Venice

Venice is an intriguing and awe inspiring city, set in a large lagoon it is made up of canals bridged by some impressive and elegant architecture, Venice has been given a few names including City of Canals, City of Bridges, City of Masks and the Floating City amongst other names, all of which fit perfectly, my favourite name for it though is Queen of the Adriatic, a suitably romantic name for this beautiful place.

A most beautiful city

A most beautiful city

Beautiful it may be, filled with reflections and Expressionistic shadows everywhere you look, nicely scented it is not. The canals can be quite pungent at certain times of the year, the high summer can be particularly bad at times and is best avoided in my opinion, as well as it being crazily busy with tourists then too.

I went to Venice for a short break as I was drawn to the photogenic canals and bridges as well as the famous Masked Carnival, which claims to be the Worlds largest and most famous masked party, it arose in the middle ages but flourished in the 18th century and nowadays people fly from all over the World to take part in this grand spectacle.

I arrived in the city at night and was instantly taken with how the reflections in the water, lit up by the golden light of the street lights made some of the buildings distorted and exaggerated, whilst others in still water looked identical to the real thing and if you got the angle right, you could take a mirror image photograph, where you can hold the picture either way up and find it difficult to tell which is the real building and which is the reflection, these are always fun to take.

The next day I could not wait to get out and explore the area and was not disappointed at all, the whole place was a visual feast and a photographers dream, I took hundreds of pictures at every turn it seemed and eventually came to the conclusion that I must slow down and enjoy the views with the naked eye rather than looking through the lens of the camera all the time, yet within minutes once again I could not help myself and continued snapping the shutter at everything in sight, the beauty of the narrow streets of water just has to be captured.

I then decided to go and look for a suitable mask and costume to wear to the Carnival, meal and Masked Ball for the evening, it was so exciting wandering into each shop and trying on different masks, there are very obvious differences between the male and female masks, the female mask is alot softer and usually can be quite flattering, the male masks were very characterised, some with long pointed noses to show off their masculinity, the classic black mask with long nose is actually quite intimidating, these were very popular and are seen everywhere, very iconic of the male Venetian mask.

The shops are filled with these masks, some basic black and white, others brightly coloured, some that look like humans, others in the style of animals or just ornate shapes that fit to the face with feathers springing from the sides or top, some have sparkles.

I went for a red velvet mask with some feathers and a silk red hooded cape to throw over a black dress, it seemed to work well and I was pleased that I had something comfortable but fun to wear for that evening, I also bought a softer green and lilac sparkly mask to wear about Paizza San Marcosquare where hundreds of people flock to either wear masks or just enjoy the spectacle and soak in the atmosphere.

Piazza San Marco is the place to be in Venice, famously described by Napoleon as ‘The Drawing Room of Europe’ it really is a colourful scene and the place to both see and be seen if you are wearing your costume, I found it thrilling seeing so many people dressed up in decadent costumes, it is totally surreal and the atmosphere takes you by the hand and insists on showing you around.

In the evening the whole atmosphere of the place changes and at Carnival time you cannot fail but get swept up in all the excitement, this night I was due to attend a concert followed by a masked ball party.

Even queuing up for the concert was exciting as people had gone to so much effort to dress up beautifully just to attend as the audience, it is usually customary to dress up for a concert in the UK of course, but this was on another level, some of the finery that people wore was just breathtaking to look at.

The concert was impressive in the grand hall and as I marvelled at the clothes of other people and the splendid decor of the hall as I listened to pieces by Schubert resonate around the building, it felt wonderful to attend and be part of that concert and got me in the mood for the second half of the evening.

I went back to the hotel afterwards and changed into the costume for the masked ball, for this I wore a red silk dress and matching cape with hood and of course the red mask that I had bought in the shop earlier with the feathers, just putting this costume on made me feel like a totally different person. Dressing up like this was allows people to become someone else, you can become a character or just feel as though you are anonymous in the crowd, it is quite liberating and of course it is also thrilling to see what other people are wearing too.

The streets quickly filled with people dressed in their costumes and masks making their way to the various balls that were going on that night and excitement could be felt wherever you went.

A regular sight at night

A regular sight at night

I enjoyed walking down some of the darker alleyways and seeing people in their capes and masks, there was something very ‘Phantom of the Opera’ about it. Although I wandered down a very narrow, dark alleyway which was clearly a dead end, I noticed before turning back though that there was a streetlight lighting up the wall at the end, on the wall was blood, a considerable amount, I quickly turned and left the area.

I took a fast boat down the canal to where this particular party that I had signed up to was taking place and enjoyed watching people in the Gondolas being punted down the canals in their finery, there was something very decadent about it.

Finally I reached my destination, a secret ball, the entrance was through what looked like an old trap door into an old cellar, getting off the boat you had to be careful and jump over onto the concrete quay.

As I stooped to go through the old wooden trap door, I walked into a darkened area which at first looked a little alarming, however once in it soon became an Alice in Wonderland feast for the eyes, down a narrow corridor lit with candles to a grand staircase and up into one of the most decadent halls I have ever seen.

Large mirrors were everywhere with chandeliers and long tables were set out for a banquet, gold and silver plates adorned the tables, wine flowed and although I felt rather awkward, I should have gone with a group of friends perhaps, once seated the conversations flowed as easily as the wine.

Fine Dining

Fine Dining

Food was brought out constantly it seemed, course after course of chilled soups, hot meats, fishes, roasts and then the most tempting sweet dishes, there was a chocolate fountain and also platters of fruit, there was something very regal about the meal.

After the meal it was down into the large hall for the dance, this was a totally different atmosphere, the hall was vast with stone pillars and polished floor, the music began and people danced, I watched from the sidelines and enjoyed seeing that some were excellent at dancing and had clearly had some tuition.

The Dance

The Dance

Some of the Costumes

Some of the Costumes

The colourful costumes all seemed to merge into one as I watched people swish about the room, I stayed until 11pm but then ordered a boat back as the dance turns into a Disco and this did not hold my interest, so back down the long corridor I went, gathered my cape and gloves off the masked man at the door and stepped out onto the waiting boat.

Speeding down the canals the cool air woke me up and I enjoyed the full moon and the crazy reflections on the water, I was pleased to have come and experienced this but in honesty never had I felt so utterly lonely, most people there had been in couples and although I a used to being alone, it highlighted to me that I really was alone,, it would have been grand to have had a man by my side to dance with instead of being a wallflower spectator at the side of the room, perhaps I will go back another time.

Pigeons in Venice are a controversial subject, often looked upon as a mascot of Venice, thousands of these birds congregate in St Marks Square, when I was there you could feed them and just a scattering of crumbs would draw them to you in seconds and you would be engulfed in these birds.

Famously in the 1950’s an Insurance company used the pigeons as a promotional gag, by scattering corn about the square so that the birds would flock to it, if you looked downwards onto the feeding birds you would see the initials of the company AG which stood for Assicurazioni Generali.

In the end the local authorities decided that the birds were a nuisance and banned the feeding of them, this is a shame as they were a tourist attraction and I am pleased that I got to experience them when I was there.

There are a few men who used to sell the birdseed cheaply to tourists, they have been particularly upset by the banning as they are out of work but also some of them were clearly passionate about the birds according to certain articles, however city officials are said to be offering them alternative work or giving them a cash payoff to apease them.

However to be fair, the pigeons have been causing damage to some of the buildings and to encourage them with feeding is only going to cause further damage and expense, they crave calcium for their eggs and peck away at marble statues to try and extract the stuff, there are pack marks and scratch marks over the historical landmarks which is making people angry and resentful to the birds.

Deterrents have been put on some of the buildings such as spikes which often mame the birds, I think this is particularly cruel and I hate to see it, so perhaps the prohibition of feeding them is in fact a better solution.

The magic of Pigeons

The magic of Pigeons

To sum up, Venice is a gem of a place to visit, I would definitely go again, the only thing I would change is that I would like to go with a partner, being one of the most romantic cities in the World it seems rather a waste not to be able to experience it with someone you love.

Perhaps I shall visit it again one day.

The Gambia

The Gambia is the smallest Country in mainland Africa, surrounded by Senegal where there have been troubled times, this beautiful Country is home to exotic birds and African crocodiles which are fascinating to see.

I went to The Gambia by mistake, well almost, I was hoping to get to The Dominican Republic but instead did a last minute detour to Gambia taking my best friend Hazel with me, we had never travelled together before, having been friends for years I knew it would be alright wherever we went, so when Hazel asked me that age old travel question: “Is it safe?” without any hesitation whatsoever I replied “Of Course”.

So we headed off to The Gambia and landed in a field to the welcome of the locals singing and dancing, it was an impressive greeting and we both felt honoured to walk through the procession as we collected our bags and then took a local yellow taxi to the hotel.

A Gambian welcome

A Gambian welcome

On arrival we threw our bags into each of our rooms then mutually decided to head straight to the beach to have a walk out, to get to the beach we were surprised to see barbed wire all the way along between the hotel and the beach itself, it looked inviting though so we climbed over and through the barbed wire and started to walk down the long stretch of sand.

Within about 2 minutes of walking a gang of very tall ‘hoodies’ appeared and began harassing us, there were five of them and they surrounded us and began asking for money, I said that clearly we had no money on us as we were wearing only bikini tops and shorts, however the situation suddenly turned rather sinister when the leader stated that he knew where we were staying and the room numbers, I argued that he could not possibly know that, but then he named the hotel and also, rather disturbingly as he had boasted, our room numbers.

This was very worrying, the only way they could know which rooms we were staying in was if the hotel people had given him that information, we did a sharp turn and started to walk back to the barbed wire into the hotel grounds, they followed us bating us but we walked on staunchly.

On the way we also saw a policeman, he had a gun on him and was clearly supposed to be ‘guarding’ the beach, however as we walked by him we witnessed a man offering him money, which was obviously a bribe, the policeman took the cash and then disappeared, this was not very reassuring and sadly from day one of our arrival we decided that the beach was not a safe place to be.

The barbed wire beach

The barbed wire beach

It was a real shame.

We did venture out onto the beach one more time, I really wanted my hair to be braided and so decided to brave it once more to the beach where the local women who had advertised in the hotel were said to be at 10am each day, sure enough they were there so we headed to them and I asked for them to braid my hair.

Hazel did not want hers done, so I sat down while the local women began to plat my hair into tiny strands,it was neither relaxing or comfortable though, instead it was painful as they had to plat the braids very tightly right to the scalp and as they platted we were once again joined by the gang of men who had harassed us on the beach the day before.

This time one of them came and sat beside me, he spoke in perfect English about how rich we were in comparison to the local people there and that we should gladly give our money to them, I attempted to have a conversation about how it was all relative, but it fell on death ears and he began to get angry with me, he took out a cigarette lighter from his pocket, held it to my hair and threatened to light it if I did not buy a necklace off the local women.

Needless to say I bought the necklace.

So far, I have painted a bleak picture of the Gambia, this is not the case, I can recall looking around me and seeing the most beautifully coloured exotic birds, I am not a birder, nor can I pretend to be, however I can fully appreciate the sheer number of species in the Gambia, according to local guide Dawda Barry basede at Kotu Creek Bridge there are around 500 species of birds and if you put the time in, can see up to 300 new species in a week, this seems incredible yet so exciting.

Following the experience of the beach gang and then the threatened hair burning, my friend and I had spent much of our time in the confines of the hotel gardens, not very adventurous, however these gardens were an absolute paradise full of beautiful birds, reptiles and amphibians, the plants were green and lush, the flowers exotic bright reds and pinks, just stunning, it was no hardship to stay there.

That very day another incident happened when a couple, who were on Honeymoon, came back to the hotel to say that they had been mugged, they were very shaken and would not leave the grounds after that.

However, I was determined not to be a prisoner of fear, so booked a ‘safe’ trip out to Janjanbureh Camp near Georgetown in the central river region of the Niamina East District, its Colonial name was Sir Charles MacCarthy and we set out very early in the morning 04:30am when it was still dark when we arrived at the river to sail down it and watch the wildlife. It was wonderful, we were in a small rowing boat with a man called ‘Moonlight’ he was a gentle soul with a lilting Caribbean accent and his knowledge on the wildlife, and indeed spotting it, was second to none.

As it got light the sky changed from inky black to indigo, to brown, to red to orange, it was quite remarkable to see and a dawn that I will never forget, the trip out was so relaxing and felt wonderful to sit in the rowing boat where all you hear are the sounds of the birds and Moonlight as he rowed as the water gently lapped over the oars.

It had been a day of bliss, however on the way back it was not quite so blissful as we taxied through a village where people were throwing fire bombs across the road, I was pretty anxious about this given that the car was full of potentially explosive petrol, however the driver seemed to think it was the ‘norm’ and continued on, saying calmly, duck here, duck here, which we duly did, all was well and we got back in one piece and celebrated back at the hotel where there was a buffet evening of the finest delicacies accompanied by Rum.

Oddly at night some strange things did happen which were slightly disconcerting, the phone in my room would ring and on answering it you could hear someone breathing but there was no answer to my questioning ‘hellos’ my friend Hazel had the same thing happen and we both found it a little sinister as though someone was calling to see if the rooms were occupied, potential robbers perhaps or just someone having a game with the tourists, either way I found it unsettling.

The next day we ventured out again, this time taking a taxi to Kachikally Crocodile Pool, in Gambia Crocodiles are seen as sacred as the people of Gambia believe that they hold the power to fertility in women, in this pit area there are 78 adult Nile Crocodiles which live in the larger water pool and bask in the hot sun on the bank, you can climb down to stroke one of the older, tamer ones if you dare, I was desperate to climb down and have a go, so down I went.

It is just a crumbly, muddy embankment which I climbed down and then walked towards a large crocodile who was sunbathing, he was very majestic and I started to stroke him, his scales were hard and spiky feeling, it felt such a privilege to be this close to one, I was the only person down there, but I was quite happy.

That is, until a large crocodile suddenly came out of the water and took an active interest in me, in fact it headed straight towards me, there was an Australian guy up on the bank who started shouting at me to move and come back up, but I was transfixed by this thing and seemed unable to move, luckily this man came down and literally grabbed me and led me back up out of the pit, I was very glad he had done that, as I honestly do not think I would have moved, crocodiles have always provided me with a strange, almost hypnotic, fascination.

I still have two legs.

The next day we stayed around the hotel and went to the Observatory to see the planets, well Hazel went, unfortunately I was suffering from a sickness bug and had been projectile vomiting for most of the evening, I eventually recovered but missed the stars and planets which was most disappointing. However the evening was not lost as we met a group of guys from NASA, they were interesting to talk to and had many stories to tell us and the evening was passed around a camp fire with rum and good stories.

We only saw them that evening for the next morning we were due to fly home, we packed and took a taxi back to the airfield where there were two wooden tables and guards checking luggage, we were called to a table each and told to empty out all the contents of our back packs.

The man who was checking mine was very grim faced, he spoke perfect English and made it very obvious that he thought we had drugs on us, we did not.

He went through everything, even squeezing out my toothpaste from its tube, I started to protest and say that we would miss the plane but he did not care, he seemed intent on ‘finding something one me’ it seemed, or certainly felt that way.

Then something really great happened, the guys from NASA showed up, they had come to see us off, I thought that was a great gesture since we had only shared some stories around the fire the night before, yet they had made the effort to come and see us off, when I walked over to Tom to thank him, he expressed that they knew we would face these problems upon leaving as we did not have men with us,so that had come to make sure we were ok.

I was extremely grateful to them for that and relieved also as the man who was strategically and pedantically checking through my things suddenly stopped and stuffed everything back into my back pack gesturing for me to go, upon seeing the guys he had totally changed tack and we were free to leave and board the waiting plane.

I would like to say that I enjoyed the Gambia, but I did not enjoy the feeling of threat that seemed to be with us all the way through the trip, if it had not been for the guys from NASA I believe that we would have missed our flight out and that those men were going to detain us just to be awkward, it is one of those things but nonetheless it stays in the memory.

However, Moonlight was a wonderful, gentle local man who I will remember fondly, the beauty of the area and the abundance of wildlife was very impressive, perhaps I will go back one day, I hope that the tourist areas become safer and that relations between the beach gangs and tourists softens and I believe that over time, they will.

Up and coming trips:

Up and coming trips:

2016 – BURMA: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF MY FATHER – I am currently researching the Royal Berkshire Regiment as my father was stationed with them as a soldier back in the 1940’s, he told me many interesting stories which I would like to incorporate into the write up as well as tracking where they went and trekking those areas.

ALSO a possible follow up trip to MADAGASCAR with the team who I met out there formerly, this time instead of the North we will explore the South!

2017 – INDONESIA: THE LIFE OF KOMODO DRAGONS – I have been sketching out ideas for a possible trip to Indonesia to film and observe the behaviour of the Prehistoric looking Komodo Dragons, in 2017 there will also be an Eclipse, I initially thought that this would be a good time to go, however it may attract a large number of tourist, which would defeat the object for me as I prefer quiet times with wildlife and off the beaten track, so will be looking into this further.

EXPLORERS GUIDES (Part 1 How to Travel Safely in Rainforests)

Explorers Guide

Part 1 How to Travel Safely in Rain forests

When embarking on any adventure it is essential to have an awareness of the area you are travelling to and a backup plan in place in case things go wrong, which, more often than not, they can do.

Firstly, where are you going? What type of trip are you taking? What is the weather like there, the terrain, the wildlife to be aware of….. and the list goes on, however it is essential to have some of this knowledge before you embark on such a venture.

Lets look at Rain forests in this piece, the planet is a fascinating place to explore and Rain forests for me personally are the ultimate in looking for insects to photograph, which is one of my passions, however it is very wise to know where you are setting foot, so here are some notes that I hope will help.

Top Tips for visiting Rain forests
This advice is more for hiking through dense forest based on experience; however, I hope it will be valuable as a general guide also.

Monsoon Season – The word monsoon comes from the Arabic language “mausim”, meaning season, always research and find out when the rainy seasons are before you make any firm plans, here is a quick guide to some here:

South American Rain forests – The Amazon has two seasons consisting of the monsoon and the dry, the rainy season runs from December to June and it can rain for short bursts during April and May. The dry season runs from July through to November, there is less rain, although of course showers are still possible, which is why we refer to it as a rain forest.

Central American Rain forests – The Rainy season in Costa Rica runs from May through to November/December while the Dry season runs from December through to April. The hotter sunshiny months are from March to May and the cooler months of the year are from November through to January.

South East Asia – The Rain forests of Southeast Asian have four different seasons consisting of the winter northeast monsoon, the summer southwest monsoon and two inter monsoon seasons. The Northeast monsoon season runs from November to March with steady winds from the North and Northeast that blow from 10 to 30 knots. These winds originate all the way from Siberia creating severe weather such as Typhoons which are the Southern Hemisphere’s version of Hurricanes. The East coasts of the Southeast Asian islands get very heavy rainstorms during this time and the Southwest monsoon season is from late May to September where the winds do not blow as hard and the weather is a little drier. The seasons are continuously hot and humid with very little seasonal variation in temperature, it is really only the wind and the rains which are changeable.

Australias – There are four seasons in Australia with a main wet and dry season in the tropical north, the summer season runs from December to February, Autumn runs from March to May, Australia’s wintertime runs from June to August and Spring in Australia is from September to November.
In tropical Australia, the dry season is from May to October with clear blue skies daily and the wet season runs from December to March, which is hot and humid with daily rainstorms.

Vaccinations – Make sure that you see your GP and get updated on what inoculations you may need for the area you are going to be staying in, do not underestimate the wildlife and getting bitten either, I thought I would never get bitten until a Monkey jumped on me when I was in Cambodia and bit me 4 times, it happens, be prepared for any eventuality, better to be safe than sorry.

Dress  – Cover up as much as possible, long sleeves, long trousers, wellingtons or good walking boots with long socks (over the trousers, sunhat, good quality sunglasses)

Hat – This is common sense but wearing a hat is essential to prevent sunstroke

Good walking boots or Wellingtons – Highly important as trails can get very slippery

The Colour Blue – Avoid the colour blue as much as possible as mosquitoes are attracted to blue

Vitamin B12 – there is some suggestion that taking this supplement can act as a repellent to mosquitoes, though I have not found this to be make any difference in the forest/swamp areas

Malarone tablets – Please be sure to take Malarone as this is a Malaria area and if you go into the forests near water you will bet bitten regardless of long sleeves and deet

Deet – If you take Deet be very careful around any photographic equipment as it is known to melt plastics, etc. it will also damage clothes, other things can be used such as citronella, marmite, though covering up clothes wise is also a good idea, beware though as mosquitoes bite through clothing

Pain Killers – It is a good idea to take pain killers as headaches are common in some of the higher altitude areas (If you fly to Ecuador it is likely you may encounter some headaches so keep drinking plenty of water to keep hydrated – avoid alcohol in the daytime if hiking as it will dehydrate you)

Imodium melts – Essential for any stomach upsets, these are extremely fast working

Rehydration Sachets – I recommend adding a sachet daily to your water if you go trekking through the forests as you will lose a great deal of water through perspiration, drink as much water as you can.

Mosquito nets – These should be provided at any Jungle lodges, however it is a good idea to check with them and always take one if not, especially if you will be camping in the forests, your life will be hell without a net to protect you from Mosquitoes, nets are also a handy deterrent in forming a barrier to prevent other unwanted imposters creeping in with you, such as scorpions and spiders, getting too close to you.

Anti-sickness tablets – Take the best you can find, sickness bugs can occur often in this area, dry biscuits help and keep hydrated with plenty of bottled water

Antihistamine cream for insect bites – When we get bitten, more often than not we get an allergic reaction which makes our skin itch like mad, this is due to our antibodies rushing in to protect us against insect saliva that has been injected into us. Histamine triggers an immune response to attack the insect saliva also encouraging white blood cells which can cause swelling and itchiness, Antihistamine cream for bites is essential in calming it down.

It is also a good idea to apply ice to the area and make sure it is kept clean and free of infection, try not to scratch the bites, hard though this is, calamine lotion will help to keep itching at bay also.

Anti-Bacterial hand gel – This is mighty useful when you are out and about, you will use it much more than you ever imagined that you would, small and easy to store in your backpack.

Binoculars – It is essential to take Binoculars if you want to see anything close up, for example monkeys and birds are often quite a distance away up in the canopy – keep an eye out for Sloths hanging from the treetops high in the canopy too.

Camera Equipment – If you can take an SLR camera with a good all round lens (18-200mm) for general walkabout ‘on the go’ shots, long zoom lens (highly recommend 300mm or 500mm) for monkeys, sloths, etc. and a good quality macro lens (recommend 105mm) for any insects, frogs, flowers, etc.

Camping – If camping out in hammocks, please ensure you are fully covered in mosquito netting firstly for protection against mosquitoes and secondly to prevent Brazilian wandering spiders crawling in with you, these spiders are lethal capable of shutting down the nervous system in 4 hours only, so please always use netting if sleeping out.

Ants – These are not to be under-estimated, there are large armies of ants that can cover the ground (and your legs) very quickly, you can often hear a ‘hissing sound’ when they are on the move, if there is no other way around run through them quickly and then shake your legs! Always cover up as much as possible with long socks and at least ankle high boots, wellingtons are ideal or if you choose walking boots then try gators as well, though these are hot to wear, protection is good in these areas.

Bullet Ants – These large ants can often be found on branches and also on rope bridges, although it is tempting to grab hold of branches when hiking or the rope bridges when walking across, go careful as a sting from one of these ants is extremely painful and a similar pain level to being shot, hence the name

Stinging Plants – If trekking through forest try not to touch plants, there are stinging plants in the area and also be careful not to grab a branch as a bullet any may bite

 Scorpions – Always cover wellington boots/any footwear with socks at night to prevent a scorpion crawling in (I got very a nasty sting for not doing this one day, they love dark, warm places)

Spiders – Most spiders you come across are totally harmless, there are many huge Orb weaver webs about, but these spiders are fine. Tarantulas tend to live in burrows or you can sometimes find them in upturned pitcher plants where they make little homes, they are fascinating to watch, to tempt one out of its burrow just use a stick and touch the end of the burrow, the spider should soon react and come out.

Hiking – It is a good idea to walk slowly or at a steady pace and wear boots at all times in the forest for protection against ants and also snakes, most snakes if startled will slither away, however the Fer de Lance will attack and has no fear

Snake Bites - Know your snakes, learn as many as you can, buy guides on them or check on the internet for snakes in the particular area you are visiting, you will see them, many are harmless but it is good to know which are which. Should you be unlucky enough to get a snake bite, try to take a photograph of the snake so that it can be identified for the correct antidote, be careful of Fer de Lance snakes as these have no fear of humans and rather than slipping away, will confront you. These snakes have a fatal bite that without an antidote will shut down your immune system and kill a human in just 4 hours.

Swimming – Always check before swimming, I have swam with piranhas and electric eels before however there were large caiman crocodiles in the water too, be very careful around these, I would recommend staying out of the water if you can unless there is no other way to cross it

Monkeys – Go careful when walking near monkeys, some will throw large branches, mangoes and coconuts as you pass through their territory if on foot, warning signs are when they scream and bare their teeth, move away as quietly and quickly as you can if they show this behaviour, I have had some very narrow escapes from coconuts and large branches thrown at me when photographing Monkeys in the canopy, a blow to the skull with a coconut can kill.

Exploration – Try to use a local guide if you are walking through forest, if like me you prefer to go alone, always use the cross stick method (find sticks and leave them in little crosses on the trail – this has got me out of trouble many times, it is easy to get lost in the forests, even stepping two metres in thick forest can make you lose your way off an obscure trail.)

Insects – Metallic Beetles, Butterflies and Dragonflies are extraordinarily beautiful and you do not have to go far to see them, if you stop at one bush you will find an abundance of colourful insects, though many also use their camouflage to survive, as you walk through the forest hundreds of hidden eyes will be watching you

Tree Frogs – These brightly coloured little frogs can be found inside pitcher plants and also on damp bark, old logs on the forest floor and amongst leaf litter, if you use a long stick or branch you can gently disturb the leaf litter you will see them jump out

Canoes – Avoid putting your hands in the water when in a canoe, caiman crocs live in those waters! (I once stood up to take a photograph and a huge adult caiman leaped out of the water at me narrowly missing biting my elbow! This adult caiman had been following the canoe, I never stood up again after that)

ENJOY IT!!!– Despite all my words of warning the rain forest is a stunningly beautiful place, full of fauna and flora the like of which you will see nowhere else, do not be put off from all the warnings, if you can spend some quiet time in the forest you will see much more than you ever expected. Large touristy groups of people trudging through the forest will scare most of the wildlife away; whereas a quiet walk is always far more rewarding. As well as looking for things, ‘listen’ to all the sounds of the forest, birds, amphibians and insects…..at certain times especially dawn and dusk it is like being at a concert of natural sounds. Fireflies and glow worms can be seen at night in the forest and light it up like green fairies, you will also see ‘fluorescent fungi’ which lights up a darkened forest, in fact the fungi in general is all rather stunning so keep an eye out for that too. If you shine a torch over still water at night you should also see it light up with eye shine that looks like car headlights, these will be alligators and crocodiles in the water, if you get a large group of them it is very impressive to see. Good luck and enjoy your trip.

Forest Vines

The Headhunters of Borneo; a look at their traditions, religions and struggle for power

A brief look at the Headhunters of Borneo
By Amanda King


“There is only one sort of rule in jungle warfare, do not be smelt before you are heard, do not be heard before you are seen and below all, do not be seen”

Major Tom Harrison

Skull

Skull

I have read and heard stories about Head Hunters and have always had a rather macabre fascination with them, but it was not until I travelled to Borneo this year that I actually got to speak to someone from an old Head Hunting Tribe and consequently this rekindled my interest.

The man I met was called Mebo from the Dusun Tribe and he explained to me a little about the old traditions and how they used to hunt heads for many reasons but mainly, according to him, in order to win respect, show their strength and be deemed suitable for marriage.

The Tribe kept the last skull and to this day regularly sacrifice a chicken in a special ceremony to summon up the spirit, which they believe lives on inside the skull. By offering up the blood of the chicken, Mebo explained that this will keep the spirit happy and the skull ‘healthy’ in preventing it from going white and cracking, much like a fragile egg would.

The Tribe name ‘Dusun’ was made more popular by the British Colonials who latched on to the term from the Brunei Malaysian people, the word was used to describe farmers who had a piece of land with fruit and orchards. The Dusuns were split into many sub-tribes who lived in groups around many scattered areas, with names including the Tagahas and Bundu-liwan Tribes, both of which played a key role in the head hunting practice.

The Dusun people are sometimes also referred to as Ma’anyan or Dayak, in fact they have so many different names and sub-tribes that it can become quite confusing, for the most part of this piece I shall refer to them as Dayak.

The Tribes are said to follow Animism, which is a belief that spirits exist in certain animals and plants and even in objects such as rocks, in weather for example thunder and lightning and also geographical places, such as a mountain. In other words there is no distinction between the physical and the spiritual world.

It is an interesting outlook and one that I have come across before, while travelling in the Masai Mara in Kenya, there was a huge thunder storm and the Masai Tribe told me that they believed the Gods were angry with them, so they sacrificed some cattle to try and appease the Gods.

The Masai beliefs are very strong, as are the Dusuns, it is surely one of the things that helps to bond these Tribes together, in having a unity of beliefs and ancient traditions.

The Dayak people live up in the hills and upland valleys and trade their produce of rice and wood with the people of the coast for salted fish other goods and they are said to be peaceful people nowadays.

So where did the practice of Head Hunting for the Dayak people originate from?

From an early Dayak Tribe there was a warrior named Bungkar who came from the hills of Pahu and it is said that at the age of 13 he travelled to a place called Sayap to learn the art of sword fighting; he stayed there for three whole years to master the skill.

After he had finished his training he returned to Pahu and suggested the Tribe move to an area called Tambunan where there was plenty of rich land, always in search of better land they agreed and once they had all moved and settled Bungkar built them a fortress as a form of protection and inserted sharp, wooden stakes all around it to fend off any unwanted intruders.

The rich land of this sought after valley also attracted other Tribes and so next the Tagahas (meaning the strong) moved on to the land, but all thoughts of living peacefully side by side were soon to be disrupted as the Tagahas robbed Bungkars home for his valuable Buffalo.

It is said that the men were put into a deep sleep by “pinjodop” a pagan prayer that induces this sleep and the women were hypnotised by the pagan charm known as “pilubok” which allegedly made them willing to hand over the buffaloes and other livestock to the charmer.

Although non-violent, this was a very underhand way of taking the stock off the Dayaks and of course their actions infuriated the Tribe.

Where Bungkar was concerned, they messed with the wrong man.

Bungkar the newly trained sword fighter was incensed at the robbery so he gathered up a group of men and went after them discovering that they were hiding out waiting for nightfall to move the stolen cattle by moonlight. In using the same charms that the Tagahas had used on them the Dayaks managed to get the livestock back and were on their way back home, however the Tagahas then gave chase and Bungkar made good use of his sword fighting skills by killing five men.

This changed their old ways of fighting with the use of sleep charms as it was replaced with the brutal yet instantaneously effective head hunting in this lawless area.

What sealed this act of violence was when a neutral band of people called the Kososoluon tried to call the peace between the tribes by putting a new rule in place to protect women and children from being harmed, therefore all women and children of the Tagahas or Bundu-liwan Tribes were to carry a green branch wherever they went as a sign of neutrality.

However, the Tagahas opted to ignore this rule by waiting for some girls from the Bundu-liwan tribe to walk by on their way home and attacking them, during which a man named Sambatang beheaded Bungkars sister, Soria.

Bungkar was heartbroken by this and went straight out on a hunt to find Sambatang and beheaded him to avenge his sister, he also beheaded a virgin from the Tagahas tribe with a name similar to his sisters, called Toria.

Back with his people, Bungkar was celebrated for his bravery and defending the Tribe, Torias head was boiled and the brains were shared out for the men to eat to keep the spirit of Head Hunting alive, they believed this would bring great luck to their village and all who lived in it.

Allegedly some hours after this event there was a volcanic eruption which affected the sunlight in the area making it appear darker, the tribe believed it to be due to the Gods being angry and so peace came once more, but only for 15 years. The ritual of head hunting was also outlawed by British and Dutch Colonists at the turn of the century as they thought it barbaric, however it was to return in all its glory in WWII.

WWII held all sorts of challenges for all involved but of course depending on location there would be some additional foreign trials to contend with, such as for the airmen who parachuted into the jungles of Borneo where Tribes with poisoned blowpipes hunted.

These soldiers would have to endure unseen enemies including the heat of the dense jungle, fevers and diseases, insect, scorpion and snake bites and now also the Tribes who would be watching them before the soldiers even had any idea that they were there.

During the Japanese occupation of Borneo many horrific atrocities of war took place where the Japanese tortured, raped and killed their captives and even though the Dayaks had a violent past, they were appalled at all that was going on and naturally wanted to protect their own people.

Author Judith Heimann became interested in the story of some soldiers who survived a plane crash and on reading the diaries of these soldiers she wrote the book The Airmen and the Headhunters which also became a documentary, it is a fascinating account of how the head hunters sympathised with US soldiers against the Japanese and also how this event encouraged a Tribe to return to their old ways of Head Hunting.

On November 16th 1944 a B24 Aircraft with 11 US airmen on board crashed into the jungle and this incident had a surprising reaction from a Tribe of Dayaks who protected the airmen from the Japanese, risking their lives in the process but also at the same time returning to their old ways of headhunting.

Radio operator Dan Illerich wrote a diary detailing how the plane got into trouble and how he parachuted out of the craft and landed in the jungle with co-airman Bombardier Phil Corran landing right by him, the two of them were bewildered, not knowing where they were and it took them some time to figure out what to do.

The Jungle, Borneo

The Jungle, Borneo

Meanwhile, two young boys from the Dayak Tribe, Ganang Laban and Kapung Balang, saw thick black smoke in the sky and watched as the plane came down in to the jungle and some of the Tribe set out to try and find the plane, which took several days walking through dense jungle.

Dan and Phil were sitting on the side of a river on a muddy bank resting but had an overwhelming feeling that they were being watched and on looking up suddenly saw the native Tribe across the river with bows and arrows looking on.

One man from the Tribe began to cross the river and the others followed, the two airmen stood up feeling fearful for their lives and not knowing what would happen next, but then one of the Tribesmen spotted their badges and recognised that they were USA airmen and so the bewildered soldiers were suddenly and surprisingly welcomed.

There were two reasons for this.

The first was that back in the 1930s some American missionary’s had come to Borneo and had converted some of the Dayaks to Christianity, the Dayaks got used to them being around and grew fond of them. However, the happy arrangement was not to last when the Japanese came and had the USA missionary’s rounded up and killed, a man called John Wilfinger was their favourite and even though he willingly gave himself up the Japanese beheaded him anyway.

Not only this, the Japanese had been slaughtering women, children and babies which the Dayaks despised them for, the Japanese also stalked the women of the Tribes and this angered them even further.

So for this reason the USA airmen were taken in and welcomed as one of their own, the Dayaks took the two survivors to their longhouse and gave them food and water and then the next day took them to a shelter deep in the jungle where two more of their crew (one of which was blind from the crash) were hiding out in a lean to, flight engineer Jim Nock and Nose Gunner Eddie.

The Dayaks kept them successfully hidden for 6 weeks.

Japanese soldiers who were stationed near the area were relying on a man called William Mahkahona who ran the area for them, although he was forced by the Japanese to tell about the plane, his loyalties also lay with his own people and the US airmen, so he strove to protect them.

William helped to keep them hidden from the Japanese who were now making their way through the jungle in search of any survivors, however the Japanese knew that the were being lied to by William and the other Dyaks and so they confiscated food and killed the livestock as punishment.

An English eccentric and anthropologist who knew Borneo called Major Tom Harrisson was flown into the area with some men to help rescue the US soldiers and once there he re-endorsed head hunting, approving its return in order to kill as many Japanese as possible..He then whipped up an army of willing Dayaks and together they fought to clear the Japanese out of their area and make it safe for the native inhabitants.

The Dayaks did not need much encouragement, they were so angry about the constant harassment and attacks of the women that they hatched a plan to get rid of the Japanese soldiers in their area and used the women as bait to lure the Japanese in, the women stood bathing in the river near their area and beckoned to the soldiers. As the mesmerised and now somewhat distracted Japanese took to the water wading in to reach the women, the Dayaks descended using their blowpipes to poison the Japanese before returning to their old ways once again of beheading them.

According to Dan Illerich, the Dayaks invited their guest US soldiers to a Head Hunters ritual and so they had an evening of listening to brass gongs chiming out repetitive yet melodic tunes and watching the tribal dances as the heads of the dead Japanese were washed, dried and then smoked over a fire. This part of the ritual was essential as the Dayaks believed it would protect their villages and longhouses and bring good luck to their crops.

The Japanese also have the taking of heads in their culture stemming right back to the Samurai when they would take a head and present it as a trophy to their General who would often reward them by riches or status, which of course served only to encourage more of it and in Borneo the Japanese were cutting off the heads of their victims.

Three more of the airmen from the crash were found and they had also been protected by Dayaks, so they were extremely fortunate to have had these men on their side, the empathy from these head hunters showed a softer side, proving that they were not just heartless savages, but instead people who were often pushed to protect themselves.

Major Harrisson had proved to be a key figure in getting the end result and after the Dayaks had fought and killed the Japanese clearing the area, the Major arranged for a runway to be built out of bamboo and laid down to enable a plane to descend and take the USA surviving soldiers home.

In 2001 the be-headings began openly again during the Sampit conflict of violence between the Dayaks who were indigenous and the Madurese who had migrated there, it was a horrifying ethnic cleansing by the Dayaks and many Madurese were beheaded and the heads banded about for all to see.

It seems that this ancient ritual is not so far off in the past nowadays with the Tribes of Borneo and of course with other cultures around the World, such as the Iraqis. Sadly beheading is now something quite familiar to our society as we are seeing it regularly in the News and reading about it in newspapers, stretching out its grim, icy hand it has reached the far corners of the World, yet still it does not fail to shock the general public……and rightly so in my opinion.

Amanda King