Can Anybody Stop the DJI Juggernaut?

When the presenter at the DJI reveal last week reached into his jacket pocket, channeling his inner Steve Jobs as he pulled several new Mavic Air drones out of his pocket, just how far this industry had come was starkly apparent. Formerly the preserve of only the biggest tech firms, the unapologetically glossy launch event evoked memories of a confident Apple at their peak- not a young company in a fledgling industry.  That young company, however, has dominated the market, throwing off the likes of 3D Robotics, GoPro, and Lily with ease.

Today, the consumer drone market has been nearly monopolized by DJI, with only Parrot and Yuneec offering any kind of meaningful resistance. In this piece I ask why has this happened- and why is no-one keeping up?

Mavic Air.jpg
The theatrical launch of the new Mavic Air.

DJI Drones Are Just Better, Period. 

No other brand offers the range of technologies and features that DJI’s products do, and they consistently lead the way long before other companies can keep up. DJI drones are becoming nearly uncrashable in the hands of a reasonably competent pilot, and their ground-breaking obstacle-avoidance technology has shown that their efforts and investment into drone safety (and accessibility) are paying off. The built-in camera technology in DJI drones is generally the best in the world, with only larger drone platforms that can carry DSLR-equivalents offering better quality- and they are well out of the price range of the general public. Most recently, DJI had to beat off the challenge of GoPro’s cameras and their flagship drone, the Karma, and the aggressive release of the Mavic Pro pulled the rug out from GoPro’s great white elephant project. DJI probably needn’t have bothered, given how poor the Karma was (remember the total product recall?)! DJI’s victory was total, with GoPro announcing their departure from the drone market in January, along with the loss of nearly 300 jobs.

DJI Object
DJI’s new obstacle detection system is a game changer for consumer drones.

Rapid Product Development. After the announcement of the Mavic Air, plenty of people argued on social media that DJI are releasing products too quickly, eating into their own product share and ‘turning people off’, in the same way that rapid phone developments did a few years back. On the contrary, DJI’s strategy is genius in that they are enveloping the entire consumer drone industry by not leaving a gap in the market, and then always releasing a newer, better drone before competitors can even consider keeping up. They may be at risk of alienating a few customers, but the drones they are releasing have nearly all been significant improvements on previous models, ceaselessly driving drone technology forward. This strategy is merciless for other drone companies that simply don’t have the resources or funding to keep up, for with every drone that DJI release, the further and further the other companies get left behind.

Drone comparison.png
DJI is trying to create a drone for everyone- and they might nearly be there!

Every Corner of the Consumer Drone Market Covered It has taken a few product cycles, but DJI now has a compelling, leading product at every price point. From the £100 Tello all the way up to the £2500 Inspire 2, there is little escaping their dominance of the market, and their rapid product cycles have helped to capture a greater share of the market. Clever pricing strategies have seen the older but very capable Phantom 3 series become the cheapest option for many, whilst the newer Phantom 4 models (Standard, Advanced and Pro) all offer significant steps up in capability for the additional cost. Perhaps the only section of the market DJI doesn’t have cornered is the sub-£50 category, but whether there is any point in them doing that is another matter entirely.


Inspire 2
The pro videography focused Inspire 2 is a serious bit of kit, and can sometimes be found on Hollywood sets. 

Strong Influencer Marketing. Much more than other brands, DJI understand the value of influencer marketing as well as mounting the glossy campaigns typical of other brands. Millennials, in particular, are much more likely to trust their peers when buying products (70%), and so using social media influencers heavily to market their products has been a masterstroke by DJI. Casey Neistat is arguably their ambassador-in-chief, with a mighty 8 million youtube subscribers and with him regularly releasing videos on DJI products or even just using DJI products that attract millions of views at a time, he is an invaluable asset to the company. The Mavic Air saw DJI expand this program further too, with the likes of IJustine giving them access to a wider market. People identify far more with these types of ‘star’ who found fame through youtube and social media itself than with the obviously-paid for traditional celebrity ads. Social media itself is DJI’s best friend too, particularly on Instagram- even England cricketers are showcasing their best drone shots on there! This momentum will just keep DJI rolling forward at… Genius!

Casey Neistat is arguably one of DJI’s best marketing weapons. He’s bit of a hero for millennials. 

Now I don’t think that DJI can monopolize the drone world forever, and I think everyone would like to see some more competition at the top. Despite this DJI’s internal competition to produce better drones continues to develop drone technology at pace, and they continue to push the envelope far more than any other brand. For now then, the consumer drone industry is in safe hands, but I worry that only the likes of a huge technology company at the scale of Microsoft, Google or Samsung will be able to keep up.

DJI are the rulers of the drone world, yet the technology world can change very, very quickly. Who is waiting in the wings to dethrone them? 

If you enjoyed this post, I’d love you to follow my blog to see my future articles! Shares are always appreciated, too!

Drone volcano
Somebody is out there with a plan, right? 

Dispatches From Liberia: Sunset in Kakata

From the heady ecstasy of my last visit to a Liberian church, an unfortunate death in the Kakata YMCA family saw a few UK volunteers, coupled with the majority of our Liberian counterparts, head to church once more. Weenor Zinnah was a much-loved member of the local community and also happened to be the wife of the head of the local YMCA.

It was thus a solemn party that made it’s way to the funeral, at a small church on the other side of the city. It was a scorchingly hot day, and having jumped off the motorbikes and trudged up the hill, I was already dripping with sweat. We bought a decorative wreath that was pure white from a young boy outside, and headed inside. The church was quite small, made of reddish brick, whilst the interior was fairly plain inside. This was more than compensated for by the masses of people inside, with well over 100 people inside before the service had even started! Friends and family were seated in the centre, whilst we were given seats to the right. Loud Liberian music blared through the speakers, whilst an impossibly large amount of people found seats, yet more continued to arrive. By the time we were ready to start, people were standing in the aisles and peering in through the windows and doors. It was incredibly moving to see such an enormous turnout, and I felt more than a little guilty at being afforded seats at a funeral for someone whom I didn’t know, and I indeed had never met. I appreciated the immense privilege bestowed upon us volunteers as part of the YMCA family, and I was honoured to show my support to Mr. Moore Zinnah, the director of our YMCA branch.

The funeral itself was the most intense experience of my life.

It is very hard to encapsulate this event into words, but here we go.

The service started with the Pastor corralling everyone into their positions, before the choir sang a small series of tuneful melodies to commence proceedings. Everyone stood, and we launched into one of the great hymns, ‘How Great Thou Art’, though of course with it’s own Liberian patois. After a few sermons, the coffin was quietly moved to the front of the church, marking the start of the tributes. We heard great testimonies of Weemor’s life, from friends, family and the many organisations that were proud to have her as a member. My passive role in the ceremony was uncomfortably disrupted when the priest called upon the ICS volunteers to deliver their tribute, which meant us! We all stood up and slowly walked in procession to the front of the church, the eyes of literally hundreds upon these Liberians and their strange white friends that were dripping even more with sweat. We stood behind the coffin, but in front of a great ocean of people, whilst Oliver, one of our counterparts, gave a short speech. I was suddenly very, very aware of how hot it was in that small room, and I felt myself swaying in the heat in front of so many expectant faces. We eventually made it back to our seats without incident, and Oliver had delivered a nice tribute. The raw fear of being handed the microphone at the moment will live with me for a long time to come, however! Shortly after this, I was pretty much forced to take photographs of the event by a Liberian volunteer, which felt incredibly wrong to me. Many Liberians were using cell phones to record the funeral, but it went against everything I know about funerals. I took a very small number of shots before sitting down as quickly as I could, to a conciliatory pat on the back from my UK volunteers.

The family then delivered some incredibly moving tributes, which were met by a great wall of sound, a tremendous outpouring of sheer grief from the crowd. The children did such a beautiful tribute amidst such a daunting crowd, and then a loud wailing began throughout the church. It was such an entirely human, visceral outpouring of great sorrow, and the sound seemed to pierce my soul. Such a display of emotion was unlike anything I’d experience before, and the audible pain that everybody was displaying caused the hairs on the back of my neck to rise, and my body to shiver. I finally felt a tear escape my expert efforts to disguise it, and it fell to the dust below. My fellow UK volunteer, Ryan, was far younger than I, and I still have no idea how he kept things together so well in the circumstances. We helped each other throughout, and at this point we embraced. As the sound receded we slowly gathered ourselves, but our minds remained in those desperately sad few moments we had experienced. I still get chills today when I think about that time.

Another hymn followed, supported by a fabulous gospel choir, which raised our spirits once more, and the funeral became a celebration of life once again. Things took a slightly strange turn when an important Pastor from another region stood up to speak, and launched into a fiercely aggressive, fire-and-brimstone sermon about scripture. The sermon was loud and rather threatening, and I became intensely aware of how hot it was in that cauldron of a church. Not wishing to faint in the middle of the ceremony, we respectfully bid our goodbyes. I was amazed to find another hundred people (or more) outside, listening in and celebrating the late Weemor’s life, and it truly struck home about how big an event this was in the community.

This was my first ever funeral, which made it quite an impactful moment in my life. I appreciate that it was different from a UK funeral, but that by no means was a bad thing. The vibrancy, spirit and unity of the service was emotionally touching on the highest level. It was a deeply moving tribute to a much loved and respected young woman, and that has a universally sacred quality, regardless of my own upbringing and traditions. They have a beautifully dignified phrase for death in Liberia, saying that the ‘sun has set on their life’, and I can only hope it catches on all over the world.

This was a funeral fit for a Liberian Queen, which Weemor evidently was.

May she rest in peace.

Weemore Zinnah, Sunrise in 1977, Sunset in 2017.

Craghoppers Discovery Adventures Stretch Jacket Review

I’ve been wearing top-end Craghoppers jackets for a few years now, and I was delighted when they sent me the new Discovery Adventures Stretch jacket for my adventures in Liberia. Craghoppers have recently teamed up with the Discovery Channel to provide their camera teams with the right equipment for the job, no matter where in the world they may be, and in whatever conditions they may face. The technical-end of the Discovery Adventures range thus sits at the top of the Craghoppers tree, with practical features that help them stand out from the crowd.


Crag Jacket
Getting ready to go before Liberia! You can see the height of the side pockets here, which were a great help in the field. 


I’ve experienced tropical rain before, in Malaysia, but in Liberia it was something else. Short, sharp intense rain showers would regularly turn the roads into turbulent rivers, and it wasn’t surprising to discover that flooding is a regular problem in Kakata and across Liberia. On overcast days, I would pack my jacket into the bottom of my bag just in case a rogue shower would open up- as they occasionally did! The waterproofing on this jacket is exceptional, and it certainly didn’t struggle with some fairly ferocious rain. The coat also features a push-material, which should raise the hydrostatic head (waterproofing rating) even higher in practice. The heat in Liberia is pretty incredible during the day, and in Kakata at times it felt like it was too hot to work. The Discovery Adventures jacket has pretty good breathability, however, especially when compared to some older offerings, which meant that I wasn’t soaked on the inside of the jacket after a rain shower. Armpit ventilation zips are also on the jacket, though I always managed to forget to use them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Africa can be a pretty challenging environment for any outdoor gear, and so I was pleased that the jacket had tightly woven ripstop fabric, which helped to prevent any tears when I occasionally caught it on the corrugated tin buildings when passing through communities, or thorns in the bush! The pocket arrangement is in a similar vein to alpine climbing jackets, which means they two side pockets reach quite high up the chest. I found this quite useful when doing wildlife photography, as I could reach more easily to retrieve a lens cap, for example, when in an uncomfortable perch in a tree. This is a definite advantage over the more traditional pockets found in the older Oliver Pro jacket. The chest pocket was nicely sized, and it swallowed my GPS unit, phone and passport with no worries whatsoever. It also had a nice soft lining to keep them scratch-free.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Not content with testing it in Liberia, I traveled to another climatic extreme a day after returning to the UK, experiencing the harshness of a Michigan winter. At times it was -25 Celsius in the day, and believe me when I tell you that walking around in those temperatures isn’t fun. I layered up with some fleeces and an Arcteryx down jacket and used my Discovery Stretch to throw off any snow, ice and freezing rain that came my way. Sure enough, my partner and I ended up in near-blizzard conditions on one occasion, but the jacket held up fine. I liked the fact that I could adjust the hood and neck to provide additional protection against the cold wind, and the sleeves were also easy to adjust around my gloves to ensure no heat was escaping. The only problem I have with this jacket is that they didn’t make an extra small, with the small being just a little bit too large for me. That’s a common problem though, no matter which brand of jacket I try!

I’ve used this jacket in two very different climatic extremes, it handled both of them very well indeed. I think this could be my number one outer shell for some time to come!

Craghoppers Duffle Review

The past few years have seen a resurgence in the duffle bag for outdoor use, and now nearly all the major brands offer a duffle option at a variety of size and price ranges. Block colours and large, simple branding seems to be the trend at the moment, and the Craghoppers duffle range is no exception.

I remember working in the Falmouth Hawkshead store when these first came into stock, and they flew off the shelves, and we often struggled to restock them in time. The reasons were twofold- the Crag duffles were well-featured and versatile, and the styling of them was exceptional. On my various adventures around the world, I’ve trusted them enough to end up using the Craghoppers duffles in all kinds of situations, no matter the environment. After 2 years of usage, I’m in a good position to explore quite why I like these bags so much!


Duffle 2
The 90L can basically hold anything. Cricket gear, enormous Papayas, fuel drums…


My big blue Craghoppers 90L duffle is a pretty big bit of kit, and it’s seen some interesting times. I used it on the second Malaysia expedition to carry large amounts of kit into the jungle, including research equipment. For a while, I used it as a cricket bag, with it somehow managing to squeeze all my kit inside, which is pretty tardis-esque considering the voluminous amounts of unnecessary gear I like to carry. I then started using it as my hold-luggage bag, and after multiple trips to Liberia and the USA with it acting as such, it is still going strong. The strength of a duffle bag is in its versatility, and the Craghoppers offering is particularly uncomplicated, offering a main cavern with the option to add a compartment should you so desire. It means it is easy to load up with anything, and I’ve definitely put that to the test! In Liberia, I used the orange/red 70L duffle to transport fruit for a sports day across town, which included a truly enormous Papaya with no issues. It also has a nice mesh zipped pocket under the lid/flap of the duffle, which I filled with condoms to give away and other such things. It became a really useful tool out there, and I later gave it to my host family as a gift to help them carry things more easily from the market.


Crag Duffle 1
Our photographer Joshua Gray using the 70L duffle on a resupply run in Malaysia.. We had to carry them over by boat, and then used the big 90L to hold a fuel jerrycan. 


As with everything Craghoppers makes, the bags are very strong and hard-wearing, being made of a tough tarpaulin/canvas type construction with a reinforced bottom. My 90L duffle has really been put through some tough environments and situations, with neither the jungle in Malaysia nor Liberia especially suiting outdoor gear, yet it is still absolutely fine. It is starting to look a little grubby after so many adventures, but that’s nothing a good clean won’t sort! It is important to note that these bags aren’t sold as waterproof, although I haven’t had any issues in some pretty vicious rain storms. If it fell in the river or something though, I’m pretty sure it would get wet inside, mind (but that is what dry bags are for, right)! Another plus point for these bags, and a key selling point for me, is that they roll up into a much smaller mesh bag. I had to ride motorbikes a lot on a daily basis in Liberia, and so I couldn’t really squeeze a 90L duffle on my back, yet I could have one rolled up into my backpack with all my other kit if I needed, which was very useful!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m a big fan of these duffle bags, and I wholeheartedly recommend them if you are in the market for one, especially given the reasonable pricing compared to other brands. If you are sneaky and wait until a sale, you might even pick-up a bargain! If you intend to use it as travel luggage, however, Craghoppers has a range of wheeled duffles made with the same materials that might be better suited. Trust me, lugging 20kg through an airport without wheels isn’t fun! The 120L version can literally fit a small human inside, too…


Crag Bag
I wasn’t joking! 


A New Year’s Eve at Sea!

I have lots more blogs coming about Liberia AND the wedding, of course, but I had to start writing again somehow, so here we are. 

Thanks to the generosity of some Washington birders, my 2017 ended in truly spectacular fashion. While searching for the local birding ‘gen’ online, I stumbled across post for a ‘Vashon Island CBC’, with a volunteer needed to help record sightings. I’d seen Vashon Island on a map of the area, and so I knew it wasn’t too far away. I sent off a hopeful email, and I waited. In a great stroke of luck, someone else was coming from my direction and agreed to take me from the ferry terminal at Point Defiance.

After doing some reading, I learned that CBC stood for ‘Christmas Bird Count’, and that it was an institution of American birding since 1900. One of the longest-running citizen science bird counts in the world, the 1900 count involved 27 observers in 25 places, yet 2012/13 saw some 71,531 people take part in 2369 locations, which is quite incredible. The data has been used for several important Audobon research papers into the state of American birdlife, and it represents an invaluable longitudinal study with little parallel. Though largely a US event, collaborations have occurred across the Americas which has seen birders in Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico take part. My (very) minor contribution to this mighty project was to be the Vashon Island/Maury Islands Marine Park CBC, found in Puget Sound, Washington.

I met a fellow birder called Roger by a hulking Chevy pickup in the darkness at the ferry terminal, and we across the sound before the sun had risen. A short drive along rural Vashon Island roads saw us arrive at the harbour, and we soon met up with Ed, a local bird guide and master birder, and Jeanne. He had his son in tow, and we ventured down to the jetty to meet the crew and our vessel for the day. I had been a little concerned about what our craft might be like, having had some exciting experiences out at sea when working for AK Wildlife Cruises, and I keenly appreciate quite how miserable a long day in churning seas can be, especially in a little boat! I needn’t have worried, as the MV Vashona was a magnificent-looking wooden cruiser from the 1980s, of ample size for many more people than we were to have aboard. It had a spacious cabin, with heating and a proper galley, with plenty more space below for storage. We would, of course, spend most of our time on deck in the cold, but I was feeling a lot more confident after seeing the boat!


The habour on Vashon Island, complete with similarly-fancy boats!


As we exited the harbour, I had one of those rare Kodak moments that will live with me for as long as I live. As the sun rose over the Cascade mountains to the east, I could see rural homes dotted around the shore in between great stands of fir trees that surrounded us. The golden water was fringed with these great pillars of brown and green, and only the occasionally seabird disturbed the surface of the sea. The layers of trees stretched as far as the eye could see, and as the sun finally broke free over the mountains, each tree was cast in a glorious light that drew out the subtle undulations, ridges and furrows of the unseen ground below. An urgent ‘squawk’! overhead drew my attention upwards, and barely 10 metres above the boat were a pair of Bald Eagles, tussling and swooping in the morning light. Ahhh, nature! How magnificent you can be!


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was cold on deck, and my hands grew numb pretty quickly. I discovered that I couldn’t write effectively in my new gloves, and so I stuck at my task for an hour or so until I could take no more. Being British and all, I couldn’t show weakness with this kind of thing, and so I rejected the many offers of hand warmers that came my way. Culture, eh? In hindsight, I really should have taken the hand warmers… Tallying the species was a superb lesson in American species and birding in general, however. I quickly appreciated quite how good Ed and Jeanne were. I was sat in the centre of the bow, a little way back, whilst they both stood on the edge on either side of the bow, calling out sightings incredibly quickly. Roger and Ed’s son also chipped in with sightings, but it was absolutely the Ed and Jeanne show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such competent, skilled birders before, and I’ve been around a few in the UK. Admittedly, this was their home turf, but still- if you are in the area, look them up for a tour.

Naturally, they did the majority of the spotting, and they were unerringly accurate, rarely needing to confer on an ID. My vantage point, coupled with the kindness of the birds to stay near, allowed me to build a reference to species mentally over time, and by the end, I was contributing my own sightings with confidence. I realised that I could definitely improve my birding skills, mind.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The birding itself was simply fantastic. We saw literally hundreds of Surf Scoter, which was one of my dream seabirds, and we saw both Black and White-Winged Scoter too, adding 3 lifers in one family. We had Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, 3 cormorant species, Rhinoceros Auklet, Marbled Guillemot, Pigeon Guillemot, Loons, Grebes… The list itself has to be seen to be believed, especially when it comes to numbers! They suggested that sightings were down on previous years, which is quite incredible given the vast quantities we encountered. I added around 15 lifers, and the weather stayed throughout the trip. It was bitterly cold crossing the sound in the wind, mind, and I’m pretty sure my hands have only just defrosted from those few minutes. Thank you so much to all involved- one of the best birding experiences of my life, and I didn’t pay a penny.


The most disappointing record shot of a California Quail


The kindly Roger and I then proceeded back over Puget Sound on the ferry with a plan to twitch a Gyrfalcon that had been frequenting the nearby McChord Airforce base. The Gyrfalcon is a monstrous bird, being the largest falcon, and is known as the queen of the skies. Unsurprisingly, it is number 1 on my raptor hitlist. What followed was absolutely the dodgiest birding I’ve ever done, never wanting to stray too close to the fence in case security arrived, which had been reported earlier in the week. The fact that Roger’s telescope, when mounted on the back of his pickup, looked just like a technical mounted with a machine gun, was absolutely not lost on me. The Gyrfalcon didn’t play ball, not showing on the pylons next to the runway, nor in the tall trees beyond. I did discover a group of California Quail in the tiniest patch of scrubland near the airport, which Roger said was unusual for that part of Washington. Result! The very kindly Roger dropped me off nearby, and I owe him a tremendous vote of thanks for looking after me all day. American hospitality is simply superb, no matter what the media will tell you.



In true Billy fashion, however, Roger later sent a rather meek email stating that he’d had one last look at McChord after he’d dropped me off, and had connected with the Gyrfalcon.

Welcome to my life.

Regardless, it was easily the best New Years Eve I’ve ever had, surrounded in nature by beautiful wildlife and great people. What a day!

A Night in Kakata

As darkness falls across the communities of Kakata, many Liberians pile in to crowded little cinemas that play football games live from across the world. Everybody here has a team, with Barcelona and Real Madrid being the main choices, but English teams are popular too, with Chelsea, Liverpool and United fans in abundance.

But whilst Liberians are enjoying the drama on the pitch, the real drama occurs elsewhere. Take a seat amidst the inky black night, and look skyward, for every night the greatest battle on earth commences.

 It can be in the distance, it can be on the horizon or it can be right overhead, but one thing never changes- every night the gods are doing battle up there. Huge bolts of white lightning fork from cloud to cloud, casting the surrounding sky into sterling silver. All too soon, it fades into darkness. Another crack in the distance this time, and the sky erupts into golden yellow light, as another jagged fork etches it’s name into the sky. Africa used to be portrayed as a godless place by our colonislist forbears, but how wrong they were, for every night the gods thunder with rage  in titanic battles overhead. A close roar of thunder here resembles a natural force of artillery, arcing across the sky with a tremendous boom. The storms of West Africa are as beautiful as they are powerful, yet the sheer force of them is a stark, timely reminder of our mortality in the face of the natural world. 

Other men, too, have aspired to the power of gods in Liberia. Doe, Taylor, Johnson have all been guilty of this, and with electoral chaos pending, one can only pray that Weah and Boakai remember the past of this gifted but troubled nation.

One glance at the night sky, toward the greatest amphitheater on earth, will be all that they need. 

Dispatches from Liberia: A Week in Kakata 

After a pretty intense journey crammed into the back of the Landcruiser, and being thrust into the baking sun for lunch at a restaurant on the high street, it was hard to know what to make of Kakata at first. I couldn’t see beyond the big, dusty main street, and it looked like that was as big as it got. How could this be a city? It felt a little like the middle of nowhere, and I was slightly anxious with the prospect of 9 weeks here ahead of me. That turned into great anxiety when a man started to shout at the group, and particularly me, about something unintelligible whilst we were eating. He was quite aggressive, pulling his shirt down to show an old war-wound on his shoulder. Unsure how to respond I asked a nervous question of Emmanuel, our incredible volunteer supervisor, and he just told me to ignore him. So I did, and he eventually went away. I later learned that he had mental issues of some description, probably stemming from his time during the wars. In hindsight, this could have happened anywhere in the UK, let alone Liberia. Even so, Kakata was off to a less-than-auspicious start. 

We bundled back into the Toyota, as we set off on a mercifcully short joruney to our temporary accomodation. I started to get a feel for the size of Kakata, and I decided that all was not lost. We arrived at the secure compound that was to be our home for the first few nights, and I was amazed at the size of the rooms. I hadn’t expected a whole room to myself, let alone one with a double bed, and effectively an apartment for two! I looked out of the window and saw two tiny little finches, with a gorgeous marbled black and white plumage. This was an inkling that perhaps the birdlife might be better than I had hoped, and it was confirmed when I saw flocks of golden-yellow weavers in the trees overhead, and even more so when a beautful pale white and blue kingfisher landed atop some jagged glass on the compound walls. This was a pretty good start, though I doubt I’ll ever know what those intricate little finches were, but that’s a happy mystery, perhaps. 

Pretty soon afterwards, someone pointed out a huge beetle crawling about, easily the biggest I’d ever seen. I dislike bugs with a passion, but having witnessed it apparently attempt suicide by flying full-pelt into a building, I realised that they were only a threat to themselves. I was genuinely amazed to see a Rhinocerous beetle though, the king of the insect world for me. Huge beetles with a dark ‘tusk’ at the front, these were the beasts of wildlife books of my childhood, when I was even smaller than I am now (which is not a scientific impossbility, as many of my friends would have you believe). It was thus brilliant to see one up close. All in all, that’s not a bad list for a concrete fortress of a compound, lined with barbed wire, big lizards and huge shards of glass! 

A short while later I heard a shout that the ICVs, our Liberian counterparts had arrived, and I instantly felt a knot in my stomach. I was quite nervous about meeting them, simply because to not get on with my counterpart could be a disaster for my time here! I didn’t know what to expect, but I was met by the friendliest people I’ve ever met. You cannot understand the definition of friendly until you’ve met Liberians! They swiftly taught us the Liberian handshake, and we were soon making friends as the evening drew in around us. Some icebreakers got everyone going, and we learned who each of our 7 counterparts were. I was paired with the wonderful Safi, who is great fun and has been looking after me ever since. She seems to know everyone in Kakata, and is fantastic at putting me right when I make mistakes in the community. She’s taught me plenty already, but mainly that in residential areas you MUST say hello and shake hands with everyone you meet, which is very different to the UK, detached and ‘cold’ way of life. Safi has a big personality and has confessed to being someone who knows how to party, so have that to look forward to also! Our counterparts seem to have plenty of volunteering experience, through chruch, the YMCA and education, so we should be in every capable hands.

The next day was a Sunday, and Safi arrived early to take me to a Liberian church for the first time. We took April, another UK volunteer, with us too, and headed to St. Christopher’s, a catholic church a short distance away. The walk itself was exciting, dodging motorobikes on narrow dirt roads before I spied my first evidence of the heavy fighting that took place in Kakata during the civil wars, in the form of a bullet-riddled building. 

All these thoughts were eviscerated by the incredible experience that is a Liberian church service. It was literally everything I wanted it to be, complete with music, gospel singing and dancing! It was a long service, but the energy, happiness and relaxation in the room was palpable. The stress and hardship of the week were forgotten in full, for here was the the world of God and worship, and nothing less. Everybody went to the front of church to gift a small financial offering amidst a buzzing clamour of excitement, singing and dancing. I had a fairly christian schooling, so many passages of text and songs were familiar, but the Liberian English lexicon and dialect gave the bible a distinctly African flavour. 

I had to stand to introduce myself to the church, and had to state that my friend Safi had invited me. A Ghanaian woman also introduced herself, and we were then given a beautiful welcome by the congregation in the form of a song and the waving of hands. This was a special moment. In that church, you could forget everything, and be at peace. At the end, everybody wanted to shake our hands, and to welcome us personally to the chuch. I thus had ample opportunity to trial my newly-acquired Liberian handshake, and I’ve never quite felt so welcomed by a group of complete strangers. I’ve also never felt so relaxed, in such a foreign yet inherently familiar setting. Beautiful gospel singing still ringing in my ears, we headed away from the church, onto the road home. 

A street away, a tiny little girl that could barely walk was squatted amidst a steaming pile of stinking garbage, struggling to defecate in a plastic bag, naked to the world. 

If an image or a moment could be etched in your memory, then this was one of them, and believe me, it is seared on my mind. Amidst the happiness and the joy of chucrch, it was all too easy forget the realities just outside those holy gates.  Whilst we were celebrating, she was barely surviving. 

I must not forget that.

Dispatches from Liberia: Monrovia

Slowly meandering above the Sierra Leonean coast, my first views of Africa emerged from the mist. Golden rivers, lit aflame by the sun, twirled and swirled across lush green wetlands. A patch of long grass was flattened- an animal track! But what animal? A crocodile, a pygmy hippo? What an amazing question to be able to ponder! Then a few homes came into view, connected by the artery that is the blood red earth of Africa. I had made it!

 There were other memories of the journey too, of course. There was the bizarre London hotel, which was a tokyo sleep pod-cum-university halls. There was the heavy handed secuitry in Brussels that nearly confiscated my London snowglobe, a gift for my host family, and the small child who effecitvely invaded Belgium by running through security before being caught. There was the hilarious hostess on the long flight to Monrovia, her dutch humour and acerbic wit doing much to entertain me when I couldn’t sleep. Sierra Leone wasn’t my destination of course, so it was a bit surprising to learn we would be stoppinbg in Freetown before heading on to Monrovia. We all stole a view out of the open door as passengers got on and off, and my excitement reached fever pitch! The heat, the smells, the sights… Africa was so close, I could nearly touch it. 

In the darkness we plunged down onto Monrovia Roberts airfield, and the adventure began. The military efficinccy of Europe was replaced by the human chaos of Monrovia, with all manner of people directing us left and right in the terminal, with visa confusion and people trying to make a quick buck off us combining to make our culture shock more pronounced. Steppinbg out of the terminal, the heat nearly knocked me off my feet, and I seriouslty regretted wearing a light fleece for the flight. We were greeted by the excellent YMCA staff including Emmanuel, who did much to put our nerves at ease. We were bundled into two 4x4s whilst they quelled the gathering crowd, and we were off into the night. 

The journey that followed was the most intense of my life. Pitch-black, in entirely unfamiliar territory, we barrelled towards Monrovia. Huge lorries would burst out of the darkness, axles straining under their excessivley overloaded cargo. Parts would be hanging off cars, or perhaps be missing at all, and the driving was creative to say the least. Motorbikes were zooming about in the middle of this action, zipping around the speeding lorries like moths to a flame. Some bikes carried 4 passengers, and many had no headlights at all. Overtaking broken down vehicles and other debris in the middle of the road was a common occurence, and it was absolutely exhilarating and terrifying in the dark. Our drivers were both immensely skilled and courageous, and they did a fantastic job of keeping us safe, however. We stopped for food, experiencing the delights of Liberian cuisine for the first time. Fried plantains, spicy rise and some incredible chicken was a great start to the trip, though I regretted trying a sauce that we were offered. It was like trying to swallow lava, and I’m still not convinced my tongue is okay! My tastebuds were bathed in a world of new flavours and textures, however, and I was very, very happy. 

We set off into the darkness once more, headed toward the city centre. It was electric, absolutely buzzing with activity wherever you looked. It is hard to put in to words quite what Liberian roads are like, but believe me, every moment is edge-of-your-seat stuff. We also saw the Liberian police for the first time, sitting in the back of a pick-up, toting kalashnikovs, helmets and flak jackets. This was a stark reminder that we were not in the UK anymore, and I certainly wouldn’t pick a fight with them. 

Bumping our way down a dirt track near the city centre, we found our secure compund that was to be our home for the night, Hiking up a few sets of stairs with my bags all but killed me off, but between the YMCA staff and Jordan, my Glaswegian counterpart, we made it. Exhausted from a long day of travel, I set-up my mosquito net and decided to shower in the morning- the sweat could wait. I ducked under the net, and I was dead to the world in seconds. 

I awoke early with no prompting, blessing the electric fan as cool air kissed my skin. Finding a chair by the window, I concelaed myself behind the curtain and watched Monrovia come to life. I saw women in beautifully patterend dresses wander by, with babies strapped to their backs with the same beautful mateiral. I watched white 4×4 after white 44 drive by, each with a new orgnisation- the UN, UNDP, USAID and countless others passed by in very little time at all. Yes, this definitely wasn’t England! I saw men toiling away in the cooler air of morning, huge pieces of lumber straining their shoulders. Kids were everywhere, finding fun and amysement in everything they could find, inlcuding a swingball style game consisting of a ball, some string, and a stick. I watched golden yellow birds flit from palm frond to hanging cable whilst peach-coloured doves lazed on warm tin rooves. Kites and Eagles soaring past aded to the incredible energy of a morning in Monrovia. Below me, a shack-like restaurant opened up, emblazoned with the Chelsea FC logo and the words ‘Stamford Bridge’. You just can’t escape. This city was alive!

Breakfast consisted of a hard boiled egg and some bread, before all 7 of us squeezed into a landcruiser, together with YMCA staff. We blended quite nicely into the masses of white NGO 4x4s on the road! The two other men and I ended up in the boot of the Land Cruiser, which was incredibly hot and cosy but gave great views of the Liberian streets, and the chaotic traffic! People waded into traffic, selling chewing gum and crisps through the car window, whilst motorbikes would do their best to avoid them. There was a constant cacophony of cars honking- it seems quite normal to honk it every 5 seconds in Monrovia at least! Sitting in the back, I witnessed the aftermath of an accident, and saw a bike literally  break down and fall apart behind us. The glare of daylight removed much of the mystery of the night before, but it was still clear that literally anything could happen on the road. As we saw more of Monrovia, tiny shacks by the side of the road, made of tin, wood and other rustic materials gave way to bigger, more substantial buildings, including some pretty major Chinese development projects that were an incredible mass of concrete and steel. A short, unsuccesful trip to the British embassy and a long wait in a cafe to get our visas sorted was all we had time for in Monrovia, but it was enough to get an enthralling insight into Liberia, and into what lay ahead. We stole a brief glimpse of the Atlantic before it was time to go. Our bags stashed in another car, we squeezed into the boot of the Land Cruiser once more, and prepared to journey onwards.

It was time to head to Kakata.  

Operation Ruman IS Up for Debate

Twitter is aflame with military-types defending #OpRuman, the British response to Hurricane Irma. They parrot the government line, stating that Britain ‘is doing everything it can’, or perhaps use the response in order to measure our ‘might’ against the offerings of other nations. They don’t like any criticism of the UK military response whatsoever (*grumbles* ‘we’re sending a helicopter carrier, what more do you need’). After a series of governments that have consecutively cut the UK forces, this protectionism is understandable, but horribly misguided and counterproductive when it comes to disaster response.

From their armchairs, and amongst the steel hulls of hardware and the beating heart of machismo, they forget the objective of Operation Ruman, and they certainly forget the human futures at stake. Criticism of the British response is not aimed at humiliating the armed forces, it is wholly aimed at making this response better so that it can better serve the needs of the people of the affected areas. Currently, that stems from political pressure from MPs and the media. Whether the current UK response is proportional, whether it was quick enough, and whether it will be effective remains to be seen. That will be assessed in the months and years to come, as disaster experts start to pick apart the response and assess what worked and what didn’t.

There is no doubting the lion-hearted efforts that British troops are currently putting in across the Carribean. Everyone in the UK, in the disaster/humanitarian sector and in the media respects that. We are thankful for their service.

But the vast majority of them are not disaster experts, either, and it is important to recognise that. They are doing great work at the moment, but if that could be improved in the future, that should be looked at. And it will be looked at. Armchair generals on twitter don’t get to suppress that, and neither does the British government. Operation Ruman will be studied by actual experts in their field so that improvements can be made in the future, be in in the terms of the speed and agility of the response, troop placements, types of resources deployed, or more importantly, the work they actually did. It’s going to take many years for these islands to recover, and it is important that they are helped to get on the right trajectory as soon as possible. They won’t necessarily need ‘all the help they can get’, but rather the ‘right help’ in the ‘right areas’. 

Ultimately, of course we are all pleased with our armed forces, and the working they are doing out there. You can’t let that pride, however, turn into a pig-headed suppression of any criticism and debate over the response, because the nothing will improve, and the same mistakes will be made over, and over, again. Those potential improvements are so important, and they will genuinely save and change lives in future disaster. Look at how drastically different the US response to Harvey and Irma was in comparison to Katrina, for example.

I’m afraid that if you aren’t an expert in Disaster Risk Reduction & Response, then your opinion carries little weight in this discussion. By all means be proud of our troops doing good work over there- but don’t suppress this vital debate.



Perhentian Island Reptile List UPDATED

Following the results of the 2016 expedition, I can at this stage add at least one species to the Perhentian Island list. The following list remains a work in progress. 

  • Lesser Malacca Toad
  • Common Asian Toad
  • Banded Bullfrog
  • Smooth Frog
  • Common Tree Frog
  • Common Green Frog
  • Icthyopsis sp.
  • Armoured Pricklenape
  • Green Crested Lizard
  • Common Flying Dragon (Draco Volans)
  • Marbled Bent-Toed Gecko
  • Four Clawed Gecko
  • Tokay Gecko
  • Perhentian Islands Rock Gecko (Endemic- Grismer)
  • Spotted House Gecko
  • Smith’s Green-Eyed Gecko
  • Common House Gecko
  • Flat-Tailed House Gecko
  • Common Smooth-Scaled Gecko
  • Kuhl’s Flying Gecko
  • Smooth-Backed Gliding Gecko
  • Olive Tree Skink
  • Many-Lined Sun Skink
  • Long-Tailed Sun Skink
  • Short-Limbed Supple Skink
  • Perhentian Islands Forest Skink (Endemic- Grismer)
  • Clouded Monitor Lizard
  • Water Monitor Lizard
  • Brahminy Blindsnake
  • Reticulated Python
  • Oriental Whipsnake
  • Mangrove Snake (Venomous)
  • Golden Tree Snake
  • Painted Bronzeback
  • Blanford’s Bridle Snake
  • Red-Tailed Green Ratsnake
  • Common Wolf Snake
  • Banded Wolf Snake
  • Malayan Bridle Snake (New Addition- Identified by the 2016 Expedition)
  • Wagler’s Pit Viper (Venomous)
  • Banded Sea Krait (Venomous)