RAJ Revisited - Final Issue


Over the past 4 years or so, of creating and publishing Ripcord Adventure Journal, the team involved in bringing it to print and digital editions has been on a marvellous journey of discovery and adventure in their own right. None of us had prior experience in publishing an international periodical before, our strength was derived from the unstinting support given by our adventurers and explorers who have written and photographed their journeys for us. Furthermore, our delight has grown as our readership and audience have rocketed to unexpected but very welcome heights, particularly on our digital platform: www.yumpu.com/user/worldexplorers where we have reached almost 8 million views.

In this period we have published so many great articles that we felt it timely to pick a single article from each issue and present them here in a 2014-2018 Revisited issue, the eight articles which follow have been chosen by the editorial team to reflect the broad interests of Ripcord Adventure Journal and I hope, will serve to introduce our many new readers to previous issues, all of which, continue to be available for free on our digital platform.

We aimed to be the home of authentic, adventurous travel, which serves as a starting point for personal reflection, study and new journeys; we hope that you enjoy reading this free digital Journal and encourage you to share it widely. As this will be the final issue of Ripcord Adventure Journal, we hope that you took inspiration from our amazing contributors and that you may follow their adventures into the future.

On behalf of the editorial, writing and design team, I wish to acknowledge our outstanding sponsors from day one, the World Explorers Bureau (Charlotte Baker Weinert) and Redpoint Resolutions (Mark Cohon, Thomas Bochnowski, Ted Muhlner, Martha Marin, John Moretti and all the team).

RAJ 2014-2018 Revisited

A Letter from the Editor

Welcome to Ripcord Adventure Journal.

Over the past 4 years or so, of creating and publishing Ripcord

Adventure Journal, the team involved in bringing it to print and

digital editions has been on a marvellous journey of discovery and

adventure in their own right. None of us had prior experience in

publishing an international periodical before, our strength was

derived from the unstinting support given by our adventurers and

explorers who have written and photographed their journeys for us.

Furthermore, our delight has grown as our readership and audience

have rocketed to unexpected but very welcome heights, particularly

on our digital platform: www.yumpu.com/user/worldexplorers

where we have reached almost 8 million views.

In this period we have published so many great articles that we felt

it timely to pick a single article from each issue and present them

here in a 2014-2018 Revisited issue, the eight articles which follow

have been chosen by the editorial team to reflect the broad interests

of Ripcord Adventure Journal and I hope, will serve to introduce

our many new readers to previous issues, all of which, continue to

be available for free on our digital platform.

We aimed to be the home of authentic, adventurous travel, which

serves as a starting point for personal reflection, study and new

journeys; we hope that you enjoy reading this free digital Journal

and encourage you to share it widely. As this will be the final issue

of Ripcord Adventure Journal, we hope that you took inspiration

from our amazing contributors and that you may follow their

adventures in to the future.

On behalf of the editorial, writing and design team, I wish to

acknowledge our outstanding sponsors from day one, the World

Explorers Bureau (Charlotte Baker Weinert) and Redpoint

Resolutions (Mark Cohon, Thomas Bochnowski, Ted Muhlner,

Martha Marin, John Moretti and all the team).

Ripcord Adventure Journal Copyright July 2018 by World

Explorers Bureau & Redpoint Resolutions.

All articles and images © 2014-2018 of the respective Authors.

Ripcord Adventure Journal is grateful to all our writers and

photographers for permission to publish their work.

Ripcord Adventure Journal has been typeset in 11 point Garamond

and uses OED English spelling.

Shane Dallas

Series Editor

Tim Lavery

Editor in Chief

Assistant Editor

Méabh Lavery

Brought to you in association with:

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed,

or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording,

or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission

of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical

reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.

Although the publisher has made every effort to ensure that the information in

this book was correct at press time, the authors and publisher do not assume and

hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption

caused by errors or omissions, whether such errors or omissions result from

negligence, accident, or any other cause.

For further information contact the publisher: raj@worldexplorersbureau.com




Series Editor

Shane Dallas

Editor in Chief

Tim Lavery

Assistant Editor

Meabh Lavery

RAJ Revisited



Morgan Hite

Shane Dallas

Megan Hine

Bill Steele

Francis O'Donnell

Nuala Moore

Mark Evans

Mark Wood


World Explorers

Bureau & Redpoint




Mapping Howard-Bury

Morgan Hite

Tribes that Time Forgot

Shane Dallas

A Call to Adventure

Megan Hine

Sistema Huautla

Bill Steele

Monlam Cham Festival

Francis O' Donnell

The Great Island Swim

Nuala Moore

Into the Abode of Death

Mark Evans

Plan D

Mark Wood









Image opposite © Shane Dallas

Tribes that Time Forgot


Mapping Howard-Bury




RAJ 1.1



Mapping Charles Howard-Bury in Central Asia

by Morgan Hite

One of the things I love about old hardcover books is that the

publisher might have glued a folded map inside the back cover.

Even books about imaginary landscapes had these, such as my

father's 1954 hardcover edition of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.

Sixteen by eighteen inches, it was always there as a reference, ready

to be opened up and consulted. This was the kind of map, I got to

thinking, that Charles Howard-Bury's account of visiting the Tian

Shan needed. A map that would tell the reader where the Yulduz

Plains were, where Sergiopol was in relation to Jarkent, where the

Agias river flowed.

Famous as the leader of Great Britain's Everest reconnaissance

expedition of 1921, Charles Howard-Bury made this less-known

and possibly more intriguing journey some eight years earlier, in

1913, into the heart of Central Asia. He went to go hunting in the

Tian Shan mountains of what are today the Ili Kazakh, and

Bayingolin Mongol, autonomous prefectures of China's Xinjiang

province. In six months of travel he created a diary of 171 pages that

Marian Keaney edited into a book published in 1990: Mountains of

Heaven: Travel in the Tian Shan Mountains, 1913.

He mentions every valley, every pass, and what kinds of wildflowers

carpet them. He names specific streams and towns, and tells us

about the people living in them. He tells us about weather and

politics and the types of ferries on the rivers. The only thing missing

is a detailed map, and the reader of his book will soon find him- or

herself surrounded by open atlases and country maps, bewildered

and unable to figure out where Semiretchinsk is. Names have

changed. Official languages have changed. Google Maps turns out

to be of very little use.

And Howard-Bury writes as if you do have a map in front of you.

“The ram,” he concludes, “finally disappeared in the direction of

Mustamas” – without having previously explained what Mustamas

is. Is it a town? A peak? “This place is called the valley of the Sixty

Fireplaces,” he describes at one point, “because years ago a party of

soldiers went through it on their way to Kuchar and in one place

built sixty little fireplaces to cook their evening meal.” Kuchar?

Howard Bury began his journey by rail, leaving Europe by way of

Moscow, and finally reaching the end of the tracks at Omsk. From


Mapping Charles Howard-Bury in Central Asia

by Morgan Hite

there he took a steamer up the Irtysh river to Semipalatinsk –

today's Semey, Kazakhstan, but at that time an outpost of Imperial

Russia. From here (it was now June) he and his servant John Pereira

journeyed overland and crossed into China, reaching the town of

Kuldja, which was to be their base for the next few months. In

November, with snow already falling, they re-entered what is today

Kazakhstan but was then Russia, and made it to the railhead at a

small stop called Kabul-Sai, north of Tashkent. From there they

were able to take a series of trains and steamships back to Europe.



I envisioned a 1:1 million map detailing the central portion of the

journey, the area in China where they spent the most time and

where Howard-Bury mentions the most local details. Secondarily,

there would be a 1:3 million map showing how they got from

Semipalatinsk to Kuldja, a ten-day journey along Russian post roads

for whose specific route he gives intriguingly few clues. Last, there

would be a map at 1:7 million showing their exit route from Central

Asia, from Kuldja to Jarkent to Tashkent, and then on by rail to the

Caspian Sea.

Then things happened which illustrate some general hazards about

mapping for old books. As I pinpointed more and more places that

Howard-Bury had described, it nagged at me that the paper I was

designing for was so small. I needed more: it should be 23” wide by

20” high. Soon, the idea that all the mapping could fit into that space

went out the window. The first map would need the whole sheet!

The other two maps were discarded.

But more importantly, just where had Howard-Bury gone? I found

myself buried in old maps, Wikipedia articles, and all sorts of other

documents such as you get when you search on obscure terms like

“Chalyk Tau.” I was reading maps in Russian and putting German

websites through Google Translate. I was converting the old

Russian unit of versts, which Howard-Bury used to describe all his

daily travels, into kilometres (1.067 km to the verst!) so I could

match his account to the map.

Ordinarily, the trick to locating a place an author mentions is simply

to find a sufficiently detailed map of the area, but Central Asia adds




Mapping Charles Howard-Bury in Central Asia

by Morgan Hite

an additional spin to this problem: most places there have had

multiple names in the last hundred years. This has happened as a

result of political and cultural struggles involving the Turkic peoples

(Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs), the Chinese, and the Russians. In

China, a river that Howard-Bury in 1913 called by its Kazakh name

of Kok-su (“Blue water”) is today labelled (e.g., on Google Maps)

with its Chinese name, the Kekesu. Searching the web for Kok-su

will yield many other rivers in Central Asia, but not this one. On

their side of the border, the Russians renamed many towns after the

Russian revolution, and these towns may have again been renamed

after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Sometimes, as was the case

for Mirzoyan (today's Taraz, Kazakhstan), the town's new name

lasted only the two years until its namesake fell from favour.

Another level of complexity is introduced by the multiple alphabets,

or, more properly, writing systems. Places in Xinjiang typically have

both a Uyghur (a Turkic language) and a Mandarin name: the

Uyghur can be rendered in the Latin alphabet or the older, Arabicbased

Uyghur script; the Mandarin can be rendered in Chinese

characters, or two variants of the Latin transcription: the older

Wade-Giles transliteration, and the newer pinyin. So for Kuldja you

might see 伊 宁 , Yining, ۇلجاغ , Ghulja, Gulja, Kulja, or Ili. Most

places in modern Kazakhstan have an old Russian and a new

Kazakh name, both of which can be rendered in either Latin or

Cyrillic. Hence we have a city which the Kazkhs label Алматы and

we write as Almaty; but the Russians called it Alma-ata and wrote it


Old maps were invaluable in figuring out the details of Howard-

Bury's route. I made extensive use of International Map of the

World sheets produced by the Americans in the 1950s and 60s, and

topographic maps at 1:500,000 and 1:100,000 produced by the

Soviets in the 1980s. All of these are available for free on the web.

The Soviet maps in particular provide superb detail. When Howard-

Bury describes a small feature, say the “Little Kustai river,” and he

says, “We pitched our camp near the rushing Kustai torrent, at a

height of 6,000',” a topographic map that labels the river in Russian

as М. Куштай (the Малый, or Little, Kushtai) and offers a contour

line every hundred metres of elevation, is worth its weight in gold.


Mapping Charles Howard-Bury in Central Asia

by Morgan Hite

You can pinpoint that camp.

Kurai is a nice example of how the Internet and different types of

old maps can be woven together, with sometimes only intuition as

your guide, to locate a place. Howard-Bury talks about Kurai at

length: Kurai is where the Has-a-chu, the head of the Kazakhs, lives;

Kurai is 20 miles away from Kuldja and is the seat of government of

the province. At one point he reports that there has been a

revolution in Kurai and a number of people have been killed! In

Kuldja he can hear the sound of cannon coming from Kurai.



The town is clearly within earshot of Kuldja, but I could find no

sign of it except a village on one of the Soviet maps, labelled Курэ

(“Kure”). How could this have been a provincial capital? But I did

notice that Курэ was more or less located where the present-day

town of Huiyuan is. A quick check of Wikipedia's page on Huiyuan

revealed that (my italics added for emphasis) “between 1762 and

1866 the Huiyuan Fortress, or Huiyuan City, the center of the

Chinese authority in Xinjiang, was located within the area of the

modern Huiyuan town.” Aha! Making a historical map is never

better than when you solve a puzzle like that.

Another example was locating “Manass.” Howard-Bury wrote,

“There were superb views of distant snowy chains, stretching from

far beyond Kuldja, past the headwaters of the Kash river and on in a

great semicircle towards Manass.” It shouldn't have been too hard to

locate Manass: Howard-Bury was quite clear in the lead-up to this

passage about where he was standing as he took in this view. He was

about 130 km southeast of Kuldja, in mountains, at just over 10,000

feet, looking north. I had located the Kash River, about 100 km

north of him. And north of both Kuldja and the Kash River were

the Borohoro Mountains, running east-west “in a great semicircle.”

Manass, logically, was going to be near their eastern end.

But I didn't see anything named Manass. A web search was useless:

typing “Manass” into Google yields hilarious results that have

nothing whatsoever to do with a town or peak or feature of any

kind in Central Asia. The city of Urumqi was over in that direction:

could Manass be an old name for it? A quick read of the history of




Mapping Charles Howard-Bury in Central Asia

by Morgan Hite

Urumqi at Wikipedia suggested not. Grasping at straws, I actually

resorted to panning around in Google maps and letting my eye

wander. This had no chance of working, but I did spot it, flickering

out of sight at the edge of my vision as I zoomed out, a small town

northwest of Urumqi labelled Manas.

It was next to a larger town of Shihezi, and Wikipedia's page on

Shihezi referred to “the city's eastern neighbour, the much older

historically Hui town of Manas.” Ah! And Manas had its own page,

which didn't tell me much, except that Owen Lattimore in his 1930

High Tartary said it was "the biggest city (after Urumchi) in the

biggest oasis on the biggest river of the North Road, and the chief

centre of the T’ung-kan (Dungan) population." (Dungan and Hui

are alternate names for Chinese moslems.)

Because readers of the book were my main audience, I labelled

places primarily with the names Howard-Bury used, spelled the

way he spelled them. But it was also a goal to pass along the useful

things I was learning, things that might aid other people researching

the Central Asia of a hundred years ago. Hence I also included

alternate names, in whatever script they came in, as well as their

Latin alphabet transcriptions. A very nice source for these variants

is OpenStreetMap data, as well as the website at geonames.org.

With each Aha! answer to a question, I discovered that I was

accumulating obscure knowledge and specialist vocabulary that

themselves would be useful to other would-be geographers of the

area. Tash in Turkic meant rocks, and bulak meant spring. I learned

what a Zimstvo was and who the Kalmucks were. I learned how to

navigate the system of Soviet maps, to determine which 1:100,000

maps were contained within a specific 1:500,000 sheet. So at this

point I had the idea that the map should perhaps be a poster, the

bottom half of which could contain notes about all this handy

background knowledge. I added an additional 20 inches at the

bottom to accommodate all this. It was no longer a book-map.

Howard-Bury named perhaps 75 places, of which I found the great

majority, but there are still those I never found. I never found

Tsarnakai or the Karasir pass. I never figured out if the Yulding




Mapping Charles Howard-Bury in Central Asia

by Morgan Hite

Plains were merely a variant on the Yulduz Plains, or whether they

were a different place. I was never sure of the Big Kustai river, or

where the Kustai Pass was. I'm sure I know which pass was the

Chacha Pass, but I never found it labelled that way on any map.

Of course Howard-Bury was himself carrying a map. He mentions

how it misled him: “The Russian map marked the Kurdai pass as

only 6,700 feet in height, but as we were already over 8,000 feet, I

knew this to be a mistake, but imagined that the six was probably a

misprint for nine, and that the height of the pass would be about

9,700 feet and so did not trouble to put on warmer clothes. Little did

I guess that the height of the pass was nearly 13,000 feet.” What scale

was Howard-Bury's Russian map? A Soviet 1:1,000,000 scale map

from 1974 was sufficiently detailed to have the Kurdai pass on it; in

Howard-Bury's day however he was likely carrying the one of the

Russian 1:1,680,000 scale or “40-verst” maps (40 versts to an inch),

which were produced for Russia and adjacent lands.



One reason I would love to see Howard-Bury's maps is to

determine which Lepzinsk he went through. Although it falls for the

most part off the map shown here, Howard-Bury's initial route on

the Russian post roads from Sergiopol (Ayagoz) to Kapal is bit of a

mystery, since he mentions only a few landmarks over the course of

three long days of steady travel. In this large space east of Lake

Balkhash many routes are possible. The key to the puzzle is a town

he calls Lepzinsk, a town he passed through on the second day out

of Sergiopol.

He gives us some wonderful clues: daily distances covered (in versts

of course), the necessity of crossing the arms of a sandy desert

coming in from the west, the proximity of Lake Balkhash, verdant

Lepzinsk in the midst of sandy dunes and first seen on the far side

of a “fair sized river,” a pass at 4,000 feet in a range of rocky hills

“that formed a kind of buttress to the snowy Ala-tau mountains,”

and a plateau over 4,000 feet that leads on to Kapal.

Many of these landmarks are readily identifiable, and “Lepzinsk” is

sure to be on the Lepsi river, a major river that cuts right across his

route. But not only are there two towns named Lepsinsk on this


Mapping Charles Howard-Bury in Central Asia

by Morgan Hite

river, there's also a third town named Lepsy! Through a

combination of measuring out the daily distances over a number of

possible alternative routes, and looking at features visible on

satellite photographs, I reasoned that his route took him virtually

straight south from Sergiopol, crossing the Lepsi at a town that was

shown as Lepzinsk on several old maps but is today called

Kokterek. Seeing the maps Howard-Bury carried would be a nice

test of this deduction.

There have been some really interesting puzzles to solve here, but it

seems fitting to end with one of Charles Howard-Bury's

descriptions of the landscape. It is these which make you want to

know where he went, to go there yourself, and which made me

want to map his journey. You may find that he acts as a kind of

hypnotic travel advertisement writer.

“We climbed up steadily through glorious forests to the grassy

meadows at the edge of the tree line which is here a little over 10,000

feet. The grass now became shorter, but was full of iris and primulas

and some quite new varieties of flowers appeared. The most

astonishing flowers of all were the pansies, white, yellow, blue and

every shade of colour up to deep purple and quite as large as any that

are found in gardens at home. For miles the hillsides were a

variegated carpet of these pansies, and so close did they grow that

every step we took crushed some of them: it was impossible to avoid

doing so. Never anywhere else have I seen such a luxuriant flora.

The flowers in Kashmir were very wonderful, but these here were

still more so.”

In the last millennium, Morgan Hite was an instructor at the

American expeditionary school, NOLS, teaching backcountry travel

skills in Alaska, Wyoming Utah and Arizona. In this millennium he

is a Canadian cartographer interested in topographic, historical and

expedition mapping.



Tribes that Time Forgot




RAJ 1.2

The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

A truly remarkable wooded valley lay below, its carpet of trees

backed by mountains that cut their sharp shape in the hazy sky. The

bright, baking sun beat down on me and my driver, Tsegay, his

short-cropped wiry hair sitting atop a stern face that illuminated

whenever he smiled, which was often. His softly spoken voice

broke the silence. “That is the Omo Valley.”

Much lay in wait in this valley in the south-west of Ethiopia

bordering Sudan and Kenya – a place where people of different

tribes scar, paint and pierce their bodies, where women are publicly

whipped to demonstrate their loyalty, and where men run naked

across bulls to prove their manhood. We returned to the maroon

and silver Nissan Patrol to bump and skid along the dirt roads that

kicked clouds of dust in our wake. It was the first of many similar

journeys during the forthcoming week.

We had travelled for perhaps a couple of hours, the sameness of the

scenery dulling the sense of time, when suddenly on our right side

appeared a collection of two dozen sizable wooden huts within a

spacious clearing. It was a village of the Arbore tribe. Once out of

the vehicle, I encountered a practice that elicits much debate

amongst those who visit the Omo Valley – namely the payment of a

fee to take photographs. The problems of this practice quickly

became evident. Upon our arrival, the Arbore people rushed from

their huts to form a long line near the vehicle hoping to be chosen,

and paid, to be photographed. It felt incredibly forced, and though I

am unsure where this practice emanated from, obediently lining in

an orderly fashion was inconsistent with every other activity I

witnessed in the Omo Valley. This appeared imposed from outside.

I lowered my head, undecided if I wanted to participate in this

awkward spectacle, but there was no retreat, for the Arbore would

aggressively pursue those with cameras to photograph them. They

would grab your arm or camera and verbally badger for a picture;

this whirlwind of activity and attention was almost overwhelming. I

wandered far away from the scene with one Arbore woman in order

to distance myself from the selection line, which on further

reflection, looked more and more like a circus with paid performers.

By having her with me, it seemed to keep the others away, but that

only lasted until she dawdled away after the photo shoot, for the

chaos descended on me again.


The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

After a difficult photography session, I returned to the vehicle – and

upon closing the door found myself inside a serene silent shelter

from the buffeting verbal tempest outside. My first tribe visit

proved to be a confronting experience. In 2010, the payment

amounts were small, one or two Birr (approximately 15 cents at the

time), whereas a larger amount (at least 250 birr) is payable as a

village admission fee. However, these prices have increased many

times over since then.



While still musing on the most responsible method to approach

photography in the Omo Valley, we proceeded to the small town of

Turmi. Our plans to arrive in the late afternoon were thwarted by

the road conditions. Shortly after Tsegay had changed a tyre due to

a puncture, he leaned out of the window and muttered something

under his breath before stopping to attend to the second puncture in

the space of half an hour. With little phone coverage and almost no

traffic in this part of the Valley, any serious vehicle issues would

cause immense problems. Since we now had no spare tyres, a third

puncture would leave us stranded.

The journey through a terrain of trees upon sandy soil continued

after sunset, and the surrounding scene was one of absolute

darkness. The vehicle’s headlights were the only source of

illumination on this landscape devoid of any other light source –

nothing coming from huts, none marking any streets, and no other

vehicles. Avoiding any further punctures, we arrived in the small

town of Turmi, and the faint orange glow of the occasional street

light enabled me to discern a town comprised of a single road

populated with squat flat-roofed buildings on either side of the


Our late arrival on a cool evening in Turmi meant that

accommodation was limited to the diabolical Green Hotel. If one

considered that the hotels of the world formed a human body, and a

doctor needed to give this collective body an enema, then they

would insert it into the Green Hotel. It is the foulest place I have

ever stayed in, the one remaining room was small, stuffy with

peeling green paint and a broken fly screen that allowed entry to

malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The linen was a public health risk and




The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

as an added feature of this five dollar room, it held a complimentary

pile of condoms, some opened. These were obviously used by the

clients of the women who frequented the nearby bar whose music

reverberated through the entire room. Though the music finally

ceased at 1 am, it was followed by a frightful fight between highly

inebriated women who charged by the hour and their equally

drunken clients.

After a broken sleep and pitiful breakfast, happiness again returned

when I saw the Green Hotel disappear in the rear-view mirror.

With both punctured tyres now repaired, two hours of driving

along moderately good roads saw our arrival in the small town of

Omorante, only 40 kilometres from the Sudanese border. It was a

very warm and dusty place where people languidly shifted along the

roads lined with forlorn shops, whilst goats and other animals

occupied themselves in the search for food.

After registering at the police station, there was a choice of two

hotels, one dire, the other dismal. As with most accommodation in

the Omo Valley, the toilets were fetid, the showers cold, and the

food average. The latter was the biggest disappointment, for

Ethiopia has an excellent cuisine – arguably the best in Africa – but

sadly, that quality was absent in the Omo Valley. The main reason to

visit Omorante was to cross the Omo River to visit the Galeb tribe.

However, my desire for embarking on this short voyage quickly

evaporated when watching the elongated and unstable boats carved

from a single tree plying the fast flowing Omo River. The boatmen

were obvious masters of their craft for they would direct the boat

close to the steep river bank some distance upstream before

swinging to the centre of the river and being hurtled downstream

whilst crossing to the other side. Even an experienced swimmer like

me would have trouble surviving in those treacherous waters in the

case of a capsize. Some adventures are best left for another time.

So far the expedition to the Omo Valley had been beset by barriers

and difficulties with meagre rewards – it had been an inauspicious

start to the adventure. Thankfully, the situation improved on the

third day when Tsegay drove me to a village called Kolcho inhabited




The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

by the Karo tribe. Our vehicle encountered the roughest dirt road

conditions of this journey, and we occasionally needed to navigate

around gaping holes that threatened to swallow the vehicle and

manoeuvre past almost vertical declivities – Tsegaye’s driving was


We passed a naked man standing on a sandy dry riverbed

overlooking the few cattle in his possession. His lean dark frame

stood motionless, supporting himself on the long stick which he

held in one hand. There was not even a hint of modernity in this

scene that could have occurred thousands of years ago, rather than

in the 21st century.



After much jarring of bones and inhaling of dust, we arrived at

Kolcho nestled near to a stunning lookout with a magnificent grand

and wide panorama over the Omo River far below. This was one

village worthy of an entrance fee, for not only were the views

impressive but so too was the village. Covering a large area with a

multitude of large huts that were relatively densely packed, it was a

tremendous place to explore the numerous paths that meandered

between the habitations.

The Karo are a very pleasant people, it was possible to walk around

unaccompanied and receive only occasional, polite requests for

photographs. In this village with neither electricity nor water

supply, I could quietly observe Karo pastoral life; women would

grind grains for dinner and larger children would play with their

younger and smaller siblings by sitting them on a large piece of

metal and drag them along at speed. It was an idyllic scene of

simple and unaffected contentment. The Karo people deserved their

title as the region’s best body painters as they sported elaborate and

full decorations but the reason for this artistry was never fully

explained to me, apart from the obvious atheistic and decorative


I was sauntering around the village when someone behind me spoke

in perfect English “How are you?” I had not sighted another

foreigner but could have been mistaken since there were so many

huts where one could loiter unseen. So imagine my surprise when I



The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

turned to see a Karo woman with a painted face and numerous

necklaces squatting by her modest hut. She only spoke a few words

of English but was the only person who was able to communicate

with me verbally. For everyone else, it was via gestures and the

international language of a smile.

One vividly painted Karo warrior and I formed a particularly strong

bond. Proudly carrying his automatic weapon, and with a red tinge

in his eyes that were accentuated by his white painted face, I showed

him images of other tribes which seemed to interest him greatly. He

posed for numerous photographs and we shared a smile and laugh

whilst reviewing the images. When it came time to depart, he gave

me a genuinely emotional farewell, I could discern it in his eyes. He

did not want me to leave, and I felt the same way. There was so

much more to learn from him about his life and his village. It is

heartening to know that genuine warmth can be established between

people from extremely different cultures and different languages

within a brief time.



We returned to Turmi and I decided to pay a relative premium for a

spacious cabin at the Evangadi Lodge with cold showers and a toilet

that did not make me shudder. This Monday was a special day in the

town, for not only was it market day, but a Hamer initiation

ceremony would occur later that afternoon. The Hamer people are

famed throughout Ethiopia, their beautiful women plat their hair

and coat it with a distinctive red clay, and the men are equally

handsome. I warmed to the Hamer tribe more than any other, they

were gentle and a smile never seemed far away.

The market was the best in the Omo Valley, as hundreds of Hamer

converged to interact and trade goods in an expectedly relaxed

environment. I espied a few women with large, wide scars on their

backs and arms, which I thought odd for a seemingly placid people.

It felt surreal to watch this glimpse of tribal life and it was not the

only time this journey that felt as if I had stumbled into the middle

of a National Geographic documentary.

After losing track of time, I needed to hurry to attend the Hamer

initiation ceremony, one of the highlights of any Omo Valley visit.




The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

This ceremony is an elaborate affair which allows the male initiate,

if successful, to commence the process of choosing a wife. The

ceremony lasts hours and commences with women adorned in

bangles and carrying small noisy horns, jumping in unison and

following each other in a tight circle. This celebration is not so

unusual, but the same could not be said of the public whipping that


Tradition dictates that any relative of the initiate can prove their

loyalty by being publicly scourged with a thin, destructive whip.

The process involves a woman approaching any Hamer adult male

to deliver the punishment, but some men were reluctant to take

part, and they had less enthusiasm for the practice than some of the

women who needed to cajole them for another lashing. Supposedly

a woman will plea to a man “Hit me,” he will respond “No,” and

her retort being “You are no better than a woman!” at which time

she would receive a single strike. Some women proudly displayed

numerous open welts on their back, but not every female was

similarly enraptured by the societal pressure. I espied a forlorn

teenager with doleful eyes who had just received her first whipping;

I pointed to a long thin cut on her back and she expressed her

feelings by grimacing.

While the women bravely bore their wounds in silence, the men

continued the ceremony by engaging in ritualistic face painting – a

rather genteel task compared to what the women endured. Most

memorable was that the packed group of men squatting in the shade

of an enormous tree were so incredibly intense. The concentration

of the painters’ faces was immense, but it paled when compared to

the recipients, whose eyes were simultaneously both calm and

fervent; the gaze of men searching their inner thoughts as if in a


The gathered crowd walked the one kilometre along a dirt road for

the climax. Whilst the Hamer men gathered around the initiate in a

tight huddle, twelve reluctant bulls from a collection of much more

were forcibly placed beside each other in a line, as the women

danced, jingled and played their horns around the corralled beasts.

Some of the beasts almost broke free to wreak havoc on their




The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

handlers, but they were thankfully subdued. With scores of men

holding the bulls in place under cloudy skies, the naked initiate

stood at the far end as the women increased their noise to a

crescendo and the tourists paused with cameras poised. Suddenly

the initiate leapt onto the first bull and quickly, but ever so carefully,

stepped on each animal before jumping on the ground near me, at

which time I detected his expression of absolute concentration

flicker for a moment to one of momentary relief. He returned from

whence he came, again stepping on each of the bulls, and he

repeated this whole process two more times. It took less than a

minute for the initiation to be successfully completed and the

foreigners applauded, which seemed incongruent for this traditional


The assembled onlookers dispersed and when leaving the area we

offered a seat in our vehicle to a Hamer teenager, his youthful dark

face a stark contrast to his shining white teeth. He saw me reviewing

the images on my camera and requested to see the picture of the

naked initiate crossing the bulls.

I showed him the picture, and he asked me, “Get closer,” so I

zoomed into the initiate alone.

The teenager looked at the body and commented. “He is a strong

man, and has a strong gun...” which referred to the size of the man’s

genitalia, “he will have good children.”

He looked away from the camera before stating, “My initiation

ceremony will be soon.”

“Really, that is great news,” I replied, “When will it be?”

He paused before answering, “In a few weeks. I do not know the


“Will it be a big ceremony like this one?” I enquired.

“No, a small one. There will be no women, only men,” he stated.




The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

“Will there any faranjis?” I asked, that being the local word to

describe foreigners.

“No, only the men of my tribe.”

“So you can choose if you want a big or small ceremony.”

“Yes I can. I will have a small ceremony. Not many people.”

We had arrived at my hotel, “I wish you the best for the ceremony.”

“Thank you,” he responded by flashing that brilliant white smile

and he exited the vehicle.

The only town of note in the Omo Valley is Jinka, it even had

mobile phone coverage. As we approached I remember hearing that

Jinka once had an airport used for regional flights, so I asked Tsegay.

“Did Ethiopian Airlines used to fly to Jinka?”

“Yes, but they stopped it not long ago.”


Tsegay gave me one of those of his typical wry smiles. “You will

know when you see the airstrip.”

And sure enough I did, for there in the middle of Jinka’s low rise

buildings sat what was once the airport, the former airstrip an

uneven surface now populated with animals grazing on tufts of

grass. Any plane landing on this surface, even without the grass and

bovines, would be a risky venture.

“Now you see why,” stated Tsegay.

I laughed and nodded in reply.

Rambling around the dirt streets one late afternoon, many friendly




The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

people approached me who keenly wished to talk and swap stories.

So many were interested in my country of origin, and what I

thought of Ethiopia and the Omo Valley. When the sunset’s scarlet

light painted the buildings with its soft hue, I returned to my room

where I saw my reflection in a mirror for the first time in many days

and was surprised at my gaunt appearance. Subconsciously I had

reacted to the poor state of the food and the worse state of the

toilets by eating little, thus allowing me to minimise my exposure to




Jinka was the base to meet the most famous and feared tribe in the

Omo Valley; the aggressiveness of the Mursi is known by many, and

some travellers have refused to visit due to episodes such as stone

throwing and their predilection for alcohol. However, this

promised an unforgettable experience, so undaunted we proceeded

to the Mago National Park where the tribe resides. A sign at the

park’s entrance states No Automatic Weapons, but this regulation is

flagrantly ignored by the Mursi.

At the final checkpoint we were required to acquire the services of

an armed guard, and whilst organising this service, we met a

departing group of half a dozen European tourists who had stayed

with the Mursi the previous evening.

“How was your night?” I asked a young unshaven man.

He glanced at me with weary eyes. “It was...difficult. I had very

little sleep,” as he turned and walked away. That was not reassuring.

With the armed guard sitting beside me in the now dirt encased

Nissan Patrol, we encountered another potential peril. Apart from

the Omo Valley’s malarial mosquitoes, the park is home to the

Tsetse Fly that can inflict a most painful bite. When one of these

brightly coloured insects appeared in the cabin near to the guard, he

became most anxious and feverishly waved his hands and gun in the

air. An agitated armed guard is never a good situation, regardless of

the cause.

I harboured nervousness about visiting the Mursi and the portent of




The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

silence within the vehicle reflected my thoughts. This concern was

well founded, for we came upon a Mursi village to scenes of

frenzied activity as two vehicles with a dozen tourists had already

arrived, and the Mursi were swarming around them like a pack of

sharks closing in for a kill. Women were particularly aggressive in

physically seizing people for a photograph.

“This is not good,” I sighed to Tsegay.

“No, it’s not,” came his stoic reply, as we watched another tourist

disappear behind a mass of gesticulating Mursi women.

“Is it always like this?” I questioned.

Tsegay nodded and quietly uttered, “Yes.”

“Maybe we should wait until the other faranji leave?”

“A good idea,” concurred Tsegay.

Tsegay reversed the car and we observed tourism’s ugly side from a

distance. We hoped that it would be calmer once these groups had

departed, and thankfully this prediction proved correct. Once

within the small village with the simplest of huts, we noticed the

ubiquitous presence of automatic weapons, even the women carried

them, a practice considered abhorrent by other tribes. The reason

for this convention was difficult to determine, it was either deemed

necessary for protection against predators, or possible against other

Mursi. This was even more confronting than the Arbore tribe, for

when someone grabs your arm demanding a photo be taken, and

they have an AK47 swinging from their arm, it does change the

power balance of the situation strongly against the visitor.

Communicating with the tribe was protracted as conversations

needed to be translated from Mursi to the national Amharic

language (courtesy of the armed guard) and from Amharic into

English (courtesy of Tsegay) so these stilted colloquies involved not

only the Mursi and me but two interpreters as well. Like much of

the Omo Valley, it was difficult to garner a fuller understanding of




The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

the people due to the language barrier, and the Omo Valley contains

many languages, each only spoken by a few thousand people. But

this communication, however protracted, did make a difference to

our visit – when the Mursi knew we wished to learn more about the

village and its people, their reaction changed. Many returned to

their usual daily duties instead of focusing their energies on our

presence. As the previous group discovered, heading into any tribe

for a whirlwind stop just to photograph receives a less welcoming

reaction than those who are prepared to linger and learn.



The body decoration on the Mursi was superb, and the scarification

used by both men and women tended towards the elaborate.

However, the iconic image of the Omo Valley is that of the lip plate

worn only by the women, and they vary in size from moderately

small to more than 20 centimetres wide. This adornment is not

universally utilised, but the women who chose to do so consider it

an object of beauty. For those who choose to wear one, they start

with smaller plates in their teenage years until reaching full-sized

plates in adulthood. The plate, which has a groove around the edge

where the extended lip is placed, is not worn continuously as the

wearer will remove it when eating or sleeping, nor are they worn

when visiting the Jinka markets as the Mursi believe that these plates

appear odd to outsiders.

We departed 90 minutes later, but I was disappointed by my poor

reaction to the Mursi’s initial aggressiveness that allowed me to be

overwhelmed for a second time on this journey. I vacillated on

whether to return to the Mursi tribe the next morning. My

photographs on the first visit were quite poor, my creativity

bludgeoned by the intense environment. Perhaps a return was in

order, and despite knowing that it would be another confrontational

experience, not visiting again would be a regret.

Thus, with a greater mental preparedness, we returned to two

different Mursi villages. These were both smaller, received fewer

tourists and hence less frenzy. It was such a calm contrast to the

previous day. The more relaxed mood allowed me to capture better

photographs, and even the sternest visage would lighten and

sometimes laugh upon seeing their picture on my camera’s LCD


The Tribes that time forgot

Text & Images By Shane Dallas

screen. It was a pleasant conclusion to my tribal visits in the Omo

Valley and showed that generalisations about a people never account

for the nuances that they, both as an individual and a collective, can


As we embarked on the three-day journey to Ethiopia’s capital of

Addis Ababa, it allowed me to reflect on the oft-described vanishing

tribes of the Omo Valley. These tribes as so distinct that one could

determine their identity by merely looking at clothing and body

adornments, but how do these tribes retain their cultures?

Tourism’s negative impact includes photography payments and I

was part of the problem by ceding to such. Visiting tribes where

people stand in line hoping to be chosen to be photographed was

most uncomfortable for all concerned.

But tourism can both destroy and preserve. The Omo Valley seems

to retain its culture better than many places; at least the tribes realise

that their traditional lifestyle and culture provide an income, and

this income encourages them to maintain their identity, even if it is

at the cost of avarice. However, I sighted people in traditional tribal

attire far away from the tourist path, so even without income from

tourism, many of these practices would remain.

As Tsegay drove the vehicle out of the valley, we sighted a new

bitumen road being constructed. It would make the journey

between Jinka and the major town before the Omo Valley, Konso,

much easier and faster. Development was coming to Omo Valley

and as we passed groups of workers huddles around massive

machinery, I wondered with trepidation what would be the impact.

Perhaps, time will not forget these tribes any longer.

The completion of that road changed the Omo Valley, for the easier

passage not only meant better access to health care and trading but

also meant an influx of foreign visitors who would not undertake

the journey on rougher roads. One sincerely hopes that these tribes

which have filled the Omo Valley with their richness for millennia

can continue to retain their identity and thrive within a truly

remarkable wooded valley.



A Call To Adventure




RAJ 1.3



A call to adventure

By Megan Hine

I am proud to stand amongst the ranks of mountain and wilderness

professionals, the silent corps with the thousand-mile stare. Gazing

towards future adventures, dreaming of remote places, living and

breathing the outdoors. We follow in the wake of the great

explorers, the trailblazers, the likes of Shackleton, Hillary,

Amundsen, the explorers and pioneers of a bygone era, discovering

and settling new lands. Those incredible humans who lit the flame

of exploration and pushed the boundaries of human imagination.

In all of us there glows a residual ember of this time of exploration,

a dull need inside to push boundaries and discover new horizons, to

fight for survival. This ember sits waiting for the draft of inspiration

and opportunity to fan it into a burning passion.

For some of us this flame burns bright, ever threatening to consume,

we need to feed it with experiences and travel, it makes us restless

and drives us towards new goals. It pushes us, ever onwards,

searching for the next big hit, for moments of pure clarity, those

moments of flow where the self and nature are one, the body lost to

the rock or to the trail we climb or run. For me, I find this in the

wildest of places. The endless horizons offer a multitude of

possibilities and a hefty dose of adrenalin draw me in.

There is nothing more satisfying to me than pushing myself to the

edge of what I thought was physically, mentally and emotionally

possible. Like surfing on the peak of a breaking wave, nothing

makes me feel more alive or connected to the world.

I am privileged now to be able to share this with others, to take

them by the hand and lead them over the threshold and into the

wild. To help them to face their own challenges and to overcome

hurdles they never thought possible. Watching people change in the

wilderness and build confidence in themselves and their decisions,

seeing that spark ignite, and their lives take on a whole new meaning

is such an incredible experience to share.

Somebody expressed recently to me their admiration for my

adventures and how they wished they could be more adventurous

but lacked the confidence. This struck a chord with me, there must


A call to adventure

By Megan Hine

be others, others whose image of themselves and what is ‘normal’

stops them from following their heart. Their dreams weighing them

down, the frustration and failure they must feel in not being able to

answer the call. It is so often our own self that limits our

possibilities, creating barriers of self-doubt, seemingly impossible to


Stop waiting, stop dreaming of ‘what ifs’! A whole world awaits

you! Adventure isn’t just summiting the towering, snow-capped

peaks or kayaking the gnarliest of falls. Adventure is subjective, it is

what drives you and what calls to you, it is different in each of us.

I love reading articles of passion from people pushing their own

personal boundaries and what this means to them. For them, their

achievements equate to summiting their own, personal Everest. I

have as much respect for the first time traveller as the seasoned. For

those brave enough to take their first forays to discover themselves

and their dream I salute you.

This is a call to all of you dreamers, you ‘wannabe’ adventurers!

Come stand shoulder to shoulder with us, bring your dull ember

and let us help you to find the inspiration and opportunity to ignite

it into flame.

Let us share our knowledge with you, discover new horizons and

give you the confidence to believe in yourself and to turn those

dreams into reality.




Sistema Huautla




RAJ 1.4

Images © Chris Higgins



Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

In the summer of 1965 three young Texas weekend spelunkers

drove a low riding car up a newly constructed dirt road in the Sierra

Mazateca of the northern part of the southern Mexico state of

Oaxaca. They were seeking caves with the potential to be the

deepest in the Americas. They had it right. As soon as they got in

the vicinity of Huautla de Jimenez, they started finding cave


The next year they returned with ropes and drove to the other side

of the mountain town of Huautla. Immediately they found two

large cave entrances in the bottom of deep sinkholes. These are the

primary entrances of Sistema Huautla, a mega cave system with 20

entrances, 71.4 km (44 miles) in length, 1,554 m (5,097 feet) in depth,

making it the deepest known cave in the Western Hemisphere, the

8th deepest cave in the world, the longest of the 16 deepest caves in

the world, and what many cavers feel is the greatest cave on Earth.

Fifty years later, over thirty expeditions, seven of them Explorers

Club flag expeditions, this exploration of these caves has renewed

momentum. Late March to early May 2015 forty-seven speleologists

from seven countries: USA, Mexico, Great Britain, Australia,

Poland, Switzerland, and Romania participated in a six-week

expedition in varying lengths of stay. There was a long list of

objectives, including exploring unexplored passages by “checking

out leads” indicated in past underground survey field notes.

The restarted project exploring and studying the caves of the

Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, Mexico has been given the name of

Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla (Huautla system

speleological project), or PESH for short. PESH was launched in

2013 with the objectives of extending the mapped length of the cave

system from the then 65 km to over 100 km, the depth from the

current 1,554 m to 1,610 m (a vertical mile, or 5,280 feet), and all the

while maintaining “full speleology”, meaning studies and papers

written on the various study disciplines of speleology: geology,

hydrology, biology, paleontology, archaeology, and exploration


The exploration of the Huautla caves has gone through phases. The


Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

years 1965-1970 saw several expeditions organized by cavers from

the USA and Canada, and the establishment of the cave Sotano de

San Agustin as the deepest cave in the Americas at 600 m in depth. It

was felt that the cave was fully explored.

In 1976 a group went to see this cave and check out a “lead”

indicated on the map published by the Canadians a few years

before. In caving jargon, a “lead” is a possible unexplored passage.

A lead is indicated on a cave map with broken continuing lines and a

question mark. Maybe it goes on, and maybe it doesn’t. The reason

the lead had not been entered eight years before was that it was very

remote, taking two days of underground travel to get to it, and there

was a very difficult overhung climb about five meters high. This

climb was successfully climbed, a passage did indeed continue, and

since then the cave has been explored from a length of two miles

then to 44 miles now and the depth is two and a half times deeper.



After the 1976 expedition there was one expedition after another

most years until 1994. The 1994 expedition was a major three

month-long effort that resulted a book being written about it,

“Beyond the Deep”. The farthest the 1994 expedition reached was a

deep pool of water at a depth of 1,475 m below the highest point

reached in the cave system. The pool was extremely remote and

required not only hundreds of meters of technical rope work, but

long dives underwater too, with rebreathers and sophisticated scuba

gear, and camping in the cave beyond the reach of any means of

communication with the surface.

Between 1994 and 2007 there were a few scattered expeditions to the

Huautla caves, but several of those years saw no activity. The

Huautla cavers were exploring caves elsewhere in Mexico, USA,

China, Puerto Rico, etc.

Then came 2013 and the big British-led expedition. Young, very

active, British cave explorers sought logistical information from me

and others to mount their own expedition to dive in the deep pool,

called a “sump” in caver parlance, at the bottom of the cave.

Through the years leading up to this expedition Sistema Huautla

had been surpassed in depth by a cave not far south of it, on a high


Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

mountain range separated from the Huautla plateau by a deep

canyon, and this cave, Sistema Cheve, had a surveyed depth only

nine meters deeper than Sistema Huautla.

The Brits had a successful expedition and explored 80 m deep in the

pool of water, using mixed gases for breathing. Eighty meters was

the limit what they could do with the gases they were breathing so

they ended the dive there, with the water-filled passage descending

at least another 20 meters they could see with powerful underwater

dive lights. Sistema Huautla was once again the deepest cave in the

Western Hemisphere at 1,554 m from the highest point humanly

reached in the cave, to the lowest point humanly reached. That’s the

way it’s figured in a deep cave.

Tommy Shifflett from Virginia and I joined the British expedition

for the last part of it. We had our own

area to look at, looking for unexplored passages, and found over

half a kilometer of lovely decorated, unexplored passages after

doing an aid climb across the top of a shaft.

Tommy and I talked while we were there together about how much

we love the caves and the area of Huautla, Oaxaca, and there is

much remaining to do. So, in the airport in Oaxaca, as we waited

for our respective flights back to the USA, we sketched out a plan

for a restart of annual expeditions to Sistema Huautla and other

caves of the area.

We decided to give our project a new name – in Spanish this time –

Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla, and wrote down our


To explore, survey, and conduct a comprehensive speleological

study of the Sistema Huautla area caves.

Conduct speleological studies to include exploration and mapping,

cartography, geology, hydrology, biology, paleontology,

archaeology, and equipment and technique development.

Support Mexican cave scientists in field research.


Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

Conduct annual springtime expeditions for ten years 2014-2023 .

Survey data kept current.

Goal of reaching 100 km in length.

Goal of reaching 1,610 m in depth, which is 5,280 ft., a vertical


All results published.

All of this is easy to say, but to say we’re going to have annual

expeditions for ten years, it’s very important that the first one be

successful. The first PESH expedition, in 2014, was successful on

several fronts. Diplomacy at the state, municipio, and agencia levels

was for the most part fruitful, with permission granted to go caving

in the area for three years. One area remains a challenge due to the

resident Mazatec people’s beliefs in cave spirits and what might

happen if they are angered by foreigners going in caves no one has

ever entered. A plan has been formulated to do diplomatic work to

deal with this issue, but it’s going to take several years to overcome,

if it’s ever overcome.

The area to the east of the known passages of Sistema Huautla, was

an objective, to search for new cave entrances that might descend

deep and connect with the cave system below. Around 20 new pits

and caves were explored and mapped, without anything going very

far or deep. A cave southeast of known passages in the system

shows promise with strong airflow and the exploration of it will

continue during the 2016 expedition.

Oscar Franke, Ph.D., professor of biology, a noted arachnologist

and scorpion expert and a professor at the National Autonomous

University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, joined our

expeditions in 2014 and 2015 and brought along three graduate

students each time. They are thrilled that they have collected twelve

new species of cave life, including new species of tarantula, new

species of harvestmen spiders, and a new species of scorpion in the

caves. They will return in 2016.






Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

An important paleontological site was found in a cave as well. In a

series of large adjoining rooms in a cave we had not visited in over

30 years, not far from the village where we rent houses, large bones

were noticed in a talus cone of dirt on the floor. We think there must

have been an entrance above the bones at one time in the distant

past. Based on photographs taken with scale and sent to a

professional paleontologist in Mexico City, he feels that at least one

of the animals is an extinct Pleistocene ground sloth. A graduate

student of his joined us for a week this year and plans to return for a

longer amount of time in 2016 to excavate the 1 ½ m tall cone of

bones and other ancient surface debris.

Halfway through the first PESH expedition in 2014, five cavers

arrived with packs already prepared to go underground and camp in

the La Grieta section of Sistema Huautla. La Grieta, meaning “the

crack”, is a significant section of Sistema Huautla. It’s over 700 m in

depth to where it connects to the system and has tributaries feeding

into it that were initially explored in 1977, but no one had been back

to them since then.

Taking underground backpacks, five cavers went into La Grieta to

stay underground for nine days. They set up a remote camp and

explored an upstream tributary initially explored without finding an

end in 1977. They succeeded in discovering and mapping 1.6 km of

new passages. This was Kasia Biernacka of Poland, Gilly Elor,

Corey Hackley, John Harman, and Bill Stone of the USA. Three of

them camped underground for seven days and two of them for nine.

Their most significant discovery was a passage extending over 1.5

km to the north, directly toward the highest topography in the area.

They turned around in 20 X 20 m borehole passage because they

were running low on food and battery power for their lights. This

continuing passage is a major objective for 2016.

The second annual PESH expedition took place from March 23 –

May 5, 2015 with 47 speleologists and support people from ten

counties; the United States, Mexico, England, France, Germany,

Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, and Australia.

Cavers explored the upstream sump (a sump is a cave passage with


Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

water to the ceiling (necessitating scuba gear) in Red Ball Canyon at

the 700 m (2,296 foot) deep Sotano de San Agustin section of

Sistema Huautla, an area not seen since 1979. On the far side of

three sumps, 30 m, 30 m, and 5 m long, two cavers, Andreas

Klocker of Australia, and Zeb Lilly of Virginia in the USA, direct

aid climbed 180 m (590 feet) vertically beyond it. It continues to go

up into the unknown and is getting bigger.

They also discovered a new and potentially extensive new part of

the La Grieta section of Sistema Huautla. Dubbed Mexiguilla due to

its similarity with New Mexico’s (USA) Lechuguilla Cave (one of

the world’s most beautiful caves), the area has the best formations

yet found in the 44-mile-long cave system.



Besides Sistema Huautla, teams explored and mapped small caves in

the area in hopes of opening up new sections of Sistema Huautla.

Progress was also made with public relations efforts to gain access

to unexplored entrances where local Mazatec Indians believe cave

spirits reside and fear offending them, resulting in their corn not

growing well or their children getting sick. At the suggestion of a

local government official, PESH designed, created, and installed a

USA National Park visitors’ center quality display in the local

government building, with 16 excellent photographs as large prints

informative text in Spanish, and a profile map with scale of the cave

showing it to be as deep at four Empire State Buildings in New

York City stacked on top of each other.

Another focus of the 2015 expedition was underground

photography. Six excellent cave photographers were part of the

team: Karis Biernacka of Poland, Liz Rogers of Australia, Dave

Bunnell, Steve Eginoire, Chris Higgins, and Matt Tomlinson of the

USA. A coffee table book of the best Huautla cave photographs

through the years is being planned for the future.

PESH 2016 Expedition

Planning and preparing for our next expedition is underway in early

September 2015. The dates are set: basically, the month of April

with a week of preparation in the field prior to that. Preparation in




Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

the field includes three days of driving from Texas to southern

Mexico, visiting local government officials and getting permits and

permissions, renting houses in a small village near the entrance to

the section of the cave system we will concentrate on, and setting

the houses up, which means getting the kitchen operating, buying

groceries, and preparing for twenty more people to arrive in a few

days. Then it will be four weeks of high energy activity with

unexpected and usually surprising news reports from underground


We have a long list of exploration and study objectives for the next

expedition, but then there is the possibility of the unexpected

happening. The unexpected happened on the first two PESH

expeditions, and they both happened late in the expeditions. “The

unexpected” is something almost unique to cave exploration in these

modern times. Since satellite photos are not available because caves

are beneath the earth’s surface, and no technology exists that can

penetrate thick layers of rock in mountains to see where cave

passage lie, you literally don’t know until you go, in other words,

pure exploration is still possible on Earth. The unexpected in cave

exploration is usually when a surprising discovery is made where

the geology of the cave as it is understood did not hold true and

there is an unusual variation in the geologic structure.

Near the end of the 2014 expedition, on the last day of a seven day

stay deep in the cave, explorers working from a remote camp, 400 m

below the surface, broke out into a 20-metre diameter tunnel

bearing due north. It’s probably been there for five million years,

but no one had ever reached it before. As much as it pained the team

of five that found it, after exploring ahead a few hundred metres and

mapping it, they took a photo to show its grandness and turned

around to head out. That continuing passage is the number one

objective in 2016. A team of five is already making plans to remain

deep underground for one month and explore that passage as far as

they can.

Two other main objectives are in the same cave and will require

other teams to camp deep and far in the cave to explore them. One

was discovered late in the 2015 expedition. Three cavers had gone




Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

deep into the cave to “winterize it”, meaning pull ropes up shafts as

they exited the cave, and leave the ropes coiled there where flood

waters in the coming rainy season would not wash them away or

damage them.

Their plan was to camp one night in the remote underground camp,

using sleeping bags and stoves already staged there for use in 2015,

and the next day climb out of the cave and pull the fixed ropes up as

they did. The problem was that one of them got sick once they got

to the camp. He was going to need a day to recuperate, so the other

two decided to do some exploring and mapping. They looked at the

survey notes from the year before and picked a minor “lead”, a side

passage noted but not yet explored, and decided it was close enough

to the camp where the sick caver would be left, and they would give

it a few hours and probably finish it.



That’s not what happened. As soon as these two got on their hands

and knees in soft sand in the low passage, they felt a strong breeze

and smiled at each other. Cavers know, “if it blows, it goes.”

Barometric exchanges with the changing air pressure on the surface

cause breezes, sometimes even strong winds in caves, and cavers get

good at detecting these clues and following them.

And follow the wind these two did, to a new section with the most

beautifully decorated passages found in all of the caves in Huautla.

These two explorers, Gilly Elor and Derek Bristol, marvelled at the

wonderment of perhaps one of the most beautiful places on earth,

or rather inside the earth. Derek has done a fair amount of exploring

in Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico, said by many to be the most

beautiful cave known. He thinks the section of Sistema Huautla

they found that day in late April 2015, is as good. So, in thinking

hard for a name for it, he coined the name Mexiguilla, combining

the words Mexico and Lechuguilla. Mexiguilla will be explored,

mapped, and photographed in 2016.

Another top objective for 2016 is in this same section of Sistema

Huautla. It’s over 700 m deep. Seen only once in 1977, there is a

gigantic dome with a waterfall named Doo Dah Dome. It’s as wide

and soaring as the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, but much taller. The


Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

passage followed to get to it is named the Wind Tunnel, there is so

much wind blowing through it. Doo Dah Dome is of unknown

height. The lights of today are so much better than they were in

1977, so perhaps in 2016 explorers will be able to see the top of the

dome. But then again, maybe not. The plan is to climb it, using

direct aid, and explore up-trending passages toward the surface,

possibly as much as 1,000 m (3,300 feet) above.

Gear and techniques

A lot has changed gear-wise in the 50 years the caves of Huautla

have been explored. In 1965 the first cavers wore denim pants and

jackets and work boots. Their helmets were construction hard hats

and their headlamps were carbide lights. Every three to five hours

they had to refuel their carbide lamps. If they got wet, and the

Huautla caves are wet even in the driest time of the year, their

cotton pants and jackets sapped their body heat.

Cavers not shun cotton completely. Synthetic materials make

underwear warm even when wet. For outerwear nylon or PVC

coveralls are worn. These are very durable and protect the caver

from the often sharp walls. For boots most cavers wear lugged

rubber canyoneering boots. Wet caves soften leather and leather

boots die off quickly.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article and got it published in a

cavers’ journal titled “The Light is the Future is Here Now”. In it I

recalled being miles from the entrance, deep in a cave, as a teenager,

taking a break, waiting for someone to refuel his carbide lamp

before it was my turn, and discussing how someday, someday way

off the distant future, we will have very rugged headlamps with

different settings to switch from 180 degrees of full periphery light

to a beam that could reach the bottom of a deep, perhaps 500 foot

deep shaft, to see if the rope we had just rigged reaches the bottom.

It will be totally waterproof with batteries that last so long you can

go on a long, maybe even 20 hour, non-stop caving trip and not

have to change batteries. We laughed and someone said, “Like I’ll

live long enough to see that!” I hope that he has. I have.


Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

I have a top of the line Scurion headlamp. Its Swiss engineered and

made, very futuristic-looking, and does all of those things. Your

headlamp is your primary piece of gear in caving. If you are out of

light, you are stuck or you are borrowing a light. My Scurion is just

one of four lights I always have with me in a cave. More often than

not I have loaned a light to someone before I needed a backup light.

The Scurion has never failed me.

The ropes the first Huautla cavers had in the 60s were of a laid

construction, meaning three strands twisted very tightly together, a

rope named Goldline, which was known and dreaded for spinning

anytime a caver could not stop the spinning by reaching out to the

wall. If the rope hung in free space, a caver would spin round and

round. Sometimes they got motion sick from the spinning.



Packs were army surplus made of canvas. Canteens were also army

surplus, or sometimes left over from when the caver was a Boy


All the early Huautla cavers were male. That was in the 60s. In the

70s it changed and about a fourth were female. Now it sometimes

approaches 50%. This is a very welcome development.

The ropes also changed in the 70s from the laid, twisted

construction of Goldline rope, to the kernmantle, braided design of

modern caving ropes, which don’t spin in free fall and don’t stretch.

They are also very tough and abrasion resistant.

Over the past twenty years the European technique of rigging

rebelays, deviations, and using smaller, 9mm ropes has been adopted

in Mexico and in much of the USA. Rebelays are when a rope is

anchored on the wall of a shaft so that the rope does not make

contact with a sharp place on the wall. A deviation is when a sling or

a runner is used so the rope passes through a carabiner and is held

away from the wall or sharp edge.

Rappelling devices are exclusively either a rappel rack, or a bobbintype

rappelling device, usually a Petzl Stop or Simple. The latter

type is quicker when passing a rebelay and it has to be taken off the



Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

rappel rope in mid-shaft.

Rope ascent is done by a technique called frogging. It’s a sit/stand

technique, where a Petzl Croll ascending device is attached to a low

slung seat harness and lifted by a chest harness when a climbing

caver stands. Once seated they kick their heels back under their

fanny, slide up an upper mechanical ascender which has a loop for

their feet, and then stand up and do it again, moving like an

inchworm. Once learned, it’s quite efficient, and since you are

standing with both legs at once, it’s possible to haul a fairly heavy

load as you climb a rope.



Full speleology

Speleology is the study of caves. Full speleology means conducting

studies in all of the sub-disciplines of speleology: geology,

hydrology, biology, paleontology, and archaeology. Huautla cavers

even had a psychological study done on them in the mid-90s by a

NASA researcher. After all, they were going to be in a remote place

with a small team, no outside stimulus or distractions, doing

difficult tasks in a risky environment and dependent on technology.

In 2005 the first edition of the book “Encyclopedia of Caves” was

published in the USA by Elsevier Press. Editors William White and

David Culver invited Jim Smith and me to co-author a chapter for it

about Sistema Huautla. We decided to convey in our chapter not

only a brief history of the exploration and mapping through the

years and generally how it sizes up with the caves of the world, but

we also listed the various disciplines of speleology and cited theses

written and published, papers in journals, and books written about

the exploration. There have been two of them: “Beyond the Deep”

by William C. Stone, Barbara AmEnde, and Monte Paulsen, and

“Huautla: Thirty Years in One of the World’s Deepest Caves” by

me. In 2012 Smith and I were invited to update our chapter for the

second edition of the book, which we did.


There is no denying that the exploration of Sistema Huautla has

been a grand adventure. Sit around a campfire with Huautla cavers


Sistema Huautla: Fifty Years of Continuous Exploration

By C. William Steele

and the stories pour forth. Two books have been written, countless

articles in journals, and there is more to come. There are videos on

You Tube and a movie was even made by in the 90s that is on Vimeo

(Huautla: The Mexican Cave). Portions of it have made to US

television on NOVA, National Geographic Explorer, and How’d

They do That? The Brits’ 2013 expedition shot video, released by

Red Bull and is on the Web (http://www.redbull.tv/episodes/


I’m 66 years old. I was “bitten by the bug” to explore caves when I

was 13. I’ve been in over 2,500 caves in the USA, Mexico, Belize,

Guatemala, and China, but my masterpiece is Sistema Huautla. I’ve

been on twenty expeditions there and my 21st is coming up in a few

months. I think of myself as fortunate, fortunate to be among a

group of world-class explorers who have hammered away,

regardless of the difficulties and danger, to be the original explorers

of what many feel is the greatest cave on Earth.



Monlam Cham



O' Donnell

RAJ 2.1



Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

Like many 'Timeless Travel' adventures this one started between the

pages of a dusty old book long forgotten, 'The Travels of Marco

Polo.' My mother had given me the volume. It sat on my shelf for

years until one day it ignited a dream to retrace the Venetian

explorer’s entire route along the legendary Silk Road. Our

expedition's name was 'The Return to Venice.'

Now, after many arduous months, our caravan had survived a series

of rock slides and avalanches. We had climbed through snowy

mountain passes, to reach the seemingly endless Tibetan highlands.

Its people are nomadic and roam this plateau with their sundry

beasts, wild and free as the wind. We had been told by fellow

travelers that there is a rich Gompa called Labrang which is a very

sacred Monastery to the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is the

repository of great knowledge and wealth.

In Marco Polo’s time, hundreds of Monks were said to live there, it

was founded in 1709 by the first Jamyang Zhépa, Ngawang

Tsöndrü. It is to be found in a blessed mountain valley named

Sangke, hidden like a gem in a lotus flower, surrounded by 108

sacred peaks with names like, Eternal Bliss, Tolerance and

Compassion, Radiance and Harmony, Dragon and Phoenix,

Everlasting Life and Tian Shan, which equates to the Mountain of


It sounded like romantic hyperbole, but I was hopeful. We had

risked this sidetrack because a great festival was about to take place

and thousands of pilgrims from all over Tibet would be enjoining.

It was our intention to witness and document the festivities, seek

out trade goods like coral, amber, silver, gold, and other precious

gems, which decorated their “women and idols,” as Marco Polo said

in his account of the region 700 years prior. As we approached our

destination, the larger the gathering became, an ever increasing

stream of pilgrims could be seen on the horizon, little specks

focused on one heading.

My guess was there were at least thirty thousand supplicants filling

Images Opposite:

Top: A masked dancer bares a fearsome countenance to scare away evil spirits.

Middle: A group of monks watch while their comrades practice.

Bottom: The "Monlam Cham


Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

the small town and camping in the surrounding valleys. We were

invited to stay in one such camp with an extended family. It was

hard for me to tell the difference between clans, the diversity of

customs and dress was dizzying. One thing was standard, the

friendly open nature in which everyone greeted us. Most would

stop momentarily, bow slightly, and while smiling, stick out their

tongue and say, “Dimo Dimo.” The way Westerners might shake

hands the Tibetans stick out their tongues! At first, I was taken

aback, not knowing what it meant. I have to say that the novelty of

sticking your tongue out, as a greeting, wears off quickly. After a

few dozen greetings it can be quite tiring, causing your tongue to

swell, making it hard to eat.



I first had the honor of drinking salted yak butter tea some years

ago and had grown to like, even enjoy, its thick and oily, rancid

taste. Our hosts had a few new twists they introduced me to. Aside

from all the yak fat, odd chunks of meat, hair, sinew, and cartilage,

they added a grain called tsampa into their tea which makes it more

of a porridge. This is how it's done. You leave a little buttered tea

in the bottom of your bowl and put a big dollop of this tsampa meal

on top. You then stir gently with the forefinger, kneading it by

hand, meanwhile, twisting your bowl ‘round and round’ until you

finish up with a large dumping like object which you ingest, and

wash down with more tea.

The whole operation demands a high degree of manual dexterity

and practice before you can judge correctly how much tsampa goes

with how much tea. Unless you get the proportions right you

either end up with a lump of desiccated dough or a semi liquid paste

sticking to your fingers. Tibetans have many names for themselves,

one is, “The Tsampa Eaters.” This term promotes a unified Tibetan

identity. Tsampa meal constitutes a substantial part of the Tibetan

diet and is used in sacred rituals. According to Polo’s account,

“There are Holy Men here who live lives of great austerity and all

their lives they eat nothing but this bran.”

So, there we sat, smiling, sticking our tongues out and sucking

down hot buttery balls of tsampa bran, and trying to communicate.


Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

Neither, my colleague, photographer, Denis, or I knew many words

of Tibetan, so we communicated in our very limited Chinese, but

mostly, with smiles and pantomime.

When the vodka was finished they broke out the Chang a Tibetan

beer. Chang is also made of tsampa bran and has a rich, deep, tangy,

bubbly taste. We all became highly inebriated and sang ourselves to

sleep in a mixed chorus of the old standards, 'Row, Row, Row Your

Boat' and 'Old Susanna' and some Tibetan tunes that we tried hard

to mimic. When I rose the next morning the nearby campsites had

packed up and were gone. Our hosts, too, had vanished. How

could we have slept through that? Wow, I am never drinking again,

that is it for Chang!

We rode on in anticipation. Soon in the distance we could see the

golden rooftops and whitewashed walls of the great Labrange

Gompa peeking out from behind the trees. The smell of pine and

cedar was everywhere as breakfast fires filled the air. Even at this

early hour the path was packed with thousands of Tibetan pilgrims

performing parikrama as they paraded proudly past. Dressed, as

they were, in their Sunday-going-to-festival-best. The spectacle was


Families, tall and proud, walked hand-in-hand toward the town.

Fathers wearing fox fur hats of great height, bodies wrapped in

inverted sheepskin cloaks, tied tight at the waist, with colorful

silken sashes, fastened with gem encrusted broaches. A mighty

pommel in his hand, dagger sheathed, he led his Clan, a patriarch's

parental swagger, he did sway, as the growing crowd parted way.

Mother and children bringing up the rear with happy grins from

ear-to-ear. Their frost bitten cheeks were here to share in this

Festival of Losar which happens only once a year.

The thousands of pilgrims in attendance believe that their mere

presence increases their Karma. By obeying Dharma and

commemorating Guatama's spiritual victory over the forces of

ignorance, greed, fear, and anger they can accrue good fortune for

themselves in the New Year. So, it is a kind of renewal. This act,

too, may help one attain merit on their path to enlightenment.


Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

After months of making our way through the Silk Roads deserts,

dry and bleak, every hue of brown did I see. Tawny was the sky, at

night, five shades of beige, sand our constant delight. When the

shadows of dusk were finally cast, dark brown, sienna, and umber

came out at last. The color flowing into this town could astound.

Red, yellow, and blue were just a few there to be found. There were

secondaries, too, a kaleidoscopic mix of all, a majestic vision to

behold. The primaries were in force, in the form of coral, amber,

and turquoise, of course. Precious stones held in place with facets

of silver and golden lace.



Fortunes attached to headdresses, heavy and long, with tails that

hung behind beautiful maiden's derrieres. Rings and bracelets, for

men and boys, items that not only the women did enjoy. Paupers,

peasants, and princes all stopped at crowded market stalls, that had

sprung up along the way, to separate pilgrims from their pay. There

was a magic in the air. The tension of anticipation without despair,

the past was the past, for soon New Year's day would be here.

Riders, at breakneck speed, parted the human tide. Birds of prey

swooped down with the swiftness of a whirlwind. Warrior Monks,

whose wings were of crimson cloaks, flew through the crowding

sky, as they took flight to roost amongst the monasteries main flock.

Quarters of the Lampo Lama and home of the living Buddha.

We came to stay at a chamber run by the monastery. Our cell was

small and dark with shutters shut, a profusion of oil lamps lit the

space. It was freezing cold, in what was once Amdo Provence, in

late January. The coal burning stove was just being lit by one of the

monks that oversees the residences. We threw our packs down on

the horse hair mattress. The bed consisted of several planks of

wood nailed together and stretched across chairs at either end.

Exhausted we collapsed, our coma seemed to last forever. Shivering

terribly, my teeth were chattering as I awoke, it was only 11 pm and

our fire was out. It was going to be a long night.

Up with the sun, over the next few days, we explored the town and

made ourselves known. With still two weeks before the main

festivities we had a chance to make friends with many of the monks,




Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

from the novices to the higher-ups. We spent time with them

kicking a soccer ball around in front of the main temple, or cut in

line joining the never ending stream of pilgrams who walked the

circuit around the sacred percinct and spun the many thousands of

prayer wheels which lined the way. We too chant “Om Mani..,”

“The Jewel is in the Lotus.”

We spent simple moments, like sharing pictures of home and

teaching each other words of our respective languages. It was

bucolic in its nature, pure and unpretentious. Like two alien beings

from different solar systems, coming together, truly interested in

one another's planets.

Labrange Gompa is a renowned center for Buddhist thought and

Tibetan cultural heritage. It contains eighteen prayer halls, six

institutes of higher learning. The great library houses nearly sixty

thousand prayer books and an area for theological debate, as well as,

books on medicines, art, and music. They have a large collection of

Buddha statues and murals.

The central house of prayer contains a golden statue of the Buddha,

more than fifty feet high, and in the main courtyard there is a

golden stupa with a relic of the lord Buddha contained within. The

main purpose of the Great Prayer Festival or Monlam Chenmo is to

pray for the long life of holy Gurus of all traditions, for the survival

and spreading of the Dharma in the minds of all sentient beings, and

for world peace. The communal prayers, ceremonies, and rituals

that will take place are believed to help overcome obstacles to peace

and generate optimum conditions for everyone to live in harmony.

The Monks have much to do during this period and we sat in as

they did so. Each student is required to study the canon of

Buddhist scriptures at the Mayjung Tosamling Academy. During

Monlam they must participate in examinations for advanced degrees

and debate. These debates kickoff the activities, next comes the

Cham dance itself, followed by the revealing of a huge sacred

Thangka painting.

Closing with the ritual offering and burning of the Tormas cake and


Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

elaborate butter sculptures. Lastly, there is the circumambulation of

the entire Gompa complex one hundred and eight times. They

carry images of the Lord Buddha with them in prayer.

The festival grounds where the debates were to take place were

frozen when we got there and packed with thousands of crimson

clad monks assembled before an open shrine housing a gilded statue

of Shakyamuni. In unison they recited scriptures and prayers.

They in turn were surrounded by thousands more, pilgrims, who

squeezed into and packed every spot possible.



On the platform of the shrine sat senior monks, teachers, and

overseers donning huge amber colored crescent shaped bonnets.

They would lead the rituals and debates. A chorus of monks seated

at the base of the shrine blew giant horns thirty feet long, whose

voices were so deep and strong it shook the very bones inside your

frame. Others then blew high pitched and squeaky horns,

drummers beat drums and clashed symbols while all hummed and

chanted a foreboding tune. Next these overseers rose to their feet

and conjured spells and incantations.

Then their leader began to bless and throw pinches of tsampa into

the air. Throwing tsampa as an offering is used as a petition to

request protection from the gods. It is a mark of joy and

celebration used on occasions, such as marriages and birthdays.

Then the debate began in earnest for hour upon hour. Teams of

three and four monks would debate each other in some point of

doctrine and theology.

When a Monk felt he had gained the upper hand or won a point of

rhetoric they would slap their hands together, straight out in front

of themselves as if proving a point or putting an exclamation point

on it. The whole of the crowd was very well behaved and seemed

enthralled by the event, but I found it quite boring.

I never did like attending church much. Standing here looking

across the field, I thought how similar the lives of these Monks are

to Christian Monks. They live austere lives in religious Monastic

communities, dedicated to worship and prayer, they dress in priestly


Images Above:

Top Left: A Lama prepares to join the debates.

Top Right: A monk shares yak butter tea with the pilgrims.

Bottom Left: The great "Thangka" painting being unfurled on a hillside.

Bottom Right: A magnificent coral headpiece.

Photos (c) Denis Belliveau.


Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

vestments and tonsure their heads.

Then across a sea of bobbing heads and faces, I saw Denis' mug

making his way in my direction. I had a strange moment of

dislocation. Here, amongst the natives, I felt at home and of no

difference. Now, seeing my friend coming towards me, I knew just

how out of place I really was. “Good to see you, what brings you to

the debate?” I said facetiously, “Nothing Franny, just thought you

might want to find something to eat?” “Sure, let's go,” was my reply

as I threw my arm around his shoulder, inquiring if he thought he

had captured any good images that morning and thought to myself,

you gotta love this guy. The weight of the expedition put a lot of

pressure on our friendship and often we would take it out on one

another. Xiahe, as the town is known in Chinese, softened this

tension, letting us slow down and appreciate things, life, and one

another, anew.



We found ourselves at one of the few ‘Dining establishments,’ the

Tashi Delek Momo Palace. We had to wait in line outside for about

a half an hour, so, we munched on grilled wild hare on a stick from a

street vendor out front.

Once seated we just pointed to dishes that looked good, as they

passed, and told the waiter to bring them to us. Specialties like

gyuma, blood sausage, and braised boar tongue, dressed in a unique

sweet and spicy chili sauce, which came out first. The room was full

of diners slurping away. We ordered Thenthuk, a brothy shaved

noodle soup, liberally spiced with garlic and onions, and studded

with different mystery meats and leafy mountain herbs.

A giant pile of steaming hot Momos hit the table, big fat greasy

dumplings, filled with minced spiced goat meat. When you bit into

one it would explode gushing unctuous fat that would drip down

your chin and all over your chest. My favorite dish was the huge

slab of char-grilled yak steak slathered with garlic sauce, washed

down with the ubiquitous salted butter tea.

The big day had arrived, at sunrise supplicants started to venture

toward the main plaza. Now, a few days into the festivities, the




Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

Monlam Cham Dance would take place in front of the Gompa main

temple. For months prior, monks from the College of Tantric

Kalachakra spend every spare moment practicing their special part

in the dance. The discipline of Kalachakra is one of perfect selfcontrol

over each and every movement of the body. Each bend,

twist, and curve of a hand, wrist or finger contains profound

meaning. The placement of a foot, the act of spinning and jumping

through the air tells a story, in a language that only those who

understand can decipher.

The morning had come and gone. We had great seats right up front

sitting in and amongst the monks who had befriended us. The

thousands waiting did so patiently. There was a special seating

section, a loge built just below the roof line of the monastery.

Among the dignitaries I could see several of the Gompas spiritual


Sitting with them was the monastery's living Buddha, who I was

shocked to see was just a boy of perhaps eleven or twelve. A living

Buddha is a fully realized being, one who has attained the spiritual

level needed to reach Buddha consciousness and nirvana but has

chosen to stay in the world to help all sentient beings on their path

to enlightenment, a Bodhisattva.

Finally, the dancers who had donned majestic silken robes, and

wore the most demonic masks ever to be seen, slowly and

methodically emerged from behind a hidden screen. One at first

crouching and bending, swirling, and shaking, waving his arms

about casting incantations with sacred amulets and symbols of

Karmic powers. He called forth his cousins, who gladly appeared,

scowling devils with faces twin to his. All joined his evil romp,

stomping around together, hallowing this sacred ground. With

fierce countenance so profound as to scare the sources of bad luck

and evil away from the town. Now, in a more frenzied fashion they

did move, faster, and faster until coming to completion, full

saturation. Their secret message sent again, and again, and again, on,

and on it went, until every soul present was spent.

Hour after hour we endured the mesmerizing haunt of drums and


Monlam Cham Festival

By Francis O' Donnell

bones. Horns in repetition blew, the thunderous symbol clashed,

too. Upon their demon heads they wore a crown of skulls, grinning

at the hypnotized crowd, lost in meditation, each and everyone of

us, proud to have been witness to this sacred troupe's operatic

ballet. Insuring happiness and good fortune throughout the land.

Happy Losar to one and all.

The time had come, our fantasy over, soon we would catch the bus,

our real 'Caravan' for the four hour ride back to Lanzhou the

capital of Gansu Province. We stood on a hillside overlooking the

monastery, nestled in the Daxia river valley below, as the last

pilgrims melted back into the steppe. Smoke rose up to the heavens

and we could hear the soul stirring song of nomadic tribesmen

echoing on the wind and off the surrounding mountains. We

communicated in silence, each understanding the profound

experience we had and knowing we had been changed. Not daring

to speak so as not to break the spell, a tear rolled down my cheek at

having to leave. This was my 'Lost Horizon' and it extends on




Images Above:

Left: A fine example of Tibetan wealth, silver, coral and amber

held in decorative attire.

Right: A young pilgrim who has walked many miles.

Photos (c) Denis Belliveau

"The very basic core of a man's living

spirit is his passion for adventure. The

joy of life comes from our encounters

with new experiences, and hence there

is no greater joy than to have an

endlessly changing horizon, for each

day to have a new and different sun."

Jon Krakauer

"Into the Wild"


50 The Years Great Of Island Exploration Swim


Nuala Bill

Moore Steele

RAJ 2.2

The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore



Planning and purpose – the Expedition begins

As I was peeling off my immersion suit, tears in my eyes, exhausted

and emotionally drained just about to swim north of the Blasket

Islands heading to Loop Head, Brendan Proctor, command boat

skipper, leaned over to my ear and whispered, “Remember if you

feel weak, if you feel you can’t-there are a huge team pushing each

arm forward, each stroke is us-we’re doing this as a team, we will

finish this as a team, you are never alone out there.”

One deep breath and I lowered my broken body over the side of the

zodiac, we were 36 days on this expedition to swim around the

Island of Ireland, the uncertainty of the next few weeks and

challenges unknown. I stared into heavy, deep and uninviting

Atlantic water, bigger than I had ever swam in. As the waves crashed

over my head, I kept repeating, “you are not alone - breathe and

fight,” and I did.

The Round Ireland Swim, as it became known, in 2006, was much

more than a relay, it was expedition and adventure to the core. It

involved so much passion, expertise, trust, humility, ability to

change plans, ability to accept defeat and reassess our plans but it

mostly reflected a team who knew that if it was possible we would

do it. We were ordinary people doing something extraordinary.

Ireland is the 20th biggest island in the world, the main vision was

to be the first team to circumnavigate the 800 or so miles by

swimming, without wetsuits. A team of six main swimmers, a

dedicated marine unit, a command cruiser vessel, three zodiacs, a

marine rescue group of four rotating teams, a marine coordinator, a

communications team and a land operations team were pulled


The Round Ireland Relay Swim was an unprecedented expedition of

epic strength and resilience that is unlikely to ever be repeated at

this level. The Expedition took 56 days, with 35 swim days, the

difference being accounted for, by weather and team changeover.

The logistics of each day began with the allocation of the Zodiacs,

Image Opposite of Nuala Moore © Valerie O' Sullivan.



The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

two swimmers per Zodiac, the ‘Rachel Marie’ and the ‘Dive Áine’,

each with a dedicated marine unit, one Zodiac the ‘Abhainn Rí’

carried the Marine Coordinator Derek Flanagan, his team and with

swimmer Anne Marie Ward. The Command Vessel the ‘Sea Breeze’

rotated within the group captained by Brendan Proctor.

The plan was to swim 20-24 miles a day within the group and this

allowed the boats to carry their own plans and then coordinate all

GPS locations pre and post swims and each swim were joined to

create the day’s plan. The Command Boat skipper, the Marine

Coordinator, the Comms team and the swim team were fully

involved for the two months continuously.



The challenges presented by each coast gave us both expectations

and often absolute confusion. I remember the statement that the

North Coast, the East Coast and the South Coast are predictable

but the West Coast, it’s impossible to say what is going to happen

out there. My motto at the beginning was that “We are only

swimming, I have no other plans for the day, dig deep and take

every swim in the moment,” and this we did.

The swim started in Carrigfinn beach on July 2nd 2006 off the coast

of Donegal. Swimming with the coldest water, the prevailing wind,

currents and through the treacherous Northern Coastline first. The

wind for the first few days was North East which made swimming

into the wind a big challenge. Day 1,2 and 3 we were 4 hrs behind

our schedule each evening, we got a very clear indication that plans

were only guidelines and our expectations would be determined by

each day’s conditions.

The Rescue Units served one week on at a time Alpha, Bravo,

Charlie and Delta. These teams are members of the Sheephaven Sub

Aqua Club in Donegal. The logistics of this would allow a fresh

team and a fresh set of eyes and hands to join the expedition each

Sunday. One of the unspoken rules of open water swimming is the

swimmer can only swim if the rescue unit can take them from the

water in the unlikely event of an emergency so the value of these

units was priceless. Trust is vital when you feel vulnerable to

weather and conditions. Complacency can cost lives and we learned


The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

very early on that the bond between boat and swimmer is


The first week went like a textbook where each swim was

predictable, the challenges and the energy required were just what

we trained for. Swimming 4-6 hours a day was acceptable. The

North coast was a cold average 12 degrees Celsius. The North

channel is renowned for Lion’s Mane jellyfish and big seas; it did

not disappoint.

As we turned south. swimming down the Antrim Coast and past

Belfast Lough, the Beaufort Dyke in the North Channel is one of

the biggest arms dumps from WW2 and the water temperatures

drop with water depths of almost 1,000 feet. The emotion of the

swim changes, as the depth of the water drops, the water becomes

thicker. Constant Jellyfish stings and hypothermia accompanied by

rain and wind gave us our first taste of what it was like to sit on the

boats in open weather with nowhere to shelter. It was so difficult to

keep our bodies from losing too much heat as we waited for our

next swim. The Immersion suits were wet inside and sitting for 8

hours each day in the elements took its toll as it was not possible to

eat properly under these conditions. The wind was exhausting, we

learned that miles had to be continually fought for. Training for

distance swimming was not equating well with expedition


Being wet and cold every day took its toll and after a week although

the expedition was meeting its goals, the physical depletion, the

emotional exhaustion, the realisation of not having a physiotherapist

or a nutritionist or even proper cover from weather conditions was

going to be a major issue. There were no alternatives, we had to

soldier on.

Week Two brought us towards Dublin as Team Bravo joined us. A

fresh team brought renewed enthusiasm. The challenges nightly for

the Marine Coordinator, Derek Flanagan was not only to measure

the distance but to plot the course and risk assess the route each day.

Brendan Proctor and Derek Flanagan, together with their team,

were routing and risk assessing tides 18 hrs a day.


The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

Each coast gave a different emotion - a different challenge.

The feel of the water for a swimmer, down past the counties of

Louth and Dublin was so light. We could breathe, the wind turned

Southerly and passing inside Ireland’s Eye it was possible to see the

sandy bottom. We recognised the headlands. The proximity of the 2

countries, Ireland and Britain, squeezes the water, the tides run

North South, the water races up and down the coast like a river. We

could see our progress from the shore, the sunshine, the southerly

wind, water temperatures of 14 degrees, the lightness of the water

along with being so close to the coast reinvigorated our

determination. The first week had teething troubles but now we

breathed again, this was possible, the East Coast was a gift.

The Arklow Banks were beautiful, the wind turbines spinning fast,

so majestic, volumes of sand in our teeth as we breathed in from the

surface of the water, the familiar landmarks along the coast occupied

our minds so that the days passed easily. Turning past Tusker Rock,

our last day in the Irish Sea-we picked up tides at 8 knots, Derek

gave us 25 miles and water speed barely allowed my arms to match

the speed of my body. We were flying. The Irish sea allowed us to

swim a mile of only fourteen minutes and energy was as high as

days were short. By day 11 we left the Irish Sea, two weeks of

swimming and our arms had covered two coasts of Ireland. We

celebrated, the biggest challenge yet was climbing the ladders at

Rosslare Port. The ladders were designed for Ferries and our arms

were weak, lifting myself up 140 rungs of a ladder was the greatest

risk for that day!

The emotions from swimming west, a new direction.

Eighteen hour days filled with sunshine and water temperatures of

14 degrees seemed possible. Our bodies were starting to feel the

pain of repeat immersions without rest, it was becoming difficult to

differentiate between pain and injury but the heat of each day was

such a bonus. When Henry asked each morning if we were OK to

swim, there were no other answers except “Yes”. It was an

automated reply.




The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

Team Charlie joined us and brought fresh energy to the group. Our

emotions were surreal as the new people confirmed our excellent

progress, we were on schedule. Belief in this expedition was at a

premium as we broke the 300-mile mark. Cold was no longer an

issue, sitting on zodiacs with heat of the sun on our backs lifted our

spirits up as water temps reached 16 degrees.

Day 15 brought new challenges, we were crossing the halfway mark

360 nautical miles at Kinsale. To avoid the bays, we travelled twenty

miles off shore in water that was really big. With tides running

North to South, our engine on the East coast, was now our enemy.

A mile was now taking fifty minutes, so with twenty miles to

complete daily this was now a sixteen-hour day. My mind broke as

the progress and feeling of superiority was smashed by each mile

taking twenty minutes longer than expected. It was hard to accept

whether the miles were taking longer or if our bodies were getting


The knowledge that we were tiny vulnerable bodies swimming past

rocks such as the Fastnet which, in a moment back in 1979, claimed

fifteen lives, from freak weather during a sailing race. In water like

this you actually feel so small and at times the boat seems so far


Our swim took us past bays like Roaring Water Bay which has

claimed more than its share of wrecks such as the Kowloon Bridge,

vessels the size of football pitches taken by the force of the sea and

here we were, small insignificant bodies, one could only feel

humbled by our achievements so far. I diverted to thinking why

were the islands called Pig, Cow, Elephant, Bull, Calf, Dog, Rabbit,

Adam and Eve, was it that they didn’t have any other names?

Moments of sheer impossibility get lost in the absolute privilege of

the experience.

An Expedition that started as purely a physical challenge, of

swimming around Ireland, was now a demonstration of human

interdependence and the willingness of certain of us to go to that

place that many do not dare. The following days brought Team

Delta the fourth of the rescue units. I prayed for the Cork coast to


The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

end, even though the weather was beautiful, accumulated pain, the

inability to properly manage our food and hydration intake and the

lack of physiotherapy were secondary to the acknowledgement of

what it would take to finish this truly epic project.

The costs of these projects go much deeper than in simple monetary

terms. The emotional costs were mounting, the questions and the

value of being away from life started to rise, as the accents on the

VHF radio were those of my home county. My phone started to

ring more often with work questions, I wished for the chance to be

somewhere that there was no communication with the outside

world. When you can see the cost of your dreams, it can strip you

bare of all energy and will.



The bodies of the main team of swimmers and navigators, were

truly breaking down, with no more than seven days’ rest in the past

four weeks, the miles continued to take 50 minutes and days

continued to be nearly eighteen hours. A phone call from my father

ashore explained that once we turned past Mizen Head we would

finally be released from North-South tides.

Coming home mid-expedition

Day 21 turned us into the Kerry Coast, towards Valentia and the

roller coaster of emotions lifted again. Swimming across Dingle Bay

was filled with panic and elation. Panic that I would not want to

leave and the excitement that we were now swimming North. One

more coast, one more direction, once the team turns north we are

on the home stretch. Derek Flanagan offered us the choice to swim

through the Blasket Sound or to swim outside the Island group.

Inside would shorten our day so we chose this route, despite the

great risks we would take with it. Our bodies were now so sore, that

pain and injury morphed into the same feeling. The energy of the

water in the Sound was frightening and the moment when we got in

the water, I turned to the team and said, “please do not take your

eyes of me.”

I was on home waters, knowing the challenges of the Sound, I was

terrified. The water hurled me along like an Orca playing with a




The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

seal, but all went well and with the final swims here completed, we

were back under Sybill Head and home.

The arrival into Dingle Town was special. I would never

recommend coming home mid expedition, mainly as it allows you

to see the cost of your sacrifice, which on reflection, was nearly

disastrous for me. We now had Team Alpha back in place and we

left home for the second time.

The water on the West Coast was an animal of a different breed. The

colour was green, the water was strong with a heartbeat that was

thumping as opposed to beating. Every swim felt as though we were

in thick green soup. Moving water under your body that comes

from the Atlantic was huge. Our bodies were like plastic toys tossed

and turned and progress seemed once again to elude us.

The questions about the West Coast did not have any answers.

Derek and Brendan always said that it was impossible to gauge how

this coast would be and as the days passed this was proving true.

Day 25 gave us spectacular experiences off Loop Head, with

dolphins joining us, what we were gaining in tide assistance, the

following few days showed us the true face of battle. The water 14

miles offshore was 300m deep, as swimmers we would constantly

lose sight of our boat with the height of waves and troughs. Hours

of swimming and we were in the same position. Swimming is the

only sport where we can commit 100% to going forward and lose


Our hearts and minds were volatile and even though our bodies

were willing to continue, the cost of the dream was surely

enormous. We were becoming institutionalised, incapable of

speaking or even being in other company. The storms of the West

Coast were proving so difficult that one night, our boats broke rope

and for three long hours we were standing on a pier in West Galway,

the ropes of our vessels wrapped around us, as the crews risked their

lives to try to secure them.

After a week of enormous battles, we finally swam past Slyne Head


The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

and had broken the back of the West Coast from the Bays of

Galway and Achill, the headlands of North Mayo and Donegal. The

most harrowing moment had been off Slyne Head, where a rogue

wave crashed into the Zodiac, separating the boat from its swimmer

and forcing the event to stand down for the day. What stood out

throughout all of this was the courage, thinking, strength, emotional

responses and the ability of a team to recognise the tiny nuggets of

gold found in each of us and this support allowed us to find the

strength to continue in particularly difficult locations such as the

crossing of Donegal Bay when we were forty miles offshore.



The emotions of crossing our final body of water

Leaving Blacksod Bay, wondering if it would ever end, our arms

and legs were broken, our ability to communicate was now muted

in exchange for actions of holding and touching. The group of us

small, as we were walked as one unit, always holding onto another.

We were fragile. We were sleeping in between swims on Zodiacs

which had engines at full roar. We were unable to stand and sustain

a conversation, we were grateful to the families in Mayo and

Donegal who took us in and treated us as their own for the final

week, who dried our clothes and fed us at their tables as we were no

longer able to eat normal food. We were like swimming automatons,

swimming on demand. There was no love left but we needed to

finish. We were truly unable to function as individuals.

The team of Marine Rescue and Coordinator worked night and day

to try and understand the final hurdle. It took one month to swim

up the West Coast. It was as Derek had said, it was unpredictable, it

was filled with emotion, but mostly it was filled with the strength

that left us and filled us at the same time. We had crossed every bay,

we had passed every headland, we swam in every body of water that


After 34 swimming days, we walked onto the beach at Carrigfinn,

the same team who had left 56 days earlier, going clockwise 830

miles of the coast of Ireland, we had returned full circle, every

ounce of blood, sweat and tears were now left behind in the ocean.

If ever there was a moment where a team was responsible for an


The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

achievement, it was this one. All we could do was swim – it required

the entire team to get us there.



The Round Ireland Swim was one of the greatest adventures to ever

take place off the coastline of the island of Ireland. It was a sum of

its parts; it was our arms which rotated around the island but as we

say, we can only swim in these conditions, because the eyes allow us

to. We became the only team in history to have circumnavigated this

island by swimming.

Ár Scath a Chéile a Maireann na nDaoine.



The Great Island Swim

By Nuala Moore

The Round Ireland Swim Team members:


Nuala Moore, Anne Marie Ward, Tom Watters, Ian Claxton, Ryan

Ward and Henry O Donnell.

Marine Coordinator

Derek Flanagan

Command Boat Skipper

Brendan Proctor

Rescue Units

John Joe Rowland, Lead operator and team members

Sheephaven Dive Club

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta team members

Land Ops

Neil Ahern and team

Communications and Dive Rescue

Kathleen King

Images Courtesy of the Round Ireland Swim Team



50 Into Years the Of Abode Exploration of Death


Mark Bill

Evans Steele

RAJ 2.3

Images © John C. Smith & Sim Davis



Into the Abode of Death

by Mark Evans

On January 27th 2016, after 1,300km and 49 days on foot and by

camel, Outward Bound Oman Training Manager Mohammed Al

Zadjali and Executive Director Mark Evans, with Bedouin Amur Al

Wahaibi arrived at Al Rayyan Fort in Doha, having followed the

1930 trail of forgotten explorer Bertram Thomas across the Empty

Quarter of Arabia. Their successful crossing was the first time

anyone has attempted the journey in 85 years.

The 1930 achievement of the little-known Thomas, and his Omani

guide Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, have been lost in the sands of time,

overshadowed by Wilfred Thesiger’s beautiful black and white

images and poetic writing. One of the aims of the recent journey,

the first time in 85 years anyone had been given permission to

attempt the same route from Salalah in southern Oman, to Doha,

the capital of Qatar, was to put Thomas back on a pedestal, and give

him the recognition his achievements deserved.

The world of exploration at the time was a vibrant one; Peary and

Cook had both laid claim to the North Pole, Amundsen and Scott

had reached the South Pole, and Mallory and Irvine were at the

cutting edge of efforts to reach the summit of Everest. With the

poles claimed, attention was focused on the vast interior of Arabia.

The exploits of TE Lawrence in the Hejaz had attracted the

attention of the American reporter Lowell Thomas, and the moving

images he captured of the dashing Lawrence played to over 4

million people, from Covent Garden in London to Madison Square

Garden in New York; the world was obsessed with the romance of

Arabia, and in 1930 the race was on to become the first person to

cross the Empty Quarter.

Thomas came from a humble background; his father was a harbour

pilot, guiding boats through the mud-banks and currents of the

River Avon, and his mother ran the local post office. Thomas' early

horizons were limited to the local area, until he signed up for the

Somerset Light Infantry and the First World War took him to the

battlefields of Belgium, and then on to Mesopotamia (now Iraq). By

the time the war ended, Thomas had made Arabia his home, and

had been seduced by the challenge of the unknown desert at its

heart. He was appointed assistant political officer, working under

Image Opposite © John C. Smith


Into the Abode of Death

by Mark Evans

such influential characters as Gertrude Bell, Philby and Arnold

Wilson, from whom he learnt a great deal. Described as a quiet and

serious man, Thomas was undeterred by the inhospitable terrain,

merciless heat and fractious tribes.

His plans began to take shape during the winters of the late 1920s.

In 1925, he had been appointed to the Council of Ministers of

Muscat and Oman as Financial Adviser, a position he held for five

years, until 1930. His prime role was to sort out the Sultan of

Oman’s finances, something he proved not to be very good at.

Looking back, it is clear Thomas arrived in Oman with a burning

desire to become the first person to cross the vast and unexplored

Rub Al Khali, or Empty Quarter desert.



“The virgin Rub Al Khali, the great southern desert! To have

laboured in Arabia is to have tasted inevitably of her seduction, and

six years ago I left the administration of Transjordan for the court of

Muscat and Oman. I already cherished a secret dream. The remote

recesses of the earth, Arctic and Antarctic, the sources of the Amazon

and the vast inner spaces of Asia and Africa, have one by one yielded

their secrets to man’s curiosity, until by a strange chance the Rub Al

Khali remained almost the last considerable terra incognita …”

This pre-occupation led to criticism of Thomas from the local

British political agent, ‘for paying insufficient attention to his duties

in favour of his travels and exploration, resulting in financial laxity

and mismanagement’. He chose to work through the stifling heat

and humidity of the summer, which enabled him to use the cooler

winter months for exploring. In the winter of 1926 he completed a

two-week journey on foot and by camel from Muscat to Sharjah (in

what is now the United Arab Emirates), followed in the winter of

1928 by a much longer journey along the coast from Bani Bu Ali, to

Salalah, the main city of Oman’s southernmost province, Dhofar. It

was on this journey that he developed the relay system of tribal

teams, and fresh camels that would see him achieve success on the

biggest challenge of all.

All of these journeys did little to hide his secret desires, and whilst

Thomas never publically declared his intent, it was clear that Sultan


Taimur, the ruler of Oman, had an inkling of his dreams.

Into the Abode of Death

by Mark Evans

“Why aren’t you married, Oh Wazir”? I expatiated on the

difficulties under which a Christian laboured, especially one serving

in the east, and pointed to the comforting doctrine that for a man it

was never too late.

“Ah” said the Sultan, knowing my secretly cherished desire. “Quite

right. Insha’allah, I will help marry you one of these days to that

which is near to your heart – the Rub Al Khali, Insha’allah!”

“A virgin indeed”, quoth Khan Bahadur, his private secretary.

Thomas was not going to let anything stop him. On October 4th

1930, he slipped quietly and secretly out of Muscat to board a

British oil tanker that would carry him along the coast to Dhofar,

and the southern city of Salalah. After being carried ashore by

dhow, he rode along the coast by camel to make his base for

preparations. Despite a sleepless series of days, Thomas immediately

started an exploration into the frankincense covered Qara

mountains, where he remained for two months, undertaking

scientific and anthropological research before returning to Salalah,

suffering from dysentery.

That expedition was a prelude to the main feat; to cross the Empty

Quarter. One problem was that Thomas knew that if he told anyone

of his ultimate intention, he would have been prevented: the official

position of both the Omani and British authorities was that tribal

disputes made exploration foolhardy.

“My plans were conceived in darkness, my journeys only heralded by

my disappearances, paid for by myself and executed under my own

auspices. The desert crossing would never have been sanctioned.

Salalah knew of my presence: it must not know of my plans. Secrecy

was imperative. To disclose them would be to invite hostility and the

news would spread abroad, as all news spreads in Arabia, with the

speed of the telegraph, and unauthorised accretions that would not

disgrace a London evening newspaper ….”


Into the Abode of Death

by Mark Evans

It was in Salalah that Thomas was to meet Sheikh Salih bin Kalut Al

Rashidi Al Kathiri, the only Omani who would ultimately

accompany him on the entire journey from sea to sea across the

Empty Quarter. As a result of this, bin Kalut has evolved into an

Omani hero, about whom legends are still told today. Whilst the

team that made up the first ever crossing was made up almost

entirely of Omani’s, Sheikh Salih was the only member of the team

that to complete the entire crossing, with others only willing to go

to the edge of their own tribal areas.

Bin Kalut’s skills of organisation, desert navigation and leadership

of the men were critical to the success of the journey. Even more

critical were his skills as a diplomat. As the group travelled from one

tribal area to another, there was always the potential for problems,

even fighting; the fact that neither of these became serious issues was

in many ways thanks to his skills of negotiation.

“I took an immediate liking to Sheikh Salih. He bore the most

magical name of Bin Kalut – Kalut, the most famous lady in all the

sands, daughter of a famous warrior, and mother of three warrior

sons. Salih was a short man, big of bone, with a rather large head,

bald – unusual for a bedu, even of Salih’s 60 years, and a heavy jowl.

His brow was big, perhaps from his baldness, and his eyes large, his

countenance open and frank, his voice slow and measured; he

inspired confidence..”

Wilfred Thesiger, the famous desert explorer dubbed Mubarak Bin

London (our friend from London) by his Bedouin colleagues, met

Bin Kalut in Dhofar in 1945, and described him as ‘..immensely

powerful. His body was heavy with old age, so that he moved with

difficulty, and rose to his feet only with a laboured effort, and after

many grunted invocations of the almighty. He seldom spoke, but I

noticed when he did, no one argued’.

Thanks to the skills of Bin Kalut, and the tenacity of Thomas, on

February 5th 1931, some 58 days on foot and by camel after they

had left Salalah, they approached the mud brick towers of Doha (the

capital of Qatar); the journey was over, the race had been won, and

legendary Arabic hospitality awaited them.


The star dunes of Dakaka grow in size as we move off just after dawn..

Image Opposite © Sim Davis


Into the Abode of Death

by Mark Evans

Thomas’ purpose was never solely to get to the other side of the

desert. Despite fears of their purpose being misunderstood, he

carried scientific instruments as well as a still and a cine camera so

that he could collect and record the flora and fauna he found on his

journey. He collected 400 natural history specimens, 21 of them new

to science, and many of which are today stored in the Natural

History Museum in London.

News of the success, sent by telegram from Bahrain, caused a global

sensation, making the front pages of The Times in London, and The

New York Times. In the years to follow, Thomas lectured far and

wide, sharing tales of his journey with audiences around the world,

and he was honoured with some of the highest medals that can be

bestowed on explorers, including the Founders Medal of the Royal

Geographical Society, the Cullum Gold Medal of the American

Geographical Society and the Burton Memorial Medal of the Royal

Asiatic Society.



His book, Arabia Felix, was quickly published in 1932, and in the

foreword, T. E. Lawrence wrote, ‘few men are able to close an

epoch. We cannot know the first man who walked the inviolate earth

for newness’ sake, but Thomas is the last; and he did his journey in

the antique way, by pain of his camel’s legs, single handed, at his

own time and cost. He might have flown an aeroplane, sat in a car,

or rolled over in a tank. Instead, he snatched, at the twenty third

hour, feet’s last victory and set us free – all honour to Thomas’.

Other than a black and white photograph taken by Thesiger in

1945, and a mention in his classic book Arabian Sands, little is

known of what became of Sheikh Salih after they had reached Doha.

Like many Omanis at that time, there is no written record of when

he was born, but it is known that he outlived Thomas, and passed

away in Dubai, where he had been seeking medical treatment, on

December 15th, 1953, some twenty two years after his great


2015 was the 85th year since Thomas and Bin Kalut had left Salalah,

and coincided with the 45th year of the reign of His Majesty Sultan

Qaboos as the ruler of Oman; the planets were in alignment to




Into the Abode of Death

by Mark Evans

attempt to retrace this historic journey. His Highness Sayyid

Haitham bin Tariq Al Said was appointed Expedition Patron in

Oman, along with HRH Prince Charles in the UK, and His

Excellency Sheikh Joaan bin Hamed Al Thani in Qatar.

Our main challenge was to find the key to unlock the door, and get

permission to not only enter Saudi Arabia at a remote, unmanned

location, but also to spend one month walking with camels across

the sensitive eastern province. An issue of equal concern was to find

camels tough enough to withstand the demands of walking for

30-40 km per day, for 50 or so days, with limited food and water.

Camels, like humans, have gone soft in recent years; rather than

wandering the sands in search of rain-fed grazing, today they tend

to lead static lives, with water trucks bringing water to them, and

locally grown fodder crops being served up each day.

To give them every opportunity of succeeding, and to protect the

sensitive pads on the base of their feet, we parked our four camels

(all female, from the Royal Cavalry) at a Bedouin community on the

southern edge of the sands, and on December 10th 2015, 85 years to

the day since Thomas and Bin Kalut started their own journey, my

two Omani companions Mohammed Al Zadjali, Amur Al Wahaibi

and I set off on foot from the old souq in Salalah, on the edge of the

Indian Ocean. As we did so, playing in cinemas throughout Oman,

and on the Oman Air In-Flight entertainment systems was an

awareness raising 60 second video clip that used some of Thomas’

original footage shot in 1930, digitized in a project funded by the


Our journey did not set out to be a first, or fastest, but was,

amongst other things, a celebration of slowness that attempted to

reconnect Omani, Saudi and Qatari people to their rich culture and

heritage, and to show a side of the Middle East different to that

which normally dominates the media. With the Empty Quarter now

being emptier than it has ever been, many of the waterholes used by

Thomas are long abandoned, and full of sand. With much

uncertainty regarding water supply, we made the early decision to

use two 4x4 support vehicles to carry tightly rationed water, that

would be supplemented by the possible discovery of water in the


My favourite part of the day; a setting sun, the first stars emerging,

plummeting temperatures and a roaring fire means Arabic coffee.

88 Image © Sim Davis


Into the Abode of Death

by Mark Evans

sands; Thomas had used a sextant to record the location of the wells

he used, accurate enough for his needs, but little help in reality

when searching for a small well on the ground in what could be an

area of up to 15km square.

At the start of the journey, our vehicles carried 50 days’-worth of

food, carefully labelled, packed and sorted into 25 plastic crates. In

the first two weeks we barely touched a crumb, overwhelmed by

more than 1,000 unexpected visitors who sought us out even in the

most remote of locations in southern Oman each day. A desert

expedition in Arabia is no place for a vegetarian; ‘You cannot enter

the land of the Al Kathiri without accepting our hospitality’

announced a proud Omani Sheikh, and in an ongoing effort to outdo

the hospitality of the previous gathering, by the time we had

reached the border with Saudi Arabia we had consumed twentyseven

goats, in addition to several camels and sheep. Any hope we

had of losing weight was initially slim. Amongst the visitors were

some so old (none knew exactly how old, as nothing was

documented at the time of their birth) that, despite having limited

sight, and being unstable on their feet, several produced well

preserved black and white images of them as young men, standing

proudly with Thesiger and his camels at a waterhole.



After trekking through the frankincense clad Qara Mountains,

where we followed the footprints of Striped Hyenas, and discovered

4,000-year old pre-Islamic rock art, we were re-united with our

own camels. Our passage across the border into Saudi Arabia was

uncertain until the eleventh hour; verbal assurance had been given,

but we had nothing as yet for us to show a dubious, heavily armed

border guard at one of the most remote of unfenced and unmarked

borders. One day from arrival, word reached us that we were in, by

Royal Command of the King himself. The enormous star dunes of

Dakaka, where it had not rained for seven years made for the most

beautiful of landscapes, and whilst the night-time temperatures

dropped to a low of 0.4 degrees, for the most part a northerly wind

made daytime progress bearable.

On days when that wind did not blow, temperatures rose and

camels bellowed, kicked and spat in protest. Our daily routine was a


Into the Abode of Death

by Mark Evans

simple one; each night we would sleep on the sand, and Amur

would rise first before dawn to pray, and by 0630 we would have

un-hobbled the camels and were on the move, keen to get as many

km under our belts in the cool morning air as we could. We would

always walk for the first couple of hours, by which time the camels

would have settled, ready for us to ride along at a steady speed of

6kph. Our day would end some 30-40km later an hour before

sunset, when we would hobble the camels, gather wood for the fire,

bake bread under the sand and settle down for the nightly star show.

After a few weeks that saw us following a line of small wells to the

north west, the large dunes of Dakaka gave way to the flatter sand

sea of Sanam, and we were able to start what Thomas described as

‘The Northward Dash’ for Doha, still several hundred Km ahead.

As we steadily descended to the Arabian Gulf the sands gave way to

gravel, and eventually to the dreaded subkha, a salt encrusted

mudflat that after rains can be treacherous territory for the camels.

Like Thomas, at this point we were beset by several days of heavy

dew, and thick fog, making navigation a challenge, but hiding the

sun from view until midday.

On January 27th 2016, some 49 days after we had left Salalah, riding

fresh camels sent by the Emir of Qatar, we arrived at Al Rayyan

Fort in Doha; the Empty Quarter had been crossed.

As with all expeditions, the end of the physical journey does not

mean the end of the project. One of the key aims of our journey was

to create role models to which young Omani’s could aspire, and to

that end Mohammed and Amur have been busy delivering a series

of 30 lectures to more than 5,000 young people at schools and

colleges throughout Oman, promoting Outward Bound Oman’s

aim to develop the next generation of leaders for the nation.

More information on the expedition can be found in the following




50 Plan Years D Of Exploration


Mark Bill

Wood Steele

RAJ 2.4

Text & Images © Mark Wood



Plan D

By Mark Wood

My initial thought for this assignment was that I could write about

my next expedition which is happening in 2018 but to state the

obvious, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s very easy to talk about a

journey but a lot harder to make it happen.

If I had lived during the days of the great pioneers of ice

exploration, then, if I was lucky, I would have been one of the men

scrubbing the decks of the Endurance or Discovery. In this modern

era of exploration if you have the desire to explore, the

opportunities are far greater.

In most countries, anyone can be an “adventurer” – there are

enough professional guiding companies to help support your

dreams. There are also a few individuals like myself, who like to

take these journeys a step further, by exploring on our own terms -

if you have the experience, the time and funding then these kinds of

adventures are possible.

In the Golden Age of polar exploration, if anything went wrong on

the expedition, the emphasis was very much on themselves and selfsufficiency

– rescue could be months, even years away, if at all.

However, nowadays it’s very different. We must acknowledge, that

there exists a real responsibility to the rescue teams who could

potentially risk their own lives to extract failed expedition teams

from the ice and bring them home safely.

Global warming is having a profound effect on how and where we

explore – my journeys are about heading into these fragile, cold

areas of our planet, to film the reality of what we are moving

through. I connect with schools around the world to communicate

the issues we face with changing climate and as a non-scientist

myself, I link-up with climate experts to verify and explain what we

have seen. It’s a new way to explore but we are governed by the ice

and by the rescue teams who have the final say on whether we can

operate or not.

In 2016, I came back from the North Geographic Pole – physically

exhausted and mentally battered. Our team sat together and made a

documentary called A Race Against Time, based on what had just

happened. For the first time ever, the expedition was almost two

thirds of the way in even before we had set foot on ice. The

instability of the arctic ice prevented our team from even setting out



Plan D

By Mark Wood

on the journey.

One of our team members Paul “Vic” Vicary looked at the chaos we

had just got back from and commented, that based on our initial

mission statement we went from Plan A to Plan D.

Expedition name: A Race Against Time

Team members: Mark Wood, Paul “Vic” Vicary, Mark Langridge



Mission Statement: “To film the harsh honest reality of how global

warming has affected the Arctic Ocean through the eyes of modern

day polar explorers.”

Outline: Over the past two years we have liaised with logistics’

teams from the Canadian and Russian Arctic to find a suitable

starting point along the edge of the Arctic Ocean. This has proven

to be extremely difficult.

The following report is based on the original mission statement of

the expedition and is a detailed breakdown of events leading up to

the expedition. The reason for this detailed analysis is to show how

modern-day exploration is determined not only by sponsorship and

the skill of the team but also by the commitment of support teams

that pledge their lives to this environmentally sensitive and

dangerous region of our planet. It is a direct reflection on how

global warming is now affecting polar travel.

Post expedition analysis by Mark Wood

Plan A

Canada - first approach

After years of inserting and extracting teams on the ocean, in 2015,

the Canadian logistic operators Ken Borak Air (KBA) stopped all

flights for the 2015/16 seasons. This was mainly down to two

reasons which parallel each other. The first was the unpredictability

of the ice, making it difficult for their Twin Otter planes to judge a

strong landing point; the second reason, was that some of their new

pilots did not have enough experience landing on sea ice, especially



Plan D

By Mark Wood

above 87 degrees north. This is roughly 180 Nautical miles from the

North Pole and over 300 NM from the Canadian coastline. Once a

team passes 87 degrees, heading North to the pole, KBA would

require 2 planes to support each other just in case one fails.

Each member of team has had military and rescue experience so we

understood KBA's concerns and respected their decision.

Plan B

Russia - second approach

We then took the expedition to the Russian logistic team VICAAR -

historically the main problem with starting from their coastline was

that satellite images would show up to 40 NM of open water. This

would mean a drop off on ice and if possible we wanted to avoid

this. It is generally recognized that within the polar world a coastal

starting point to the North or South Poles or even areas such as

Greenland would be recognized within the historical stats.

We are not glory hunters or flag wavers but if we were to commit to

a tough, long-range journey across the Arctic Ocean, this would be

our preferred option. The good news was that eight months prior to

the expedition we had sanctioned a drop-off of aviation fuel along

the coastline to support our own insertion when it would happen.

During the flight the pilots reported the ice was solid and safe to

land on - which meant a coastal start was possible, but we would

need to set off at the end of winter to ensure solid ice, operating in

temperatures below -40 C. The ice status was verified by VICAAR

just weeks before our due departure date.

During our pre-expedition planning with VICAAR we had many

hours of emails and phone calls arranging contracts and trying to

deal with a lot of red tape. One problem was obtaining the required

Russian visas, so we recruited a private company in London to

support our team members in processing them quickly. This was

achieved and up to 4 weeks before departure the expedition had a

green light.

I then received an email from VICAAR informing me that the


Plan D

By Mark Wood

group visa had been refused and as it was a government decision we

didn't receive a reason and we were not able to contest it - even

though we tried, twice!

We can only speculate about British and Russian political issues at

the time but in reality, we were left in the dark. As this report will

outline there was a mass military exercise with over 100 armed

Russian paratroopers at the North Pole when we eventually headed

out. The timing of this was too coincidental to not rule it out as one

of the reasons they didn't want a British team skiing through the

middle of a military operation. However, this is just speculation.

Plan C

North Pole reversed

Our motto for the expedition was “Always a Little Further” and

our mission statement as stated above outlined our belief in the

journey. We spoke to the VICAAR to see if they would support a

drop off via helicopter at the Geographic North Pole to attempt a

reversed expedition to the coast line of Canada. They agreed to do

this and also stated that their rescue support would only extend to

87 degrees north from the North Pole.

Our next obstacle was to go back to the Canadian logistics team at

Ken Borek Air, to request support for a possible rescue from 87

degrees North to the coast line. To do this, I felt we needed

someone in the exploration world to vouch for our experience and


At the time that we were evaluating how best to persuade the

Canadians that we needed their support, we received some

devastating news. Our expedition Patron, Lieutenant Colonel

Henry Worsley had died on the 24th January 2016 while attempting

to complete the first solo and unaided crossing of the Antarctic.

Henry was a British Army officer and a friend of the team. In fact,

Vic, Mark and I had been on Henry’s previous expedition to the

South Pole in 2010, a century after the race to the South Pole that

gripped the world, we had attempted to retrace the steps of Scott

and Amundsen.


Plan D

By Mark Wood

The day his death was announced I was invited to appear on BBC

Newsnight to talk about Henry and the dangers of exploration. The

following day I was contacted by Steve Jones who was the Antarctic

Logistics Base camp manager and had been supporting Henry.

I shared our challenge with Steve and he also knew of our

expeditions over the years in both the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

Steve knew the team at KBA and immediately agreed to help and

put forward our request.

KBA agreed, which was remarkable in a year in which they had

closed their doors on a lot of expeditions. As their commitment was

below 87 degrees this would mean they would only have to use one

plane to organize a pick-up. So, the expedition was back on.

Svalbard - Longyearbyen.

We left London Heathrow with 6 sledges and 29 pieces of luggage

on the 23rd March 2016. The team trained from a small town called

Longyearbyen on the island of Svalbard – an archipelago in

northern Norway. Constituting the westernmost bulk of the

archipelago, it borders the Arctic Ocean, the Norwegian Sea, and

the Greenland Sea.

We had arrived early in the season to be inserted into the North

Pole which would give us the valuable time we needed to cross the

Arctic Ocean. After a week of preparation which consisted of

testing equipment and going over routines on the nearby glacier -

we awaited confirmation of our departure to a temporary Russian

ice station called Camp Barneo. Our agreement was that we would

be dropped off on the first technical flight - the first flight sets up

the 800 meter runway on the ocean and the second flight

(potentially our flight) brings in the rest of the ground crew.

The drop off date we were given by the Russians was the 1st April

and the Canadians made it abundantly clear that their last pick up

on sea ice would be the 5th of May with some leeway if we were

progressing well to the coast. So, we had 35 to 40 days to cover the

distance, tough but achievable with the training, experience and

mindset of the team.



Plan D

By Mark Wood

A Waiting Game

Unfortunately, our wait for the flight was delayed 3 or 4 times due

to the report that the runway at Camp Barneo was cracking under

the unusual movement of the ice. Extensive cracks appeared in the

area which is situated 30 miles from the North Pole. In previous

years there had been signs of cracks and open water but not to this

extent. This was unprecedented and we had no choice but to sit and




It came to the 8th April and we then needed to speak with the

Canadian team at KBA to discuss our time-limited expedition

which now had been reduced to 20-25 days. KBA had been

monitoring our progress and were becoming increasingly worried

by our delay, especially as they had seen that for 180 NM off their

coast line there was extensive ice rubble fields - this is extremely

difficult to cross. Even experienced polar teams would have to move

slowly through this area probably covering 6 NM per day. At this

point of the expedition we would hope to be covering over 10 to 15

NM per day.

The more serious issue was that if we encountered any difficulty in

this extensive area it would be almost impossible for a plane to land

- so their concerns were real. As a team, we made the tough decision

to abort the attempt from the North Pole to Canada - the reality of

climate change was truly affecting the expedition long before we

even had the chance to set foot on ice.

As mentioned before, this is the point when we learnt that the

Russian government had launched a military exercise with their

Parachute regiment and over 100 soldiers were based at Camp

Barneo. Aside from the Visa issues we had encountered we

speculated that it was this activity that had delayed our insertion

date of the 1st April and the cracked runway was only part of the


Plan D

The Mission statement revisited

Throughout this whole procedure, we were determined not to be



Plan D

By Mark Wood

distracted from the original Mission statement, “To film the harsh

honest reality of how global warming has affected the Arctic Ocean

through the eyes of modern day polar explorers”

We approached VICAAR with a request to be inserted on to the

ocean via helicopter at 88 degrees north to cover the last two degrees

to the North Pole. We received a negative response from VICAAR

who wanted to drop us closer to the pole as the ice was extremely

unstable at 88 degrees. Their helicopter crew had reported seeing

mass open water and fast-moving ice. We held tough on our request

because we had all of the flotation equipment and training necessary

to deal with this and our main objective was to capture this unusual

activity anyway.



A Green Light was given and at last we finally received the go ahead

from VICAAR that our expedition could commence. The

condition however, was that if we couldn't reach the North Pole

due to problems crossing the ice then they would pick us up on the

26th April from whatever point we had reached by then. Even to

the last hour we were being drained of our expedition. We agreed

but we didn't go into the expedition with the same attitude - we

were determined to reach the Pole and document the experience,

after all, this was our entire reason for being there.

Within 24 hours we touched down on the hard-cold ocean ice

having viewed the devastation of the ice from the helicopter

window for over an hour. They dropped our team onto the arctic

ocean and as the helicopter disappeared from view, we became the

most remote team in the world during the warmest season ever

recorded, heading towards the North Geographic Pole. The

expedition on ice had begun and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

The one memory I have at that point, was the silence, which was

incredibly deafening. I then became aware of the creaking of the

ocean below, followed by the shifting surreal movement of the ice

around us.

There are many individuals or teams around the world who lay out

their plans to run an expedition. Whether it’s mountains, sea, ice,

jungles or deserts, planning and preparation is the key to the success

Plan D

By Mark Wood

of the journey.

The amount of blood sweat and tears you need, to even get the

expedition off the ground is almost heart-breaking, for every

positive in the build-up there are 100 negatives. The desire and

belief that you are doing the right thing combined with the passion

to see it through is generally the fuel that will allow you to finally

attempt your journey. But don’t expect glory or recognition, if you

are in this for fame then you will be disappointed. If you are in it for

experiencing how incredible this planet is and how truly remarkable

your own life can be then its worth every bit of sweat and tears.

Remember if you take up the title of explorer, adventurer or even

professional camper then act accordingly.

With over 30 major expeditions to date, Mark Wood has reached the

Magnetic North Pole, the Geomagnetic North Pole twice, has

completed solo expeditions to both the Geographic North and South

Poles. He has been involved in major BBC and Channel 5

documentaries and over the years has trained and led people to the

extremes of the planet.

Mark aims to communicate globally with schools around the planet,

to have open discussions with students about climate change, cultural

differences, and thinking differently about life.

His own award-winning documentaries have shown the life of dog

teams in Alaska, a solo survival film in the extremes and more

recently a complex cutting edge expedition film showing the harsh

reality of global warming and its effect on the Arctic Ocean as his

team crossed to the North Pole.

Mark is ranked in the top 5 communicators in the world on the

Skype in the Classroom platform and has traveled over 3 million

Skype miles by connecting with children in 34 different countries.



Editor in Chief : Tim Lavery

Publisher, educator, artist and scientist, Tim has worked throughout

Europe in various fields for corporates, NGOs and Educational

Institutions over the past 30 years.

In January 2012, he launched the award-winning World Explorers

Bureau, a speakers agency representing over 160 of the world's most

accomplished explorers and adventurers.

Since 1985, Tim has earned numerous National Awards for his

contribution to environmental awareness in Ireland including

receiving three Resource Ireland Awards, several Environment

Awareness Awards, Local Hero Award and an Inspired IT Award. He

has authored more than 20 scientific papers ranging from ecology to

new species descriptions and has edited numerous other publications

on a variety of scientific and education technology subjects.

Passionate about exploration and the dissemination of the results of

authentic adventures and expeditions. In 2014, Tim was elected as a

Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society (of London) followed in

2015 by becoming the first Irish person to be elected to the College of

Fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and in

November 2016, he became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical

Society. He manages the Worldwide Expedition Professionals group

on LinkedIn and is a Director of the Irish Explorers Trust.


Publishers & Sponsors

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that represents explorers and extreme adventurers.

WEB inspires audiences around the world with captivating tales of

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leadership, scientific and environmental research, teamwork and



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Ripcord’s global intelligence, evacuation services, essential benefits

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