Betwixt and Between

One year ago I spent a month as a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, where focused on essay writing. This essay about open ocean sailing was written while at the center, in response to fellow resident’s question.

Read this essay as it appeared in the October 2018 issue of Cruising World Magazine. (pdf download)

It was also performed live at Liars’ League Hong Kong, watch the video here.

Leaving without a fixed destination to arrive to an uncertain welcome. That is why I sail.

It’s the first thing I tell landlubbers who ask, “What is it like, to sail across an ocean in a small boat?”

I could describe the long, loping swell of the deep ocean. The black, moonless nights when the darkness chokes my mind. The curl of blue bioluminescence on a breaking wave. The way a new dawn paints the deck candy floss pink. I could describe the welling of joy when dolphins appear and the secrets we share. But I always begin with the thrill of leaving port.

My port clearance is a precious document, the paper clearing boat and crew of debts and warrants and unpaid bar tabs, free to leave without obligation to say where we will come to rest. A zarpe, outbound clearance, a chit that sets you free. The thrill of limbo when I travel without destination sets my imagination afloat.

I aim my boat into blue waters, seeking wind and way. A month of waves may kiss my keel, then, just miles from port, I gybe away. To another coast, a friendlier nation, somewhere downwind from here. Perhaps I’ll never return, never arrive, betwixt and between, alone at sea. I’ll sail in circles, north to the pole, south to the ice, east and then west until land stands in the way. I could if I wanted to.

When the wind blows hard from the north, we aim for Yemen rather than Oman. When our water runs low we stop in Alaska on our way to Japan. If the sailing is good I’ll pass New Zealand and aim straight for Tahiti.

It isn’t always so, this ticket to eternal noncommittal freedom. If you are port hopping in an island nation, or skipping down a nation’s coast, authorities may ask your destination. But when you raise your sail to cross the Atlantic Ocean, The Arabian Sea, crossing a great expanse to a land far away, you wave farewell and slip away into a world between nations, free of borders, free of customs, duties and right of abode.

Tell me, where else can you wander like this? Which train carries you across a border without two nations, one to exit, one to enter? No airliner takes off without a destination on your boarding pass. Roads that lead to the fronterra cross to the other side.

But not when I go to sea.

“Don’t you get bored, day after day with nothing new to do or see?” the landlubbers ask.

Bored? No. Never. I’m too engrossed in the blue soul of the Indian Ocean, light shot through it like a drift of silver filings. The fear that punches through the bottom of my belly when I look aft and see a grey wave, two, three stories high, with anger in its face. The brilliant flash of metal and blue, streaks of yellow, as a tuna hits the lure. Hand over hand, in it comes, the first fresh food of the voyage.

There’s too much work, helming hour after hour, trimming, changing sails. An inch of ease for a tenth of speed. Or making repairs, jury-rigging when you don’t have spares. Baking bread, cooking dinner, cleaning the head.

My father, an old farmer, came aboard my boat. Never sailed, never cruised, a life spent working hard. He knew nothing of the sea. I was proud, showing him my world. And I waited, wanting a hand on the shoulder saying, son, you’ve done well. Nothing. A silent, critical eye.

“So Dad, what do you think of sailing?”

“Seems like an awful lot of work to go real slow.”

I couldn’t argue. The whole point is to go real slow, to appreciate the subtle shifts of scene. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the sea. Every cloud that passes creates a new blue, new grey, new frothy white cap on the wave. Sometimes there are thrills, a squall that makes us long for home. A whale, a school of dolphins showing us the way. But even without, even if it’s calm, we’re still sailing in a kaleidoscope of shifting shape and light. The setting sun on a clean horizon, the masthead light joining Orion. Darkness so deep it’s hard to stay on your feet. Watching the stars revolve, picking a new one to point the way. Then the dawn. Oh, the dawn. First a tinge of grey, then blues and pinks and tangerine light. The white decks glow, waves and wind that frightened in the night pushed back by the light. If I show you the dawn of open sea you will love me. You’ll know what’s for real.

And then, a few weeks in, someone gets lucky on their watch.

“Land! I think I see land!”

A dark smudge on the horizon turns into mountains, beaches and trees and sand. An excitement takes hold. We clean, we shower, we put the ship in order, we work even harder.

Port of Aden, Dutch Harbour, Port of Jamestown, Pond Inlet, Galle, Salalah. Ports and not marinas, not moored next to superyachts and motor cruisers, but ships of war and coastal barges, the grit and grim of a working harbour. The docks are painted with tar, the water streaked with oil. This is not the country’s best face. But it’s where we arrive, alongside working men and foreign cargos, by the kitchen door. Others, less fortunate I’d say, are disgorged into shiny halls, then a taxi and a hotel in a predictable order. We hoist our yellow flag, a declaration of quarantine, inviting corrupt officials to board.

“Perhaps you have a gift for me? Ah thank you, but my brother, he likes Marlboros too.”

Our first requests are fuel and water and is there a sailmaker in this port? And once she’s secure, the papers signed and bilge inspected, we step ashore.

A cold beer, that day’s newspaper, a meal that’s fresh and green. A walk about town, perhaps a souvenir. And then I begin to wonder, what does the forecast say, when will the wind blow and get us out of here?

Buying into my Mennonite roots

Read this essay as it appeared in the February 22, 2018 The Globe and Mail newspaper.

Dad’s raspy 87-year-old voice was filled with relief that this last bit of business was taken care of. But I also heard uncertainty, a tinge of seller’s regret, over the telephone.

“He’s agreed to the price and it’s a done deal,” Dad said, his voice muffled by half a world of telegraphic cable. “That’s it. That was my last piece of farmland.”

I was in Hong Kong when I received his call, a long way from Canadian land that he himself broke and turned into grain fields. The fields where my siblings and I learned to put in an honest day’s work, the cornerstone of our family farm on the Prairies. The land that had defined him as a Mennonite man, one chapter in our culture’s long history of buying wilderness and turning it into productive farmland. Selling his land meant he was exiting the cut-and-thrust of agri-business. It meant he no longer had a seat at the table when talk turned to crops and taxes, government subsidies and drainage plans.

When Dad bought half the half section, 320 acres we always called Section 10, it’s designation according to the Dominion Land Survey in the 1800s, it was mostly old-growth tamarack and spruce and the ground was covered in luxuriant moss. It was home to bears and bobcats, wolves and wild that would take years conquer. There were no proper roads leading to it, and just beyond it lay mile after thousands of miles of wilderness. It was low-lying peat and prone to flooding. The land was cheap because it was beyond the fringe of civilisation, part of a new agricultural frontier in Manitoba’s Interlake region. The government offered Dad favourable financing terms because he was a young man eager to help build Canada’s agricultural industry, to tame the nation’s vast expanse.

Grainy black and white photos in our family album show him and my mother, fresh faced and smiling as they began carving a farm out of the forest in the early 1950s. They were in their early 20s, poor but filled with the thrill of prospect. It was a grand adventure to them. One picture shows them resting in waist-deep snow while cutting down the pine forest to make room for their first crops, another has Dad on a borrowed bulldozer, pushing brush into long windrows for burning. Then there’s the photo of him standing in his first crop of barley, which grew as high as his chest but couldn’t hide his beaming smile.

“Ahh, those were hard times,” he says when he sees the pictures. “We worked so hard, because we wanted to build something, to have our own farm. That land was everything to us.”

Sold. Sold to someone I’d grown up with, a farmer who will take good care of it, but still, Section 10 is gone. We knew it was coming — he tried for many years to convince my brothers and I to buy it. But none of us wanted this particular piece of land.

Most of my family still lives in Manitoba. I’m the one that has moved farthest away. When we gather near the farm we grew up on, and the heavy Sunday lunch has been consumed, the men pile into pick-up trucks and go for a drive down the rutted dirt roads circling Section 10. It’s always only the men — because land and crops is a man’s game. At least in a Mennonite’s mind it is. We drive and tell stories about picking roots and long hours on the tractor.

“Ohh, do you remember this corner of the field, the roots that we had to pick here?” one of my brothers asks. The truck slows down so we can get a closer look.

“We’d pick them and burn them, and every year the frost pushed up a fresh crop,” another brother adds.

One person driving the tractor, slowly pulling a flat bed trailer. The others walking behind, sinking deep into the soft peat, picking up the remains of the forest and hurling the roots onto the trailer. When the trailer was full we dumped the roots into piles and burned them. Rock picking wasn’t much different — just heavier to lift and harder to dispose of. Hour after hour of hard work, the earthy smell of the land permeating our hands and clothes, the dirt hiding thick in our hair.

“Child labour. That’s what that was.” Everyone laughs.

Dad squirms in his seat. “Ahh, it wasn’t so bad. And there was no other way, if you boys didn’t work hard the farm wouldn’t keep going.”

“We’d clear the fields of roots and rocks, and then it would rain too much and the fields would flood,” one of my brothers continues.

“It was all we had. We had do the best with what we had,” Dad says.

The stories are always about the struggle, the fight against nature. There were no easy gains made on Section 10. And that’s why none of the brothers bought the land. We wanted nothing more to do with land that required such hard labour. The land was important to our family history but owning it would put nostalgia above smart investment, and none of us could afford such costly sentiments.

Yet owning farm land is central to Mennonite identity. It spells security and stability and, most importantly, independence. Menno Simons, the radical 15th-century religious leader for whom the Mennonites are named, never called on his followers to own land. Nowhere is it written that Mennonites must buy and break land. But the faith’s key tenets of isolationism and simple living were translated into practicing agriculture in remote regions, places raw and wild enough that we could do as we pleased. So, for a Mennonite man, land means you don’t owe nothing to nobody. It means you’re your own man.

Mennonites like to tell stories about how we have moved from country to country to escape religious persecution, to find freedom to live the old way. But, truthfully, the moves are often about finding new land. And Mennonites are thrifty. Swampy land that needs draining can be had for cheap, and all it takes is hard work to turn it profitable.

Perhaps we’re influenced by our earliest roots in the Low Countries, where holding water at bay was a matter of survival. In the mid-16th century those skills earned us an invitation to settle, en masse, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. We dug ditches and built dikes, creating an agricultural haven. Then Catharine the Great invited us to move to southern Russia, promising us good land. We accepted, and took a break from our ditch-digging to farm wheat and silk worms on the well-drained steppes.

In 1874 my great-grandfather moved from Russia to Canada in the first wave of Mennonites to colonise the Prairies. He settled in the Red River Valley, where he needed those diking skills again. The Red regularly breaks free of its banks, overfilled with spring melt. In Rosenort, the diked village where both of my parents grew up, the farmers hold their breath every spring, watching the river rise, rejoicing when it doesn’t flood and resigned when it does. We’ve done it in southern Mexico, Belize, all the way down to Paraguay and Bolivia. On a topographical map, many Mennonite settlements are located in deep green territories, where the land dips and water gathers, places the cartographers mark with cross hatchings.

Dad added another chapter to that story when he left the Red River Valley and moved north to the boggy shores of Lake Winnipeg to break virgin peat land. For Dad, digging drainage ditches became as much a part of farming as planting and harvesting, from an annual deepening of ditches already dug with the tractor to hiring heavy machinery to transform the landscape, thumbing his nose at nature. Ditches that led the water off our land and towards Lake Winnipeg. In really bad years the lake flooded, snaking up those same ditches to drown out our barley and canola. Farming the Mennonite way.

No matter how many ditches we dug, the tractors and harvesters still became stuck. My father put rice tires on the harvester — although there was no rice being grown — hoping to better churn his way across his swampy fields. To no avail.

My childhood memories of farming centre around being mired axle-deep in the fragrant peat of Section 10, the tracks filled with seepage. Deep ruts, so deep you had to scramble to climb out of them. I could think of a hundred things I’d rather be doing.

“Why are we farming here? This is the worst place in the world to farm,” I’d say, my hundredth complaint for the day as I grudgingly helped Dad work the land.

“It’s good soil, we just need to drain it better,” Dad said. He slapped at the hordes of mosquitos — ohh, there were mosquitos, big and by the thousands. He crawled through the muck under the harvester to hook a logging chain to the axle. I took the other end of the chain and dragged it towards the idling tractor, hitching the machines together with the clinking steel snake.

“Now start slow. Don’t yank it or the chain will break,” he would instruct.

I crawled into the tractor cab, twisting around in the seat to watch him on the harvester, watching his hand signals. I revved up the big diesel engine until it belched black smoke, eased out the heavy clutch so slowly that my skinny legs quivered with tension. Watching Dad, watching the harvester, the chain, a delicate dance of lumbering beasts. The chain pulled taut and then, instead of the harvester popping out of its hole, the tractor’s spinning wheels dug giant holes in the quagmire, pulling the machine deeper and deeper with every revolution.

I could see my father shouting, urgent, his lips moving but words drowned by the roar of thrashing pistons. He waved his arms for me to stop. I groaned.

“I’ll put another drainage ditch through here and then next year it will be dry,” Dad said as we unhooked the chain and repositioned the tractor on firmer ground. But it was never dry. Some years we had to wait for frost to firm up the water-logged fields before the crops could be taken off. In those years harvest became a race against the snow.

“I’m never gonna be a farmer,” I told him, more than once, as we stood knee deep in bog, working to free the machinery. I said it angrily, with vengeance.

And I stuck to my word. I moved away from the farm and the Mennonite lifestyle that the rest of my family still shared. I lived in Chicago, New York, Singapore, London and Hong Kong, moving further and further away from my Mennonite identity. I certainly didn’t attend a Mennonite church, I rarely found opportunities to speak our quirky Plattdeutsche mother tongue, and digging ditches made for good stories in the bar, but it was no longer a part of my life. I’d scrapped that muck from my shoes for good.

Then, years after I’d left and Dad had long ago accepted that I wasn’t the farmer he’d hoped I’d become, on a trip back to Manitoba to visit my family, I told Dad I had some money I wanted to invest. His eyes lit up and he leaned forward in his chair.

“Hey, there’s some land for sale near here,” he told me. “It may not go up in value as fast as those stock markets do, but it will always be there. They’re not making more land.”

The language of land — drainage, fences, good soil, stoney or not — was one I’d never learned to speak. But the idea of owning land, my very own land, still appealed to me. It appealed to the Mennonite in me. I’d thought the Mennonite in me had faded, replaced by urbane tastes and international lifestyle, so I was surprised at how his suggestion struck a chord in me. Drifting through the world’s capitals earning a living with my pen was good fun, but owning land, now that was permanence. That was long term planning, building something for the future. The advertised plot was a few miles from our family farm. It was cleared of trees, already tamed and well drained. No digging of ditches needed. It promised an easy, painless path to becoming a respectable Mennonite man.

So I bought the land with a loan from the home town credit union, a small place, where my family had banked for so long the manager still recognised my voice on the telephone. It was with great satisfaction that I took the “For Sale” sign off the gate and walked into the field for the first time.

I kicked a clod and thought, “That’s mine.” I eyed the slope towards the lake, pretending, for a moment, that I knew something about land. I had friends and family that owned thousands of acres so there was a tinge of city-boy sheepishness to my pride in owning this modest plot. I knew I was reaching back to something that wasn’t me anymore, that I had skipped some important steps. I hadn’t broken my own land, planted it with crops, let the land tether me to a place, a community, church and family that consumed me all day every day for my entire life. It wasn’t the same as what Section 10 had done for Dad. This land had not been watered by sweat from my father’s brow. It did not come with stories of hardship, work and progress. And I’d never be a real farmer like my Dad. But I did have a piece of my own land.

Solid, well drained land, and it’s not for sale.

Reading at the Vermont Studio Center

The Red Mill, the main building of the Vermont Studio Center, in the year’s first snowfall.

I’m at the Vermont Studio Center, in Johnson, VT for a month-long writing residency. The art center is based in repurposed turn-of-the-century buildings in the center of town — houses, church, grain mill, dance hall, gymnasium — all turned into studios, housing and dining hall. It’s a lovely place with about 50 residents in addition to a large community of staff artists and writers. I’m here to work on a series of essays.

Writing residents are given opportunities read their work to the community in regular readings held in the Lowe Lecture Hall, a wonderful old converted theatre. I chose to read from the manuscript of Menno Moto: A Journey in Search of Identity. It’s the first time I’ve read any of this work publicly, and I hope there will be many more readings once it gets published. You can listen to an audio recording of the reading here:

Maverick Studios, where I have been sat writing for the past month, on the banks of the Gihon River

Bradley House, my home for the past month.

Wolf Kahn Studios, filled with incredibly talented visual artists.

Dogshead Falls on the Gihon River

Series IIA

Read this story online as it ran in the South China Morning Post.

Land Rover Series IIA in Thailand

Land Rover Series IIA in Thailand

It feels like hours since we last stopped. I’m cramped from sitting hunched over in the back and my legs and arms are slippery with sweat on the vinyl seats.

“Ugh, ooofff, damn!” I grunt as we bang through a pot hole, the jolt making my spine throb. Our Land Rover Series IIA bucks like an angry bull, its suspension rigid with age after half a century on Thai roads.

“Turn right here,” I shout at Torben, who is at the wheel. The roar of knobby tires on pavement, a throbbing diesel engine and all windows open for the fresh air — the air-con died within hours of starting the trip — robs our conversation of nuances.

We jounce down a narrow dirt lane atop a dyke, with fish ponds on either side and no one else in sight.

“Where do you think this goes?” Torben asks, hunched over the wheel as he pumps the heavy clutch and drops a gear. The transmission gives a rattling snarl in reply.

“I have no idea. Let’s see.” The road ends next to a strange loading chute that is built from bamboo. There is a creek, slow and muddy, and the stench of fish. We climb out of the truck for a closer inspection.

“We should have brought our fishing gear,” Johnny crows as we stand on the river bank, breathing in the humid air, heavy with heat and stillness. Thailand can get bloody hot at times.

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My friend Torben bought the 109 inch Land Rover Series IIA in Bangkok and needed to move it to Phuket. As soon as Johnny and I heard that, we replied, in unison, “Road trip!”

Torben had never driven this Land Rover any further than around the block, so it was with some apprehension that we flew from Hong Kong to Bangkok with return tickets leaving from the other end of the country, three days later.

We weren’t clear of the Bangkok suburbs when we heard a strange rattling sound — broken bearings on the sleeper pulley for the belt driving the air-conditioner. While we were cutting the belt away — easier to get rid of the air conditioner than fix the pulley on the road — we spotted a steady drip of oil coming from the vacuum pump for the brake booster. Torben tightened the bolts a few grunts worth, topped up the oil and we cautiously set off again.

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We were on Route 4, also known as Phetkasem Road, and Google Maps predicted the trip to Phuket would cover nearly 900 kilometres, taking 13 hours. That soon became unfeasible as we repeatedly turned down side roads that added distance and time but led us through villages and farm land and down to the sea. We stopped to buy mangos and pineapple at road side stalls and steered into gravel pits and palm oil plantations.

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To be honest, I had no idea what a cross-country trip in a Series IIA would be like. I didn’t know that my neck would get stiff from slouching down to see out of the window. I didn’t know that I’d feel the bumps in the road with the top of my head. There was no way for me to understand that “let’s stop for coffee” really meant “it’s time to check the oil.” I didn’t know how it would bring smiles to the faces of the gas attendant and the guy who gave us directions late at night. I was a complete Land Rover novice.

The Land Rover was one of Torben’s fantasies. He imagined lazy days of hauling sandy kids to and from the beach, fetching lumber to complete his new home or bringing home a load of plants and gravel for the garden.

“I wanted something I could use, reliably, right away. But I also wanted something I could work on and improve,” he said.

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This truck was once owned by the owner of the Land Rover assembly plant in Thailand, where they used chassis from the UK to assemble vehicles. He sold it to the government, but his son bought it back. But then the son passed it on to a man who used it to haul a 3,000 kilogram trailer around Thailand, who sold it to Torben. Over the years, the suspension had been changed — very little improvement in my opinion — the now-defunct air-conditioning was added, along with a new alternator and an upgraded Salisbury rear axle and differential. The original engine had been swapped for a Nissan six cylinder turbo diesel, connected to a Nissan gearbox. The radiator had to be moved forward and the hood made longer to accommodate the in-line engine.

“It’s typically Land Rover but with power steering and much better seats, which gave it some luxury status,” said Johnny, who owned several 88 and 109 Series IIs in the UK over the years.

“But this seat back here is crap,” I said, pointing at my squashed legs and the puny backrest.

“That’s why I’m not sitting back there,” Johnny responded with a grin as he leaned back in his bucket seat.

Behind me was a jumble of luggage, tools and cans of oil, as well as an ice-box full of drinks. We were also carrying an extra front axle and prop shaft — when you buy an old vehicle you get the spare parts as well.

Every road trip needs at least one dodgy hotel, and ours came in Chumphon, a city surrounded by farms, right on the Gulf of Thailand. Our breakdown meant we arrived late, when the more reputable hotels were already full. What we were left with looked like a prison, with a harsh, faded facade and lumpy beds. There were no bars or restaurants in sight, so we sat on the concrete steps outside our rooms drinking beer from 1 L bottles, staring at the Land Rover parked in front of us.

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“We spent all day in that bloody thing, and now we’re sitting here, three blokes, staring at it while we’re drinking our beers,” Johnny said before going to his room. “I was hoping to find someone else to talk to besides just you guys.”

The next morning we drove west until we reached Kraburi river, which forms the border between Thailand and Myanmar on the Kra Isthmus of the Malay Peninsula. Myanmar was just a stone’s throw away on the other side of the narrow river. We followed the river south to its wide estuary, filled with thick mangrove forests, ending up in the gritty river town of Ranong for lunch.

Route 4 is peppered with waterfalls — beautiful when there’s water, but as we made our trip Thailand was in the midst of a drought, and the waterfalls were dry. But the temples were still there, as were the national parks and innumerable small roadside restaurants serving excellent food for cheap.

One of the best parts of a road trip is watching the landscape, culture and climate subtly change with the kilometres. Even with the drought, Thailand’s landscape became greener as we drove south. Soon the road began to climb up and down the seaside mountains. Mosques became more plentiful — about 30 percent of the population of Southern Thailand is Muslim — and the prominence of the ports and beaches showed the sea was the centre of everyday life.

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With the windows open we could also enjoy and suffer the smells as they changed. The loamy smell of elephant dung as we passed a sanctuary, the sharp tang of dried fish when we were near the sea and the smoke of burning fields in the farms of the river flats.

The three of us had all been to Thailand many times in our decades of living in Asia, but this was our first road trip, taking us to less-touristy parts of the country, where the Land Rover drew plenty of attention.

“The response we’re getting from the locals is different than I’ve experienced here before,” Johnny said as we climb back into the Land Rover after a fuel stop. The cheery young gas jockey was chatty and curious about our trip, waving goodbye as we pulled out of the service station. “I don’t think they see us as tourists, in the regular ATM sort of way.”

Another random turn off Route 4 took us through flat pasture land dotted with cattle and goats. It ended in a quiet, humble little seaside resort and camp ground with one Russian couple eating watermelon near the beach. Long-horned cattle wandered across the sun-baked beach.

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The same small road passed by a tall white building, open sided with wide steps — a tsunami shelter. Route 4 took us through some of the areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. Seaside villages still showed unexpected gaps, barren lots and ruined buildings. Signs pointed to tsunami shelters and radars scanned the sea.

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Police Boat 813 in Khao Lak is a chilling memorial to the awesome natural strength of the catastrophe. The boat was guarding Her Royal Highness Ubonrat Rajakanya Siriwaddhana Phannawaddee and her family, who were staying in a beach resort, when the tsunami hit. The tsunami swept the 80-foot steel boat inland almost 2 kilometres, where it was deposited unceremoniously with no route back to the sea.

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We remained in the slow lane — the vibrations became too much above 80 km/hour — and cheered each time we overtook another vehicle. Still, we pushed the truck hard for a few hours to reach Khao Lak, a quiet resort town 60 kilometres north of Phuket. We wanted to arrive before sunset this time.

“We gotta stay somewhere nicer than last night,” Johnny said. “I want a good meal and cold beer.”

We arrived with enough time to check into our hotel — nicer, with a pool this time — pour ourselves rum and cokes and carry them down to the beach in time for a sunset swim.

Three days after starting out we crossed Thepkasattri Bridge, which connects mainland Thailand to Phuket. We parked the Land Rover outside Torben’s half-completed house with plenty of time to catch our flight back to Hong Kong.

“We made it!” Torben said. “I have to be honest, I didn’t think it would go that smoothly, or that it would be that fun.”

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Throughout the trip Torben had been scheming on the work he’d do to the Land Rover. The engine needed servicing, the prop shafts appeared to be bent and the brakes needed work. But beyond that his plans had slowly evolved as he got to know the vehicle’s character.

“I was going to fix it up and make it all pretty,” Torben said as we stood next to the Land Rover, waiting for our taxi to the airport. “I am not sure about that now. I have kind of fallen in love with its rugged and purposeful look. I’ll fix the mechanical stuff, give it a good clean inside and out and maybe repair the worst dents and scrapes but I won’t repaint it.”

“And then I’ll just enjoy it for being a Land Rover.”

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Raja Ampat

Earlier this year I went on a kayak and dive adventure in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Here is the story that ran in the SCMP, and a photo essay on the Canoe & Kayak website.

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There’s the muffled rattle of floorboards as someone walks across the platform you’re living on. Parrots, hornbills and a score of other exotic birds chirp and trill overhead. There’s the hiss of waves hitting the shore and maybe the splash of fish. But other than that … silence.

Raja Ampat, an archipelago in the Indonesian state of West Papua, is less densely populated than the Western Sahara, but this undeveloped, remote corner of Asia is home to the greatest diversity of marine life and coral reef ecosystems on Earth.

Scuba divers have been exploring this marine paradise for a few years and live-aboard dive boats are a common sight, but for land-based tourists, the region’s back-to-basics homestays are the best way to immerse oneself in Papuan life.

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A 35-hour string of flights, ferry rides and car journeys from Hong Kong deposits us at Mando’s, a homestay built typically of bamboo and palm fronds on stilts over the sea. Home life in Papua takes place on wooden platforms, each having several rooms or huts on it, for cooking, eating and sleeping. As at most homestays, meals at Mando’s are served family style.

The dive industry here is largely operated by Indonesians from other parts of the country, but homestays are owned and operated by Papuan families. They form a bridge between the life on the sea that is so central to Papuan culture and the wild, forested islands that provide wood, food and fresh water.

Mando’s is on the main island of Waigeo and within driving distance of Waisai, the grimy little capital of Raja Ampat and the only place on the island where you can buy supplies. The views from the dining room – a table under a grass roof – make for disjointed conversations.

“So after that we caught a flight to … Oh look!” a traveller exclaims. Everyone around the table cranes their neck. “A school of dolphins.”

Or a jumping manta ray, a fish leaping from the water, a surfacing turtle, an exotic bird soaring across the sky. After a few days, dolphins are no longer newsworthy, and the challenge becomes catching sight of a leaping manta ray. All I ever see is the splash.

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Waigeo is home to the rare Wilson’s bird-of-paradise, a red and blue beauty that can be spotted on a morning hike in the jungle. At night, glow worms ( Odontosyllis enopla) flicker bright green in the sea as they pump out bioluminescence to attract a mate.

Many homestays are in remote locations and neighbours may be 20km down the coastline or across the open sea. Island hopping takes planning, patience and time. There is practically no scheduled inter-island transport and few of the islands have roads, making privately hired longboats the most convenient mode of travel.

Longboats also allow you to see the karst topography, and explore small islets so undercut by waves they look like mushrooms. We weave through the islands, staring down into the crystal-clear water at endless coral reefs, schools of colourful fish and small sharks.

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Raja Ampat’s coral reefs have shown greater resilience to the bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures than others around the world, and conservation efforts have greatly increased fish populations in the protected areas, but the flourishing marine life attracts poachers.

The Indonesian government has taken a strong stand against commercial fishing and created large protected areas, but this region is also rich in other natural resources. The largest gold mine and the third-largest copper mine in the world are nearby, and the Papua region is Indonesia’s largest source of tax revenue. That has attracted a large military presence, and many activists have disappeared, been killed or been jailed.

The Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre is one of the best established community development groups in the archipelago, and a key local partner of many international conservation organisations. The centre trains Papuans to build boats and then guide tourists on kayaking tours in those boats – the same development plan used for the homestays – provides research facilities and operates educational programmes.

“Our goal is to support those living in this beautiful and fragile ecosystem to have better, healthier lives and make them stewards in protecting this natural environment,” says Tertius Kammeyer, who heads the centre’s kayaking operations.

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Tourism is growing rapidly and new homestays are popping up on every island, but outside of peak seasons, when domestic travellers come to Raja Ampat, there’s a good chance you’ll have one to yourself.

Time loses its meaning when you’re living in a grass hut. There are no clocks or timetables; meals are served when they are ready.

Circumnavigating the island of Gam makes for a pleasant three- or four-day trip by motorboat from Waisai. It is not one of the “regal” islands – Raja Ampat means “four kings” – but Gam is near the centre of the archipelago, and has plenty of small bays along its coast. On a clockwise trip around the island, a first night might be spent in Arborek Village, on a sandy spit of an island just off Gam.

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In Arborek, there is a daily reminder of passing time; the village bell – an empty fuel canister – is rung at dawn, gently awakening the village from its slumber. After breakfast on the beach, we paddle to nearby Manta Sandy, a sandbar where mantas come to feed on plankton and allow fish to clean them of parasites. We slip on snorkel gear and drop into the water, and within moments mantas with wing spans of several metres appear out of the blue. Watching them glide effortlessly through the water makes our boat travel seem a lot less elegant.

Yet there is no other way to get to Warikef, an isolated homestay in a quiet bay near the Kaboei Passage, a narrow, winding stretch of water that separates Gam from Waigeo. Strong tidal currents in the passage offer divers and snorkellers an exhilarating underwater ride among the fish and coral fans.

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Warikef backs onto a steep, forested cliff, just below a cave that supplies a steady stream of fresh water. The sea beneath the platform teems with life, and just because we’re not in the water, doesn’t mean we’re not considered part of a food chain. I feel a splash of water on my foot as an archerfish mistakes me for an insect and shoots a carefully aimed stream of water between the planks. A book left on the floor gets soaked as the fish make repeated attempts to capture it for lunch.

As the sun sets, the jungle surrounding Warikef falls silent and the glassy sea reflects the last light of the day. I can hear the muted voices of the host family chatting as they cook our dinner. There is the hiss of a gas stove and rattle of pots, the entire platform swaying gently as they move about.

The generator is broken, and the only light comes from a flickering oil lamp. I lay on the decking and watch the stars come out, forgetting for a moment that a less-tranquil world exists.

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Dinosaurs in the Gobi

I’m working with the University of Hong Kong to produce an online course (a Massive Open Online Course — MOOC) about dinosaur ecosystems for the Coursera platform. I spent most of July in the Gobi Desert shooting video for this project, as well as researching a story for the SCMP’s Post Magazine.

Here’s the story, which you can also read on the SCMP website.

It is 44 degrees Celsius on the floor of the Gobi Desert; the air shimmers and dances with the heat. My eyes swim with tedium after hours of staring at the gently undulating ground, trying to spot precious fossil fragments among the countless pebbles.

To my right, within shouting distance, a scientist stoops, picks at something on the ground, then squats down for a closer look. He digs with his hammer, the chink-chink-chink of metal on stone carried away by the hot, dry wind. A small fragment comes free and he gently rubs the dirt away with his hands before putting it in a small plastic bag.

This University of Hong Kong-led expedition is not the first to come looking for remnants of the dinosaurs that lived, 80 million years ago, in the Upper Cretaceous ecosystem of the Erlian Basin, in Inner Mongolia, on China’s northern border. This ground has been searched for fossils repeatedly over the past century, but the earth keeps pushing them up, like presents. Each year, helped by rain, frost and scouring gusts of wind, the soil is eroded and more fossils are exposed.

“When you prospect an area thoroughly you pick up a large proportion of the fossils of interest, and it takes several years of erosion before more things start to come out,” says Dr Corwin Sullivan, a researcher at Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) and one of a dozen people in our team of fossil hunters. Sullivan, whose book From Fish to Human: The March of Vertebrate Life in China was published recently, wears a wide sun hat and a large red backpack as he zig-zags across the desert. “We just need to wait for more erosion to take place here and give us another crop of fossils to harvest.”

Dr Corwin Sullivan

Dr Corwin Sullivan

Sometimes the desert gives up larger treasures; a leg bone here, a rib there. When big fossils are found, technicians take over the site, covering the specimen and the ground that holds it in plaster and burlap. Once the cast is dry, they heave it into the back of a truck and take it away for closer study.

No fossil is insignificant: these days, a small piece of bone rich with diagnostic features could be enough to confirm a new species.

China has a very rich and extensive fossil record, one that is just now being explored,” says Sullivan. “The infrastructure and funding for research have expanded so much in China. There’s a bit of a fossil rush going on. There’s probably nowhere else that offers quite the same combination of richness and freshness.”

Fossils recently found in China have greatly illuminated long-held ideas about evolution, particularly on the issue of flight and the hypothesis that birds are living dinosaurs. A small piece, the right piece, perhaps just a centimetre long, could solve questions over what these animals ate and how they walked and evolved.

“One of the most important issues for palaeontology right now is how dinosaurs turned into birds, which was a major evolutionary transition,” says Professor Xu Xing, also of the IVPP and one of China’s most prominent palaeontologists. “In the past 20 years, we’ve found a lot of feathery dinosaurs, as well as bird-like dinosaurs and preserved feathers in China. In terms of important discoveries and influential fossils, and their impact on conventional ideas, China is No1 right now. It has really changed what we think about how dinosaurs evolved.”

Prof Xu

Prof Xu

Scientists have also found in China the earliest tyrannosaurs, relatives of the mighty North American movie star Tyrannosaurus rex, and some of the best placoderm fossils ever found, allowing them to learn more about these early, giant fish.

Erlian was prospected as early as 1922, but the current rush began in the late 1990s, when dinosaur fossils began to be discovered across the country, from Shandong to Liaoning, Yunnan, Xinjiang and Tibet. In 1996, scientists found Sinosauropteryx, the first feathered dinosaur, in Liaoning, a poor and heavily industrialised province in the northeast. The rush was on and, by 2007, China had surpassed the United States in the number of dinosaur species discovered.

A lizard in the Gobi Desert

A lizard in the Gobi Desert

During the Cretaceous Period, which ended about 65 million years ago, Liaoning was filled with lakes and marshes, which, together with volcanic eruptions, created the ideal conditions to preserve fossils. Many that have come from that area display exceptional detail. The limestone layers of the province earlier this year revealed a winged ancestor of the velociraptor that scientists named Zhenyuanlong. The 125-million-year-old animal is one of the closest relatives to modern birds ever found, further closing an important evolutionary knowledge gap.

“Without those discoveries we wouldn’t be able to restructure the transition as well as we have so far,” says Xu.

Sorting through fossils in the IVPP's warehouse in Beijing.

Sorting through fossils in the IVPP’s warehouse in Beijing.

IN SOME CASES, the flood of new species has been too good to be true. Forgery and misleading restoration have become rampant. This is a particularly troublesome problem among specimens that supposedly came from Liaoning, which has produced thousands of genuine pieces from various time periods.

Most museums have become adept at spotting forgeries. While many of the institutions’ specimens may be partially, and badly, restored, there’s little doubt about which parts of them are real and worthy of study. The greater danger is being duped by an apparently hot, fresh fossil being offered on the private market.

Museums have long used X-rays to look for density abnormalities that would point to forgery, and chemical-element mapping also helps prove, or disprove, a fossil’s origins. But a new technique is literally shedding light on the problem.

“I’m involved in developing a method that shines laser light onto specimens, causing certain minerals in them to fluoresce,” says HKU palaeontologist Dr Michael Pittman, leader of the Erlian expedition. “The pattern created by the fluorescent minerals is a chemical fingerprint that is unique to every fossil, so potentially forged portions of a specimen can be spotted when part of the fluorescence pattern looks out of place. Excitingly, this method can also reveal fossil details that are invisible under normal light, including skin and feather details.”

Dr Michael Pittman and Dr Jason Ali of HKU

Dr Michael Pittman and Dr Jason Ali of HKU

Part of the problem is that many of China’s fossils are dug from the ground by farmers and then sold to museums, other institutes and private dealers. Liaoning’s farmers can often earn more by selling fossils than they can by tilling the soil. Although China has strict laws against private fossil sales, the black market thrives.

“Scientists, universities and institutes face a real dilemma, because if they buy the fossil they are supporting this industry. But if they are offering you a fossil that is new to science, and it possesses anatomical features that fill in big holes in our knowledge, it’s also kind of unethical … to not buy it,” says Pittman.

Even if scientists can prove a specimen is real and unaltered, buying it from an amateur hunter usually means they can’t study the geological layers of rock that hid the fossil – the stratigraphy – and which contain important age and environmental evidence.

Another part of the problem is the speed at which the fossil industry has appeared. Museums and institutes are still developing the expertise and research capacity to deal with the flood of new specimens coming from the field.

A technician prepares a dinosaur fossil at the IVPP.

A technician prepares a dinosaur fossil at the IVPP.

“It’s just like the Chinese economy, which has grown large very quickly,” says Xu. “There are still many spaces left to be developed. In sciences we have some strengths but, in general, the research level is not that high, in terms of training and methods.”

Professor Tan Lin has watched this evolution from its earliest stages. One of the most accomplished fossil hunters in the Gobi Desert, Tan created the Long Hao Geologic and Paleontological Research Centre, in Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, to house his finds. He is close partners with Xu and a sage adviser to the wave of scientists coming to his corner of China.

Poised but moving slowly due to age, Tan is still drawn to the field. He visits the HKU site in Erlian and, arms pointing to the horizon, discusses with the other scientists where fossils may be found.

Dr Pittman and Prof Tan

Dr Pittman and Prof Tan

“China is a superpower in terms of fossils, both vertebrate and invertebrate, and its fossils span the whole geological time scale,” says Tan. “Not only are the fossils spread over large areas of China, their diversity is also very high.”

Tan has worked in other provinces but he has a soft spot for the Gobi sands, where we spend a week searching for fragments. Erlian’s is an unusual ecosystem with an interesting combination of dinosaurs. For example, scientists have found therizinosaurs from the same family as the T-rex – the theropods – that evolved from carnivores into herbivores. Another of the Gobi’s treasures is the gigantoraptor, a large, beaked theropod that was also secondarily herbivorous or may have been omnivorous.

“In 2007, I was working with Xu in the Erlian area,” says Tan. “We were working together with a Japanese television documentary team. They asked us to dig for something; they needed footage of us digging. We started uncovering bones, larger ones than we had expected, and we became excited. Once the shooting had wrapped up, Xu and I went back to dig some more and we uncovered a gigantoraptor, which we brought back to Hohhot.”

Xu described the specimen in Nature, the prestigious scientific journal.

“That’s why Erlian remains one of my favourite places to hunt for fossils, because of the stories that I’ve lived in that place,” Tan says.

His institute is based on the outskirts of Hohhot, down a rutted road, among small factories and cheap housing. Tan’s finds fill row upon row of rolling shelves. The specimens are numbered and grouped into dusty boxes. A box of claws, fearsomely curved. Leg bones stacked like cordwood. A skull, in the shadows at the back of the shelf, its eyes wide open. All from different animals, places and times.

Searches for specific fossils in the warehouse can take hours. The concrete floors are littered with specimens still wrapped in the plaster that was applied in the field, yet to be opened, cleaned and studied. Photography in the collection rooms is forbidden as they contain many fossils yet to be seen by the outside world.

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Sorting through fossils in the IVPP's warehouse

Sorting through fossils in the IVPP’s warehouse

“There are still more discoveries to be made in our collection. We’re just a small institute and we don’t have many researchers, so we still have a lot of work to do,” Tan says.

The backlog in Tan’s collection is not uncommon, with most of China’s major institutes and museums holding large collections of unstudied specimens. They are predicted to yield discoveries regarding the environment these animals lived in, how they aged and grew, and the evolutionary relationships between them.

“Every time you move along the shelves you see something that could be a new species or a better example of something that has already been found,” Pittman says, after spending three days in Tan’s treasure trove.

Our expedition adds to the pile of fossils that need further study, even though they are only small fragments. Some pieces reveal the presence of animals that were not known to be in the Erlian Basin, such as alvarezsaur theropods.

ON ONE OF OUR LAST DAYS in the desert, team members present Pittman with their latest finds. Two small, elongated fossils put a sparkle in his eye and cause his voice to rise an octave in excitement.

“We’ve found two jaw elements from theropod dinosaurs. They’re very different, which is interesting because it implies that they used to feed in slightly different ways and do slightly different things within the ecosystem,” Pittman says. “It’s an exciting discovery.”

The fossils are wrapped up and tucked away for further study, joining thousands of others pulled from Chinese soil. After millions of years buried in the ground these animals will have to wait a little bit longer to divulge their secrets.

Here be monsters

China has many museums and parks dedicated to dinosaurs. Some of them are filled with gaudy displays of dubious origin; others contain authentic and important specimens presented according to international standards. Here are a few of the best.

Paleozoological Museum of China This museum is located in western Beijing (Xizhimen), next to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, which is home to many of China’s top palaeontologists. Its galleries present a wide range of dinosaur specimens accompanied by solid scientific information. The museum also shows a popular 3D film about dinosaurs. (www.paleozoo.cn).

Shandong Tianyu Museum of Natural History Excavations have been conducted in Shandong province since the late 1950s. Professor Zheng Xiaoting, who amassed his wealth from gold mining, has built the largest collection of complete dinosaur fossils in the world. The museum collection includes fossils of feathered dinosaurs, early birds and the Tsintaosaurus, a crested duck-billed dinosaur. (www.tynhm.com).

Zigong Dinosaur Museum
The museum sits over a large dinosaur-bone bed in Sichuan province’s Dashanpu Formation, which has helped fill a gap in Jurassic history. The site was discovered by a gas company that was building a plant outside the city of Zigong in 1972, and now attracts up to seven million visitors a year. (www.zdm.cn).

Palaeontological Museum of Liaoning

China’s largest palaeontological museum is located on the campus of Shenyang Normal University. Its collections include feathered dinosaurs, the earliest mammal with hair, the oldest known gliding lizard and eight giant dinosaurs from Liaoning, including the 15-metre-long Liaoningotitan. (www.pmol.org.cn).

Beijing Museum of Natural History
The collections at China’s leading natural history museum include palaeontology, ornithology, mammals and invertebrates, and a major collection of dinosaur fossils and mounted skeletons. It’s also fun for children, with a Dinosaur Park populated by models of the beasts, many of which move.

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Seattle Screening on Feb 12

I’m very pleased that my documentary “The New Northwest Passage” will be screening at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA as part of their “Imaging the Arctic” exhibition.

Date: Thursday, February 12, 2015
Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 NW 67th Street
Tickets are $5

RSVP at documentary-newnorthwestpassage.eventbrite.com

FjordLobbysmall

Manigotagan

This story originally appeared in SCMP’s Post Magazine as “Canoeing along Canada’s Manigotagan River” on Feb 1, 2015.

I am still trying to get comfortable in my seat and come to terms with steering the canoe when my brother points to the sky. A bald eagle with a two-metre wingspan soars overhead, its brilliant white head twisting back and forth in search of prey.

The eagle circles us in a lazy loop and then, with two smooth strokes of its wings, disappears over the treetops. When I come back down to earth, I find that our canoe is drifting down the Manigotagan River sideways – which is bad news, because it’s getting dark and we have yet to find a campsite.

The Manigotagan is only a few hours north of Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba province. But we could just as well be a thousand miles from civilisation as the river carries us through the Canadian Shield, the massive rock craton that forms the core of the North American continent. This is rolling land with rock outcrops that were rounded off by the last ice age, leaving room for boreal forests and marshes. Maps show long, narrow lakes, all running in the same direction, torn into the earth by the slow claw of ice.

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Atop each rocky outcrop, at every roaring waterfall or quiet bend where the river slows, history invites us to imagine. To envision humans on this river thousands of years ago, proud natives traversing their land; the first European fur traders and voyageurs, men who came searching for their fortunes in Canada’s wilderness, toiling their way up and down this watery highway.

A nearby archaeological site proves that human habitation of the Manigotagan area began at least 2,000 years ago and use intensified when aboriginal people underwent a cultural shift from relying on grassland hunting to life in the forest, where they survived on fish, small mammals, waterfowl and wild rice.

When white men discovered the forests’ bounty, they set up the Bad Throat fur-trading post at the mouth of the river, on the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg. The river became an important trade route for trappers and their canoes, and they were soon followed by loggers and miners. Rusting iron machinery, empty trappers’ cabins, shards of pottery and tent circles all mark chapters in this river’s history.

That trading post has become the town of Manigotagan, which continues to rely on nature, with forestry, commercial fishing, wild rice harvesting and tourism being the economic mainstays. The river is now travelled by weekend canoeists looking to connect with nature. The longest canoe trips stretch to 102km – five to seven days of paddling – and the last 70km of the downriver journey has no exits. After 32km, you’re committed to a week-long journey.

We start at the mouth and work our way upstream. Just as daylight begins to fade, we come to a thundering set of waterfalls. There are dozens of falls and rapids along the river, most of which must be skirted. This requires us to unload both two-man canoes and carry everything on forest paths that pass the dangerous water: a process called portaging.

At Old Woman’s Falls, the river appears to be trying to dislodge a small island. The water sweeps around the rocky obstruction before roaring into narrow chutes on either side.

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We gingerly land our canoes in eddies only metres from the maelstrom and drag them up to safety before scouting out a campsite. The island is one of the most popular campsites on the river but it is late in the year and no one else is braving the chilly weather. Or perhaps the ghost of the old woman whose death here gave the falls their name has scared them away.

Firewood collected and tent erected, we are soon sitting around a crackling campfire with dinner simmering in a pot. A few streaks of light remain in the sky and the falls are now just a flash of white in the dusk, a steady clamour of water bashing itself against the rocks.

The topography along the Manigotagan ranges from sheer rock faces topped with craggy Jack pine and a thin skin of rock-tripe lichen to thick green stands of balsam poplar, green ash and elderberry. Our small island is covered in towering pines, the reflection of the river glinting through gaps between the trunks.

And there is wildlife; the entire river lies within protected parkland filled with, among other creatures, moose, black bear, wolf and woodland caribou. Beavers can be seen working along the banks.

We sit, passing a rum bottle in circles, until we have depleted our wood pile and the fire fades. We give the dishes a hurried scrub in the frigid water, the clattering of pots echoing across the river. We crawl into our tent, hoping that whatever the large brown furry thing we saw earlier was, it won’t be brave enough to swim across Old Woman’s Falls.

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The next day, we continue upriver, leaving the campsite set for our return. We spend the morning paddling over gentle rapids. At midday we find a rock outcrop overlooking Big Skunk Rapids. The others gather wood while I mix up a batch of bannock, the simple flat-bread that is the traditional mainstay of native American cooking. We crouch around the fire, watching the dough turn a golden brown flecked with ash.

After lunch, we turn back, now riding with the current. My other brother, in the second canoe with his son, eyes up a low set of rapids that we portaged around earlier.

“I think we can run those, eh?” he says, as much a challenge as a question.

His canoe slips into the current, dips, bobs, is caught in a spray of water, as we hold our position in an eddy. I can see only heads.

A few moments later, a drenched duo are treading water, one at each end of the swamped canoe, gasping with shock at the cold.

“Get your canoe around the rapids and get us out of the water! Hurry!”

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We do as we’re told, less careful about the canoe’s paint than we were on earlier portages. The pair roll into our canoe, sodden and shivering, rocking the craft until I worry that we will all be swimming soon.

Back at Old Woman’s Falls, a fire leaping through the grating and clothing strung from the trees, the story is retold with added flourishes, a gentle nip of warning from nature.

The next day we break camp and turn for home, letting the current slowly pull us towards Lake Winnipeg. The sun breaks through the clouds and remains free, bringing out the blue reflection of the sky on the water, the emerald green of trees and moss.

As we approach our landing spot, where pick-up truck, mobile phones and cluttered life await, what looks like the same bald eagle takes flight out of a poplar tree along the banks.

Once again it circles and eyes us, as if tallying to check whether those who ventured into his hunting grounds have returned alive.

Himalaya

I went trekking in the Indian Himalaya in June. Here’s the long version of the story that ran in the SCMP Post Magazine this Sunday, on the web, and the pdf file.

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The camp is stirring to life. I’ve opened my eyes, once, briefly, to confirm that it is daylight. Now I nestle down into my sleeping bag, savouring its warmth as I wait for that magical moment that reminds me that this isn’t just another camping trip.

“Sir…Sir, good morning,” a soft voice says outside my tent. “Your chai is ready.”

The tent opens with a zzzzip and rustle of nylon, and there stand Gaurav and Saurav, two teenage brothers working as the cook’s assistants. They hand me a cup of steaming hot chai, which I take into my tent before zipping the door closed.

We are high in the Indian Himalayas, in the state of Uttarakhand, about 50 kilometres shy of the Tibetan border, amongst the headwaters of the Ganges. I’ve done my fair share of camping and rough, backcountry travel, but never with a full posse of cooks, porters and guides; a 1-to-1 ratio of staff for 10 trekkers. The time and energy this leaves for savouring and reflecting on this phenomenal corner of India takes me back to an earlier time of exploration.

CDIndiaTrek 170As I sit cross legged in my tent, carefully setting my tin cup aside to cool, I open the books that have become my guides. Not trail guides that tell me to turn left at the big tree or cross the river near the bend, but guides for the mind and the eye as I follow in the footsteps of mountaineering icons.

“Mountaineering in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalayas more nearly resembles mountaineering in Switzerland, the country is unspoiled by commercialism,” Frank S. Smythe wrote in his 1949 book The Valley of Flowers, which describes his expedition through this region. “There are no railways, power lines, roads and hotels to offend the eye and distract from the primitive beauty and grandeur of the vistas, and there are peaks innumerable, unnamed and unclimbed, of all shades of difficulty and valleys that have never seen a European, where a simply kindly peasant folk graze their flocks in the summer months.”CDIndiaTrek 074Smythe’s book, along with The Ascent of Nanda Devi by H.W. Tilman and Nanda Devi by Eric Shipton, are landmark accounts of early Himalayan mountaineering. All of them describe these very mountains and trails in Northern India as they were eight decades ago. Greener than the northern side of the range in Tibet and Nepal, India’s Garhwal region is filled with quiet valley villages and high meadows rich in grass, with each ripple of the landscape pointing the way deeper and higher into the world’s greatest mountain range.

They were all drawn to the region by Nanda Devi, at 7816 meters the highest mountain in India, and at the time, the biggest in the British Empire. It stands in the middle of a basin ringed by 7,000 meter peaks, creating the famous Nanda Devi Sanctuary. We’re only trekking the approaches to the famed mountain, but these historic accounts spend many pages describing the same valleys and mountains we are traversing.

Times have changed since Smythe’s description, but Uttarakhand is still raw and undeveloped, the disadvantages of which became evident in June, 2013 when heavy rains caused devastating floods and landslides in the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. More than 5,700 people were killed, and the army had to evacuate more than 110,000 people from the steep valleys in this mountainous state. The mountains stills how raw scars from landslides and the roads are still buried in rubble.

Today, there are roads and electricity, in places, but visitors are still few and far between. In ten days of trekking we do not see one other European trekker, and only a handful of local groups. We are trekking in high season, crossing and joining famous routes such as the Curzon Trail and Roop Kund Trail as we weave our way through the mountains towards the Kuari Pass, but still, we have the mountains to ourselves.

CDIndiaTrek 110Actually, we weren’t totally alone, as the high meadows were dotted with sheep chased up from the valleys for summer grazing. One morning we ate our breakfast under a cloudless sky, the rarefied Himalayan air sharpening every colour, ridge line and glint of sunshine that struck the rolling meadow. Our table, made from the tin chests used by the porters, was moved out of the dining tent to offer us an uninterrupted view of the string of snow-capped peaks on the horizon.

As we ate, hundreds of sheep made their way through our camp, bleating as they daintily picked their way between tents in search of fresh grass, the shepherd exchanging greetings with the porters as he slowly walked behind his flock. The flock opened and engulfed our breakfast table like a river around a rock. We sat, our tin cups of chai paused in mid air, watching them. Some of us scrambled for cameras, other broke into laughter at the absurdity of the scene.

CDIndiaTrek 076Our days fell into a comfortable rhythm. We awoke early and ate a hot breakfast that catered to Western tastes while the porters began breaking camp. Each day, as the tents came down, the porters built a pyramid of shiny tiffin boxes, lunches that were stuffed into rucksacks as we exited the camp and began the day’s hike.

We often began with a steep climb, as our camps were made in valleys, near water sources. Then, by noon, we’d be on a ridge, breathless from the work and thin air, our eyes roving across the spectacular skyline of peaks.

“As the drew is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of mankind by the sight of the Himachal,” reads the Skanda Puranam, an ancient Hindu holy text.

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We would feast our eyes on the spectacle while devouring our lunches, resting for the afternoon push. By mid afternoon we’d amble into the next camp, having walked between 10 and 15 kilometres, and often climbed well over 1,000 meters during the day. The mules and porters, taking shortcuts and relying on legs stronger than ours, usually had the cook tent up by the time we arrived. Chai and snacks were quickly served. The platter of channa masala, a snack of chick peas with chopped tomatoes, onions and coriander, was passed around as we reflected upon what we’d seen on the trail that day.

It was then, aglow with the effort of the day’s hike and satiated by the tea, that we had our best opportunities to soak in the grandeur of the mountains. Some camps offered unobstructed views of the peaks, others were set beside rushing rivers or overlooking broad valleys. The light would soften, the air would cool until jackets were needed, and the camp became domesticated with strings of laundry and the smell of dinner underway.

Dinner, we quickly learned, was not to be missed, as it consisted of at least four hot dishes, plus bread and rice. Suman, our cook, rarely repeated a dish on our 10 day journey. Rajma, dals, various paneer preparations, stuffed bitter gourd, chole battura and tibetan style dumplings were all prepared on two kerosene burners, with all supplies hauled on mules. When we were all sighing and setting our plates aside the waiters arrived at the dining tent with banana fritters in chocolate sauce, rice puddings and freshly baked cakes. We had to keep walking, or we’d grow fat.CDIndiaTrek 146

CDIndiaTrek 058Smythe’s book kept me scanning the high meadow passes and valley trails shaded by pine and chestnut trees, searching for the myriad of flowers he identified on his trek. The ground was carpeted in millions of tiny primula blooms, purple, red, blue and yellow, close to the ground to hide from the constant wind, unfaded by the baking Himalayan sun. There was the bright blue Eritrichium Strictum, which looked like a forget-me-not, the rare dwarf Iris Decora, and the Arum, or Arisema Wallichianum, a cobra headed plant that looked vaguely evil.

The meadows were also a source of riches for the isolated villages we came across. The Parahi herders were moderate Hindus, as influenced by the Buddhists to the north as their compatriots to the south, and we encountered them nearly every day on the trail, bodies hardened by their mountain life but smiles filled with warmth.

“The natives are short and sturdy, and fairer in colour than the inhabitants of the plains. Blue eyes and cheeks tinged with red are not uncommon and some of the women are very beautiful,” Shipton wrote of the locals eight decades ago, and his words still rung true.

CDIndiaTrek 121They ranged the mountains tending their sheep, and, for a few short weeks each summer, in search of kira jhar, a fungus sold to Chinese medicine men as a treatment for lungs, kidneys and erectile dysfunction. It was the latter property that the village boys wandering through our camp told us about, giggling as they tried to explain. They knew it for that, and for its interruption to their play.CDIndiaTrek 123

“We want to play cricket, but there’s not enough boys to make a game. Everyone is up in the hills, picking kira jhar” a barefooted boy said with a pout when asked why they were mopping about the camp.

CDIndiaTrek 122It was on the high passes where I felt a little bit drunk. Not only because the altitude — we trekked as high as 4,100 meters — had me panting and dizzy with a dull ache behind my eyes, but because I could see forever. The mountain peaks, strung like jewels across the horizon, were intoxicating. Nanda Kot,Trisuli, Nanda Gunti and Mrithuni, a series of 6000 and 7,000 meter peaks, appeared repeatedly, like old friends on the far side of a river. Catching the gleam of the first morning sun here, shrouded in fog there, bathed in a golden sunset as seen from our campsite. There was still plenty for me, as an inexperienced trekker, to aspire to.

“In Britain the atmosphere subtly deceives our estimation of height and distance, but in the moisture-free atmosphere of the Himalayas the peaks look high because they are high. At midday they gleam like polished steel under a nearly vertical sun and the eye sinks with relief to the green valley floor,” Smythe wrote.

Tilman, infamous for his tetchy nature, was far more perfunctory in his descriptions of the region than Smythe and Shipton were, but even he expressed admiration for the “peculiar nature” of the landscape, where valleys at 1000 meters are filled with lush green vegetation, while snowy 7000 meter peaks are visible only 20 or 30 kilometres away. That lushness, and its few visitors, is what sets the Indian Himalayas apart from visiting the same mountain range in Tibet and Nepal. The Indian, or southern, side of the range enjoys summer monsoons, while the northern flank is much drier.

“The whole country is an intricate tangle of valleys and ridges with their attendant ravines and spurs, which, even in the foothills, are all on a scale undreamt of in this country,” Tilman wrote.

We’d set out on this trek to reach the Kuari Pass. It’s name, meaning virgin, was given by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, in 1905, when he became the first to cross it. Or, at least it was the first time it was crossed by a man who had the means to report his success back to London.

CDIndiaTrek 103We approached the pass on the penultimate day, and pitched our tents next to the sheep herders on the Dhakwani meadow, just as Shipton did.

“The tinkle of sheep bells and the plaintive notes of a shepherd’s pipe drew us towards as shepherd encampment, and here we spend the night, a thousand feet below the pass,” I read in his book as a shepherd chases his flock of sheep through our camp, the beasts bleating and tripping over our tent guy wires. Sheep dogs nipped at their heels, their neck kept stiff by the tin collars they wore to protect them against marauding snow leopards.

CDIndiaTrek 160Tents were set up in a race against the clouds that were sinking ever lower, and which finally doused us in a cold, driving rain just as camp was made. That night, huddled together for warmth in the dining tent, taking extra servings of chai to stave off the cold, we speculated over what the next day would bring.

“It won’t take long to climb up to the pass in the morning,” Archit, our guide said. “This rain will end tonight, and it should clear the atmosphere and make the visibility really good.”

I crawled into my sleeping bag that night listening to the ping of raindrops on nylon, thinking of the sacredness of these mountains. We’d been on the trail for more than a week, and I felt a changed person for it, whether it was the gods or the fresh air. If the sights of the Himachal had not completely dried up my sins, they had at very least created a thirst to return.

The next morning we cross the pass, which gave us views of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Kamet and Hathi Parbat, the hewn rock and glittering snow that Shipton described as “one of the grandest mountain views in the world.”

He found it “difficult to refrain from gasping at the vastness of the scene,” and I realised nothing much had changed since the first explorers passed this way.

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Montana Screening

I’m very pleased to tell you that my film, The New Northwest Passage, will be screening at the Dulcie Theater in Livingston, Montana on Saturday, September 6 (2pm).

The screening is part of the Livingston Film Festival Series and the Last Best Fest, their annual arts festival.

Unfortunately I won’t be there for the screening, but if you’re in Montana you can be there in my place!

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