MY PARENTS gave me this book and, with it, a direction in life. I was 16, bored and desperate to find a path. The explorer Robin Hanbury- Tenison's adventures gripped me. I read it with my atlas beside me, following his treks through Africa, Indonesia and the Amazon basin.
I wanted to know what it felt like to brave a sun-blasted desert where the heat can fog a person's vision, and experience the sort of rain-forest humidity that saps every ounce of strength from the body. The world opened up for me. Blurred, alien wildernesses such as those of Borneo, Sumatra and the piranha-infested rivers of Brazil began to come into focus. From that day onwards my education had but a single goal. I was not going to be an explorer - but I was going to attempt to follow in their footsteps.
I stored Hanbury-Tenison's jungle tips in my mind, knowing that there would come a time in some remote part of the world when I would need them. Carrying a good supply of porridge and a lightweight hammock for a healthy meal and the most comfortable night's sleep anywhere in the bush are two bits of advice that have played a key role in my life. Though I am still not convinced the hammock is quite as snake-proof as he claims - I swear I have been crawled over once or twice in the night, and woke up cursing the explorer's bravado.
I remember people scoffing at my grand plans for a career to travel to remote places. The same happened to Hanbury-Tenison, but he ignored it and pressed on. His book taught me to broaden my shoulders, expect criticism and often immense hardship, and tap into a motherlode of optimism.
It also reversed my image of native peoples. Hanbury-Tenison redefined my understanding of "civilised" and "uncivilised" cultures. Here were people who lived in harmony with their environment. What could be more civilised than that?
Travelling the upper reaches of Cut-Off-Head river in Borneo last year and staying with Dayak tribes, I recalled the author's treks in the forests of this vast island 20 years before and his magical meetings with the Penan and Berawan peoples. I was among only the second group of outsiders ever to reach the village of Benhes, 400 miles inland from the coast of East Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, and the last settlement before the wilderness begins. They'd nearly killed the first group and taken their heads.
At night I sat with the village headman and we talked softly over sweet tea as the rain hammered on his roof and the oil lamps fizzed. The spirit of Robin Hanbury-Tenison, I supposed, was not far from this place.
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