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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

 

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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!