The infamous Maasai tribe of East Africa is under considerable strain. Nearly gone are the days of roaming free across the plains and warrior culture. Many Maasai have chosen to abandon the traditional lifestyle; they want to ‘modernise’ and join common society, arguably at the detriment of their culture. But a few still fight to remain Maasai, keen not to forfeit their history.
Just outside of Tsavo East National Park in Kenya there is a traditional Maasai Village. It has modernised somewhat – corrugated iron being the material of choice for housebuilding now rather than mud – and the residents are aware of their position as a tourist attraction, selling their ‘curio’ wares (handmade souvenirs) to safari tours that stop to pay a visit and take photographs. But when every other visiting tourist is keen to avoid ‘ugly’ clutter in their photos, I found myself drawn to it.
China has invested in a super-railway linking Nairobi and Mombasa, cutting right through the middle of the Tsavo National Parks (it also cuts through Nairobi National Park). Now, rather than a seemingly endless expanse of savannah these Maasai Tribesmen and Women have a megalithic concrete structure as their backdrop.
After some persuasion I convinced this tribesman to pose for a portrait. He protested about the railway being in the photograph – not quite understanding that it was the contrast of his home and the railway that I wanted.
It is not my place to judge what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for Kenya, but I think it safe to say times are certainly changing.
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In the Malaysian part of Borneo there is a state called Sabah, known as the land beneath the wind. Within Sabah there is a district called Ranau, and within the district of Ranau lies a small, quiet village called Bongkud.
Set in the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu, Bongkud is a scenic village with a small population, still majorly reliant on agriculture and labour to sustain themselves. In recent years they have had the support of volunteers on expeditions with Camps International, a company I feel extremely proud and grateful to lead for, who have installed vital infrastructure and educational aid to improve the quality of life for locals, and given employment to many too. I have been to Bongkud on two of my three trips to Borneo with ‘Camps’ so far.
On the outskirts of the village, about a 500m walk from the Camp Bongkud facility, lies a hill known simply to locals as Bongkud Hill, or Bukit Bongkud in Malaysian. Standing at about 620m ASL, making it a mountain by UK technicalities, it is an imposing feature visible from anywhere in the village. It is coated in a sea of green ferns and rubber trees from bottom to top.
From below, Bongkud Hill looks stunning. However, an expedition wouldn’t be an expedition without going on adventures, so it is a Camps tradition that groups staying in Bongkud summit the hill at dawn at least once during their stay. As a Leader I’ve been fortunate enough to hike up there five or six times now – in 2016 I joined other groups each morning whilst my team remained asleep so I could recce it and get some exercise each morning before our own team ascent, and in 2018 I got up there with another team I was leading. I acquired a bit of a reputation for pushing my groups to do it early – leaving camp at 5am meant a much higher chance of catching the 6am sunrise from the top than the usual 5.30-6am schedule but this paid dividends when the teams witnessed why we’d done so.
The views are glorious from the moment you step outside the village centre. Within 20m of ascent, the misty morning valleys come into view to the right hand side. After a few hundred metres the path steepens to a sharp left turn up an even steeper earthen and muddy set of cut steps that eventually lead you to the top.
As you near the top you step onto a wide, shallow-gradient ridgeline that eventually leads to a viewing area. In 2016 this was a dead end – a small wooden shelter marking the summit – but now it’s been cut back, providing ample space for groups to enjoy the view or even for vehicles to access it via a new gravel road on the other side.
Following the typical ascent route Mt. Kinabalu is visible to the left, its jagged rocky shape often encased in cloud or mist, and to the right is an endless expanse of jungle valleys and rises with morning mist rolling through them.
Once at the top, groups often take half an hour to celebrate, catch their breath and photograph views like this:
But hidden within this magnificent scene lies a dark and little-known history of suffering that all Camps Leaders and Camp Borneo staff try to educate their teams about. It is something not taught in school history lessons. The rest of the world, unless they have visited Borneo or stumbled upon it for themselves, remains completely unaware despite it being branded the single worst atrocity to happen to Australian forces in history.
In 1945, during the Japanese occupation of Borneo during the Second World War, 2345 Australian and British POWs were marched from their POW Camp in the city of Sandakan, on Borneo’s east coast, inland to Ranau 250km away. The series of three major marches became known as the Sandakan Death Marches and were conducted when the Japanese believed allied forces were closing in on Sandakan.
These marches were an event of extreme suffering. Prisoners were tortured or murdered for the sheer sake of it. They were barely fed or provided any water. Those who fell too weak, or refused to continue, were shot or bayoneted on the spot. By the end only six men survived to tell the tale, having made their escape and reported on the atrocities. It was too late and logistically impractical for allied forces to conduct a rescue of anybody still out there.
The Sandakan death marches passed through the village of Bongkud en route to Ranau, and local elders still remember them happening. Any local who attempted to help the POWs, even by the simplest act of providing food or water, was met with the same fate as the POWs.
The Australian survivors spoke very differently of the scenery around Bongkud than I have in this article. They said that the sight of Mt. Kinabalu reminded them they were in an inescapable hell and, with every misty morning, they would question whether it would be their last day alive.
Today Bongkud could not be any more peaceful. It is a calm, friendly place where the sight of expedition teams puts a beaming smile on the face of every local. Local children and teens play football on the village pitch, or volleyball on any of the many courts. There is a thriving market once a week in the village centre and fresh fruit grows in abundance in every garden. But it is vitally important to remember how fortunate we are and to remain grateful that we live in a different time where we can enjoy the place for its peace and joy rather than the suffering that so many once would have associated it with.
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If you’ve seen the 2005 Nicholas Cage film Lord of War, you’ll be loosely familiar with the tale of Russian gun-runner Viktor Bout. Whilst Hollywood chose to rename the movie’s protagonist and fictionalise various events it cannot be denied that Bout was the main influence for the story. Bout now sits in an American jail cell after a long hare-and-hounds chase around the world that culminated in his arrest by US and Thai Authorities in Bangkok in 2008. Weapons and ammunition were not Bout’s only cargo – he flew everything from flowers to electronics too – but it was his willingness to make dodgy gun deals that ultimately led to his demise.
Shortly after arriving in the United Arab Emirates to work for an Outdoor Education company in September 2017 I learnt that the UAE has its own little slice of Viktor Bout’s legacy. Bout based many of his (fully legal on paper) air freight operations out of the emirate of Sharjah, and is said to have lived for a brief period in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the emirate I called home for seven months and may again sometime in the future.
During induction for my role as an Outdoor Instructor and Field Studies Tutor our head of Senior Field Studies, Hugh, told us he had something cool to show us as part of our geography familiarisation. Whilst driving along a desolate desert road in the emirate of Umm al-Quwain, passing a couple of water parks and not much else, the silhouette of a great aircraft appeared before us, behind it a vast runway and a couple of dusty old hangars.
The jet was a Russian Ilyushin IL-76 – the centrepiece of Soviet aircraft engineering – and the aircraft Viktor Bout was known to have operated when he was in business. There’s mixed reports on how the Ilyushin came to rest at the now-abandoned UAQ Airport; some say it was grounded by local forces as the American DEA started to close in on Bout and the British intelligence services requested the UAE to evict Bout (a request the UAE complied with, catalysing the collapse of Bout’s empire). Another opinion is that a private investor purchased the body to use as a ‘gate guard’ for the airport, a more likely theory considering its location at the front of the facility, standing proud over the road. All that can be confirmed on a search of its serial number is that it was once part of Bout’s fleet.
Hugh stopped the truck and we disembarked for a quick snoop around. This initial visit was fairly uneventful, learning a little bit about the socioeconomic impacts of an area expanding beyond its means and poking our heads into a few hangars, then we headed off to conduct another tiresome beach survey. But I knew I had to get back there and explore a little more.
A week after my lust to explore had been teased, I asked around the outdoor centre for a lift to the abandoned airfield. Not long later and I and three workmates were setting off for the 90 minute drive south.
It was approaching sunset as we pulled up in a gravel layby in front of the facility. The perimeter was marked by patches of broken chainlink fence and a lazily-established line of barbed wire. It was evident that this was a popular site for the edgier or more-curious passer-by because there were many footprints in the sand and no real barrier to prohibit entry. Sun-faded “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” signs were sporadically placed along the fence, many hanging limp after years of disregard. We crossed into the facility over a trodden-down section of barbed wire and made a beeline for the huge silhouette of the cargo jet about 300m to our left.
As we approached the IL-76 we were ecstatic to find its ladder had been left down from its port-side door, meaning entry would be a walk in the park. To our surprise other people were here checking it out too and we nodded a ‘hello’ to them as they made their way back to their car.
Once we reached the plane we took a few moments to enjoy its beauty. At some point in history a hotel had come along and painted their logo along its sides but the sun and sand had blasted the logo out of relevance long ago.
After two or three minutes we set about penetrating the vast carcass. One by one we scrambled up the ladder and into the door sitting about 2.5m off the ground. It was surprisingly tricky to get in; we each had to ‘mantle’ on the plane floor and scratch at the sides of the door to shift our bodyweight inside or, once somebody was in there, help the next person up.
The main hold of the aircraft had been torn to shreds; every last bit of its interior stripped. I don’t think it was a move to hide anything nefarious – just the level of degradation to be expected with any accessible abandoned site after long enough.
Once inside, we decided to check out the front spotter’s area (possibly the navigator’s booth?) and the cockpit, both now coated in several layers of dust with very few of the controls remaining intact.
Once we reached the cockpit we were gifted with an opportunity too good to ignore! Located just behind the pilots’ seats were a series of footholds in the bulkhead/wall leading up to an open roof hatch. It was time to enjoy sunset in style. One by one we each clambered up the holds and heaved ourselves on top of the aircraft. This was a fairly simple task for myself at 6’4 (193cm), the main issue being angling my shoulders and backpack through the narrow hatch, but the big reaches of the 2m climb were a bit of an epic for my shorter pals (who found getting through the hatch itself much easier).
The view once we were on top of the plane was glorious. 360 degrees of endless desert expanse. To the west, or facing aft, the sun was setting over Umm al-Quwain’s mangrove marshes. Treading carefully so as not to slide over the aircraft’s rounded convex edges we made our way to the midpoint of the wings and sat to enjoy the scenery, occasionally standing to grab a few more shots.
Once the sun had set we made our way back down through the Ilyushin and decided to get going. A coffee at the nearby Al Hamra Mall was starting to sound rather appealing! Over all, this short hour-long adventure remains one of my best memories from my season in the UAE; it truly did feel like ‘getting off the grid’…
If you find yourself in the UAE this cool feature is located about an hour’s drive north of Dubai, right next to the turn-off for Barracuda Bottle Shop and a short hop from Dreamland water park. I’d advise extreme caution in visiting; it is still technically off-limits and things didn’t go so smoothly when I decided to return in February. I’ll write about that in the future but hint: I got held at gunpoint!
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