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.

 

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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!

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.  

Perhentian Island Flooding

As parts of Terengganu flood for the second time in as many years, the islands where I’ve spent so much of my life recently have not been spared. During FxPedition Perhentian Islands we spent a lot of time staying in the middle of the village. We spent many nights eating out at the local restaurants, and we played football with kids and adults alike on the village beach football pitch (though the less said about my performances in goal, the better).

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I’ve stayed in the village twice now, and quite a lot has changed between times. This year there was a few new buildings by the jetty, and the beach football area had been enclosed off by fencing and concrete structures to hold back the tide. A concrete bridge of sorts was built to link a new motorcycle path to Long Beach to the village.  Importantly, the parts that needed updating, especially the sewage system, hadn’t been. The problems with the open sewer system and wider sewage disposal issues are not new, and I can find English-based papers citing the issues all the way back in 2001. Shockingly, a paper specifically mentions how yearly flooding is common on the islands due to overcrowding and lack of government investment that was promised in the 1990s (Ghani, Yassin and Ahmad, The Social Sciences, 2010). Conversely, a Malay language report suggests that this year’s flooding is unprecedented in scale.

We found out early yesterday that little, if anything, has changed. Some 30 homes were flooded, and aspects of public infrastructure were badly affected. If the images are anything to go by, it looks like the open sewer system has been badly damaged, and if that water has been flowing through the village then it represents a serious health hazard to local residents. These are genuinely devastating floods, and the economic losses will be significant. It it not just the locals that have been affected, as I understand that the island’s only health clinic and police station has also been affected. The response from government agencies has been good, with the Coastguard and Navy assisting to evacuate affected people to Kuala Besut, as far as I can tell, as well as assessing the damage to the village.

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They wouldn’t have to do that, though, if the government had properly invested in supporting the residents where it is actually needed it. Whilst flooding on this scale may be rare, papers show that it is not uncommon. Upgrading the sewage system (that has shown to impact drinking water quality and thus health) would be a sure start. I’m sure Malaysia has enough skilled Geographers to assess flood risk, and I can only help that studies are carried out to work out how to protect the village from the next event. The Perhentian Islands are an excellent financial resource for Malaysia- it is damn time that the government treated the residents with the respect they deserve. The islands may be a beautiful paradise for tourists in summer, but what about the poor residents during the monsoon season? Having lived with them, I can tell you that the islanders are tough and resourceful and will respond to these difficulties with courage- it just seems evident that more could be (and should be) done to help them.

Sadly, the islanders are not isolated in their plight, with some 23,000 evacuated across Terengganu state. My thoughts are with them and the islanders at this challenging time.

Footnote

I am well aware that criticising the Malaysian government is risky, but if no-one ever says anything then nothing will change. The people of the islands deserve better. The first slideshow’s images originate from myself and Joshua Gray, the rest are taken from social media. The opinions expressed above are solely my own. 

Malaysian Adventures

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!

THANK YOU!

Mirrorless: The Future of Expedition Photography

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.

 

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Taken with my GX7 and humble kit lens in the Sierra Nevada, CA.

 

Sony

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.

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Premium, but revolutionary. This is a brilliant camera.

 

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!

 

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Somehow the one one the left has more megapixels… Both professional grade cameras, though!

 

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!

Sony A7SII (Low-Light, Video) £2200 

Sony A7RII (Pure Image Quality, Video) £2300 

Micro-Four Thirds

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.

 

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The GH4 and GH3 are so popular amongst video producers that they have their own specific rig designs from a range of companies.

 

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.

 

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My friend’s kit after a long day in the field. My GX7 is tiny in comparison.

 

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.

 

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An amazing lens at an unbelievable price. Just get one!

 

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.

Panasonic GH4 £1200 (Amazing Video)

Panasonic G80 £700 (Great Image Stabilization, Video, Microphone Jack)

Olympus EM1 Mark II £2300 (The best M4/3 Camera, Stills)

Olympus EM5 Mark II £500 (Stills, High-Resolution Shot Mode)

Fuji

Edited 14/05/2017

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

 

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Highly recommended, just a little bulky for my tastes. Outstanding image quality.

 

 

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!

Conclusion

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.

 

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My GX7 at work in Kuala Lumpur.

 

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)!

 

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I’m still so pleased with this shot! Hummingbird, Ann Arbor, MI. (GX7)

 

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**

Seriously, it’s a no-brainer!

 

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Green Crested Lizard, Perhentian Islands, Malaysia. G5 with 20mm F1.7 II

 

 

Impressions of Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

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! 

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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

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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.

Chinatown

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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).

Food 

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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.

Verdict

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?

Accomodation Choices

Pods KL (http://podsbackpacker.com/

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!

Yellow House KL (http://yellowhousekl.com/)

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!

 

 

 

Craghoppers Nosilife Pro Shirt Review

Prior the expedition to Malaysia this summer, Craghoppers very generously supplied the entire FxPedition Perhentian Islands team with clothing and equipment suitable for the jungle. This is the first post in a series of Craghoppers product reviews, detailing how the products coped with the toughest environment in the world- the jungle! Photographs for this post were provided by the wonderfully talented Joshua Gray (https://500px.com/joshuagray).

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What makes this field shirt different from its competitors is the stretch material it is made from, hence the ‘Pro’ moniker. It’s an incredibly comfortable fit, being snug fitting but not at all too tight. It’s a modern cut, compared to the shirts of old, but this is my preferred style in the field anyway. I don’t want any snags in the jungle! The stretch material was a revelation when scaling rocks and steep slopes in the rainforest, facilitating movement where other materials would have been far more restrictive.

Despite being worn nearly every day over 6 weeks in that environment, the shirt has fared incredibly well. Given the amount of thorns and other spiky things I invariably managed to impale myself on, I find it impressive that I can’t find any pulls on the fabric, despite a proper search. There are no rips, no tears- it’s in pretty much perfect condition, to the extent that I’m able to wear it as work uniform, which is a big win from me!

 

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Tough terrain in the jungle! Being a little taller would certainly help.

 

As the top-end Craghoppers shirt, it has all manner of technologies and features packed into it, many of which were useful in the field. The glasses wipe built into the seam was unexpectedly useful when I managed to dunk my camera in the mud, and it’s a really useful feature for any photographers out there who, like me, constantly lose their lens cleaning cloths. The Nosilife mosquito repellency did better than expected, certainly making a difference for me personally. A combination of deet & nosilife kept me well protected even in the worst clouds of mossies, though of course there’s always one mosquito with near-Special Forces levels of stealth. I actually wore it to bed a few times, after my hips were massacred in the night- lifesaver!

The heat and sunlight on the islands was intense, regularly reaching in excess of 36 degrees celsius, though it felt more like 45 in the humidity according to the forecast! The shirts feature solar shield tech, and I certainly didn’t get burned once while wearing them. Whilst they look substantial, they are actually incredibly thin and well-ventilated, with special mesh patches under the arms. I had no qualms wearing them in the jungle, nor in the desert in the Sierra Nevada, USA a few weeks later!

Verdict

I’m very hard on my kit, but these very lightweight shirts survived both the Malaysian jungle and arid California with ease. The mosquito repellency and solar protection were valuable features in a difficult environment, and the fit was perfect for me. Incredibly comfortable and very smart looking despite being a feature-packed, functional field shirt, this shirt truly lives up to it’s ‘Pro’ title. At this price point, you will struggle to find a product that even comes close.

5-star

PS. I’ve used the Craghoppers Nosilife ‘Trek’ shirt on previous expeditions, but for me the Nosilife Pro is worth the upgrade for the better comfort it provides.