Return from the Arctic!
It took our helicopter three attempts to extract our party - the anthropologist Florian, director Tom, translator Guy and myself from the tundra. We only just got out, as a snow storm closed in - and were worried the pilot might give up. Worryingly, he was being paid not in cash but in reindeer meat, which we had plenty of – we joked at the time that perhaps the pilot that day was a vegetarian or even Vegan (hitherto unheard of by me in the Russian Far North) and not so concerned about extracting us from the snows.
It was a very rewarding trip – three weeks in total, which was rather short, but none-the-less a very precious time to be able to spend with the Nenet reindeer herders. Hopefully, the material we gathered will be part of a BBC series on the Arctic- we are trying to clear through some of the preconceptions and myths about the place. Here in the Russian tundra, for example, the Nenets – though living what looked like a very traditional existence - found themselves sharing the tundra with various oil company explorers. Pipes were cutting across the tundra, gas flares lit the day and night skies; huge installations were being installed. Yet the Nenets saw the oil developments as an opportunity to sell their meat and gain better access to health care and transport. This is the new frontier, the fastest developing oil zone in the whole of Russia. Ignati, our host in the Nenet camp, was remarkable I thought, for his belief in the future of his people out there. The oil would be gone one day, sooner or later, but "as long as the sun comes up over the tundra, the Nenets and their reindeer will continue out here." Ironically, the sun was actually barely above the horizon now – the start of the long Arctic winter.
There are other threats to the Nenets, in particular the warm temperatures and erratic weather – part and parcel of climate change, it would seem. It was sometimes minus 25 Celsius, which seemed amply cold to me, but occasionally neared zero – when the temperatures should perhaps have been more like minus 40 or so. The higher and less reliable temperatures affect the annual slaughter of their reindeer- the fear is that the meat might not stay fully frozen. Here are a couple of photos – I apologise that they are of me, not the Nenets. I'll remedy this in due course, but only returned last night, and these are the only ones I have at present.
Survival in the House of Commons
Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, the charity which helps indigenous people defend their rights, recently kindly invited me to a reception at the House of Commons to welcome Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, an indigenous leader from the Amazon, and help press for support of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tribal Peoples, and in particular the government's support for convention "169" of the International Labour Organisation, which is the most important international law for tribal peoples. Davi gave a moving and poetic speech about the damage done through the centuries to the Amazon forest environment, and its decimated peoples – including his own. Awkwardly, the Brazilian Embassy then insisted on a "right of reply," a spokesman telling us that the Brazilian government was listening to these concerns, and was "already acting on them." That aside, it's important that our own government acts on this matter – for more on this and other core issues on indigenous peoples, see www.survival-international.org
Brewhouse Theatre Postponement
Despite what was promising to be a lovely big audience, a long standing other commitment by me to film in the Arctic for the BBC means the talk has to be re-scheduled to Friday 16th May. I do apologize to anyone who might be disappointed or inconvenienced by this. I try so hard never to cancel or postpone talks, even when other exciting or lucrative offers come my way – this clash though was entirely unexpected and the decision not entirely in my hands. I'll try to make it up to the audience somehow – more on this in due course...
On Saturday I'm heading off to the Arctic – a Russian outpost called Naryan-Mar, north of the Arctic Circle. Presently temperatures are reportedly dropping by 5 degrees Celsius a day, and I should arrive in time to see the sun dip below the horizon, not to rise again until next Spring. The aim of the trip is to record and investigate what's happening in the tundra at an extraordinary time in the Arctic's history. Never has the Far North seen such human interest – as the ice threatens to melt, waterways are opening up, and various nations are competing to exploit the natural resources (principally gas and oil) to be found out there. I'll visit a Nenet reindeer camp, see how they are coping with these challenges, and also talk to an oil company active in the region, which is looking to co-operate with the Nenets – who have an abundance of reindeer meat that the oil company needs and that they wish to sell. Hopefully, this filming stint will become part of a bigger series for BBC 4/BBC 2.
Arctic absence – Delay in signing books
Because of my absence in the Arctic, there'll be a delay in me signing any books or cards I'm afraid. I'm returning on 7th December, still in time for Christmas orders.
Still no scheduled broadcast date for this series – on the great travel writers of the last century. My guess is Spring 2008.
I'm giving a talk at the RGS entitled (rather excitingly) The Naked Explorer. It's in aid of The Railway Children charity - I'm at last honouring a longstanding promise to help this wonderful charity which works to help street children around the world. I don't think I've actually promised to strip off for the event: I'm talking about my approach to exploration - going off without conventional backup (satellite phone, GPS, western companions...).The talk is, as the Railway Children website puts it, "by arguably our most authentic adventurer is about trekking in genuine jeopardy across the Amazon, the Arctic and New Guinea." Please click on the link: www.railwaychildren.org.uk.
Next TV Series
I'm safely back from Afghanistan, and various other places, thus completing the various filming stints for the series Traveller's Century.
Though the title may change, the three part TV series – for broadcast initially on BBC 4 – is looking at the great travel-writers, who seem to have occupied the "golden years" of travel, ie between the era of exploration and the present era of mass tourism. During this time, the 20th century, it was safe enough to venture far from home and follow your own impulses, without the sponsorship and baggage of a formalised expedition. In the series I ask why the British are apparently so keen on travelling "overseas" - and on travel writing? For better or worse, the Brits completely dominate the literature – you'll note that even Bill Bryson, though an American, writes for a UK not US audience. Go into a bookshop in France, Germany, the States or China and you will not find nearly the same range or quantity of travel books as here. Is this to do with the Brits coming from an overcrowded island that we are trying to escape? Are we just tying to understand or justify our place in the world, because we're aware we are just a small, offshore nation? Is it due to the residue of the Empire? Are we trying to evade the shackles of a class-ridden society? Eric Newby (Short Walk In the Hindu Kush, Slowly Down the Ganges) seemed to me to represent best the spirit of the great amateur – the idea of simply packing your bags and setting off (without the expertise of the specialist explorer) to seek adventure. Laurie lee, (As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning) who I also devote an episode to, seems to come from a very different tradition, that of the poetic traveller, the wandering minstrel or troubadour. Finally, I examine Patrick Leigh Fermor, (A Time of Gifts) whom many feel is the greatest living travel-writer, and who comes from the Byronic tradition of the errant scholar; a synthesis between the man of action and intellectual.
The series is due for broadcast in Autumn this year, 2007.
Into the Abyss
INTO THE ABYSS is now out in paperback, Faber and Faber. I don't sell copies, but if you want me to write a message to insert into a copy for a friend, or want an inscription on your copy and can be bothered to send it to me (with stamps to cover the cost of posting it back, please!) send it to my office address: 72 York Road, Montpelier, BRISTOL, BS6 5QF UK.
Into the Abyss
INTO THE ABYSS is due out in paperback this summer.
I'm off to Afghanistan tomorrow – in the footsteps of Eric Newby (whose memorial service was yesterday), as part of the BBC 4 series I'm presenting and writing on the great travel writers. His 1956 journey became immortalised as A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush; I'll be retracing the journey of Eric and Hugh Carless, as they struggled up the Panjchir Valley to climb Mount Samir. Ironically, it's one of the few places in the world which is less visited by travellers now than half a century ago – for obvious reasons.
MAD WHITE GIANT is currently out-of-print
It is (in theory) being reprinted at present by the publisher, Faber and Faber.
Happy New Year
I was actually rather sick over the New Year – because I was on the QU 2, crossing the notorious Bay of Biscay, as part of a lecture engagement, during rough seas. So much for me being a "rough, tough, explorer" - I felt I wanted to die! Give me Colombian hitmen in the Amazon any day...
Work is now on progress on this series for BBC 4. This will keep me fairly busy for the first part of 2007: I hope to launch out on an expedition in the latter half. But we shall see...