How On Earth Did I End Up in a Place Like This?

Today is going to be another swelteringly hot, lazy sunny day. The generator will stay on for a couple more hours pushing my ceiling fan around at an annoyingly slow pace, creating just enough airflow to keep my computer alive and then me! And yet again I find myself looking out upon a wonderful vista of sand, dry wadis and mountainous jebels wondering how on earth I wound up in a place like this.

In the last five years I have worked with some amazing communities in Sinjar, Northern Iraq, the southern marshlands of Basra, the semi-arid plains of Puntland Somalia and war-torn Juba in South Sudan. I am now sitting close to the Sudanese border with South Sudan, in Al Leri town, South Kordofan if you care to look it up. There is very little here apart from a few local towns-folk, a large number of internally displaced people and many more refugees and then a few cattle herders passing through. Oh, and I forget the ever hopeful, gold prospectors and their scrawny entourage eking out a living in their ramshackled encampment down to the south east.

I am working for an International Non-Government Organisation (NGO) and the powers that be, have once again decided that my face fits and I am the most likely to survive the deprivations imposed upon the mind and soul living in such a remote location. It appears to be an unwritten legacy or perhaps a curse imposed upon those who willingly signed up in their youth for an expedition with the British Schools Exploring Society (now simply the British Exploring Society).

At the age of 18, I spent a magnificent six weeks in the Lyngen Alps of Arctic Norway, carrying supplies, running simple experiments, digging holes here and there and being dropped down crevasses in the glaciers for my fellow explorers to simply pull me out again. It all seemed mad then as it does now, but endless fun. I am a lot more sedate these days and somewhat fragile, but I have learnt what it means to be slower than my younger counterparts and more dependent on one’s colleagues for help. In and after Norway my ego reached its heights, I was indestructible, bursting with confidence and ready to take on the world. That is how one should be in their youth and prime of life. Ready to take on every challenge and to question the status quo.

Many lessons were learnt in those days above the arctic circle and at Lake Windermere Outward Bound Centre prior to departure. One of the most seminal of which was the need for ‘PMA’. We didn’t know who Tom Metcalf was before he ran at us with axe in hand slamming it into the log in front of us. Through his beard he screamed “PMA…” followed by the words “Positive – Mental - Attitude” frightening the life out of us and forever imprinting the words on our young brains. He then, rather more calmly sat down with a clutch of young explorers round the embers of a fire and gave us a more conventional lecture on survival techniques, all predicated on the overriding need for PMA.

‘If there is a leak in your tent in the middle of the night, on top of a snow drift in a raging blizzard then overcome the desire to ‘let it go’ get up immediately and fix it, otherwise it might all be too late in the morning’. So went his premise and it has been a great lesson in life for the last 40 years. I love my poetry and it reminds me of those lines in Kipling’s famous ‘If’;

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them: ‘Hold on’”

It was my friend and eventual ‘best man’ Tom Pringle who spurred me on and got me to apply for the expedition. He had just come back from the 1983 East Greenland Expedition and we were fiercely competitive. So, I had to at least equal his achievements, but he graciously helped me raise the funds to go. We wrote begging letters, smashed up old pianos and spent 12 hours camping in an industrial freezer at minus 20oC. Training included a 65 mile, 26 hour hike up and down the A64, Plymouth to Exeter. Precisely why we chose the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway as we bypassed Dartmoor to the north of us is still a mystery! Anyhow, it was tough and caused us both to have hallucinations on the final stretches into Marsh Mills roundabout.

With Tom I am ever mindful, the distinction between physical and mental trials. We went our separate ways after school and our alternate BSES experiences, but I was always aware of his desire to climb higher, endure for longer and generally push his body to the limits whereas I went the cultural route. I have always been fascinated with people and learning new ways of doing things and new perspectives. My next great adventure after Lyngen and university was as a technical volunteer to the east of Sudan on the border with Ethiopia (where eventually lived for two long and glorious decades). And so, it now seems full circle - back in Sudan.

And here again, I recall the words of another poet and someone whom I quoted ad-nauseam on the mountainsides and scree slopes of Lyngen.

“that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
- Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson

May I suggest if you are recently returned from an expedition, you remember these words and keep exploring places and people and your own internal limits and if you are older then remember another line from the same poem;

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods”

On that final note, I wish you all a prosperous and more importantly an adventurous new year!

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