish wall paper adorning its corridors. But then again, nothing’s ever perfectly right when you’re a photographer.
As an amusing postscript to this story, I am including the link below to an article about Jeanette that I found in The Telegraph and which I think sums up the complexities of her philosophy on life brilliantly. Absolutely classic!
To see more of my photos from the World Taxidermy Championships.. click HERE
Allow me to introduce you to Samnieng… that’s him in the middle of the picture on his way to work on a typical Monday morning in August. He lives about a kilometre from this spot on the wrong side of the river from his place of work which lies on a small island amid the mighty Mekong river of Laos in the area known locally as Siphandon, or The 4000 Islands. Actually, Samnieng’s walk to work every day is not as unique as you may imagine in this part of Laos despite the obvious severity of the journey. Many of the thousands of uninhabited islands in the area offer a unique habitat in which local fishermen can exercise their skills at catching the fabulous bounty of large fish that frequent these isolated rapids throughout the year. Of course there are obvious drawbacks in this line of work. During the rainy season the river swells horrendously rendering many of the prime fishing spots so dangerously inaccessible as to make them completely unreachable but for the efforts of the few brave and/or foolish fishermen who dare to venture where the majority fear to go.
Brave or foolish? I’ll let you decide… however Samnieng has been working here since he was a small boy and he assured me that as long as the fish keep coming to his part of the Mekong to spawn then he has no plans for a career change.
Interested in people who work under extreme conditions? Click HERE to meet Mongonjay, a honey gatherer from the Central African Republic.
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This particular trip to Laos has begun for me in Thailand. The story I will be covering in a few days was filmed by a Human Planet crew a few weeks ago whilst I was in Mongolia, so I have taken this opportunity for independent travel by choosing to make my way to the destination in Laos overland from Bangkok and in the process treat myself to a little of one of my favourite pastimes… backpacking.
I’ve been backpacking on and off for over 20 years now and have to admit that I still get butterflies in my stomach at the mere thought of roaming around with a bag on my back. For those of you who’ve done it yourselves, you will know exactly what I am talking about because once you have experienced that unique feeling, it never really leaves you… just hides away quietly, resurfacing from time to time throughout your life.
Bangkok has figured quite extensively in my travels over the last 2 decades… it’s just one of those places that is very easy to end up in. On this occasion, as with every other time I find myself here, I am always sure to make my pilgrimage to the now infamous backpacker haunt, the Kaosan Road.
I’ve seen Kaosan change a fair bit over the years. I think it was probably amidst the well worn pages of an early edition of Maureen and Tony Wheeler’s South East Asia on a Shoestring that I first heard of this particular traveller hangout. Back then, backpacking was something that relatively few people did and places like Kaosan Road were a vital meeting point for the exchange of information between travellers. As with all major capital cities in South East Asia at that time, independent travellers could also count on them for the exciting opportunity to indulge in such rare pleasures as visiting a pharmacy, collecting their mail from Post Restante at the central post office, and swapping or selling some possessions (particularly books) before heading off again on the road less travelled.
Tonight somehow, I feel as if I have seen the life cycle of the Kaosan Road come full circle. Earlier, I stood and watched a newly married Thai couple who had chosen to have their wedding photos taken in the middle of the street on Kaosan, formerly the site of a dusty rice market.
Now it seems that backpacker culture itself has become a bonafide tourist attraction. Such a beautifully fantastic irony and one that I’m sure the Wheelers could never have predicted when they first began putting pen to paper writing the Yellow Bible back in the 70s.
I am actually writing you this post from my home in Bristol, UK. I got back from Mongolia two days ago via a rather overdue trip to the tropical diseases clinic in London in order to have a small community of uninvited parasitic squatters exorcised from my backside. The good news for me was that what we initially suspected were tumbu fly larvae actually turned out to be canine hookworms. I say good news, because when tumbu fly maggots set up camp in your butt cheeks you are left with only two options. You must either wait the long, excruciatingly itchy weeks until they crawl out of their own accord in order to pupate, or you can coax them out prematurely using any one of a bizarre variety of available methods, one such vaseline-and-gaffer-tape inspired version that can be seen HERE being used by an unfortunate traveller in Panama dealing with an infestation of the closely related South American cousin of the tumbu fly, the bot fly.
As it turned out, evicting hookworms from beneath your skin is quite a simple procedure involving just a large, one-off dose of 6 pills that sorted them out in a matter of one day. Thank you to the Tropical disease clinic in London for that, and no hard feelings to my lovely canine companion from our recent trip to Mali who faithfully accompanied me during my many long and lonely days sitting on a rock in Dogon county waiting to photograph the rains arriving, and who was most probably the unwitting originator of said hook worms.
Tomorrow I am flying to Bangkok and then traveling overland to Laos in order to spend two weeks living and working on an island in the Mekong river. No need for an additional pet passport as it turns out.
See you there!
Riding a horse in Mongolia has been a secret ambition of mine for a few years now. Well, to be more precise, riding a horse across Mongolia actually, an aspiration that I knew I would never realize on this short trip, but one that has since become a permanent fixture at the top of my things-to-do-before-I-die list.
Riding a horse across Mongolia. Just the phrase itself is enough to elicit magical feelings of wild adventure and freedom. Of galloping through epic panoramas, the wind blowing away any memories of the futile concerns born of a life back home lived with unnecessary complications. You may scoff at my romanticism, but Karina who runs the company that organizes our logistics here in Mongolia has fixed it for quite a few people to realize their Mongol horse riding fantasy over the years, and by all accounts this particular dream is very much real.
Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying that “…There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”. Never have those words rung so true to me as during these last few days in the saddle. I have now earmarked a 3 month window in 2011 after Human Planet has finished as the time to make my own equine pilgrimage back to Mongolia in order that I can give this amazing place the time and attention it rightly deserves.
And at the end of it all, if I’m just half as happy as the locals here appear to be, then it will have done its job royally. Rural Mongolia certainly contains some of the friendliest, most cheerful people I’ve ever met on my travels around the planet, and I’m sure that their easy and regular access to horse riding has had something to do with that. Of course, I suspect that the thousands of square kilometres of uninterrupted landscape may also play a fair part in eliciting the huge smiles we encounter here every day.
Or maybe there’s just something special in the local fermented horse’s milk.
. . .
Interested in more stories from Mongolia? Try HERE