This one time we stopped on a logging road in Borneo to ask if we could catch a ride on a bulldozer down into a stand of doomed trees, to film the lumberjacks tearing out the Sarawak rainforest. They didn't care - deforestation is a sensitive topic for the Malaysian government, but the men with the chainsaws were only making a few dollars a day. They weren't going to play security guards for the timber companies.
I got Hans the cameraman and Rich the soundman to hop aboard the ancient, greasy, diesely Cat. They lurched over a ridge at the side of the road and then they were gone. Nothing left but the sound of metal snapping through trunks and the retreating cough of the engine.
The humidity in Borneo is around 100% and at midday, without the forest canopy for protection, you are a victim of blistering equatorial sun. So after half an hour I started to worry. There was no bulldozer, no Hans and no Rich. I told our drivers and Ian Mackenzie, the main character of this film, that I was going to walk down and find my crew.
The slippery hillside was so steep that I needed to slalom from side to side just to stay upright. By the time I hit a flat spot I was so far down the grade that I wondered how I was ever going to get back up. The slope was several hundred metres long. The mud was red with clay and it was like slick paste. Then I remembered that I forgot my water.Hans the cameraman and Rich the soundman film with Ian Mackenzie
It's times like these that make you wonder if you're cut out for this kind of work. It happens all the time - you end up in some amazingly exotic place and realize that if you were ever left alone for an extended period of time, you'd be dead. You have to laugh - and I did. I think I missed the part in documentary school where they tell you about shooting in devastated rain forests with nary a lifeline to the outside world. And no water.
Then I heard the bulldozer coming back. When it rounded the corner I could see about ten guys hanging on where ever they could. Hans was squeezed into the cage with the driver and Rich was hanging off the back. The humidity was playing havoc with his mixer, so he was going to hang it over the fire that night to dry.
I hopped onto the back with Rich. There was room enough for one of my feet on a giant tow hook, but it was slimy with muck as well. I curled my fingers into the mesh of the driver's cage just as the Cat belched up the grade. It felt like a rocket sliding into the gantry - like we were positioned to launch.Riding the cat
I asked Rich how vertical he thought a bulldozer like this could go before it flipped right over on its back. Rich has this look he gives you, like he's trying to smirk off the predicament while he's terrified inside. He gave me that look once in Greenland when I told him the sea ice we were standing on was three feet thick, when in fact it was three inches.
Hans was snug inside in the cab, leaning back onto the cage. Everyone else was hanging onto whatever wasn't hot. My fingers were starting to ache clutching the steel mesh. If I lifted my foot off the tow hook I felt like I would dangle straight down. Rich had his arm crooked around the driver's cage. His mixer was hanging off his shoulder like a dead weight. I asked him if he thought the driver went to a heavy equipment school. He didn't answer.
Then with one last mechanical hack the Cat popped back onto the road. We got the footage and we were happy for the water and the air conditioning of our 4 X 4s. Everything always works out in the end, as long as you hang on and don't dive into the perilous things too often.
The other day I wrote a bit for a media release on these four films we just made and I said our adventures were straight out of an old Boys Own Annual. My young colleague said she'd never heard of one of those and said no one would understand what I was talking about and I should take it out.
But now that I think about these trips again, Boys Own Annual (look it up youngsters) is really the best way to describe how I feel about them. These were romantic, daring adventures in the truest sense, up rivers in the jungle, finding lost cities, wandering into temples-and riding old bulldozers through what's left of the rain forest. Even the names of the places we visited are cool: Baja, Sahara, Polynesia and Borneo. My wife's cousin laughed when she heard I was in Borneo; she'd always figured it was a made-up place.Surviving the insect bites
The point was to follow maverick explorers into the field, to see scientific free spirits following their noses to new discoveries. And every one of these films ended with a revelation. You couldn't have scripted it any better: the last nomads, a priceless tiki head, the mummy of a baby and extinct DNA found coursing through the bodies of living people.
There are still lots of these stories out there, and lots of explorers working in remote obscurity. I want to go and find more now. The bulldozer didn't flip, and the helicopter that was running out of gas didn't crash. And we didn't die in Cairo traffic (although we saw others that did), nor did we sink in the dugout in Raivavae or run out of water in the Sierra La Lagunas in Mexico (but we were close). And all those bugs that bit me in the Marquesas weren't poisonous. And that water I drank out of a field workers dirty jug in Mut wasn't rife with bacteria. That means we can survive about anything, doesn't it?