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.


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.


Palawan Kayak

This story originally appeared in the SCMP’s Post Magazine on May 10 as “Blazing Paddles”.

A wave of vertigo washes over me as I look down. It’s not far to the bottom – a few metres at most – but I feel as though I am floating in the air. The water is so clear, it is invisible, the sunlight brightening the colours of the starfish and coral on the sea bed.

Palawan is one of the most pristine and remote corners of the Philippines, and the country’s largest province by territory. Three of us are on a week-long kayaking tour, slowly winding our way through the karst islets and immaculate beaches surrounding Busuanga Island, in the northernmost part of the province.

Every paddle stroke brings into view another coral reef and another school of colourful fish flashing through the water beneath our hulls. The sky stretches achingly clear and blue overhead.


From the cockpit of a kayak, Palawan is all rocky coves, distant rounded mountains and jagged cliffs with sugary beaches at their base.

It’s the end of the dry season, when the seas are relatively calm and the islands look parched. Other than a few fishing bankas – canoes with outriggers that come in a wide range of sizes – the only signs of human life are the occasional village and a few exclusive resorts huddled underneath palm trees on distant islands.

The sun has set by the time we arrive at our first campsite. We coast onto the beach, hulls scraping noisily against the sand, disrupting the evening silence. A nearly full moon casts the beach in a white glow, the curving trunks of palm trees standing out in stark relief.

From the kayak hatches come tents, cooking stoves, sleeping mats, bags of food and jugs of water. Many of the islands have no fresh water, so maintaining supplies is a constant concern. Tents are pitched and paddling gear hung up to dry. We cook an easy two-pot meal of pasta and vegetables, the air still so warm that working over the camp stove is uncomfortable. The fire we light on the beach is for cheer, and we sit well back from it in search of a cool breeze.


Having awoken with the sun and after a quick breakfast, we’re back on the water, hoping to make the most of the cool morning air. We’re paddling north and, as we pass Lusong Island, one of our number lets out a shout.

“Hey, there’s something down there under the water!”

He is frantically back-paddling his kayak as he peers over the side. This region is littered with the wrecks of Japanese ships from the second world war, and we’ve just stumbled upon one. We tie our kayaks to a float bobbing on the surface, pull on masks and fins – stowed on the decks of our kayaks to explore reefs as we find them – and roll over the sides with a splash.

The wreck is in shallow water and filled with colourful fish that swarm around us, flitting away when we make sudden movements. The ship lies on its side, an entry wound of torn and twisted metal still evident despite heavy coral growth.


For lunch, we land on a shady beach on Marily Island. It’s a pattern we’ll repeat in the days to come – an early start, followed by several hours of hiding from the blazing sun before we paddle on into the early evening.

Many of the beaches and islands are inhabited only by caretakers, some with their families, who hold possession of the land for faraway owners. Some of them charge a few hundred pesos for camping privileges; others don’t even bother us to say hello.

“Isn’t it dangerous?” asks the caretaker of Marily Island of our trip, in English. “Where is your guide?”

We’re paddling sea-worthy kayaks, wearing personal floatation vests and special clothes to protect us from the sun. Our boats are filled with emergency satellite beacons, water filters and first-aid kits. We’re navigating by GPS and monitoring the weather on smartphones. The caretaker and his wife sleep in a house made of palm fronds and bamboo, and live a subsistence life. The assessment of risk is very subjective.

I have badgered every passing fisherman to sell me some of their catch, hoping for a beach barbecue, and I tell the caretaker about my fruitless search. He grins, jumps into his banka and paddles 100 metres off the beach. He dives into the water – once, twice – and returns with four fish.

“Here, these are for you. Now you can eat fish.”

I pressure him to take a few pesos and he finally relents, tucking the money into his waistband without looking at it. Then he climbs a tree, drops us three fresh, young coconuts filled with sweet, cool water, and goes off to fetch a bottle of wild honey that he has harvested in the hills behind his home. We offer him a bar of chocolate in exchange, thanking him for the food as well as the lesson in generosity.


Several days into the journey the clear blue sky begins to show puffy white clouds and an ominous darkening far in the north. Super Typhoon Maysak has been slowly spinning its way towards the Philippines. We paddle to one of the larger villages, which has a mobile signal, to call our outfitter, Tribal Adventures. We are assured the typhoon has ebbed to a tropical storm and that it’s safe to continue our voyage.

I have become used to the fine layer of sea salt that covers my body and the reek of sweat, pungent in a sweltering kayak. Sand and salt have turned my hair into a wild forest, and my stubbled chin holds globs of day-old sunscreen.


Each night we bathe in the sea, lolling in the warm water, bright moonlight making modesty impossible. Voices, singing indistinguishable songs, float across the water from villages that turn dark soon after sunset.

The inhabitants have no electricity; a few fires and torches shine and then wink out one by one while we still sit on the sand, eating our dinner.

Roosters announce the return of the villages each morning, as the sun slowly creeps above the edge of the sea, rousing us from our tents to pack up and resume our journey through this remote natural wonderland.


Calauit Island

Calauit Island Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary (calauitisland.com) is a surreal but delightful experience in one of the most remote corners of the Philippines. Giraffes and zebras that are thousands of miles from their natural home are free to roam the island, yet tame enough to pet and feed by hand.

The 3,700-hectare reserve, off the far northwestern coast of Busuanga Island, was created in 1976 by then Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos as a private playground. Closed to everyone but the Marcos family and visiting dignitaries until the 1980s, the park is now badly in need of funding and professional zoological staff. There is no veterinarian on staff to look after the animals and birds while the cages of some of the more dangerous creatures, such as crocodiles and snakes, are rusting. Many of the park’s outbuildings remain in ruins following Super Typhoon Haiyan, in 2013.

Still, that doesn’t take away from the magic of having a giraffe bend its elegant neck and reach out with its long tongue to pull leaves out of your hand, or waking up in the park campsite to see zebras grazing metres from where you lay.

Give your head a shake, you’re still in the Philippines.


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



This story originally appeared in the SCMP’s Post Magazine as “The wind and the waves” on November 16, 2014.

The temple is filled with the fug of incense, the air musty with 400 years worth of prayers that have been offered up towards its wooden beams. I’m not a religious man, and certainly not one who prays to Chinese gods, but these are special circumstances. If it worked for pirates, it might work for me.

Outside, the tangy brine fills my nostrils and the unrelenting wind tugs at my hair. I stand at the threshold, the darkness of the temple behind me, the sea just a few blocks away, knowing that thousands of sailors have stood in this spot, like me, wishing the winds would back off a little.

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From the Penghu Mazu Temple, the goddess of the sea, known as Tin Hau in Cantonese, has watched over this Taiwanese archipelago’s seafarers for four centuries, offering her protection from countless typhoons like the one that is now darkening the skies.

I came to notoriously windy Penghu, an archipelago of 90 islands, to experience its maritime culture and soak in the folklore of pirates and conquering navies. Now I’m experiencing the uncertainty of being a Taiwan Strait sailor. Penghu’s mariners learned long ago that the winds are out of their control, hence the 183 temples scattered across the islands, some large and grand, others so small and nondescript they’re hard to find.

Severe Tropical Storm Fung-wong is churning her way north, aimed squarely at Taiwan. As soon as my flight touched down in Magong, the islands’ main town, my skipper called to warn me that our sailing trip would be delayed.

Like any restless shore-bound sailor, I seek ways to kill time.

Magong is a maze of criss-crossing streets, the heart of the old town lying low and grey behind ancient walls, huddled against the elements. New, garish hotels and empty boulevards sit exposed to the steady rush of wind. The town’s bars have been shut down for the season, and I haven’t spotted any bordellos around the port, so I rent a scooter and ride the island’s winding roads.

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The reliance of the Penghu Islands, also known as the Pescadores, on the ocean is evident at every turn; from ancient houses and garden walls built of greying coral to the waft of drying fish.

Settlement of these islands began some 700 years ago, 400 years before the Chinese arrived on the Taiwanese mainland, and they served as a way station for people migrating from Fujian province to Taiwan, leaving the chain scattered with historical sites.

Numerous navies have anchored off the Penghu shores, their colonial forces engulfing the islands and then receding again, like the storms that sweep over the low-lying land. The Dutch came to Taiwan in 1624, were challenged by the Spanish and were eventually dislodged by Ming-dynasty loyalist Zheng Chenggong, whose Latinised name was Koxinga.

He was a privateer with a vast fleet and control over large swathes of China’s coastline, and the Penghu Islands were a frequent hideout. Koxinga used Taiwan as a base in his failed fight to overthrow the Qing dynasty and restore the Ming.

Eventually, the French came and built a fort overlooking Magong, but their stay was short, and they were long gone by the time the Japanese moved in for a 50-year stay, only to be replaced by the Chinese Nationalists.

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Now it is the Republic of China’s armed forces who are stationed on a far-flung promontory, their base built around the stately Yuwengdao Lighthouse, which was designed by a British engineer for the Chinese imperial government in 1828. Soldiers peer from behind rusted gates and banks of sagging sand bags, the camouflage paint on the buildings peeling in the sun. They slouch with boredom, staring across the strait at an ideological enemy that batters the island with tourists instead of artillery shells.

The islands have long been viewed as a frontline in tensions with mainland China, and martial law was only lifted in 1979, allowing people from Taiwan proper unfettered access for the first time. Penghu has since tried to grow a tourism industry, to prop up its tepid economy, offering as enticement its long, pristine beaches and azure water.

On July 23, Magong hit the front pages of newspapers when TransAsia Airways Flight 222, from Kaohsiung, crashed when landing in heavy winds and careened into nearby homes, killing all but 10 of its 58 passengers and crew.

“They were almost all from here, from Penghu, so it was very bad. Everyone knew someone affected,” says my host, Tom Chen, proprietor of the oddly named 1,2,3 V-Stone B&B, which is located a short walk from the main harbour and a five-minute drive from the centre of Magong, in a rapidly developing part of town.

“Now everyone is scared, so with this storm there will be no flights or ferries until it is gone.”

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The snaking road that connects the islands via bridges and causeways leads to Wai-an, in Siyu township, a small village perched in front of a hill that threatens to push it into the sea. The village is centred on its port, the main street tracing a line of bollards on the wharf and each side street leading to and from the water.

The harbour is jammed with fishing boats, with more arriving every hour, seeking shelter from the impending storm. The boats appear first as dots on the horizon, riding a white wake as they draw near. They rumble into the port and tie up three deep along the wharf, where fishermen sleep in hammocks or squat on their haunches, cigarettes smouldering between their lips as they repair their nets.

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“Looks bad, doesn’t it,” I ask a group of fishermen sitting on the wharf, surrounded by billowing heaps of net. They squint, looking up at the sky, where the sun still shines despite the dark bruise on the southern horizon.

“It will be over tomorrow,” they assure me. “The storm comes one day and then it is gone.”

The wind may prove inconvenient at times, but it does draw tourists to Penghu, whether for windsurfing, kite boarding or, more recently, sailing; the Penghu Regatta Week is held every June.

The fishermen were wrong, being out by two days, but finally the weather breaks, the wind dies and the skies clear.

We slip the lines on our 40-foot catamaran and motor to the harbour master’s station, to officially clear port before heading out to sea. A stream of fishing boats floods out of the harbour alongside us, crews eager to lower their nets.

Soon we’re making our way down the coast, where the ornate, curved roofs of the temples stand high above village houses. From the sea I can’t be sure which of the temples venerate Mazu, so instead I mouth a prayer of thanks into the breeze, sure that it will eventually reach the goddess of the sea.



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.


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.


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.


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!”


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.


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.

CDIndiaTrek 062

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!


Junking in Hong Kong

I spent last Sunday on the water, where I prefer to spend most of my weekends if I have the choice. Sailing, kayaking, or, in this case, on a junk boat with a group of friends.

Hong Kong junk boats can be chartered by the day, or sometimes corporations own them for employee use (this was a lot more popular before the many financial crisis’!) They are no longer the traditional junk boats with sails that the name suggests, although that’s where the name came from. These days they’re big, heavy motor yachts, with large aft decks, a small cabin/head below, and a large open top deck. Sometimes they come with full galleys. Perfect for friends to jump off of into the sea, dance in the sun (if the boat is not rolling!), drink, flirt and enjoy Hong Kong’s natural beauty.

Just watch this video I made and you’ll know what I mean.

Boy Racers

I recently spent a day at the race tracks in Zhuhai, which is just across the border from Hong Kong. I was invited by Torben, a good friend of mine, who has been distracted away from his long-running passion of yacht racing to take up car racing. Here’s the story I wrote about the experience for The Peak magazine. Click on the image to download the pdf of the story.


Jump Cut to the Arctic

I’m very pleased that the young curators at JUMP CUT Independent Film Festival in Hong Kong have chosen to show my documentary, The New Northwest Passage!

The New Northwest Passage
Wednesday, April 16, 7pm (Contact the festival for tickets)
The Hive 21/F, 23 Luard Rd, Wanchai

It’s a cool new pop-up festival happening in April using some very innovative spaces around Hong Kong, presented by Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation and aimed at nurturing the next generation of independent filmmakers and consumers.


This festival is run entirely by the JUMP CUT youth committee, comprising passionate and determined young film-lovers selected through a recruitment process. With guidance from staff at YAF and experts from the industry, this team is given the thrilling but challenging task of running a festival. From curating the programme and selecting films to inviting guest speakers, writing reviews and organising scriptwriting and storyboarding workshops for other young people, the JUMP CUT youth committee experiences all the magic that happens behind the scenes.

By exposing young people to non-mainstream film culture and creating an intimate community of like-minded people, the youth committee is a place where ideas, experiences and emotions are shared, and where team members inspire one another.