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.
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.
Friday saw me packing my bags before hitching a lift to Rugby station from a close family friend- village life doesn’t always make transport so easy, so it was well appreciated! My journey became a whirlwind of Midlands towns and cities I’d never really visit otherwise, with stops at Nuneaton, Northampton, and Leicester before finally arriving at Wellingborough station. I was pretty nervous, to be honest. I wasn’t in Wellingborough for fun, so to speak. I had 4 days of training scheduled in, with people I had never met before, for a project in a country a long way away. The stakes were pretty high. All I really had to go on was that a guy called Jordan who was also headed to Liberia was already at the station- I just had to find him.
It turns out that Jordan is very Scottish- think a Glaswegian Robert the Bruce- but absolutely lovely all the same. No sooner had I met him than every man and his dog it seemed came over, and all were headed abroad on ICS with Y Care. First impressions were good at least! This was the Sierra Leone & Liberia training weekend, fitting due to their neighbourly locations and entwined histories, yet there were also a few stragglers from other ICS nations who hadn’t been able to make their training dates, and even a few from other organisations! In the group we had people headed to Sierra Leone and Liberia, of course, but also Nicaragua (with Raleigh) and a solitary (also Scottish) guy headed to Togo, who swiftly also became known as Togo (real name Ben). Even before we were pushed onto the minibus by Ollie from Y Care, it was reassuring to know that everyone was pretty normal. I don’t know what I was scared of… finding a serial killer in the midst?
We soon arrived at the Frontier Centre, an outdoor adventure centre run by Rock UK, featuring high-wires, huge climbing frames, fire pits and lakes for all manner of excitement. Importantly, it was vast, with loads of land to explore. I even found a plane in the woods, apparently part of an NGO partnership display. The Frontier Centre caters to families in the summer as well as school & youth groups, and everyone seemed to be having a great time while we were there! The accommodation was akin to a comfortable dorm, and certainly comfy enough for a training weekend. After all, Liberia is likely to be somewhat different! The food was a weird throwback to school dinners, even down to the dodgy bread and butter pudding and other interesting menu choices. It was good though, and considering it was free, I could never complain! Queuing did make me feel like a child again though, praying I didn’t get the lumpy skin of custard or semolina this time…
The Y Care staff were great, and immediately set everyone at ease on the first day with some icebreaking team exercises that were a gentle way to get to know each other. Everyone seemed lovely, and we’d soon made friends. It was pretty clear early on that the Liberia team was quite small, with just 7 or 8 of us compared to many, many more people that were Sierra Leone-bound. Early on we also discussed fundraising, charting how much everyone had done and how much more people had to raise. I still have a fair bit to do, but I’m not worried just yet. I have plans, and gained some really nice ideas from my peers along the way! The entire training weekend was quite cleverly done with constant group work and presentations along the way, ensuring that we bonded as teams and that we were also comfortable in our skins, which will be important when doing outreach work in our selected nation.
There were too many things covered over the weekend to go into any great detail, but I assure you that we were at it for long hours, going from 9:15AM until late into the evening. We had an entire day of safety & security training from Y Care’s in-house expert, Gurpreet (or G, as he likes to be called), which covered pretty much everything you could imagine. The day involved hygiene, disease, health, safety, not being a target, dealing with confrontation, and it was heavily scenario based which was a great, hands on approach. It was nice to see that everyone was pretty sane, to be honest! We learned a lot about YMCAs, how they operate and how Y Care works with them, which was genuinely quite fascinating and inspiring. I had no idea that YMCAs had helped invent basketball, for example! Importantly, it helps Y Care have a very low footprint on the ground, whilst ensuring ICS volunteers are working on projects that will actually benefit locals. It sounds like a good system to me! We had plenty of fun too- I watched Bridesmaids for the first time, we had a great camp fire, plenty of friendly football and rugby was played and my team nearly pulled off an amazing comeback heist in the quiz, coming from joint last to placing 2nd and losing by just two points. I’m not sure I can claim we were robbed this time, but anyway- we were robbed!
Of course, I also found out what my placement was about! I’ll be working on a Post-Ebola recovery program, particularly focusing on WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) in the town of Kakata, just an hour’s drive from Monrovia. The team and I will be working on outreach and education through the YMCAs and local schools, as well as carrying out more practical work together with research. I’m so excited to get started on such a worthwhile project, and I’ll give it 110% as ever. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a difference, no matter how small. We had lots of sessions on Liberian life and culture, and I’m really looking forward to being out in such a different place. It’ll be my first time in sub-Saharan Africa (or any part of Africa for that matter), and I literally cannot wait!
The final day was a little shorter, looking at our ‘Action at Home’ amongst other things before we all headed back off to the train station again. We’d arrived as pretty much complete strangers, but we’d pretty much all departed as friends, which was a great feeling. My journey back was even weirder than the journey there, ticking off even more weird towns- Bedford, Bletchley, Northampton- on a convoluted way home. At least I didn’t have to fly home to Scotland though…
We made some great memories over the weekend, and I can’t wait to be a part of a strong team headed to Liberia. We’ve got some great characters, and I’m sure we’ll get to know each other very well out there. I’ll see you all at Heathrow, folks! Thanks to everyone at Y Care International for a great weekend, the Frontier Centre for a lovely stay and all my fellow ICS volunteers for just being awesome! It’s powerful to see so many young people come together from all over the UK for a common purpose, regardless of our background.
We’ll do great things together, wherever we go- just watch us!
In the meantime though, I have fundraising to do, and that’s been put on hold by a combination of a cold I picked up at training & having four jabs in two days. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been a lot healthier than I am right now… I really don’t think the Yellow Fever jab liked me!
Having had enough of the terrible customer service at my usual haunt, Brandon Marsh, I was really looking forward to trying somewhere new this weekend. RSPB Middleton Lakes is a little further than usual, but is still easily within a 30-minute drive, and we were swayed by frequent reports of interesting species there. It turns out that Middleton Lakes is literally right next to Middleton Hall, a historic manor house with attached tea room, which is an added bonus. I can now attest to their quality of their milkshakes…
Despite knowing little about Middleton Lakes, I was shocked when it turned out to be much, much bigger than Brandon, and it was just so much better. It seemed to be far more alive, too, with ducks and geese along the warren-like wetland network nearly as far as the eye could see. Being able to see Water Rail chicks within 2 minutes of arrival certainly helps, but there was a great range of species on offer. I had a lifer- Great White Egret, and I’m sure I would have had a couple more had I brought a telescope. A Marsh Harrier was spotted earlier in the day- alas, what could have been! Dragonflies and butterflies were everywhere, and even better, the site was bustling with families both young and old. Middleton Lakes has clearly found a formula that works, and it was a joy to behold!
The RSPB staff were friendly, approachable and knowledgeable, and featured a pleasing mix of young and old for once. This put into context quite how bad the ‘welcoming committee’ is at Brandon Marsh, Brandon being far more Stasi than smiley. I’ve been going there since probably before I could walk, and trust me, it can’t get any worse than it is now! Middleton Lakes was also cheaper, at £3 per car as opposed to £2.50 a head at Brandon. In short, if you are in need of a nature fix in the Warwickshire/Midlands area, then you could do an awful lot worse than Middleton Lakes. I’m pretty sure you could even see parts of Birmingham’s skyline in the distance, but I could be wrong.
All in all, Middleton Lakes is genuinely the best reserve you can find in Warwickshire, and is absolutely worth a visit! I just really don’t know why I hadn’t been sooner…
Avid followers of my blog (if there are any) will recall a post a while back where I commented on a Vice documentary I had seen, focusing on Liberia and in particular exploring the slums of West Point, part of the capital in Monrovia. I still remember being utterly shocked during the documentary, not quite being able to quite comprehend the levels of poverty I was witnessing. It was a different world, and not one I had any experience of. The naive youth of the post is telling- I knew so much less then than I do now, and it shows.
Now my close friends know that amusing, strange and at times unbelievable things happen to me, often from a compulsive urge to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes my way. Dave ‘#SayYesMore’ Cornthwaite (who is currently pedaling around Norway’s fjords on a schillerbike, as you do) would probably be proud of that, though I feel it might irritate family and Catherine, my ‘lawyer for everyday life’, as she likes to call herself. It’s led to a few interesting experiences during my degree, such as the crazy lightning selfie video, a compilation of which currently has more views than people live in Russia. I’ve narrowly (and at times very narrowly) missed major incidents too- flying over Luhansk the week before MH17 was shot down on the same flight journey, and even the Istanbul airport attacks. As you can see, strange coincidences are not new to me.
But this one is really weird.
I applied for the International Citizen’s Service not necessarily thinking I’d get in, nor really considering where I might end up going. I’ve always felt that Africa was in my stars, and so I was hopeful for that at least. I wanted to be doing Disaster Risk Reduction work and hopefully use my (newly anointed) Geography degree, and thus I applied to Y Care International, one of the ICS programme partners funded by DFID. They mentioned disaster risk work plenty of times, and thus they were the only option for me.
The assessment day went well, with lots of amusing team-building style activities and some genuinely interesting characters from as far afield as Glasgow and Belfast, which is a seriously long journey to London! The interview was pretty straight forward, and my boring non-drinker status helped me sail through the potentially more difficult personal issues section. By the end I knew that if selected, I’d be headed to one of a handful of West African countries.
‘Great! I’ll finally be headed to Africa if I get in… #LifeGoals etc’…
Then a few days ago, I did get in. I still didn’t know my destination…
Today I had an email, and found out. Guess where?
I did more digging. The slums of WEST POINT are part of Y Care’s 2 projects in Liberia. Literally a 50% chance of me going there.
Oh my god.
So 3 years on from my rather inane, naïve blog post, I might be about to witness it in the flesh. Hopefully not General Butt Naked though, who they interview in that documentary…
Now I might not be going just yet- I have a job interview to hear back from, but I’m very, very keen on the opportunity. It would enable me to network for future disaster risk research, something that could have a positive impact in a state such as Liberia, get practical experience of development work and actually do a proper job of it too, unlike those awful ‘I paid £2000 and painted an orphanage wall’ projects. The ICS programme is great, asking you to raise a sum for the charity itself whilst they cover all your costs both before and during travel, making it a great opportunity for all.
If I do end up pursuing this, you’ll get to enjoy more blogs- even from Liberia- and even Vlogs too, charting my experiences over the 3 months. I’ve already started checking out the wildlife, and between civil wars & ebola, there is still some pretty tasty stuff out there. Pygmy Hippopotamus- you’re mine! So after all of that, it looks like the story of Billy and Liberia has just begun, in yet another weird web of coincidences. I’m already anxious to discover the plot!
After another gruelling six months of long-distance, transatlantic love, I was finally reunited with Catherine in mid-June, and had the pleasure of her company until mid-July. This gave us roughly a month to reconnect with each other, explore new places and see how the pair of us had grown since we last met, and it was absolutely brilliant. One (tiny) advantage of long-distance is that every time we see each other, it is genuinely exciting. 6 months apart is a long time, but it makes every single second we get to spend in person so much more valuable! We had a blast- I got to attend a conference at the University of Kent, where Catherine presented a paper and did great (I was so proud, but I needn’t have been- this her bread and butter!). This gave us a few days in Canterbury, and we did all sorts- the Cathedral, punting on the river, meals out… Honestly, it was the best start to the trip we could hope for. I’d never been to Kent before, and I have to confess that I was rather taken with Canterbury life!
We then returned to my native Warwickshire, where Catherine continues to seamlessly fit into the family, which I partly put down to a shared sense of mischief and humour. We befriended the many Alpacas at the local Toft Alpaca farm and coffee shop, and also enjoyed some great bites to eat out at Hilltop Farm Shop, complete with adorable ponies. We did endure some truly godawful meals out too- imagine an Eggs Benedict with a burningly acidic hollandaise sauce, eggshells and a texture of rubber and you are somewhere near just one of the debacles, but on the whole, food was pretty good. We did the silly things too, of course, playing cricket in the garden (Catherine’s pretty good and even has her own cricket bat, rare for an American) and a few long walks, including a trip to Brandon where we caught up with a pair of Hobbies and a horde of grumpy old people.
The final part of the trip was kicked off by two visits to the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, initially just to see Oscar Wilde’s Salome at the Swan, but we were so impressed that we had to come back for more, and thus Julius Caesar was duly booked. I’ll do a proper review for each play in a later blog, but Salome was incredible. I’ve seen plenty of plays and Salome must go down as the greatest I’ve seen. Matthew Tennyson was spellbinding as Salome, and I loved the gender-altered specifics of his role. Tennyson could appear vengeful one moment, and then like the weakest, most vulnerable creature the next. Tennyson wore a slinky white dress, and many other characters were in similarly androgynous or gender-bending outfits. Oscar Wilde would have been very proud of this great piece of serious, slightly queer, theatre. The singing was incredible- if you can, just go and see it, honestly. If you are clever (and 18-25), you can get tickets for just £5 under the BP subsidised ticket scheme. Julius Caesar was also very, very good, featuring plenty of gore, bodies and blood, together with the most shocking scene of theatre I’ve seen. I’ve never heard the entire audience at the RSC gasp like that before, and considering the number of tourists from far flung parts of the globe, the universality of that moment was gripping. Brilliant theatre. I’ll reveal what that moment was… another day!
Having spent an amazing few weeks with my family (thanks so much!) we headed off to London so that Catherine could attend another academic event, this time a 2-day seminar at Kings College London featuring a few students from the University of Michigan. I couldn’t sneak into this one, but I got to meet Jess and Lucas again, and see some pretty cool places. Catherine and I had a ball, nearly even in the driving wind and rain outside St. Pauls Cathedral, when google maps had broken. We explored Soho and Covent Garden, spent hours poring over books in enormous book shops and finding hidden gems (like Stanfords Travel Shop!) that we will surely come back to again and again. We met up with her close friends, Lilli & Haley, ate Sushi & Giraffe (or was that at Giraffe??) and explored art galleries and exhibitions. It was great! I’ve never been a huge fan of London, but this trip saw me fall in love with a city I used to absolutely hate. There’s an oft-repeated quote from Samuel Johnson that ‘to be tired of London is to be tired of life itself’- and I’ll drink to that.
Our last day together is always emotional, and I was a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to hold it together too well. It’s a tough old beast, long-distance. Instead, I had two important emails come through. The first was an invitation to a job interview for the Civil Service, that could see me pretty much raise what I need for the Master’s degree of my dreams. Something exciting for the future. The second was an email notifying me that I was to be awarded a commendation at graduation for contribution to the department, something that I am incredibly, incredibly pleased with. Something exciting for the past. Those emails patched over our sadness, and made us unbelieavably happy as we relished in each other’s futures with lashings of Turkish ice cream at Picadilly Circus. Bliss.
So I’ll be graduating from Exeter with a strong 2:1 in BSc Geography, coupled with a departmental commendation. I’ll admit to being a little bit disappointed that I didn’t get the First I’d strived so hard for, but after receiving that email I don’t think I care one bit.
After a truly, truly magical month, we said our goodbyes on the Tube in Bethnal Green of all places, and I’m pretty sure we mostly held back tears this time (easier said than done, my friend), which is a great success, all things considered. I zoomed off to a selection day for the International Citizen’s Service, whilst Catherine zoomed off to catch her flight back to beautiful Ann Arbor. But we are happy.
She has plenty of reading for her PhD to be getting on with, together with an important fellowship. I need to get ready for graduation, attend my job interview in London and prepare to move out from Cornwall, so there’s plenty to be keeping us both busy.
Excitingly, this week I’ll find out whether my ICS application was successful- if it was, I might be spending October-December in Senegal, Liberia or Sierra Leone.
All my US graduate applications have been submitted, and I can’t describe how much of a relief that is. It’s taken a long, long time, and an awful amount of money that I (really) don’t want to think about to apply, but it’s done! I applied to 5 in the end, being able to whittle them down in the last few days. Washington didn’t make the cut by the tiniest of margins- I just couldn’t see enough faculty there with relevant research interests. I can forget about the GRE- the worst thought out exam in the history of the universe, it is literally the 11+ on steroids. Urgh.
I’m really happy with those left standing, and though it was nice to field speculative emails from the likes of Harvard, Columbia and Notre Dame, I’m sure I’ve made good choices. That also probably says more about their email marketing skills than my calibre as a student!I’ve applied to the University of Michigan, Michigan State, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and Wisconsin-Madison, all excellent choices in their own right. I just have to hope that one of them really likes me! I’ve been working very, very hard for this for over two years, so I really, really hope it comes off. Funnily enough, I’m a member of a graduate application forum (really boring, I know) called the Grad Cafe, and there’s is another Brit on there trying to get to the states to study Geography. I’m not alone!
Now it’s just the matter of a long wait to see what happens. Hopefully it won’t be too long until I’m back in America…
Well, it’s dissertation crunch time, which is terrifying. I’ve got two new modules to start too. I’m still chasing some Expedition related stuff, and then we can get cracking on the report for that, which would be a great relief. Meanwhile I’ve got my eyes to the future- I think there’s a nice gap between exams and graduation to either earn money or have one last project before I leave university. It might curtail my cricket season (again, sorry Perran), but I really fancy having a crack at something impactful abroad before I leave. I’ve a couple of ideas, one involving Indonesia, another involving West Africa, but we’ll just have to see.
After an amazing Christmas surrounded by wonderful family and Catherine (at last), I have too many ideas- and this is the time to focus, sadly.
Thank you to everyone I’ve travelled with to Malaysia on two expeditions- Perhentian Islands Ecological Research and FxPedition Perhentian Islands- and every amazing person I’ve met on the way. You are all awesome! A big thank you to Craghoppers also, who’s generous support kept me and the teams safe from the mossies (apart from the ninja mossies who went up shirt sleeves). Neil Hinds and Daniel Quilter deserve massive thanks too, for literally making this happen and facilitating so much of it.
I have to save the biggest thank you to my teams though- Simon Rolph and Josh Gray in 2014, and then Josh Gray (came again, the muppet/legend), Ellie Ryder, Megan Francis, Alfie Sheridan, Lizzie Salkus and Ollie Bateman. You all did amazingly well in some really tricky conditions at times, got some great data, made some awesome memories and saw some pretty cool things, too. You also put up with me for 6 weeks, which is easier said than done!
Selecting expedition kit is a tricky business. First of all, you need equipment that is going to survive the toughest conditions- perhaps the Arctic Tundra, the Yemeni Desert or the Indonesian Jungle, depending on the adventure you’ve got yourself into. You then look at the price and how useful it could be… and then you look at the size and weight. On nearly every expedition, especially self-supported voyages, weight and space are at a heavy premium- every gramme counts. This is even more important on long hikes, or treks up mountains- you don’t want to be carrying any unnecessary weight at all! So why, when it comes to photography and videography, do expedition teams still insist on the big, burly DSLRs of yesteryear? The image quality is the same or is nearly the same, the video quality is better, the weight is basically incomparable…
This article will guide you through the mirrorless world, and help you choose the perfect mirrorless camera for your next expedition adventure.
Sony has changed the landscape of the mirrorless market with the full-frame ‘A7’ series, offering genuinely brilliant image quality in a compact form. The smaller E-mount series offers a good amount of megapixels with lightning fast autofocus (A6000/A6300/A6500), but it is the full-frame E-mount series that has set the market alight. The A7RII contains a whopping 42 megapixels, offering ridiculous amounts of detail, whilst the A7SII offers light sensitivity performance so good that it can be used in virtual darkness. I remember the earlier A7S being used to great effect to film anti-Boko Haram operations by Vice News a year or so ago (find it here), and it really was quite incredible then, so god knows what you can achieve now! Both top-end bodies feature strong weather sealing, of course.
The strength of this system is the image quality, offering outstanding images and shooting very, very good video in 4K. The downsides? The cost of the two top-end bodies is high, and the lenses continue to be very expensive. Make no mistake, the Sony Full Frame system is a very pricey game compared to all other mirrorless systems. My main issue with the Sony mirrorless system is the continued lack of lens choice in some regards, with a severe lack of native wildlife lenses, but this will improve in time. The lenses that do exist are superb, however. Martin Holland, a well-known expedition leader and explorer has just switched to this ecosystem, and I can’t wait to see how he gets on. I can’t imagine that he’ll go back!
When this ecosystem matures a little, it will be an excellent choice for expedition photography and videography, if you can stomach the price. The camera specification has to be seen to be believed, firmly leaving some DSLRs in the past, and if I could afford it, this would be my ecosystem of choice. I’d love the low-light performance in the jungle for example!
I had the very first M43 camera, the Lumix G1. It was tiny! It had nice image quality but was very much an initial foray into the market- it didn’t have a video function at all! Since then I’ve used both the Lumix G5 and the Gx7 in the jungle, and they are simply brilliant little cameras. An advantage of the M43 series that I’ve appreciated in the field is the 2x crop factor, which is ideal in an ecological expedition setting. Being able to use my 45-200mm with a 400mm equivalent focal length has been a revelation, and it’s been incredibly valuable in the jungle, capturing images that simply wouldn’t have been possible without adding pounds more of DSLR-weight.
The Lumix series are renowned for their video quality, and they’ve been used on feature length films in the past to good effect. The GH4, in particular, is a compelling purchase, whilst the new G80 looks like the perfect lightweight documentary camera. The latest Lumix cameras shoot 4K at a variety of bitrates, yet the remain lightweight and compact. Unlike other mirrorless systems, there is a wide variety of lenses at very good price points- look no further than the Olympus 45mm F1.8 (£150) and the Panasonic 25mm F1.8 (£150) for excellent fast glass at bargain prices. More lenses are being released all the time, which is the advantage of having two companies competing within the same ecosystem, as it keeps the prices competitive and the quality high. I’m waiting for the Panasonic Leica 50-200mm F2.8-4.0 to improve my images, whilst there are plenty of 3rd party manual focus lenses that have been released, many aimed at the indie film market. If you after raw image quality, look out for the Olympus 300mm F4- that’s a stunning lens, but at a price to match.
Whilst I’ve focused on Panasonic due to my own experiences with them, there is no denying the pedigree of the Olympus cameras, to the extent that I would recommend them over the Panasonic series if you are focusing on stills. The new EM1 Mark II is an exceptional camera (at an exceptional price point for a M43 camera too, though), whilst the EM5 Mark II and EM10 Mark II offer great image quality at a lower price.
The one thing that brings back to the M43 ecosystem after various flirtations with other brands is the lower price point. You can pick up the GX7, a great little camera, for less than £300, whilst if you search carefully you can get a GH3 around a similar price point. The lenses are high quality but cheap, and they are generally the smallest of all the mirrorless system cameras- just check out the new GX85, for example. The downsides? The image quality at times isn’t quite as nice as I’d like, but I’d happily swap that for the great video quality I get instead. Obviously though, you can’t compare the images from a Nikon D810 to these cameras though- they just aren’t comparable.
Olympus EM1 Mark II £2300 (The best M4/3 Camera, Stills)
Olympus EM5 Mark II £500 (Stills, High-Resolution Shot Mode)
After testing out an XT-10 myself for a few months, and falling in love with the build quality, image quality and manual controls on these cameras, I’ve come to the conclusion that Fujifilm absolutely takes the crown for expedition photography. These cameras are tough, even in their non-weather sealed XT-10/20 range, constructed of really solid metal that is far better quality than my past Gx7. The image quality is beautiful, with Fuji’s famous film simulations looking amazing in jpeg, though we all know we should be shooting in RAW. Video quality is seriously improving too, with the XT-20 and XT2 offering some form of 4K and being a really decent option for it too. These cameras are phenomenal, and you seriously won’t regret jumping into the Fuji ecosystem. The autofocus system on the new XT-2 and XT-20 is the best I’ve seen for this kind of photography, and the XT-2 is a really, really tough bit of kit. The Fujinon lenses are beautiful too, and not extortionately priced like their sony counterparts. The only area where Fuji is a little limited at the moment is lens selection- they could desperately do with a new mid-range zoom, something around the 250/300mm mark. The newer sensors are fab, with a 24MP APSC chip, and are pretty good in low-light too. Seriously, these are phenomenal cameras.
Seriously, try Fuji- I will be for all my future work.
Fuji XT-2 £1200
Canon & Nikon Mirrorless
Nikon and Canon have dominated the DSLR market for so long that it is hard to imagine the world without them, and yet it is these two brands that have fallen behind today in the mirrorless market. Either through complacency or disbelief, their mirrorless ranges have seemed like half-hearted attempts in comparison to their masterfully engineered DSLR series, and thus I cannot recommend either in this category. The EOS M5 and the Nikon J5 are the best efforts by each company, but they are still treading water whilst other companies plough onwards. More than anything, the lens choice remains pitiful, with the Canon EOS-M ecosystem offering just 13 lenses in comparison to Micro Four-Thirds 108!
They might be light and have a nice brand name, but just don’t bother for at least another 3 years!
DSLRs offer an ever-decreasing number of advantages over mirrorless camera systems, and in the next 2 years, I expect that the competition between the two systems will be even fiercer. Given the importance of size and weight, and the only marginal benefits of a traditional DSLR, mirrorless cameras are surely a no-brainer for expedition media work. The bigger issue is weaning DSLR-users off their precious big bodies and down into the svelte world of mirrorless, which is perhaps easier said than done. For video work, the value of mirrorless cameras is already well-known, with the wildly successful Panasonic GH3 and GH4 being used on feature films, and video is now the best way to engage a target audience through social media and Youtube. The one downside that I’ve noticed is battery life, which is notably lower in mirrorless cameras than their DSLR counterparts. I’ve solved this by having a small army of 3 Gx7 batteries (fairly cheap too), but only once have I managed to drain an entire battery in a day.
The only other real downside I’ve recognised is that the autofocus on my GX7 and the basic 45-200mm zoom isn’t quite as good as it could be-perfect for record shots but not quite as good as I’d like. With a better camera, photographer and lens, I’m sure this would improve, though. I do occasionally wish I had a D7100, but that would be a 40% increase in weight (and in the jungle, that’s not okay)!
They are smaller and lighter, have equivalent or better image and video quality… It’s clear that the mirrorless camera is the future of expedition photography. There are few tools more versatile than the mirrorless camera, and I am able to take my Gx7 with 2 lenses equivalent to 28-400mm between my neck and my pocket- and in the field, that versatility is invaluable. In Malaysia I took to jamming my GX7 in a dry bag and stuffing it into the bottom of my rucksack, and it took up very little space at all.Try doing that with a D4! Ultimately, I’m certain that the mirrorless camera is the future of expedition photography. You can save weight that you could use for other things (food), save your energy during a long day in the field, and potentially save yourself money too…
UPDATE **JUST GO FUJI. DEFINITELY THE BEST OPTION**
Known to savvy travellers and gap yah students as just ‘KL’, Kuala Lumpur frequently appears as little more than a stopover in many travellers itineraries. Read on to find out why you might want to spent a few days here in the future!
We’ve just arrived in KL, and it’s way past midnight. A taxi has dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, we’re dripping with sweat already and I’ve just trod on an enormous locust- and then some angry dogs started chasing us. A huge rat crossing the road did little to settle our nerves, before we finally made it to the Yellow House and slept our way into sweaty jetlag oblivion. It’s fair to say that my introduction to Kuala Lumpur had a less than auspicious start, and that the city had a lot of making up to do!
The Petronas Towers
The icons of KL are the Petronas towers, great pillars of metal and glass that thrust high into the misty humidity of the city, and they are truly spectacular. There is a very expensive mall (think Western designer goods) attached to it, as well as a pretty good aquarium, though again entry is expensive. More skyscrapers are being built in the area, so I imagine that as the Malaysian economy develops in the coming years, the Petronas Towers zone will become even more impressive. The gardens around the towers are delightful, with a surprising amount of wildlife dotted around including Orioles and the huge Lyssa Zampa moth (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-27758640). If you are struggling with the humidity (as we were), the gardens feature shallow swimming pools that whilst probably designed for tourists, made a refreshing break for us all. It’s an undoubtedly pretty part of Kuala Lumpur, though the unerring levels of cleanliness and near-military attention of the groundskeepers makes it feel a little sanitised.
If you want to really explore Kuala Lumpur though, you must leave the air conditioned malls behind and head out into the wider city. My favourite part of the city is Chinatown, because it is so radically different to anywhere I’ve been before. Red lanterns and various cultural motifs somehow add decor to narrow streets lined with vendors selling everything imaginable, a lot of it definitely illegitimate. It’s a thrilling experience though, and haggling badly with seasoned Chinese hawkers to avoid the tourist tax is all part of the experience. The seedy side streets are even more exciting, but god knows what they sell down there! I vividly remember unidentifiable animals being chopped into pieces left and right, the occasional chicken wandering around, food waste pooling in the alley- but it’s all part of the experience. Whilst I had serious tunnel vision at the time, it felt like a bit of an adventure at least. The actual food in the area smells amazing, and I bet the street food is seriously, seriously good, though food hygiene might not be much of a thing. There are some beautiful Chinese temples nearby too that are well worth a visit, whilst you never know what you might find in some of the pet shops (the fact that they wouldn’t let me take photos explains a lot).
There is a lot to do in KL if you plan it well enough, with the Batu Caves not far away, various museums and the like. For me though, the real secret to Kuala Lumpur is the food. It’ll blow away any asian food you’ve had in the UK- it really is incredible. Seriously tasty (sedap!) and most definiely spicy, the cuisine is like a fusion of indian and chinese dishes, with their own distinct Malay twist on everything. It’s quite cheap coming from the West too, but so, so worth it. Satay in KL will redefine the word delicious for you, and some of the world’s best Chinese restaurants can be found in the city. Lastly, I went to a very posh restaurant in the previously mentioned KLCC Suria restaurant, and nearly spent a kidney for tiny portions with waiter service. Worth it? Absolutely not. Eat where the locals eat! The best meal I’ve ever had was in Ipoh, where a huge range of exquisite vegetarian curries were served on banana leaves, and you were of course expected to eat with your hands. It was amazing. I paid about £5 for what in the UK would have been a £40 platter. Bargain! Just try it! I recommend Nasi Goreng, whilst Beef Rendang and Nasi Lemak are also firm favourites. Drinks wise, go for a milo ice- you won’t regret it.
Kuala Lumpur is definitely more than just a stopover, but the city’s small size and good transport system (use the LRT!) means you can still tick things off pretty quickly. I think it’s fair to say that there are more exciting cities in the region, but KL has its charms. I’m not a citiy person, and KL isn’t my favourite city, but it’s still a relatively cheap city to visit, and to be honest I’d come here just to eat, as I love the food. It’s a good place to acclimtise to the South East Asian humidity too, but just remember that if you can feel air con, then you probably aren’t exploring Malaysia properly, are you?
I really like this hostel due to it’s location right next to KL Sentral. There are private rooms and shared dorms at a good price, the decor is refreshing and there is a bar to chill out at. The staff are also lovely and are more than capable of pointing you in the right direction for an adventure- or providing candles for an emergency birthday cake!
It’s simple, no frills accomodation at an even cheaper price, but it is also part of a much bigger project under an amazing social entrepreneur named Shyam. If anyone knows the real Kuala Lumpur, it is her, and make sure to take part in the brilliant homeless hairwashes they do to get a deeper understanding of the city. You can take part in all manner of empowering projects here- well worth a look!