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The hardships of jungle life


My tricks of the trade
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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Notebooks and part of the ritual is to cover them in... well, it used to be SAS camouflage tape, then I realised it's not really a good idea, because when you've dropped a notebook on the ground, it's camouflaged, but it makes you feel good. And keep it in a pouch on your belt, wrapped in plastic, because you're absolutely soaking wet and growing fungus all the time. But it's absolutely bloody essential, exactly as everybody says. You pull it out, and you've got a Biro or something that is water resistant. It doesn't matter, but you must write down what you're seeing, you know, because in the Congo, say, three or four days' walk out from a village, you may see five or six troops of different species of monkey. And you think: this is so vivid, I will remember this all my life. Do you hell. You can't remember until the end of the day. You've got to write, scribble even as you're walking. And then I don't let... I mean, I wasn't in charge with Fenton, but I don't let anybody move off until I've had an hour to write in the mornings. Or you have to do it in the evening if you've got to leave it. In the Congo, you can't hang around in the morning, because you've got to get out of camp before the bees arrive. So before sunup. The minute there's light, the sweat bees, hundreds of them, up your nose. They love mucous, and they're in your ears. But they don't sting. That's alright. But the ordinary African honeybee is all over you. Now they're just the same as our bees, no better, no worse, but the sting's not funny. So you've got to move off. And then you write for an hour before the bees arrive, when you've made a camp at night.

[Q] Notes?

No, from the notes, and it's always... a letter is the best thing. So I write my darling Belinda, and we turned south-southeast and... and then I send them off when you can, i.e., after months. And then she got annoyed that there wasn't enough love in there. I was all... so that helps. But then that's not… that's not the book. But you've got the letters, you hope, have arrived here. And that helps as a sequence of events and descriptions. But then – that's the really difficult bit – you have to get back there far more vividly than you were when you were there. You have to imagine that with more power than you could take, I mean, far more than the real thing. So I think that's why I got so ill, writing Trawler, because you have to describe the seasickness and the sleeplessness and going mad. I think that was the start of going really mad. It's the reimagining that's difficult.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: SAS, Congo, Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic

Duration: 3 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009