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About a year ago, I was hurried pre-dawn through Heathrow Airport by a certain burly friend in a woollen hat who had the knack of being able to disappear into a crowd. By now the story of my plight in Papua New Guinea had become, I'd been warned, an international story – and arriving back in the UK with dengue fever and malaria, I wasn't in much of a state to be interrogated by anyone.
What made the process of integration back into my world so much easier was the knowledge that my friends – and long-suffering family – would have been standing by me all this time that I'd been missing, deep in the forested interior of PNG. Among those was Frank Gardner, the BBC Security Correspondent, who had been – it turned out – fighting my corner on Radio 4's Today Programme and various TV news bulletins, quashing some of the more ridiculous speculation about head-hunters and underlining that I knew my stuff from years in PNG, that this was no publicity stunt and that I would somehow be all right.
Twelve months on, this is my underlying memory of that expedition: not the dramatic rescue, but of how friends gathered round to help. It was the same out there in the heart of New Guinea. I had headed there for a personal reason – simply to thank a remote people called the Yaifo who had been kind to me as a young man, thirty years before. As usual I would travel on local terms – not with a GPS or satellite phone but instead placing my trust in them, using in the skills they (and others) have taught me over the years. Perhaps it was that decision which saved me: because when violent conflict between two communities prevented my exit to safety, again local Papuans stood by me, sharing their food and helping me send word to the outside world. They were no longer 'guides' – they had become close comrades.
I gave my first interview to Frank – still aching, shaking and dizzy with my cocktail of malaria and dengue fever. I don't recall what I said – perhaps I made no sense at all. But I do know that I won't be taking a phone on my next journey, because letting go of my own world is the point of my job – and also my skillset. I'll again trust to the locals and my family and friends will, I hope, again trust in me.
Transglobe Expedition Trust Annual Lecture Evening
Doors open at 6pm for a 7pm start.
Back from the Peruvian Amazon!
No-e (rear) and his brother Jorge learning forest lessons 25 years ago.
This proved quite a physically demanding expedition – in only a month or so I managed to lose 12 kilos in weight – but also an incredibly rewarding one. After an absence of about 24 years I was welcomed back by the various members of the Matses family that I used to know – many of them in those days just young children. I'll report more fully in due course about Pablito, the then head of the family – and the man who – with his ten year old daughter Lucy – taught me lessons that would later ensure my survival, as I walked on alone to cross the Amazon Basin.
But on this return journey the most exciting thing was that not only the Matses but their forests were thriving. I was taken off, day after day, through the trees by No-e, pictured here. Once upon a time, aged five, he used to hunt me down with his toy bow and arrow! Now we made animal traps together – just as his father taught us, a generation ago.
No-e, alive and well today.
Having tuned-in a little to life in the forest with the help of No-e and his brothers and sisters – more about the extraordinary Lucy later – I then headed upriver to a more remote place, the headwaters of the Galves River. I was accompanied by Filipe, who was such a friend to me so many years ago, when he agreed to accompany me on my expedition to the Cocha Brava, or "Wild Lake." Back then he was (it's fair to say) afraid of this remote place – and perhaps for good reason. Not only was it said to be the home of a huge snake, but the various animals inhabiting the region were unused to humans, and had no fear of them. The giant snake may – or may not – exist, but Filipe's brother was certainly killed by a jaguar not far away. All these years later, the Matses still avoided the region; we were approached by otters, tapirs, fresh water dolphins, large caiman – and much more besides... As I say, I'll write more in due course.
Filipe and myself, exhausted on our way to the Wild Lake.
For now I just want to say that we hear so much bad news about the Rain Forest – last year, 2017, a football pitch worth was destroyed every second. But in the Peruvian Amazon I found a forest that was as unharmed as quarter of a century ago, and the Matses are more in control of their destiny than at any time in recent history.
Off I go.
By the time you read this I will have disappeared again. And this mission is much the same as the last, in that it's not about nostalgia, not about regaining my youth, not about wanting to find a "Lost Tribe" – all of which was rumoured last time – but simply about seeing how some people (who were once very good to me) are coping all these years on. The Matses, just like the Yaifo (re-visited last year in the highlands of PNG), taught me a huge amount as a very inexperienced young man, and like many others around the world gave me access to their lives and their world.
So, I'm heading off to the Peruvian Amazon, launching up the Yavari River to locate Pablito (see pic) and his family, whom I last saw 22 years ago. I'd particularly like to trace Lucy, then aged around eight. She is perhaps 30 years old now and with her own children, but back them taught me skills that were to save my life, when I was robbed and left to die.
After, I hope to head onward south, perhaps alone, to the even more remote "Cocha Brava" or Wild Lake – on my former visit avoided the Matses, if only because there were stories of a giant snake inhabiting its murky waters; it was anyway a great sanctuary of wildlife. But has this secluded location survived? What of the otters, the ocelots, jaguars and peccaries that I saw on my last, very brief visit? And what of the drug traffickers and loggers who were, a generation ago, already beginning to move in?
Will I take a sat. phone and GPS? No, I will not. Entering remote places alone is what I do: it's my highly specialist skill set, and I have developed protocols over 35 years to get me out of trouble – indeed, they worked once again in PNG last year, safely delivering me through the difficult rain forest terrain for more than three weeks, before I started to re-join the outside world and found the way blocked by fighting. But more than this, it's always been a principle of mine that I should be able to look the locals in the eye and say that my life is no more valuable than theirs, that we were doing this journey on their terms, not mine. I'm happy to say that it was this immersive approach, rather the use of alien technology, that kept me alive on – and assured the success of – my last expedition.
Goodbye, then! And please remember that the world has never been more accessible, and never in greater need of exploring – by ALL OF US. Explorers do not, then, belong in the past; indeed, we live in a Golden Age of Exploration.
I hope to meet you in the Autumn, when I shall passionately argue this point – as part of the Ultimate Explorer tour around the UK, upon my return in late August or September.
An Evening of Adventure
An Evening of Adventure at the RGS on 28th Feb, along with Kate Humble and Richard Dunwoody. In aid of good causes, c/o Wild Frontiers.
The ULTIMATE EXPLORER Tour 2018
This Autumn I'll be circulating through the U.K., speaking to audiences and hopefully entertaining and trying my hardest to even inspire them occasionally!
PLEASE DO COME ALONG! For a list of venue dates and to get tickets, please visit the Tour 2018 page.
What they say: