Posts Tagged ‘Nick Smith’

Nick Smith in conversation with record producer John Leckie – E&T magazine, November 2011

November 28, 2011

Man at the controls

John Leckie is one of the UK’s most successful record producers. His CV reads like a who’s who of rock’n’roll. Here, he reflects on the technological changes he’s seen in the recording studio over the years. Interview and portrait by Nick Smith

E&T layout. John Leckie interview by Nick Smith

How the article appeared in E&T magazine, November 2011

From Pink Floyd to Simple Minds, John Lennon to Muse, Public Image Limited to XTC, John Leckie has produced or engineered records for everyone who’s anyone in rock’n’roll. He’s picked up countless awards and accolades along the way and has been inducted into the Record Producers Hall of Fame by legendary guitarist and no stranger to the faders, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

He has also seen just about every technological change to happen in the way music is recorded. And with every change he’s adapted and evolved, finding new ways to exploit emerging trends in both analogue and digital production. Leckie says that these days he doesn’t do interviews about his experiences with A-list clients. So when it comes to finding out more about what it’s like to work with the Stone Roses or Radiohead, ‘I’ve said everything I want to say.’

Fortunately, he’s not so reticent about the buttons, rotary potentiometers and faders that have been his stock-in-trade for more than four decades. Sitting in one of the demonstration suites in Solid State Logic’s headquarters just north of Oxford, he seems more than happy to chat about how all that’s changed.

Record producer John Leckie at Solid State Logic. Photo: Nick Smith

John Leckie in the control room at Solid State Logic's demo studios in Begbroke, Oxford. Photo: Nick Smith

‘I’ve been at this for 42 years, I think. I started at Abbey Road studios 15th February 1970.’ Although this date is clearly one burned into his memory, to understand the technological landscape he entered as one of EMI’s first hippie employees (‘I only got the job because I had long hair’) we need to go back a few years further. At school, he ‘managed to get’ A-Levels in physics and geography (he was ‘useless’ at maths), before progressing to Ravensbourne College of Art in Bromley (where a young David Bowie did his foundation course.)

‘They’d bought four black and white TV cameras from Associated-Rediffusion that had just closed down. There were two courses running: an arts side, and I suppose a science side. The science people got in as technical operators and the others became producer/directors. My training there was setting up a 4-camera TV studio, doing all the maintenance. This was all tube and valve equipment.’

By 1968 Leckie was writing a thesis on electronic music. ‘I was always mad keen on Moog synthesizers, or anything that was a new sound.’ Finding that there were very few books on the subject, Leckie copied notes from the back of Stockhausen sleeves. His thesis eventually covered all aspects of electronic music, from the design of oscillators and filters, to an appreciation of classical electronic music, taking in Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix along the way.

After a brief stint with a film company in a dubbing theatre, making industrial training films for Shell BP, it was time to move on. Unable to gain membership of the film union, the 19-year-old was stuck. Leckie wrote to all the big recording studios in London: EMI, Decca, ICP and Olympic. Only EMI replied, offering him an interview, and a few month’s later the lowly position of ‘Tape-Op.’

When Leckie arrived at Abbey Road the set-up was based on 3M 8-track one-inch tape machines with the legendary analogue TG consoles running them. In terms of ‘outboard’ – separate sound processing devices connected to the desk – there were only ‘a few Altec compressors and Fairchild limiters. Microphones were by Neumann. I never saw a single Shure microphone, either an SM57 or 58, until I left Abbey Road.’

At that time, audio recording was a scientific process, and although EMI engineers had long given up the habit of wearing white coats, they still had clearly delineated roles, with job titles often containing the word ‘engineer.’ Leckie remembers a strict regime. ‘Basically a Tape-Op’s job was to run the tape machine. Which was important because if you left the tape room, the session finished. But you didn’t set-up the studio. The Amp Room guys, who plugged everything in and did all the line testing, did that. The Balance Engineer did the session sheet, which was the layout for the orchestra and a mic list.’ Some of these layout sheets still exist, including those for Beatles’ sessions. Everything at this point was analogue: ‘we simply couldn’t dream of anything else.’

John Leckie at the controls, Solid State Logic. Photo: Nick Smith

John Leckie at the controls, Solid State Logic. Check out the old-style record player in the background. Photo: Nick Smith

Towards the end of his eight-year stint at Abbey Road, Leckie started to notice digital technology creeping into the mix. ‘It happened very slowly at first,’ most obviously in the form of Solid State Logic’s inroads into computerized recording desks (‘We were blown away by the SSL computer being able to print out the channel lists.’) But what the integration of computers into the process really meant was greater control over the faders and cut-buttons on mix-down. ‘That was the prime thing.’ Change was rapid: mixing desks had gone from 4-track to 16-track – the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ desk was ‘considered huge’ – in the blink of an eye. With the 24-track desk on the horizon, EMI simply couldn’t provide the technology to its global network of studios. The market erupted and the door was left wide open for a new generation of manufacturers such as Neve and SSL.

Times they are a-changin’

Two major technological changes affected Leckie most as a producer. The first was simply the availability of more tracks to work with. To have a 24-track machine and to be able to slave together two of these ‘easily and reliably to produce 48-tracks was a big breakthrough.’ This was market driven. Everyone knew this was coming, says Leckie. ‘When you were 8-track you always wanted nine. When you were 16-track you always wanted 17. And when you were 24, you always wanted 25 tracks. And so one of the turning points was access to more tracks. There’s always one more overdub, one more harmony.’

This expansion was a two-edge sword, because ‘the fewer the tracks, the simpler it all was. And if you look at today, when there are an infinite number of tracks available, it’s all a bit silly. But at the time, up until the arrival of Pro Tools, this was the norm. It was a very complex system. But it was all you had.’

The second revolution was the advent of digital. ‘When I look at the big picture it’s strange really because in the 1960s and 70s, and even the 80s, there used to be an area of recording that was called ‘semi-pro’ – essentially ‘demo’ equipment and studios, where equipment was by manufacturers such as Tascam, Teac, Fostex, Akai… people like that. I’ve got nothing against this, but they weren’t professional. They weren’t Studer, Neumann, SSL or Neve.’ But somehow over the years that distinction became blurred, ‘because now you can have a pro recording studio in your bedroom.’

Did this frighten Leckie at all? ‘At first I stood aloof from this in the way a professional photographer with his Hasselblad would frown at taking pictures on an iPhone [Our portrait of JL was taken with a professional Canon 5D MkII – ed]. But it’s the end result that counts. If a recording sounds good on the radio, it doesn’t matter if it was recorded at Air Studios or in someone’s bedroom.’

‘The other thing that’s changed,’ says Leckie, ‘is the way people listen to music.’ In the 1970s consumers were proud of their hi-fi systems. ‘I can remember inviting friends around to listen. It was, hey, let’s go around to John’s house and listen to the new Pink Floyd record there because he’s got great speakers.’

Record producer John Leckie, October 2011. Portrait by Nick Smith

Record producer John Leckie, October 2011. Portrait by Nick Smith

But it’s not like that any more, according to Leckie, due to the rarity of hi-fi retailers promoting their products on the basis of audio quality. ‘There doesn’t seem to be the stimulus for people to listen on good speakers. Everyone listens on laptops, mobile phones, MP3 players. And, more people listen on headphones now.’ Does this cultural change in listening affect the way Leckie makes records today? ‘It should. But it doesn’t. I don’t mix records on iPod headphones.’

Making records

Leckie recalls that one of the main challenges of mixing for vinyl was the time limitation imposed by the format. In essence, the 33rpm ‘long player’ was a compromise format developed to allow record publishers to get an entire symphony onto one piece of plastic, allowing 22 minutes per side. This became the marker for modern musicians making LPs.

‘The problem was that there was always a fight to get more onto the record. If you had 26 or 28 minutes that you needed to get onto one side, then the level dropped. In other words, the challenge was to make the record sound loud.’

With the advent of the CD all this changed. Faced with potentially 80 minutes of uncompressed audio on one disc, recordings expanded to fit the space available. The resulting bonus tracks, disco remixes and various other filler did much to dilute the experience of listening to a conventional ‘album.’

‘That wasn’t really anything to do with the bands themselves,’ says Leckie. ‘It was more to do with the record companies asking for albums with 20 tracks on them.’ Every time a band went into the studio in the early days of CD, they were under pressure to record material of a length similar to the (much more rare) double studio album. ‘And for a while we lost the sense of a band making an album, as such.’

Was this a case of technology leading the creative process by the nose? Does Leckie miss the idea of deliberately sitting down with a band and making an LP-length record? ‘I still do that, actually. That’s what I aim for… to make a 10 or 12 track album.’

Artists in the house

Although we’re not here to talk about the household names that Leckie has produced, there comes a point where it’s impossible to go forward without discussing the human factor. Anyone who has even a passing interest in mainstream rock music in the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond will recognise the importance of Leckie’s work. But presumably, not all bands work the same way, and so I ask Leckie what happens creatively in between Day 1 and Day 30, from the band walking into the studio with an idea, to them walking out with a hit record. How much of a role does the producer play in the creative side?

At this point Leckie smiles knowingly before bursting into laughter. ‘You have to put in a lot of commitment. And the band has to be up for it. Very often records get difficult or even remain unfinished if one member of the band doesn’t really want to do it.’

But the key is to start off positive and keep the ball rolling. ‘I very often say that a producer is the person who says something when the music stops. Invariably in the studio, the band’s going to play, or the singer’s going to sing, and you come to the end of the track. And there’s going to be silence. Everyone’s going to look around, waiting for someone to say something. And the person who speaks is the producer. Very often that’s the hardest part of the job.’

In amongst the monitors. John Leckie in classic 'producer pose', leaning on those NS10s

In amongst the monitors. John Leckie in classic 'producer pose', leaning on those NS10s. Photo: Nick Smith

When it comes to disclosing details of his client-base Leckie is discreet and diplomatic. Reading between the lines, there appears to be different levels of professionalism from band to band. ‘Of course, some need more encouragement and help than others,’ says Leckie. I ask him what were the best bands to work with: who are the ones that just walk in and nail it, when it seems like sitting on the riverbank with the fish jumping into your net? Leckie laughs again. ‘None of them. None of them are like that. But XTC are the most musical, imaginative, creative band you can get. They’re the funniest and the most serious, and the most rock’n’roll. Except they’re not rock’n’roll. They’re the ones that just get on and do it and the end result would be great. Whether it would be a hit or not…’

Back into the future

Having reflected on the pre-digital days and the key revolution of the increase in channel capacity, the discussion turns to the future. Once there were 120 recording studios in London. But now there are only three places where you can record a full orchestra. Despite SSL shipping big consoles in healthy numbers, the market for audio technology is changing and things are getting smaller.

But, Leckie thinks that all musicians aspire to working in big studios, recording their music on ‘big equipment with plenty of knobs and buttons, working on tape and hearing their creation reverberating around in a professional environment. On the other hand the future is going to be, for the most part, digital and miniature. We’re going to have mixing desks on iPad. All your plug-ins and software will be in the Cloud somewhere. The iPad will change a lot of things.’

Which is a long way from Abbey Road four decades ago, sweltering over all those valves. Does John Leckie feel his was a privileged journey, or would he like to start all over again and just work in the digital domain? ‘It’s been a great privilege. I’m really pleased I’m not starting now. I became a producer through the engineering route and these days that would be a very difficult thing to do.’

The author wishes to thank Niall Feldman of Solid State Logic for the generous loan of his recording studio demo suite in Oxford, where the interview took place

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Nick Smith interviews legendary ‘mad scientist’ Heinz Wolff in E&T magazine, October 2011

November 4, 2011

Heinz Wolff and the future of technology

After a high profile and life-long career in engineering and science, Professor Heinz Wolff thinks that technical innovation is only part of the solution to the challenges facing future society. Words and portrait by Nick Smith

nicksmithphoto portrait of Heinz Wolff, by Nick Smith

How the article appeared in E&T magazine, October 2011

Walking into Heinz Wolff’s office in Brunel University I can see that there’s an engineering crisis of sorts. ‘I’m fashioning a new set of spectacles,’ the 83-year old professor informs me with a twinkle in his eye.’ In fact, he’s recycling components from two broken pairs to produce one functioning unit. It’s slightly bizarre to see this variant of the Theseus Paradox performed by the hands of a man more used to solving complex scientific challenges on our television screens. But it’s a conundrum he evidently enjoys. He informs me that the original products cost no more than ‘£1.99 in Boots or something such,’ as though analysing a critical line in a project build-cost spreadsheet.

Proud of the economies made by the simple use of his hands, Wolff explains that ‘all western nations will have to adjust to what is essentially a war economy, where we will need to make things that last longer and repair what is broken.’ He tells me that he lectures at the department of Human Centred Design at Brunel, ‘where I explain that the future of design will be to make things better – maybe more expensive – but with the potential to have a longer life cycle and less waste of materials. All this without removing the adventure of having something new.’

We’re sitting in Wolff’s office surrounded by photographs of several generations of his family, gadgets he’s invented (including an early prototype electronic book) and a much-modified moped. I ask him if today’s universities have got it right when it comes to delivering opportunities for young engineers.

‘I tend to think of things ten years too early. But I do think that we might teach people the wrong things at university. Of course, we need to produce engineers to maintain the technology systems we already have in place. And we need to produce bright people, and the UK seems to be very good at that. But whether there is a real need to produce a lot of engineers that we are going to notionally employ in production of one form or another, I don’t know.’

But that’s not the real question, he tells me, because the issue is why schools don’t produce people who want to be engineers. ‘In the development of a child, when the brain is still plastic, the feature of their education that we neglect is to nurture the ability to manipulate things.’ After the brain, Wolff explains, the ‘most marvelous thing we have’ is the hand: an actuator that can thread a needle one minute or wield a sledgehammer the next without modification. ‘I firmly believe that the continual iteration of hand-eye-brain is how we became Homo sapiens. We started to make tools, acquired manual skills and could imagine a tool that would be better. And then there was a very important point in our development, which was that we could imagine a tool that could make a tool, which could then make something. This is a very sophisticated way of thinking.’ His obvious Implication is that this is the origin of engineering.

Professor Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Heinz Wolff in his office at Brunel University. Photo: Nick Smith

His hands flash across a QUERTY keyboard. ‘Apart from typing, we don’t use our hands. Girls don’t embroider; boys don’t play with Meccano. With these things you effectively develop an eye at the end of the finger, and you do this when you’re seven years old. And it’s really very clever. But it’s gone.’

Wolff has lectured on the ‘death of competence’ and he thinks it’s brought about by the abandonment of micromanipulation – doing something small and critical with the hand. ‘Our engineering students can’t make things. They might be able to design things on a computer, but they can’t make things. And I don’t believe that you can be an engineer properly, in terms of it circulating in your blood and your brain, without having a degree of skill in making things.’ He explains that this is why apprenticeships were so good, because ‘you actually made things while learning a bit of the theory.’

In neglecting to teach basic manual skills we are producing a generation that carries within it the seeds of its own impotence. Wolff believes that while all teachers agree that children should be articulate and use language with precision and skill, ‘they don’t attach the same values to the use of their hands.’ Is this a health and safety thing? Wolff accepts this might be a part of it, ‘but even a three-year-old knows to stop sawing before his finger falls off.’

This is one of the reasons why our engineering capability is less highly developed than it might be. He knows he’s going to upset people when he says it, but ‘engineering isn’t going to be as important to your future as it has been to our past.’ Interest in SET subjects, he tells me, is in inverse proportion to the wealth and comfort of the country. ‘So in Japan it is quite low. And so also in Britain. In Botswana it’s enormously high. Maybe we’re just growing out of it.’

Professor Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Heinz Wolff in his office at Brunel University. Photo: Nick Smith

‘I should state that I’m 83 years old and I joined the university late in career terms having worked on the Medical Research Council for thirty years.’ He saw the dark clouds of civil science coming under financial pressure gathering on the horizon. It was obvious that we he was going to run into ‘financial buffers and I thought that if anyone were going to trim my wings I would trim them myself.’

Wolff’s response was to head to the nearest university where he offered to found an institute that would be financially self-supporting. The Vice Chancellor agreed to the proposition and ‘I started off in two rather broken down Portakabins that you can still see at the other end of the campus. We did quite well financially because I was working a great deal for the European Space Agency where I had a split personality job: I was chairman of a number of policy committees, but I was also a contractor. We made things for astronauts to use to do science in space.’

As the project became more successful Wolff scoured Exchange and Mart for more Portakabins and ‘so started a village that we called the Brunel Institute of Bioengineering.’ His growing team set up space research programmes and also a project called Tools for Living. ‘I’d made a forecast that elderly and disabled people would require technology to assist them and at the time this kind of technical research seemed to be rather downbeat. We formed a company as well as a charity and we became an appreciable sized institute within this university.’

This burst of activity occurred in Wolff’s late fifties and by his mid sixties he retired ‘for the first of many times,’ and the institute became more absorbed into the university. The modern building that houses the faculty today concentrates on biosciences of ‘various kinds.’ The building, he informs me, only bears his name because ‘I have a certain degree of notoriety.’

Profess Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Profess Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

‘If there were to be an epitaph for me and it had to appeal to the public, it would refer to the Great Egg Race. I was on the screen for the best part of 30 years. I would be remembered for that, and not as the scientist that worked for the Medical Research Council. This is unless I bring Care4Care off.’ (See box.)

Wolff cheerfully admits that he’s a ‘TV science boffin’, but is critically aware of the serious point that lies behind this: the advocacy of science to the wider public. I put it to him that in a world where the majority of young people have aspirations no higher than becoming a celebrity or a footballer, it’s vital that technologists are visible on television. ‘Yes, but it doesn’t happen any more. I used to get an audience of 2.5 million on BBC2. People interacted with it, some even recorded it and went into their kitchens after the problem had been set.’

Experience taught Wolff that ‘you don’t have to be a Nobel prize-winning scientist’ to be an effective communicator. ‘This doesn’t impress children or even adults. They have to like you. They don’t care two hoots about how famous you are. It’s much more about the frequency of exposure and a degree of trust. Of course, you need to have a certain talent for explaining complex concepts in a domestic analogy. But don’t have to be a great scientist to do this.’

I put it to Wolff that in the UK at least it is not very conventional to have a TV presenter who is a German Jew with a heavy European accent. With his unconventional hair and spectacles, the bow tie from another era and an apparently distracted manner, Wolff satisfies in the public the desire to be educated by an eccentric. We laugh as we agree that Albert Einstein wouldn’t be half so well remembered if he’d had sensible hair. Virtually everyone outside the technology community knows more about the photo of Einstein poking his tongue out than they do the Manhattan Project.

But what of Wolff’s appearance? ‘Oh I think I’m guilty of being a notorious eccentric. But, I don’t get my hair cut that way, if that’s what you’re asking. And I don’t put on my accent. I think in English. Although I might sometimes count in German. There are reasons for this connected with the archaeology of the mind. If you drill down into people’s memories you’ll come across a few words that were very important to them when they were young. The memory erodes in a certain way and concepts like this can be important in researching Alzheimer’s.’

Wolff on the end of technology in the western world

‘I’m not far off a century old,’ admits Heinz Wolff with allowable exaggeration. He was born in Berlin in the late 1920s and has clear memories of standing at the window of his family’s library in 1933 watching the torchlight procession that put Hitler into power. ‘I was five at the time and as such a conscious human being. And so I have an overview of what the world is about that a 20-year-old doesn’t have. For a 20-year-old even the Moon landing is history.’ He marvels at how something so recent to him, exploiting technologies that have been central to his career, can seem so remote. ‘It’s like a forgotten war. Exactly where did it come in the order of things?’

He can’t remember the author, but he can remember the title of the book. The prediction made in Der Untergang des Abendlandes (‘The Downfall of the Occident’, by Oswald Spengler), Wolff tells me was that the West would cease to be the epicentre of science and technology, as it migrated to the East.

‘There still seems to be an overwhelming conviction that the way to alleviate the economic problems of this country is to intensify technological research.’ He tells me that while a lot of clever technology will be developed in the UK, ‘I suspect that, because of the numerical superiority and enormous investment the tiger economies are making in technology and education, we will face considerable competition in innovation.’

But it is not so much the challenge of the East that bothers Wolff, so much as the societal trends that affect the way we think about technology. ‘If I had to explain this in historical terms, you could see it like this. Clearly Britain and other parts of Western Europe had the Industrial Revolution, with their spinning Jennies and steam engines… and we got through that. And then we had the information revolution and we largely speaking got through that to the point where – and many people won’t like me saying this – much of the communication equipment that we produce are simply toys.’ He looks at my iPhone and pronounces it ‘a fantastic device, but I wouldn’t argue that the world can’t live without it.’ Increasingly, technology is being driven by what people want, rather than what they need.

Now we are at the beginning of what Wolff calls the Human Revolution. He tells me that in one of his lecture presentations he shows a slide ‘which I use to annoy my engineering colleagues.’ It’s the one that says: ‘Innovation in the 21st Century is not going to be in science and technology, but in the way in which society organises itself.’ He tells me that he’s reached the conclusion that if his career is to have a lasting and beneficial effect on society, ‘it’s unlikely that it will be by devising some form of technology. It’s much more likely to be achieved by assisting in real cultural change.’

Social engineering – reciprocal care

‘Three or four years ago I made a resolution that was almost like a religious conversion,’ says Wolff. This was when he reached the conclusion that the problems facing Britain, in terms of caring for an increasingly aging population, wasn’t one that could be solved by mechanisms, but was going to be solved by ‘pairs of hands.’

‘I’m now working on a scheme called Care4Care, the basic idea of which is that we have to produce more resources, which the country can’t afford.’ Essentially, this is a credit system where younger people provide care for older generations in order that their care further down the road can be paid for by credits they’ve already accrued.

‘And so it will go on. And we have produced a resource without putting up taxation. There is now real interest in this and I’m spending virtually every waking moment propagating this. This is because for a nation where we are used to the state doing virtually everything for the past three generations, this is a major cultural change. We will have to become much more prepared to become much more self-supporting. This seemed to be in line with the idea of Big Society, which has largely disappeared.’

Because of the way in which modern career structures tend to move people about geographically, ‘we have to overcome the reduction in kith and kin care, and the way to do this is to get people to take out insurance. But this insurance needs to be paid in kind: you invest hours and not money.’

Wolff thinks that this is going to be ‘possibly the most important thing I will have done in my life.’ He admits he hasn’t ‘got many years left to get this to happen,’ but as we sit at his desk he tells me that there is someone coming to see him this very afternoon ‘from the banking system that deals with alternative currencies.’ Wolff explains that the ‘hour’ is an alternative currency with the merit that it cannot be inflated or deflated.

For further information on Care4Care visit www.care4care.org

For further reading, go to Nick Smith’s other interview with Heinz Wolff:

Nick Smith's article on Heinz Wolff in IET Member News

Nick Smith interviews Heinz Wolff in IET Member News. Photo: Nick Smith

Nick’ Smith travels ‘A Circular road to Cambodia’, Daily Telegraph, 1st October 2011

October 5, 2011

From the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City to the awe-inspiring grandeur of Angkor Wat, Indochina is a feast for the traveller. Nick Smith tries to get his breath back…

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Nick Smith

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Nick Smith

Picture four million mopeds, scooters and motorcycles. Now picture all of them carrying at least two people, sometimes an entire family, sometimes even a cow. Behind the boxes, packing cases, crates, string bags, bundles of bamboo, building materials, fresh market produce and cages of chickens there are the drivers. These are the unsung heroes who thread through the congested arteries of an oriental metropolis with the precision and grace of a ballet dancer. This is Ho Chi Minh City and it’s magnificent.

The best thing about Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as you’ll end up calling it, is simply being there. You can visit the reconstructed Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong held out during the war. You can visit the War Remnants Museum and marvel at the tenacity of a nation that’s brought itself back from the brink of untold horror. But the best thing is to just wander the crowded streets, or attempt to master the dangerous art of crossing the road. Or you can do as I did and stop for a dish of local noodle soup called pho and read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in the city where it was written.

Saigon is the starting point for my escorted tour around Indochina, an anticlockwise journey that will take me through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We’ve only got eleven days, but my guide ­– an outdoorsy Australian called Dave – tells me we can just about do it. He knows this because, having turned his back on the banking industry to do ‘something more interesting with my life,’ he does it for a living with regional specialists Travel Indochina. Dave knows this part of the world inside out, from the mind-boggling array of currencies to an equally varied, but much more interesting, range of cuisine.

Village life hasn't changed much in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Nick SMith

Village life hasn't changed much in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Nick Smith

None more interesting than one of Vietnam’s real specialities, kopi luwak, which I drank in a café in Hanoi after an evening watching the world famous Water Puppets, that enact scenes of ancient history. ‘Weasel Coffee,’ as it is sometimes known, is probably the most expensive coffee in the world, and once you’ve sampled its subtle undertones of chocolate and toasted hazelnut, you’ll never want Starbucks again. If you don’t know how it’s made, you might want to keep it that way, as the manufacturing process starts with fresh beans negotiating their way through the digestive tract of a civet. This supposedly causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the beans’ enzymes, unleashing their full flavour.

From Hanoi it’s a short drive east to one of Vietnam’s most iconic landscapes. Halong Bay is where immense monolithic limestone karsts rise out of the mist like gravestones in a gothic churchyard. As you sail among them in a traditional junk there’s a couple of essential stop-offs, including the Lau Dai caves, followed by a sharp mountain hike for what’s possibly the best view on earth. It’s an ethereal experience and one to be lingered over. But all too quickly the time comes for us to enter the altogether different world of Luang Prabang in Laos.

Monks of the Mekong

Perched on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, encircled by vertiginous mountains, Luang Prabang has a quiet, undiscovered charm. Traditional wooden Lao houses and boutique guesthouses blend in with sumptuous ancient Buddhist temples. The air is rich with fragrances of oleander, jasmine and bougainvillea.

Monks in saffron-dyed robes in Luang Prabang walk along the street collecting alms. Photo: Nick SMith

Monks in saffron-dyed robes in Luang Prabang walk along the street collecting alms. Photo: Nick Smith

Laos is a tiny speck of a forgotten land, often overlooked by today’s busy box-ticking tourist. It’s not an obvious destination in its own right, and so it’s a real bonus to find it playing such a spellbinding cameo on an escorted tour. Once there you soon realise that this is one of the most picturesque places imaginable. It’s also incredibly informal and stress-free. Tempered by the cooling effect of the Mekong and the fresh breezes that come down from the forests, this is the ultimate antidote to bustling Vietnam. Roadside restaurants and cafés serve exquisite steamed fish in banana leaves, sticky rice or spicy pan-fried noodles.

One of Luang Prabang’s most striking temples is the dramatic and serene Wat Mai. Its beauty is such that when the Chinese invaded Laos a century ago, they refused to destroy it. At Wat Mai a young monk tells us about the daily routine and rituals of his life in Buddhism. As we leave him to his meditations, we’re invited to play a quick game of petanque, the local sport, before heading for Wat Pha Bhat Tai. Here, to the sound of monks chanting, we watch the sun set over the sandbanks of the Mekong, fishermen casting their nets.

But the real highlight of any stay in Luang Prabang is a pilgrimage to watch the monks collecting alms. In the early morning light they walk along the street gathering offerings of rice, sweets and coins from locals, whose duty it is to feed them. After the monk ritual, and with a whole day still ahead of us, we return to the river to take a traditional barge upstream to the mysterious ‘cave of a thousand Buddhas’. At Pak Ou we disembark and climb a steep staircase cut through the rock to reach grottos high in a cliff-face. We are rewarded with the stunning sight of thousands of effigies festooned with garlands of flowers and dusted with the ash of thousands of incense burners.

Luang Prabang is paradise for travel photographers who will find the monks in their saffron-dyed robes, the ceramic and gilt ornamentation of the temples and brightly coloured tuk-tuks irresistible. But Laos is as much about its arts and crafts as it is its culture, and the seemingly endless night market that lines the main street is as good as any in the world. Superb juniper paper goods, silver work and silk scarves provide all the retail therapy you could ever need.

Sunrise over the temples

It was with bags groaning that we flew south to Cambodia, where at Siem Reap we tumbled out of the plane into a flat landscape punctuated by rice paddies and coconut palms. Of course, everyone who goes to Cambodia will visit the legendary temple complex of Angkor Wat and you will too. This was where Dave really showed off his local knowledge by smuggling his group in through the lesser-used eastern gate, which meant we were able to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat’s famous quincunx of sandstone towers far away from the crowds.

Sunset over Angkor Wat during on the vernal equinox. Photo: Nick Smith

Sunset over Angkor Wat during on the vernal equinox. Photo: Nick Smith

Provided you’re prepared to step off the beaten path, you could spend weeks wandering among the lonely, deserted ruins and hardly see another person. But most, constrained by time, will stick to the well-trodden tourist circuit, which is spectacular in its own right. There is a bewildering array of carvings, friezes, and bas-reliefs set among the silk-cotton trees whose buttresses weave their way in and out of the tumbled masonry. Sadly there are times when much of the mystique is lost, the spell broken by the continual reminder that we’re on the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie set. But it’s part of the fun, and watching crowds of Japanese and German tourists pose for their hero shots in front of the iconic architecture is a welcome break from the occasional ‘temple fatigue’ that can afflict even the most dedicated amateur archaeologist.

Although it is the beating heart of Cambodia, there’s more to this country than Angkor Wat. But to find out what really makes the country tick, you’ll need to visit the artisanal silk producers, where hand-spun and dyed textiles make wonderful souvenirs. There’s also a fascinating local ballet performed in traditional costume, which is a far cry from Saddlers Wells. At the end of the performance less reserved members of the audience jump up on stage to have their photo taken with the dancers. It’s about as surreal as you can get, as is the Dr Fish foot massage in the night market, where for a few thousand Riel (about two dollars American) you can have the dead skin chewed off your feet by hundreds of ravenous flesh-eating gouramis.

Limestone caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Nick Smith

Limestone caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Nick Smith

The length of time you can keep your feet in the communal pool is something of a badge of honour, as the sensation of being eaten alive is not a pleasant one. I managed to last for half and hour, before the hungry shoal moved on to a new punter with (presumably) tastier feet. I left with a definite sense of regret that this unorthodox massage has reached its end. As I dawdled back to my hotel drenched by a tropical rainstorm I discovered a new spring in my step.

With refreshed feet, the following day we set off for a day’s sailing on Tonlé Sap – the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia – where we encountered the famous floating villages. The dramatic rise and fall of the shoreline with the seasons means that many of the local fishermen live in houses on stilts. But some go one better and build floating homes that cluster together in drifting communities. We sailed out to Chong Kneas where life is identical to any other fishing village, only it’s all on water. The children paddle themselves to floating school in buckets and are called ‘bucket kids’. There’s a floating pig farm, a bar, a bookshop and even a souvenir stall where we cram to bursting point the last spaces in our luggage.

Floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Nick Smith

Floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Nick Smith

It’s impossible to visit Indochina without feeling the ever-present shadow of imperialism and invasion. History has been more unkind to this region than most and yet hope and regeneration seems to radiate from all corners, nowhere more so than Ho Chi Minh City. You could spend a year in Indochina and still feel that you’d only scratched the surface. But a whistle-stop adventure in this part of the world will leave you with a feeling that seems to be so rare in travel today. That you will simply have to come back again and start all over again.

Nick Smith interviews Pangaea Expedition leader Mike Horn in the Explorers Journal, Summer 2011

October 3, 2011

Pangaea’s Progress

Explorer Mike Horn is now at the mid-point of his epic Pangaea expedition, a four-year enterprise that will cross all seven continents without using motorised transport. Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith caught up with Mike in the Gobi Desert. If it’s Mongolia it must be camels…

Leader of the Pangaea expedition, explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

Leader of the Pangaea Expedition, global explorer Mike Horn, in Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Sitting in a tent in the Gobi Desert Mike Horn describes what he does as ‘normal. It’s just normal.’ At the mid-point of his four-year Pangaea expedition he’s taking a well-earned breather from weeks of camel trekking in the blazing sun. We’re planning our route for the day on a map spread out before us on a makeshift table strewn with coffee cups. The idea is to meet the camel wranglers, saddle up and trek westward through the Mongolian Steppe. It feels anything but normal.

I’ve flown in from London to join Horn on part of his Asia leg of his expedition, changing planes at Paris, Moscow and finally Ulan Bator, where I hop onto an old Soviet military helicopter and fly a further four hours west into the desert. As we make our descent into the fabled Singing Dunes I reckon I’ve been in the air for 24 hours and so it’s nice to be greeted by a woman in a red jacket offering me a chilled glass of champagne. Horn’s sponsor – the house of G.H.Mumm ­– is holding a press conference to update the world’s press on Pangaea’s progress.

Mumm Champagne makes its mark on Mongolia's Gobi Desert as sponsor of Mike Horn's Pangaea Expedition. Photo: Nick Smith

Mumm Champagne makes its mark in Mongolia as sponsor of the Pangaea Expedition. Photo: Nick Smith

Horn is one of the world’s highest profile adventure-style explorers and his exploits are legendary. One of the reasons for his visibility is that he embraces the triangular relationship between exploration, sponsorship and media, regarding it as healthy and symbiotic. He’s all about the message, telling me that exploration may once have been about discovering new lands and mapping the world, but now it’s about communicating environmental issues. To do that you need a financial means of propulsion and a media conduit to the wider public.

But before we can get down to the interviews and photo shoots there’s some real work to do, because Mike Horn likes to share his experiences rather than just talk about them. ‘How can you understand what I do unless you share part of that experience with me.’ An opportunity too good to miss, I make the token gesture of swatting a few flies off me, take a swig of water and with the early morning sun on our backs we wander through the Singing Dunes.

Local camel wranglers preparing to set off in the morning, Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Local camel wranglers preparing to set off in the morning, Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Nick Smith: How did the Pangaea project come about?

Mike Horn: When I walked around the Arctic Circle I had a lot of time to think. That’s when I developed the project. Without noise pollution or visual pollution your mind is your own and you can pull projects together very quickly without being disturbed. After 20 years of exploration I’ve seen a lot of changes in the environment: polar bears being killed by grizzly bears, birds migrating in the Arctic that shouldn’t be there. I’ve seen brown polar bears, and the changes in Antarctica with the ice shelves breaking up.

It bothered me a little bit that I wasn’t doing anything and that my playground was being destroyed. That’s when I thought I’d like to reunite the world through a project called Pangaea, referring back to a time 250 million years ago when there was this one pristine supercontinent. I thought it’s impossible to put the continents back together, but you can put people together. And they can be used to channel data about the state of the environment.

NS: What resources did you need at the beginning of the project?

MH: The biggest untapped source of energy today is our youth. I am from an age of consumerism, but my two daughters are young enough to change the way their generation thinks. We are consuming, but they can conserve. As a boy I dreamed that I could go on a boat with Jean Cousteau. But I was never given the opportunity. I am now giving that opportunity to young people around the world who would like to experience the beauty of nature. I wrote down three key words: Explore, learn and act. The exploration is to go out and find the beauty of the planet. The learning part is to find out how to conserve that beauty for future generations. And the action is to work backwards to erase the human footprint on that beauty. And that’s what the project is about.

NS: Who can take part in the Pangaea expedition?

MH: Any kid between 15 and 20 years old can apply. Our team in the office goes through all the thousands of applications. It’s like American Idol: there are interviews, they have to post videos online and so on. I’m aiming to work with influential kids that will be the leaders of tomorrow. People who can change industry, politics, the world. We select 24 and they get put through a strenuous further selection process of communications training and then wilderness survival in the Alps. At the end of this process we filter out 12 – two from each inhabited continent – to join me on my expedition. Having these people with me gives me the chance to communicate with the whole world from the Gobi Desert.

Early morning start rounding up the camels in the Gobi desert in preparation for trekking with global explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

Rounding up the camels in the Gobi desert in preparation for trekking with global explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

NS: How does the expedition translate into tangible scientific fieldwork?

MH: When the young explorers get home, they get posted out and start on the ‘act’ programme where we reconstruct coral, clear the garbage out of the ocean, plant trees and so on. We have three pillars: biodiversity, social community services and water. All the projects based on these pillars are sustainable. We don’t just go in there once. These are five to ten year projects, and we are giving the youth a starting point to rebuild the world.

NS: What effect will Pangaea have on the Gobi Desert?

MH: We’ve taken soil samples to give us an indication of the fertility of the region. We’ve looked at water here, which is one of the biggest problems. Then we looked at the desert people who are living here, vegetation dispersal and over-grazing. We’ll give all that information to the university of Munich in Germany, which will examine how we can scientifically work with the youth in Mongolia to save the ground water and to prevent overgrazing. Then our young explorers come back to help to implement the project.

NS: Why do you put such an emphasis on media coverage for Pangaea?

MH: We don’t get our money from governments. My personal sponsors fund this expedition and so we want to give something back to them. But more important is the idea that we can somehow tell our stories to guys in the bars back home. If you walk into a bar the one thing you can guarantee is most people will be speaking about what’s in the newspapers, on TV or on the internet. The platform is there for us, and we need to create a buzz. And this is basically to what explorers do today. We go out, find knowledge and share that knowledge.

For further information on the Pangaea Expedition 2008-12 visit Mike Horn’s official site

Explorer Mike Horn toasting the Pangaea Expedition in Mongolia with a glass of Mumm Champagne. Photo: Nick Smith

Mike Horn toasting the Pangaea Expedition in Mongolia with a glass of Mumm Champagne. Photo: Nick Smith

A small toast to a century of exploration…

When Captain Jean-Baptiste Charcot became the first Frenchman to set foot on Antarctica, he celebrated in true style with a bottle of champagne, a newspaper and his trusty pipe. The year was 1904 and the bottle was a gift from his friend Georges Mumm, head of the Champagne house that sponsored the explorer’s Français expedition. The famous toast on the ice shelf lent Charcot’s expedition was immortalised in one of the great expedition photographs from the Heroic Age. For Charcot there was a synergy between his fine wine of choice and the pioneering values of his adventures.

A century later the association lives on. In May 2008 Mike Horn set sail from Monaco under the watchful eye of Prince Albert, on one of the most ambitious journeys of discovery undertaken in recent years. Spanning four years, Pangaea will – if all goes well – take him through the North and South poles, far-flung desert islands and the oceans of the world, as a celebration of ‘the beauty of planet Earth.’

Horn teamed up with Mumm Champagne to help spread an environmental message through a co-ordinated press offensive that would use every type of media available to him. Ever mindful of the significance of Charcot’s iconic toast in Antarctica, Horn and Mumm prepared to celebrate each successful leg of the trip with an exceptional ‘Explorer Experience’ – a champagne-paired dinner where press photographers would be able to reinterpret digitally the classic photo taken a century ago.

Author Nick Smith acknowledges the role Mumm Champagne played in getting him to Mongolia to report on the Pangaea Expedition

Author Nick Smith acknowledges the role Mumm Champagne played in getting him to Mongolia to report on the Pangaea Expedition

Horn’s ‘Explorer Experience’ in the Gobi Desert was the exact midpoint of the expedition. So far he has hosted dinners on an ice shelf in Greenland, a sand bar on the Great Barrier Reef and in Antarctica. Next up, he will head for the top of the world when his next field press conference will be held as close to the geographic North Pole as logistics will allow. This will be followed by expeditions into the Amazonian rainforest and the wilderness of Siberia. He says: ‘we’re all explorers today. There is no message other than we must take positive action to save the planet. And we must do it today.’

This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York.

‘Travels with Paul Theroux’ | Nick Smith in conversation with Theroux in the August 2011 edition of Geographical magazine

September 13, 2011

Arguably the finest travel writer of his generation, Paul Theroux has spent as much of his life in the world of books as he has on the road. By Nick Smith

Paul Theroux saunters onto the stage in a dark grey chalk-stripe suit and a white straight-from-the box Nehru collar shirt. His circular tortoiseshell glasses complete the image of the metropolitan intellectual. Urbane and media-groomed, he pauses to stride across the boards, pours himself a glass of water. If he has notes he doesn’t use them, preferring to tell a string of apparently unconnected anecdotes about his favourite travel books. For an hour he weaves the threads of his immense knowledge into a richly textured fabric. The packed house is enthralled.

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith

The following afternoon Theroux and I meet for a drink in the courtyard of his swanky hotel in Buckingham Gate to discuss his new book The Tao of Travel. Looking relaxed, he admits he ‘winged it last night. I don’t do a lot of public speaking and it can be very stressful.’ It’s hard to imagine how the author of such classics as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonia Express and Riding the Iron Rooster could find sharing his passion for travel literature with 750 well-read geographers as anything other than an easy stroll. But then again, he’s never happier than when on the road. Or to be more precise, travelling by train.

In his lecture at the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje theatre, Theroux midway through his delivery, makes the observation that as a traveller, ‘if you go to an island, you can only be up to no good.’ This seems like a good place to start: after all, he lives part of the time in Hawaii and here we are in the British Isles. So what’s he up to? ‘Nothing.’ This isn’t quite true, but at the time, neither of us could have known that before his promotional tour of the UK was over, Theroux would be patching up a 15-year feud with his nemesis V.S. Naipaul. A historic handshake in Hay on Wye. ‘I’m sorry. I miss you,’ said the 70-year-old to Naipaul.

It comes as no surprise that Theroux loves decent travel writing, although he admits ‘felicitously written, well-observed books are rather rare.’ As an example of one of the best of its genre he cites Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. ‘I mention that not just because it’s stylish, but because the voice is so consistent, so right, so measured.’ I mention that this might be in some way related to Cherry-Garrard being George Bernard Shaw’s close friend and neighbour. Theroux says: ‘Yeah. He looked closely at Cherry-Garrard’s book.’

In his wrapping up statement at the end of Theroux’s lecture, the Society’s President Michael Palin took a positive view of the state of the art, saying: ‘rumours of the death of travel writing have tonight been proved to be greatly exaggerated.’ Theroux agrees. It’s not all bad: ‘it’s just that publishers fear a certain type of book won’t sell. But that’s not a reason not to write it. And it doesn’t mean that people won’t do proper travel or write proper travel books. It just means that it’s going to get harder for them to get published.’

He goes on to argue that in this respect ‘the future of travel writing greatly resembles the past’. But the future of books doesn’t. ‘That’s the $64,000 question. No one knows what’s going to happen to books. We never foresaw the effect of the internet, or e-books or Kindle. We’re in the middle of some kind of revolution, but I’d like to think that the book with a binding and a jacket, that’s full of good writing, will endure. And I think it will, only maybe there will be fewer.’

The problem with making predictions, says Theroux, is that everything looks superficially identical to how it used to. ‘Sitting here in London today it still looks pretty much the same as when I first came here in 1965. When people write science fiction the first thing they do is change the look of a place, but actually places look the same. It’s on the inside that real differences happen.’

This can be especially true of returning to a place after a long absence, and I ask Theroux what happens on a writer’s return. Is it the writer or the place that has changed over time? ‘The truth is I’ve changed and I’m a different person when I go back. It’s a wonderful and educational experience to go back to a place, because you see what the future will look like elsewhere. In general the quality of life is vastly different and yet not as good.’

Ideal travel books have the gifts of description and a human element, says Theroux. For sense of place Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, ‘is wonderfully written, dramatic.’ But that’s not a travel book. ‘He’s not travelling, but he’s in a foreign place. It’s an experience of solitude and confinement. Not a lot of people think of that as a travel book, you’re right. But I think it’s terrific.’

This is important for Theroux, and the demarcation lines between genres are endlessly fascinating for him. As with two other great travel writers of his generation – Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban – he’s also a novelist. And these two existences, for Theroux at least, are not entirely separate or separable. He says that writing novels is – just like Levi’s book – all about confinement, stuck in a house, stuck behind a desk. At the end of typically eighteen months ‘you really want to get out and do something.’ While travelling to South America for The Old Patagonia Express, Theroux passed through Costa Rica and came back with the idea for his novel The Mosquito Coast. Recently, while in India for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he developed the idea for The Elephanta Suite, three novella which ‘I think are great. I loved writing them.’

It is this combined affection for travel and literature that led him to crystalise his vast reading in The Tao of Travel. There are plenty of literary anthologies in print, many with generous travel sections, but Tao is much more than simply a commonplace book of interesting snippets. For Theroux it deconstructs his reaction to people ‘who don’t travel alone. A lot of people who write believe that they have to come up with a certain type of book. They conceal the fact that they didn’t spend as long a time in a place as they should have. They conceal the fact that they were doing other things or were with another person.’

Theroux says there’s a virtue in travelling alone, but it’s difficult; there’s a virtue in travelling for a long period of time, but that’s difficult, too. ‘It’s much easier,’ he says, ‘to travel for a month than a year. And people conceal this. They conceal the fact that they have to pay bills, they’ve got a family and there’s someone on the other end of the phone saying come home. I don’t know where it will end.’

It’s this artifice of concealment that rankles with Theroux, who confesses not to understand why authors write books that ‘appear to be one thing when they’re really another. In Tristes Tropiques Claude Lévi-Strauss makes out he’s travelling alone, but he’s not. He’s travelling with a whole expedition. And his wife.’

Theroux is equally critical of his former enemy V.S.Naipaul, whose A Turn in the South is an exercise in this type of concealment: ‘his mistress is driving the car and yet she’s never mentioned in the book. He paid her $40,000 to drive, find restaurants and fix tickets, while his wife is back in London. As a reader you don’t know that. And that’s kinda interesting, but it’s not what the book is about.’

Despite a literary career in which he’s often blended fiction with reality –sometimes with legal and emotional consequences – when it comes to travel writing, ‘the truth is always more interesting than what’s made up. This is my objection to some travel writing and this is what informs my selections in Tao.’ Theroux says he wanted to expose other writers’ concealments, and so one of the tasks he set himself was to compile a league table of how long famous travellers claim to have spent on the road and then to hold their claims up against reality. One of Theroux’s ambitions was to dissect and atomise travel books in ‘my own eccentric way of evaluating the truth.’

As the conversation threatens to become a metaphysical disquisition of the nature of truth, Theroux suggests that too many travel writers get hi-jacked by an unknown reader that increasingly requires the writer to have travelled alone, suffered, had moments of great incident and enlightenment. He goes on to say that publishers get bothered too when these boxes don’t get ticked. As a consequence, the writer is often tempted to take the path of least resistance and fabricate an experience that conforms to these expectations. I ask him if there’s an absolute relationship between the travel writer and the literal truth? Theroux adjusts his Ray-Bans, considers the question, before restating the challenge that has tripped up virtually every travel writer since the dawn of the genre. ‘You have a great duty to tell the truth, without being boring.’

At this point the sky turns black with helicopters and our voices are drowned out. ‘That’s Obama,’ shouts Theroux reminding me that we’re a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. ‘I think he’s staying with the Queen tonight. Great president. Nice guy. I just hate his political decisions on things like Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Soundbites: Travelling with Paul Theroux’s books

Tearsheet of Nick Smith's interview with Paul Theroux in Geographical magazine

How the interview appeared in Geographical magazine, September 2011

The difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows – The Great Railway Bazaar

A train isn’t a vehicle. A train is part of the country. It’s a place – Riding the Iron Rooster

The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

A landscape looks different when you know the names of things, and conversely, can look exceedingly inhospitable and alien when it seems nameless – Fresh Air Fiend

In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed – Dark Star Safari

Villages endure destitution better than towns, and rural poverty can perversely seem almost picturesque – The Pillars of Hercules

The nearest thing to writing a novel is travelling in a strange landscape – Sunrise with Seamonsters

When something human is recorded, good travel writing happens – To the Ends of the Earth

Travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion the opposite. Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture – The Happy Isles of Oceania

Nothing is more bewildering to a foreigner than a nation’s pleasures – The Kingdom by the Sea

Quotations taken from The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton £16.99

The weighty problem of airports…

September 13, 2011

Your camera equipment is never heavier than when you’re trying to board a plane. Rules may be rules, but they don’t make any sense, says Nick Smith

My story starts in one of those swish rustic safari lodges nestled deep in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. After an unpleasant overnight flight from London to Johannesburg, a four-hour delay prior to a short haul to Maun, followed by a hop, skip and a jump in a Cessna, I was exhausted. Exhausted and minus one camera.

Elephants in Botswana by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

This was a long time ago and I’ve since been told many times what a daft idea it was to put a camera in my hold baggage. ‘Always take your photographic gear on board with you,’ sniggered Martin Hartley over a beer, before going on to tell me that if you put anything of value in your main luggage you’re asking for trouble. They don’t call it ‘Thiefrow Airport’ for nothing, he said, trying to think up a daft pun on Johannesburg to go with his earlier one. ‘I know all that,’ I said, ‘but my gadget bag was overweight and the check-in staff made me take some stuff out and repack it into my hold luggage.’

I told him how I transferred my spare camera body which, as we know never made it, having been smuggled out of an international airport presumably through the same weak link in the system that allows explosives, guns and drugs in. At least I’d had the presence of mind to ditch the spare, but I can tell you I was spitting blood when the insurance company refused to cough up, while the two airlines involved in the connector flight blamed each other. But I’ll have a rant about camera insurance another day.

Over the years I’ve varied my approach to a problem that all photographers on overseas assignments face. Through trial and error I’ve managed to get the weight of my kit down, but I can never get it to under 11kg no matter how hard I try. By the time you’ve packed the laptop, card readers, chargers and all that gubbins, there’s barely room for a compact point-and-shoot.

Sunset shot through bush sage in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Sunset shot through bush sage in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

I bought myself one of those ‘Airport guaranteed’ ultra light packs, but the truth is that most airlines simply won’t allow you to go airside with more than 10kg of the tools of the trade. This annoys me for several reasons, but mercifully they don’t often check, so long as you pick up your pack as if it were as light as a feather. Once you’re on the plane the real nightmare begins because, while everyone plugs themselves into their iPods, novels, and handy horseshoe-shaped cushions, I’m just sitting there waiting for the hot rectangular tray of what they call food to arrive.

I suppose after years of feeling like a criminal something had to give, and on a recent trip to Malaysia I nearly snapped, before being on the receiving end of an unexpected happy outcome. Heathrow check-in again. ‘I’m sorry sir but this bag is 11 kilos. It’s too heavy to take on as hand luggage,’ came the bored and yet still slightly helpful voice of someone not really enjoying what they were doing. I counted to ten and decided to reason with them.

giraffe bones in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Giraffe bones in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

Ah, I said, but what about the people who take through a 10kg item of hand luggage and then buy a litre of water airside? As we all know from our physics classes the definition of a kilogram is that it is the weight of a litre of distilled water at 4 degrees centigrade. So, hah! The minute they buy their water they’ll be carrying the same weight as me. And what’s more, not only will I not buy a bottle of water, I further promise to drink nothing between now and boarding.

The woman looked at me sadly before repeating that my bag was overweight. But my check-in luggage weighs less than my cameras, I remonstrated. If you aggregate the total weight, I’m miles under. ‘It doesn’t work that way, sir,’ said the lady who, despite knowing I was morally right, had started to take a dislike to me. In frustration I pointed out that the portly gentleman she’d just let through was easily ten stone overweight, but did she pick on him? Oh no, that would be weightism. Maybe he’d eaten his cameras before arriving at the airport…

After further heated discussion where logic failed, and after more ‘computer says no’ moments, I was desperate. But somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered what a teacher of mine once told me years ago: that politeness and kindness would open more doors than any amount of swagger and bluster. ‘Please let me through,’ I begged. ‘Oh all right,’ she replied, ‘just this once.’

So next time I go to check in with my 11kg of kit – that I can’t put in the hold because someone will steal it – I’m going to be sweetness and light. If challenged, I’ll ask their advice, help and expert opinion on how to solve the problem. The cynical misanthrope in me doesn’t for a second think such flattery will come naturally, but I suppose we could all do with learning from our mistakes.

This article appears in the latest edition of Outdoor Photography magazine

‘Shooting digital like film’, column by Nick Smith published in Outdoor Photography magazine

June 20, 2011

In the old days we took far fewer photos, normally in batches of 36. Today we don’t feel we’ve done our job unless we’ve blasted away gigabyte upon gigabyte. So what happens when we shoot digital the way we shot film? By Nick Smith

Nick Smith's daughter, Tegan Smith on the teacup ride on her sixth birthday

Teacup ride, Swansea, one of a restricted number of 36 shots taken in one day

Next time you take your digital camera into the great outdoors take a big bag of fifty pence pieces with you. Then throw away one coin for every time you depressed the shutter release button when you didn’t have to. For those of you wondering what on earth I’m talking about, this is what shooting on film was like. I can’t remember the exact figures, but it cost about nine pounds to buy and process a roll of 35mm transparency film that would result in 36 photographs: 37 if you were lucky. You simply couldn’t afford to be profligate.

My new camera can shoot 36 exposures in less than four seconds, and because it’s digital, think of all those fifty pence pieces I’m saving. Storage is cheap and plentiful, and if Moore’s Law holds – essentially that digital technology doubles its capacity and so halves in price every two years – they’ll be giving gigabytes away with petrol soon.

But what you gain on the swings you inevitably lose on the roundabouts, because we all end up paying through our teeth in lost hours peering into the screen when it comes to the edit. If you think that this is somehow an absorbable cost or it doesn’t really matter, try throwing a fifty pence piece out of the window for every five minutes you sit at your computer.

I don’t know about you, but I loved it when my trannies came back from the lab. I’d put them on the light box and reacquaint myself with what was really going on, rather than just delete stuff. Editing then seemed to be a process of selection rather than of mind-numbing elimination.

But then it occurred to me that I might be looking back with misguided affection. How could it have been better then? By any objective measure cameras and their consumables today are better, cheaper, lighter, faster and funkier. Well, maybe. But one thing I am sure of is that digital is responsible for a torrential surge in mediocre photography. It’s everywhere. Don’t believe me? Put your hand up and offer to judge your local newspaper or camera club photographic competition.

I decided to investigate if we really do shoot better photographs when we do it batches of 36. The rules were simple: I could take as much kit as I liked with me to the Gower peninsular and shoot anything I fancied. The only thing I had to do was stay within the frame budget and complete the project in one day.

Off to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Llanelli one glorious Easter day. The sky was the colour of bluebells and there was more cherry blossom in the April breeze than you could shake a stick at. It was with an optimistic heart that I set out to fulfil my task that day of a portrait of my daughter (it was her sixth birthday), a wildlife shot (hence the drive to the wetlands) and a sunset, which would involve a short, sharp hike up a small mountain. I arbitrarily allowed myself 12 shots per project, which was a bit more daunting than sounds, not least because I was going to shoot the portrait on the teacup ride at the Easter fair, birds (for me at least) are notoriously fickle sitters and sunsets are not common in a land where it never stops raining.

By nine o’clock I’d downloaded my 36 compositions into Lightroom, and to my surprise my first reactions were all positive. First, it took no time to physically transfer the files because there were simply so few of them. Second, I suddenly found myself doing a positive edit rather than just moronically hitting the delete key. Third and most important of all, the proportion of decent shots was much, much higher that I would normally get from blasting away the megabytes. I was able to select three shots quickly – one for each project – that were above my quality threshold, and perhaps even more importantly, was tucked into a pint of Brains bitter well before closing time.

As I lubricated the tonsils I reflected on what my experiment had proved. I think this is what may have happened. I’d definitely spent more time thinking about what I wanted to shoot rather than pulling the trigger. And I was much more conscious of getting the basics right in order to avoid wasting my virtual roll of film. This had a further advantage, because when I came to review my work I found it much easier to evaluate how successful the images were relative to my intentions, simply because I could remember taking each exposure. I’d also had more fun, and as I polished off my pint I decided that wandering around South Wales musing on the glories of the natural world was simply a better experience than filling up flash cards with machine-gunned gunk.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine

 

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Great Explorers’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Bookdealer magazine)

February 7, 2011

Treading carefully on the frontiers of discovery

Antarctica by Nick Smith, author of Travels in the World of Books
Antarctica, December 2010. Photo: Nick Smith

 

Exploration in the 21st Century is different to how it used to be. For sure there’s still a flourishing band of adventurers ever willing to be the first to do something extremely dangerous in a hostile and remote environment, and the world would be a duller place without them. But with important environmental and cultural issues on the agenda – climate change, the fate of indigenous peoples, and wildlife conservation – our approach to what we now accept as genuine geographical exploration is changing. And importantly, so is our attitude to the great names of the past who made the first steps to push back the frontiers of knowledge. While a century ago we might have celebrated the achievements of those who claimed unknown pockets of territory for Empire, today we’re much more likely to be interested in some of the lesser-known pioneers who penetrated the interiors of far-flung continents in search of scientific data.

Nobody is more aware of the problems modern exploration can throw at you than the great 20th century explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Exploration – a classic published nearly two decades ago – he notes wryly that time and again, ‘the European explorer, as he “discovers” some new land, makes a passing reference to his native guide.’ He goes on to refer to a cartoon in the Geographical magazine that appeared long before I was ever in the editor’s chair, depicting two pith-helmeted explorers who wonder, as they stand at the foot of a huge waterfall with their baggage bearers: ‘You don’t suppose they might have discovered it already, do you?’ Hanbury-Tenison has always been aware that the history of exploration is crashingly Eurocentric – something that today a swelling body of braying academic commentators seem to think they’ve found out for themselves.

But that’s all right, because unlike those of other travellers, the deeds of explorers, Hanbury-Tenison informs us, ‘have a lasting significance which may affect the destiny of mankind.’ Two decades on there are different challenges. Today, even the most respected and accomplished explorers tend not to describe themselves as such. This is because of a semantic shift that, for no reason I can see, has ring-fenced the word, reserving it for use only in the context of historical figures. This is totally barmy, but words change their meanings, and political correctness makes fools of us all. Even the occasionally flamboyantly outspoken Hanbury-Tenison tones it down a bit in his prefatory essay to his authoritative The Great Explorers. The language has changed, but the sentiments remain the same: the pith helmets may have disappeared from his imagery and the vaunting notion of destiny may have been brought under control, but for Hanbury-Tenison explorers are still people who have ‘excelled in their geographical endeavours to an extent that has changed the world.’

His new book profiles forty such individuals in biographical portraits spanning half a millennium, contributed by expert writers in their field. The result is a monumental tome that’s a genuine contribution to modern thinking about the nature of exploration. It could have been a bland reiteration of the received orthodoxy, names that trip so easily off the tongue, but Hanbury-Tenison challenges our assumptions, not so much with what he says – this is a curiously anonymous book for one written by so many heavyweights of the genre – but by what he doesn’t say.

In the field of Polar endeavour alone there are enough absences of old favourites to get the armchair explorer choking on his pemmican. What no Shackleton? No Scott? Instead we have a much more international cast in the shape of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, as well as what are, to the outside world at least, the lesser names of Edward Wilson and Wally Herbert.

This is interesting for two reasons. First: as the veneer of Empire begins to fade Hanbury-Tenison is able to be more objective as to who’s who. It’s no longer traitorous or heretical to say that Scott was pipped to the post by a better explorer, albeit a bloody foreigner. We now know, no matter how much it might hurt our national psyche, that Amundsen was simply a more enlightened and experienced campaigner, more capable of improvising. Second: rather than automatically acknowledging the scalp-hunting exploits of explorers whose ambition was to be first to do something, there’s a strong implication in The Great Explorers that an expeditioner’s greatness ultimately rests in their contribution to our understanding of the world. Shackleton may well have served up the best handful of chapters of derring-do in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, but did he increase our knowledge of the planet in the way that Wilson – scientist, doctor, naturalist and artist – did? In the section entitled ‘Life on Earth’ we are treated to essays on Alexander von Humboldt, Marianne North, Alfred Russel Wallace and (a favourite of mine) Frank Kingdon-Ward. Given its name, it would be easy to suppose Hanbury-Tenison might have had in mind including David Attenborough. But he didn’t, and quite right too.

The essays themselves are first class and I particularly like the way Hanbury-Tenison has matched up his writers to their subject. So we find that the chapter on Mungo Park was written by Anthony Sattin; that on Livingstone by Claire Pettitt; that on Wilfred Thesiger by Alexander Maitland; that on Gertrude Bell by Justin Marozzi, and so on, where in every pairing the latter is an acknowledged expert on the former. For me this – along with the sumptuous picture editing – is the book’s key strength and what sets it apart from similar enterprises. The Great Explorers simply oozes authority and ease with its subject matter. I did raise my eyebrow slightly on noticing that one of the contributors is also one of the great explorers. In fact, our leading speleologist, Andy Eavis, it seems was commissioned to write the final chapter on Andrew James Eavis. Maybe this isn’t as much of a problem as it first seems: Eavis writes in the first person, and, as there are few specialist authors on caving better than Eavis, it sort of makes logical sense to give the man the job. I’m not saying that this editorial decision creates a flaw in the book, but it does represent to me at least a minor inconsistency.

This quibble aside, The Great Explorers is nigh-on perfect, operating on two distinct levels. First, as a sensible interpretation of the historic record for the non-specialist whose interest lies beyond cannibalism, frostbite and flag-planting. Second, for those aware of how the murky undercurrents of political correctness are distorting the wider picture, it’s good to see Hanbury-Tenison serving up a balanced, if sometimes surprising, cocktail of what our true exploration heritage is in a world where many are frightened to use the word.

The Great Explorers, edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison is available from Thames & Hudson, £24.95, pp 304 · ISBN 978 0 500 251690

To find out more about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a former editor of Geographical magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club in New York and of the Royal Geographical Society. He writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and his latest book Travels in the World of Books was published last May

Catching up with explorer Mike Horn in Mongolia

February 7, 2011

A glass of champagne in Mongolia

Nick Smith travels to Mongolia as a guest of Mumm Champagne to catch up with explorer Mike Horn. Like you do…

Mike Horn in the Gobi Desert - photo: Nick Smith

Mike Horn reads Nick Smith's 'Travels in the World of Books' in the Gobi Desert. Photo: Nick Smith

 

When Jean-Baptiste Charcot became the first Frenchman to set foot on Antarctica, he celebrated in true style with a bottle of champagne, a newspaper and his trusty pipe. The year was 1904 and the bottle was a gift from his friend Georges Mumm, head of the Champagne house that sponsored the explorer’s Français expedition. The famous toast on the ice shelf lent Charcot’s expedition an air of style and suavity that polar travel previously lacked. Mumm’s distinctive red sash – or ‘cordon rouge’ – was inspired by the insignia of Napoleon’s Légion d’honneur. For Charcot his fine wine of choice symbolised the heroic and pioneering values of his adventures.

A century later the association lives on. In May 2008 one of the world’s greatest living explorers, Mike Horn, set sail from Monaco under the watchful eye of Prince Albert, on the most ambitious journey of discovery undertaken in modern times. The Pangaea project was born, with Mike’s ambition to reunite the seven continents of the world through an expedition that used no motorised transport. Spanning four years, Mike’s journeys were scheduled to take him through the North and South poles, far-flung desert islands and the oceans of the world, as a celebration of ‘the beauty of planet Earth.’

Mike teamed up with Mumm champagne to help spread the environmental message that the Pangaea expedition was to deliver. Ever mindful of the significance of Charcot’s iconic toast in Antarctica, Horn and Mumm prepared to celebrate each successful leg of the trip with an exceptional ‘Explorer Experience’ – a champagne-paired dinner prepared by a Michelin-star chef in the most remote, exquisite and challenging environments they could find.

Mike is now halfway through the Pangaea project. In fact, the ‘Explorer Experience’ in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert was the exact midpoint of the expedition. So far Mike has hosted dinner parties on an ice shelf in Greenland, a sand bar on the Great Barrier Reef and in the frozen Wastes of Antarctica. After Mongolia, he will head for the top of the world when his next gastronomic celebration will be held as close to the geographic North Pole as logistics will allow. This will be followed by expeditions into the Amazonian rainforest and the wilderness of Siberia. His mission is to ‘encourage respect for the environment and actively participate in the preservation of the planet’s natural resources to protect the world for future generations.’

Despite the conviviality and audacious luxury of champagne in the desert, as the dinner progressed, Mike used the beauty of the surroundings to describe his deadly-serious vision of sustainability for the planet. ‘I want to show the world through my explorations that there is so much beauty out there that needs to be protected. We are all explorers today. There is no moral message other than we must take positive action to save the planet. And we must do it today.’

I’ll be posting updates on the progress of the Pangaea expedition… next stop, the North Pole.

For more about:

Mumm Champagne visit www.mumm.com

Mike Horn’s Pangaea expedition www.mikehorn.com

Nick Smith interviews American philanthropist Greg Carr in E&T issue one, 2011

February 7, 2011

Bringing new life to Mozambique

A main player of the voice mail revolution, legendary American CEO Greg Carr amassed a colossal personal fortune. But then he turned his back on the business of technology to become a humanitarian. Interview layout

‘If you want to get anything done here you’ve got to stop thinking like an American CEO’ says Greg Carr, looking out over a small car park where field scientists, engineers and biologists are packing up their Land Rovers in the early morning African sun.

We’re sitting in the bar of Chitengo lodge, drinking iced-tea, while the soft hum of insects and the purple glow of neatly trimmed bougainvillea make this a pleasant place to be. ‘See the swimming pool over there?’ he says pointing through a stand of acacia trees where weaverbirds are busily building their nests. ‘That used to be a prison during the Civil War.’

Carr was one of the most influential American CEOs during the digital technology revolution of the 1980s. And the rewards were substantial as he amassed a colossal personal fortune. But here in the middle of Mozambique – the world’s poorest country – he has no Croesus-like delusions of grandeur, while pioneering telecommunications is a world away. There are no power trips, status symbols or trivial luxury. ‘If you look at the organisation chart, you’ll see I’m not even the boss’ he says, before explaining that what he does now, in partnership with the Government of Mozambique, this is his most rewarding challenge to date.

And it’s made him a national hero. Having once made a living from hacking through the lianas and creepers of the corporate jungle, he’s now dedicated his professional life to restoring a real jungle – Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. His aim is to return to Mozambique its ‘crown jewel’ in pristine condition, and in doing so provide sustainable employment, education and health for local people whose economy has been destroyed by civil war. Understandably, for the village people of this rarely visited country his new career is far more important.

Well known for his championing of humanitarian causes, Carr has signed a deal with the government in a ‘classic public private partnership’ that sees US$40 million of his own money ploughed straight into the project. Both parties hope that in 20 years time the Park will be a self-sufficient business that will put much needed economic activity into the country’s tourism sector with benefits for all. With the project still in its early phases, local people living around the Park have started to benefit from Carr’s corporate acumen. They now have jobs. And Carr has helped provide the local village of Vinho with water pumps, medical facilities and a school. But it’s only the start. ‘We need 750 medical centres’, he says referring to the other villages surrounding the National Park.

Carr is best known in the world of digital communications as one of the protagonists in the emergence of voice mail, a technology that informs so much of our everyday business and social lives that, as with other basics such as email, we never really stop to consider the engineering behind it. But the story goes that, inspired by the breakup of AT&T, he founded Boston Technology, one of the earliest organisations to market voice mail systems to telephone companies. Carr served as the chair of Boston until Comverse Technology bought it out. He went on to become chair of Prodigy, an early global Internet service provider.

These were good breaks for Carr and by 1998 he retired from ‘for-profit’ business an extraordinarily wealthy man and made entrepreneurial philanthropy his full-time job. Today he spends half of his life in Mozambique, and as he describes his new job it’s clear that, while success in the world of digital technology was a major milestone in his career, it’s what comes after financial success that really matters. ‘I’m a human rights guy’ he says just in case you might be thinking he’s still a hotshot CEO. What you really have to do is listen to what the people want. So what did they want? ‘Bicycles’ he says. That was the most important thing for almost everyone. As the employees took home their first wage packets from the restored Chitengo Lodge, most of them invested in a set of wheels. It changed their lives.

In the 1960s Chitengo was a hip hangout for cool and trendy (and very rich) South Africans who wanted to go into the bush to see elephants and lions at close range. Businessmen in their smart new Mercedes-Benzes drove up in, well droves, to visit a National Park that had arguably the densest population of mega fauna – lions, elephants, wildebeest – that Africa had ever seen.

But when the Civil War rolled in, Chitengo became popular for a different reason. Strategically placed on the Beira Corridor that links the Indian Ocean seaboard with Zimbabwe, it was also the only brick-built permanent settlement for miles around. The competing political factions Renamo and Frelimo were fighting one of the bloodiest battles seen in this part of Africa. They both wanted Chitengo as a military stronghold. Before long, or so it seemed, all the animals were dead and Chitengo was just another war-blasted ghost town. Meanwhile the war killed a million humans.

There’s still plenty of evidence of the war today. As Carr and I walk around the lodge he shows me bullet holes in the walls and gates, grenade damage to the water towers, while the path we take to the ferry to the nearest village Vinho threads its way through a cleared minefield. Cleared or not, you don’t stray from the path – just outside the chicken-wire fence enclosing the compound there’s a post close to buildings that were once used for interrogation. It’s riddled with head-height bullet holes.

But the mission the Carr Foundation is not one of a truth and reconciliation committee; rather it is to restore the park to its pre-war glory. The theory is simple: Get the land in shape and the animals will come back. Get the animals back and the tourists will come back too. Tourism brings money and the money, if fed properly into local communities, will bring health, education and employment. Or as Carr says: ‘sustainable economic development.’

For the visitor the most pressing question is that of where the animals have gone. Although there are lions and elephants today they’re present in nothing like their former numbers. ‘There have been two wars – civil conflicts – here in Mozambique in recent times’ says Carr. ‘The first, the War of Independence, didn’t affect the ecosystem that much. Mozambique got its independence from Portugal in 1974. And so the National Park in the late Seventies was in good shape.’ But then followed a civil war between the resistance movement Renamo and the liberation movement Frelimo. ‘That really got going in the Eighties, and there were battles fought here at Chitengo, and it changed hands a couple of times. The camp was shut down to tourism as it was occupied by the militia.’ He tells me of a local ranger working at one of the local who was held prisoner in that swimming pool.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. Two factions competing for a place where the main military benefits were the occupation of permanent buildings and unlimited bush meat to feed the soldiers. While there’s no doubt Chitengo became a flashpoint because of the protection it gave, the bush meat issue is more complex. ‘The real carnage came at the end of the war’ says Carr. ‘This was when professional hunters saw an opportunity and raced in here with weapons and vehicles. There was a massive slaughter and they wiped out the buffalo and sold the meat. It took us a while to figure that out, because we just thought that the soldiers had eaten the animals. But it was more of an organised commercial activity than that. It’s true that ivory was being taken into South Africa and being traded for guns, but the problem was the commercial hunting.’ Carr says that when he first came to Mozambique he was told there were no elephants in the park. ‘But in fact there were 300 in hiding, and now we think there are 400.’

This was all a far cry from the heyday of the Sixties when, according to Carr ‘this was paradise and tourists were coming from all over the world and people loved it.’ But something else was going on at that time too: with so many tourists coming to Gorongosa, the National Park was also was also the economic engine of Mozambique. ‘I’m a big believer that if you do it right, National Parks can protect nature and create a lot of jobs. Good jobs too, because what does it take to run a national park? It takes a lot of knowledge. So you need scientists, biologists, engineers with certain skills, service industry people and guides.’

But it’s not always been done right. National Parks don’t have a good reputation for protecting human rights. In the bad old days it was like this: phase one, let’s have a National Park, if you’re not an animal please leave. But, says Carr, at Gorongosa ‘we have a rights-based philosophy, and that’s the new way of thinking.’ But not new for Carr, who’s always been more interested in human rights than making money in the business sector. ‘I was a human rights activist before coming here – I created a human rights centre at Harvard University and my philanthropy was based on human rights too. When I came to Mozambique to choose a humanitarian project I thought that restoring Gorongosa was a great opportunity for helping people.’

But when Carr arrived in 2004 post-war Mozambique was a wasteland. He waves his arm around as he surveys Chitengo: ‘everything you see here was rubble. I didn’t even know that there was a swimming pool here for the first year because the grass swamped everything. It was so overgrown it was difficult to find what used to be the flow of human beings here.’ He says that when he took his first game drive around the region he simply didn’t see any animals. ‘Maybe you’d see a warthog. Maybe you’d see a baboon. But you could drive for days and not see any animals. But, it turns out that they were hiding, because all of the human activity that had been going on had been bad news. But animals are smart and they do figure out who’s who.’

Within a few years the wildlife ‘started to calm down as they realised that nobody was shooting at them.’ And part of the success story of Gorongosa is that, as it is an unfenced park, animals can make their way back whenever they want to, while the Park authorities reinvigorate their protection. ‘Today if you’re lucky you’ll see elephants and lions, impala and magnificent birdlife.’ He’s right. I was woken up one night by a female lion roaring outside my tent. Nerve-wracking as this might have been, when I told Carr this, he smiled. ‘They’re coming back.’

And it is this return that means the tourism product will flourish and that the cycle of economic activity will gather its own momentum, requiring less and less stimulus from agencies such as Carr’s philanthropic foundation. But there’s work to do if this is to become a genuinely self-sustaining ecosystem: ‘What we were missing most are bulk grazers – big buffalo, zebra, wildebeest – of which there were thousands and thousands. You need them because they eat a lot of grass. We really need 10,000-20,000 grazers for the proper functioning of the park.’

As Carr leans back it’s hard to see him as a trailblazer in the digital world. But as his story unfolds it becomes clear that the challenges are familiar to him, and the citizenship values that make the wheels of good business turn well are transferrable to life in the bush: ‘I’ve got 20 years to make it work. We’re two-and-a-half in and we’re getting there. I think that the government of Mozambique is open to healthy relationships with international partners. They invited me here and that’s a very critical point – they said to me let’s do something together. I couldn’t turn up in someone’s country and just say here I am. It’s about partnerships. This is a new philosophy in aid and philanthropy. It must be done together. If you look carefully at this organisation chart you’ll see I’m just a member of a committee. I’m not here as a big cheese.’

Case study: Local people made good

According to Greg Carr, roughly 80-90% of the workers hired at Chitengo or otherwise in connection with the Gorongosa National Park are locals, many from the village of Vinho, a few miles away. ‘They get a salary, but what’s important about this is that it might be the first formal salary they’ve ever had in their lives.’

As employees they are trained in a range of park management skills, learn languages and advance their education. But it’s the salaries that really count because this takes hard cash back into their village, where only five years previously the economic model was subsistence farming. ‘I’ve got to tell you’ says Carr ‘that it’s hardly the Champs-Élysées now, but five years ago you never even saw a bicycle. Now one of the first things they do when they get their first pay packet is buy one. They ride their bike to get water or go to the market or get their kids to school. It’s changed everything.’

The bikes have created an entrepreneurial buzz in Vinho. Once there were no markets, but now there’s transport to collect goods and set up shop close to home. The real entrepreneurs set up bike-fixing workshops, and the mechanics wear football shirts and baseball caps. ‘They used to be in rags – now people are starting to dress better.’

‘The other change I’ve seen in Vinho is that the farming has increased and diversified to meet the demands of the sustainable tourism. Also in our 20 year agreement with the government we’re obliged to the communities by Article 8 to build them a school, a health clinic and so on. We also share 20 per cent of the Park gate revenue with them. We talk to them to see what they want – maybe a new roof for the school – we listen.’

For more about:

Gorongosa National Park visit http://www.gorongosa.net/

Visit E&T magazine online by clicking http://eandt.theiet.org/