Life's Unexpected Gifts Often Mean the Most: A Birthday to Remember in Pakistan's Karakorum Range

Thursday, 27 August, 2015.  1745. Sitting on a ridge high above the town of Sost. Shepherds hut nearby.

Yaks grazing a couple of hundred metres off to my right along the banks of a glacial stream.  Sunset not far away so will need to allow myself enough time to get back to the hotel. It is so beautiful yet again.  The snowline and glaciers start about 400 metres above me. I love being in the mountains.

1930. Wow. That turned out to be such a wonderful amernoon. Earlier, down in Sost, I’d not felt entirely comfortable. It was the second day of the Khunjerab - Pamir Festival and it had relocated to Sost. There were many more people than yesterday. More music. Big crowds. The perfect place for a terrorist attack, albeit the chances being low. It was the same in the mainstreet. A huge police and military presence. Lots of guns. No such thing as pistols in these parts. They’re all machine guns. So whenever a crowd started to build in my vicinity I would relocate in case of a very small chance of a car bomb or something similar. Not a matter of being paranoid.Just being aware of the need to stay on your game.

The climb to the top of the ridge I was on had led me first across a suspension bridge and then up a long track to a village on the other side of the river. I’d intended to go with a local I’d met and another Japanese bloke. But they’d stuffed around and I decided the sun was getting low and I didn’t want to miss a training session. Still, I was not entirely comfortable about going on my own. There were many out-of-towners in Sost today - the perfect situation for terrorist groups and I didn’t want them to see me heading off if there were any of those people around. So I headed down through some quiet laneways until I hit the river, and then I followed that downstream until I reached the bridge.

My fitness felt good and it was a highlight having kids and women greet you with big smiles as you approached. I’m very careful about how I deal with women in this part of the world. In Skardu the Baltis were very very traditional. You couldn’t say hello or shake the hand of a woman as a general rule. Here, women seemed only too happy to smile and take your hand. The fences of all the homes were made of stone, as is the rule for these parts.

And then, as I sought to find a way to reach the start of the climbing proper, I came to a series of fields from which wheat had only recently been cut and tied into bundles. I climbed down to go across and then saw a woman and child collecting the bundles. I said hello - they couldn’t speak English - and then the woman gestured for me to take some bundles and assist her by carrying them to the stash she was building at the other end of the field. Go with the flow I figured. I did so, and then, having done that, she directed me to the other side of the field and some freshly picked apricots. The apricots were to die for. What a birthday present I thought. But it was also seeing the woman smile and laugh at having had our interaction that gave the experience something special.

Onward and upward. The hill became steeper - good for my legs and cardio - and up past a series of shepherds' huts and fields. The huts also being made of stone. No mortar. Just stones neatly and meticulously stacked on top of one another.

The trip down the hill was equally as special. Soon after leaving my ridge I came across an elderly man who had climbed up to collect water from the stream. He greeted me by putting down his two five litre water containers and grabbed my hand firmly and pressed it with his other hand. He was grateful to meet me. A man leading a traditional lifestyle. We walked together without saying a word but it was clear we enjoyed each other’s company. On us parting company he again grabbed my hand firmly and then pressed it with his other hand. Yet another wonderful experience with barely a word spoken.

These are the memories that remain with you for a very long time. Like the experience I had in Burkina Faso a few years ago during an absolute belter of a dust-storm.

On reaching the village proper I was hankering for some apricots. These apricots here are the best I have ever tasted. I asked a woman to whom I said hello and she asked me to follow her back to her house. There were apricots drying everywhere but they brought some freshly picked apricots out on a plate. I asked to pay for them but they would not hear of it. The people with the least they say tend to be the ones that give the most. These apricots were out of this world good. They’d been washed which had me thinking that I could be up for a crook stomach in a few days, but then I thought bugger it. These are too good not to eat. Take what comes down the track.

Shortly afterward the man of the house came out and they invited me into their house for some green tea. The room was beautifully decorated. No table or chairs. Just rugs and then cushions spaced around the room which themselves had a beautiful design. I asked whether the rugs and cushions were locally made and the man told me that they weren’t. These are modern design he said. They were provided as a wedding gift.

While having tea the man also asked whether I would like some cake which was kind of a nice touch given that it was my birthday. The cake tasted more like cold damper but it was still quite cool to have cake after-all on my birthday in the remote reaches of northern Pakistan. He lamented the lack of tourism following 9/11 and said that Sost was very very safe. I asked what they did during winter because road access is cut and the snows are very deep. He said that they did nothing. Just watched television when the electricity was working.

So that’s been my day. I would love to go to Kashgar in Western China because I’ve heard it’s pretty cool, but I have work to do and that’s why I’m here. Central Asia is an incredible place. So authentic and untainted by the West. Of all the places I’ve been to around the world this is right up there with the best of any of them. The people are just incredible. The redneck perceptions back home of the Muslim religion is so so wrong.


Dining with Arms Dealers in Northern Pakistan

Monday, 24 August, 2015.  2230.

Well that would have to be one of the most fascinating evenings that I’ve had for a long time. The plan was that I would go and have dinner with my Italian friends Paolo and Daniella before they depart early tomorrow morning. As I was waiting for the two of them to meet me outside their room I got talking to two very traditional looking men who were obviously from another part of the country. One was from Peshawar and the other was from Abbotobad. The heart of Taliban country.

I asked one of them whether Peshawar was safe as I’d been hearing conflicting stories. More recently I’d heard that the Pakistan Army had been pushing the Taliban back into Afghanistan and that things there were much better now. “Sure” he said. "If you ever visit Peshawar come and see me" he said as he gave me his business card. The business card said “XXX Armoury” and I looked back at him and was about to ask the question and then he nodded without saying anything. He was an arms dealer. Later I learned that he also manufactured munitions and arms for sale to Governments around the world and for on-sale between Governments.

Off to dinner we all headed. Now we were six rather than three. He had his friend from Abbotabad, Mohammed, and then that man’s son who was aged 28. Wonderful people. Later I learned that Mohammed was also involved in the arms trade. They suggested that we dine at a traditional Hunza restaurant which I was not aware of and the food was out of this world.

The more we talked the more interesting the discussion became. Amir had been kidnapped by the Taliban a few years ago outside his home in Peshawar. He was held for about six months during which he was taken into Afghanistan and tortured and badly beaten as they demanded a ransom of US$30M. He was fed just enough food to keep him alive and then chained to his bed of an evening with another person sleeping in the same room so he couldn’t escape. Mohammed later said to me that he believed that Amir had been kidnapped by the Taliban because of his business in the arms trade.

I asked Amir if I might ask him a difficult question and then asked him what he had learned from the experience: “That is an easy question” he told me. "If anything the situation we now find ourselves in here in Pakistan is our own fault because we have not interpreted our religion the way we should have. It is the most peaceful religion in the world.”

The dinner continued on. The local traditional Hunza food was amazing. They taught us that people in Pakistan learned to share the one spoon when sharing a meal because it exposed each other to one another’s germs, and, in so doing, enabled the immune system to build up. All of this being discussed in a quiet little garden area in a restaurant tucked in a place you would never otherwise find.

Building works were going on in the middle of the restaurant not metres from our chairs as a bloke dug down with a shovel at a depth of about ten feet. Only in the third world. Back home there would be cones and JHAs and helmets and whatever else just to ensure no-one got killed in case of an earthquake or tsunami.

Through the course of the evening Amir told us also that he now spent much of his time in Africa where he had an engineering business. “That’s a strange place to have an engineering business” I questioned, before pulling myself up and apologising for asking too many questions. He said the freight costs there are cheaper, but as he did so he looked at me and we both smiled quietly. I stopped asking any more questions. “My apologies” I said. I have a very inquisitive mind.

All along I couldn’t help reflect back on what I had read about arms trading in Sierra Leone during the blood diamonds conflict. It’s a murky world. Governments like to keep track of exactly what is being produced and where it’s going. And then some arms dealers are doing everything they can to avoid that tracking. Planes zig zagging across many different borders. False paperwork. All that sort of stuff. Not that Amir struck me as that type of person. I don’t think Daniela and Paolo knew that he was in this game during the evening and I ensured that I kept things discrete. But every so often Amir would look at me with a wry smile as we talked cryptically around the subject.

Next stop was another restaurant. The guys were keen to sample more local food. This time we ended up eating skewers of cooked yak meat at another restaurant higher up in the bazaar. There I asked his friend if he minded me asking him a difficult question. "Go ahead" he said.

“Do you believe Osama Bin Laden was living in Abbotobad for all those years undetected, or do you believe he was captured elsewhere by the US and transported there?”

I was interested in their response as both Amir and Mohammed both know a lot of people in high places. Mohammed told me that he knew the man who was General of the Pakistan army at the time - he’s now passed away - and he told him on three occasions that Bin Laden had actually died up at Toro Boro in Afghanistan by virtue of lack of access to dialysis. But the Americans had resuscitated him on each occasion and kept him alive to further other objectives.  Mohammed told me that he had visited the house in which Bin Laden was killed the day after the American strike - it was cordoned off by then - and said that was very large and completely different to all the other houses in the area. Not the sort of place that you would choose to live if you wanted to keep a low profile.

Working in One of the Great Mountain Ranges of the World

Wednesday, 19 August, 2015. 1650. Absolutely spent but fitness holding up pretty well, thanks to eight days training before we headed out into the yonder. It’s the most stunning day again. Not a cloud all day. The deepest blue you could imagine. White peaks all around.

Today was D-Day for the first really difficult exercise of the trip, but I managed to pull it off and wasn’t really nervous. I seem to have put the nerves behind me from my training. We headed off at about 0730 - half an hour later than I wanted. But the locals can be hard to get moving in the mornings. Bakhir sits next to his gas bottle and cranks out the chipatis and tea and the others wait for him to finish before moving. But other than that I can’t fault the guys. Bakhir is a legend. The most genuine bloke you will ever come across, and, as I say, straight out of Manuel’s copybook in Fawlty Towers.

The team has gelled really well and everyone seems to have had a great time. Not a cross word between anyone, despite the physical difficulties of the terrain we have had to negotiate. It took me a while to scope the Chairman out but now I stir him up just like I do everyone else. And for anyone who thinks that Muslims are different to us Westerners that's a load of rubbish because they are exactly like us. The discussions among the boys are no different to the discussions among the boys back home. And I've found the same to be the case in Africa and Indonesia also.


Ascending 70 metres up a 500 metre cliff at 4000 metres in Pakistan's Karakorum Range.  A small glacier can be seen in the bottom left of frame.  2015.

Ascending 70 metres up a 500 metre cliff at 4000 metres in Pakistan's Karakorum Range.  A small glacier can be seen in the bottom left of frame.  2015.

Our goal today was to photograph two small mines located about seventy metres up from the bottom of a 400 metre cliff overlooking the Braldu River more than 1700 vertical metres below. The mines were located on the most stunning granite cliff face. Incredibly beautiful. Only problem was that they were about two hours from where we were camped and to get there we had to descend down a very steep slope to a glacial stream about 1000 feet below our camp. All good going down, but a bugger when you have to come back. En route we came across a herd of yaks grazing and then we had to ford that same glacial stream. Because it was thumping and that’s not the sort of place you want to end up in. First there’s the cold, and then there’s the risk that you might get pummelled into oblivion. But all in a day’s work for the locals. Like shelling peas if you like, despite the ice on the rocks on the far side of the stream. But we got across and it was onward and upward. We saw a couple of mines as we got near to our target - one was full of snow and ice - but generally they were not particularly photogenic.  One of the challenges in this part of Northern Pakistan is that you don’t seem to get the concentration of mines all together. This may be different in other places.

It took us a few minutes to rouse the miners when we arrived. They were busy working their Cobras - 5 the pneumatic drills - and then it took about 10 minutes for them to come down. I insisted on climbing the cliff they were on rather than taking a highly dangerous route that they used to free-climb. Plus, the idea of me climbing the cliff using my ropes was that I could then shoot images hanging off the cliff on the rope if necessary.

It was about now that things got a little difficult. Before leaving I’d insisted on taking a high altitude porter that was capable of fixing ropes. Fida allocated Raza to me who had climbed to Camp II on K2 at about 6200 metres. A pretty amazing feat in its own right. I’d also drilled Raza before leaving on his capability with rope-work and he insisted that he was competent. The miners told me that there were no real anchors that they could use for me so we agreed that they would drill two holes about six feet apart and then bang some drill rods in on an angle to which my ropes would be anchored. I was pretty comfortable with that as those drill rods are pretty strong. Plus, the fact that I would have two anchors gave protection in case one failed. 

The team for my first expedition in Pakistan's Karakorum Range in 2015.  Great memories.

The team for my first expedition in Pakistan's Karakorum Range in 2015.  Great memories.

While the miners were doing the drilling for the ascent 70 metres above, I asked Raza whether he was okay with tieing knots. He nodded in the affirmative and then I asked him to show me how he would tie off an anchor. He had no idea, and proceeded to use a reef knot with a half hitch as protection. Now, I was really pissed because all of a sudden things had become a little dangerous. Far too dangerous for my liking. What should I do.....?

My head was spinning. How can we make this work without getting killed? I ended up deciding to tie the knots myself. Then, all Raza would have to do was then loop the top ten metre rope over both points of the drill rods (I backed off both knots and then tied off the anchor rope with a barrel knot so that they would know that that knot should go on a particular drill rod. I then got them to simulate the top by putting both loops over two poles so that I could then work out where to tie the figure eight (the fall) in the middle for attachment to the screw caribiner and then the main climbing rope. Once we’d gotten to this point I was becoming more confident that we could pull things off, though I was a little disappointed that things weren't squared away properly before we'd left. There was also the pressure of time created by our late departure from camp. The sun tracks to the south in the northern hemisphere in these parts and so you only have a limited time window in the morning to work. These cliffs faced north.

The ascent would be one of the biggest things that I had ever done. Here in the Karakorum Range among the world’s biggest mountains at an altitude of about 4000 metres. Even climbing hills by foot at this altitude knocks you about. You have to walk slowly and surely to avoid altitude sickness. But I wasn’t feeling at all nervous which was good and a far cry from the struggles I had through most of my training back home. Some nerves are good - they make you alert - but you want to be completely focused on the job at hand at this higher altitude so generally I find them unhelpful. Raza did a very dangerous free climb via a ridge to the right to get the ropes up to where they needed to be and it was about 90 minutes from our arrival to when I finally locked the grigri in and ascender in and got started. The guys up top had to dump the rock refuse from the drilling beforehand and we had to get out of the way to avoid getting hit by the falling debris. That process took ten minutes as rocks rocketed past. Then Raza had to secure the ropes on to the drill rods. And then the rope finally came down.

Chairman and Ayoub were very unsure about the exercise as they had never seen the equipment that I was using, but I felt confident and wasn’t put off. 70 metres is a long climb at these altitudes: particularly for a novice such as myself. The face had a pretty good pitch - it was about 80 degrees - and I started beside a small glacier to my left. One of the locals yelled out that my set-up was no good. I should be using a jumar he said, but that was only because he’d never seen the set-up and in fact my set-up had two levels of protection built in.

The climb up was very enjoyable but hard and took maybe 45 minutes. When I reached the top I had to get the guys to pull the anchor rope back because they’d mislocated the two drill rods far too close to the edge. But other than that it was all pretty smooth. The sun was starting to shadow things out so I had to work quickly. The location was one of the most precarious spots you could imagine and, for the first bit of things, I felt very unsafe moving around up there unroped.

Had Raza known how to fix ropes I would have had him locking in some anchors for me to clip onto. But the guys were very cooperative and the mines themselves weren’t so deep. Before leaving I’d agreed to pay them some money as they took a fair bit of time out of their day and then had to drill those two anchor holes for the drill stems. But we worked up there for maybe a half an hour and then it was time to come down. Before doing so I re-tied the anchors to shorten the ropes so that I could hook in on the topside of the edge before going over.

The abseil down was quite easy and took only a few minutes. We then headed off to the miners’ hut to have some tea and take a bit of a rest. Here, I got to chat to one of the miners that I had photographed. He was aged 45 and had been doing this work for about 25 years. The Chairman - who is on this trip - was the first miner in this area and then the locals saw him making money and decided that they wanted a cut of the action. Generally he mines upside (the higher altitudes) for about four months of the year before the winter snows come and prevent further work. So in winter he goes back to his village looks after his animals. He doesn’t know his birthday and has four daughters and three sons and only one wife. The lure of the big find is what attracts him to mining, though his earnings vary widely. Sometimes 30,000 rupees in some years. Sometimes 50,000 rupees. Sometimes two to four lakh rupees. He was a likeable guy and invited me back. In fact, both Ayoub and the Chairman have decided that I should sit on their executive now and so have given me the title of “Chief ”!

The walk back to camp was very very tough. Down about 800 feet through some tricky terrain to that glacial stream. Only problem was that when we arrived back at that stream it was really cranking. In fact this was now probably the most dangerous part of the day. With the sun high in the sky, the glacial melt was in full tilt and so that stream had more than ratcheted up a notch. How to get across without wrecking gear or getting killed.......? We ended up taking about half an hour to make the crossing. Even this wasn’t like shelling peas for the locals and for me I wasn’t scared. Just didn’t want to write off the rest of the trip or worse through one stupid move. But we got across and then started the ascent up to camp 5 about 1000 feet and I really struggled. Maybe the climb up to the mines took it out of me. Maybe it was the altitude. I’m not sure. All that I know was that it was tough.

Now, as I type this, a cool, bordering on cold, wind is blowing. Tomorrow I’ve decided that we’re going to try and summit the peak in front of us. It’s probably at about 4700 metres and will be tough given how tired I feel, but I think the altitude training will be good and also the extra fitness work. My fitness is coming up well and the Chairman said that I climbed the cliff today strongly.

Am absolutely loving this trip. it’s amazing. Out of this world. 

Four Hours of Madness - Life at the Margins

8 November, 2013.

I think the lessons of today will take some time to process. Perhaps it is the yin and the yang of life. You can't enjoy the yin, without also experiencing the yang.

The early hours of this morning yielded one of the greatest experiences of my life. A dawn elephant ride through the elephant grass. It was wonderful. Thick fog. No wind. Watching the sun rise from the back of an elephant. Rhinos. Water buffalo. Deer. Elephants. All capped off with a white rainbow: an incredibly rare meteorological phenomenon. Awesome.

A white rainbow as seen from the back of my elephant.  Incredibly rare.  Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2013.

A white rainbow as seen from the back of my elephant.  Incredibly rare.  Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2013.

My elephant was a "tusker". A male with the most beautiful long tusks. How anyone could contemplate killing such a magnificent animal for two bits of ivory was beyond me, but then, I don't live in the villages and struggle to work out how I'm going to eat from day to day. Not that that's an excuse. Plenty of villagers go hungry in deference to life as a poacher.

41 rhino killed last year in the park and 25 killed this year. That's not to mention the five park guards that have been killed by rhinos, buffalo and tigers this year who work to defeat the poachers. The latest one was two days ago. A park guard was charged from behind by a rhino as three of them patrolled the park.

There was just me and a park guard on the back (on our elephant anyway). The park guard is there in case something goes up the spout. But I'm not sure how useful he would have been. At one stage when he went to raise the rifle due to some rustling in the elephant grass, he mucked around trying to get it loaded and cocked. Not that great if it's a tiger launching at you or a rhino cracking the #$%^s with the world. Not that we felt concerned.

Even the ending of the ride was wonderful. I went to have my photo taken with the elephant I'd been riding when a baby elephant came flying out from behind and false charged me. I kept my ground and she pulled up less than a metre in front of me. I let the elephant smell my hand before I stood with him to have my photo taken. On each occasion that the person raised the camera to take our photo, the elephant raised its trunk for the camera. Awesome that was. Made me laugh.

A Baby Elephant Posing for the Camera, Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2013.

A Baby Elephant Posing for the Camera, Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2013.

So that was the yin. What a wonderful morning.

If the yin was wonderful, then the yang was equally awful. Horrible. Something no-one should experience. Least of all, the people in the inner circle: those brought together by proximity or common bloodlines.

Down the highway toward we motored. Us variously resting or checking up on news on our phones. Passing the drive. As we had all trip.

At around 1000, I felt a sudden braking from my driver. Nothing to trigger awareness. No different to the million or so times that we had braked or swerved to miss buffalo, people, cattle, goats, dogs, chickens at other times during the trip. But for some reason, this time, the eyes stayed raised.

In the middle of the road was a man holding a child by the arms as the kid swung around in the air. Was he trying to stop the child throwing himself in front of the vehicle? Around him were perhaps twenty other people. It was different. I thought the kid was trying to suicide. My mind was trying to process the scene. Our vehicle edged slowly forward.

Ten or fifteen metres closer to our vehicle our eyes were drawn to a rag doll lying in the middle of the road: it's clothes flapping in the breeze. Still, not that unusual. Back to the flailing kid. What was going on.

But again, the eyes moved back to the doll in the middle of the road. Tiny. Like a dirty version of the ones we played with in the dust when we were kids growing up.

Only it wasn't a doll. It was the lifeless body of a young child aged not more than four or five. I felt sick to the core. A slab of meat hanging in a butcher's shop.

Our driver kept moving. It was horrible. Perhaps the worst thing I have witnessed in my life. We were sick to the stomach. Numb. My driver bashed his head three times with the palm of his hand. I didn't look around to see the look on Anurag's face. Our vehicle was punctuated with an awful silence.

The vehicle rolled slowly forward. There would be no stopping. There was nothing we could contribute, other than to make a tragic situation horribly worse. It will stay with me forever. I feel sick every time I process the scene in my mind. I can't even process the scene.

We passed the scene. The vehicle slowly accelerated. How should I feel? How should I think? I'm not even a victim here. Is there a right way to react?

In the one morning, one of the best experiences of my life, book-ended only hours later by one of the worst.

When things like this take place - like many many others will attest - you question the point of life. And none of the three of us in the vehicle were even victims.

The child that's gone. The people left behind. The point of life. The fragility of life. All the things you see. All the things you learn. What does any of it count for in the end, when the abruptness and grotesqueness of life and death is brought home as brutally as it was this morning.

The wonder of the elephant raising its trunk set against the awfulness of this. All in one four hours of morning.

But this is life. Here. Everywhere. It's the depth of the valleys, the grotesqueness of the troughs, that make the views from the peak so rich. You can't have one without the other. This is life. And death. As it is. Uncensored.

Is life the goal and death the punishment, or is death the goal and life the punishment. Did the kid really lose this morning, or did he really win. Why do the people left behind - anyone - need to learn these lessons.

As we pushed forward I found myself alternating between laughing with the recollections of the elephant and then wanting to shed a tear for the kid, and his family, that was here no longer. Laughing about life's random joys, and confusion and wanting to shed a tear for its never-ending suffering.

Later on, I talked with my guide and asked him whether he had reflected throughout the day on what we had seen this morning. I'd gained the feeling that it was like water off a duck's back in some ways. My sense had proven correct. The third world has a different attitude toward life, but maybe they have got it right. Who is to know.

Yesterday, many many lives changed forever as a result of one solitary split second of madness. Somewhere in all of this there will be lessons. Part of the accumulation of experiences that give life its unique character. These periods of suffering that counterbalance the joys of living life.

Why this has to be life is beyond me. There are no reasons. It just "is".

But life is here for living, and that means without blinkers. Even if it hurts like all hell breaking loose.

Counterbalanced against the joys of the elephant, of course....

"Rescued" From a Howling Dust Storm in Northern Burkina Faso

1645.  Well, that was excellent.  One of the best times of the trip and perhaps my life.  We're now heading back to Ouaga in the middle of a howling rain storm.  Country is awash.  My hair's full of dust and bettered only by my two cameras for which cleaning will have to come quickly if I'm not to write them both off: and brand new cameras at that!

It was a day very much of two halves.....  A brilliant morning.  But an amazing afternoon.  Incredible.

We headed up to Bani this morning in the north of Burkina Faso to check out the mosque.  The drive up was nothing out of the ordinary though I did love the country change as we got up into the Sahel region of the country: near the border with Niger; what many tourist now call the so-­‐called danger zone.  Certainly we didn't see any tourists today: only a military convoy going up and back to the border and something they now do every day we were told to protect from rebel incursions from Niger (ie, Al Qaida).

It turned into an excellent day.  The mosque was spectacular.  There were actually seven satellite mosques and a grand mosque configured in shape around a hill.  The grand mosque was amazing.  Inside there were one hundred pillars with each representing one of the one hundred names that God has according to Islam.  The mosque is said to be around three centuries old and was built by a local who travelled to Mecca. He returned after forty years, and after consultation with the locals built the mosque.  It took him 18 months to build.  It is made of mud brick and part of the rear of the temple had collapsed and was being restored by locals whenever tourist money came in.

Grand Mosque, Bani, Burkina Faso, 2012

Grand Mosque, Bani, Burkina Faso, 2012

We were told that tourism had all but stopped in this area because of Al Qaida and they were getting about three tourists a month now (I'm not sure if I was one, two or three.....).  The ceilings of the mosque were secured by wooden logs holding the mud bricks up.  The seven satellite mosques were said to resemble, according to Islam, God having built the world in seven days.  The experience was excellent and the guide even got some locals to come up in traditional dress and pray while we were there.  The floor of the mosque was earthen and entry required the removal of shoes and socks: bare feet only.  I rewarded them well and made a donation to the restoration of the mosque.  I think we get so blinkered at times in the western world that we think we know best and fail to heed the lessons that can be learned in other parts of the world.

We stopped briefly to wander around the markets in Bani also which were great. The kids didn't beg.  They asked for biros instead for school - out in these remote parts you tend not to find touristy things - there are no tourists - and so trade is built around the necessities of life: primarily food and clothing.  Throughout the day I made sure I was aware of my surrounds but never felt threatened at any stage.  It was a really cool day.

But it was in the second half of the day in which the day really gained some intensity.

Back to Ouaga we headed.

About half an hour out of Bani I noticed a big big storm building.  I've been around desert regions now for long enough to know when a dust storm is building and this had some serious potential.  As the storm got bigger I asked Brassiere, the driver, to slow, and then to stop.  The sky had an orange tinge to it and I eventually asked him to stop and grabbed my cameras and bolted for the top of a hill.  Dust storm fronts move very quickly.  I immediately started shooting and a local from a nearby village wandered up to see what I was doing.  When he realised what I was doing he stepped out of the frame and I shot like there was no tomorrow. It was spectacular with the round huts of the village and the rocks of the hill in the background.  A dust storm with a front this big: something that is not seen often.

Within a short time the dust and wind were intense and me and my cameras were getting smashed.  The man from the village lead me to his round house -­‐   visibility was no more than about 20 metres -­‐   and then inside.  It was pitch black inside.  No electricity out here.

So at this point, I'm in north-­‐eastern Burkina Faso on an unfamiliar road in the middle of nowhere near an area where Al Qaida have been kicking about in a raging dust-­‐storm, separated from my vehicle and drivers and sitting in a round mud brick house with a thatched roof with people I have never met in my life.  It was excellent. There was a man (probably late twenties), with his wife and baby and they couldn't even speak a word of French. So that had me totally buggered.  My English is bad, my French is worse and my Peule (the local dialect) is non-existent.  But it was still excellent.

He pulled out a torch and made a seat for me on their bed.  There is not a great deal of room in these round houses.  In this one, there was a double bed on which the man, his wife and baby all slept.  It felt comfortable.  He showed me a mat his wife had made which was really cool and I offered to buy it (though not wanting to spoil the mood).  He jumped at it and I thought to myself I would pay whatever price they asked given their generosity in having me back to their home. The roof was thatched and tied to logs that went up in a conical shape.  The walls had some decorations painted on.  It felt really homely.  The floor was earthen (ie, sand).

The landscape would have made you feel right at home in Marble Bar.  Outcropping granite and the landscape was sandy and desolate: not that one could see more than 20 metres outside when we opened the door, the storm blowing from the Niger side. I gave him 6000 CIFA for the matt (about A$12) and he then proceeded to point to his wife and say "cinq mill" (ie, 5000 CIFA or A$10).  For a minute the language barrier stonkered us and I thought he was trying to sell me his wife (who was also lovely).  I told him that I would not take his wife off him but then realised a minute or two later that he was asking me if I could contribute to "les enfant" or his daughter.  I gave them a further 10000 CIFA or A$20 and they were elated.  His wife went outside and brought in some guinea fowl eggs and they insisted that I take them as a gift while he read to me from the Koran and showed me some of the items in his house.

Life here in the village seemed so uncomplicated when compared with the rubbish issues we worry about in the west. Husbands and wives working the fields.  Kids growing up to do the same.  The round house felt so comfortable from the raging storm outside.

A raging dust storm in Burkina Faso in 2012 gave me one of the most memorable afternoons of my life.

A raging dust storm in Burkina Faso in 2012 gave me one of the most memorable afternoons of my life.

The storm must have raged for about 45 minutes and then there was the inevitable lull before the thunderstorm. We raced across the landscape to the vehicle where Abdou had earlier become concerned for my welfare and called me (remote African telephone communications are far better than we get back home).

It was a really cool afternoon.  I will never see this family ever again but I'll always keep what is a wonderful memory.

The trip home saw rain squalls most of the way.  When it rains here the locals all get wet: coming back from the fields and markets on their pushbikes and motor scooters.  Some riding donkeys.  It must have been very cold notwithstanding the climate.