Trekking and Big Society in Morocco

The following is re-produced from an article in the Peterlee Star on September 25th 2013. The author, David Taylor-Gooby, and his brother Peter, joined Adventure Alternative for a summer trek in the Moroccan High Atlas, including an ascent to its highest point, Jebel Toubkal.

As you may know from the Star I have been in Morocco most of last week, so this article is an attempt to make some observations about health as a result of the expedition.  I am not sure about the effects on my health, but I did manage to climb Mount Toubkal, and I want to thank all those who sponsored me.

 When I go on an expedition like this, I feel like the lines of Keats recently popularised by the BBC, “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold…… silent upon a peak in Darien”.  But when I come back down to earth, several points relating to health stand out when visiting a country less well developed than our own.

Average life expectancy in Morocco is 72, according to the World Health Organisation.  That compares with 80 for the UK and 79 for America.  It is well ahead of central and southern Africa.  You notice that public health in terms of plumbing, toilets and clean water is much worse than in this country. You see fresh meat being carried through the streets on a warm day. But on the other hand you notice that most Moroccans, including the elderly, are thinner than we are.  They eat far less processed food.  Fresh products are sold in markets, and fresh bread is baked every day. And, of course, most of them do not drink alcohol.

So should we sit back on our laurels and think that the answer for Morocco’s health to improve is to become like us?  I saw another piece of literature about health last week, Professor Lieberman’s book “The Story of the human Body, Evolution, Health and Disease” in which he argues that our modern lifestyles and food consumption are becoming more likely to cause cancer. He argues  that the body will naturally put on excess weight if it can so that it has a reserve for leaner times.  Unfortunately we never encounter those leaner times nowadays , so the fat stays with us.  The answer as we all know, is a healthier diet and more exercise. So we may not stay ahead of the game in terms of life expectancy for ever.

Progress is not one-sided.  We can teach countries like Morocco much about hygiene and preventing disease, but in terms of lifestyles we could learn from them. If we ate more locally produced fresh food we would probably be healthier.

Incidentally, if you want to improve your own health, I would recommend a trekking holiday.  There are all sorts of varieties of expeditions, and it is a unique experience.  Look at organisations like “Adventure Alternative” which I can certainly recommend.

David Taylor-Gooby is a Lay Member of the Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield Commissioning Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

David and Peter have between them published a number of books dealing with social policy. You can see some of them on Amazon.

Climbing and Craic in the Atlas Mountains

A very Personal Account of Adventure in the Moroccan High Atlas
By P. Jack

PART 1 : SOMEWHERE IN NORTH WEST AFRICA….

I was at 4,100 metres above sea level in the Atlas mountains of Morocco.  There were only 67 metres of altitude between me and the summit.  I was holding on to my ice axe as if it was a life saver. Because it was. My crampon-ed boots dug deep into the ice as if my life depended upon them.  Because it did.

A Mancunian voice drifted up towards  me from around a rocky crag, “Pete, do you not want to look back at the view?”  “No thanks” I weakly replied. I knew already what the view consisted of – about 1,000 metres of ice and snow at a 60 degree angle and if my ice axe and crampons didn’t work, then it was ‘good night Irene’.  I would have been a fine looking corpse but still, I decided I would cling onto life, if not sanity, a bit longer.  As long as I concentrated on this one metre piece of glistening ice in front of me I would be fine.  Finally Ibrahiam, our Berber guide, shouted up at me, “Mr. Peter, it’s ok, you can go ahead now”.  I slowly withdrew the ice axe and stepped gingerly forward to try to find somewhere equally safe and comforting.  I had only to keep calm and concentrate for another 15 minutes and I would be at the top.  I didn’t even want to think about the journey back down because I would definitely have to look at the view… .   What on earth was I doing here, perched to the side of a cliff in North West Africa, trying to resemble a limpet? SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA I have always admired climbers, not quite understood them but always admired them.  I mean, they would have to have a screw loose, wouldn’t they?  What type of rational human being gets his kicks being scared to death?  I read “Touching the Void” and saw the movie of the same name about guys climbing to – and beyond – their limits.  I am a huge fan of people like Chris Bonnington, Edmond Hilary, Sherpa Tenzing, Bear Grills, Gavin Bate, Hannah Shields and the late Ian McKeever, all of whom had conquered  their fears – and also mountain peaks.  I however live at sea level.  I get vertigo if I go up a flight of stairs too quickly, but I have always loved hill walking.  What could be nicer than hacking your way up to Binevenagh Lake and then plunging down through the forest?  For the last three years, I had trekked and hiked my way to the top of Kilimanjaro to Everest Base Camp and to Kinabalu in Borneo, all of which were between 4,000 and 5,900 metres, so I proved I could cope with altitude, because it’s actually about attitude, not altitude and I could suffer as long as I needed to suffer.  But this would be the first trip where I would have to do some work which was more than your average scrambling, this would actually involve some technical stuff.

As ever, I signed up with the excellent Adventure Alternative team from Portstewart where Chris and Andy guided me expertly through what I would need in terms of kit.  At the same time when I was in Morocco, Adventure Alternative had teams away in Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and Aconcagua  (South America) and at Everest Base Camp.  AA is a phenomenally successful company whose DNA is reliability and experience.  I wouldn’t go anywhere without them.  I flew to Marrakesh from Gatwick and was met by Matt who was the group leader.  I knew Matt from Nepal and his quiet reassuring demeanour and professional leadership was to be a source of great comfort over the next week.  There was also the local head honcho, Ahmed and we quickly met the rest of the team including Andy from AA who had actually gone to Morocco for a break away from work and had bumped into Matt at the airport, talk about a small world!

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I met the rest of the intrepid travellers at our riad in the middle of a street only a stone’s throw away from the bustling heart of Marrakesh, Jamaa el Fna Square.  A riad is a town house which is like Dr. Who’s Tardis, it looks tiny from the outside but when you step in through the gilded front door, there are rooms in every conceivable direction with a quiet court yard (often with a palm tree) to get out of the sun, a roof top terrace to catch the sun and the whole thing is an oasis of peace and quiet.  Quiet that is, until 5.30 a.m. when the booming voice of the local iman is broadcast from the ubiquitious minarets.  At the end of the week we stayed in a second riad which was caught in a Cross Fire Hurricane of four different minarets and they all started about ten seconds apart so there was there was this constant cacophony of wailing, assailing my sleep deprived ears.  If you could sleep through that, you are a better man than I, Gunga Din.

There was six in our team, two Mancunians, both called Andy, one supported City and one supported United, (so I have no idea how they co-existed); Ben and Libby from Leeds and Kevin from Cork, but based in Faro, as he was a pilot for a local airline and was well versed in taking the ribbing that his airline received daily.  All of these guys had travelled and trekked extensively –   Elbrus, (highest mountain in Europe);  Kilimanjaro, (highest in Africa) and  Aconcagua, (highest in South America) had all been ticked off by some or all of them so I knew I was with an experienced bunch.  It’s the people that make or break a trip and I was so lucky (again) to meet a bunch of like-minded people who were up for some craic, some banter and a lot of thrills, but hopefully no spills.  Ben and Libby had actually climbed one of the peaks already, Toubkal several years ago in the summer months, but this was going to be a whole different ball game for them and for all of us.

We enjoyed a feast of lamb cooked in a tagine (basically a slow cooker shaped like a mini volcano), then we had a walk around the madness of the Jamaa el Fna Square square.  This basically is a market place which is jam packed for about 20 hours every day with donkeys, monkeys, acrobats, drummers, shysters, traders etc. – you could literally buy anything here.  The turquoise light from toys, which were catapulted up into the air by local ten year old sellers, illuminated the night time sky even further.  The smells of cooking, fresh oranges, and spices enticed our nostrils as we made it back for a night’s rest before the fun would really begin….

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The next day we were transported in a “grande taxi “ to  Imlil.  As the native tongue of Charles de Gaulle is the country’s second language, I had my annual opportunity to show off my school boy French.  The locals however not only spoke Arabic but also Berber and English, thankfully.  In Imlil, we quickly settled onto the roof top veranda of our latest riad and it was a pleasure to lie down in the warm rays of the African sun.  Later we went for a 2 ½ hour acclimatisation walk which was led expertly by Ibrahiam.  We seemed to pick up both a dog and a horse out on the hills and they accompanied us back to base just as it was getting dark.  My new boots were serving me well and I had just purchased  a set of B1’s which apparently could be fitted with C1 crampons.  I didn’t understand any of the technical lingo and just just hoped for the best. I was lucky not to have any blisters later.

After a hearty meal, we retired for the night as we had an early start.  The call to prayer ensured there was no rest after 5.30 a.m. and a few hours later we walked down the dusty main street (the only street!) of Imlil before turning left and heading off onto a rocky trail.  The street was the last time we would see a paved road or a wheeled vehicle for four days.  Everything above this altitude of 1,750 metres was carried on a porter’s back or on the side of  a mule.  That was the first of many parallels with the Himalayas in Nepal where their preferred beast of burden is the yak.  The Atlas mountains are basically mini Himalayas.  Whilst the latter have a range of 8,000 metre peaks, the former have a whole bunch of 4,000 metre peaks and the scenery is equally stunning.  Quickly our dry and dusty valley was transformed into a twisting and turning combination of gorges and ravines, of snow and ice.  After about 6 hours of easy walking we made it to the Nelter Refuge, which  was going to be home for the next four days.  In here, we would eat, sleep and socialise together.  If you weren’t up a mountain you would be in the lodge trying to keep warm.  There were trekkers from all over the world including Alberto from Gran Canaria whom I later bumped into in Marrakesh.  I met two Dutch blokes who were going skiing down the slopes of Akioud (a name which was later to strike true terror in my heart!)  We listened to loud Americans discussing their daily conquests and we slept, all 7 of us on the top bunks, where the only way to keep way was with a four seasons sleeping bag and hot water bottle.  It was either wet wipes or a cold shower for hygiene but the food was great.  We needed about 3,000 calories a day just to keep ticking over – at altitude you are pulsing your metabolic rate or both up.  After trying to huddle round the fire we retired for the night.  We were to be up at 7.00 a.m. which was to be a positive lie in compared to the next two days.  Earlier Matt had given us lessons on how to use our crampons and ice axe.  He showed us, if we were hurtling down an icy slope towards imminent doom, how we could use the ice axe to stop, using the well known technique, known as “self arrest”. I thought that the only arrest I would be capable of doing over the next 72 hours would be of the cardiac variety.  We climbed up onto our bunks supposedly to sleep.

Join me next week to see if we make it to the top of all four vertical leviathans, all over 4,000 metres, in the Atlas mountain range of North West Africa.

PART 2 : TRIUMPH ON TOUBKAL!

Our intrepid team of explorers from Adventure Alternative were in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and our aim was to summit Four Peaks, all over 4,000 metres high, in the North West of Africa.  The description of the trip in the Adventure Alternative blurb was that on day three, we would “make an attempt” at Akioud, why just an attempt?  What could be so tricky about it?  The delights and difficulties of Akioud would have to wait for another two days because today was an attempt at a double peak –  Timesguida and then Ras Ouanoukrim (which funnily enough we shortened to Ras).

Back  home in Ireland, the Ras is the toughest amateur bike race on the Island.  It’s been won by Sean Kelly amongst others, but in Morocco the Ras was our first goal.  We were stationed at Nelter Lodge nestling in the middle of the high Atlas, an impressive swathe of mountains which stretch nearly from the Atlantic sea board in the West to Algeria in the East.  They are 500 miles long and up to 60 miles wide.  These mountains in previous centuries have been a place of refuge for the population from invaders.  For us they were merely to be a high altitude playground where we could pit our wits against precocious Mother Nature.

As the seven of us were sharing a dorm with about 10 to 12 others, every team had a different mountain to tackle and therefore a different start time.  One morning one bloke opposite us got up at 2.30 a.m. and started fumbling about with his head torch.  We heard him put all his gear on and he was obviously going to start his climb in the dark and the cold.  For us on day one we had a civilised lie in to 7.00 a.m. and by 8.30 a.m. we all assembled outside the Refuge bright eyed, if not, bushy tailed.
We had our crampons and our rucksacks and we set off, more in hope than in expectation.

We quickly got into a pattern of making slow and steady progress with the accent on slow.  No matter where you trek in the world, the right method is the one used in Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.  The Swahili word for “Slowly Slowly” is Pole, Pole and I have heard that phrase used in Nepal, Borneo and now in Morocco as well.  Matt, our leader, showed us how to synchronize our footsteps with our breathing, better long and slow than fast and choppy.

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Crampons would be a boon on ice and were necessary to prevent us from falling.  Putting on a set of crampons is an art in itself and it took me three days to master it.  In fact I obviously didn’t because on the very last day coming down the last slope one of my crampons fell off!

With crampons you have to walk with your feet wider apart than normal, so you don’t catch one on the other i.e. you have to trek John Wayne style.  It may not be pretty, but it works.  Matt also showed us how to kick a hole out of the ice with the front of the crampon and he explained that it was fairly hard work for your calf muscles if you had to do this for hours on end.  Me? – I just crossed my fingers and listened to Ibrahiam who said we would get to the top,” Inshallah” (God willing).

After a few hours of snowy ridges we had some technical scrambling on bare rocks to remind us that this wasn’t just going to be a ‘walk in the park’.  Omar, one of our guides just made the whole thing look ridiculously easy.  I tried to follow his footsteps in the snow.  Although I was the same height as him, his gait was much longer than mine and I felt myself struggling to keep up with his ‘Finn McCool’ type steps.  Eventually we summited our first peak on Ras and it made us feel good.  Why do you go and trek all over the globe in these places,? I am often asked.  It’s hard to encapsulate it into mere words, but up here, the warm comfort blanket of security and network systems and support of friends and family and office is stripped away.  You have to fend for yourself, it’s you against nature.  It’s not a case of conquering these mountains, God forbid, I conquered nothing – except my own fears.  These mountains merely allowed us to stand on their top for a few minutes before we shuffled off their peaks.

Why do it?  In a nutshell, standing up here, seemingly on top of the world, you can practically hear the silence.  Hannibal Lector waxed menacingly about the Silence of the Lambs, but up here it’s about the Silence of the Souls. It’s so quiet it is breath taking.  The second reason for being up here is the scenery and the peace.  I am fortunate enough to live in a beautiful part of the world – at sea level – but even I have to admit that these views are world class.  The weather was kind to us, every day was blue sky, no clouds and no wind.  Roger Daltrey of “The Who” sang years ago, “I can see for Miles and Miles”, I now know what he means.

Up here, you are not worried about the nonsensical decisions of the Northern Ireland Court Service to close Limavady Court House or the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission abolishing Legal Aid, you just relax and go with the flow and enjoy the views.  The Atlas mountains are the African equivalent of the Himalayas, albeit half their height, but they were no less challenging and there was no less sense of achievement when you got to the top.

One hour later I was on what is called a snow-bridge.  Our second goal of the day was Ras.  To get across to it we had to place our feet – and our well being – and entrust them to a snow-bridge.  Now I have stepped across quite a few bridges in Nepal and Borneo and they are made of good solid stuff.  Here however, the fate of the organiser of this year’s Roe Valley Sprint Race on the 11th May, was dependent upon negotiating very carefully a narrow enough carpet of snow.  If you slipped down to the left, you fell only 300 metres, but if you slipped to the right you would tumble twice that.  The whole idea was not to tumble in the first place.

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We all made it across in one piece and celebrated with chocolate, group hugs and energy bars.  We hadn’t budgeted however for being out so long and so it was a fairly hungry and thirsty Adventure Alternative party that made it back to base camp 8 hours after setting out.  On the way down, we put on our crampons for the first time to help us cope with a big steep icy decent and after an initial reluctance we all got to grips literally with our new iron clad feet.

Day two saw us leave the comfort of our lodge at 7.00 a.m.  Quickly we were on our way across a fairly scary looking face but it was covered in snow and ice and our crampons worked a treat.  Today was Toubkal.  At 4,167 metres it was the loftiest of our challenges.  Many people come here just to do this one, but we had wisely had four goals in mind.  On this trip, I was to more than double my number of 4,000 metre peaks that I had bagged in my life time.

Again we went Pole, Pole and we were rewarded with cracking views and spectacular scenery.  There were a few ‘seat of the trouser’ moments on the way up but when we were there we were amazed to see a canny canine companion with us!  Apparently this dog would routinely work its way up (without crampons!) the slope knowing that any climbers would share their tinned mackerel with him.  We obviously obliged – please don’t tell Roxy!  After opposing for the obligatory “King of the World” shots, we started to fight our way down.  This was undoubtedly our trickiest assignment to date as we descended over a seemingly glass like stretch of 400 metres of sheet ice at a precipitous angle, where if you  had started to slide you would end up on a spot marked oblivion.  I learned that you had to have confidence in your equipment – crampons and ice axe and also yourself.  I learned a lot about myself and we all made it down to our temporary home after a ten hour day, full of fun, and a bit of fear as well.

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It was day three I was worried about….  I had spoken to a bombastic mountain guide the night before who greeted it as “PD”, this was a French climbing term meaning   “Peu Difficile”  It was quite obvious to me that the French had never actually been up Akioud because to me it was a BD i.e. “Beaucoup Difficile”!  I  was very apprehensive about it and  tossed  turned most of the night and  I already decided that if I couldn’t hack the technical upper reaches that I would turn back, preferring to be a living coward than a dead hero,  but adrenaline does funny things to a bloke.  We set off at 6.00 a.m. head torches and with the sky illuminated by the sparkling stars and a crescent moon.  Three hours later after a massive hike up a steep ice wall (off which Ibrahiam told us helpfully a skier had launched himself, couldn’t stop, hit another skier and killed him).  We were at decision time.  It was Fight or Flight.  The only thing I wanted to do was get cracking.  The rest of the team were fairly relaxed and were posing for pictures.  I only wanted to pose for photographs at the top and not on this col.  I set off and there was only one thing on my mind, get to the top a.s.a.p.  I went at it like a bull at a gate.  Soon the lines were stretched and I was told to wait.  Matt had brought ropes in case one of us fell.  I am not sure if I wanted a rope in case I caused all of us to fall.  We were at a 60 degree angle and I have never been so grateful for the ability of crampons and an ice axe to do their job.  After an interminable wait I got the go ahead to continue the push to the top.  This was without doubt the toughest thing I have ever done in my life.  Thirteen Ironman was one thing, but at least all you have to do is swim, bike and  run, there are no life threatening situations to confront but here, half way between Hell and Heaven, I knew that one slip could be fatal.  It tended to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

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After what seemed like hours we all made it to a rocky crag where we celebrated the fact that we were all still alive.  I knew however that going down would be even worse as I would have to look at the drop. Forty five minutes later we made it back down to the relative safety of the col.  The relief of the Siege of Derry was as nothing compared to how I felt and where a call of nature was necessitated….  I had stood on top – and lived to tell the tale.

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On the way down, the atmosphere in the warm sunshine was one of “Schools Out for Summer”.  We practically frolicked in the deep snow and laughed when we fell over.  After negotiating the tricky icy gorge, we were on the home run except that we had another four hour hike after lunch to get to Imlil where a surprise birthday party lay in store for Ben and I.  Ahmed managed to bring us some beer from Marrakesh and we had no difficulty in persuading a visiting Dutch guy and an Australian girl in joining us for some cake and to  listen to Moroccan drumming and singing.  Ahead of us lay a night or two in the souks, medinas and kasbahs of Marrakesh but in the meantime we could reflect a on a Job Well Done.  The aim was to summit four 4,000 metre peaks, we accomplished that and more importantly we made it back down.

Morocco has everything from the wild sea coast in the West to the biggest desert on earth to the East.  Adventure Alternative are looking into planning a new trip along the lines of “From Surf to Summit to Sahara”.   You might want to check it out.  I just wonder how I will get my surf board to the top of Toubkal…..

Peter traveled with Adventure Alternative on the Winter Toubkal trip. For more information see;

https://www.adventurealternative.com/trips/view/73/mount_toubkal_winter

This article originally appeared in the Limavady Chronicle, N. Ireland

Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice is a recently released and award-winning feature film which follows photographer James Balog in his quest to photograph and document the recession of glaciers around the world. It seems that the film, and the extreme ice survey project its self, both grew larger and more impressive than any of its subjects realised when it began around 10 years ago.

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Balog is clearly the driving force behind the mission and what started as his own personal passion for photography and respect for the environment has grown into a story that has become one of the most graphic and tangible demonstrations of climate change to date.

In many ways, the project and film can be succinctly summarised by para phrasing one of Balog’s comments in the film where he explains that as a photographer, what he has been seeing is wonderful but as a human being; it is horrible.

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Although Balog does have a solid technical background in the field, he is a photographer first and foremost. He admits to being far more motivated by the sleeves-up, hands-on approach. It is this approach that has allowed his project to cross the gulf, from the high echelons of scientific research, to the minds of the general public. Once you have seen an Alaskan glacier retreat by literally miles, year on year, you cannot help but want to ask some further questions. The small amount of technical information that is presented, is easily and shockingly, grasped from a plot of carbon dioxide and global temperatures compiled from ice core records. The ice cores again neatly linking into the theme of ice being “the canary in the coal mine”.

Of course, there will always be the lobby of the climate change skeptics  Probably the first thing that they will seize upon here is the relatively short sample period of photo-data collection compared with the timescales of natural cycles in global climate. This will be something that will always be brought up and perhaps it is important that there is always a counter-argument. It is this that helps to keep the argument its self healthy and robust, which I believe it is.

As you would expect, the film showcases plenty of incredible footage and stills of ice and its infinitely complex and beautiful forms. And also spectacular time-lapse sequences of glaciers collapsing and calving into the sea in blocks the size of Manhattan. It is this melting and re-shaping that gives the ice its inherent beauty. Yet at the same time, it is this same process, which is now continuing at an accelerating rate, which gives Balog, and the viewer such horror.

This film is one that we cannot recommend more highly. Whether you are an adventurer, a mountaineer, a lover of photography or nature, an environmentalist or a climate change skeptic, there is a huge amount to savour and reflect on in this film.

http://www.chasingice.com/
http://www.chasingice.com/see-the-film/trailer/
http://extremeicesurvey.org/
http://blog.documentarychannel.com/post/35713366045/interview-chasing-ice

First Ever Photo of a Wild Singing Dog?

Is this the first ever photograph of a New Guinea Singing Dog in the wild?

Photo from the trail, cropped to show dog

We had word of some very exciting wildlife news at Adventure Alternative HQ recently. It was of a potential sighting (and photo capture) of one of the rarest (if not the rarest) breeds of dog in the world – the New Guinea Singing Dog (NGSD).

The sighting was made by Adventure Alternative Borneo director Tom Hewitt whilst on trek in the remote Star Mountains of Western New Guinea Island. These elusive dogs have most probably never been photographed in the wild before, so this is potentially huge in the NGSD world.

Tom, who has been living and working in SE Asia for the last ten years, is now based in Sabah and Sarawak from where he runs Adventure Alternative Borneo – the company that came into existence after a chance meeting 3 years ago with Adventure Alternative founder Gavin Bate. Along with a rainforest camp called Lupa Masa next to World Heritage Mt Kinabalu Park in Sabah, Adventure Alternative is also providing assistance to new community tourism and reforestation project based around 6 Penan villages in the remote interior of Sarawak. With financial support provided by Moving Mountains Trust, Adventure Alternative’s partner charity, the villages aim to plant 15,000-20,000 new hardwood saplings per year on previously logged and burnt forest.

Every year or so, Tom leads expeditions to New Guinea, an island shared between the independent Papua New Guinea and Indonesian controlled West Papua.  New Guinea is a truly remarkable destination as these facts and figures testify:

  • It is the 2nd largest island on earth, covering 785,753 sq km.
  • Although this landmass covers less than 0.5% of the world’s surface, it is estimated to contain up to 8% of the world’s known land and sea species, with countless still unknown and waiting to be discovered.
  • In terms of size of continuous rainforest it is exceeded only by the Amazon and the Congo.
  • And whilst only 1% of the world’s population call New Guinea home, the number of native languages spoken, account for over one sixth of all languages on earth – that is over 1,100 distinct dialects!

The Main Photo in Question

The photo taken from the trail of the dog on the hillside above

The same photo again (hence the slightly low resolution)
Now cropped closely to the dog its self

The details of the Sighting

We invited Tom to offer his own account of the trip and the sighting…

A client approached me at the end of 2011 requesting a bespoke trip that was ‘beyond any usual tourist or trek route, ideally mountainous and not hot and humid’. For a long time I had been looking at Mandala Mountain on the West Papua map. It is the 2nd highest free standing peak in Oceania with very little information available about it. It seemed to fit the requirements.

At an unconfirmed 4,760 m (no one is really sure) Mandala Mountain is the highest peak in the Star Mountain range – one of the most remote and unexplored areas of the world and until 40 years ago Mandala mountain even had it’s own permanent glacier. Here the native flora and fauna species, including the secretive singing dogs have remained in virtual isolation and undisturbed for thousands of years.

The twelve day tour included myself and the client, plus a trusted cook and guide that I had used before and seven local porters and guides from the starting village, itself an expensive 1 hour chartered plane ride from the capital of West Papua, Jayapura.

At the time of the sighting we were in a dramatic, wide valley with 4,000m peaks and limestone walls with waterfalls on either side. We spent a total of 4 days camping in this valley and there was regular contact with a number of exciting animals: couscous, possums and even tree kangaroos were seen most days, as well as many unidentified ground nesting birds living in the swamp grass. One species of bird of paradise was heard in the lower forest, but not seen. There were a few highland flowers and grasses and occasional groves of an ancient cycad species – primordial in every respect.

The guide and cook were 10 minutes ahead of us on day 1 of the return the trek, they had stopped I presumed, for us to catch up. When we reached them the guide proclaimed ‘dog’. This took me quite by surprise and it took three explanations by him for me to understand. But sure enough above us on the rocky outcrop in the bush there was a dog – the guide seemed as bemused by it being there as we were. After initially being quite close to the guide, by the time we arrived it had taken position on the hillside above us; this is the position found in the photos. We watched it for around 15 minutes as it continued to watch us. It seemed as curious as we were but not particularly scared or nervous. What stood out was how healthy it looked upon closer examination with binoculars.

I had no in-depth knowledge of NGSD’s at the time of the expedition and the photos in question were merely one of a huge number taken. To my utmost regret I did not make any video footage, nor did I try to get any closer. But in the context of any trip to Papua at the time this was no stranger than other events that happen daily – such as waking up one morning to see one of the porters using a tree kangaroo as a neck scarf to keep him warm.

There have been no previous confirmed reports of Singers in that general area. This can be easily explained by the fact that it is not an area the locals would ever go to, or at least not very often. There is much better hunting in the lower forests and hills. It is also very rarely visited by any other visitors.

When we returned from the trek, I searched for more information on the Singing Dogs of Papua and realized that I had possibly the only ever photo of one in the wild. The photos have since been disseminated amongst various experts including the American based New Guinea Dog Conservation Society.

Here are some more photos that were captured on the trip:

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In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua, Mt Trikora, on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. At 4,750 m Trikora is also in an area that the New Guinea Singing Dogs have been seen by the locals. The scheduled climb will either begin or end with the annual Baliem Valley tribal highlands festival – this is when all the various highlands tribes come together for a big party in Wamena. For all of the trip information, click here.

History of the New Guinea Singing Dog

The intense topography of Papua as a whole coupled with low scale political troubles in the Western side of Papua has meant that little research has been done into the existence of NGSG in the area. The dogs themselves are believed a close relative of ancient dogs that were domesticated from Asian Wolves between 10-15,000 years ago and are related to the dingo of Australia.

The first live ‘Singers’ were caught in the Eastern province of the island in the 1950s and taken to Australia – nearly all of the Singers outside Papua are now descended from these 4 dogs. More recent expeditions have failed to locate any singers, including a month long expedition to the Eastern province highlands in the mid-90s. In this case, the Singers were heard but never seen. The NGSD is considered an evolutionarily significant unit. New Guinea Singing Dogs are named for their distinctive and melodious howl, which is characterized by a sharp increase in pitch at the start and very high frequencies at the end.

The future and the ethical dilemma faced.

The latest consensus from the experts regarding the photos is that “all of the photos have been examined forensically and there is no indication that they have been tampered with or are fakes. No layering is present. We also have had these photos examined by a PHD in Tropical Biology who is currently involved in rainforest research and conservation in New Guinea and his conclusion of the photos are that the plant life is consistent with the Star Mountain Range of the New Guinea Highlands”.

There are some people that may well question why there is a need to capture a wild animal and take it from its natural habitat. We asked Tom Wendt, founder of New Guinea Singing Dog International to explain further:
There are a couple of reasons why actually capturing a Singer is important. You first need to know that the NGSD is genetically nearly identical to the AU Dingo and the first descendant of the wolf. Although it’s yet to be proven, I believe that before the end of the Ice Age (when PNG and AU were land locked) the AU and PNG Dingo/NGSD were the same being.

The first good reason follows the same theme as the Australian version. Hybridization of both versions threatens their survival in their pure form. There was a day when the NGSD lived everywhere on PNG in a pure form. It was us humans who started the decline of numbers by bringing in domestic dog breeds. The hybridized NGSD or Village Dogs are man-made. This is the main reason that the NGSD could only be found these days in the place where you found one.

Both halves of the island’s governments are in such disarray, there is virtually no interest in setting up and funding some type of sanctuary for the NGSD that would serve to keep it in it’s pure form.

The other threat to the NGSD’s survival is that the natives are known to kill and eat a ‘Singer’ before preserving it. This is especially true in the highlands as the unhybridized versions are supreme hunters. In AU most provinces encourage the hunting and elimination of Dingoes as they are a threat to livestock. The same holds true in PNG.

The goal is to have a healthy population of NGSD’s here available to go back into the wild or to a sanctuary or preserve designed to keep the Singers alive in their pure form. Until the day comes that sanctuaries can be setup in PNG to keep the Highland Wild Dog from going extinct, we are the best option for their survival. With the population here being from a very limited gene pool the fear is that inbreeding will render the captive NGSD’s defective.

The Basenji (Africa’s wild dog) went through some severe health issues years ago and actually got to the point where inbreeding defects had threatened their very survival here. It was a group of folks passionate about the breed (not the experts) who raised the funds for the expeditions that captured new bloodlines and saved the Basenji from going extinct”.

Options for following up this significant and rare sighting are still being considered. Including return expeditions subject to funding and permissions.

More Information:
YouTube video about New Guinea Singing Dogs
For updates on the story, follow us on our Facebook page.
Further photos from the expedition on the Adventure Alternative Borneo Facebook page.
In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua – Mt Trikora on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. For all of the trip information, click here.

Scientific American have written a great article on the sighting, with more extensive information on the NGSD to visit, click here.

A New Rescue Shelter for Mount Elbrus

Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains is the highest point in Europe at 5642m. Of course there will always be those who say that this doesn’t count as Europe, and consequently drop a point in the pub quiz by saying Mt Blanc. But the official definition of the boundary between Europe and Asia, certainly for the current purposes, is the Ural Mountain range a further few hundred miles to the East.

Climbing Mt Elbrus is technically straight forward. Certainly on the South side there is no real Climbing in the rocks-and-cliffs sense of the world. However, its upper reaches are still well within what is physiologically defined as extreme altitude and you are walking on a permanent ice cap. The weather, as always, plays a leading and slightly unpredictable role in the climb. Factors such as wind, visibility, precipitation and even ambient air pressure all conspire to work against the unlucky or un-prepared mountaineer. It is here that using an experienced and knowledgeable guide and in preparing yourself physically, mentally and in equipment terms is essential. This includes preparing yourself psychologically for the chance that you may have to turn around in order to safely return as a result of factors outside your control.

One or many of the factors above, can sometimes lead to climbers facing an emergency situation high on the mountain. It is in acknowledgement of this that between 2007 and 2010 an emergency shelter was built in the saddle between the twin peaks of Elbrus at around 5375m. The idea was to provide a refuge and rally-ing point for those in distress which would provide temporary emergency shelter.

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However, it seems that something was either over-looked or under-estimated as it was not long before the superstructure of the shelter was found to have slid off its steel base into the adjacent snowfield following a strong blizzard.

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Earlier this year, however, a much smaller emergency shelter was erected in its place. A news item from Russia Today explains….

https://vimeo.com/50596016

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This one certainly does not offer the same amount of space or give such a space-age look for that matter. It is effectively a polymer box strapped down to the rocks with steel cables. The inside is spartan, beyond the double-doored airlock is a single rectangular space with a couple of platforms as beds. The polymer construction is currently still giving off some pretty fruity chemical smells, presumably as it is still very new. But if you find yourself needing its facilities it is likely that its simplicity and odour will be more than eclipsed by the shelter it offers.

Inevitably mother nature will dispense with latest structure eventually.We can only hope that the latest shelter weathers the conditions on Elbrus and offers a safe refuge for mountaineers who may get into difficulties on the mountain in the future. We applaud the efforts of all those volunteers who have been involved in the projects.

Adventure & Disabilities

The upcoming Paralympics will put the spotlight on a truly inspiring group of people.  There are over 1billion people in the world living with disabilities. As well as people with obvious physical disabilities, this group contains a wide number of people who have disabilities that would not be obvious to the observer.

London 2012 Paralympic pictograms

At Adventure Alternative, we are proud to have involved some fantastic people with disabilities on our treks and projects around the world. Although a lot of our trips involve strenuous physical activity, we believe that as many people as possible should have the opportunity to partake in these activities. We chat with our clients before their trip to try and fully understand their capabilities and accommodate their needs; we like to be prepared!

Currently climbing Mt. Elbrus with Adventure Alternative founder, Gavin Bate, we have two inspiring men – Dave Padgen and Nigel Vardy (AKA Mr. Frostbite).  Temperatures as low as -60°C on Mt. Mkinley in 1999 caused severe frostbite and claimed Nigel’s fingers, toes and nose. Two years after the accident, he was back out climbing in the Alps. Dave has Cerebral Palsy but this didn’t stop him competing in the Paralympic Games held in Atlanta and Barcelona. He is also the first Brit with Cerebral palsy to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Both Dave and Nigel celebrate their passion for adventure and ably demonstrate the potential accessibility of the mountains.

A further demonstration of the same principles, and in a similar field, can be seen in the case of mountaineer Mark Inglis. After losing both of his legs during a blizzard on Mt. Cook, New Zealand, he has gone on to achieve a number of inspiring achievements, not least winning a silver medal in the 1km time trial at the Sydney Paralympics, 2000. In 2006 Inglis became the first double amputee to summit Mt Everest.

Mark Inglis

The principles of inclusive society have now become more widely recognised than ever. A document to come out of the recent Rio+20 conference – ‘The Future we Want’ – talks about disabilities with reference to a number of topics and sectors, including ensuring accessible shelter; access to food; and incorporating people with disabilities into the green economies nation states will aspire to over the coming years. But where does tourism fit into this and what is the tourism sector doing to be more inclusive of this group? For tourism to be considered truly sustainable, it must be inclusive of people with different needs, including them in the decision-making process.

Many countries have a long way to go in the accommodation of people with disabilities. The USA and Australia are known to be particularly on-the-ball when it comes to offering facilities that enable this group to take part in travel and adventure holidays, including abseiling, kayaking, mountain biking and ice-climbing. There are also a number of NGOs who offer assistance and advice for people with disabilities, with some even offering financial assistance.

Tourism for All UK is a national charity dedicated to standards of world class tourism which are welcoming to all.”

Tourism for All offers a wealth of information to enable people to fully participate in action and leisure activities, including an extensive region-specific section on the UK.

If you have a disability or consition and would like to take part in an Adventure Alternative trek or project, please don’t hesitate to get in contact! We fully appreciate that everyone has different abilities and circumstances. We can have a chat to see what we can do to ensure that you have a meaningful and enjoyable trip. Based on your aspirations, abilities and requirements we can chat about suitable locations, environments and expeditions and hopefully together we can get you on an adventure of a lifetime!

We wish Team GB all of our luck during the Paralympics!

Everest – Risk, Tourism & Elitism

As another Pre-Monsoon Everest climbing season draws to a close there is, as usual, much to reflect on. There are the usual debates about overcrowding, unsuitably experienced climbers, ethics of rescue & risk and also debate about the unseasonal weather and conditions this year.

Photo taken from the Nepal Everest Basecamp looking towards Khumbu Tse, the Lho La and the Khumbu Icefall.

A good round-up of the season’s goings on can be found in Alan Arnette’s summing-up post.

The issue of overcrowding was brought into stark contrast by Ralf Dujmovits’ photograph which ran in The Guardian under the title ‘The Human Snake’. Though it should be noted that this photo was not taken ‘on the way to the summit’ but between camps 3 and 4, and that queues on the mountain are unfortunately not a new phenomenon. Adventure Alternative expeditions have been faced with these additional dangers on a number of occasions. It is regrettable and frustrating when it is apparent that it is due to incapable climbers, but it is hard to see how it can be controlled by external rules. For more on the overpopulation debate, visit The Guardian.

Looking down the Lhotse face, towards camp 3. Shot by mountaineer, Ralf Dujmovits, and displayed in The Guardian (May, 2012).

At Adventure Alternative, we feel that it is at least morally down to each expedition to ensure that all the climbers in their team are suitably conditioned, experienced and capable for the task. This shouldn’t mean that the world of Everest mountaineering necessarily becomes elitist, requiring a lifetime dedicated to mountaineering. But the level of skill and experience required will not come about based on a year or two of peak bagging.

Another major story was the decision of Russell Brice to abort the Himalayan Experience expedition early. Himex run arguably the most influential, and certainly the most expensive, expeditions on Everest. This should not overshadow the fact that Russell is a hugely experienced and respected mountaineer in his own right. It was a very bold decision and one that has not gone without criticism. We feel that he should be applauded for following his own judgement through on sound information and experience and not giving in to economic and marketing pressure. This is quite independent of whether or not certain objective dangers claimed casualties in the end.

Sadly the season ended with a number of climbers losing their lives. It would be unfair to group all these people together under a blanket statement, such as is often employed in the media. Each one of them was an individual with a family, a story and a combination of aspirations and decisions which brought them to the mountain.

On the Lhotse face. Taken from The Guardian (May, 2012).

Climbing Everest or any other mountain will never be a ‘safe’ thing to do. Paying such huge sums can lead to the assumption that the mountain will, and must, be summited at any cost. Therein lies one problem: money can’t buy everything. Anyone who is led to believe otherwise is being done a great injustice. We believe that each individual has the right to decide if they are willing to take the risk. What we, as providers, must do is to ensure that they receive as much honest, frank and balanced information as is available to help them to make a decision. We will then seek to minimise the risks as far as possible and present a continued appraisal of them. Consciously turning around is not a failure, losing control and perspective is.