Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Mid winter's day in Antarctica - 42 years ago.

After four months at Scott Base, I arrived at Lake Vanda in January 1970 where I spent 10 months as a science technician. We celebrated mid-winter on 21 June 1970, some 42 years ago today .

laboratory at Vanda station. For electricity we used a wind generator to charge our 24 volt Nicad batteries. When there was no wind, we would use a small Petter diesel generator. Photo: Bob McKerrow
For hygiene purposes, our toilet at Vanda Station was outside. Here is Tony Bromley on the thunder-box. When it got below - 40 degrees Celcius. it was dangerous as ones backside would stick to the painted seat and rip skin off. To solve this problem we made polystyrene seat covers to protect our bums. Photo: Bob McKerrow

On reflection, the 13 months I spent in Antarctica were among the best of my life.

I remember vividly the last helicopter leaving us in early February and we knew it would be at least nine months before we saw anyone else.

At the end of the long winter's night where it was totally dark for four months, I looked in the mirror and saw myself for the first time in five months. I wrote in my diary " A man without a woman about him is a man without vanity."

A few weeks later while reflecting on the winter, I wrote " I turned 22 in March, it is now September. During the past five months I have got to know and understand my worst enemy, myself."

The Wright Valley, View north through Bull Pass into Victoria Valley. The small stream flowing west (into Lake Vanda) is the Onyx.

The view of the Wright Valley taken from the survey station on the summit of Mt Newall (which now has a micro-wave tower on it).

We did long trips on foot in the late Autumn, throughout the winter and early Spring. Bob McKerrow left and Gary Lewis right, with frozen beards and faces. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Bath time at Vanda Station. Gary Lewis having a bath after six months Photo; Bob McKerrow

The old hand painted sign outside Vanda Station

There was also the poem I wrote just before the long winter's night ended.

I journeyed south to an icy cage
The sun never shone, there was no day
When I looked into the jaws of night
Far off I saw the threads of life
Twisting themselves into an eternal web
That stretched unbroken from dawn to death
It was the Aurora that gladdened the eye
A frenetic serpent that snaked the sky
Pouring mellowed colours that sparkled rime
On icy pendants soon to sublime.
Yes high above towers all form
Soon will come the first blush of dawn
My life has changed my dash is done
O welcome the King, O welcome the sun

The Aurora Australialis

Monday, 18 June 2012

Śrī Pada or Adam's Peak, Most Sacred Mountain

Early last week I spoke to Keti Khurtsia, who works with me in Colombo, and asked if she wanted to visit Adam's Peak, known in Sri Lanka as Sri Pada. Being an adventurous young lady, she immediately agreed to join me. We left after the rugby match between New Zealand and Ireland at 2.50 pm on Saturday, 16 June, 2012. Five hours later we were in Dalhousie, surrounded by lush green tea plantations, and misty hillsides.

We stayed at the River View Wathsala Inn and were warmly greeted by Nimal Bandara, the manager. He gave us good advice about the climb of Adam's Peak and is certainly a man to be believed, having climbed to the summit over100 times.

Left: Keti with Nimal, the manager of Wathsala Inn

Next morning at 2.10 a.m we departed from the Inn and headed for  Sri Pada, in pitch black. We threaded our way by headlamps up a trail with about 2500 steps, in the first two hours. At that stage we were over half way up Adam's peak.  I was feeling some pain and strain in my knees which I had replaced three and a half years ago (total knee replacements), so I knew I had to take stock, knowing there were at least another 2,700 steps ahead, and I didn't want to risk damaging them. Reluctantly I turned back, encouraging Keti to go for the top. Shortly after 4.15 a.m. I got back to the last shelter on the mountain, and in shorts and a warm jacket, lay on a concrete slab, waiting for dawn, praying that Keti would get safely to the top. I dropped off to sleep for a short while but was awakened by high winds and rain sweeping into the shelter. At 5.33 a.m. I got a sms from Keti saying  " Made it. 5am. On top. God was tough! See you soon!"

I was alone in a peaceful location, and was rudely disturbed by a crow visiting me and threatening to steal some food I had on the bench next to me.
Visibility was not good at my shelter so assumed Keti was having similar weather higher up. I photographed a watery sunrise, above, and mosses growing on a rock, below.

The waterfall outside the refuge I spend a few hours. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I always enjoy time by myself in the mountains as the solitude invigorates me as I can listen, look around, and soak in the silence.

 The weather did not look that good and I was beginning to worry a little about Keti. Soon she sprang out of the mist with a group of other climbers with a grin from ear to ear.
Keti turned up in the company of three delighful Frenchman, and I descended with this happy bunch. 

We were doing the ascent in the 'off season' which I recommend because it is quiet, clean and you can go at your own pace, although I made the mistake of trying to keep up with younger, and faster people.  

We arrived back at the hotel at 9.15 a.m, seven hours after we left to a great cup of tea, a hot shower and a delicious breakfast.

From the balcony of my room I looked out over green, green, green tea plantations. I can certainly recommend the River View Wathsala Inn at Dalhousie.

 All the while I was on and below Adam's Peak I thought of the rich history of this scared mountain. I found the most interesting article written by the Ven. S. Dhammika, which I paste below:;

Mount Sinai was considered sacred at a much earlier date, Mt. Fuji surpasses it in beauty and height, and Mt. Kilash evokes a far greater sense of mystery. Nevertheless, no other mountain has been revered by so many people, from such a variety of religions, for so many centuries as Śrī Pada has. In Sanskrit literature Śrī Pada is called variously Mount Lanka, Ratnagiri (Mountain of Gems), Malayagiri or Mount Rohana. This last name, like its Arab and Persian equivalent, Al Rohoun, is derived from the name of the south western district of Sri Lanka where Śrī Pada is situated. In several Tamil works it is known as Svargarohanam (The ascent to Heaven) while the Portuguese called it Pico de Adam and the English Adam's Peak. In the Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of Sri Lanka  written in the 5th century CE, it is called Samantakuta (Samanta's Abode) while in modern Sinhalese it is often called Samanelakhanda (Saman's Mountain). Long before Buddhism came to Sri Lanka in about 246 BCE Śrī Pada was revered as the abode the god called Samanta, or sometimes Saman or Sumana. This local mountain god was destined to go on to great things. The Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka later made Samanta the guardian of their land and their religion. With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, a movement that began in south India from where it soon spread to the island, Samanta developed into Samantabhadra, one of the four principle bodhisattvas of Mahayana. Like his later manifestation, Samanta is usually depicted crowned and bejewelled, holding a lotus in his right hand and accompanied by a white elephant. 

Śrī Pada

At Weligama, an ancient port on Sri Lanka's south coast, there is a 12 ft high statue of Samantabhadra carved out of a huge moss-covered bolder. Pilgrims from India and northern Sri Lanka disembarking at Weligama were greeted by this bodhisattva's serene countenance as they set out on the long trek to Śrī Pada. Today there is still a shrine to Samanta on the top of the mountain and another larger one near Ratnapura, some 19 kilometres from its foot. The name Śrī Pada, while correctly referring only to the sacred (sri) footprint (pada) on its summit, is the most commonly used name for the mountain today.
Śrī Pada soars upwards to a height of 7360 feet from the very edge of the central highlands and viewed from the southwest looks like a pinnacle on a verdant castle wall. For about half the year it is oftenhidden in cloud and the torrential rains that rush down its steep sides during this time makes visiting the summit almost impossible. This abundant precipitation feeds Sri Lanka's four main rivers which all have their sources on the mountain's lower slopes. Over the aeons these rains have also washed nearly a thousand feet of rock and soil off Śrī Pada and its surrounding peaks and the alluvial deposits that extend from its foot towards the south and east are one of the world's richest gem mining areas. Here are found rubies, topaz, garnets, cats eye, aquamarine, Alexanderite and sapphires ranging in colour from yellow to blue. Like the mountain itself many legends are told about these gems. The Arabs believed they were the crystallised tears Adam and Eve shed when they were expelled from Paradise. The story the Chinese told about them was even more beautiful. They said that when the Buddha visited Sri Lanka he found the people poor and given to theft. So out of compassion and to turn them to virtue he sprinkled the island with sweet dew which crystallised into gems thus freeing the people from poverty by giving them a commodity to trade with.

Śrī Pada is surrounded by exceptionally dense forest, much of it now making up the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. This is not the lush steamy cover one usually associates with the tropics but a cool misty forest similar to that found in the lower reaches of the Himalayas. Giant trees hang heavy with moss, rhododendrons put forth large red blossoms and rare orchids like the Regal and the Chandraraja grow in the dark moist loam. Although not actually growing on Śrī Pada's slopes but in the forests further north and west, Sri Lanka's famous spices have long been associated with the sacred mountain too. The Arabs believed that these sweet spices grew from cuttings and seeds which Adam bought with him from Paradise. A 14th century Persian poem says that Allah created all Sri Lanka's spices and flowers so that Adam's transition from Paradise to earth would be less painful. In the past Śrī Pada's forests were the home of numerous elephants and the animal was so identified with the mountain that it came to be seen as the mount of Samanta. In 1840 Major Skinner, the famous engineer, actually reported finding elephant droppings on the very top of Śrī Pada early one morning. But with the establishment of the coffee plantations in the 1850's these majestic creatures were completely shot out although pilgrims still occasionally report seeing Samanta's white elephant as they make the nocturnal journey up the mountain. Of the two animals still associated with Śrī Pada the first is the butterfly. Sri Lanka is the home of numerous species of glorious butterflies and once a year they form into long chains, sometimes consisting of hundreds of the creatures, and fly through the countryside. Popular legend says that they are all going to Śrī Pada to pay homage to the Buddha's footprint. The other animal associated with the sacred mountain, the leech, is far less pleasant. Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan traveller who visited Sri Lanka in 1344, like many people before and since, was appalled by the tenacity and ferocity of these leeches and mentioned that pilgrims would carry lemons to keep them at bay. Today the jungle besides the paths that lead up the mountain is cut back at the beginning of each the pilgrim season thus lessening this problem. But rest for a moment on a rock at the jungle's edge or walk into it to answer the call of nature and hundreds of ravenous leeches will be waiting.

Śrī Pada: Buddha's FootprintHowever it not Śrī Pada's geological particularities or natural beauty that has made it so famous but something else altogether. On the summit of the mountain is a boulder with a mysterious mark or indentation on it resembling a human footprint. Since from perhaps as early as the first century BCE the Sinhalese believed this mark to be the footprint of the Buddha himself. According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha visited the island three times. During his last sojourn he flew from Kelaniya to Śrī Pada, leaving the impression of his foot on the mountain top, and then left for Dighavapi. Whether the Buddha's journey to Sri Lanka is true or not as a metaphor it is very true. The Buddha's teaching has left its impression on every aspect of Sri Lankan life as surely and as indelibly as if it had been engraved in stone. Legend says that after King Valagambha was driven from his throne in 104 BCE, he lived in a remote forest wilderness for 14 years. On one occasion while stalking a deer he was led up the mountain and discovered the sacred footprint. The gods revealed to him that it had been made by the Buddha. The legend of the Buddha's visits to Sri Lanka is not, it should be noted, confined to the Theravada tradition. The Lankavatara Sutra, the seminal text of the Ch'an and Zen schools of Buddhism, was supposedly taught by the Buddha while residing on Malayagiri, "which shone like a jewel lotus, immaculate and shining in splendour". The Chrakasamvara Tantra mentions the Buddha flying to Lanka and leaving the impression of his foot on a mountain which it doesn't name but which at least one contemporary Tibetan scholar has mistakenly identified as Mount Kailash in the western Himalayas. While Buddhists knew that this mysterious footprint had been made by the Buddha in succeeding centuries other faiths, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity were to lay claim to it also. A 15th century Chinese work says the footprint was made by Pwan-ko, the primordial man of Chinese mythology. South Indian Hindus believed it had been made by Shiva. Moses of Chorene never saw the footprint himself but proclaimed that it had been made by the Devil. The Portuguese could never quite make up their minds whether it had been made by Adam, St Thomas or the eunuch of Candace, Queen of Sheba, although they never doubted its veracity. Ibn Batuta mentioned that sometime before his visit the Chinese had come and cut the mark of the big toe out of the rock and enshrined in a temple in China "where it is visited by people from the farthest parts of the land". An early Thai king sent monks to Sri Lanka to make an impression of the footprint and then had copies made in bronze and distributed all around his kingdom. (see above: copy of the Buddha's Footprint from Śrī Pada, Sukhodaya style, 14th century). The famous statue of the Buddha from Sukhodaya with its beautiful flowing lines, does not depict him walking, as is commonly supposed, but him making the mark of his foot on Śrī Pada.
With shipping lanes through south east Asia becoming more reliable after the 5th century CE this became the favoured route for Indian and Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns going to each others country. Such missionaries and pilgrims often stopped off in Sri Lanka to visit the island's many shrines. The famous Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien stayed in Sri Lanka in 411-12 and mentions Śrī Pada in his travelogue, although it is not clear whether he actually went there. The Indian monk Punyopaya "climbed Mount Lanka" while on his way to China in 655. At about the same time the Kashmiri monk Vajrabodhi visited Śrī Lanka and after a six month stay in Anuradapura, set out for Śrī Pada. "When at last he reached the foot of the mountain, he found the country wild, inhabited by wild beasts and extraordinary rich in precious stones." Like many pilgrims Vajrabodhi was moved by the spectacular view from the mountain's top. "After long waiting, he was able to climb to the summit and contemplate the impression of the Buddha's foot. From the top he saw to the north west the kingdom of Ceylon and on the other side the ocean". In 1411 the grand fleet of the emperor of China commanded by the eunuch admiral Ch'ing-ho, arrived in Galle harbour to offer gifts to the sacred footprint on the emperor behalf. According to the inscription Ch'ing-ho later set up to record his mission, the gifts included " 1000 pieces of gold, 5000 pieces of silver, 50 rolls of embroided multicolored silk, 4 pairs of jewelled banners, 5 antique incense burners, 6 pairs of gold lotuses, 2,5000 catties of perfumed oil" and numerous other things. In 1423 a large group of Thai and Cambodian monks who were in Sri Lanka studying and collecting texts climbed the sacred mountain before returning to their homelands. The leader of this group made a copy of the footprint and took back to Thailand with him. At the beginning of the 16th century the Portuguese conquered Sri Lanka's maritime provinces and forbade Buddhists living under their jurisdiction and those coming from overseas from going to Śrī Pada. By way of contrast, the king of Kandy in whose realm the mountain was situated, allowed Christians to enter his territory to make the pilgrimage. When the Dutch took over the maritime provinces in 1656 they proved to be less bigoted than the Portuguese but fear that pilgrims might act as spies for the king of Kandy led them, if not to ban, then at least to discourage visits by levying a heavy tax on pilgrims .For nearly two centuries Sinhalese Buddhists living in the low country could see the sacred mountain, worship it from afar but not go there.
The first western reference to Śrī Pada is in Ptolemy's Geography where it is called Valspada and the first specifically Christian mention of it is found in Valentinus' Pistis Sophia. In this 2nd century Gnostic work Jesus is represented as saying to the Virgin Mary that he had appointed the angel Kalapataras as guardian over the mark "impressed by the foot of Adam and placed him in charge of the books of Adam written by Enoch in Paradise". There are only occasional Christian references to the mountain in the proceeding centuries. Macro Polo did not visit Sri Lanka specifically to make a pilgrimage to Śrī Pada; he was on a diplomatic mission for Kublai Khan at the time, although he was the earliest European to leave a reasonably accurate account of it. "In this island there is a very high mountain, so rocky and precipitous that the ascent to the top is impracticable, as it is said, excepting by the assistance of iron chains employed for the purpose. By means of these some persons attain the summit, where the tomb of Adam, our first parent, is reported to be found. Such is the account given by the Saracens. But the idolaters assert that it contains the body of Sogomon Barchan (Sakyamuni Buddha), the founder of their religious system, and whom they revere as a holy personage". Some 35 years after Marco Polo, Friar Odoric of Postenau returning to Europe from China broke his journey in Sri Lanka to make a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain. While climbing up he was shown the famous Fountains of Paradise, said to have been formed by the tears of Adam and Eve. However, the good friar was not impressed. The fountains looked to him like ordinary mountain springs and although the water was crystal clear, it was full of leeches. In about 1348 another European monk, the legate of Pope Clement V1 to China, Goivanni de Marignolli, climbed Śrī Pada. He wrote of it, "It is a pinnacle of surpassing height, which, on account of the clouds, could rarely be seen; but it lighted up one morning just before the sun rose, so that they beheld it like the brightest flame. It was the highest mountain on the face of the earth and some thought that Paradise existed there". Coming from his cold gloomy medieval cloister to the eternal spring of Sri Lanka, de Marignolli had no difficulty believing that Paradise was nearby but he was not one to swallow everything he was told. He estimated that Paradise was in fact 40 miles further north of the mountain. The climate of religious tolerance in Sri Lanka was also very different to what de Marignolli was used to. "The Buddhist monks on the mountain and elsewhere are very holy, though they have not the Faith... They welcomed me into their monasteries and treated me as one of their own".

Śrī PadaHowever, by the late middle ages European interest in Śrī Pada had nearly faded away. When Fra Mauro drew his celebrated mappa mundi in Venice in 1459 on it he included a picture of Śrī Pada and its sacred footprint, not for its religious but for its geographical significance. The situation had not changed though amongst the Christians of South India. Supposedly evangelised by St Thomas in about 59 CE but more probably the descendants of Nestorian Christian merchants originally from Persia, these people had been coming and indeed continued to come to the sacred mountain for centuries. After the Portuguese conquest of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese forcibly converted to Catholicism began joining these Indians on the yearly pilgrimage. In 1803 Robert Percival was able to write, "The Roman Catholic priests, with their usual industry, have taken advantage of the current superstition to forward the propagation of their own tenets; and a chapel which has been erected on the mountain is yearly frequented by vast numbers of black Christians of the Portuguese and Malabar race". In 1684 Daniel Pathey, a German solider in the Dutch East India Company, became the first European since medieval times to climb Śrī Pada and give a firsthand description of it. Since then there have been numerous other accounts of the mountain. One that deserves a mention because of the way its no-nonsense rationalism contrasts with the piety and sense of wonder of earlier accounts, is that written in 1819 by the first Englishman to make the ascent, Dr Henry Marshall. " The area of the summit of the peak is 72 feet long and 54 broad, and is enclosed by a parapet wall five feet high... in the middle of this area is a large rock of Kabooe or iron-stone upon which is the mark of Adam's left foot, called Śrī Pada by the Singhalese; but it requires a great deal of help from imagination to trace it out. This sacred footprint is covered over with a small building formed of the most durable wood 12 feet long, 9 broad and 4 to the tiles with which it is surmounted. Upon the inside it is enclosed by a frame of copper fitted to its shape, and ornamented with numerous jewels set in four rows, but not of the best or most precious gems the island has been known to produce, for to me they looked very like glass. We were not, I regret to say ,provided with an 'Union Jack' but we fired three volleys, to the great astonishment of the Buddhists as a memorial to them that a British armed party had reached the summit... Sound lungs and hard feet are indispensable to the performance of such a trip, for in many places we had climbed barefoot over the iron-stone. As to palankins, they are quite out of the question. There may be some risk in ascending Adam's Peak in heavy rain but surely not in fine weather".

The third great world religion to hold Śrī Pada sacred is Islam. All Muslims accept that after Adam was cast out of Paradise he left the mark of his foot on the top of a mountain. There was however a difference of opinion in ancient Islam about exactly where Paradise was. Some said it was on earth while others contended that it was in heaven. It was this second school's opinion that eventually prevailed. Paradise was in heaven and when Adam was expelled his foot first touched the earth at its loftiest point which was Śrī Pada. Al Tabari in his great history of the world, asserts that the mountain was so high that "when Adam was cast upon it, his feet touched it while his head was in heaven and he heard the prayer and praise-giving of the angels". This apparently annoyed the angels and "they eventually complained to Allah in their various prayers and Allah therefore, lowered Adam (completely) down to earth". When Ibn Batuta was in Shiraz in Persia he was shown the grave of Shaikh Abu Abdullah Khafif, supposedly the first Muslin to go to Śrī Pada in the year 929 CE. "Previously the infidels (Buddhists) prevented the Muslims from visiting it, vexed them, and neither dinned with them nor had any dealings with them." However, the Shaikh, who had lived in Chilaw for some years and had gained a reputation amongst the Sinhalese for holiness was finally allowed to join a group of pilgrims going to the mountain. At one point in the journey the party found itself in a jungle wilderness without any food. To save themselves they killed a baby elephant and eat it, though the Shaikhs advised against this and refused to partake of the meat. That night as the party slept a herd of elephants appeared, sniffed each person and crushed to death all those on whom they smelt the flesh of their kin. The chief elephant then put the Shaikh on his back and took him to the nearest village. "From that time the infidels began to honour the Muslims and up to this day they revere the Shaikh and call him the Great Shaikh". However, despite what Ibn Batuta was told the evidence shows that Muslims were making the pilgrimage to Śrī Pada before the time of Abu Abdullah Khafif . Sulaiman, an Arab trader is known to have gone to Śrī Pada in 850 and Al Qazwini who died in 1282 quotes a hadith of the Prophet which says, "The best spot where the camel knelt down is Mecca, thereafter this mosque of mine (i.e. Medina) and Al Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the island of Sarandib where our father Adam had descended". If this hadith is authentic it would show that Muslim reverence of Śrī Pada began with the Prophet Mohammed himself. Since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 Sri Lanka's Muslims have become more orthodox and more determined to stand apart from their fellow countrymen and consequently few now visit Śrī Pada. But old traditions die hard. Recently an acquaintance of mine while half way up the mountain, encountered two men in distinct Middle Eastern attire. He talked with them and was told that they were both from Oman and while on business in Colombo had decided to go to Śrī Pada. One of the Omanis also said that his grandfather had made the pilgrimage in the 1930's.
Hindu reverence for Śrī Pada and its sacred footprint was mainly confined to South India and even there does not seem to have been very strong or widespread. Ibn Batuta was accompanied on his pilgrimage by four Hindu yogis who went yearly, four Brahmins and ten companions of the king of Jaffna, indicating that at least in the 14th century it was popular with Hindus living in the northern part of Sri Lanka. Hindus actually controlled the shrines on the sacred mountain at one time. In 1581 the crown prince of Kandy murdered his father and proclaimed himself King Rajasinghe I. When he asked the Buddhist monks how he could expunge the evil kamma he had made they, to their credit, told him that like everyone else he would have to take responsibility for his own actions. This was not what he wanted to hear. The brahmin priests on the other hand were only to willing to perform a puja to help the king ease his guilty conscience and so he converted to Hinduism. The Buddhist monks were driven off Śrī Pada, it was handed to the brahmin priests and they administered it for the next 160 years.

How did Śrī Pada and its mysterious footprint become so widely known from such an early period? Sri Lanka is situated right on the main sea route between east and west, the so called Silk Road of the Sea. From at least the 3d century BCE Arab ships were sailing to the south and east coasts of India and four hundred years later Roman ships were joining them. From perhaps the 4th or 5th CE century Chinese and Javanese were coming to India from the other direction. When all these mariners sailed passed Sri Lanka or landed on its shores they could see the sacred mountain quite clearly. The Mahabharata describes Śrī Pada from the sea as "an exceedingly wondrous sight, which is endowed with supreme splendour". Idris, court geographer to King Roger of Sicily, writing in 1154 says " is so elevated that it can be seen several journeys out to sea". Ibn Batuta wrote that he saw the mountain "rising into the heavens like a pillar of smoke" nine days out. While this is certainly an exaggeration it is true that Śrī Pada can be seen rising above the horizon nearly eighty miles before the coastline comes into view. For those sailing across the Indian Ocean from the barren coasts of Ethiopia or Arabia the mountains blue-green spire must have been a welcome sign that they were about to arrive in a safe harbour. For centuries navigators used Śrī Pada to get a bearing. It was these men, sailors, merchants and adventures who took the legends and stories about Śrī Pada to the furthermost corners of the known world.
Śrī Pada's religious associations, its height and its great natural beauty have long made it a favourite with writers and poets and its glories are celebrated in the literature of a dozen languages. The most famous such work is the Sumantakutavannana, a Pali poem composed in the 13th cent by Veheda Thera. Some twenty of the poems' verses are devoted to praising the mountains silvan beauty. The Salalihini Sandesa (15th cent) is a similar work but in Sinhalese while the Suvul Sandesa (16th cent) is a poem beseeching Samanta to protect Sri Lanka and her king. Śrī Pada often figures in the Sanskrit literature of India. The Anargharaghava, a 9th century retelling of the Ramayana, has Rama in his magic chariot flying back to Ayudha pointing towards the south and saying to Sita, "There appears to view the Island of Simhala, a blue lotus arising from the ocean, made even more beautiful by the filaments of the Mount of Jewels". There is a delightful verse in the Sukitmuktavali where gems from the foot of the mountain, about to be carried away to be made into king's crowns and queen's diadems bid a cheerful farewell to the mountain. In the 9th century play the Balaramayana, the king of Sri Lanka is called "the Lord of the Mountain of Jewels, Rohana". The Rajataragani, written in Kashmir in the 11th century, includes a tale about the mythological King Meghavahana who came to Sri Lanka to receive homage from Vibhisana the lord of the Raksasas and then climbed Śrī Pada. In other works Śrī Pada is used as an exotic destination or a colourful backdrop. In The Thousand and One Nights, written in Persia between the 9th and 13th centuries, it is one of the strange places that Sinbad visited. "I made, by way of devotion, a pilgrimage to the place where Adam was confined after his banishment from Paradise, and had curiosity to go to the top of the mountain". In the Tamil epic Manimekela one character describes her pilgrimage to Sri Lanka "where stands the lofty Mount Samanta, on whose summit are the footprints of the Buddha, that ship of righteousness for traversing the ocean of birth and death". The sacred mountain also gets a mention in the old Malay version of the Ramayana, in Buzurg Ibn Shahriyar's Book of the Wonders of India and even in the 14th century apocryphal Voyages and Travels of Sir John Manderville. Śrī Pada's most recent appearance in literature is in Arthur C Clarks science fiction novel Fountains of Paradise.



The pilgrims season to Śrī Pada traditionally starts on the full moon of December and ends on the full moon of April . It takes a while for the crowds to build up but by the second half of the season they can be very large so it is best to go earlier. Weekends and particularly full moon days are always crowded and should be avoided. Most people make the climb at night so they can arrive in time for the sunrise. Alternatively, you can climb up during the day, stay overnight and go down the next morning. This way you can avoid the crowds, climb at a leisurely pace, have plenty of time to enjoy the view, see the sunset and get the best place to observe the sunrise in the morning. Accommodation on the summit is basic and you would have to bring your own food and perhaps a blanket or sleeping bag. However, whenever you decide to go, check the weather report before setting out. Rain can make for a miserable trip and it is more likely that cloud or mist will obscure the view.


In ancient times the only way to approach Śrī Pada was from Ratnapura, the City of Gems. When Sinhalese civilisation moved to the central highlands after the 13th century and the forests began to be cleared, two other paths, one from Uva and another from Kehelgamuva, also came into use. These two paths ceased to be used at least a hundred years ago and indeed they can hardly be traced today. After the British began building roads through the highlands in the middle of the 19th century the Hatton path became and remains the most popular pilgrims route to the mountain. There are several ways to get to Hatton. You can take a bus from the Colombo Bus Stand. Alternatively you can take a bus from Kandy's Goods Shed Bus Dept which is situated just past the Post Office. Once at Hatton take one of the numerous private buses to the foot of the mountain, a distance of about 33 kilometres. Hatton is also on the main Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya railway line so it is possible to get there by train. The more adventurous traveller might consider taking the Hatton path up and the Ratnapura path down. This second path is thickly forested for its entire length, crosses numerous streams and is definitely only for those used to trekking. There are few food stalls on the way so it can be a good idea to bring water and something to eat. It is at least a five hour trek to the first village, Sripadagama from where regular buses go to Ratnapura.


Whether making the ascent by day or night it can be an arduous climb, so bring only what you are likely to need. There are food and drink stalls all the way up the Hatton path but prices are considerably higher than normal so you might like to bring your own snacks and water. You are likely to be warm during the climb itself but you can get very cold while waiting for the sunrise at the summit, so bring warm cloths. If the weather is uncertain an umbrella or rain coat will be useful. A pair of binoculars if you have them will also be most useful.


The Ascent

From the bus stop to the summit the Hatton path is about 3 kilometres long and if there are no delays, takes about four hours to climb. For some way both sides of the path are lined with stalls and shops selling all manner of things. Among the junk for sale you will notice small booklets of poems, songs and verses that have traditionally been sung by pilgrims making the ascent. The ascent proper starts at the great Makhura Gateway some way from the bus stop. Beyond this point you will notice that much of the path consists of cement or rough stones stairs and that the whole way is illuminated with electric lights. The story behind the electrification of the path is an interesting one.
Since the inauguration of the Norton Bridge Hydro Scheme in 1924 the project had been plagued by one problem after another, delays, strikes and several bad accidents. When the contractors eventually requested to pull out it looked as if the project would never be completed. Finally on the 2nd November 1947 Sir John Kotelawala, then minister of works and later to become prime minister, made a vow to Samanta that if the project was finished soon and without further mishaps, he would electrify the paths up the mountain. The workers' morale shot up, accidents ceased, the scheme was successfully completed and Sir John was able to fulfil his vow.
Before the light were installed pilgrims had to provide their own illumination, candles or hurricane lamps and before that "tubes filled with a resinous substance... giving out a strong flaming blaze when lighted". William Skeen describe the dramatic impression created by these burning torches as he looked down from the summit during his visit to Śrī Pada in the 1860's. "The heavens above were clear, the stars were shining bright, and the glorious full-orbed moon was scarcely passed its zenith. From the Peak, ablaze with light to Heramitipana station similarly lighted up, the whole of the pilgrims path was filled as it were, with a living chain of fire, connecting the two points together and formed by the torches of the multitudes going to and fro".
As you proceed you will pass numerous danasalas offering shelter, medical assistance and sometimes food and water to pilgrims. The tradition of offering hospitality to pilgrims is an ancient one in Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa records this concerning King Vijayabahu (1058-1114). "Saying ,'Let no one endure hardship who goeth along the difficult pathways to worship the Footprint of the Chief of Sages on Samantakuta Mountain', he caused the village of Gilimalaya which abounds in rice fields and other lands, to be granted to supply pilgrims with food. And at the Kadatigama road and at the Uva road he built rest houses". Pilgrims going to Śrī Pada traditionally greet each other by saying 'Karunava' meaning 'Compassion to you'. If you say this to the people you meet you are sure to get a warm smile and a similar greeting in return.

The Sama Chatiya

After a while you will come to the Sama Chatiya, the World Peace Pagoda. This stupa was built by the famous Japanese Buddhist monk Ven Nichi Fuji in 1976 and is maintained by several Japanese monks. At night there is little to see but during the day the brilliant white stupa stands out dramatically against the vast grey cliff behind it.

The Bhagava Cave

About 150 feet from the summit, just next to the last tea shop, is the Bhagava Cave. To get there climb on to the retaining wall and just walk into the undergrowth for a few yards. For centuries this cave was the only refuge for pilgrims caught on the mountain at night and for those seeking shelter from storms. Acetic monks used to spend the nine months of the off season up here, completely isolated from the world below, living off wild fruit, herbs and moss. There are two inscriptions on the wall of the Bhagava Cave. The first was written by King Nissankamalla (1187-1196) when he climbed Śrī Pada during one of the many tours he made of his kingdom. This inscription records the improvements he made to the path up the mountain and the generous gifts he offered to its shrines. To the left of the inscription is the figure of a man in the gesture of reverence, probably a portrait of the king. Further to the left is yet another inscription. Written in Arabic in the 13th century it reads, "Mohammed, may Allah bless him...the father of Mankind". There is another cave on the slopes of Śrī Pada, the Divaguha, where the Buddha is said to have rested. It is referred to in many ancient sources but to this day it has not been located.

The Sacred Footprint

There is little to see on the top of Śrī Pada, a few buildings, the belfry with the bell that people traditionally ring once for each time they have made the pilgrimage, the shrine to Samanta and right next to it, the shrine over the sacred footprint. It is to worship at this last place that people throughout the centuries have risked hardship and danger to come to Śrī Pada. Nearly as much has been written about the sacred footprint as has been about the mountain itself. According to Giovani de Marigolli, "The size, I mean the length thereof, is two and a half of our palms, about half a Prague ell. And I was not the only one to measure it , for so did another pilgrim, a Saracen from Spain". Robert Knox, an Englishman who lived in Sri Lanka in the 17th century, wrote that it was "about two feet long". John Ribeyeo in his account of Sri Lanka presented to the king of Portugal in 1687 claimed that the footprint "could not be more perfect had it been done in wax" and in 1859 James Emerson Tennent described it as "a natural hollow artificially enlarged, exhibiting the rude outline of a foot about five foot long". Obviously peoples perception of the sacred footprint differ according to their expectations and their faith, or lack thereof. Look carefully and see what you think of it. Remember also that the footprint is an object of great religious significance to Buddhists so an attitude of quiet respect while near it and indeed throughout your stay on the summit is appropriate.

The View and The Sunrise

Śrī Pada is not actually very high but its steep sides and the many lower mountains surrounding it give the impression of exceptional loftiness. It is sometimes possible to watch from above as clouds silently drift past. James Emerson Tennent's description says it all. "The panorama from the summit of Adam's Peak is perhaps the grandest in the world, as no other mountain, although surpassing it in altitude , presents the same unobstructed view over land and sea. Around it, to the north and east, the traveller looks down on the zone of lofty hills that encircle the Kandyan kingdom, whilst to the westward the eye is carried far over undulating plains, threaded by rivers like cords of silver, till in the purple distance the glitter of the sunbeams on the sea mark the line of the Indian Ocean"

Every morning a series of intriguing phenomena can be observed from the summit of Śrī Pada. Just before sunrise everyone will assemble on the eastern side of the summit waiting for the sun. When it appears it seems to leap over the horizon rather than rise gradually. At this moment the more pious people will shout 'Sadhu!' an exclamation meaning 'It is good'. The Sinhalese say that the sun is paying homage to the Buddha's footprint. Then everyone will move to the western side of the mountain. Join them and you will see the perfectly triangular shadow of the mountain laying over the landscape. Sometimes if there is a light mist the shadow will appear to stand upright. Within moments, as the sun climbs higher, the shadow will move rapidly towards the base of the mountain and finally disappear. This phenomena is supposed to occur in only one other place in the world, somewhere in Arizona.

The Ancient Chains

Go to the stairs leading down to Ratnapura and descend about a hundred feet. You will notice that soon the stairs become very steep. Everywhere else the hand rails are helpful, here they are absolutely necessary. On the right you will notice large chains riveted into the rock. In the thousand or so years that the Ratnapura path was the only way up the mountain these chains assisted the final ascent and they are mentioned in most ancient accounts of Śrī Pada. The Muslims believed they were put here by Alexander the Great. The Zaffer Namah Sekanderi, a 15th century Persian poem celebrating the exploits of Alexander says "he fixed thereto chains with rings and rivets made of iron and brass, the remains of which exist even today, so that travellers, by their assistance, are enabled to climb the mountain and obtain glory by finding the sepulchre of Adam". In actual fact they were probably first put here by an early Sinhalese king and replaced when needed over the centuries. In 1815 Major Forbes witnessed a tragic but at that time not uncommon accident at this very place. "Several natives were blown over the precipice, and yet continued clinging to one of the chains during a heavy gust of wind; but in such a situation, no assistance could be rendered, and they all perished".


C. W. Nicholas, Historical Topography Of Ancient and Medieval Ceylon, Colombo, 1963.
K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, Foreign Notices of South India, Madras, 1939.
W. Skeen, Adam's Peak, Colombo, 1870.
H. Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, Vols I-IV, 1913-16.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Resilient communities. The Red Cross experience in Sri Lanka.

Confused about resilient communities, risk reduction, Community Based Disaster Risk Management (CBDRM), community capacity and resilience ? It's simple! Have a look at the short movie the Red Cross made in Sri Lanka.

With increasing trends of disasters, communities as well as the institutions engaged in disaster management were compelled to be proactive to reduce the impact of disasters. Community Based Disaster Risk Management (CBDRM) approach gained wider acceptance by the Sri Lanka government and other DM actors as a key strategy to develop community capacity and resilience. The Sri Lanka Red Cross Society has been identified as one of the key actor in implementing CBDRM interventions in the Government Road Map and the National Disaster Management Plan.

In line with the government framework, the SLRCS CBDRM interventions focused on conducting participatory risk profiling through hazard, vulnerability and capacity assessments followed by developing community risk reduction plans, organizing community as village disaster management committees, training community level response teams and equipping with response gear, identifications of safe evacuation routes, installation of signboards, conducting simulation exercises/drills, identifying and implementing small scale community managed mitigation activities, carrying out DM awareness programmes and distribution of information, education and communication materials.

"Together we prepare" looks at how the CBDRM project has been effective on a community level. The documentary focuses on the Mulhalkale village in the Nuwara Eliya District, one of the key locations that are most vulnerable towards landslides every year. The villagers of Mulhalkale was relocated from the 2006 earth slip. The documentary looks at how the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society along with other partner national societies have taken up the challenge of equipping these villagers to be prepared for future disasters.

The documentary also looks at why its quite crucial to invest on risk reduction as natural disasters intensifies every year.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Keeping 2,000 families warm through the coldest winter for 15 years

Spare a thought for Akram Salam Khan a 12 year old boy who lost both hands two years ago. He survived the harsh winter in Kabul, but what is the hope for so many children who not only lost limbs, but a childhood . This article moved me deeply and I bleed for this young man. I am so pleased the Red Cross Red Crescent is doing something to improve his life. If you want to donate, click on this link.

Over the last couple of weeks, the Afghan Red Crescent Society, with the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has helped almost 2,000 families in Kabul through the coldest winter for 15 years. The organization has distributed blankets and clothes.
Akram Salam Khan, 12, is one the assisted children. He and his family are among the returnees living in a tent near the ruined Darolaman castle in Kabul. Ali Hakimi/IFRC

Hundreds of people returning from Pakistan and those displaced from conflict-affected areas, particularly in southern Afghanistan, are currently enduring the exceptionally cold winter and heavy snow fall, living in makeshift tents in Kabul.

Most of the tents have no heating. Some families may have blankets, others only the clothes they own and the body heat they generate when lying close to one another under a plastic sheet.

Akram Salam Khan is 12 years old. He and his family are among the returnees from Pakistan, living in a tent near the ruined Darolaman palace in Kabul.  “We use garbage to warm the tent at nights,” he said.

“Collecting garbage from the streets has become our routine job for every day. We do not have enough money to buy fire wood or coal.”
Most of the displaced people are farmers who have land for agriculture in their hometown. During the harsh winter season it is almost impossible to find a job. Now their income is based on casual daily work such as construction and selling small items.

Akram is the eldest son of a big family with five brothers and three sisters. He lost his both hands around two years ago while collecting fire wood. He accidentally touched an electricity line, got an electric shock and was seriously burnt. His family did not have enough money and could not take him to a hospital for treatment.

“After the accident my father failed to bear this tragedy fully but gradually his mood changed for better,” Akram said. “Now he is suffering from mental problems and is not able to work outside. So I am the one who must go out to bring money to the table. I am begging on the streets to buy some food.

Thanks to Ali Hakimi in Kabul 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Facebook and Twitter are driving migration, says I...

My old Red Cross friend Joe Lowry now works for IOM and I am proud to run his rather startling article on migration:

JoeJoe Bloggs: Facebook and Twitter are driving migration, says I...: My first two contributions to the website of my new organisation, The first part is a report into a conference on border managemen...

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Welcome back Jerry Talbot

In April 2009, one of the great Red Cross leaders retired, my good friend Jerry Talbot. To honour Jerry's incredible contrinbution to Red Cross, I wrote an article entitled 'An Outstanding Red Cross Leader Retires.'

But like the farm  that Jerry was brought up on in Onga Onga New Zealand, and all other farms in our  country, there is a saying, " you can't put a good dog down' or 'you can't put a good man down.'

So the saying is true, for two weeks ago a got an email from our secretary general in Geneva, Bekele Gelata saying that Jerry Talbot will be the Asia Pacific Zone acting Head of Operations for some months.

We are delighted to have Jerry back in the Asia Pacific Zone  as he will provide his wealth of experience and his steady hand on the tiller will be calming. So from all your friends and colleagues in and outside of the Red Cross and Red Crescent world, we welcome you back Jerry. Since Jerry retired in 2009, he has done a number of short term assignments in the Pacific region, was on an assessment mission to Japan after the deadly tsunami and a key member of the New Zealand Red Cross 2011 Earthquake Commission.

For those of you who are interested, I wrote the article below when he retirement.

Some months back I wrote an article on leadership and said there were a few great leaders I have worked for over the decades. One such leader retired on Monday, 31 March 2009. Jerry Talbot the special representative to the secretary general for the tsunami operation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Jerry has been an outstanding leader for he had excellent vision, took a long-range perspective on the big things and was able to develop concepts. He focused on people and inspired trust in all he met. He was gifted with a strong intellect and made a huge contribution for over 40 years to global humanity.

Bill Clinton with his arm round Jerry Talbot (far left) in the Maldives. The leadership qualities of Bill Clinton are renowned, but Jerry Talbot hid his light under a bushell, during a Red Cross career that spanned 41 years.

Jerry comes from a large family who still farm In Onga Onga in the Hawkes Bay. Above is a photo of a cattle farm in Onga Onga.
Not surprisingly with his farming background, his first assignment for the New Zealand Red Cross in 1968 was taking some bulls for breeding in Western Samoa. I often joked with him that he was an impressive bull-shipper. The next year he spent one year in Vietnam working on livelihoods programmes for displaced people. For 14 years he was Secretary of the New Zealand Red Cross and under his leadership, it developed into a very well functional organisation. Next he moved to Geneva in 1990 where he became head of the Asia Pacific Region for the IFRC. Jerry is married to Jen, a very lively and intelligent women, and the have three married sons. During his red Cross career he spent time helping his sister run the family farm and when possible, he would slip off to a quiet stream or river, where he indulged in fly fishing. There, like on Thoreau's Walden Pond, Jerry would reflect on the troubled world and come back more motivated to change the world.

In January 2005. Jerry moved to the Maldive Islands where the IFRC built thousands of houses, put in new water supplies, restored livelihoods and assisted many thousands of families. One on the greatest tributes to Jerry Talbot is through his leadership and vision on Dhuvaafaru Island in Raa Atoll, where the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has created new homes for more than 3,700 people who were displaced from their original island after the Indian ocean tsunami struck in 2004.

At the opening ceremony on 2 March 2009, His Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives paid tribute to Jerry Talbot for his leadership in making the dream of a new village on Dhuvaafaru possible.
His Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives and Jerry Talbot at the opening of the settlement on Dhuvaafaru Island.

Work began in April 2006 when the 40-hectare coral island was uninhabited. In just under three years, and at a cost of 32 million US dollars, the island has been transformed into a thriving community that boasts 600 houses, three schools, an island administration block, an auditorium, a health centre and a sports stadium. IFRC has also built amenities including the island’s power plant, sewage system and roads.“Developing a whole uninhabited island into a ’safe island’, which is now home to almost a 4,000-strong population, is indeed quite a feat,” says President Mohamed Nasheed. “The government appreciates the generosity and humanitarian work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the Maldives and throughout the world. I’m sure all Maldivians are very grateful for the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s partnership with the Maldives in rebuilding the country following the tsunami.”
This is but one of hundreds of Jerry's success in improving the lives of vulnerable people. I remember visiting villages in the central Highland of Vietnam with Jerry in 1973 where he showed me thriving agricultural projects he had started with a New Zealand Red Cross Welfare team in 1968.

Last Monday in Geneva, there was a farewell party for Jerry. I couldn't be there. So I sent a few lines to be read out. here they are.

Dear Jerry
It was 1971 when I first met you. You were a veteran having started working for the New Zealand Red Cross in Samoa in 1968. That was 41 years ago. I remember flying to Bangladesh with you in 1972 in a New Zealand Air Force C-130 with a Land Rover, from Wellington-Auckland-Sydney-Darwin-Singapore-Calcutta-Dhaka. I recall the pilot of our plane almost hit an Indian plane coming in to land in Calcutta. The pilot told us later, the air traffic controller shouted “ O my God, that was a near miss, it seems I am going to have another day like yesterday.”

Jerry Talbot (l) talking to Red Cross volunteers on the remote Tsunami affected island of Nias, Indonesia.

Then the next year we did a 3 week assessment in South Vietnam looking for an appropriate location for the NZ Red Cross to work.

When you were head of Asia and Pacific we travelled through the battlefields and storehouses of sorrow in Afghanistan together. Then in early 2005, the boot was on the other foot, I line-managed you in the Maldives. I remember you almost drowned me in the Maldives an hour out from Male when our boat sprung a leak. The next year you were line-managing me when you became Special Rep. to the SG for Tsunami.
Jerry Talbot (l) and myself on Laamu Island, Maldives

Jerry. it has been a joy working with you, for you. Your leadership has been outstanding and inspiring. I think this quote is apt:

Be tough yet gentle
Bold but humble
Always swayed by beauty and truth.

I will miss you, the Red Cross will miss you.

Forty-one years of dedicated services you have given. Something to be proud of.

The Federation team in Indonesia thanks you from the depth of their hearts for the superb leadership you have provided, the example of integrity and humility you set, and the calm way you dealt with crises.

The head of BRR Kuntoro Mangkosubroto holds you in the highest possible esteem, and has greatly enjoyed working with you. I attach a photo of you both at the Tsunami Champions meeting.

Jerry (r) talking to Kuntoro Mangkusubroto Photo: Bob McKerrow

You are a Champion Jerry, and I am losing an outstanding boss, we are all losing a great leader and boss.

Happy fishing in those beautiful NZ rivers.

Ni sa Moce
E noho ra
Malo le lei
Tera Makasi


Goodbye in Fijian, Maori, Samoan and Indonesia

Jerry Talbot wrote with passion and conviction. Here is an article he wrote late last year.

Tsunami response strengthens community coping
30 December 2008
By Jerry Talbot, the special representative for the tsunami operation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

In mid November in 2008, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake shook the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, taking four lives, damaging bridges and roads, and forcing 1,000 families from their homes.

Most people around the world didn’t hear about the quake and its aftershocks. It just wasn’t big enough to make the headlines.

Nevertheless, trained Indonesian Red Cross Society volunteers immediately went into action in Sulawesi. They evacuated people from collapsing houses, distributed medicines, blankets and baby kits, and assessed the situation to see what else people needed.

Thank goodness for those local volunteers. Damage to the roads meant they were on their own during the critical first few hours after the disaster. But even if the roads – and ports and airports – are clear, outside aid always comes later. And the funds available always depend on the generosity of donors.

The Sulawesi disaster reminds us that the most important resource in disasters is not money. It is people, people who are trained and committed, people who are prepared to respond when the unthinkable happens. The spirit of volunteerism from within communities at risk means being on the ground before a disaster strikes and being trained to leap into life-saving action at a moment’s notice.

A catastrophe like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami draws an immense profile, billions of dollars of aid, tonnes of relief items and hundreds of foreign aid workers.

With those resources, the Red Cross Red Crescent has been able to run the biggest disaster response operation in its history, with a budget of Swiss francs 3.108 billion and programmes across the Indian Ocean.

The achievements are remarkable, given the diverse range of challenges and complexity thrown up by the disaster. Four years after the disaster, 97 per cent of planned houses have now been completed or are under construction; more than 500,000 people now have access to an improved water source; and 375,000 have been reached by community-based health services.

Yet the tsunami operation is far from normal. Business as usual is responding to a variety of localized, daily shocks that have the potential to undermine years of painstaking social and economic development, and cumulatively affect far greater numbers of people with suffering and hardship. Business as usual in many contexts is dealing with multiple minor disasters, sporadic unrest, outbreaks of disease, ever-higher prices for food and fuel, or creeping climate change.

The best response to these daily shocks is not headlines and donations from afar. The fastest, most appropriate response comes from those who live and work alongside the people affected. It is finding solutions and engaging at the grassroots level.

In the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, trained Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers – who had often lost loved ones themselves – went to work to help those around them.

Jerry Talbot (l) and Bob McKerrow centre with a member of the French Red Cross on Laamu Island, Maldives.

That same spirit is alive in Indonesia today after the Sulawesi earthquake. It is alive in the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. It emerged in May 2008 after the Sichuan earthquake and in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis. And in the ferocious hurricane season in the Americas.

Our work begins long before disaster strikes. Our approach is to reduce the risk of disasters through building a culture of prevention labelled “early warning, early action”. Early warning means proactively analyzing real and potential risks, and preparing communities for the expected - and unexpected - threats that may emerge. Early action means addressing structural vulnerabilities to mitigate those risks and to prevent devastation and suffering.

Acehnese fisherman Zainal Abidin lost his house in the tsunami. He asked the Red Cross Red Crescent to build him a traditional-style wood-frame house on stilts. “I chose this house because I am afraid of another earthquake and tsunami,” he told the Red Cross Red Crescent. “We are afraid of living in a brick house because of earthquakes, but we feel safer in this wooden stilt house because it doesn’t shake when there’s an earthquake.”

Red Cross Red Crescent programmes build the capacity of the community to cope – and ultimately to strengthen development. Our programmes to enhance disaster preparedness and the capacities of our member National Societies change ways of life, attitudes and mindsets at the grass roots level. They encourage people to work together in peace across ethnic, religious and class lines under common Red Cross Red Crescent principles.

Because of the catastrophic nature of the tsunami, the reality is that many people and places will never fully recover. Tragedy cannot be erased with houses, schools and hospitals, jobs, fishing nets or clean water.

The outpouring of generosity after the tsunami, however, has enabled the Red Cross Red Crescent to invest in enhancing communities’ ability to cope with future shocks such as disaster, disease, conflict, inflation or climate change. By building realistic capacity in communities and in local Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteer networks, we work to bring sustainable improvements to people’s lives before, during and after disasters.

Friday, 8 June 2012

An encounter with white wolves and musk oxen on the way to the North Pole.

In 1986 I was a member of the Steger International Polar Expedition. While at a remote weather station called Eureka located  at around 80 degrees north in latitude, on Ellesmere Island in Arctic Canada, I had one of the most amazing encounters with musk oxen and white wolves. I was with Jim Brandenberg, the National Geographic photographer and writer who tells the story. . 

From Ellesmere's tip to the North Pole measures some 500 miles across the Arctic Ocean. During the winter, and for the first 50 or so days of "spring", such as it is, the water is frozen six to eight feet thick most of the way to the Pole. Unfortunately, even during the best of conditions, this ice has little in common with the glassy ice familiar to figure skaters and cocktail enthusiasts.

Across its craggy, snow-blown surface, the ice cap is wrinkled with pressure ridges. These erupt in endless labyrinthine walls that can make forward progress an agonizing, "leads" yawning cracks in the ice that reveal open sea water. When a team of mushers encounters a lead, they have no choice but to circumnavigate it or wait for the minus 70degree air to refreeze the brine and create the several inches of rubbery ice needed to support a sled loaded with supplies.

In 1909, the legendary Peary with his men and dogs braved this unforgiving habitat, aided by an army of Inuit assistants. But ever since Peary's North Pole adventure, which took place without external resupply, there has been rampant speculation as to whether he really reached the Pole. The reason for the controversy is largely climatological. Peary's expedition began in early March, when the sun momentarily rises above the Arctic horizon for the first time in four months. Peary had only about seven weeks to make it to the Pole and back to land before the ice cap break-up, a period many scholars consider impossibly short.

                                                             Photo: Jim Bradenberg

Steger and co-leader Paul Schurke were determined to try a second, unsupported trip to the Pole, putting the debate to rest, one way or the other. Before the Steger team could even begin, however, they had to get their expedition to the departure point, no small ordeal. Sleds, dogs, crew members and tons of supplies all had to be carried, by a succession of ever smaller aircraft, to the tip of Ellesmere Island in time for an Ides-of-arch send off.

The traditional first stop for all expeditioners is Resolute Bay in the Northwest Territories, the most northerly spot serviced by commercial airlines. From there, Arctic dreamers must cart their supplies several hours further north to Eureka Sound, where a permanent weather station is manned by a dozen men. To reach Eureka, it's necessary to charter 748s, DC-3s, or Twin Otters, the smallish, highly maneuverable aircraft with skis for wheels, "the workhorses of the Arctic." Finally, to traverse the approximately 300 miles from Eureka to northern Ellesmere, expeditioners and their gear are ferried by Twin Otters.

 The weather station at Eureka, surrounded by what is in essence a frozen desert, made me think of what life must be like on a space station. My fellow inhabitants were all technicians whose fives revolved around the collecting of data and the combating of boredom. They drank, ate, slept, thought about meteorology, played cards, watched satellite TV and looked forward to an occasional risque video cassette. Depression was a problem, especially during the long months without sunshine.

The Eureka personnel rarely took advantage of the natural world outside. To be sure, the winter environment is about as hospitable to human flesh as outer space: a half-hour without your proper "space suit" and you will almost certainly expire. Still, after a few days at the station waiting out expeditionary snafus, I felt myself getting extremely jumpy from boredom and claustrophobia. For three days in a row, I had whiled away the hours by aiming my binoculars through the murky blue twilight at a distant herd of musk oxen, which looked like raisins in the snow. I thought it might be fun to take a closer look.

                                        Musk Oxen, NWT Canada. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Bob McKerrow, a Steger team member from New Zealand, agreed to go along. We assumed the herd was very close, but after a half-hour of steady hiking we realized that they were at least four miles away from the station. Lacking any experience with the animals, we approached with great caution. There are no trees to climb in the high Arctic, and we felt quite certain that the horns and hooves of an adult musk ox could make short work of us. As we came closer, the magnificent ancient beasts, living remnants from the Stone Age, came into sharper focus.

Having grown up on the prairie, I had expected musk oxen to be similar in size to buffalo. In reality, they are much smaller - about the size of cows, though they are more closely related to goats than to cattle. With their sure-footed hooves, they have little trouble scrambling along rocky precipices.

I could see the animals' extremely long guard hairs, almost a yard in length. Thanks to these hairs, which are prized for yarn, as well as their highly insulated undercoats, musk oxen are never affected by the cold, no matter how low the temperature drops. Noting their indifference to the climate, it occurred to me for the first of many times in the Arctic how nice it would be to have a little more hair myself.

At one point, we evidently got a little too close to the herd, because they quickly assumed their classic protective circle: a phalanx of horns and front hooves radiating at every point on the circumference, flanks shoved together at the center. This strategy, evolved over eons of living in a treeless environment, is a very effective way to protect the young against Arctic wolves, the major predator of musk oxen. It is not so effective against human predators like the Inuits who found the musk oxen relatively easy to kill.

McKerrow and I backed off and the musk oxen resumed their grazing, pawing holes in the snow to get at the frozen grass and sedge below. We studied them for hours, until finally cold and fatigue got the better of us and we decided to begin the long hike back to the station. The sun at this time of year lurks just below the horizon for most of the day, creating a kind of permanent blue dusk. On the way back, I trailed behind, taking photographs of the landscape. McKerrow was about a quarter-mile ahead when it happened.

Ellesmere Island is a vast, lonely land
whose inhabitants must struggle to make out a living.
Wolves are tireless travelers who roam the thousands
of square miles of their territory in search of prey.
Photo: Jim Bradenberg

A pack of six Arctic wolves, trotting in a direct line of march over a nearby rise, appeared like ghosts materializing from the blue ether. At first, I thought I must have been hallucinating from cold, hunger and fatigue. Three of them split to my left. Three others swung around to a steep embankment that flanked a nearby frozen creek. They trotted to the top and sat there, eyeing me, their bodies silhouetted against the murky horizon. One wolf, which I thought might be the leader of the pack, sat on the ridge and inspected me with a kind of fearless, bemused curiosity. Much later, when I returned to search for a pack to live with and photograph, I would remember this individual wolf and be convinced he was the same alpha male I would come to know as Buster.

At that moment, however, I was not thinking about the future. I was, to say the least, flabbergasted. Reflexively, I pulled out my camera and began shooting photograph after photograph. It was at this moment that I first learned the difficulties of shooting in the Arctic when you are excited. The combination of exhaustion and exhilaration makes huffing and puffing inevitable, and one breath on the viewfinder enamels the glass with an I/ 16th-inch coating of ice. This must be scraped off with your fingernail, which means removing your two sets of gloves, which means freezing your fingers.

After scrutinizing me for several minutes, the wolves stood up and resumed their pursuit of the musk oxen. Suddenly realizing that I might be able to capture wolves and their natural prey in the same photographic frame, I turned around and raced after them as best I could. A weary biped is no match for a species superbly adapted to the Arctic.

a windblown signature in the snow. Photo: Jim Bradenberg

The paws of a wolf are large, and they can splay their toes so wide that their tracks in the snow almost resemble human handprints. Their weight is distributed evenly across the snow, so they can walk on top of the crust. In my mukluks, was breaking through on every other step. After 20 minutes, I was exhausted. As the dusk deepened, I snapped a few last shots of the distant wolves approaching the even more distant musk oxen. Then, with muscles aching, I turned back to catch up with McKerrow. When we were a half-hour away from the weather station, a Twin Otter flew overhead and dipped its wings a not so subtle sign of concern and a reminder it was time to come in from the cold.

Back at the station, my mind reeled with wolf images. I'd been wrong in my interpretation of Will Steger's Ellesmere anecdote: sled dogs would not be necessary to lure wolves. Evidently the wolves' own curiosity, fueled by the absence of unpleasant experiences with humans in this remote comer of the world, was enough to allow some close encounters with the pack.

A few days later, we flew to Ward Hunt Island and waited for the first glimmer of sun to inaugurate Will's trek. On March 5, the sun appeared for a few moments on the horizon and winked at us before dipping down again below the earth's rim. This was the signal to begin, and off Steger and company went, in a cacophony of canine barks and human cheers that would soon turn to grunts. I was on hand to photograph the departure, and then flew back south by Twin Otter to Eureka.

At three points during the expedition, a Twin Otter was scheduled to fly in and airlift out sled dogs, a humanitarian alternative to Peary's policy of eating any dog no longer needed to pull supplies. The plane, of course, would not bring any supplies to the expedition. The Geographic had arranged for me to fly on these trips to photograph the team's progress.

In between shoots, I found myself with time on my hands and thoughts of wolves on my mind. I flew from Eurel to Resolute Bay and from there to Washington, D.C., where National Geographic has its editorial offices. For years I had been discussing with various editors the possibility of shoo shooting a wolf story if ever a suitable opportunity arose. Ellesmere seemed ideal. But I had scarcely started in with my propose when I was told that the Geographic had already commissioned a wolf story.

So I suggested instead a story I had proposed ten year earlier. The idea was to photograph the white animals of Ellesmere Arctic fox, Peary caribou, hares, weasels, snowy owl ptarmigan, polar bears, beluga whales and wolves. When I first suggested this story, I'd been turned down because of the expense of sending a rookie to such a remote place. Now, wit time on my hands and the expenses already incurred whether I did extra work or not, Geographic editor, Bin Garret decided that it only made sense to go for a "two-fer." The white wolves, I figured, might be an interesting sidelight to this larger story.
 larger story.

                                                            Photo: Jim Bradenberg

In the end, Steger and his team would make it to the Pole in triumph, and their exploits would be celebrated in Geographic cover story. The Ellesmere piece, with its well-detailed depiction of an exotic habitat, would also prove quite popular. But the wolf story, which evolved into a several year obsession, would prove the most significant work of my career. For more on Jim's fascinating story click here. Thanks to Jim Bradenberg for permission to run this article. All photos are Jim's except for the one of mine of the Musk Oxen.