Lethal force: a game park ranger’s guide

You can arrest someone on a schedule 1 offence for having sex with your rhino, but if they kill it, they won’t be committing a schedule 1 offense.

He’s making a joke about loopholes in the law to break the ice, but this is a serious talk. I’m sitting in the back of a wooden hut, in the middle of a game reserve in Zululand, South Africa, listening to a lethal force expert give a lecture to a bunch of armed private security contractors.

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It’s hot and the room smells of animal skins and rooibos tea. I’m privy to this as I am currently training to become a game park ranger, though not an armed one. Yesterday was rhino tracking, today is gun law. Our lecturer is a man who was a private security contractor for 32 years. He’s old, tough and has the eyes of a man whose probably seen more dead people than most people have birthdays. He is white with a deep tan and a thick Afrikaans accent.

“I know exactly how you guys feel.” he says when the young hot headed rangers roll their eyes. “I was in the APU business for 32 years, I’ve been in firefights, and I’ve been in the bush. It’s not like I’m reading this from the books, I’ll try and give you relevant information that applies to your specific situation.”

“First thing your lawyer will say if you shoot someone is “Don’t make any statement.” But you can’t do that. You have to have a working relationship with the local police. If you refuse to make a statement, they will look at the smoking gun and send you straight in front of a judge.”

The law doesn’t seem to be on their side. Apparently, a private security contractor is just a normal person in the eyes of the law and has absolutely no license to shoot anyone. If you shoot someone without good reason you’ll just get sent straight to jail.

“Necessity allows you to shoot a dog attacking a child in a built up area, or shooting a black rhino attacking a visitor on a wilderness trail, though in the latter, it would be career suicide.”

The problem seems to be that although people are caught a lot, in the private sector, people are not usually charged. What this tends to lead to is private security rough housing or shooting at poachers to deter them, rather than making useless and expensive arrests. I mean can you really blame them?

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A full grown male Nyala can fetch $10,000 at auction, but are mostly killed for meat by poachers

“The old section 49 of the law said that you could shoot someone for a schedule 1 offence if you could not reasonably arrest them any other way. Also, you must have the intention of arresting the person in order to justify that they were fleeing from arrest. Never use the term “Ambush”” The lecturer says, “that implies that you were trying to kill them, not arrest them. Say “Lying in wait to arrest.””

As a summary to this part of the lecture, he gets a bit sombre.

“Taking a human life is going to be the biggest decision you ever make, so if someone is joking about it, then don’t believe they ever did it. These things will break up your marriage, will give you ulcers, you will be looking over your shoulder your whole life, waiting to get convicted.” Let alone the guilt of the actual act.

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The skull of a hippo. More fatalities are caused by hippos than any other mammal in Africa.

We had an incident here just last night with poachers digging under the fence. They let there dogs through to hunt and bring back prey to the fence, then they drag it under and sell it as meat. This method has been developed to escape the law, putting the poacher out of jurisdiction of the ranger and out of actual bodily liability.

I’ve sat through some pretty boring lectures in my time, but this definitely wasn’t one of them. They say travel is the best education. Well I’ve sure learned a lot since I’ve been roaming. If you’re interested in more unique insights follow the blog below. Who knows, you may want to pursue a career as a park ranger too. Just think twice before pulling the trigger.

 

 

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5 ways to “Super Charge” your adventures

If you’re like me and like to get more out of a trip, you’ll want to go off the beaten path, experience more and come out the other end with a truly amazing story. Some people like to come up with rules that they always follow, like always pack a map and sun cream, but rules are meant to be broken. Here’s some things I like to do to put an edge on my adventures.

1. Don’t bring a map

I’m not saying don’t know your terrain, but having a map generally slows me down. Always checking and second guessing yourself makes you frustrated and unsure of yourself, and often wastes time and valuable daylight. Just follow your gut and use your senses, navigate by line of sight and digest some breadcrumbs to find your way home.

Some top tips on how to navigate on the fly:

  • Pick a reference point on the horizon or up the hill and if you get turned around or have to go round an obstacle, you can always use this to get you back on track.
  • If the sun is out, look at your shadow. Which direction is it pointing in with respect to where you want to go? If you’re headed north west and its 1pm, your shadow will be behind you and slightly on your left, about 7 O’Clock (in the northern hemisphere.) If you can’t use a reference point, just remember to keep your shadow at 7 O’clock and you’ll stay on track for a couple of hours.
  • Path-finding. This can be a difficult skill to master, but there a a few simple ways to start. If you’re looking for a path, look for lines in the natural world. Paths often follow rivers, or natural depressions in the ground. The rocks might be slightly lighter where they’re exposed to more sun, or the grass or flora more down-trodden. You’ll get an eye for it eventually.
  • Look behind you. When you’re on your way home you’ll be going in the opposite direction and things can look very different the other way round. Remember to periodically look behind you and memorise what the terrain looks like that way.

It’s an incredibly fulfilling feeling once you get the hang of it and will make you more confident and independent whilst travelling.

2. Have a time constraint

I’ve often found myself running home after a long days adventure because I’m trying to beat the light, or the last lifts in a ski resort, and it’s these times when you really dig deep and pull out all the stops. It encourages you to push harder and gives you a challenge at the end of the day to keep you pushing on. I’ve often had the most fun trying to beat the clock, running down a mountain and leaping through bushes. It just feels so much more adventurous.

3. Try out new things

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Sometimes having too  much gear can slow you down, but there are things you might never be able to do without specialist equipment. For example: I would not have been able to climb half the peaks I did last winter in Andorra without my trusty ice axe “Bertha.” She definitely saved my life a few times, but then again, I wouldn’t have been hanging off all those cliffs without her in the first place.

Bertha is now my favourite thing in the world and I never go climbing in the snow without her, but I’d been on many climbs barehanded before. Snow shoes and crampons are another two things for climbing in the snow that I’m less fond of, but I tried them all out and found out which one was best for me.

You may want to seek advice or get help from a guide on how to use things for the first time, but that’s up to you.

4. Go nuts

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Don’t just stare longing at that tree, climb it! Many years ago my mother and I were hiking in the Himalayas and I leapt down from a tree in front of our group, having gone on ahead. A girl turned around to me and moaned, saying “err, why were you up there?” to which I replied “Why aren’t you?”  If you’re going to spend lots of money travelling and exploring the world, don’t let what other people think kill your buzz. After all, isn’t that why you’re there?

If you feel like climbing something, do it. If you feel like dive rolling in the snow, do it. If you feel like skinny dipping in a lake, do it! It’s your damned life. Just don’t get frost bite.

5. Don’t just take pictures.

I hate people who just go somewhere, take a picture and then leave. First of all you’re not really experiencing it, and secondly, a picture is a poor representation of a moment. You have at least five senses and sight is just one of them.

Whenever I’m alone out on a precipice in the middle of the wilderness, or in some peaceful forest by a lake, I take some time to really soak it in and remember it.

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Here’s how I do it:

  • Sit in a comfortable spot surrounded by as much space as possible (I like precipices).
  • Listen. Close your eyes and pick out all the specific sounds around you: the birds, the wind, the water. Try and visualise where they are around you.
  • Notice the feelings: the warm sun, the cool wind, the feeling of the rough sand, the smooth stone, the tickle of the grass. all the things that make this place unique.
  • Open your eyes and look all around you in a 180. Don’t try and remember everything you see, but pick specific things and solidify them in your mind. The way a rock formation looks like a face, the way the water swirls around a rock, the curve of a interesting tree.
  • Using all of these things, you can build a sensory map of your environment far greater than just a picture. Meld the sounds, the feelings and the sights together, then close your eyes again and try to picture it without seeing it.
  • This is the important part, because later on you won’t be able to see it. So imagine it, then open your eyes and check it, then close them and imagine it again.

Once you have a full map inside your head, you will be able to recall that specific moment and how it made you feel forever. Once you have some of these maps in your head, sit down at another time and repeat the process, going through each one and experiencing them again. This way you can revisit your adventures from anywhere in the world and draw from those experiences to super charge your life.

If you want some examples of my adventures why don;t you check out my Only in China, or Understanding Africa series.

Stay Strong.

 

6 signs of an average holiday and how to avoid them

No one wants to be average, so why spend your holidays doing the same thing as everyone else? I mean no one wants to sit on a beach all day, then go eat at the hotel buffet right?

I’ve been travelling the world for years now and I always try to do something different. Whenever I see myself slipping into the conventional, or falling for a “package deal” I keep myself in check. Here’s six easy ways to make your travels more interesting and avoid those tourist traps.

1. Are you lying on a beach?

We spend most of our lives sitting at a desk or lounging on a sofa watching T.V. make your holiday your chance to do something fun. Yea relaxing your stress away is one of getting out of work mode, but zooming along on a jet ski, or plummeting down a mountain is so much better.

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I always go to places I know there’s lots to do, whether it’s hiking in the mountains, snowboarding, diving, or horse riding, I want to do things I can’t normally do at home. You might discover a new hobby, or life long interest if you get off your ass and go do stuff.

2. Is there a buffet?

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If you’re staying somewhere there’s a buffet, don’t just eat pizza and chips. I’ve worked in so many places abroad where British holidaymakers just sit at their hotel buffet and eat stuff they eat at home. Whether it’s Paella in Valencia or Tagine in Morocco, its a chance to try out new things and explore new flavours. You never know you might just enjoy it.

3. Are there English people everywhere?

You’ve flown hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles to explore somewhere different, so why go to somewhere that’s just full of English people? The world is a vast and ever changing tapestry, so go somewhere you’re not familiar with, or better yet somewhere you’ve never even heard of before.

So many people end up in tourist traps full of other tourists and never even so much as converse with the locals. If you meet a bunch of English people and just get drunk with them, you might as well be in your local pub.

When you get off the plane at the airport talk to the guy in the bar of cafe and ask them whats going on, ask them where they hang out and what there is to do. Chances are there’ll be local customs and subcultures going on that are far cooler than whats on trip adviser and many locals are happy to show you round for free, just because you’re interested in their country.

4. Does someone have a megaphone?

If you’ve joined a tour group and someone is shouting over a megaphone, you’ve lost. If you’re being told where to go and what to take pictures of, you’ve lost the wandering that goes with wanderlust. Take off on your own, arrange your own transport to sights and spend time focusing on things that really interest you, not just a tour of the gift shop.

5. Are you taking a selfie?

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In this day and age everyone’s holidays photos look the same. Here’s a selfie with me on the beach, here’s a selfie with me on a boat, here’s a selfie of me with dinner. If you really want people to pay attention to your photos, buy a tripod, or mini gorilla pod and take photos with a difference. Craft a story (not on snap chat) that really captures the moment and then explain it to your friends.

6. Are you on your phone?

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We spend most of our lives staring at our phones these days, scanning other peoples lives for some source of fulfilment. The easiest way to know you’re not having a good time is that you’re looking at what people are doing back home.

When you’re travelling you are surrounded by sights and sounds, smells and feelings you can’t get through a small glass box, so leave your phone at home, or in the hotel and go explore. don’t let “what’s the wifi password” be the first thing you say when you arrive in a new place. Buy and watch and a camera and use these things instead. Besides, no love story ever started “I saw this cute guy staring at his phone…”


So what have we learned from this?

Be in the moment

Don’t go where everyone else goes

Meet local people

Eat great food

Leave your phone at home

Take good pictures

Go out and do stuff

If you’re committed to not being average, why don’t you follow the blog below to get more updates on living an adventurous lifestyle. Don’t just be yourself, be your best self.

 

3 ways to travel China on “easy-mode”

I travelled around China for four months, crossing from east to west, south to north, through 13 different provinces. We’re talking mountains, deserts, cities and more regional dialects than Europe has languages. It can be a difficult place to travel around, even getting a visa, but I learned how to do it the hard way, so now I can make it easy for you.

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Relaxing after a long day climbing Huang Shan: The Yellow Mountains

Here’s a list of the most important hacks I found during my adventures:

1. Visa

It can be difficult to get a visa to freely travel around China and they place a lot of restrictions on you, I even failed my application twice before I got through, just a day before I was travelling! On the application they ask for:

  1. Your return flight tickets
  2. Proof of funding for the trip (bank statements)
  3. Proof of booking and the full address of where you’re staying for the entire trip! Yes, every day!

So how are you going to do this if you’re planning on traversing the country, or planning it day by day? There are two ways to get around this.

  1. Book a bunch of rooms on Booking.com, or Hostelworld that are “Pay on arrival”, “No deposit required” enough to cover every day. Then simply print these out and submit them with your application. You don’t have to show up at any of them, since

  2. If you know anyone who is a Chinese national you can get them to write you a signed letter with a copy of their Chinese ID card. The letter needs to state that they have known you for 3 or more years and that you will be staying with them for the duration of your trip. This has to be a Chinese National, not someone just living there under a visa.

After failing at the first method, I chose the second, as I had a friend who had moved over here from China. Just ask really nice and bring them back some Chinese sweets.

Here’s a link to the Chinese Visa Application service, which is appointment only! Everything you need is there. Make sure to read the guide. If you’re successful you’ll receive a 2 year visa, maximum stay 90 days at a time. Just do a border run every 90 days.

2. Language

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A mistranslated sign in a toilet in An Hui province

If you’re going to be a noob and only visit Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an then don’t bother, but if you’re going anywhere else it is essential to learn the basics. 90% of the time I was in places where no one spoke a word of English and nothing is written in English either, it’s like being on another planet. 90% of all my problems could have been solved by speaking more Chinese.

 

Some basic tips:

  1. Buy a phrase book and learn it! Don’t worry about pleasantries, learn: numbers, directions, time, food, and most importantly how to buy things.

  2. Download Pleco. Google translate just doesn’t get Chinese grammar. Nothing will make sense when you try and read it off. Pleco is a fantastic app that explains all the variations of a word and how to use it in different contexts. You can also sketch out a symbol using your finger and it will translate it for you. Magic.

  3. Write it down. Pronunciation is incredibly difficult in Chinese. If you’re travelling somewhere write the Chinese character down with a sharpie on your arm. Use a guidebook and plan in advance.

  4. Use WeChat. Everyone in China has WeChat. It’s like Whatsapp but better and it has an auto-translate function, just hold down on the text and an option pops up. Everyone you meet will ask you to add them on WeChat and as long as you have internet, or if they share their wireless hotspot with you, you can simply type and auto-translate both ways.

  5. Learn to read. It may look impossible at a glance, but if you ever want to know what you’re ordering off a menu and how to avoid getting a plate full of intestines, it’s worth learning some symbols like “rice” “noodles” “soup” “meat.” The same goes for places.

3. Trains

China has the greatest and best railway network in the world…if you know how to use it. Trains are always on time, they go everywhere, the timetables don’t change on weekends and there is no difference in price, no matter when you buy the ticket.

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Why is there is a road sign in the desert?

There are three ways to buy a train ticket:

  1. Go to the train station and queue up
  2. Go to a ticket kiosk somewhere else in town and buy a ticket
  3. Book it online, then go to the train station and collect it

#1 is only advisable if you know the station is not busy, and that the tickets for your journey won’t sell out. Queuing for an hour at the station is commonplace and sometimes popular journeys will sell out for days. If you’re only travelling short distance between small stations, use method number one, just make sure to write your destination down in Chinese and take your passport to the station, as this is required to buy tickets.

#2 is great if you can find a kiosk. Some guidebooks will have them on the map of the town, or just ask a local where one is, but make sure it’s the right company. There is usually a small surcharge for this as it is a convenience option.

#3 is highly advisable if you’re taking a sleeper or long popular journey, as you can book in advance. There are a couple of different services for this, but the best one I found is Travel China Guide. This service is great. in fact, Travel China Guide is the best resource for travelling china, period. Their charges are quite high ($5 per ticket) but you can reserve ahead of time and then just pick up your ticket from the station before you go. They have a booking service online so you can plan connections, check availability and prices, and reserve seats. The first time you book with them you need to email them a picture of your passport, but then each other time you only need to reply to their email to confirm you want to purchase. Using this service usually takes about 2 days, so plan accordingly.

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A lone farmer emerges from a paddy field in Guilin

Hopefully you’ll be able to avoid some of the traps I fell into during my adventures in China. It’s a beautiful country and well worth travelling independently as Chinese tour groups are insufferable. If you want to learn more about travelling around China subscribe to my blog bellow and check out the other posts.

WAW Climb for Justice: Week 3

This is the WAW (Women for Afghan Women) Climb for Justice, a weekly blog to raise awareness about women’s rights and human rights in Afghanistan and around the world. Each week I’ll be climbing a new mountain in Andorra to raise money for WAW, a charity that provide life saving support, shelter and legal aid to women and girls suffering from human rights violations.

DONATE NOW

I thought I’d start off this weeks blog with an inspirational poem by a young Afghan woman.

I can’t lock away my voice

I can be beautiful and put together
Without an occasion
Just for my own gaze,
And I can not.

For my own happiness,
I can adorn myself,
Darken my eyes with kohl and color my lips
And I can not.

I can be angry,
I can laugh, I can cry,
But I cannot tolerate imposition.
I cannot remain silent in the face of pain.
I cannot be neutral to oppression.
I cannot accept being the second sex.

I am not a poet,
But I can write.
I can’t read my words
Only in the bed, in the kitchen,
Within the four walls of my home.
I can’t lock away my voice.

Hosnia Mohseni (Free Women Writers)

Her words ring clear about standing up to oppression and not remaining silent in the face of inequality. No one should have to lock up their own voice, stand up, speak up and take up space in the world.

This weeks climb

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This week I climbed Pic d’Arcalis in Andorra to help raise money for Women for Afghan Women. It was a short but difficult climb, mostly due to the incredibly hard snow and ice on the western face. It had been snowing buckets the last couple of week and the winds had been a gale force, constantly freezing and stripping the soft snow off the mountain and turning it into a thick icy sheet.

I decided that I’d take the most direct route and climb straight up, so with ice axe in hand and snow shoes on foot I set off at around about midday. They were just setting up the face I was climbing for the Freeride world tour next week, so that just goes to show how steep it was. After a brief stroll through some powder i hit the face with a squeaking noise as the spikes in my snowshoes dug into the hard snow.

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It got steadily steeper as I went on and I soon realised that it was too dangerous even to stop to rest, as there were no features flat enough to sit on. This meant climbing the whole face in two goes. My calves were on fire and my back strained from clinging on to and pulling myself up with the ice axe. My breath heaved in my chest and I thought that my legs would fail me, but there were only two options: go on, or fall.

The snow shoes were not the best tool for the job and I would have kicked myself for not bringing crampons, if I had a spare muscle to use. When I finally reached the summit it was with a torn calf muscle and another one pulled in my lower back. The view from the summit was spectacular however and my aches and pains were washed away in the triumph and sunlight. It took me two hours to climb the face and by the time i had gotten up there it was time for me to come back down. But how?

I couldn’t go back down the way I came and I couldn’t traverse the ridges to a safer place as i did not have enough time. Pondering this for a moment, I decided to do what the world cup team specifically asked me not to do, and bum slide down the world cup run. The snow was slightly softer there and so i was able to do some breaking, sliding all the way down the toboggan-like path.

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roughly 30 minutes later I was back in resort, trawling through a powder field back to the chairlift where I had left my skis. It was altogether a quick jaunt, but one of the most challenging so far, both mentally and physically. At the end of the day I skied back to the bus stop and was on time for work!

If you’d like to donate to Women for Afghan Women visit my JustGiving page HERE. For weekly updates don’t forget to subscribe below and follow the campaign. If you’d like to see first hand the work that WAW do, visit their website HERE. Follow the campaign on my Youtube channel HERE and visit the Facebook page HERE

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

The Story of Women for Afghan Women

The origin of Women for Afghan Women

Girls' Globe

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In the spring of 2001, six months before 9/11, a group of passionate women’s rights activists came together with the goal of garnering international attention on the plight of Afghan women and girls living under Taliban rule. Little did these extraordinary women know that their efforts to expose the world to the brutalities and injustices of the Taliban period would lead to the founding of one of the leading women’s rights organizations in Afghanistan and the transformation of thousands of lives.

Women for Afghan Women (WAW) was founded in 2001. While researching the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan, WAW co-founders quickly learned that Afghan women living in New York were facing similar abuses and isolation as their sisters at home. In order to respond to this crisis, in 2003, WAW opened its New York Community Center. The Center serves under-educated (mostly illiterate) Afghan women immigrants and their families with…

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WAW Climb for Justice: Week 2

This weeks film: The French Crown

In this weeks film a tackle a crown of peaks leading from Arinsal and spilling over the French border.

At the top of the mountain in Arinsal ski area you get off the lift and look out onto a distant crown of mountains, snow capped, cloud crested and inviting. I’d been eyeing these up for some time now, the solitary eagle circling above. It looked like a very good circuit to attempt and from line of sight, not too time consuming.

Unfortunately these particular mountains fell off the side of my map and so I had to plan my day purely by line of sight. Who needs maps anyway? I set off at 8.15am from my hotel, my new pair of hired (for free) snow shoes strapped to my bag. I’ve never used snow shoes before but always wanted to and since I had a good deal of deep powder last time and my crampons were pretty useless, I thought I’d give it a go.

It was a gruelling 11 hour day and left me exhausted and walking home in the dark. So without further ado, here it is:

Women for Afghan Women: The work they do

Let’s not forget what this is all about. WAW provide women and girls with life saving support, shelter and legal guidance in human rights violations in Afghanistan.

In 2013, one  of Women for Afghan Women’s clients was 17 years old when she was married to a man who already had a wife and children. The man physically and mentally abused her for years. Unable to endure more, the client decided to divorce him. She went to the local Department of Women’s Affairs who referred her to WAW. This woman is currently living in a WAW shelter and attending empowerment classes while her defense lawyer is working on her divorce.

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So If you’d like to donate to this wonderful cause, visit my JustGiving page and tag a friend on Facebook to donate too. Follow my weekly climbs in support of WAW and keep donating each time I release a new video.

Climb for Justice: So here’s what I did

After grabbing a pair of skis from the hire shop I headed outside, but unfortunately I didn’t realise that the first lifts don’t open until 9am, so I was sitting waiting for half an hour impatiently at the top with the other dawn patrol. These dedicated snowboarder and I watched the sunrise over the mountain before the gates opened and got on the very first chair.

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A couple of chairlifts later and I was at the start of my hike. I had originally thought that getting the chairlifts and having skis would save me a bunch of time and effort, but by the time I finally got started it was already 9.30am. I did however, get about 1000m of elevation gain for free, so trade -offs. My route for the day was as follows:

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I ditched my skis and boots at the top of the resort, planning on collecting them and skiing down later, and headed out in an anti-clockwise direction around the crown. The weather was fine and sunny for most of the day and the first part of the hike was a slow and steady walk in regular hiking boots to the start of the bowl.

When I hit the bottom of the bowl at 11am where the forest began, I donned the snow-shoes for the first time and wow! The extra surface area made a big difference in the soft powder and I glided down as if on skis.

The forest was beautiful and the sound of birds filled the air, much more inviting than the constant thrum of chairlifts in resort. I kind of lost track of time here however, and after a slow and tiring traverse I found myself at the first ascent by 12.30pm, much later than I had planned. It had now been three hours since I started and I was only just at the first ascent of the bowl.

Throwing off the snow-shoes, I headed for hard ground and climbed up the right hand side, not resting until I had gotten to the top (Peak #1). The sun was now on my face again and I went from cold to too hot in no time, shedding layers until I was just in my T-shirt and waterproof. After A further two hours I was finally at the top where I had picked out my meditation spot for the day (Peak #2).

But I was still against the clock.

Rising up, had a quick warm up with some Thai Chi and then threw on some beats to get me through the next section: The Ridge.

alone-at-the-topThis one wasn’t nearly as severe as last time, but It still presented it’s challenges and was a lot longer than I had anticipated. In fact, the entire left hand side of the crown had been hiding a nasty little ridge with many ups and downs, constantly losing and gaining elevation. I was very conscious of time by this point and so I pressed on through exhaustion to get round the crown, trying to motivate myself by keeping the end goal in sight: my skis. If I didn’t get back to them on time, I would be walking home…

The technical climb section, previously hidden from my sight, took up a lot of time and required some axe work, but It wasn’t too bad. It was more the time of day dragging on that really took it out of me. I thought to myself “Why do I put myself through this?” and then I remembered: for all the women and girls suffering in Afghanistan and around the world.

Then I hit the ice sheet.

Coming down the final descent towards the road I had planned on making up a bunch of time by sliding all  the way down, but when I got there I immediately slipped and launched myself down at high speed, saving myself with the axe once more. The entire northern side of the mountain was sheet ice, having been kept shaded from the low sun. I then had to be extremely careful, inching my way across, digging in with the axe and inching some more. At one point I slid down backwards, looking through my legs at the world moving upside down, using the axe as a brake. This was quite disorientating, but amusingly original. I always find that good humour can carry you through the toughest of situations, and laughing at one’s self is the best medicine for panic!

I made it down to the road by 5.30pm, a further three hours from my meditation point, pretty much without rest. I was now on safe ground and as the sun had already set, lost hopes of seeing my skis today. It’s one thing to ski home after the mountain is closed, but it’s another altogether to ski home in total darkness. This was not an option.

It would have taken me about two hours to walk to the town, where I could have called a cab, but It was now pitch black, I had been walking for nine hours, and I was now extremely cold. So, what to do?

I called my friend Matt and he came and met me with his van. It was a very pleasant walk for about an hour to where I could meet him and the night sky was spectacular. The old moon was in the new moons arms, a term for when you can see a slither of moon and the dark side is illuminated with the reflection from the earth, a beautiful sight. Jupiter was also out in full splendour just behind it and The Milky Way was splashed across the sky, with not a light to pollute it anywhere.

When he met me I pointed out all these wonderful astronomical sights and we star gazed for a while before heading home to get some food and a cup of tea.

All in all the day finished at around 7.30pm, I was walking for ten hours, and I had to go and collect my skis the next day.

So if you thought I put in a good effort, check out Women for Afghan Women’s website and see all the amazing work they do to further Women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Once again thanks for all your support and don’t forget to follow the blog below for weekly updates, a new video release and visit my JustGiving page to donate. Thanks for reading.

Women for Afghan Women: Climb for Justice

Women’s rights

Every day in Afghanistan women and girls as young as aged 8 are being forced into marriage, mentally and physically abused, and denied even the most basic of freedoms and dignity we take for granted in other parts of the world. It’s easy to forget just how lucky we are to have grown up in the environment we have, and its even easier for men to forget how privileged we are, even in our own patriarchal societies.

Did you know that a lot of girls in Afghanistan aren’t even allowed to go outside, or are harassed or beaten on the streets for walking alone, then beaten again when they get home for bringing “shame” on the family. Families are afraid to send girls to school over the age of 12 because of fear of attacks on the street, resulting in denial of education. Victims of rape are often forced to marry their attackers, or threatened with honour killings to clear their family name. Some girls are even sold into marriage just to get rid of them, or exchanged in order to repay debts.

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The sad truth is that horrible human rights violations happen every day in Afghanistan, and that some women and girls grow up believing that this is the norm, and don’t even know their own right to human rights. Well guess what? Women’s rights ARE human rights and that’s what Women for Afghan Women are striving to forward in Afghanistan and the rest of the world.

Women for Afghan Women (WAW) is a grassroots, civil society organisation, who’s mission is dedicated to securing and protecting the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls in Afghanistan and New York, particularly their rights to develop their individual potential and self-determination.

“We provide life-saving programs and services for women and children across Afghanistan who have endured human rights violations, including forced and underage marriage, rape, forced prostitution, unlawful imprisonment, and barred access to education and employment.”

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WAW operate family guidance centres, confidential women’s shelters, children’s support centres and most importantly women’s rights training programs, which help to educated the community, police, religious leaders and women about women’s rights.

A participant in their training program said:

“Knowing my rights makes me realize that I don’t have to accept violence as normal and legal. I’m glad I am not alone and there are people to help women like me.”

So what am I going to do about it?

Living in the mountains in Andorra I’m not exactly in a position to be campaigning on the streets of Kabul, so I’ve come up with a way to help from where I live, using the tools I have. My mission for the rest of the winter will be to climb a new mountain / mountains each week to raise money for this brilliant charity and help spread awareness of women’s rights around the world.

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Each week I will be fighting through horrendous weather conditions, challenging deadly peaks and planting their flag atop a snow brimmed peak. But this is nothing compared with the courage and determination of the women who stand up for their own human rights everyday, and those that help them, even putting their own lives in danger in the process.

Each week I will be dedicating a mountain to one of the hundreds of women WAW help with their programs, and an exceptional staff member who has shown their determination and courage helping in their case. I will be documenting my climbs and releasing a new video and gallery each week, so follow me on my mission and continue growing support.

What you can do is join me in my continued determination and donate to help life saving and empowering work for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Each time I plant the flag on a new peak visit my JustGiving page and donate just £5, or as much as you can.

If I can keep going each week, keep giving and help me hit my target of £4000 for the season. This isn’t a one time gimmick, I want you to donate each time I release a new video and to nominate one person on Facebook to donate next week, and so on, and so on.

Let’s make this campaign go viral!

So what does your charity buy?

£40 provides one month of empowerment classes, targeted at giving disenfranchised women the confidence to strive in society and the workplace.

£80 is one month of food for a child in one of WAWs children support centres.

£200 gives school supplies for five children in WAWs children support centres, giving them the hope and opportunities provided by education.

£400 covers women’s rights training for Afghan communities, helping to change the underpinning reasons for human rights abuse in society.

£800 pays for a six month stay in a WAW women’s shelter, providing confidential and life saving shelter for the most vulnerable women and children.

£2000 provides medical care for a woman or child who has suffered from physical abuse, sometimes amounting to torture.

£4000 provides legal aid for 150 women or girls, providing escape from hopeless situations, including: forced marriage, abuse, and denial of human rights.

So sit back Donate and watch the show

Here it is, my first video. In this film I tackle two peaks connected by a deadly ridge. Warming up my ice axe for the first time, I don my crampons and hit the ice and snow. More than 11 hours of brutal climbing and a few near misses later…

Liked the video? Visit my JustGiving page and donate now, and don’t forget to nominate a friend on Facebook by hitting the share button and tagging them in the post. Follow my campaign right here below, or on Twitter or Facebook and visit WAW’s website. Share the links and help spread the word. Let’s make Women’s rights human rights.

 

 

Understanding Africa: Kenya

Kenya is a vast and varied country full of beautiful landscapes and unique blends of tribal life and modernisation. Unfortunately, it is the modernisation and social corruption that makes it one of my least favourite countries in Africa. Nairobi in particular is a sprawling pile of garbage and the coastline, though beautiful is stricken with poverty and malcontent.

Ex-pats

Traffic in Kenya is no joke. The road up to the escarpment from Suswa climbs the wall of the Great Rift Valley, which is aptly named as it looks like someone sliced a huge chunk of cake from Africa. Now I am one of a million tiny ants climbing the inside of said cake, trying to get to the frosty topping. It is a two lane road, but all the heavy vehicles have grid locked the climbing lane and now cars are three lanes deep in the bush.

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We reach a dead man’s embrace between a Coca-Cola truck in the right hand lane and 10 cars and a bus also in the right hand lane, but going in the opposite direction. Further up the road we saw that the obstruction was caused by a sixteen wheeler, which ejected its payload in the middle of the road and fucked off. Rage quit. Our driver – legend as his is – rolls his eyes, careers off into the dirt and overtakes the whole lot, shouting what I can only assume translate as “Noobs! This is how it’s done.” Cheers of applause.

Back in Nairobi I visit one of Mike’s friends, Alex. He is another British Ex-Pat who will never be returning to the UK. He works in international development and his girlfriend Ignes works in international aid services. I cannot fault them for their work. We briefly discuss the Kenyan coast and the situation with Al-Shabab, the local terrorist group.

“It’s kind of winding down now.” Alex tells me. “They are running out of steam.”

“I heard that pirates still own the coastline. I was talking to a guy this morning who works in Somalia and he told me that he had a lot of friends kidnapped or killed in the last few years.”

“Well.” Alex continues, “They have apparently just had a meeting with IS and might team up. That would mean them getting a lot more resources, but to be honest, it just shows how desperate they are. They’re losing the war.”

They explain the hardships of being Ex-Pats.

“The problem is: it’s hard to make friends because Ex-Pats don’t tend to stay for very long. That exact thing happened with Mike. We used to hang out all the time and then suddenly he told me “Right that’s it I have to go.” And that was that.”

“Mike tells me that it can be hard to make friends with locals,” I say “lasting friendships that is. I mean he has lots of Rwandan acquaintances, but most of his good friends are other Ex-Pats. Do you find it’s a cultural difference or language barrier?”

“Well it’s neither and it’s both.” he says, “Sometimes it’s just hard not being just another Muzungu. I suppose it works both ways as well.”

Watamu

When they open the door to my plane at Malindi, other people are actually queuing to get on. Evidently this plane is immediately going somewhere else. Fly540: the Megabus of East African airlines.

Lu with a view winner for today goes to: Malindi Matatu station. I am pissing in a hole in the ground, in a smelly box whose window overlooks a football field length of garbage. The sound of slushing as a woman throws a bucket of something brown and horrible rouses the birds, who descend upon it. There is no hope.

An African Rasta with the Bob Marley T-shirt greets me on the barren road at Watamu. He will lead me, inevitably, on a wild goose-chase in order to find me a place to stay, and then, after having been friendly and proud, will shamelessly ask me for a few shillings for his troubles. This man is different though. After a couple of attempts at soliciting money from me nicely, his whole expression slumps down into a self-destructive sigh. He looks down at the ground.

“Please, support me.” Now I feel sorry for him. This is the product of a false economy!

The beach looks like a tornado might clean it up a bit. It’s desolate. All the beachfront hotels are abandoned, seaweed and rubbish pile up on the beaches, and half built, or half torn down structures haunt them.

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The sound of a solitary mallet creeps through the shadows of a wooden shack. It has no echo. I take a picture. Beautiful white sandy beaches, full of foot parasites; idyllic little islands, harbouring deadly rocks; a soothing tide that punishes the shoreline with a never ending wall of seaweed: Paradise. It is raining. Apparently it’s nice in December.

Its one saving grace is that half the beach is a marine conservation area, though that means you can’t swim without paying $20 to the park authority. It gets better, (for the marine life) you can’t go on the beach at night without being harangued by the park authority for turtle poaching. I was accosted on the beach in the pitch black by an unknown Kenyan. I ran and nearly had a heart attack when I bump into two other black shapes in the dark. I am lonely. There are no white people here.

Kenyan Youth

The next day I met a handsome young Kenyan, Baraka on the beach.

“I like to write love letters.” he tells me in earnest. We have been sitting here talking for some time now. The tide slowly rolls away and dark clouds loom in the sky, threatening rain.

“You have a girlfriend?” I ask.

“I had a girlfriend, my first love. One day she tells me “I have become an actress.” And I say “How can you become this without telling me?”” His expression is taxed and he makes knuckle marks in the sand. “She was very beautiful. She had a figure eight body, like an African. You know what I mean.”

He draws this in the sand and smiles, but it quickly fades. “So she says to me “Baraka, I want to be in another movie. Will you give me permission?” and I say “You have done this without telling me, so continue to do this without telling me. Just go.” So she makes more movies and more music.”

“I do some investigation.” He continues “and I find out that the director of these movies, she has made her boyfriend. When I confront her she says “I am sorry, he means nothing to me. I want you.” I said “No.”” He shakes his head.

“That’s a sad story.” I say.

“Sometimes she still calls me and complains that she is bored with these men, saying “Baraka, I don’t want them, I want you.” But I tell her “You cannot come back until I have money.””

“You see, you cannot have a girl without money.” he says with conviction, “I might say “Hey why don’t you come and we can relax somewhere.” But you cannot do things, you cannot have things. I cannot bring her home if I live with my mother. You see my hair? Shaggy. It was not always like this. I cannot even go in front of my parents without neat hair. No. I know that first I must have money and then I can have a girlfriend.”

Baraka’s story is sad, but it is sad because he is convinced that he cannot enjoy life without money and that he will never be happy living in poverty.

“Do you want to know my dream Dean?” he continues, “My father…” he pauses here and starts to dig a hole in the sand. “My father had a friend. His name was Mr Phillip. He was English like you and my father would say “I want to do business with this man.” My dream is to one day come to England, like you are come here.”

He looks up at me, elbow deep in sand and smiles and my heart melts a little. I know that what he is really saying is that one day he wants to be free.

“Look here. You can see the water.” He removes his arm, I peer into the hole and see the water filtering through the sand from underground. “If it is draining away you know the tide is going away too.”

Baraka and I are now friends and this is the longest conversation I have had in Kenya without someone trying to sell me something.

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We had fun making lunch the next day. He helped me make guacamole and tuna, a strange combination for anyone, especially an African. We talk about family and school life. He managed to make it through most of his life with only a few gaps due to lack of money to pay for school fees, but after his father’s accident, his younger brothers were not so lucky.

“He used to be so talkative.” he tells me, “you would have loved him. But now sometimes he just sits and stares, or will change his mood and say “I just want to be left alone.” He still remembers the accident. He was one of the only ones to survive from the bus. Afterwards, he could not work and so we moved to Gede. I am here because I know he worries about his kids. He worries about when they are not doing anything. So I would rather stay away so I don’t bother him. Then he doesn’t see me with no job.”

As the day goes by, the conversation stagnates. I think we have reached the point at which our cultural and situational differences make it hard to progress with our friendship. It is a sad thing, but now I think I understand what Mike was saying. It’s just hard sometimes to relate without feeling like the empathy is very one sided.

This isn’t such a bad place, it’s just the product of bad times. The sea has a lovely pale crystal colour between beds of seaweed. The beaches are whiter than my feet, smooth and sweeping. The intermittent weather plays dramatically across the sky, giving the day a varied canvas. The sound of the sea through my windows is actually rather soothing.

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Current affairs

So…Larium. Dr Manis listed the possible side effects, including but not limited to: psychosis, depression, suicidal tendencies and hallucinations; but I was sure it had to be better than Doxycycline on the prophylaxis spectrum (Anti-Malarial). So…last night I had a dream. I was freaking out and ran out of my room to get help, when the balcony stretched a hundred feet. A strange dark figure (that my mind told me was a giant teddy bear) approached.

When it got closer it turned into a man with a roast chicken for a head, who then started head-butting another man with a tinfoil tray for a head. I thought how the two belonged together and was happy that they had found each other. Intermittently while this was happening, I would relapse into another nightmare where my head became a screaming jackhammer, trying to beat something out of the wall. I once read the side effects on a pack of prophylactics. The last side effect was listed as “Death.” Maybe I should just get malaria.

Some news articles in today’s local paper: “Millions spent beautifying Nairobi for Barak Obama’s visit.” “Kids burn down schools to not take their exams.” “Lethal vaccines administered to children.” “Muslims break fast of Ramadan at Fort Jesus.” What’s wrong with this country?

While I sit here at Malindi airport sipping coffee and reading the paper, I realise that there is a Kenyan barista right in front of me who will likely be a far better source of local information. I ask him what’s going on.

He tells me that in this part of the coast, local people clump together to buy stretches of beach and then sell them on to Italian developers, who build villas and hotels. The proportion of Muslims to Christians in this region is about 50-50 and relations are good.

“We all believe in the same god.” he smiles.

His name is Francis. Baraka first introduced himself to me as Francis. He then went on to tell me later that he preferred to be called Baraka.

“Because people will baptize you and try and give you other names. This is my name.”

This happens a lot.

Nairobi

Getting from Nairobi airport to Wangige is a nightmare. A two hour bus ride followed by a two hour Matatu ride, though each were only 70KSE. I’m standing at the bus stop on a filthy road, two hours late with my earplugs in because there is a religious concert on that’s so loud I can’t even be near it. A man throws a banana skin over his shoulder into the road without even looking. It joins others and immediately blends in with all the other filth. I hate Nairobi.

My friend Charlotte is overwhelmed to see me. She has been having a horrible time in Nairobi so far, topped off by the fact that she just got assaulted on the way over. She has been volunteering for an NGO, but the rules and restrictions placed on them are ridiculous. She has an 8pm curfew, has to get permission to meet other people and has to do compulsory community service on the weekends.

“I’m so happy to see you I could cry!” she laughs hysterically, “This crazy guy just came out of nowhere, got me in a headlock and punched me in the head so hard. I think I’m concussed.”

“What the fuck!?” I say. “Didn’t anyone help you?”

“Yea the touts came over and pulled him off me and started beating him. No one asked me if I was ok though, they didn’t even acknowledge me.”

This is not the first time she has been assaulted either. She nearly got raped in a Matatu by three guys. They shut her in and started touching her up. When she tried to escape, a tout held the door closed. Luckily she was able to kick it open and get away, but not without significant psychological damage I suspect.

“So what is your NGO doing about all this?” I ask.

“Nothing. They just said “Oh we’re so sorry.” And then that was it.”

“Fuck’s sake Charlotte! If you see the guy, point him out to me and I’ll kick him in the face. You should get an Askari.”

“They won’t even pay for taxis, I doubt I’ll be getting a body guard any time soon.”

Charlotte lives in a little gated estate just out of town, in a tiny room with two sets of bunk-beds. She shares this room with 3 other girls, two Kenyans and one English girl.

Community programs

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“And the bible says that money will pave the way to the future.” This is a direct quote from a female pastor giving an empowered speech about creativity and entrepreneurship in Kenya. We are in a local church where members of Charlotte’s NGO are putting on an action day for the community. Charlotte and her Muzungu friends are giggling at her enthusiasm, whilst the Kenyan members of the group are rapt with concentration and are busy scrawling down notes.

“This lady could be anyone. They don’t know.” Charlotte comments. “They just lap it up.”

“You should only sleep two hours a night.” I’m paraphrasing, “Laziness is a disease.”

She is not all fire and brimstone. She talks about opportunities for young entrepreneurs, giving examples like: group funding to buy real estate, small loan options and volunteering to gain work experience.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” JFK.

Her husband has great teeth. He is also a pastor and I begin to see a theme. He is lecturing about leadership.

“Your privacy is your most valuable asset. Most people look good when they know someone is watching them, but inside they are just skeletal…I will go anywhere to upgrade the living conditions of god’s people.”

I imagine missionaries like him invading Masai homes and converting them to god’s work. Are they really happier now? Will they be happier with a thermo-power plant in their back garden?

“Your dignity comes from your work. Amen, praise the lord!” It is turning very quickly into a religious spiel. Apparently all the most successful people are spiritual, like Moses, or Joseph. “We are meant to rule, we are meant to govern, we are meant to master.”

I speak with the pastor after the session. His name is Joseph too. He is actually a really nice man and, like Daniel, has big plans to help the community. I ask him what this area was like 10 years ago and his eyes and nostrils flare.

“This was all a farm.” he says. “It was Kukiu land. The army would harass you or molest you. It was very dangerous.” It is still very dangerous. In fact, several of Charlotte’s friends have been robbed by the police or military.

I am curious about whether or not he is a Kukiu. I tell him I was just in Suswa with the Masai.

“You would get a warmer welcome there than me.” he says.

Daniel’s father fought in the wars against the Kukiu.

Later that night, all the brits from the NGO are out drinking. Friday is the day they get their weekly allowance and it’s party time. The bars we go to are in the nicer part of town and are all gated with security guards. No strips or people drinking outside. Now that they are all more relaxed they admit that they actually quite like Nairobi.

“Despite all its faults, it’s actually quite ok.” Charlotte says.

 

In actuality, she is still not ok.

The thing I’m going to miss the most about Nairobi is…sorry but this place could implode for all I care. Kenya in a word: Rift.

Had any interesting experiences in Kenya? Every worked for a non-governmental organisation? share your stories in the comments and don’t forget to like and subscribe below.

Only in China Day 7: Yellow Mountain Soda

Greater Shanghai

A sprawling flatland of non-identical housing estates, peppered with industry and farming, in a not so charming hot pot: that is how I would describe the greater Shanghai area. It is very green though, and the elevated highways do occasionally pass by nice parks with willow trees stroking little ponds. But mostly the above.

The housing estates, though very communist concrete in appearance, all have their own particularly out of place feature. A Grecian temple entrance for example, or a stack of poorly executed ionic columns. As you get further out there are occasionally charming little stone bridges over canals, bordered by rice paddies, tree fields, and lily looking plantations that I have no idea what are. I later found out that, yes, they are lilies. People like their pods for some reason. Good luck I think.

Chinese medicine

I had planned on getting up early this morning and getting to the bus station, (which is actually miles away from the one I thought it was) but I woke up at around 4am with a splitting toothache. Why, why did I not bring my customary drug kit with all the painkillers and powerful anti-inflammatory in the world?

At a local pharmacy where no-one speaks English and who sells almost exclusively traditional medicine, I manage to find some paracetamol and ibuprofen, only to get a ten minute long lecture by people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about, trying to explain to me in Chinese that I can’t take both.

“Just give me the fucking drugs!” I say smiling, knowing that they don’t understand me. They’re actually pretty good.

Public busses

Now I’m on a bus! Shanghai long distance bus station (which is at Shanghai South Rail Station, the coach terminal not the bus station, in case anyone ever wanted to find it!) reminds me of a Greyhound bus station in the US.

Unlike Greyhound in Australia or South Africa, which is actually pretty premium, a Greyhound bus ticket is all they give you when you leave prison in America. They are shit. So in short, it’s below average for western standards, but not as bad as say, Kenya, although Kenya’s magic hip-hop, UV light-show coaches are pretty fun.

I am the only white person in this whole station. A girl sitting opposite me is wearing an anime T-shirt with a guy openly fingering a girl. How on Earth, anywhere, is that appropriate to wear, or even make? The coach is pretty basic, but not as bad as I had expected. There are no chicken coups, it’s not a sausage factory, and there is functional, though non-directional air-con.

Anhui

As we encroach on Ahnui the magic and mystery of China finally opens itself, as sharp hills coated in bamboo forests poke their heads out of the mist. A tiny patch of blue sky emerges, but the windows of the bus are still battered with rain. Did I mention it’s been raining for the last week?

At last a taste of Chinese hospitality. The nice English speaking hotel receptionist is doing all she can to help me out, even though I’m not staying at her hotel. She called a cheaper place for me and got their driver to come and pick me up, even though it’s late. I then arrive at the new place, get a cracking room for Y60 and then am asked if I want to eat.

The hotel has a restaurant that, though it’s clearly just closed, stay open for me and give me good grub at a reasonable price too. To top it off the guy is going to pick me up in the morning again at 6.30am and ferry me back to the park gates, and no charge!

Huangshan

The Grand Canyon, or so it’s called, suddenly opens up all its glory from behind the clouds, and is there anyone else here? No.

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I have finally escaped the sea of umbrella poking, trash hurling, megaphone blaring, Chinese tourist groups swarming Huangshan (The Yellow Mountains) from every angle, by going down a little known side route to another valley. This is undoubtedly the finest scenery this mountain has had to offer so far, and the weather has finally cleared enough to see it.

Don’t get me wrong, this has actually been the nicest day since I got here. A pleasant bright morning with the occasional quick shower and some obscuring clouds, but I’m glad that it’s been cool for the epic ascent. What I could not tolerate however, worse than the fact that I was inside a cloud at the apex, ironically staring at a sign that said “Best views of Huagnshan!” was the continuous, obnoxious, unnecessary safety tannoy from the nearby cable car station. Oh my Buddha! How can they not know that it ruins everything!!!! I felt like it was the line for purgatory, but I digress.

The Grand Canyon was spectacular, with brown jagged teeth sticking up hundreds of feet from the bamboo forest, topped with impossible evergreen and hanging vines, splintering into the distant fog.  In the far background, amongst the 3D pop-out of a guidebook’s wet dream, lies a lonely pavilion, barely visible, yet infinitely powerful. Superb. What China lack in audio sensitivity they certainly make up for in visuals.

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The canyon just keeps on giving. Many steps and shady forest tunnels later, and I come across something that looks like an old 80’s isometric platform game scene.

The angles and architecture wrought into the imposing scenery are almost too difficult to describe.

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The stone bridge over nothing in particular was breath-taking, apparently the only thing that connects the two valleys together. Unfortunately I cannot go further as the way is closed, probably due to the typhoon.

On another detour I found myself not being able to resist the archetypal adventure photo standing atop a precariously wedged round boulder between two cliffs.

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I must admit that getting to it was a scary task and I couldn’t quite make it in 30 seconds, the maximum self-timer setting on my camera, but the photo speaks for itself (insert photo here).

Stealth Camping

Not much of an actual sunset, but the evening light was wonderful over the far hills, disappearing endlessly like a painting.

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I caught another moment of solitude by frequenting a quiet place, but had my headphones in by this point anyway, to drown out the screaming Chinese tourists. Detours and all it was a punishing 12 hour day hiking up a mountain, heavy pack and all.

I resented paying the extortionate prices for soft drinks, but I could not resist, my anger immediately washed away by the cool liquid Gatorade. Best drink ever…twice. I must have drank 3.5L of water and I haven’t even peed. It’s not had the chance to get that far. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. Totally worth it.

At the end of the day I stealth camped in a bush nearby the sunrise spot at Beihai, my black, waist height Vango Helium pulling its meagre 900g weight. Don’t listen to what anyone tells you about it being illegal to camp in China. Everyone does it, all the time, so don’t worry about it. Take a tent, you’ll save loads of money.

I had to don ear plugs however, due to the myriad of Cicadas. For those of you who don’t know these devils, they are the size of cockroaches, but fly around bumping into stuff, screaming at 90Db in a noise that is a cross between an alarm clock and someone shaving through a megaphone. Bastards.

What a day. Continue to follow my adventures in China by hitting the Follow button below, and check out the albums on the site. Share your stories in the comments. Like and follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates and titbits from other aspects of MiscEarth, daily quotes, photos and more.

Understanding Africa: Masai

The Volcano

My heart is racing, my arse is sore and my eyes are burning. I am on the back of a 300cc off road bike behind a Masai tribesman, driving over lava tubes towards a volcano.

Some might think this an odd combination, but Daniel is a modern Masai who lives in the active but dormant crater of Mount Suswa, in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. He has had his motorbike for about a year now and is a proficient driver. I get the feeling that he could navigate this vast expanse of mazy lava tubes with his eyes closed. Before the Challenger he had a bicycle, but I cannot imagine him making this journey in less than half a day that way.

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All I can think about is how cool this guy is. I could talk about Daniel all day. He wears traditional Masai robes but has a smartphone, lives in a mud hut but has solar panels to charge said smartphone, he is a Christian pastor but still drinks cows blood (minus the platelets. Apparently they extract them using a stick that turns into a blood popsicle). He has one wife and five children, though his father had 6 wives and 30 children.

“My firstborn” Daniel tells me as he is naming his kids, “Oh wait, I can’t really call him this because he is not mine. I adopted him. Do you know how old he was when I adopted him? Six days. His mother died during childbirth. This happens a lot because Masai still practice circumcision and female genital mutilation, which causes bleeding during birth.”

We are sitting inside one of five mud huts that occupy this particular patch of endless plateau inside the outer crater: one is for his wife and children, one for his mother, one for his brother Reuben and his family, and one is for guests (don’t know what the other is for). It is dark and cool, but little spots of light poke through the ceiling and walls, which are lined with plastic and a net to keep some insects out (I say some, because infestation by flies is inevitable). I brush them away and Daniel laughs at me.

“You cannot handle the flies? Ah, we are pastorals.” His children have flies all over them but they don’t flinch, even when they are in their eyes.

daniels-house

This is the guest hut, but Daniel sleeps here at the moment because his wife Agnes has a new born and their other four children in his hut, which is also used for cooking. I can’t sit in that one because the smoke makes my eyes burn. I am feeling increasingly weak compared with these stalwart people.

“I bet you did not think you would be sleeping with me when you came here.” Daniel smiles.

He has perfectly white teeth, except the two front bottom teeth are missing. We had a discussion about this and apparently it is a Masai tradition to removed the bottom teeth so that if someone is stranded in the bush and cannot open their mouth, another Masai can feed them and give them water through the hole. Also it’s kind of a right of passage to pull them out, that and the circumcision. I hear that if you flinch during the ceremony you are disowned. Consequently a lot of Masai have burn marks on their legs where they practice suffering pain.

That first night Daniel and I talked for some time about the Masai and his plans for the community, but first: to the bat cave!

“Turn off your torch.” Daniel says once we are far enough inside. I switch off the torch on my phone and it is pitch black. “This is darker than night. They call this the great relaxation, because when you are in here there is no worrying about your car, or your job, or your belly, only this dark and quiet, and when people leave they feel clean.”

“Like a reset button.” I add.

There is a pile of bones in the corner. “Look, a picnick!” he exclaims. “When you see the bones you know that the Jaguar could be anywhere.” There is a shelf above the bones. “This is where he eats and drops the rubbish from his mouth.” I am now looking at every crevice for signs of movement.

The caves are remnants of lava flows that bored tunnels all through the ground. There is a huge system of caves that are all connected one way or another, some hot from still active steam vents and some cold from where the rainwater filters down through the crater.

Daniel gives me another scare story about the bats having Ebola and so we don’t venture any further. Instead we head to the Baboon Parliament. This large open chamber has brilliant acoustics and viewing platforms where the baboons gather at night. A large single vine hangs down from a prominent fig tree through the huge hole in the ceiling and the light falls on a smooth flat rock in the centre of the chamber.

daniel-in-the-cave

 

Daniel is a bit of a poser and I get some great shots with him in the caves. He told me he was once in a BBC documentary about the Great Rift Valley. I can just imagine his perfect teeth smiling for the camera.

“Here they all gather to discuss how to avoid the Jaguar” Daniel tells me, “and to discipline their tribe. They are very clever you know. One baboon will come and sit here and “hoo hoo hoo!” and they all listen to it. This stone is especially smooth because the baboons polish it.”

I find this almost too hard to believe, but when we come back near sunset, the baboons gather and play and sit on the shelves. Unfortunately parliament is not in session today as they are distracted by our presence, so we ride off into the sunset on the Challenger.

Hard Times

After dinner Daniel and I sit down and have a chat. Because of all the orphaned children and his own troubled upbringing, he wants to open an orphanage and even has his own crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter.

“I believe that if you help someone who is in need, they will grow up grateful and they are more likely to help someone else who is in need. That way you plant the seed and it grows in future generations.”

‘I could not have put it better myself’ I think, as I sit there captivated by his shadowy figure beneath the solar lamp, which is now the only light source in the hut.

He also tells me about the Kenyan governments plans to build a Thermo-power plant in the crater. Because of its still active nature, the steam – which the Masai use to condense into clean water via PVC pipes – could apparently provide several Megawatts of power for the grid. If the plans go through, the Kenyan government will buy all the land and displace the Masai from their homes. Roads will be built, land will be fenced off and huge amounts of industry will be poured into the mountain.

“How do you feel about it?” I ask. He looks at the ground in silence for a short while.

“I’m sorry” he says in a defeated tone “I can’t talk about it any more. It is too sad.”

After getting to know him a little better, he later told me: “Do you know what the worst thing is? They will be given a lot of money for their land. It will change them. Some will buy cars, some will drink and kill themselves, but all will die as Masai. It will never be the same. I don’t know what we’ll do.” My heart breaks listening to him.

Sadly this happens all too often. The damn in Jinja flooded huge amounts of land and changed the whole ecosystem, all for power to be sold to Kenya. Further up the Nile in Egypt, the Aswan damn flooded thousands of acres, forcing the Bedouin people off of their land and creating huge lakes. They even took apart Abul Simbel, a 5000 year old ancient Egyptian temple, piece by piece, and re-assembled it 5 miles uphill.

A testament to modern technology: they actually got it wrong, and the event which should happen on the solstice, where a beam of light shines down the centre of the temple, lighting the faces of the four gods, is now a day later, on the 22nd of December. The Pharaohs would roll over in their graves if they weren’t locked in a basement at the British museum.

I am standing outside staring up at the full beauty of the Milky Way, pondering the problems that these people I have come to love now face. A shooting star passes by and is gone. I make a wish for their future.

Family life

And winner of the “Lu with a View” award goes to Squat Box Suswa!

lu-with-a-view

I am sitting on a comfortable mahogany toilet box completely in the open, in the middle of the grassy plains of a volcano. The sun is shining, the wind blowing pleasantly and as I do my business, Gazelles prance in front of me beneath the Acacia trees. Paradise.

Daniel caught me escaping with the necklace of shame, a toilet roll on a rope you hang around your head so that everyone knows you about to do your business.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“Urgh, the bathroom.” I reply timidly

“I am not finished building it yet.” he laughs, “Do you want to see?”

“Um, ok.” I reply tentatively. This diet of bread and butter sandwiches and Jappatis is really taking its toll. “Proper Masai food!” Daniel calls it.

We walk about 100ft from his house and there it is, pleasantly concealed behind a low bush. It is a toilet shaped wooden box with no bottom that covers a foot deep hole. There is even a shovel with a little pile of dirt to finish. Nice.

It was a hell of a hike around the inner crater today and this is the perfect release after having held it in for fear of squatting in a bush.

It was just as I had imagined, the crater that is. It is difficult to see until you are right at the rim, but then a sharp drop takes your eyes down to an undulating bowl of verdant green that sweeps round a full six hours hike, about 800 meters from trench to peak. In the centre is the hidden island, surrounded by little pillars of steam and looking back westward you can see the half crescent of the outer crater towering above, giving the full effect of the power of this explosion.

daniel-rests

Apparently Mount Suswa erupted twice, creating the two craters, the inner plateau, the mote, and the hidden island. The tribe elders sometimes go to the hidden island in the centre of the volcano to pray and perform rituals. This is only very rare nowadays however, as Christianity is fast taking over the Masai here. Around 1982 Missionaries reached this valley and swept down, imposing Christianity on all they could find, condemning the heathen ways of the locals. Within a single family, the elders will follow the old ways while the middle aged impose their newly found religion on their children.

On the way down Daniel complains that his leg is hurting.

“You’re getting old.” I joke, knowing full well he is a great deal fitter than me.

“How old do you think I am?” he asks.

I have no idea. He could be fifty for all I know. Guess low. “45?” I ask.

He laughs. “I am not so old. My father is 93.”

“Wow.”

“We have a woman, she is…130.”

“Now that’s old.” I say, trying to remember what the world’s oldest person is in the Guinness book of records. I thought it was 126.

“She cannot see now for maybe ten years.” He says dismissively. “And she has no teeth.” It suddenly gets hot as we walk past a steam vent.

“Time for a footbath!” Daniel says.

suswa-plains

We are almost home, it is about 3pm and the plateau is an oven. We head over to one of the steam vents and Daniel pulls over half an oil barrel. He fetches a cup of hot water from the steam condensation tank and pours it over my head. The water quickly evaporates leaving me feeling refreshed. He helps me wash my feet and I think about the religious significance. He is a pastor after all.

That night Rueben, Daniels brother, invites us in for tea. I met Rueben earlier when he asked me if I was stealing his son. I was walking back from watching the sunset out by the crater and a small kid came up and held my hand as I was walking by. Embarrassingly enough I didn’t realise it was Daniel’s son and asked Reuben if the boy was his. Reuben’s English is very good and he looks nothing like Daniel.

“So you are brothers from another mother?” Hanga, Reuben’s Romanian guest asks.

“Exactly.” Reuben laughs.

I didn’t get much chance to talk to him that night, but the next day we were all hiking around the crater and I sparked off a conversation.

“So your father was a guide?” I ask.

“My father was a warrior.” he replies casually. “He fought in the wars against the other tribe. He once killed a jaguar with his bare hands. He cannot move these two fingers because it bit him.” What a guy.

“Are you afraid of anything?” asks Hanga.

Reuben laughs. “I do not like frogs. When they are in the grass and they are all wet.” He screws up his face.

“Ok, so if I see any frogs I will kill them and if there is a lion, you can kill it for me.”

“You know” says Reuben “In the past you were not allowed to marry if you had not killed a lion.”

“What if you couldn’t kill one, like there wasn’t one? Could you still marry?”

“Well, yes, but you would not be recognised as a man.”

“Did your father ever kill a lion?”

“He had six wives.” He laughs. “Lions used to be everywhere.” He down-plays the fact that his father was basically Russell Crow.

Daniel has a very different view of his father. He abandoned his mother when Daniel was just a boy and so he was driven into education, which funnily enough was only for outcasts back then. He is actually only 34, so that shows how recently views have changed. I can see that life here is hard for Masai and it’s only going to get harder as modern society continues to encroach on their traditional way of living.

Where to find them

daniel-close-up

The hospitality I received in Daniel’s home was not that of royalty, but rather of equality. He made me feel like family and that’s the greatest gift I could have hoped for. So where did I find Daniel you ask? My friend Mike gave me his number. If you want to meet him and the rest of his family, check out Reuben’s Facebook page at https://goo.gl/Ja7CSx and help support their traditional way of life.

If you find enjoyed hearing about my experience with the Masai why not share and follow the blog below, or on our Facebook or Twitter page. As always check out the relevant galleries linked to the blog and watch my short film Africa Finale, including some good face time for our Daniel.