Ian Whitehead

Here is my account of the Seram experience and what has happened since:

Rainforests and People

I joined 10F as a venturer with a keen interest in the scientific elements of the expedition. At the time I was completing an MA (Hons) in geography at Edinburgh University and was keen to use the expedition as an opportunity to produce my dissertation. My plan was to focus on forest management with a particular emphasis on the impact of the indigenous people on the natural resources of the Island. For that reason I wanted to get involved in projects, which entailed working alongside the local people; I was lucky enough to participate in the ‘Bioresources’ project with Janet Bell and the ‘Wild Pig’ project with Dr. Alastair Macdonald. Both projects involved an anthropological approach and brought me into close contact with the people of Seram.

Out on the Fringes

Because of the nature of our work, we spent a lot of time in a small group away from the main body of the Expedition. The ‘Pig’ project in particular was a somewhat maverick crew and we spent a lot of time on the remoter Eastern fringes of the park in the area of Elimata and Kaloa. We worked amongst beautiful palm thatched villages tucked away deep inside the rainforest and enjoyed living with the forest people. They took us hunting, fishing and showed us the remarkable diversity of their forest gardens, which produced much of their food (including the not so palatable sago palm!). It wasn’t all hard work; we had time to swim in jungle rivers and to study the wonders of the rainforest all around us. Many evenings were spent listening to villagers strumming guitars and singing.

Unique Insights

Like every story though there was another side. One of my lasting memories was entering a village after several weeks spent in the cool of the forest to be confronted by bulldozers and logging trucks of multinational timber companies. All around were the sounds of chainsaws and heavy machinery and the air was filled with choking red dust. I got a lift down the logging road to the camp where they showed me their operations and also took me to see some resettlement camps. The threats facing these forests seemed enormous and somehow unstoppable. When I look at satellite footage of Seram nowadays I am always amazed by the amount of development, roads and infrastructure that have sprung up since we were there; I just hope that some of this paradise can be left in tact.

The ‘Pig’ project eventually found its way to the idyllic coastal community of Passahari where we spent time with local fishermen and hunters. There were beautiful reefs just off the shore, which were ideal for snorkeling and for watching a myriad of colourful fish amongst the corals. Being mavericks we even managed to secure exclusive use of an Operation Raleigh speedboat (much to the delight of one of the old village fishermen who was keen to show us the ropes). This was a very special place and we felt privileged to be here with just our own small group. The locals told us about their ‘friendly’ ghost (who apparently looked like Henry, one of our team) and even presented us with a live captured cuscus to eat as a parting gift (which I must admit we later set free).

After all these intimate experiences, the ‘big’ expedition camps seemed like quite alien ‘party’ encampments (Ibiza in the jungle!); nevertheless we met fantastic and colourful characters through 10F, the likes of which you would never encounter again during the average 9-5 office working life. There are still a myriad of images etched on my mind; night time reggae-limbo dance parties on the beach, steaming rainforests, cheeky village kids and giant creepy crawlies; all far too much to do justice to here. The climax must have been our nighttime departure from Seram; crossing between treacherous reefs, in a boat, by torchlight to rendezvous with the ‘Wahai Star’, whose searchlights swept the rocky headlands of the coast under a starry, tropical night sky.

Life after Seram

After Seram, life took many twists and turns (some positive, others less). After finishing my degree in Edinburgh I was soon doing an MSc in Natural Resources at Bangor and joined a small student expedition to study the cloud forests and paramos of the Ecuadorian Andes. Following a couple of short contracts working in conservation in Essex and the Scottish Highlands, I then joined VSO to work as a Community Forester in Nepal.

The Nepal experience was one of the most amazing 2 years of my life, though also one of the hardest, both psychologically and physically. I lived amongst the Buddhist people of the high Himalayas, just south of the Everest Region and worked in remote valleys, often many days walk from the nearest road. The VSO friends that I met in Nepal are some of the best and dearest I have encountered; we still have annual weekend get-togethers, years later.

I returned from Nepal and immersed myself in UK forestry and nature conservation for the next 15 years or so; working first in Worcester and Herefordshire before moving back to Scotland to lead an urban greening project in Aberdeen. Later jobs took me to Dundee and then back to Edinburgh where I was involved in the development of the Edinburgh and Lothians Forest Habitat Network and the Central Scotland Green Network. As always though, life is full of surprises; I met my partner Martina several years ago on a trekking holiday in the Pyrenees; many air-miles and 2 kids later, I took the decision to move here to Aachen in Germany and to effectively start a new chapter of my life; and that’s where I am up to now…

The Legacy of 10F

Operation Raleigh taught me many things; particularly not just to accept life as it is frequently doled out to us; with a predictable future clearly mapped out. It taught me to take risks and to not to be afraid to make ‘leaps of faith’ into the unknown without the certain prospect of a safe landing. It made me aware that there are opportunities for exploration and adventure lurking around every corner but so many people are blind to, or choose to ignore, these. Finally, it taught me that people matter too; so much can be achieved with an energetic and dedicated group of like-minded and enthusiastic individuals who share a common purpose.

Happy memories of a great bunch of people!

You are welcome to contact me on ianwcanoe@aol

I also have a blog site called “Off the Beaten Track” at www.ianwcanoe.wordpress.com

Photo by Kai Bansner

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