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Travel to meet tribes

Posted by Richard Hammond at 11:48 on Saturday 25 August 2007

As a third series of Tribe gets underway, Bruce Parry and his crew describe their personal highlights from their latest extreme adventures, and GreenTraveller's Richard Hammond gives tips on how you can have a similar experience with a responsible travel company...

There was nothing pleasant about watching Bruce Parry doubled over with stomach cramps after being poisoned with frog venom by his hosts as part of a local detox ritual, but somehow it made good telly. More than two million of us tuned in to watch Tribe on Tuesday to see Parry - an ex-marine fitness instructor and expedition leader - put through his paces by the Matis tribe of the Brazilian Amazon.

Now in its third series, Tribe has plenty of funny moments (seeing the Matis suppress giggles during the frog poisoning episode, for example) but Parry also delves into some of the issues faced by indigenous people in the Amazon, Bhutan, Tanzania, Siberia, Borneo and the South Pacific. Displacement and logging are a common threat to many of the tribes, so is contact with the outside world - the Matis lost nearly a third of their population in the 1970s due to diseases brought in by curious westerners.

These days, local tribes are just as likely to be visited by tourists seeking an authentic local experience as they are by anthropologists or TV crews. Meeting local people has become increasingly popular - too popular in some cases. The award-winning responsible adventure travel company Exodus recently pulled out of visiting some of the villages in the Omo valley in Ethiopia, featured in the earlier series of Tribe, over concerns that some villages have become overwhelmed with tourists.

Not all the tribes featured in the TV series are accessible or geared up for tourism. The Matis are understandably wary of outsiders which is why, if you're inspired by Parry's experiences, we recommend you visit instead the Huaorani of Ecuador who have agreed an ecotourism plan with a local travel company. We also recommend you go with a responsible tour company, one that has gained permission from the tribe for your visit and that will manage the interaction and spread their visits thinly so that they don't "over-sell" a particular tribe. That way, you get a fascinating, memorable insight into another culture - without upsetting the local people or indeed having to endure any eye-watering local rituals...

Wayne Derrick, director, Matis, Brazil
We were in north-west Siberia filming with the Nenet people during their winter migration. It was early morning and we were with a group of herders and their reindeer carrying sledges across a vast tract of frozen tundra. Although the sun was just up above the horizon, it was bright red. I have a vivid memory of seeing thousands of reindeer pulling on sledges in a procession that stretched back six miles. The brilliant morning light was catching the reindeers' breath in the fresh air, while ice was crystallising on their hooves. It was like watching the cavalry in the wild west, and there was me, being pulled along on a sledge like Father Christmas, just in awe of it all. Over the last four years filming for Tribe, I've been all over the place - the Arctic, jungles, mountains - and have got used to seeing lots of things, but this struck me as the most extraordinary sight I'd ever seen. In fact, I remember thinking this must be the most romantic place in the world.

How to do it
Imaginative Traveller runs a 21-day trip across Siberia in March and August, stopping at homestays with families along the way. Starting from Moscow, the trip goes via Tobolsk and Tyumen from where you catch the Trans-Siberian to Baikal, the world's deepest lake. The trip continues by rail to Ulan Ude, home of the Buryat people, before you fly back to Moscow. From £1,465 plus a local payment of €365, including accommodation, meals and transport in Russia but not international flights. 0800 3162717 imaginative-traveller.com.

Matt Fletcher, researcher, Penan, Sarawak, Borneo
The Penan are one of the last groups living a nomadic lifestyle in the Borneo rainforest. Their huts are made from arm-thick wooden poles and tied together with rattan but every few weeks a group will break camp and move to a different location in the forest, usually in order to harvest sago. We were following them through the forest, and as the rain began to fall we dropped down into a narrow river that cut a meandering path to where we'd next make camp. The men and boys carried blowpipes, some two metres long, while the Penan's pet monkeys ran free through the river or above us up on the river bank. Everything was carried in beautifully woven backpacks, as our hosts splashed through the fast-flowing water under huge bundles with pots, pans and small children often piled on top. As the procession spread out I spotted more pets - kittens and bearded pigs, a woman with a squirrel in a home-made cage, a small boy carrying a beautiful, struggling cockerel and one stunning rhinoceros hornbill. It was a remarkable scene and a residing image, not least because, ironically, the hornbill is often used as a symbol of the Sarawak state government who'd licensed for logging much of the land my hosts inhabit.

How to do it
Before he worked on Tribe, Bruce Parry led expeditions for Trekforce, which runs trips to the Kelabit highlands in Sarawak since 1996. The Penan are nomadic so you can't expect them to hang around waiting for you to turn up. The aim of the trip is to experience the rainforest and understand how the indigenous people live there. You'll be trained in jungle survival, including fishing and how to build natural shelters. A four-week expedition costs £1,628, departing July 2008, including one-week environment and culture training, two weeks' working on conservation and community projects, followed by a one-week trek. trekforceworldwide.com, 0845 2413085.

Willow Murton, researcher, Akie, Tanzania
On our final day, we shared the Akie's honey beer and took part in dances and then, in the evening, in return, we showed a little of our own magic by setting up a mini-cinema so they could see what we'd filmed. I'd left the camp, but as I ran back through the maize fields to the village, they'd already started the screening and I could hear laughter in the darkness. The village was lit dimly by the moon but also by another smaller artificial light. Passing through the entrance, I saw over 20 people gathered around the grass roof of a family house peering at a tiny video screen. A small boy perched on Bruce's shoulders, men stood staring and the women jostled for the front row. It was an incredible sight. As I'll watch the film on TV here, I shall think of the old grandmother at the front of the crowd and her enraptured attention watching members of her own family out hunting.

How to do it
The Akie, featured in Tribe, are related to the Masai, but unlike most other tribal groups in the area, they are hunter-gatherers, so always on the move. Tribes Travel runs trips to Masai-owned land, close to where the Akie live in west Kilimanjaro. At the village of Olmolog, you'll meet village elders, learn about Masai culture and go on game walks with Masai guides where you'll learn about their way of life in the bush. The trip costs from £1,675pp for four nights, including conservation fees, local transport, all accommodation and meals and most drinks, all activities and a guide. 01728 685971, "tribes.co.uk":http://www.tribes.co.uk.

Wayne Derrick, director, Matis, Brazil
We were in the north-west corner of the Amazon, just south of where the borders of Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. The Matis first had contact with the outside world in the 70s, and there were people in the village who could say when they first saw an outsider, and remember being terrified of all the mysterious things they saw for the first time. It's remarkable how quickly they have dealt with change, yet they have retained much of their traditional lifestyle and beliefs. One morning, Bruce and I set off with the them to hunt monkeys. The Matis have extraordinary hunting abilities - it was amazing watching them move through the rainforest so quickly. Soon spider monkeys were crashing down from the canopy after being hit by poisoned darts fired from blowpipes. I filmed several monkeys as they died on the ground, but it was disturbing to find that three of them had babies that were still alive. The babies seemed so human as they stared at us curiously and cuddled their dead mothers for safety. Despite my 20 years filming indigenous peoples, this kind of hunting was hard to accept. But eating monkeys has been part of the Matis culture for thousands of years. That's the way things are out there.

How to do it
The Matis featured in Tribe were nearly wiped out by western disease in the 70s, so they're understandably wary of visitors. Other Amazon tribes are more accustomed to tourists, such as the Huaorani at the headwaters of the Amazon. Their leader Moi Enomenga, is the president of the Ecotourism Association of Quehueriono, which represents five communities on the upper Shiripuno river, and has signed an agreement with an Ecuadorian travel company to develop ecotourism. Discovery Initiatives is the first UK tour operator to run small-group trips to visit the Huaorani. On the eight-day trip you'll stay in an ecolodge in the rainforest, travel by dugout canoe with Huao and naturalist guides along the Shiripuno and explore the rainforest trails by foot. Trips depart January 27 and November 16 2008, from £1,960pp full board, including international and domestic flights, transfers, naturalist guide and activities. 01285 643333, discoveryinitiatives.co.uk.

James Smith, director, Anuta, South Pacific
Our four weeks on the remote island of Anuta in the South Pacific had come to an end. We had heard that the islanders were planning a big farewell ceremony, so I wasn't too surprised to find almost every Anutan waiting for us on the beach. Bruce joined the men in some traditional Polynesian dances, much to the amusement and delight of the crowd. But then things took a different turn. Everyone began singing what sounded like a funeral dirge, and then after a few minutes, every man, woman and child started crying. It was impossible not to be carried away by such emotion. These were some of the most gentle, welcoming people I had ever met, and many of them had become good friends. Anuta is such a remote island, so it was unlikely we'd ever see any of them again. So there I was, microphone in hand, dressed in cloth made from tree bark and with flowers in my hair, letting the tears flow freely down my face. Above: Bruce Parry taken by canoe to the island of Anuta.

How to do it
Anuta is a tiny outcrop in the South Pacific and, according to James Smith, director of the Anuta programme, most maps don't even show it. So unless you're a committed yachtie, you're better off looking elsewhere to sample traditional Polynesian life. The island of Samoa shares a similar culture. 

Renée Godfrey, researcher, Layap people, Bhutan
After five days of solid hiking from where we loaded up our yaks at the drop off point in Punakha, my head was throbbing and my legs and lungs felt weak. We'd walked through carpets of rhododendrons, up and down paths of leech-infested mud, gazed in awe at ferocious waterfalls and climbed over high passes with air so crisp and pure it hurt to breath. The trees looked prehistoric adorned with long wisps of moss and the entire landscape stood tall and proud in its preserved, pristine beauty. There's a spiritual closeness to nature when you're immersed in a place such as this. We finally arrived at the village of Laya, high in the majestic Bhutanese Himalayas - it was so high it made me giddy to look up at it and the snowy peaks, brilliant white against the blue sky. The bells of our horses and yaks had been the accompanying soundtrack to our trek. Some of the Layap youngsters and women must have heard us coming from the valley and came to investigate the new arrivals. Shaven-headed monks beamed at us; their Buddhist beliefs give them a gentle and inspiring aura, and I remember feeling incredibly fortunate to be there. The old adage goes the harder a place is to get to the better it is and it was certainly true of this place. We had little idea of what lay ahead but the feeling I had on arrival - the sense of awe of the mountains and the people - never really left me throughout the entire trip.

How to do it
The Layap are devout Buddhists and yak herders, cut off from the outside world for half the year by deep snow. KE Adventure runs a 21-day trek across the mountains in spring and autumn, starting in the Punakha gorge before heading into Lunana crossing six high passes. You spend seven nights in hotels and lodges and 18 camping. The trip costs from £2,595, including all meals, but not international flights. 01768 773966, keadventure.com.

· Tribe (bbc.co.uk/tribe) is on BBC2 Tuesdays at 9pm until September 25.

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>> Green Adventure Holidays 


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