It shouldn’t happen to an expedition leader..


Palm Oil Plantation Homes

I wish I could be so sanguine as Lao Tzu but I can not afford to be so chilled out when I am operating as a Youth Group Expedition Leader. The role requires a subtle style of asymmetric management and leadership. Recently, I was part of a “Leadership Cabinet” working with a fellow Expedition Leader and well renowned photographer who founded the Environmental Press Agency and two female teachers.

Thinking of James Herriot’s “It shouldn’t happen to a vet” there are times “It shouldn’t happen to an Expedition Leader”.

I was jointly leading an expedition to Northern Sumatra part of Indonesia. The basis of this three-week jaunt was to educate 14 teenagers on the plight of the Orang-utan, the devastation of Sumatra and to immerse them in the journey of discovery.

Once all the preparations were complete, armed with a pile of expedition equipment and flight tickets we met at Gatwick for our flight to Medan via Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. Things were moving smoothly until I realised our hold luggage was heading for Medan in Sumatra but we were overnighting in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Much to the chagrin of Emirates Airlines, I had to intercept three holdalls and get the entire manifest to be redirect to KL. I peered over to look at my fellow leader who merely grinned and said, “It’s started.”

One of the biggest issues that can fall upon an Expedition Leader is non-disclosure of a medical issue; there are many documented cases, where clients have failed to mention an ailment or pre-existing condition. Most of these issues tend not to be of any significance until you are in a remote environment. Having arrived in Medan, then got our transfer by bus for 6 hours to a river then embarked in dug out canoes to continue our journey into the jungle, I was then presented with the first confusable. One of the students declared they were Coeliac.

Armed with a war chest of medicines enough to keep Alan Alda and his MASH team operational for a year, an Emergency Locator Beacon and a Satellite Phone and to top it off a comprehensive 24-hour medical support team; being entombed in a jungle there is not much use for a sat phone, the beacon certainly was of little use but the Expedition Leader is paid to sort out these complexities to ensure the clients are safe and well. Surprisingly, 3G, has reached the jungle so our questions were answered courtesy of Google. Mission accomplished. Having downloaded a Coeliac Card written in Indonesian we were now capable of explaining the dietary needs to the cooks.

Planting saplings

Dealing with phobias can be quite revealing, I personally have a pathological desire to eliminate the world of snakes; why I opted to lead an expedition to the jungle is a mystery that I am still trying to figure out. It was on some occasions, hilarious to see the participants run like hell away from moths, spiders and those mega noisy cicadas. Leaches, however, had a completely different effect. I am an ardent fan of Transylvania having worked there for many years, but the flow of blood emanating from the clients as they got attacked by the ever persistent leaches, was more than any gory scene from a Vlad the Impaler film.

As the days progressed things were running smoothly until we jumped on our trusty charabanc and headed down to an Elephant Sanctuary. If the roads were not bad enough, 4 hours into our journey we hit an impasse, the local traffic authorities positioned a height restriction – just a short diversion of 2 hours on palm oil plantation tracks. The suspension on our charabanc, I am sure was designed by Ernest and Pierre Micheaux. Our team was almost shaken to bits and to add insult to injury our driver lost control of the coach and we were now listing to port. What unravelled was pure comic genius, after safely getting the group out of the coach our driver flagged down a few of the locals for some unhelpful help. My fellow leader and I suggested attaching the towline to the axle, as a there was no other strong point to allow the clapped-out palm oil truck to tow the coach back on to the track. Ignoring our advice the cable was attached to a cross member. Hey presto the bumper, front end and power steering assembly were now firmly detached from said coach and being dragged down the road. Meanwhile, the elephants are waiting, the clients are having a real adventure and it is raining.

Palm Oil Natural State

Palm Oil in its natural state

The irony was that in our case Thunderbirds came in the form of a Palm Oil truck that gave us a lift to the Elephant Sanctuary. It should be pointed out that the expedition was on a mission to educate the young people on the devastation caused by the palm oil companies. In Sumatra alone there are at least 10.8 million hectares of palm oil plantations, Sumatra is only 47.3 Million hectares period. This has had an absolutely catastrophic impact on the biodiversity in Sumatra. The draining, burning, and conversion of peat swamp forests to palm oil has been especially damaging to the world’s climate as it has led to Indonesia being the third largest contributor of carbon to the world’s atmosphere after China and the United States.


They say lightning never strikes twice, considering on 26 December 2004, a giant earthquake rocked the world, Simeulue, was nearest to the epicentre. The 9.2 earthquake lifted the seafloor by about two metres as a result of the enormous energy released. This generated a small wave…NOT, reaching 30 metres in height causing carnage and total devastation of the shoreline for several thousand miles. Listening to the old people in your life can pay dividends the island was hit by a Tsunami in 1907 from that they learned to get to high ground and the message was passed down through successive generations. Only six people lost their lives on the 26 December 2004, unfortunately in other parts of Indonesia they were not so lucky the small town of Lhoknga, Aceh Besar, and the human population dwindled from 7,500 to 400 in a few minutes.

Simeulue Exposed Reef

With such a safety record from the islanders perspective the expedition was safe in their hands. Our visit to the island was to get a better understanding of Marine Conservation in particularly the Turtles. The island is a mecca for surfing but not a place for novices. The seas around the island are affected by Southern Indian Ocean the most efficient swell machine on the planet so waves reach 2-3 metres. Situated in the doldrums just above the equator, Simeulue is not affected by trade winds, so everything would seem to be copacetic. However, the turtles are not really found on Simeulue. They are found on Bangkaru Island an uninhabited island, approximately 140km away. It is the largest intact primary-forest island remaining in Indonesia, and also holds the largest nesting site for green sea turtles in Western Indonesia.

How does one get a group of 18 conservationists out to Bangkaru?

Is there a boat to get to the island…Yes but it is a 42ft 2×300 Suzuki HP live on-board speedboat, capable of cruising at 20 knots, small groups of up to 6 passengers.

Whilst this would have caused a logistical nightmare to achieve, we were not done with collecting calamities. The monsoon was creeping in slowly which was effecting the sea state making it slightly rough to say the least, even the hardened surfers where taking some down time. The surf really churns up the garbage and pushes back the pollution that flows out of the island’s rivers. So it was a no go for everybody.

To add insult to injury Mt Sinabung on the mainland erupted pushing an ash cloud 4.2km into sky that added to the turmoil in the skies around Northern Sumatra.

So our expedition participants helped with a Womble down the beach cleaning the flotsam and jetsam from the picturesque seascape. What become evident was the fact that the debris was mainly generated by the locals that had been thrown into the rivers that flowed into the briny, this in turn was pushed straight back to land. Most of it was discarded drinks bottles and crisp packets. Two hours was sufficient to fill 8 large bin liners over a 500m stretch of beach.

I guess the key issue is being prepared for the unexpected and having the where with all, to sort out any problems that may arise. I think overall we succeeded in our mission to have a more than successful trip. The students who had spent 18 months fund raising for their expedition had along the way learned the value of money; understand that man is capable of destroying it’s own back garden and experienced the wonders of this planet. To get up close and personal with Sumatran Elephants and be within 2 metres of Orang-utans, will for some be a life changing experience.

Toe Nails

From my perspective, as a photographer and as an expedition leader, I get a great feeling knowing that I have been in some small part had an effect on the journey of my clients both young and old alike.

Kev Sidford FRGS

Kev Sidford Photo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s