Thursday, 28 March 2013

Geographical Journeys at the RGS

Yesterday evening I had the great pleasure of attending an event at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I was very excited to be able to attend an event there, as the Society is obviously steeped in history and enshrines such famous names as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton and Hillary. Greats indeed in the history of endeavour and adventure.

The event I went to was about expeditions on a slightly more modest scale, but adventures none-the-less. And to make it all the more exciting, the reason that I was there was that one of the speakers was a friend of mine and she had invited me.

Geographical Journeys: Microlectures’ featured seven speakers who had all undertaken travel, either for exploration, science, work, or simply for the journey. Each speaker had only 10 minutes in which to deliver their adventure, and so we heard about how Emma Baker went to Sierra Leone on a volunteer program and had the experience of a lifetime, how Faraz Shibli and his girlfriend travelled to Laos with their new bicycles to travel the country. The cycle journey ended when his girlfriend injured herself in a fall and they had to turn to hitch hiking instead, but it was not all disaster as they got engaged on the trip! And Levison Wood told anecdotes of his journey to South Sudan, the World’s newest country, to lead a Channel 4 crew who were making a film about fishing in a war zone.

My favourite tales were those of: 
Keith MacIntosh, who did not cancel his trip to Ladakh, a mountain desert area high in the Himalayas where it never rains, when in the middle of the night a rare cloudburst event flooded the area causing massive damage to this rural, undeveloped region. Many inches of rain fell in minutes during this poorly-understood phenomenon, and the mountainous terrain funnelled the water into the valleys – exactly where the population all made their homes. The flooding and mud slides caused huge damage to homes, the minimal agriculture in the region, and uncountable loss of life. Keith still travelled to the area, but replaced trekking with conducting any unskilled labour he could to help the stricken area: repairing irrigation systems, helping bring in the harvest, clearing wreckage and recovering people’s belongings from the mud slides. He was also there when HH the Dalai Lama visited to unite the people and give them strength. Quite an experience!

Conservation biologist James Borrell, who told of his experiences conducting fieldwork in the remote and beautiful Dhofar Mountains in the Arabian Peninsula. This region is an oasis of jungle on the coast of Oman, near to the border with Yemen, where the limestone mountains drive moist air upwards creating jungle in the desert. Here the team collected valuable data on the surprisingly diverse wildlife, and with camera traps they captured images of rare striped hyenas, honey badgers, and even captured the elusive and enigmatic Arabian leopard, an extremely rare subspecies thought to number less than 250 individuals scattered across Arabia – even fewer than its more famous rare cousin, the snow leopard.

Malgosia Skowronska, a mountaineer from ‘Afghanistan’s Secret Peaks’ project who described her journey through mountain regions of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor – the narrow strip of land at Afghanistan’s north eastern side, pointing out towards China to climb previously unclimbed mountain peaks. With modern-day Pakistan to the south and modern-day Tajikistan to north, this corridor was created when the British and Russian Empires created a buffer zone during ‘the Great Game’, and it is extremely remote. Malgosia showed wonderful photos of Wakhi and Kirgiz people, the women of these people unlike the common image of Afghan women hidden under burkhas, and instead resplendent in beautifully patterned and ornate bright red clothes and fancy jewellery. Afghanistan holds a special place in my imagination as I have been there with work and have spent a lot of time learning about culture there and also studying one of the Afghan languages, Pashto. I would love to visit the Wakhan area of the country, which has not been affected by the regime of the Taliban in the same way as other areas of the country.

The speaker I had been invited by was my friend Helen Spencer. Helen is fascinating. She loves travel and has been fortunate enough to do a lot of interesting trips – she has already been reindeer herding with the Sami people in Norway this year, and will be heading off on an Afghan adventure in the summer. Her work as a vet has also taken her to fantastic places and has had her working on incredibly interesting projects with different people around the world (Jealous? Moi??)

This talk was about the time Helen, as part of a group organised by specialist travel company Secret Compass, took part in the first recorded coast to coast crossing of Madagascar by foot, including summiting the highest mountain on the island (and the second highest by mistake too due to a slight misjudgement in calculations!)

Sambava on the east coast - journey's start (photo by Helen Spencer)

The expedition began on the east coast and moved west, initially on well-trodden tracks past local villages, camping in school fields or other open patches of land. The group were the first foreigners ever seen by most of the people they encountered, and they regularly drew large crowds of curious onlookers to watch them put up their tents, deal with their blisters, go for a wee in the woods…

A tea break with an audience of hundreds! (photo by Helen Spencer)

Eventually the paths petered out and the team moved into jungle that required them to hack their way through. Sometimes the undergrowth was so thick that they could only cover as little as 6km in a full day’s work. Navigation was seriously hampered as the close-up jungle obliterates landmarks and the dense canopy interferes with GPS systems, so the team used rivers where possible to aid their route finding. As they encountered more hilly terrain they broke in and out of jungle, getting treated to spectacular views that human eyes may never have seen before. Sorely needed compensation for the heavy packs, back breaking work, leeches, blisters and flesh eating parasites! 

Breath taking views (photo by Helen Spencer)

Making their way through the jungle (photo by Helen Spencer)
The Tsaratanana Massif region at the north end of the island contains, at 2,880 metres (9,449 ft), the highest point on the island. Not quite in the league of the Alps in Europe, though higher than our highest British peak of Ben Nevis. The team made their preparations for the summit, which included bringing a white chicken which they had carried in from the start of their journey. At the top the high fives were halted when the GPS revealed they had headed up the wrong peak, so down they had to traipse, across the boggy patch at the bottom, and back up the right peak.

The summit team at the highest point of Madagascar (photo by Helen Spencer)

More incredible views, possibly never seen before (photo by Helen Spencer)
Eventually, despite the inaccuracies of their 1962 French Foreign Legion maps, the whole team made it out of the jungle and down towards the western coast. No serious injuries were sustained during the trek, which was excellent luck as with no helicopters on the island, a casualty would have meant the team would have to carry them back through all of the difficult terrain they had already passed! (Now there’s an incentive to look out for your team mates!) That said, a few members did end up in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases with leishmaniasis – the previously mentioned flesh eating parasite, which is passed on by bites from sand flies. Yuk!

Journey's end on the west coast, and a well-earned rest for some tired feet (photo by Helen Spencer)

Becoming something’s dinner aside, imagine being the first to do something? The first to see that view, tread that path, make that achievement? Simply a-MA-zing.


  1. Love the blog!!!! I feel very honoured to be featured!

    1. Thank you very much! I am very lucky to have someone so interesting to write about!

  2. What fascinating stories!

    1. Thank you! It was a real privilege to be able to go :)