Monday, August 01, 2011

James Jameson in the Congo - Magan's World, Oct 2009

Sat 10 Oct 2009
A grisly drop of history

MAGAN'S WORLD:THE FLAUNTING by Guinness of the memory of auld Arthur so prominently last month brought to mind the ancestor of another of our great alcohol dynasties, James Sligo Jameson, grandson of the man whose signature appears on the whiskey bottles. James Sligo was Henry Morton Stanley’s only Irish officer on his ill-fated expedition up the Congo River, the first to penetrate the heart of Africa, in 1887.

I had his diaries with me while on a trip following in his footsteps in 1990, and was surprised by how similar our experiences were. We both paid £1,000 to a British company for our respective journeys, and both found ourselves completely out of our depth.

‘The last six months have been the most miserable and useless I have ever spent anywhere,’ Jameson wrote. ‘Ever since my childhood I have dreamt of doing some good in this world, and making a name which was more than an idle one.’

Both of us ended up haunted by remorse at some of the things we did on the trip. In my book Truck Fever, I admit to buying up all the food in poor villages, while Jameson writes candidly about a forced march he led, ‘one of the most disgusting pieces of work I have ever had to do . . . a lot of slave drivers of the old school would have done it much better, for that – slave-driving – is what it often resolved itself into.’

Africa in its wisdom managed to exact its revenge on both of us in the exact same location. We found ourselves abounded within two miles of each other on the Congo river, 103 years apart. Both became ill and faced starvation, and had to resort to inhumane behaviour just to stay alive. I won’t rehash my own travails here, but what happened to Jameson is an incident that is so unsavoury that it’s unlikely Jameson Distillers will ever seek to promote their intrepid ancestor in the same way as Guinness appropriated Antarctic explorer Tom Creen.

The story goes that Jameson, while in conversation about cannibalism with a local chief, offered 6 white handkerchiefs to see someone being killed and eaten so that he could sketch the scene. In a letter home to his wife he claimed it was all a misunderstanding: ‘I sent my boy for six handkerchiefs, thinking it was all a joke, and that they were not in earnest, but presently a man appeared, leading a young girl of about ten years old by the hand, and then I witnessed the most horribly sickening sight I am ever likely to see in my life. He plunged a knife quickly into her breast twice, and she fell on her face, turning over on her side. Three men then ran forward, and began to cut up the body of the girl; finally her head was cut off, and not a particle remained, each man taking his piece away down to the river to wash it. The most extraordinary thing was that the girl never muttered a sound, nor struggled, until she fell.’

Jameson claims he only started sketching after they had begun to chop her up. He then decided to make the best of a bad lot and got out his pen. Unfortunately, news of his actions had reached the Times of London before he could set the record straight and he died of fever a few months later without ever clearing his name.

Having made my own mistakes in Africa, including being responsible for young boys being battered over the head with a machine gun butt until they bled, I think we ought to look with compassion upon Jameson, and if I do raise a pint to Uncle Arthur, I’ll definitely follow it with a chaser in memory of poor James Jameson.

Truffle Pig of Travel - Magan's World, Jan 2010

Sat 01 Jan 2010

Truffle pig of travel

MAGAN'S WORLD:I USED TO BE a truffle pig of travel, I think to myself as I accept yet another business card from a weary travel executive who has just flown in from Manchester that morning.

“My first time in Éire,” he says, his face etched with the suspicion that we might at any moment bundle him blindfolded into a blacked-out van and whisk him off to a lonely bog for an interrogation involving the snapping of fingers for unsatisfactory answers.

I try to feign interest as he tells me that the chain of motels he represents now offer free croissants and jam to all guests on check-in. I dutifully jot down the terms and conditions - the fact that the croissants can be substituted for oaten cakes for those with gluten allergies. No sooner has he gone than someone offering cycle tours around Lourdes approaches me, and I think to myself, how did it ever get to this - from wandering the world to circling a claustrophobic function room filled with eager and slightly desperate travel marketing managers? From truffle pig to caged swine?

What started out for me as a desire to explore the world moved naturally to a wish to record my travel in books and television documentaries, then newspapers. I just never imagined I’d end up taking notes on single supplement tariffs on American fly-drive holidays. I could walk out, of course, but it wouldn’t seem right. The travel industry has paid for my lunch, and having eaten their sea bass and drank their fine wines the least I can do is hang around and listen to their pitches.

I notice the rest of my journalist colleagues are huddled together at a corner table swapping gossip. The Big Kahuna of travel writing is holding court as usual with everyone listening attentively, even the eminent travel editor who does the weekly morning radio slot. We all show deference to the B K because of his ability to re-sell the same article so many times in different markets around the world – we want to know his secret; we want him to introduce us to his agent. I, in particular envy his contract to supply podcasts to an elite online magazine – having flogged his article a dozen times, he then reads it into a microphone and gets paid almost as much again. The few young freelancers who still remain in the business after a harrowing year are bunched together like nervous foals, glancing back and forth between Mr Radio Slot and the B K, in the hopes that either one of them might throw them a lead. Only the couple who have secured their own TV show can afford to remain aloof. They stand conspicuously apart, although even they reveal a trace of desperation as they try to wrangle a sponsorship deal from the head of a Far Eastern airline – without such deals their show will whither and they’ll be backing scrumming around the trough like the rest of us.

Overall, I’m enjoying the new leaner times, the fact that we can no longer expect our expenses to be covered by the travel company or by our editors. We now dip into our own pockets occasionally, like normal people. It was disturbing to see how quickly I got used to having my laundry bill paid for and having someone else pick up my tab. But I’d be fooling myself if I claimed that this entitles me to call myself a real traveller again. No amount of press junkets can match even one trip that I’ve chosen and paid for myself.

I may now visit more places than ever before but the truth is that from being a truffle pig of travel I am not far from turning into a porcine concubine to the PR industry.

African Cat-calls - Magan's World, Jul 2010

Sat 07 Jul 2010

Colourful terms for the white man on African catcalls

MAGAN'S WORLD:I’M JUST BACK from four weeks travel. Real travel, by which I mean endless bone-juddering, coccyx-splintering journeys through the bush in the back of pickups and nights camped out on the roofs of hostels. The sort of travel that I grew up on, but now at age 40, seems more and more unbecoming, inappropriate, delinquent.

I was in Mozambique, and it was the first time in a long while that I didn’t speak the language, or at least have a guide with me who could translate. I was reminded again of the sweet, terrifying sense of alienation that comes from not being able to communicate.

The heightened sensation it brings to every encounter – every meal one negotiates, every bus ticket one buys. In such situations each activity relies on a degree of trust, of intuition, and, most of all, on the willingness of some local to help out. I’d love to be able to calculate how much of people’s time I wasted over the course of the month. What was the cumulative effect of all those encounters with people explaining the phone system to me, showing me where to buy water at midnight, where to transfer from one bus to another, or how to prepare the smoked fish I bought at the market.

White people in Africa complain about the constant attention they get, the chorus of catcalls that follow them, but it is this attention, this outsider status, that ensures people are so patient with us; that no matter how weary, annoyed, resentful they are they still take the time to convey whatever needs to be communicated to our thick heads.

The most common catcall in Africa is the local name for ‘white person’ - mzungu, ferengi, baturai, mundele or yovo. Mzungu is probably the best known, it’s found in most Bantu-speaking countries in East and Southern Africa. The derivation is thought to be from ‘the people who travel’, or ‘the people who walk in circles,’ which some claim stems from the fact that the early colonisers all looked the same to Africans, so they thought it might be the same few albinos going around in circles. Each term reveals something about how we’re perceived by locals. The Nigerian word baturai, means ‘man with no skin,’ making it clear why our appearance in remote villages can still lead to such consternation – we are ghoulish, ghostly figures, like half-formed larval humans. Yovo is the word commonly heard throughout Benin and Togo, often chanted as part of a song "Yovo, yovo, Bon soir. It’s an old term that linguists say originally meant ‘cunning dog’ - an appropriate term for the first colonists who were bent on hood-winking and exploiting the locals, and still remarkably apt centuries later in a place like West Africa where the French were using people as slaves long after the Russians had sent a man into space. The Congolese word Mundele is connected to their boogie man character known as Mundele ya Mwinda, the White Man with the Lantern, which stems from the time when Belgian slave traders would sneak into a village at night with lanterns and round up the men for forced labour. The locals regarded them as demons carrying a light that hypnotised them into surrender.

The catcalls can range from being a warm pleasantry to a barbed insult depending on the context, and one’s reaction to them depends on how one is feeling at the time. Often, it’s delightful to be welcomed into a village with your own personal chorus, but when you’re feverish and exhausted the sound of twenty children screaming mzungu can drive one demented. How to reply depends on the situation: if the term is meant in a benignly descriptive way one can provoke a laugh by replying ‘Hello, Ethiopian’ or ‘Hello Kenyan Person,’ if it’s pejorative or mocking better get the hell away from there as quickly as possible.

Canvassing for Obama - Magan's World, Nov 2008

Sat 11 Nov 2008

Barack Obama and me

MAGAN'S WORLD: Manchán Magan'stales of a travel addict

The city itself has enough tourist highlights to keep one enthralled for days - voluptuously proportioned mud and timber buildings, like something out of Timbuktu, and magnificent 17th-century Spanish churches - but my attention kept being drawn back to the Obama election office downtown, a hive of frenetic energy, not unlike the scenes from Cybill Shepherd's campaign HQ in Taxi Driver.

The posters in the window warned about how precariously balanced the American Dream was in this pivotal swing-state, and I was reminded of what I had learnt earlier at the ‘Old Santa Fe Trail’ museum, about how this region had been a vital conduit for early settlers searching for their own American Dream. It triggered something in me and I found myself pushing through the bunting and flyers of the Obama office and signing up to help. It seemed like now was a time for something other than sightseeing.

And so, I spent five days knocking on the battered screen-doors of down-at-heel adobe homes, asking people for their support. At first I felt uncomfortable about intruding on the democratic process of a foreign country, but then I considered how freely America imposes its will on other countries and lay aside my qualms.

Canvassing offered a cultural insight more profound than any tourist activity ever could. People were surprised, and even moved, to find an Irishman on their doorsteps and they shared their feelings with disconcerting frankness - telling me of their financial worries and their disgust at Washington’s bale-out of the super-rich while leaving ordinary folk facing foreclosure. One old man came to the door hooked up to an oxygen tank and was almost in tears at the inequities of Medicare; a Mexican woman shook her head in agitation and pointed to her Dodge Ram pickup which was due to be repossessed. I reassured them all that Obama would offer change, but it was with a somewhat hollow heart. I wanted them to see him as their saviour, their knight in shining armour, but it was with more hope than certainty.

On Sunday I canvassed with a school teacher, worn-out from the strain of teaching Shakespeare to Mexicans. She assured me that every middle-aged white man we would meet would likely be voting for McCain: ‘It’s a matter of self-confidence,’ she said. ‘White men have always regarded themselves as sexually inferior. They don’t want someone more virile then them in office.’ I explained to her about the concept of Sacral Kingship in pre-Christian Ireland - how the king had to be fully-fertile in order to properly impregnate the land and assure bounty. She laughed and said it was probably best if I didn’t point this out to people. ‘They haven’t exactly acknowledged their inferiority yet.’ And so I let her do most of the talking and I just kept an eye out for the attack dogs that lurked behind so many picket fences and tried my charm on the women occasionally, particularly the ones who still had a candy bowl in the hall from trick-or-treating on Friday. I’d always ask them for some - not for myself you understand, but to bring back to the campaign office. I thought if I wasn’t up to the subtleties of local canvassing, I could at least fuel others with a sugar rush to go out and do their part. And, as I stood in the polling office on Tuesday watching the anxious faces of economically-challenged people who had come to support a candidate who just might provide the hope they so desperately needed, I wondered whether my words, or at least my candy, may have made some tiny difference.

Sante Fe, Pueblo Indians - Magan's World, Jan 2009

Sat 01 Jan 2009Credit to the natives

Manchan Magan'stales of a travel addict

IN SANTA FE, New Mexico, people seem inordinately proud of the various Native American tribes in the surrounding pueblos - at least on first impressions. At weekends they come into the city from the reservations and pueblos and take over the glorious mud-plastered plaza. There, they hold a market selling silver jewellery, turquoise pendants and bits of pottery to eager white Americans who crowd around reverentially enquiring about the meaning of various symbols and the provenance of precious stones, snapping up what they can without ever questioning the inflated prices.

The native artists themselves remain stony faced - true to character, or at least, to what is expected of them. They squat resolutely on low stools, making occasional surly comments in lugubrious tones, ‘The bear is a symbol of strength and power. I take Visa card - not Amex.’

Surrounding the plaza are shops full of yet more native pottery, weavings and beadwork at even higher prices with leggy blond saleswomen who gush about the spiritual integrity of the individual artists at the first flash of a credit card. The reverential attitude to Native American culture in these shops is contrasted somewhat by the reality of Indian life just down the road at the Indian Hospital. The Indian Health Service (IHS) receives only 60% of its annual funding needs and it struggles to provide for the nine pueblos in the area. ‘The aim of the IHS is to keep us healthy enough so disease won’t spread beyond the reservation into white folk,’ a Navajo elder said to me, hunkered over his daughter’s silver pendants in the plaza. ‘This whole market is a lie – Indians never made jewellery to sell. We’re doing it because it’s what is expected. You guys are still pulling the strings.’

At night when the artisans go home, the plaza becomes haunted by the occasional drunken Indian, wandering waveringly between the pine colonnades of the magnificent 17th century adobe Palace of the Governors – where the Spanish hid out during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 when the native tribes joined together and revolted against Spanish rule. Dressed in black puffer jackets or ponchos they stagger up to you looking for the price of a cheese burger or the stub of your cinema ticket so they can get some rest in the local movie theatre. Most of them come from towns further north where the old Teddy Roosevelt remark "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn't inquire too closely into the case of the 10th," still has some currency. Attacks on Native Americans still occur there – a Navajo man was beaten to a pulp by three youths shouting "Die nigger! Just die!" two years ago, while a Navajo woman had her skull crushed with a sledgehammer by a group calling themselves KKK - for "Krazy Kowboy Killers," in a town called Farmington, known as the "Selma, Alabama” of the Southwest.

I asked the Navajo elder in the plaza did he feel resentment at having to sell his daughter’s wares and to pretend to infuse them with spiritual blessings by blowing on them in the very same location where his ancestors had come to beg during times of drought after their lands had been taken from them. He looked hard at me and shrugged, then pulled out a book on the subject of ‘Survivance,’ the mutually compromising relationship between a dominant tribe and its victims. He said it was by his professor at university, a post-modern, anthropologist from Albuquerque, but it’s conclusions were so complex that he could barely understand them and certainly couldn’t explain them to me. He urged me to buy myself a copy. I promised I would, thinking how would I ever get anyone to believe this had actually happened. But it did, it really did.

Dervla Murphy column 3 - Who is Dervla Murphy? Jan 2011

The Irish Times - Saturday, January 8, 2011

Our world wanderer's tales of a travel addict

MAGAN'S WORLD: IF YOU MISSED Who is Dervla Murphy? on TG4 last Sunday, let it be a lesson to you to watch more TG4; not to be one of the many who praise the channel for its innovation, but rarely watch it.

Each time I mention Dervla Murphy I feel the need to re- introduce her, although it’s unimaginable to me how anyone could not be familiar with Ireland’s greatest travelling icon, our courageous, eloquent world wanderer, whose seminal works of travel literature over five decades and four continents count as one of Ireland’s great literary achievements.

For anyone stymied by the claustrophobia of Ireland in the 1960s to early 1990s Murphy was our lodestar. Her character is exemplified by her description of the thought process that set in train her first Herculean journey from Lismore, Co Waterford, across Iran and Afghanistan to India in 1963: “I was looking down at my legs thinking if you did this for long enough you could get to India.”

Such simple determination has been at the core of her travel writing ever since. Her books about journeys through India, Africa, South America, the Balkans, Siberia, Cuba and Eastern Europe shine with ruthless honesty, charm and razor-sharp perception – attributes that the Who is Dervla Murphy? documentary fortunately shared. The documentary maker, Garret Daly, spent three years getting to know Murphy and her daughter Rachel, and as a result we get an insight into the make-up of one of Ireland’s most remarkable figures. A woman who savours, as she says about Ethiopia in In Ethiopia With A Mule , “this Neolithic world where money is unimportant and all the objects in daily use have been made of mud, wood, stone, hides or horn”.

In a series of interviews, Murphy talks about the years before travelling, spent caring for her mother, which she survived by “living on whiskey and nicotine”, and explains how it was her mother “who first suggested that I travel on my bike. She thought it would be substitute for education that I missed because I had left school at 14 to look after her.”

Murphy’s candidness is shared by her daughter Rachel, who readers would know from their travels together in On a Shoestring to Coorg: An Experience of Southern India, Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels With a Mule in Unknown Peru and Cameroon With Egbert .

Discussing her mother’s decision to give birth to her out of marriage in 1968, Rachel says: “It’s not something I forgive my mother easily for. I think it was outrageous to have a child in those circumstances.” And yet a few harrowing moments of tape later, as 40 years of hurt and confusion pass across her face, she adds: “I mean, actually this time I should try and talk to her a bit about it, because I am actually ready to forgive her, in fact.” In that single sentence, Rachel manages to vocalise the inner thoughts of every thirty- something and fortysomething in the developed world with the same clarity as her mother sums up entire countries in the pages of her books.

Ireland is fortunate to have had Dervla Murphy as our peripatetic representative amongst the furthest reaches of the world for half a century, and to have had her books to explain those far flung lands to us. For many, she was the introduction to India, to Ethiopia, to Peru, and as her 80th birthday approaches in November of this year, it’s time we made our gratitude felt. Watch out for the documentary during the year. Meantime, her latest book, The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba (Eland) , is a captivating work based on her travels with Rachel and her grandchildren.

Samantha Power and Sacred Heart nuns - Magan's World, Sept 2008

Sat 09 Sep 2008

Those vagabond nuns

MAGAN'S WORLD:RECENTLY, WHILE doing interviews for my book about a journey I made through Africa 18 years ago, I've been asked where my interest in travel came from. At first I thought there was no single factor I could point to: no intrepid explorers are hiding in the family closet. I come from a line of fervent revolutionaries on one side and placid dairy farmers on the other.

My revolutionary relations made occasional gun-running trips to Europe and fund-raising tours of the US, and they proudly traced their lineage back to a nomadic Gaelic poet of the 17th century, but other than that we were relatively sedentary- except for the few missionaries that every Irish family has.

So, up until April of this year I would have said there was no obvious motivating factor for my wanderlust, but then something weird happened at the Cúirt Literary Festival. I was due to give a reading from my book on India and while glancing through the festival brochure, I noticed that in the same venue, at the same time, the day before me, was the American academic, Samantha Power - senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Barack Obama until she made an off-record remark about the monstrousness of Hilary Clinton. The brochure listed her as Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and Professor of Practice of Global Leadership at Harvard, and when I googled her I found she was educated in Dublin until age nine.

I stared hard at the screen and gulped. My brain was trying to compute the words: ‘educated in Dublin until age nine.’ My very best friend between the ages of four to eight in Mount Anville, Montessori School at the Sacred Heart convent in Dublin had been called Samantha Power. We had spent every free moment together, gossiping and playing make-believe in our special den under a bush beside the tennis courts.

The photo of her in the brochure had the same long, red hair and freckles. It had to be her. Turning to Google, I found that she had spent the intervening years wandering the world’s war zones – Bosnia, Serbia, Sudan, Armenia, Kosovo. In one interview she even said, "If you really want to know how I got interested in war zones you'd have to go back to that first day of school in the Mount Anville uniform."

That got me thinking, was there something in the air at Mount Anville that had set us off wandering? The writer Kate O’Brien always maintained that convents were the most international of places, with sister houses all over the world, constantly passing missives and directives back and forth between them, and frequently housing nuns from far-flung destinations for extended periods. One was as likely to hear French, Spanish or Italian being spoken in the polished, parqued halls as English.

The foundress, of the Society of the Sacred Heart, Madeleine Sophie Barat, had managed to establish 99 communities throughout Europe, America and Africa by the time of her death in 1865. In comparison to hers my life has been positvely parochial. When I attended Mount Anville in the Seventies the Sacred Heart had schools all around the world from Argentina to Indonesia, Cuba to Korea. The nuns had acquaintances in many of them. I remember one ancient nun showing me a Pieta carved from a tropical nut that she had been given by an El Salvadorian friend – it seemed impossibly exotic.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly sets one off wandering – the writer Bruce Chathwin talked of a cellular impulse deep within us from our nomadic ancestry. My life of self-absorbed nomadism, interspersed with occasional efforts to document what I see in books and documentaries, can hardly be equated to Samantha Power’s agenda-setting exploration of genocide, tribal conflict, Aids in developing countries, etc. Yet, it’s worth questioning whether the pervasive sense of weltanschauung and internationalism picked up from a convent pre-school education might have played a part in focusing our gaze beyond the insularity of 1970s Ireland.

Congo Holiday Column - Magan's World Aug 2008

Sat 08 Aug 2008 Why I love the Congo

MAGAN'S WORLD: Manchán Magan's tales of a travel addict

WHO'LL JOIN ME on a trip to Congo? I'm serious: I want to organise a holiday, to reclaim this beleaguered place from the grips of the pessimists and cynical African doomsayers.

. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been abused for too long – by H. M. Stanley, Belgian’s King Leopold II, slave traders, rubber barons and the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko amongst others. In 2006 the Congolese finally managed to hold the first democratic elections in the country’s history, and what has our main response been? Not to set up cultural links or start arranging holidays there, but instead to rush to the bookshops in droves to buy the latest patronising, self-serving account of the darkness and depravity of the place. Tim Butcher’s Blood River (Vintage, 2007), an account of his journey through the Congo, has been on the bestseller lists for months. From the moment I heard it was written by a Telegraph correspondent I was suspicious. This was the newspaper after all who funded Stanley’s destructive, duplicitous journey a hundred year ago and who first popularised the notion of deepest, darkest Africa.

Admittedly, Butcher’s book is a gripping read, but at significant points, in my opinion, he heavily over-emphasises the desolation and the dangers he encounters for the sake of his story. It is exactly what Stanley did in his accounts of the Congo, giving the reader a riveting, sensationalistic read, but providing an unfair impression about just how bad things are there.

So, what can we do about it? I’m suggesting we take a bold step and swap our usual summer holiday in Tuscany or Torremolinos for a two week vacation in the Congo - just to show the bigoted, small-minded naysayers that it can be done. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, or even completely safe – and neither Madame Editor nor this august publication are backing my proposal in any way, (and nor, most probably, will your insurance company); but how else can we begin to turn people’s perspectives on the heart of Africa around? The likelihood is we might get robbed, and it’s inevitable that will be asked for bribes and will have to face significant delays occasionally, but these will be as nothing compared to the welcome we receive from the people and the absolute beauty of the landscape we’ll encounter. It’s been 18 years since I’ve been to the DRC (it was still Zaire at the time), but in all my travels since I haven’t encountered anything to compare. I’ll never forget my first sight of the jungle stretching out towards the equator – the bottle-thick vines, sepulchral trees, cathedralesque canopies and coiling waterways, the very energy centre from which all human life first emerged.

As the roads have mostly been wiped out it’s probably best that we stick to the river on this trip – maybe fly into Kinshasa and take a boat or a local flight upriver to Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville). We’ll rent some pirogues (dugout canoes) there and take to the water – the Congo River - this strip of sliver-blue ribbon that flows through massive swathes of undulant greenness. If you’re brave and don’t mind risking the odd water-borne disease we can ask the helmsman to steer us out into mid-river, away from the crocodiles and hippos that congregate along the banks, and go for a swim. It’s well worth the risk: to become part of this great mass of water is an unforgettable experience, the same river that brought the slaves to the coast, and also the gold and the ivory and Kalashnikovs and mahogany. This ‘immense snake uncoiled,’ as Conrad described it. Perhaps we’ll visit some pygmy villages when we’re there and how about staying in a crumbling colonial mansion slowly rotting in the jungle? Maybe a side-trip too to see where the Irish UN Forces made their heroic stand against the Balubas in 1961. Are you with me or what?

Dervla Murphy, Our Greatest Traveller - Magan's World, Oct 2008

Sat 10 Oct 2008 Our greatest traveller

MAGAN'S WORLD:Is it okay to have a crush on a 76-year-old? Because I had a serious one on Dervla Murphy, Ireland's most extraordinary and intrepid voyager since Saint Brendan, writes Manchán Magan

I dreamed about her for many years. I tried not to, but I couldn't help myself. She's come riding across the bleak Afghan wasteland towards me on her trusty old bike, or on a mule over the Andes. I wanted to think of something devastatingly clever to top say that would make her dismount and join me over by the campfire, so that we could talk and share ideas all night.

In the Ireland that I grew up in Dervla was the lode star for anyone dreaming of exploring the world. She made is seem so easy. For her tenth birthday she received an atlas and a bicycle and decided to cycle to India. The trip had to wait 22 years, but when she finally made it she wrote a fantastic account, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, (1963). Every year after that she’d make another journey and write another book - In Ethiopia with a Mule, On a Shoestring through Coorg, Where the Indus is Young.

I had heard it was next to impossible to get to see her; either she was off wandering far away or else holed up in her medieval market compound in the heart of Lismore writing the next book. Yet, through a wonderful stroke of fortune I managed to arrange a meeting last summer. I was terribly excited, especially about getting to see her home which is like a caravanserai you might find along the Spice Route – although I regretted having to bring a radio producer and researcher along to record our interview as it somewhat compromised the intimacy. I wanted to gush about the effect that reading her books had on me at age 16 and how I had devoured all of them, especially the ones with her daughter, Rachel. I felt I sort of knew them both at this stage, having followed Rachel from her first trip to Southern India at age six, right up to the madcap journey through the Andes with a mule when she was 15. I was amazed to hear that Rachel is now married with children of her own, and, of course, is still travelling. Occasionally the three generations, set off together; last year they went to Cuba to research Dervla’s latest book.

The visit passed all too quickly and before I knew it I was back on the road again driving over the Knockmealdowns, purring at the memory of Dervla’s humility and hospitality, and the wonderful earthy soup she made us with vegetables from her own garden. It was only later that night as I was listening back to the tape that I finally began to take onboard what she had been trying to tell me all afternoon. She wanted us to know that as far as she could see it the world was going steadily downhill. ‘As long as this corporate capitalism prevails there is very little to celebrate in the world,’ she said. ‘It’s very sad.’

This wasn’t something I wanted to hear from Ireland’s greatest adventurer. Instead, I was hoping to hear her waxing about the multitudinous expressions of humanity she had encountered and the awe-inspiring realms that are described so evocatively in her books. I tried, with the crassest of interviewing techniques, to steer her away from her gloom, but after a lifetime dealing with cantankerous militias and tribesmen she wasn’t going to be put off by the likes of me. The truth was that a lifetime of travel had left her feeling more alienated than ever. ‘I am getting more and more pessimistic,’ she said. ‘. . . (I have) deep, deep concern; great anxiety that the young wont be allowed to see what is happening.’

Congo, it's our war - Magan's World, Jan 2009

Sat 01 Jan 2009
Congo: it's our war

MAGAN'S WORLD:Manchán Magan's tales of a travel addict

IWROTE RECENTLY about arranging an outing to Congo for Go readers – a way for us to circumvent the fearmongers and doomsayers who claim this beautiful country will always be too chaotic and cut-throat for tourists.

I argued that although it might be a bit risky, the rewards of experiencing this astounding country would more than make up for any trouble. Its untrammelled fecundity is what’s most intoxicating – the whole country reeks of a heady lushness, a massive display of vaunting virility, with trees soaring into the sky to spread their seed as far as possible and flowers swelling to the size of umbrellas to ensure pollination.

The tone of my initial article and my suggestion of a holiday wavered between wide-eyed optimism and well-meaning intent. But within weeks of publication the Congo was at war once again, as if to prove the naivety of my suggestion. Nonetheless, I insist that the plan has merit and that it is inaccurate to portray the country as a snake’s nest of warring tribes. The truth of the matter is that the tribes are at war largely because of us – not just Europe’s past colonial misdeeds, but our current avaricious plundering of the Congo's resources. As aspiring world travellers we have a duty to inform ourselves about such things.

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees revealed in the Financial Times last year that multinational corporations are inextricably linked to the deaths and rapes in the Congo. ‘The international community has systematically looted the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and we should not forget that."

The country has the misfortune of being the greatest source of minerals in the world - cobalt, coltan, tin, chromium, germanium, nickel, and uranium – most of which are needed in the production of cell phones, computers, children's video games, cars, airplanes, etc. This abundance should be the key to their success, but unfortunately the multinationals that extract these find it more profitable to do so in a war-torn country than a stable one which could impose taxes and oversee correct mining practises. From an accounting point of view funding warlords to keep the country in turmoil makes sense. King Leopold of Belgium realised the same when he was bleeding the place of ivory and rubber. It’s nothing personal, it’s just accounting.

Not only is the Congo teaming with these minerals, but it also has traditional resources such as gold, copper, silver and tropical hardwood which attract the mineral-poor neighbouring countries, Rwanda and Uganda, who send in their own militias to the Congo to carve out an area of control for themselves. These militias are indirectly funded by their governments who in turn receive funding from foreign governments. Ireland gave Uganda €44mil last year. So, in fact you and I are partly responsible for the tribal wars in Eastern Congo, wars that have killed 5 million people since 1998 (7 times that of the Rwandan genocide and equal to the deaths in the Jewish holocaust) and the rape of hundreds of thousands of women and children.

I’m not a politician or an economist, but as a traveller who’d like to visit the mountain gorillas in the Parc National des Virungas in Eastern Congo again, and to climb the brooding, sulphurous Nyiragongo volcano as I did just after my Leaving Cert, it’s worth being aware of these facts – that 1,200 people a day are dying there partly because of us.

And, there’s little point in looking to the UN for help. Their $1 billion annual budget for the region is pittance compared to what the mining and extraction companies can pay. These companies have direct links to governments in London, Washington and Pretoria, and they will always ensure the UN remain under-funded.

Tourism shouldn’t be so complicated, and yet . . .


Sat 02 Feb 2009
A true cause celebre

MAGAN'S WORLD:IT’S HARD to avoid finding oneself on a celebrity trail nowadays. Every wall you look at seems to have a plaque saying who did what there when. But why? What’s the point? Are we really supposed to experience a euphoric jolt every time we stand where someone famous stood a year, a century, a millennium ago?

I’ve found myself at the rock where Adonis sat in Crete, the spot Joyce mistakenly got off the train in Ljubljana, the bars Hemingway frequented in Havana and the In Bruges sites in Bruges and haven’t felt even a twitter.

Only once did I ever experience the genuine thrill of contiguity and that was at the site of St Simeon of Stylites’ pillar outside Aleppo in Northern Syria. Simeon was a celebrity’s celebrity - famous for doing absolutely nothing, except climbing on top of a pillar in 423AD and sitting there for 37 years. Long before Nicole Richie, he figured out a way of earning worldwide fame without ever working or even moving beyond his metre sq platform. The idea didn’t come at all easily to him: he started out on a tortuous career path as a Christian ascetic – subjecting himself to ever-increasing bodily austerities from wearing spiked girdles which drew blood, to burying himself up to his neck for a few months and chaining himself to a rock in the desert. But it was when he came up with the pillar idea that he got true fame. This concept drove his fans wild and he ended up having to build a higher column to get away from them, but the higher he went the greater his reputation rose and eventually he had pilgrims and celebrity-gazers coming from all over Europe – even Britain and France - to see him and shout up questions. And this was all despite alienating 50% of his potential audience by forbidding women to come. Even his mother, Saint Martha wasn’t allowed to come until she was dead and he permitted her body to be brought. One woman who tried to come see him dressed as a man was turned to stone.

Standing at his site in Syria, looking up into empty space above the butt of the pillar (which is all that remain after centuries of pilgrims chipping bits off to take home), one can’t help but marvel at his achievement at becoming internationally renowned during his own life time a thousand years before the printing press was invented. He had to deal with all the problems that still taunt megastars today, such as what to do all day other than greet the fans who turned up each afternoon for sermons on subjects like the evils of a nice hot meal or clean sheets. ‘Clean sheets! Clean sheets. I’ll give you clean sheets. Did Jesus have clean sheets on the cross?’

Like all celebrities, a large part of the day was spent on a fitness regime – an early form of aerobics involving bending forward to touch his toes repeatedly - one witness stopped counting after 1,244 times bows. Other than the fitness/prayer regime, Simeon just stood praying for the 37 years – possibly thinking of how great it would be if there was such a thing as a Guinness Book of Records. He spent the nights either, sleeping standing up tied to a pole, or if he was feeling indulgent he’d curl up on the ground, chained to the balustrade in case he rolled over or a storm arose.

Like all celebrities he had a vast entourage to control the crowds, arrange access for VIPs (kings and emperors could climb a ladder to consult with him), and bring him the occasional meal. (His PR people managed to hush up details of how he dealt with bodily waste). A basilica was built around the pillar after his death - the largest in the world at the time – not even Britney or the Beatles managed that. Respect.

Simon Cumbers column - May 2009

Sat 05 May 2009 Tourism as self-help

MAGAN'S WORLD: Manchán Magan's tales of a travel addict

LAST MAY I found myself visiting a local community project in Zambia run by a safari lodge. Two open-topped safari jeeps full of tourists pulled up outside the community school to see the results of the funding provided by the guests and the lodge. It was impressive to see how the school had been able to employ extra teachers, add classes and buy equipment. We handed over the crayons, paints, books and balls that we had been encouraged to bring from home and by way of thanks the teachers and children launched into an hour-long display of ebullient singing, dancing and storytelling for us.It was a moving experience.

As our jeeps roared out of the school grounds again, I asked the armed wildlife ranger who had accompanied us whether such tourist visits were frequent. ‘Just a few times a week,’ he replied. I was dumbstruck. He told me that the children got a chance to study in the morning, then went home for lunch and in the afternoon they made the long journey back again to perform for their white donors.

It was worth it, he claimed, for the abundance of books, balls and donations the school received. Meanwhile, just down the road the next school was in penury, as were schools right across Zambia. The initiative was definitely well-meaning, but these things always become so much more complicated in Africa.

It got me thinking about community tourism, and whether there was anywhere local communities were equitably and tangibly benefiting from tourism, or if communities were running their own development-focused tourism projects. After some research, it became apparent that white investors had cornered the market in the prime locations of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and my only hope of finding authentic grassroots initiatives was in poorer, more forgotten countries.

I needed to do some fieldwork, but right away I faced the issue of how to fund it. That was when I heard about a man from Navan named Simon Cumbers. He had had a passion for documenting the world, and had filmed all over the planet from the Amazon to Indonesia, to India and Africa, until 2004, when he was murdered by terrorist gunmen while filming a report for BBC News in Saudi Arabia. He was only 36 years of age. A little over a year after his death, the Department of Foreign Affairs established the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund in his memory. It’s a grant scheme aimed at assisting and promoting more and better quality media coverage of development issues in the Irish media. Already it has paid for Irish Times journalists and photographers to report and research stories in Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Mauritania, East Timor, Angola and Zambia.

I applied and received a grant from the fund and as a result was able to travel to Uganda and Ethiopia earlier this year. I came across some truly inspiring community tourism projects which left me brimming with enthusiasm about their potential: lodges, camps, hiking trails, tribal ceremony tours, swamp walks, craft initiatives - all run directly by communities for the benefit of the locality. Together they make up an impressive range of tourism opportunities that are accessible, affordable and enable one to get deeper into a culture than any white-run project could ever hope for.

Unfortunately, we rarely get to hear about these projects because they are small-scale and lack international promotion. Over the next few months it’s my intention to sing about them from the highest tree tops – primarily here in the pages of Go, but also on RTE Radio and in Foinse and anywhere else that’ll have me. Getting a grant from the Simon Cumbers Fund invariably brings with it the legacy of the passion, resolve and ambition of the man who inspired it. There’s an onus to live up to the conviction and curiosity that he displayed in his own short life.

Dervla Murphy column 2 - Magan's World June 2009

Sat 06 Jun 2009Manchán Magan's tales of a travel addict

True traveller's tales

MANCHÁN'S WORLD:I WROTE RECENTLY about an interview I did with Dervla Murphy, Ireland’s most distinguished adventurer and travel writer, and in particular about her sense of disenchantment with the world she has spent her life travelling through. “As long as this corporate capitalism prevails there is very little to celebrate in the world,” she says. “It’s very sad.”

But what I failed to capture was the indefatigable passion for travel that still animates and propels her across the world – she published her latest book about Cuba just last year at the age of 77.

But what I failed to capture was the indefatigable passion for travel that still animates her and propels her across the world – she published her latest book about Cuba just last year at the age of 77. Following on from her comment above, she said, ‘I wish the younger generation could be much more aware of it, as you lot can change it.’

She is still a fervent advocate of travel, particularly as a way for young people to explore their world and inform themselves about what is really going on. ‘It’s in the interest of the people who run our world to prevent the average citizen of the affluent world from knowing how the majority of human beings live and why they have to live in such poverty,’ she says.

It pleases her that more people than ever are travelling, but, ‘backpackers have to be careful not to become too much of a herd - all going to the same place and staying in the same doss house and eating in the same restaurant. I think they would be far better if they went off on their own and visited fewer countries.’

At a time where our youth all too often tend to head sheep-like to Australia, with perhaps a stop off at a bungee-jumping spot in Thailand on the way, the example Dervla set by setting off on her bicycle from Lismore to Delhi through Afghanistan and Persia in the Sixties ought still to be a lesson to us all. ‘I don’t see the point of travelling above bicycle speed,’ she says. ‘I don’t think you get the feel of anything, whizzing along in a bus or a motor car or taxi - might as well stay at home, as far as I’m concerned.’

She feels today’s backpackers travel too quickly. ‘They decide to go backpacking around the world for 6 months and by the time they come home, having visited 12 countries, they don’t know t’other from which. They haven’t been there long enough, or quietly enough, to really take in the essence of the culture. They haven’t read enough about the places before they’ve been there.’

That said, Dervla still believes in the potential of travel to open minds and bridge cultures, ‘I think the one’s who go in couples or individuals, and travel slowly, achieve an awful lot in countering the more blatant, flashy capitalism, but I’m not sure that the packs achieve much.’

She explains that what she is most in search of is the feel of a place, ‘it entails being alone with the landscape, with the countryside, the actual physical territory. I don’t spend very long in cities. I arrive and then get out of them as fast as possible.’ Although she is always open to seeing the positive in a country, she will not shy away from the negative, if that is what she finds.

It’s hard to underestimate the esteem, bordering on love, with which Dervla is held among a whole generation of Irish people. After every public reading and lecture I give there is always a question about what I think of her and the influence she has had on me. The lustre in the eye of the questioner says it all. After my earlier column on Dervla I was upbraided by her fans for not providing details of where her interview can be found, and lest I attract further opprobrium -

Greenland, Magan's World - Irish Times, Aug 2009

Sat 08 Aug 2009Thawing to tourism

MAGAN'S WORLD:THE MAN climbing the cliff was carrying a sack of seabirds. A clear plastic bin liner stuffed with the mis-shapen carcasses of large gulls and gannets, their feathers awry, leaden eyes pressed against the plastic and beaks poking through.

The sight had a sordid beauty – the egg-blue Arctic sky running into the even paler-blue waters of Baffin Bay bathed everything in the light of a Northern Renaissance still life.

Less than forty metres away was a prefabricated timber building selling the full array of brushed aluminium and lacquered Bang & Olufsen gear. I was in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, and considering the town lacked a proper youth club or low-cost supermarket, the presence of so much extortionately-priced Danish electronics was a surprise. Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark and its 88% Inuit subjects are finding it hard to adapt to modern life - 20% of 15 to 17 year-old girls on the island attempt suicide at least once. Alcoholism is high, educational levels are low, and the collapse of fishing has increased unemployment. Thus, the idea that space-age headphones was something these people might need had an element of ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ about it. They made the local sod-roofed houses and driftwood dog-sleds look all the more primitive; as though reinforcing the idea that the Inuit might not be quite ready to govern themselves - the equivalent of the Eno tablets that British colonialists use to drop into water to bamboozle African tribes.

Tourism is Greenland’s new hope. Although the country is ferociously expensive it offers sights and experiences that will brand themselves into you forever. From the moment you land in Kangerlussuaq airport, just north of the arctic circle it becomes clear this is an entirely new realm of experience. The airport itself looks like a prefabricated, arctic research station and is set in a vast stony wilderness at the head of a fjord. Since there are no national roadways one needs to either take a boat or plane from the airport to anywhere else.

Alternatively one could just stay at the airport: the button-nosed, soapstone-skinned girls in the tourist office can organise dog-sledding, caribou hunting and kayaking in the area, as well as musk-ox safaris and trips to camp and stunt drive on the arctic ice sheet. One can even shop for most of the local crafts at the airport; they have a good range of seal-skin clothing, caribou antler and walrus ivory carvings. But, considering you’ve paid over €750 for your flight from Dublin via Copenhagen or Reykjavik you might as well blow the budget and head out into the rest of the country.

One economical and memorable way is to hike from the airport to the glorious town of Sisimiut on the coast, which has many original 18th and 19th century prefabricated timber buildings and a huge whale-jawbone arch as an entryway into the old town. The 150km trek from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut takes about 10 days across the tundra, along rivers, around lakes and through marshes, sleeping in huts along the way. The route is relatively easy and well signposted, although keep in mind that compasses deviate close to the North Pole and the rate of deviation changes every few years. The walk is only possible in summer, but for the rest of the year you can do it by dogsled or snowmobile, and springtime opens up the possibility of some serious cross-country skiing, including a renowned 160km route where you camp out for 2 nights and your bags are carried by dogsled.

If you’re lucky there might be some icebergs floating off Sisimiut, but if not, it’s worth taking a passenger ship north to Ilulissat because icebergs are the real wonder of this area – looming ice ghosts, cantankerous creeking solidified clouds. You owe yourself a look at them.

Walking Safari, Zambia - Irish Times , Aug 2008

Sat 08 Aug 2008Dangerously close to nature

After the initial nerves, Manchán Magan grew to love hiking in blissful isolation through a Zambian safari paradise teeming with animals - while all the time being fully aware that he was slower, fatter and probably tastier than any other animal out there

I'M GLAD I watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire?It taught me that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal and that they can run up to 30km an hour. This may have saved my life when I arrived at Tafika bush camp in northeast Zambia, and saw the two hippos standing on the lawn. I knew to stay inside the jeep. The camp's owner, John Coppinger, seemed to know otherwise.

He came out to greet me and even tried opening the door, but there was no away I was getting out. I pressed down the lock and pointed in the direction of the hippos. He seemed completely unfazed, and all he said was, ‘Hippos!’ with a shrug, in the tone that others use for wasps.

‘They’re dangerous!’ I called through the window. He nodded agreeably, saying, ‘Most things are around here.’

I was beginning to reconsider this whole trip to Zambia. I had heard that the country provided a more intimate safari experience than was available in other parts of Africa, but this all seemed a bit too . . .

My attention was suddenly drawn to a team of waiters carrying platters of freshly baked bread, elaborate salads and flame-grilled kebabs to a large thatched patio overlooking the river and in the end hunger got the better of me. I decided to face down the danger, and after carefully opening the door, I crept along the bamboo fence towards the food. John, who is Zambian, but of Irish descent, introduced me to his South African wife, Carol, and we sat down to my first incredible bush-camp meal – vegetables and salads from their own garden, meat from a German supplier in Lusaka and fresh cakes and breads baked in a traditional hole-in-the-ground oven. (It was like having the Avoca Handweavers food counter beamed down into the African bush.)

‘Crocs!’ John said, looking out towards the bank of the Luangwa River. I glanced up from my French beans and roast potatoes, and saw three long corrugated blue-green bodies pulling themselves out of the water up onto the bank – one with its jaws menacingly open.

It wasn’t as if I was unaccustomed to safaris, just not this type where you and the animals occupied the same space. I was used to the proscenium arch variety, where only upon stepping through the gates of the national park did one see wildlife. Here in the Luangwa region of Zambia there seemed to be no neat borders. The animals were everywhere. Already on the drive from Mfuwe airport I had seen high-nelly bikes, fully-laden with maize and palm oil, abandoned on the track where their owners had encountered a hippo or elephant and fled.

John explained to me about the walking safaris he ran - a less-intrusive, more intimate, way of being in the bush. I had read that you mightn’t get to see as much wildlife as you would from a jeep, but you learn about their tracks, their faeces and the plants and insects of the bush.

‘I wouldn’t bet on not seeing wildlife,’ John said when I mentioned this. ‘The park is teeming with it. Your main problem will be keeping out of their way. But, I recommend a game-drive first. Get a sense of what the place is like from a jeep, then you’ll know what you’re letting yourself in for if you decide to go out hiking.’

Memories of previous safaris came to me: seven jeeps all congregating around the same injured lioness in Kenya, and crowds of photographers jostling each other around a watering hole.

‘You won’t see any other jeeps here,’ John assured me. ‘We’re the only people who use this section of the park.’

After a siesta, a New Zealand guide and a local scout brought me out in the jeep and within a short distance of the camp they were already pointing out giraffe, elephants, buffalo, impala, bush bucks and warthogs. John was certainly right about their abundance. At dusk we stopped for sundowners – gin & tonics and freshly roasted popcorn - at a ford on the river where a family of elephants were crossing from the safety of the National Park to the riskier, but food-rich farmland on the far side. As the sky blackened, the game scout plugged in a floodlight and we drove on, fanning the light back and forth across the landscape, revealing night creatures - mongooses, civets, nightjars, owls and hyenas. I was trying to find words to describe the sweet, musky, minestrone-like smell of the bush at night when suddenly the screeching of baboons alerted us to danger to our left and as the jeep swung down a bank towards it we heard the shriek of a terrified impala. The floodlight revealed two lions bent over the stricken animal, its jugular still throbbing, spewing out blood. The lions threw a quick glance our way, but were too caught up in the kill to give us much attention and they allowed us drive right up beside them and watch as they tore the animal to pieces. It was eerie to be so near them and yet be ignored so completely. I kept having to reassurance myself that I really was there. Even a spider or an ant would have reacted more to our presence.

It was 7pm when we got back to camp. The patio was festooned with candles and waiters were carrying in casseroles and more fresh salads and bread to a group of Americans who had just come back from a cycling safari and were giddy with the fact of spotting a leopard stalking a waterbuck. After dinner an armed watchman walked me carefully through the camp to my bamboo and timber-pole chalet, pointing out various amorphous forms that could have been either hippos or elephants along the way. Directly outside my chalet a lone male hippo stood with its enormous head bent deferentially to the grass. I hoped I might be able to slide past it, but the watchman grabbed hold of me and pulled me back. He stamped and rattled his gun for a while before the animal eventually decided to waddle on a bit towards the river.

Inside my chalet I surveyed the beautifully-made, but undeniably flimsy, grass and bamboo walls, realising there was no way they could withstand even an angry hare, let alone a hippo or elephant. Still, I couldn’t but admire their artistry. The whole chalet, including the bed, the shelves and sink-stand was made of twisted grass and split bamboo tied to a frame of rough-hewn poles. It was like living inside a basket, and once I had crawled under my mosquito net and put out the storm lantern, I felt as snug and safe as a kitten in its basket.

Next morning at breakfast John said he had a surprise for me. He led me to the edge of the camp where a tiny micro-light was parked on a rough strip of cleared ground, and asked me did I want to see the park the way birds did. I looked warily at the contraption - two go-cart seats bolted to an aluminium witches broom with a lawnmower engine at the back and a flimsy yellow canopy - but I knew this was too unique an opportunity to pass up. He gave me a helmet and headset and strapped me into the seat and we went bumping off over the ground until suddenly we were airborne and below us was the chaotically coiling river with a herd of hippos wallowing in it, arranged head to tail in a weird chain-mail pattern that I would never had noticed from the ground. We flew right over a baobab tree on which a fish-eagle was nesting, and then swept gracefully down through a family of elephants who showed no sign of concern at our appearance. It was wonderful to see wildlife without causing them anxiety – so different from my previous experiences of taking photos of the retreating posteriors of frightened animals. We were just a large, loud bird passing overhead. John pointed to a lone crocodile sunning itself on the bank and with a glint in his eye he suddenly revved the engine and dived straight for it, sending it fleeing for its life. As we rose back up into the sky, he said into my headset, ‘I hate bothering any animal, but crocs are different.’

The Americans were still munching through their poppy-seed muffins and papaya when we got back. They were about to go on a game drive and asked me did I want to come, but John thought it was time for me to immerse myself more deeply in the bush. He told me to pack up my gear and then had someone lead me to a canoe and paddle me across the river to the far side where three men were waiting for me – a rotund, middle-aged man in a khaki shirt and shorts with binoculars around his neck, was clearly the leader. He introduced himself as Isaac. ‘My job is to keep you alive,’ he said. ‘I have been guiding 35 years and never lost a man. But you must listen and obey me, okay?’ I nodded. He pointed to the next man in line – a gangly scout dressed in military fatigues and carrying a .375 Brno rifle. ‘This is Batwell. He’s from the State National Park. His job is to protect the animals. If we are attacked, you must ignore him and follow me. He will be fine – it’s what he’s trained for.’ The third man, dressed in a beige jumpsuit was Justin. His job was to carry the tea and cake and make us a fire when we rested.

Isaac lined us up in the order we were to walk: Batwell first, then Isaac, then me followed by Justin. We set off through the bush – an area of perfect wilderness with no roads or villages, just beautiful lost lagoons, ebony forests, open grassland and dry, sandy riverbeds. It’s where I spent the next three day. Hiking in blissful isolation through a natural paradise teeming with animals. At first I was constantly on edge, fearful that every patch of long grass could conceal a prowling lion, or that a leopard might spring from every tree. I had seen on the night-drive how numerous the carnivorous predators were and how vicious they could be, and I had now placed myself directly onto the food chain. I was slower, fatter, and (although I say so myself) probably tastier than every other animal out there. I was an ideal meal, but Isaac told me I ought to be more wary of the large grazers - the hippos, buffalo and elephants - these were the ones most likely to charge if we startled them. It was up to us to make sure we never did. He taught me to listen out for the ox-pickers, the birds that sit on their backs and warn of approaching predators. If we heard their call we had to stand stock-still until we worked out where exactly the animal was, and then retreat, making as long a loop around it as was necessary.

Once I settled into the rhythm of things, it made for an idyllic few days. Each morning we’d set off at 7am and hike through the bush for four hours until we arrived at either one of two bush camps that seemed to appear as if by magic out of the wilderness. A team of cooks and porters permanently stationed there would have prepared lunch for us – the same great food as in the main camp - all the ingredients hiked in by a team of porters (who had no armed guard to protect them!). After lunch we’d have a siesta and then head out again mid-afternoon until dusk. I adored the walks. There were different animals to be seen at different times of the day and the light filtering through the trees and flickering on the grasses was constantly changing. There was always some visual treat up ahead to make it special – a glimpse of a giraffe’s neck between two trunks, a Scott’s owl in a tamarind tree, a bushbuck leaping from behind an acacia, an elephant flapping its ears in gentle, but determined defiance. By the time we had returned to camp the porters would have hot water heated for our showers and dinner prepared. Depending in which camp I was in, I slept in either a luxurious grass-made chalet, or a tree house. Bamboo shutters were put up around the grass room to stop hyenas coming in, but the tree house was open, and in theory a giraffe could stick his head right in – and occasionally it did, according to Isaac.

It’s what I miss most about being back home now, the fact that a giraffe is unlikely to stick its head through my window. That said, I am enjoying the fact that I can walk to the shops without encountering hippos. I just wish the nights smelt a bit more like minestrone.


Manchán travelled with Native Escapes Ltd, 8 Walpole Crescent, Teddington, Middlesex TW11 8PH

T/F: +44 208 977 7034, e:

An 8 night trip, departing Dublin costs from €3,200 pps. Cost includes international and domestic flights, transfers, 2 nights at Tafika Camp, 4 nights at the Chikoko Trails camps, and one night at the Holiday Inn in Lusaka. All activates, meals, drinks and National Park fees included.