A Travellerspoint blog

August 2011

Indy would feel at home

sunny 22 °C

I have always maintained that Australian is a different language, albeit a dying one. I champion this to such an extent that on any form I may fill out I indicate Australian as my mother tongue and list English as my second language, fluent of course. Why do I take this stance, well proper Australian can be difficult to understand to foreigners, it is a language rich in slang and double meanings. Also, depending on which area you are from, things can have completely different names, and the language is spoken rather quickly or extremely slowly. I have been told to slow down on a few occasions by those working with me, and often more so by my English compatriots. In fact whilst getting exceedingly lost in Kathmandu one day I was approached by a European gentleman who wished to have a look at my map. My response to his opening “Hello” was to reply with my most formal friendly Australian greeting.
His response to this was to stare at me quizzically for a moment before quite seriously, and tentatively, asking;
“Do you speak English??”

Whilst in Pokhara we visited a few sites of interest. We were travelling with a couple of Dutch girls and they somehow persuaded my lovely wife to go cycling one day on a little tour. For anyone who knows my wife, this would come as a bit of a surprise. For she is so wholly against any form of physical exertion that asking her to ride a bike would be similar to someone approaching you and asking if you minded having one of your ears chopped off. Not fatal, but awfully painful and an experience you would rather not repeat if you can help it. Still once suitable bicycles had been successfully leased, we were off to find Devi’s Falls and Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave. After a short ride, and only getting partially lost once, we arrived at our destination and found a suitable place to park the bikes. In Nepal there is a rather insidious black market operation (dare I say organised crime) run by Maoists where they like to hang about in popular areas and charge money for doing things like parking, driving on roads to popular tourist spots, crossing bridges etc. On this occasion we were informed that we would have to pay to leave our bikes where they were. My wife and I are both quite firmly of the opinion that we don’t pay for dishonest activity and she told the man as such. There was nothing official that said we couldn’t park there, just a couple of blokes sitting at a table. After a short argument, and moving our bikes a couple of times, he obviously got the idea that he wasn’t going to get any money and let us be. We just had to hope the bikes were still there when we came out.

Devi's Falls is quite an amazing thing. As we got to witness it in monsoon season it was flowing quite rapidly and is definitely one of the better waterfalls I have ever seen. It flows down into a gorge so deep that the bottom of the fall can’t be seen. This has attributed to its name, as legend tell of a young lady, eager to see the bottom, overbalanced and fell. Her Swedish boyfriend then, in a gesture of extreme stupidity or undying love (it is a very fine line after all that separates the two) dived in after her and the two were never seen again. So the fall was named in his honour.

Far cooler than the falls however was the cave. Inside is a stalagmite (the one that grows up for those of you unfamiliar with geological terminology) that is worshiped as a Shiva lingam. Once you descend into the cave the sight that greets you is quite unbelievable. There are lines of colourfully dressed people, all singing and chanting devoutly and awaiting their chance to worship at the shrine. It is quite dimly lit, includes people shaking and going into trances, and is an altogether amazing thing to witness. You get the feeling you could be watching a religious ceremony from hundreds of years ago and the setting had me wondering if Indiana Jones might not come swaggering through at any moment, clutching some rather deadly ancient relic and being chased by a group of statuesque gentlemen brandishing large swords.

I wasn't allowed to take photos in the cave unfortunately so here are a few more of the mountains. (These are mine.)

This did unfortunately not happen, but still didn’t detract from the display. I could have watched it for hours, and if you get a chance go and check it out. It receives two thumbs up from me.

Posted by Dangermouse 10:53 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Free meals for life

rain 25 °C

I think I might be going through withdrawals. Anyone who has ever been addicted to something would know what I mean, the constant need, cold sweats, unpredictable mood swings and a willingness to do anything to satisfy my cravings. I have a problem and I don’t know what to do……….....
I haven’t blown anything up in close to 2 months now.

Ah well maybe I should just focus on telling you about my time in Nepal instead. Now this may come as a bit of a shock, being that I am posting this on a travel blogging site, but I have never actually written about my travels before. At least not in a meaningful sense anyway. So please forgive me if this isn’t up to the standard that some might be accustomed to, but I will give it my best go.

Firstly, the food. I am carnivorous by design; the majority of my meals revolve around some kind of meat. Eating in a primarily vegetarian country then does pose some interesting challenges. Whilst I am willing to give most things a go (though I did draw the line at eating spiders in Cambodia) I found out that Nepali food and I don’t mix. It’s not that it is without charm, it just doesn’t have an awful lot of it. In fact, to be honest, it is just terrible. If Dahl Bhat was a person it would have very few social invitations and more than likely spend most of its time playing World Of Warcraft because it has no real friends. Even then its character would be one of the less cool ones (having never played WOW I am a bit unsure on this point. For those who have there is always one type of character that everyone hates – that’s Dahl Bhat.) I have therefore spent a good majority of my time finding the best meal in Kathmandu for people like me. The answer - Chicken Schnitzel at the Roadhouse Café near the Old Bhat-Bhateni markets. Look it up, you won’t be disappointed.

Kathmandu is an awfully busy city. Take a dose of 3rd world grottiness, add a dose of cultural heritage and mix in a healthy dose of maniacal drivers and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like. The city itself I don’t care too much for, as I don’t care for many cities. To me they are all the same - big, noisy and pushy. But then you turn a corner and run into something like Bodhnath Stupa.

5980841578_ab9524b93a.jpg 5980905492_8296557b70.jpg

This has got to be one of the downright most awesomely awesome creations of awesomeness, radiating powers of awesomeness not seen since Po discovered Kung Fu (that is an obscure reference sure but someone will know what I am on about). If you think I was impressed that may be an understatement. It is purported to contain a portion of bone from the Buddha himself, though how anyone could tell is beyond me as it is a massive solid object with no doors. I am assuming that the bone fragment is encased in the actual structure and you just have to take their word for it. Either way it is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists across the globe and a worthy one at that. I have been known to spend hours staring at religious architecture, I found the angels climbing the ladders of Bath Cathedral quite fascinating for example, but I spent days looking at this thing. Utterly fascinating and worth the headache that Kathmandu will cause you, trust me. Now I know there are other things to see and do, Durbar square, Swayambhunath Stupa, Pashupatinath etc, but for me Bodhnath wins hands down, and did I mention it was awesome??

Kumari Bahal Durbar Square


Durbar Square


The other interesting thing I discovered whilst in Kathmandu is that you can eat for free at an establishment called the Rum Doodle in town. It’s a nice little place, the walls are decorated with numerous large feet signed by groups of people who have returned from various treks, it has a good menu and a rather delightful rooftop eating area. The only catch to this free meal experience, however, is that you have to reach the top of Everest first. This would make the list of those able to partake of these free meals a rather select group indeed, much like being on the VIP list at a popular nightclub. The only thing that would make it more worthwhile would be if they had a few tables reserved for their special clients guarded by an extremely large gentleman holding a clipboard. Whilst the food was nice, it wasn’t really an incentive to take up mountaineering just to get some free tucker. But still….

After a few weeks in Kathmandu my lovely wife and I decided that we needed to get away, so we took off to Pokhara for a week. The difference was extraordinary. For starters the touts were less aggressive, as were the taxi drivers. Though one wonders if this is because it’s low season and they are taking a mini break themselves, and their heart just isn’t in trying to get you into their massage parlour, restaurant, barber shop, jewellery store etc. Whatever the reason it was a refreshing change. The air was cleaner, there was no incessant honking and the people just seemed more relaxed. My observations of city v country continue to hold true. Pokhara is the starting point for the Annapurna circuit, a series of treks that can vary from 5 to 25 days depending on how energetic you are feeling. The main tourist destination is at lakeside, which funnily enough is beside the lake and is a rather charming little area. Now I know this is may be different from what the “real” Nepal is like, and I'm sure I will see that the next time I visit to go trekking, but for a relaxing week it was ideal. Unfortunately, as it’s monsoon season, our views of the ranges were obscured until our last day when suddenly there they were, bloody great big white capped mountains. I fully understand now why people find the need to climb these things, they are quite majestic to see from a distance, and I couldn’t help feeling that the view from the top must be awe inspiring.

(Not my photo unfortunately. The Annapurna range.)

Maybe I should look into that mountaineering course after all. I need something to take my mind off explosives.

Posted by Dangermouse 09:52 Archived in Nepal Comments (1)

Camels have nothing on this mob.

Finally caught up, this includes the last of my time in Sudan and my R&R so far in Nepal.

Town names are always something to be proud of. Who wouldn't, for example, be proud of living in Bong Bong, Cock Wash, Dismal Swamp, Burrumbuttock, Humpty Doo, Mount Buggery, Nowhere Else, Poowong, Rooty Hill, Useless Loop, Wee Waa, Woodie Woodie, Woolloomooloo or Yorky's Knob. (These by the way are all in Australia so we really should know better). Whilst my travels through the countryside of Sudan have been quite limited by far my top three place names are Yei (pronounced Yay - like it's Christmas Yaaaaay), Wau (pronounced Wow) and the delightful Longwillie (I will let you figure out that one yourself).

I had been working in Yei for the last couple of weeks of my contract with G4S. It was actually quite nice to get out of Juba and have a better look around the countryside. The people here seem even more relaxed about things, so relaxed in fact that if they went any further they would probably just spend their whole life sleeping in a hammock. Now I didn't have a particularly bad impression of the country or its people, but this has definitely reinforced my long held suspicion that city people are a bit up tight. This is fairly accurate in nearly every country to which I have traveled, and I have been to quite a few in my time. (My lovely wife and I have a competition on who has seen more of the world and I believe that we are tied, though I'm sure she is planning some quick trips just to get ahead). But anyway it was nice to get out of town, even if it meant a rather uncomfortably hot 5 hour drive to cover the 180km. The work in Yei was far from taxing, though not without its challenges. Take the bomb for instance....

An Antinov bomb is a home made device that North Sudan used to drop out the back of Antinov planes during the war, hence the name. As the war progressed the UN started dropping food and supplies to all the refugees displaced by the fighting. They would fly over in big cargo planes to designated areas and drop the supplies out the back. This caused the people to gather at these sites at certain times in order to collect the goods. So far so good right?? Well the North, being the crafty devils they are, decided that there was an opening there for a little mayhem. So they flew their own cargo planes (Russian Antinov's) down south and either followed or flew just in front of the UN planes, who one would hope were unaware of their existence. As the locals would see the big white planes coming overhead they would gather for their goodies, only instead of food these planes dropped bombs. Homemade, lightweight, high explosive shrapnel bombs. I will let you imagine the carnage that may have followed, and the end result is that people became too afraid to come out for the plane drops any more. Starvation became a major problem after the North invented the Antinov plan. The bombs, being home made, were generally of a thin metal casing with a lot of explosive and anything else they could throw into the mix. The bomb I dealt with, for example, had reinforcing bar commonly seen in concreting. These pieces of metal then get thrown out from the explosion at an extremely rapid rate, they are red hot from the heat of the detonation and cause a lot of damage. Mayhem indeed.

Anyway my bomb was located only 200m from a newly built school. It was mostly buried when we found it so we first had to excavate to identify the UXO and locate and identify the fuse. The school was in the general blast radius for this bomb, so we had to do a lot of protective works in order to channel the blast away from the school and into open ground. For this job I also had Sven from Sweden (no not making that up) who was a logistics officer for the UN and he had asked if he could come outside and play for a day. I love these kind of people as they are always super keen to help, and appear just generally excited to be outside. I suppose I would feel the same if my entire job consisted of counting and ordering supplies. Sven, like a lot of people, was genuinely fascinated by what we do. He was also rather taken with the bomb, and I believe took a thousand pictures of it. So I protected the fuse and suggested he cold get into the pit with the device and I would take a picture he could send home to his mum. So he carefully climbed down, placed his feet exactly where I told him to, lent on the bomb and tried to look calm whilst I took his picture. I do believe that made his day, well right up to the point where I detonated it and gave him a piece of shrapnel for a present. The school was unaffected by the blast, which was fortunate as there was a lot of people taking cover in there, including Sven, and it would have looked awfully bad on my CV had I messed that one up.


Antinov Bomb 100kg.


Me in the crater after the successful detonation.

I have been in Nepal for the last 2 weeks now. My contract ended in Sudan for the rainy season and I am taking a well deserved break. My wife is in Nepal working in health so I met up with her here. This is my first time in Nepal and it is quite a charming little country, they have more mountains and culture than you can poke a stick at, and are a very friendly open group of people. The driving here is even more chaotic than just about anywhere else I have been. In fact if I described the Sudanese as treating it like an arcade game then the Nepalese drive like it is an extreme sport. There appears to be no give way rule in force that I can ascertain and car horns are sounded continually at an average of every 3-5 seconds. It would not surprise me in the least to find that they are actually hooked up to the fuel pump and required to be tooted continually to keep the vehicles moving. They have a rather insane approach to driving and will not think twice before hurling themselves at full speed into an already obviously packed main road in the belief that there must be room for them somewhere. They drive with a kind of blind fanaticism that would make a World War II Japanese Kamikaze pilot shy away. It's not the Maoists or pickpockets that you need to worry about in this country, it's the drivers. In fact the only thing on the roads that anyone pays attention to are the cows. It is an offence to injure or kill a cow here, and the penalty includes gaol time, so they are given a wide berth indeed. In fact they are also the only thing on the road that is not given a good blaring of the horn. It's good to be a cow in Nepal.

There is one aspect of this country that bugs me though, just enough to be annoying. Spitting. I'm not talking about the occasional clearing of the throat, or the "my god I just coughed up something gross I better gid rid of it" spit, but the dedicated and constant type of spitter, like anyone who chews tobacco. There is nothing subtle about it either, it is usually preceded by a long process of hacking noises, and that deep gutteral sound as you attempt to draw every last bit of phlegm from out of your sinuses, before spitting loudly and clearly. Nor do they attempt to release the projectile into a shrub or gutter, the preferred target seems to be about 5 meters directly in front of them, which means that if you are walking towards the imminent release of this wad, anywhere from your knees down seems to be in the target area. Thankfully they do not seem to spit up, this however does not really make it any better. One must also be careful when walking past a shop front in case a phlegm missile is launched from within the confines of the doorway and collects you around the cheek.

In fact the only place you are safe from the spitting is on the road, but then you have to deal with the kamikaze drivers. Perhaps I should ride a cow around??

Posted by Dangermouse 02:41 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

Unexpected explosions

Originally written in May 2011.

Have you ever been handed something quite dangerous?? I’m sure that at some point in our live our well-meaning friends and associates have managed to ask us to take possession of something they would rather not be holding onto themselves. Lit firecrackers, running chainsaws, electrical leads, loaded guns, dirty nappies etc. Maybe even the extraordinarily nice chap at customs in Thailand who asks if you could please run his rather heavy carry-on bag through the screening process while he nips off to the loo. Well in my line of work this can sometimes happen too. The trouble is what to do about it when it does occur.

Our obviously preferred method of being introduced to ordnance is for the local population to leave it safely where it is and then lead us to its location. This is much better all-round as it gives us a chance to investigate the offending item in relative safety before deciding what to do with it. Our least preferred method is when people attempt to physically hand you something they have just proudly fetched for you. This generally goes one of two ways;
Firstly you take the item off them, trying to act as nonchalantly as possible, before requesting that everybody please take cover at a suitable distance as you attempt to place the object back onto the ground whilst keeping your arm attached to your body. Sub-munitions are wonderful for this, as they are notoriously unstable and generally not a good idea to be carrying about your person.
The other way of course is to let the person carrying the item know that you think it’s dangerous. This can be achieved in a number of ways, by simply looking in horror at what he is doing to running away and diving for cover behind the nearest solid object. The offending person, now realising he is holding something he shouldn’t be, tends to then do one of two things. Try and throw the item away, or just drop it at his / your feet. Option two generally ends badly for somebody, and often for more than one person at a time.
Although being led to the site of explosive ordnance can have its drawbacks as well. Some people have the rather suicidal habit of walking into the middle of minefields in order to show somebody where it is. The most dreaded reply you can hear to the inquiry of “So where is this minefield mate??” is to be told, quite matter of factly;
“It’s all around you!”

This is how one of our operators, Aldo, lost his leg. Upon hearing this fateful reply he took “nought but a half step backwards”, in his account, and BANG. His colleague upon hearing the explosion took a pace forward in reflex to help and BANG.

Now you can imagine I’m sure the shock of losing the lower half of your leg. If you make a habit of playing with chainsaws you may even have firsthand experience. Fortunately adrenalin is a wonderful substance and can keep your body functioning long enough to get away from your immediate danger. This is how soldiers can continue to engage the enemy after being shot or quite seriously injured. The unfortunate thing about adrenalin is that it doesn’t last that long, which is why the afore mentioned soldier tends to collapse and die after extracting himself from the dangerous area. Aldo, noticing his mate wasn’t moving and his guide was nowhere to be seen, spent the next 2-3 excruciating hours carefully crawling his way back to his vehicle using his fingers to probe the ground for mines. I dare anyone, anyone, to go take off the lower part of a leg and then perform this kind of feat in a live minefield. Go on, I can wait……………………….
So for those of you not stupid enough to do this at home I hope you can appreciate the lengths this man went to. He made it back to his vehicle, called for assistance and stayed with it long enough for help to arrive before allowing himself the luxury of passing out from shock and blood loss. Aron Ralston would have an idea of what this could be like, for the rest of us….
The end result, well both EOD techs lived and are still operating. As for the guide, well upon hearing the two explosions he ran for home, at top speed, and stayed there without telling anyone what had happened. He basically tried to kill them twice, though did somehow manage to run through a minefield unharmed.

So why bring this story up now, well I think it’s time for a gruesome week as mine turned rather sour. We had been moving along quite nicely, in fact we had reached that happy stage where everything was happening as it should, the teams were doing everything exactly right and we were making excellent progress. Gaz had joined us by now. Gaz is an extremely likable man from the UK who was new to G4S in Sudan. Gaz had been employed only to find out there was no team for him to lead which meant he was seconded to me. (He had been with my team for a couple of weeks and was beginning to find his feet, though this is awfully hard to do when you are playing with someone else’s team). I had just finished giving the morning brief for the demolitions serials we were to conduct that day. As the team left the briefing area ready to disperse to their sentry positions, BANG.

An explosion that you are not prepared for can come as quite a shock at first. Chris, Gaz and I looked at each other, located the emerging cloud from the nearby explosion and hopped into a vehicle and rushed to the site. The medics and deminers were told to call our HQ and follow us. When we arrived a gaggle of Sudanese had already mustered at the site but there was nobody doing anything except standing around. After forcing my way through the throng I found a man lying on the ground. He had been hand ploughing the surrounding area and, to be honest, my initial impressions were that he was dead. So I knelt down next to him in order to confirm this. I could see no movement, felt no pulse and was getting fairly certain of my initial evaluation when he suddenly coughed and moaned. Now I am no doctor, nor do I have anything except advanced first aid medical training, but I am fairly certain that dead men don’t cough, nor do they moan, nor do they try and get up. So unless he was a zombie (which I highly doubted as I have never heard of zombies getting into agriculture) he was alive, and in a fair bit of trouble.

The young man in question had been digging in our danger area, something we had asked people not to do a number of times. Do you remember how your mum taught you that sticking forks into electrical sockets was dangerous?? Did you listen or did you have to wait until you ended up across the room, still slightly tingling with a hairdo that would make those amusingly extremely racist black and white minstrel show performers jealous?? The Sudanese I had met so far generally ended up in the latter category. The poor man had managed to function what we believe was an RPG. The effect of this was that he had nearly blown off both legs (they were being held together by his tendons), was missing his right hand, had shrapnel wounds through his torso and jaw, and had a sucking chest wound. All in all not a pretty site, and it was now our job to try and get him to hospital fast. I won’t go into the details of what we did to try and patch him up, all I will say is that it involved tourniquets, attempting to hold his legs together while we turned him over, lots of blood and very little help from the locals.

An interesting observation from all this was to witness the reactions from my deminers and medics. Shock is powerful, so is the fight or flight response. Some people will just move into action, start working and get on with it. Others will stand still as if in a trance. You never know what your response will be and I would never judge anyone on their reaction. At one point I asked one of my team to kneel next to this poor mans head and just talk to him, tell him he would be alright. He managed to kneel but couldn’t talk, he just stared. So I moved him on and got someone else to do it instead. It’s not a weakness, just a reaction – especially seeing something like this the first time. (Not that it would have made a lot of difference as he was bleeding from both ears and I am fairly certain had blown both his eardrums.) The only person that concerned me was Chris’ medic. Gaz had to drag her out of the ambulance and make her come over and help. This was concerning as she was supposed to be the one who would help anyone on Chris’ team if they were unfortunate and had an accident like this. Demining accidents are never pretty and you have to be very fortunate to keep everything intact. It was, in our view, a major flaw and not how a medic in this line of work should behave.

The aftermath, well he was never going to go hiking again, and I really hope he was left handed (have you ever tried brushing your teeth with the opposite hand?? Give it a go). Insensitive – sure. True – absolutely. Sometimes the two observations go hand in hand. As with most accidents in my line of work this one ended badly, though maybe fortunately so. The man in question died in hospital. The facility we took him to just wasn’t equipped to deal with trauma that severe and he bled out. We think, though can’t prove, that they just released the tourniquets and let him go. Why do we think this?? Well Chris had to go back to the hospital to retrieve our stretcher and the body was still on it. He hadn’t even made it close to an operating theatre. So why would I call this this death fortunate?? Well the future for a deaf man in Sudan with no legs and no right hand would be very bleak indeed.

The moral to this tale is that if you are told something is dangerous, it probably is. Some things you can’t mess with and explosives are one of them. If, during your travels, you find yourself in a country that has UXO or landmines then steer clear of those areas, and pay attention to the warning signs. It’s not brave and it’s not cool to mess with UXO, just stupid, and if it goes wrong it never ends well.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:40 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

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