Birds, wheelchairs and bamboo sticks

3 May

Benedict Allen’s first meeting with BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner was inauspicious. Ben Fogle! He said (or something like it), I’m a huge fan!

Despite this, Benedict and Frank became big friends, with Benedict sharing his stories of the birds of paradise in the untouched jungles of Papua New Guinea of the 1980s. Turns out, Frank is a massive fan of bird watching, and his dream was to see those very birds.

Benedict was a semi-retired solo-adventurer. After three decades of exploring, he lost a husky on the Arctic ice and felt his luck had finally run out. So back he went home and began to raise a family.

But Benedict was inspired by Frank’s dream to see the birds. Especially so as the journalist’s mobility was reliant on a wheelchair after being shot in Saudi Arabia by terrorists. And, no doubt, excited by the extreme challenge of taking a wheelchair user to a remote, humid forest decidedly not accessible.

Benedict is an enthusiastic upbeat traveller, even when describing the confusing emotions of returning to Papua New Guinea, excited to see the people he spent months with and bonded with in his twenties, but realising the deep trauma caused by taking part in the Niowra’s extreme initiation. As a twenty-four year old it seemed a wheeze to be involved in something no Westerner had done before, but as the tribal elders in the spirit house above him discussed his involvement in the ritual, there must have been a sinking realisation of what was in store. What happens if he got sick? They wondered. What happens if he died? Should they tell anyone? They were very clear on what would happen if he were to bring disgrace on the tribe by giving up or running away before it were finished – they would kill him.

He then endured one of the most brutal ceremonies on the planet – six weeks of beatings, four times a day, with sharp bamboo sticks.

So, after months of preparation and negotiations with the BBC, it was no wonder when the music flowed over the lake to Benedict and Frank’s canoe as they approached the tribe – the same music Benedict danced to as men and women whacked and cut him – he felt sick. “It was hard going back and confronting the other Benedict,” he said.

Back in the 1980s, the tribe had made contact with the modern world just two years before Benedict’s arrival. They greeted him with a war dance, were dressed in thongs, and in feathers from those elusive birds of paradise. Now, thirty years later, they wear Western clothes, with Christian names introduced by missionaries. But his time with them was remembered with affection, even the Niowra’s children know who he is. And despite access to modern healthcare, two thirds of the men Frank danced and bled with are dead – from malaria, from fighting, perhaps. It was hard to unravel the causes, said Benedict because they still talk in terms of bad spirits. Despite learning their language and taking part in their secret and sacred spirit of the crocodile rite of passage, he is still a foreigner it seems.

So did Frank succeed in his mission? Yes and no – Frank’s one-man medical team, Oz, ordered him to be hospitalised a few months into the adventure, but they returned for round two. Was his wheelchair dropped, meaning ‘game over’ for Frank? No. Did he see the birds of paradise? A little. Did he suffer more pain? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes.

So why didn’t Benedict show any photos of the birds, asked an audience member. I’m not a photographer, he said – true, but there was something authentic about the fuzzy photos he shared. But for Benedict, seeing the birds wasn’t important. “It was not about me. It was about Frank,” he said, “about the power of positive thinking.”

Benedict Allen appeared at Swindon Arts Centre as part of Swindon Festival of Literature, 2 May 2017.

Chronicle written by Louisa Davison.

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