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Into the Crocodile's Nest - Benedict Allen (Book cover)

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Into the Crocodile's Nest – a journey inside New Guinea (1987)

In order to better understand the rain forest from the "inside", Benedict Allen underwent an initiation ceremony of the Niowra, a Sepik people who traditionally believed it made each candidates a "man as strong as a crocodile". It meant having his back and chest permanently scarred with "crocodile" markings and being beaten daily for six weeks, but this was a sacred and secret ceremony, and to be included was a very great privilege.

Recommended for: those wanting something a bit more thoughtful to do with exotic societies.

Most exciting moment: running away from the Obini – an uncontacted people who turn out to be at war with his guides. And the eve of the dreaded crocodile initiation ceremony.

Benedict's comment: my second book, and something of a counterbalance to the first. My first independent journey – to the Orinoco and Amazon (the story told in Mad White Giant) – having ended up with me alone and desperate in the rain forest, even having to eat my dog to survive, I now wanted to come to terms with the forest that had almost killed me. I set about out attempting to immerse myself among various indigenous peoples in New Guinea – I had no appetite to return to the Amazon after the trauma there – but in fact ended up facing situations which were almost as equally worrying! I now think that the initiation ceremony was as harsh as any on the planet – though didn't know all it entailed beforehand, perhaps fortunately... But by now my "philosophy" of travelling was clear to me. I had gone on my first journey without backup largely out of necessity – I had no money. But now I saw that this approach – to leave modern equipment and companions at home – as valuable in its own right. If you call yourself an explorer, you should be pushing frontiers, and as I was not a scientist, these frontiers must be about immersing yourself thoroughly in little understood or unknown worlds, and then reporting back. Freud would perhaps have called this the banishing of "ego," as you try to lose some of yourself (and cultural baggage), and embrace different values. The second in the quartet, it was written as a quieter, much more studied book than Mad White Giant.

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