Bill Bailey: the serious business of nature and conservation

The comedian Bill Bailey has always suffered from wanderlust. But these days many of his trips are inspired by his interest in conservation. He and his wife, Kris, tell Nick Coleman about their travels

'We do travel a lot - and have travelled a lot - particularly to the tropics and South-east Asia," says Bill Bailey. "We've gone on more and more adventurous trips, to more remote areas - places you just can't get to normally.

"We have a growing circle of contacts in the area. One of them led us to spending time in a national park in northern Sumatra, which isn't open to tourism. But a friend of ours, who works in Bali and runs a rafting operation, knew this guy from way back when he used to book corporate rafting expeditions for an oil company, who's since done a complete 180 on that and is now into conservation.

"These are the sorts of places we like. We're planning another trip out there this year. We went to Banda Aceh last year to deliver some aid money, and we made great contacts there again. These are the kinds of things that interest me, to the point where a conventional holiday doesn't really do it for me any more.

"The IAR [International Animal Rescue] appealed to me because it presented an opportunity to see a country and find out about conservation - something I'm very interested in. I prefer to see a new country in that light - to get to know the people working there and to see the workings of the operation and the way they involve local people and resources.

"That is what travel is about for me now. I can't just go somewhere any more and bundle along being shown all the things that tourists are shown.

"I've always travelled. When I left school, I travelled around Europe - worked and busked around with the guitar. When I left college, I got a job with an educational theatre company, which involved going to Japan and Europe. To me, it was the perfect fit; travel with work at the same time. And doing comedy is perfect. When you get somewhere you find out what makes people tick.

"It's partly to do with the way I was brought up. We used to travel a lot as a family. And my parents always encouraged curiosity - not just in the place we were in but in the fauna. I love the flora and fauna of a place. "We spent a lot of time in South Wales when I was a kid. I've got vivid memories of rock-climbing and rock-pooling - again that idea: always doing something, going with some aim, to go somewhere and do something, walk up a hill...

"My favourite recent trek was when we walked across Seram, an island in Indonesia. Off the map in a big way, right over in the eastern band of the Moluccan islands. It's quite a big island, with thick, dense forest and a few villages scattered around it. The idea was to walk across it, through this national park, over the mountains in the middle and then get a boat back. It was supposed to take about 10 days.

"We had to get a plane to Bali, then a plane to Ujung Pandang, then another plane to Ambon, hang around there and negotiate to get a boat to Seram. It was a fastish boat which took us over the straits. A great journey, full of fish and dolphins - all these little squid jumping in the boat. Then we spent hours getting permits to get on a little bus. We watched these guys in uniforms spend all day, literally, tapping out our permits on these old Coronas. It's good to be made to wait sometimes.

"So we got to the other end of the island on this old bus and then needed to go up the coast. The only way was by rice boat. And that was one of the most extraordinary bits of the whole adventure. It was a beautiful night - warm, still, clear, tropical - and we just sat on sacks in this dugout canoe piled high with bags of rice, chugging round the coast. If you looked down into the bow wave of the boat there was this phosphorescent algae being thrown up - it was like looking into stars.

Bill's wife, Kris, says: "We were allowed to take two pairs of trousers, two shirts, two pairs of socks - and that was it apart from the medical kit. But we still needed 19 porters, in addition to the six of us and the three guides. Because by the time you've taken enough rice and water for nine people, you need another six to carry enough rice and water for the porters. There was no food en route, you see. There were four villages on the way and they'd be able to give us no more than a chicken each - and obviously there was no electricity. We knew roughly what we were going to need in advance. But that was all we knew."

Says Bill: "Doing all the planning and preparation was great fun - buying up all the food, the spices and the rice and bagging it all up, the chillies and the garlic, hiring all these guys.

"And once we got going it was really tough going. It was wet. The paths were all sticky. It was hot, humid. And here's the beauty of it: you're all sweaty and grimy and tired, and sometimes you'll stop and you'll see some extraordinary, beautiful thing - a bird.

"At the end of the day we'd struggle into a village and all these kids would come out and laugh their heads off at the filthy people. And we'd give them loads of things - just the stuff we had, plus supplies: coffee, salt, sugar and paraffin. If you want to stay in the village it's just what's done."

Kris says: "They had nothing. Nothing at all. They didn't have pencils and paper. They wrote on slate. And all they wanted to do was look at us, listen to us. Every evening we'd sit in the chief's hut and the whole village would come out to have a look."

Bill says: "And I'd feel obliged to be funny. I'd do a bit of physical clowning - muck about, hop up and down - and they'd just fall about. An hour's worth of free cabaret and they'd be howling. They had no lights. Ah, but they did have a huge, beautifully proportioned tree in the middle of the village, much like a Christmas tree, and come the evening it was full of glow worms."

Says Kris: "They had a tiny guitar someone had made with one string on it, and they were singing Christmas carols. They were singing 'Silent Night'. And the only thing you could see apart from the stars was this Christmas tree full of fire flies."

Bill adds: "You've got to remember that there's a long history of trade with the area. They've all been there. The Arabs traders went first, then the Portuguese, the Spanish, but mainly the Dutch - and they are the most lasting in terms of architecture. You can turn up on these tiny little islands and there'll be Dutch colonial buildings. And there's the odd echo of Dutch in the language. You find the odd Dutch speaker there too.

"It's never been on any kind of tourist trail. It's just too far away, too hard to get to. If you're interested in going there, you want to start by reading Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago. He wrote it about his travels in Indonesia while he was developing his theories about the origins of species.

"But in practical terms, what you should do is just go to Bali and take some internal flights. Be led by your own curiosity.

"As for my work with IAR, just before Christmas I went out to Agra in India to visit the bear sanctuary. We met the Kalander people who are the bear dancers, looked at the land they want to expand into. Bear dancing has been going on for hundreds of years and it was made illegal in 1992. But it's still going on now.

"The Kalander people who do it are a Muslim nomadic tribe who've traditionally taken bears from the wild, put a rope through their noses and they 'dance' them - as in, they yank the rope and the pain is so intense that the bear appears to dance. It's done by the side of the road in tourist areas and, embarrassingly and tragically, tourists still pay up to £8 to watch the show. That's a fortune for the bear dancers. And the tourists come from everywhere: they're English, Australian, Japanese. We're all complicit.

"The government is loath to enforce the ban because it would be imposing a rule on a Muslim minority - something that doesn't sit easily in such a religiously sensitive country. There's also the problem that people have grown up with it. Policemen whose job it is to enforce the law have grown up with bears dancing at the side of the road.

"So what IAR does is take the bears, give them a full health check, make sure they're physically well, get a dentist in - because when the bear dancers catch the bears, they smash their teeth out with an iron bar - and then shove 'em in the sanctuary. They can't release them back into the wild: they've been too humanised.

"IAR offers the Kalander a retraining package in return for giving up the bear. They offer them money and the possibility of a business, through a grant, which is dependent on them not dancing the bears for a certain period of time. I met this guy who had been a bear dancer and now he's got a little shop.

"One of the most affecting things is that the bear dancers have a tremendous affection for the bears. Even though they're inflicting terrible cruelty on them, they love them. They know it's cruel, so you can appeal to that part of them. You can say, come on, you know this isn't great, this is cruel, it's not doing you or the bear any good. And most of them are willing to change.

"There's something about Asia that always draws us back. I've just been in Brazil too, making a documentary about jaguars. I'd really like to go back to South America. The wildlife is amazing. But Asia - there's something about the otherness of it, the warmth of it, the humanity that is just there on the street welcoming you. And going back to a place you know a little bit about is almost better than going to a place you've never been before.

"My attitude is, get the initial trip out of the way and then go again and really enjoy it. I'm just dying to go back to the Sumatran jungle. I might retire there."

Bill Bailey travelled to India with International Animal Rescue (IAR) to help to raise the profile of its work rescuing dancing bears off the streets. He has become the charity's patron. IAR has teamed up with Naturetrek, a company specialising in natural history holidays and wildlife tours, and this autumn will be offering its first trip to see the rescued bears, as well as tigers and exotic birds in the north of India. To find out more, call 01825 767688, go to iar.org.uk, or write to International Animal Rescue, Lime House, Regency Close, Uckfield, East Sussex TN22 1DS

My top transport

If you want to travel around Indonesia, you have to go by boat at some point. There are around 17,000 islands and you can't fly between all of them. The boats vary from dugout canoes to enormous hulking great passenger ferries. The ones you travel inter-island on are beautiful long handmade wooden boats with high prows and little wooden cabins. Every one offers a different experience. Boats are definitely my favourite mode of transport.

My favourite creature

The bird life in Indonesia is just stunning. Moluccan cockatoos, parakeets, fish eagles, sea eagles. I've never seen a cassowary in the wild, only in bird parks - they're very shy. And fierce. They look like baffled dinosaurs: kind of like, "how the hell did I survive?".

My favourite food

There's a dish, called rendang, which comes from an area off western Sumatra called Padang. Padang has lent its name to the cuisine, which is available throughout Indonesia, called nasi padang. The dishes are precooked, because they take ages to cook. There's one dish called rendang which is made with water buffalo. They put it in coconut milk and then just boil it and boil it and gradually reduce it and bung in all kinds of chillies and spices. Eventually, you get this thick sauce and tender meat in a rich coconut gravy. There is nothing quite like it on Earth. Sweet, spicy, savoury. Utterly addictive, actually. First time I had it, it was a true epiphany. Choirs and all.

Fragile earth: Wildlife Tourism Without Tears

SUPPORT 'CLIMATE CARE'

Negate the share of carbon dioxide emissions created by your flight by making a donation to Climate Care (co2.org), which will invest in renewable energy and reforestation projects.

WILDLIFE FIRST

Watch and photograph wildlife with minimum obtrusion, and respect the viewing instructions of your guide and tour leader. Remember that all wildlife sightings are a bonus - none are guaranteed!

DON'T PAY THE MONKEY

Never give money to people who are using wild animals for entertainment. This will only encourage the abuse of animals such as elephants, bears and monkeys to beg money from tourists.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Be very careful about what you choose to eat when you are travelling. For example, you should always avoid local "delicacies" that are made from endangered species of animals such as turtles or dolphins.

DON'T TAKE THEM HOME

Avoid souvenirs that are sold to the detriment of the environment. Examples include shells, coral, skins, ivory and hardwood products. Buy locally made goods only, to support traditional culture and crafts.

LEAVE ONLY FOOTPRINTS

Never leave litter behind during your travels. Make sure that you leave at home all unnecessary packaging and wrapping and take home with you any rubbish that is non-biodegradable.

RESPECT RESOURCES

Conserve energy by turning off lights, air-conditioning, heating and so on when they are not required. Minimise your requirements for clean towels etc - in many countries water is limited.

KEEP IT UP

Support local wildlife conservation organisations. At the end of your holiday, become an overseas member of your host country's conservation organisation and continue your interest in that country.

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