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.

Cruising through the Cold War

Finland is opening some of its secluded military islands to the public, creating a string of new cruising destinations and adding to the many gems of unpolished history spread across this remote archipelago.

This story was first published in the February 2018 issue of Cruising Helmsman.

The waters approaching Örö are treacherous. Submerged rocks abound, and if you don’t pay attention to your charts you’ll end up swimming in the cold Baltic Sea. It only makes sense, as the inhabitants of this Finnish island have spent the last century with guns in hand, trying to keep visitors at bay.

We handed our sails and motor into the marina under the gun-slit gaze of a weathered concrete bunker, knowing the gun barrels were plugged with concrete while the bunkers are now a tourist attraction.

Örö served as a grazing pasture for local farmers until the early 1900s. Then, as the First World War loomed, Tsarist Russia built a fortress on the island to keep ships away from it’s nearby capital, St Petersburg. Civilians were prohibited from visiting the island and the Russians embarked on a base-building frenzy, from artillery batteries, observation towers, barracks, jetties and cobble-stone roads to warrens of trenches.

When Finland declared independent in 1917 Örö was handed to the Finnish Defence Forces — and remained closed to the public. It was an important defence base during World War Two, and it remained an active base until 2004. Only in 2015 were Örö and all of its buildings transferred to the park system and opened to the public. Örö is only about a 25 mile sail southwest of the region’s major yachting base of Hankow.

The second ö in Örö means island in Swedish, the language of choice for many locals — which points to wars that took place even before this island was militarised. Many of the decommissioned islands have been occupied by Swedish, Russian and Finnish soldiers over the centuries, so each layer of peeling camouflage paint has a story to tell.

On Örö,, the rusting weaponry still gives off a Cold War chill. The historical preservation has been careful and unobtrusive, allowing each new visitor to feel as if they’ve stumbled upon a secret.

If your charts are a year or two out of date, like mine were, the secret can suddenly become pressingly more realistic.

“There’s a north cardinal up ahead,” my girlfriend told me as she helmed our borrowed H323 through the skerries south of Örö. We were on a three-week cruise, with this being her first ever sailing trip. I was navigating, my nose in a book of charts.

“What? You must be seeing something else. There’s nothing on the charts,” I replied, scanning paper and screen simultaneously.


The lack of marks on my charts explained why we were sticking to a wider channel, tacking well clear of the shore and watching the depth meter with a nervous eye. Finland’s waters are notoriously rocky, but the main cruising areas are well marked, with excellently maintained and positioned cardinals, transit marks, lighthouses and cairns. It’s like sailing in a navigational classroom.

“And there’s an east cardinal…I think I can see another north over there.”

These marks for small craft had been laid, or maybe only revealed, in the past year or two, if the date on my charts were correct. I had no doubt the Finnish Defence Forces had these waters well-charted, but still, it felt like we were in remote waters.

Once we were safely moored on Örö we wandered the many hiking trails that wind through forests and over windswept rocky shores. Sprinkled across the island are barracks and mess halls painted the rusty red colour favoured by Scandinavian cottage owners. Örö felt like a summer camp, until we stumbled upon guns with barrels big enough to support a bridge. A radar whirred and spun atop a communications tower, reminding us of Örö’s less peaceful past. Each headland and windswept hill is honeycombed with bunkers and gun positions.

That night we sat, naked and sweating, in the marina’s new sauna, a Scandinavian chic and minimalistic building nestled among the birch trees. An expansive veranda led to a pier, from which steaming pink bodies were being launched into the frigid sea. A full moon bathed the rocky shore in light and turned the leaves of the forest silver. War seemed far away.

Some of the decommissioned islands are just outside Helsinki’s main harbour. Vallisaari was known for centuries as a place where sailors could take fresh water. When Sweden and Russia were at war in 1808 the Russians used Vallisaari as a base, and the island was only opened as tourism destination in 2016. The nearby islands of Isosaari and Lonna, all part of the Helsinki Archipelago, have similar stories to tell. Limited access has allowed threatened wildlife species and habitats to thrive on these islands, making them popular with scientists and eco-tourists alike.

While the bucolic natural settings have made it easy to turn the islands into parks, some decommissioned islands can’t shake their rough character quite so easily. On Utö, 25 miles to the southwest of Örö, the cruising boats are outnumbered by beefy coast guard ships and working boats that have to earn their keep. Utö has had a weather station since 1881 and is the southernmost year-round inhabited island in Finland, but the island feels like a place you are sent to and where you remain out of a sense of duty. Here the bunkers carved into granite feel colder, harder, more dangerous. In reality, Utö has also been a place of refuge. The island and its sailors formed the backbone of the rescue effort when the MS Estonia ferry sank nearby in 1994.

There was a cold, stiff breeze hitting Utö from the northeast when we were there, and it made me wonder about the island’s welcome. But then it came time for one of the handful of sailing boats to leave the dock, and the warm heart of these waters showed. Helping hands began to emerge from cockpits as the departing sail boat started her engine. Warps were run ashore, instructions shouted into the wind, and the boat began to back out while the sailors ashore controlled her head and made sure she got away cleanly. Here, boats moor bow to the dock, with a hook on a stern line to catch the mooring buoy. Boats run their anchor from the stern in smaller marinas without buoys. Most local boats have a strap line on a spool at the stern to make mooring easier.

A spool of strong line on the stern also makes it easier to adapt to local customs in natural harbours. In the Finnish archipelago the land falls into the sea so steeply that in many places you can moor your boat directly to the rocks — a frightening exercise for uninitiated sailors. The anchor is dropped off the stern, and bow lines are tied to trees or pitons pounded into cracks in the rock. Then you jump ashore off the bow and explore your island.

Even in the high season of June and July you can have a cozy bay all to yourself. The forests are wild and pristine, filled with wild berries — within a one-week span we picked blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and cranberries — as well as wild mushrooms, if you dare. While there are summer houses sprinkled across the archipelago, the land use customs dictate that as long as you’re not moored right in front of the property and give everyone a bit of space and privacy, you’re allowed to go ashore anywhere you want.

When you run out of beer and locally smoked fish, there are scores of small, affordable with basic services and friendly advice. The islands have three main mooring options: Natural harbours, whether anchored or moored to the shore; basic marinas, with a toilet and picnic table near the dock and not much more, are free; service marinas, which range from small family-run affairs that offer basic amenities to professionally-run marinas with fuel and repair support. Service marinas charges anywhere from 15 to 40 euros for a 40-foot boat, depending on their location and services.

Foreign boats are rare, and locals are surprised to encounter sailors from Hong Kong in their homely little ports. We borrowed Valaska from a friend, and she flies the Finnish flag, so in every port there was an awkward explanation — we’re not Finnish, we don’t speak Finnish or Swedish, we’re not from around here, but hello all the same. We saw a handful of Germans, the odd British, Estonian or Russian flag, but the vast majority of the boats were from Sweden or Finland. It only added to the feeling that we were discovering something special.

But the discoveries are not limited to old guns and underground bunkers. A dusty patina of history also covers many of the civilian islands that have transitioned from industry and other functions to nature tourism. Most of them are within an easy day’s sail of each other.

Själö was once home to a mental hospital and leper colony — today it’s a marine research center and quiet marina. Nearby is Jussarö’s abandoned iron ore mine, which became a military training ground before even the soldiers went home. The island, now a nature reserve, advertises itself as Finland’s only ghost town.

Helsingholmen is also on that list. When I told a fellow sailor that I preferred rustic, quiet marinas to the full-service ones, he showed me the island on a map.

“There’s just one family living there, running the place, selling some fish and keeping the island alive,” he said.

We arrived in Helsingholmen after a long day of dodging squalls and running in front of a 25-knot breeze. It was nearly dead calm in the bay. Children were playing on the lawn and the smell of smoke and fish drifted through the air.

Helsingholmen has been inhabited by farmers and fishermen since the 1770s, but now it’s just the Andersson family left. I went ashore to pay our marina fee and instead of a cash register found a wooden box nailed to the wall of an old barn, on the honour system. Smoked fish and bread rolls that were still warm from the Andersson family oven were on offer.

A hike across the island took me past abandoned log cabins with leaky roofs, 18th century farm machinery that was slowly becoming part of nature, and overgrown pastures carved out of the forest. The whole island felt like a museum piece.

The sun was beginning to set — which happens late, if at all, during the Finnish summer. I found a rocky outcrop that faced mainland Finland. The sea chopped at the rocky shore, trying to tear out the reeds that grew in the shallows. My sailing voyage through Finland’s archipelago was coming to an end, and I looked out across the water we would cross the next day. We would sail east, towards the bustling port of Hankow and beyond that the capital, Helsinki, and back into the present.

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

Double Haven

Read this story as it originally appeared on SCMP.com.

The map showed an idyllic patch of water hemmed in by parkland islands. I could see small coves and passages, the perfect place to explore in a kayak. Its name, Double Haven, completed the tranquil image.

But we weren’t there yet. First we had to cross the lumpy, grey seas of Tolo Channel, our kayaks bobbing in the waves as we waited for a ship to pass. Then we rounded Wong Chuk Kok Tsui, where hikers scrambling along the rocky shore to get to the Devil’s Fist shouted and waved at us as we paddled by.

We landed on Tung Wan for lunch, where my paddling partner, on her first big kayaking trip, slumped down onto a rock, exhausted.

“Is the whole trip going to be like this? With wind and waves? This cold?”

I made reassuring sounds and promised better conditions ahead, but I wasn’t sure myself what to expect. After an hour of shivering on the beach and gulping hot tea from a thermos I cajoled her back into her kayak. We pointed the boats through the narrow gap between Crescent and Double Islands and entered a whole different world.

Double Haven lay spread out before us, unfurled like an old Chinese scroll painting, complete with overlapping hills that disappeared into the blue haze. The water was calm, like an inland lake. The sun came out, turning greys into greens and blues, the light catching the silver flash of a jumping fish.

Double Haven, named Yan Chau Tong in Chinese, is on the northeastern shores of Plover Cove Country Park. Eroded volcanic rock, which is sharp and brittle and often blood red with iron oxide, shelters Double Haven at all points of the compass, saving it from the storms that batter other parts of Hong Kong. At its north end Double Haven becomes Crooked Harbour, but the two protected bodies of water can be explored as one.

Very few Hong Kongers even know of Double Haven, much less visited it. There no roads into the area and ferry connections are infrequent and inconvenient, so most visitors hike in. The area is perhaps best known for Lai Chi Wo, the 300-year old walled Hakka village that is being revitalised and sits inside the Yan Chau Tong Marine Park that was created in 1996.

The historic village was our destination for the day, and it was late afternoon by the time our kayaks bumped ashore next to its pier. There was no space for a tent on the beach, and the village square was covered in concrete, so we settled on a tiny patch of grass next to the village gate. We pulled our kayaks up above the high-tide line, hung our dripping clothes from a line and pitched the tent. It was dark by the time we had our cook stove hissing. Soon a villager arrived on his bicycle and we braced ourselves, expecting him to chase us away.

“I’m just checking my nets,” the man said. “It’s okay, you can camp here.”

He waded out into the receding tide, and moments later reappeared with a small fish he had pulled from his net.

“It’s not much, but I’m just fishing to feed myself, so it’s enough,” he said.

Before leaving he warned us to secure our food bags against wild pigs. Sure enough, we saw one trotting along the darkened shore and were jolted awake during the night when a squealing pig ran by our tent, chased by baying village dogs.

The next morning we paddled north to the island of Ap Chau. In the 1960s this island became home to the Taiwan-based True Jesus Church and its followers. Today, the church remains in use but there are only a handful of the island’s 1,000 Tanka residents left.

It was on the peak of Ap Chau where the preciousness of Double Haven’s seclusion hit home. Just two kilometres to the north was Yantian, which in the past two decades has evolved from a small fishing village into one of the world’s busiest container terminals. The roar of engines and clang of metal floated across the water, the acrid smell of diesel exhaust hung in the air. To the northwest was a wall of office and residential towers, where Sha Tau Kok blends seamlessly into the far reaches of the Shenzhen metropolis. To the east, beyond the hills of Crooked Island, was the open waters of Mirs Bay, dotted with cargo ships from around the world. But to south lay a scene largely unchanged for thousands of years; the intricate maze of isolated islands and quiet bays that we’d just paddled through. A tiny refuge in a sea of people and progress.

We paddled two kilometres east to the village of Kat O on Crooked Island, one of the only villages in the area with a permanent population and signs of activity. The village itself is well maintained and interesting to explore, but its main beach, where we landed, faces the industrial eyesore of Yantien, so we ate a quick lunch and continued on our way.

We pointed our kayaks south, back into the protection and quiet of Double Haven. It was hot and still for a winter day, and we took breaks from paddling to trail our hands in the cool water. The marine park teems with life, and the jumping fish were the only thing breaking the smooth surface of the sea. Our course took us along the southern shores of Double Haven and through the narrow Hung Shek Mun gap between Double Island and the mainland. We were on our way home, but it was still a long way to go.

Because Double Haven has so few waves the vegetation grows right down to the high tide line and there are few beaches, resulting in a dearth of camping spots. The weather forecast called for a drastic change of weather, so we needed protection. I scanned the shores, looking for a flat, dry spot to pitch our tent.

As we rounded the southern tip of Double Island and exited Double Haven I spotted the Outward Bound base in Wong Wan. The camp was empty except for a grizzled caretaker, who welcomed us to pitch our tent on the lawn. By the time all our gear was hung to dry, the tent was pitched and our dinner was on the stove the wind had begun to pick up. It was hard to tell at first, as we were still in a protected cove, but across the water we could see white-caps and spumes of spray where the waves were crashing into the shore.

“There’s going to be a storm,” the caretaker warned. “Tomorrow will be worse.”

He was right. We fell asleep to the sound of our tent fly flapping in the wind, and awoke to a full gale that brought with it a 10-degree drop in temperatures. The final 10 kilometres of our 45 kilometre trip would take us through exposed, open seas, so we waited, hoping the wind would ease. In the afternoon we went as far as to load the kayaks and paddle out to sea, but we were quickly turned back by steep, breaking waves. The camp caretaker gave us a “I told you so” look as we returned to his base and set up our tent for another night.

By the next morning the wind had subsided, but the cold remained. We hurried through breakfast iin case the wind would return and then pushed off from the shore, headed for home. The waves were smaller than they’d been the day before, but they still broke over the decks of our kayaks, reminding us of the haven we’d left behind.

Åland

Read this story as it was first published in the April issue of Cruising World.

Finnish sailors are proud of their submerged rocks. They grinned as they told me about the many skerries that barely break the surface of the Baltic Sea.

“Surely most of them are well marked,” I begged.

They shrugged their shoulders in a worrying, non-committal way and gave a rueful chuckle, like someone who has learned their lesson the hard way.

Those rocks were on my mind as I helmed west through the Finnish Archipelago.
I couldn’t afford to mess this up. My Finnish friends had generously lent me their sailing boat, Valaska, for three weeks, no strings attached, and I didn’t want to betray their trust.

The island of Korpo was to starboard. I’d just dropped off the owner’s son after a two-day shakedown cruise out of Turku, during which I tried to memorise where all the switches, sea cocks and latches were, which bits to jimmy and which ones were jammed. Now the yacht was my responsibility, and nothing but the hull stood between the rocks and I.

“After this west cardinal there are three north cardinals in a row, and then a south cardinal,” my crew told me, sitting in the cockpit, paper charts on his lap, checking the veracity of the chart plotter. He looked worried.

“I see an east cardinal there…is that ours?” I stood up, straddling the rudder of the trim little H323, ready to turn either way at moment’s notice, my eyes scanning the water for the waves in the middle of nowhere that characterise skerries.

And so it would go for the next few hundred miles as we wove our way through the thousands of islands sprinkled across the Gulf of Bothnia. Our destination was Åland, a place I’d never even heard of until I’d begun planning this cruise.

When the owner first made his offer I proposed that I sail to Sweden and explore its famous archipelago. And as soon as the words were out of my mouth I sensed that this was not what he had in mind.

“Yes, you could sail to Sweden, but Finland has thousands of islands as well. You would have to pass right by Åland. Look it up, you might want to spend your time there instead.” There was raw nerve of competition between the Scandinavian neighbours, I realised.

They were right about this little-known corner of Europe, where berries grow wild, the sun stays high in the sky during summer nights and the fluttering Åland flag reminds visitors that Finland may own the land, but the hearts and spirit of the people remain free.

Åland is an archipelago of 6,500 islands and skerries. It was under Swedish rule for 700 years until the Treaty of Fredrikshamn forced Sweden to hand it, along with Finland, to Imperial Russia. In 1917 Finland declared independence from Russia and took Åland with it. Ålanders argued for their own self-determination, with a request for annexation by Sweden, but there were concerns that independence could make them vulnerable to Nazi Germany or Soviet influence.

In 1920 Finland granted wide-reaching cultural and political autonomy to Åland, including its own flag, postage stamps, police force and a seat in the Nordic Council. This demilitarised region is part of Finland’s Archipelago Sea, the largest archipelago system in the world and the spiritual home of Tove Jansson, the Finnish novelist and comic strip author of the Moomin books for children.

Dotted with natural harbours, remote islands and weatherbeaten pilot houses, Åland’s history is visible at every turn. In small ports I saw iron mooring rings pounded into granite shores by Russian sailors more than a century ago, which today are used to moor yachts. Lonely pilot houses top windswept islands and remind sailors that this was once one of the great shipbuilding sites of Europe.

It is rare to see sailors from outside Scandinavia in these waters, and most of those you do meet are German. So, when we arrived in the marina at the top of Bärö, next to the island of Kumlinge, we were surprise to find a dozen cruisers filling the tiny harbour. But there was still one spot left — arriving in a 32 foot boat with a 1.4m draft is a distinct advantage in these waters. These brackish waters have no significant tides, allowing for an extra degree of bravery when edging a yacht into shallow anchorages.

After the customary anchor drinks I changed into swimming shorts and headed for the sauna built on a floating dock, eager for the full experience of Finnish sailing. I threw open the door with a cheery “Hello!” — sometimes it’s an advantage to have everyone know you’re not local. The three women inside pulled their towels a little bit tighter around them and looked at me suspiciously.

“This is a private sauna,” one of them cooly informed me.

I stammered my apologies, backing out the way I’d come, and returned to the boat for additional anchor drinks. Soon one of them swam over with a smile on her face to explain that we had to book the sauna — but unfortunately it was already booked solid for the evening. Our first sauna experience would have to wait.

The next morning we returned to the steady southwesterly 15-18 knot breeze that had brought us here. It carried us to the remote northern shores of Fasta Åland, the main island, where the region’s most untamed forests and islands are. Saggö, nestled against its sister island Saggö ön, forms a narrow strait that provided us protection from the wind and showed promise ashore.

It was my first attempt at Finland’s unique mooring system. I motored along the shore to check depths, then picked my spot. The crew stood on the bow, mooring lines in hand, and I dropped the anchor from the stern as we approached the rocky cliffs. I edged the boat close enough for the crew to jump ashore, where they banged iron pitons into cracks in the granite. Mooring lines were looped through the pitons, while I tightened the anchor line. When we were done the bow of the boat was only two feet from the rocks, but the steep shore and taut anchor line kept the keel in deep water.

I jumped onto a boulder covered in orange lichen and scrambled up the rocks, using the scrawny fir trees to pull myself into the forest. The forest was deep and quiet, with only the sigh of wind against the tops of the fir trees to break the silence. The thick, springy silenced my steps. I reached down and pulled out a damp handful, releasing a woodsy, earthy smell — a scent I don’t normally associate with cruising holidays.

Then I spotted them…a cluster of red ones here, some deep purple ones there. Bilberries and lingonberries — in North America commonly known as blueberries and cranberries — growing wild in thick clumps.

I dropped to my knees and gorged on them. They were tart and sweet, making my tongue tingle. I picked until my fingers were blue with juice and had filled a small bag with those that somehow escaped my mouth.

That evening we sat around a campfire on the rocks, sipping coffee and eating fresh berries with scones baked in Valaska’s oven. The firelight flickered on her white hull, confusing me for a moment — was I on a camping or a sailing holiday?

We continued across the north of Fasta Åland, alone but for the Whooper swans — Finland’s national bird featured on the 1 euro coin — and even an occasional seal, but we saw few other boats. Eventually we turned south, down the western side of the island, past the Ådskär lighthouse to Mariehamn.

The southern coast is the part of Åland that most visitors see. Mariehamn, the region’s capital, was named for a Russian empress. Here huge ferries disgorge tourists from Sweden, Estonia and mainland Finland, and the streets are lined with cafes and restaurants in ornate, historic buildings. It’s home to summer music festivals and nearly half of Åland’s population.

That night the wind rose until waves broke over the marina docks and the air was filled with the screech of rigging, so in the morning we switched to bicycles, Åland’s other great mode of transport. Fasta Åland and the outlying islands have hundreds of kilometres of well maintained and signposted bicycle paths, and we followed one of them north. It took us through rolling fields of ripe barley and wheat growing between forests of fir and silver birch, past small farms with bright red outbuildings and summer cottages with stacks of firewood outside their doors. Every few kilometres the path cut back towards the coast, and I caught glimpses of the sparkling Baltic Sea.

Twenty-five kilometres later we arrived at Kastelholm, a Swedish-built medieval castle occupied by Finns, Swedes and Russians over the centuries. It was used as a prison and execution grounds in the late 1600’s when Åland was in the grip of a hysterical witch hunt. Åland’s independent postal office has just issued a stamp to commemorate the execution of seven suspected witches.

From the castle walls I looked down on the Kastelholm Yacht Harbour, nestled in the narrow inlet of Ladängsviken, making a mental note to sail rather then pedal next time.

By the next morning the winds were more manageable, and we set off through the complicated fairway leading from Mariehamn to open sea. We shared the channel with several massive international ferries, which added to the navigational challenge. Despite the apparent remoteness of the region, there are also small ferries criss-crossing the archipelago, requiring sailors to keep a constant watch.

Rödhamn, an island port I’ve heard about from numerous other sailors, is just 10 nm south of Mariehamn. Its name refers to the red (röd) colour of its rocky shores, which have provided safe haven to centuries of seafarers. The shores of the southern, sea-lashed side of the island are dotted with stone cairns left behind by passing sailors. There is no electricity or running water in the marina, making it a quiet, peaceful place. A small bakery delivers hot rolls to your boat in the morning.

But the real reason I came to Rödhamn was its famed sauna. Late that night we hiked across the island with our towels around our necks. The air had turned chilly and the sky was filled with the kind of clear light only found in a high-latitude summer night. On the far side of Rödhamn, perched at the tip of a peninsula, was a small hut facing the sea. Smoke puffed from its chimney.

We stripped and ducked into the warm darkness. It was nearly dark inside, with just a glimmer of evening light coming through a small window. The wood-burning stove hissed as I threw a scoop of water at it, producing a searing hot steam that rose to ceiling. Soon I was dripping with sweat and conversation ebbed to the occasional sigh.

When the heat became unbearable I burst out of the sauna and ran, stark naked, across the smooth granite rocks that sloped towards the sea. The indigo sky was streaked with yellow light, the sun still high above the horizon despite the late hour.

“Whoo hooo!” I shouted as I launched myself, my yell becoming a yelp as I hit the frigid Baltic Sea. Within seconds the cold became too much, and I swam for the shore to dash back into the sauna.

The summer was coming to an end, and the wind turned from westerlies to easterlies as we began our 150nm voyage to Valaska’s home port of Helsinki. The easterlies brought a cold rain that slashed at our faces as we tacked our way home, as if cajoling us to return to Åland and its sunny skies.

Canadian Shield

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

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“This sure doesn’t feel like October,” my brother says, standing knee deep in lake water, squinting up at the warm afternoon sun.

Our yellow canoe is pulled up on a narrow beach, perpendicular to the deep hoof prints left by a passing moose. The birch and spruce forest leans over the beach, as if reaching for the sunlight that glitters off the water. Most of the leaves have already fallen and the trees are naked and white.

“The water’s a bit chilly, but the sun makes up for it,” I say as I wade ashore after a quick plunge in Lake Kilvert, in Ontario’s Eagle-Dogtooth Provincial Park.

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It’s one of thousands of lakes carved out of the 4 billion year old rock. This is the Canadian Shield, the largest mass of exposed Precambrian rock on earth, the exposed continental crust of North America, where ancient mountains were flattened and lakes carved from rock during the Ice Age. Eight million square kilometers of it, igneous rock born from volcanoes that grew into tall mountains which were then worn down to rolling hills and a thin sifting of soil by monstrous slabs of ice.

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Right now, that much ice, or even snow, is hard to imagine. We’re enjoying some late season warmth on the first day of our canoe trip. This park, only a 2.5 hour drive east of Winnipeg, has five meandering canoe routes through moraines, boggy beaver ponds and pine forest ecosystems. We gambled with a late-season trip and it paid off as we have the lakes to ourselves. Everyone else has already packed up their boats for the winter.

We hoist our canoe and trudge one and a half kilometers through the forest to Gale Lake, where we drop it with a sigh. I stretch my neck and shoulders as we walk back to retrieve our bags and a food barrel. This is just one of seven portages we’ll make on our 51.5 kilometer route, the price we pay to paddle across these remote lakes.

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Once we’ve portaged all of our gear we set up camp in a stand of tall red pine on the western shore of Gale Lake, a small tear-drop shaped body of water that pinches off into a narrow creek in the north. There’s plenty of wood for a fire, and I mix up a batch of bannock, the unleavened Native American bread. I fry it in a pan, seasoned with wood smoke and raisins.

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The Canadian Shield is the home of Algonquian nomadic hunters, who paddled these lakes in birchbark canoes, but the wide expanses of bare rock, poor soil and frequent marshes made it difficult for early explorers and fur traders to push westward into the continent. On the other side of this rock wall are the Prairies, Canada’s wheat land.

Eventually the European colonialists blasted a rail line through the Shield, which opened it to prospectors who found gold, silver, nickel, cobalt, zinc, copper, iron ore and, more recently, diamonds. This is also where Canada has built massive hydroelectric dams to feed cities to the south. The Shield, both past and present, looms large in Canadian history and culture, and canoeing these waters is a rite of passage for many Canadians.

Our good weather holds for exactly two days. Just long enough for us to grow smug, congratulating ourselves for setting forth while others stayed at home. Then, during the night, the temperature drops. We pull out our thermal underwear and stoke the fire as rain spits from a leaden sky. Now, suddenly, that Ice Age seems more feasible.

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We’re watching the change of the season, when the benign summer is replaced by the unpredictability of early winter. This winter won’t wear down mountains or create a new lake like a true Ice Age, but it will put the land to sleep for the next six months or more.

Luck never changes in half-measures, and the wind that brought the cold air blows heartily from the southwest, straight on our bow. A day earlier the lakes were so still the rippled wake of a loon traveled a kilometre across the water, and now the grey water sloshes into our boat as we claw our way upwind.

“Do you still have control of the boat?” I call back to my brother, who is steering from the stern and who I’ve only heard grunts and curses from for the last few minutes. He is the more experienced canoeist, so surely he will know if we’re pushing our luck. We’re trying to round a point of land that has compressed waves and wind and I’ve just taken on a lap full of cold lake water.

“Yea, but we’re on the edge,” he shouts. “Just keep paddling, hard.”

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We make it, but once we’re in a protected bay we rule against risking further miles in these conditions. Along a low, swampy shore on Dogtooth Lake we find a forest clearing created by gnawing beavers and set up camp to wait out the storm. Every few hours we walk to the edge of the woods to see if the white caps that race across the lake are becoming smaller. They are not.

But the view is great. Tall cliffs left behind by glacial erosion, topped by scraggly jack pine and poplar. Massive round boulders have been dropped by the retreating ice, like marbles left behind by a child. Speckled alder and red maple still sport a few blazing leaves, beacons in the grey light.

Our last morning begins before dawn. We’ve promised friends and family to reemerge from the wilderness at a certain time, and in order to do that we need to make up the distance lost to the storm. We stop once, mid-morning, to boil up some coffee, and then push on. The wind has died, leaving behind a cold mist that blankets the quiet lakes.

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I’ve had something on my mind, but I’ve been afraid to say it. I didn’t want to jinx things. But then we round a corner and I can see our truck and the end of our canoe journey. I double check, squinting to make sure, but I can see no one on the shore.

“We haven’t seen another person in five days,” I finally blurt out. “Not a boat, no people outside their cabins, no one at all.”

“If there was anyone else out there they were warm and dry in their cabins,” my brother says. “Probably looking out of their window at us paddling past in the mist and thinking, ‘Those poor buggers’.”

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Dinosaur Ecosystems

Ever wondered what it would be like to live in the world of dinosaurs?

I had the privilege of working as a filmmaker and editor on a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) — an online video university course — for Hong Kong University. I spent an intriguing month filming in Inner Mongolia and two weeks in the halls of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Here’s the official trailer for the course, which will launch on edX on February 8, 2017.

This course will take you to the Gobi Desert of China to show you exciting fossils from the Late Cretaceous fossil site of Erlian. We will also visit leading international museums and institutions and see beautiful scenic sites.

Join us to find out more about dinosaurs and how their ecosystems are reconstructed! Enroll now!! It’s FREE!!

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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