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"Robert's true-life tales of big snakes and zombie hunts put the Dangerous Book for Boys in the shade. He has a marvellous knack of communicating with young  people... I can't recommend him highly enough! "

Adrian Turpin 
Director Wigtown Literary festival

Lost Cities are out there waiting to be found!

The Lost City Explorers Club is a place where all kinds of useful information for young explorers interested in lost cities, among other things, will be posted. I have searched for lost cities in the desert and the jungle and found some pretty interesting things along the way including haunted temples and giant snakes, strange unexplored ruins like a jungle stonehenge, crazy shamens who foretell the future and ancient skulls buried deep in the Sahara desert! The world is not all explored- you just have to get out there with courage and the right skills. You can get started right here. The idea is for young explorers to form their own branches of the Lost City Explorer's Club with these pages forming a handbook. Let's see what happens! If you can persuade your teacher I may be able to come and give an exciting talk at your school too.

Check out the 50 word micro-adventure section- here's a chance for you to post up your own 50 word adventure. Remember a big adventure is just lots of little adventures joined together.

Wednesday
May022012

Lost city of Ubar

 Many lost cities begin as mere myth, until modern technology finds signs that they may truly have existed. One such lost city is the subject of serious debate amongst historians and archeologists and explorers: known variously as Ubar, Wabar, Iram of the Pillars and famously named Atlantis of the Sands by Lawrence of Arabia, it is located somewhere in Southern Arabia.  

 

The city was fabulously wealthy around the 1st century AD, as it was the centre of the frankincense trade and one of the few places in a long stretch of desert where water could be found.  How it came to be lost is still unknown, though historical record suggests that it may have been destroyed by the wrath of God, by a sandstorm, or when the spring above which it was built collapsed into a sinkhole. In 1992, space surveys claimed to have pinpointed its location, by identifying camel train routes visible only by satellite. Ranulph Fiennes, the British explorer, finally discovered the lost city of Ubar in Oman in 1992.


 

 

Friday
Mar162012

Lost City of Kuelap

Built by the Cloud Forest people of Peru in the 6th century, Kuelap is a lost city known to locals for centuries, but discovered by a Western explorer only 150 years ago. It may have been a fortress, a sanctuary or a refuge; nearly 600 metres long and made up of more than 400 different structures, it is carved all over with birds, eyes, snakes and heads. Like many lost cities, there is much still to be discovered about this mysterious ruin, set high up in the hills – only two years ago, the bodies of 79 adults, dead since the 7th century, were retrieved from a hidden gravesite. 

Thursday
Mar152012

eating skunk, sloth and swan

You may run out of food while out exploring, so how about trying some of the below?

Skunks can not only be eaten they also make good pets when properly deodorized. Take your skunk to the vet and have the scent gland removed under a local anaesthetic- it’s quick and painless apparently. Skunks are intelligent and loyal and love being cuddled by kids. They can eat almost anything from yoghurt to old vegetable scraps though they do need a clean bowl of water to drink from.

Should your interest in skunks take a more sinister turn then they are also highly recommended for the table. Skin the skunk and gut it. Then roast and serve with cranberries- according to William Byrd writing in the C18th skunk “is surprisingly sweet”.

Sloths make easy game as they move so slowly. There are the two toed and three toed variety to choose from. Gastronomically there is little difference. Both are vegetarians and sensibly stay out of sight mostly in high trees. South American Indians knock them out of the branches with stones or poison darts loaded with curare. The creature is usually roasted over a fire with little ceremony, though sloth stew, cooked slowly with wild garlic and tumeric is reportedly a real jungle delicacy.

Civet cat, found in many jungles– I have eaten this on numerous occasions. Whether as a stew, roasted or fried it always has a nasty musky flavour. Only consume if desperate. However the Chinese rate it a delicacy. A famous Chinese dish called ‘dragon and lion’ pairs civet cat with peacock meat.

Snails are eaten by the French we know but beyond that most people are a little hazy on the details. There are huge deposits of edible snail shells in the Pyrenees left over from stone age times, so apparently the French have always loved them. The escargot they most favour are the Roman land snails Helix pomatia and Helix aspersa. These should be kept in special snail gardens called cochlearia to make sure they don’t consume something foul. Snails tend to taste of what they eat. Keep them supplied with fine lettuce and fatten them on milk.

To cook a snail kill it by boiling, stuff it with a mix of garlic and chopped chestnuts and then roast in a low oven.

In Africa slugs are also eaten but when one dropped in a cup of tea I was drinking it gave to the brew such a foul taste it put me off them forever. Theoretically they are edible but the slime they are encased in must be scrubbed or boiled off assiduously.

Termites are a favourite Bantu dish. The recipe is:

One pint of termites

One teaspoon of ground palm nut oil

Salt to taste

Remove termite wings and dry the termite on a hot stone in the sun. Smear a pan with oil and fry them up until crisp. Salt them and eat like popcorn. Keep some as they remain edible for months.

Rats are edible if fed on grain. The Chinese have 17 ways of preparing them, including the delicious Golden Rat of Canton. Thoreau claimed he ate rat on Walden pond, skinned, gutted and fried with a little relish. G.Gordon Liddy, Watergate burglar also claimed he ate rat “fried the American way” though this could have been an obscure allusion to his preferred method of dealing with traitors.

Swan. There are too many swans in England and eating them may not be a bad idea though it could put you on death row. My grandfather once killed and ate a Mute Swan which is still a treasonable offence and therefore theoretically punishable by death as is sabotage in a naval dockyard (the death sentence was famously removed from UK statute books but only for murder). Being a lucky scamp my granddad seems to have gotten away with it.

There are seven species of swan and only the Mute, Cygnus olor is crown property. The only other people allowed to own Mute swans are the two ancient livery companies of London- the Vintners and the Dyers. A mute swan with two nicks in the side of its beak belongs to the Vintners, one nick means the Dyers. All other Mutes are property of Her Majesty.

If you come across a blackswan from Tasmania you can grab it for the pot. Other white swans up for grabs are the Bewick’s and Whooper swans. You can tell them from Mute swans as they tend to be smaller with a black dot of an eye rather than an eye enlarged by the mascara effect of black colouring that Mute Swans have. Mute swans despite their name are not silent. They can snort and hiss and make an explosive ‘heoor’ sound.

A swan can give a nasty peck on the backside but its wings cannot break an arm or a leg. Those with goose expertise will know best how to grab and kill them, though it will not be a doddle for a first timer. Twisting a bird’s neck is easier said than done. With someone to hold the bird down to a butchers block the quickest and humanest way is to chop the head off with a machete. Then pluck and draw it and cook like a goose or large duck.

 

 

Wednesday
Mar142012

how to survive in the desert even if terribly lost

There are a number of Lost Cities reputedly buried under the sands of great deserts; in searching for them you may get unstuck. Or, more usually, stuck- in the sand. I was once buried up to the axles in soft sand in June only a kilometre from the highway. But it was so hot (over forty degrees) we couldn't dig ourselves out without risking heat exhaustion. We had to wait until dawn when it was cooler. But we only had a kilometre to walk to find help, what if we had been further afield?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the Little Prince, and famed 1930s flyer, once crashed in the Sahara desert and spent four days on half a flask of coffee and an orange. Instead of heading towards the coast, or west, which is the way they believed lay Cairo, he walked East, ‘because it felt right’. Just as he and his companion were about to expire they were rescued by a lone Bedouin fortuitously in exactly the right place.

He was lucky. The crash site was reportedly in Wadi Natrun, which is now on a major highway from Cairo to Alexandria. Then it was far more remote, but still not more than 100km from a branch of the Nile. It was also midwinter- which in the desert makes a big difference. He and his mechanic Prevot successfully garnered two quarts of dew from stretched out parachutes- but spoiled it by storing it in an old fuel can. After walking around a lot by day and vacillating they headed East and were rescued.

He was lucky. You should aim to be more prepared. For a start: take at least two oranges, if not twenty litres of water as an emergency back-up. Even in the hot summer, if you do nothing by day and walk by night, you can survive on three litres a day for seven days. You will be very dry but you’ll live. During the first battle of Alamein, which was in august and the hottest time in the desert, the allied ‘desert rats’ were allowed five pints perday for cooking and drinking. That’s about three litres. But they were active by day. You’ll be hunkered down hopefully in the shade of some handy rock- even in the flattest part of the desert you’ll usually find some kind of shade. If not, dig a shallow pit and arrange a tent or coat as a shade protector. To lie all day in the summer sun without shade is asking for a death in a two or three days.

If you are stranded in winter then the desert will be much much cooler. By night you may even get a frost. You’ll certainly need blankets and a warm hat. By day it may get up to the late twenties. So by adopting the night walking or at least early morning and evening walking strategy you can get by on the same liquid as you would drink at home- a litre a day will suffice.

How far can you walk in a night? Sand walking is a killer, or can be. The sand causes blisters, both by getting into your socks and by making each step you take the same, and therefore rubbing the same spot without the variation you get when walking over pebbles and broken ground. The best footwear is sandals, but if you are wearing boots make sure you keep them clear of sand. If you are fearful of dying it is a great incentive. You should expect to manage, unladen, 30km a night for seven nights: so you will, if fit and prepared, manage a 200 km hike.

But what about carrying the water? One of the great unsung pioneers of desert safety was General Popski who managed to persuade Churchill to finance his private army during world war II. Whenever Popski travelled in the Sahara in his jeep he carried a simple trolley made of bicycle wheels. On this, if his car faltered, he could escape carrying over 80 litres of water and supplies. The desert is mostly flat and dunes can often be circumvented so a trolley works very well. Eighty litres will last you comfortably for three weeks…

Without your trolley you’re down to carrying the water. 20 litres weighs 20 kg or 44lbs. That’s heavy and it’ll make you sweat- losing more water. If you are in condition you might expect to make 15-20km the first few nights and then more as the weight gets less.

Knowing which way to walk is almost the easiest part, as long as you know where you are. Saint-Exupery’s big problem was that he didn’t. Without a GPS its hard but you can get a fix on latitude by sticking a stick in the sand and measuring the angle between the end of the shadow and the stick’s top at midday. This will give you your latitude- once you adjust for the time of year. To measure your longitude is possible if you have an accurate watch and know the exact time the sun rises in the nearest city. You can then work out how far you are by the difference.

Far better is to have a basic knowledge of the terrain and where you have come from. If Saint-Exupery had known that east of Cairo the desert is rocky and hilly and quite unlike the western desert where he landed he would have been far better off. Keep in your mind what you will do if there is an accident. The desert is not a labyrinth waiting to snare and confuse you. It is more like a giant sea and the direction, once you know roughly where you are, is usually obvious. Find north by night by looking for the great bear, lining the the outer two stars on the edge of the ‘saucepan’ bit and then sight up to the slightly dimmer pole star. You know it’s the right one as it’s the only star that doesn’t move all night. Mark in the sand the direction and keep walking, checking every so often with the pole star. If you sight up using other stars recheck every 20 minutes with the pole star to allow for a change of position.

By day you can find due south at 12 midday- when the sun is at its highest it is also pointing south. At sunrise and sunset you also have perfect indications of direction. And most likely there will be no clouds sufficient to cover up the sun’s movement.

Should you find yourself lost and in a sandstorm or dust storm your best bet is to sit it out while visibility is nil. They rarely last more than a few days and often at night calm down enough for you to glimpse the night sky and get a pole star fix.

Before setting off on any desert trip memorise the main features. Most desert have huge escarpments and straight endless roads that border the wilderness. These are the things to aim for- features you cannot miss even if you are off by twenty degrees in your walking.

Light travels far at night- you can see the lights of a medium sized town 100 km away in the desert. As for attracting others- if you choose to stay put then burn a tyre- the column of black smoke can be seen 60 km away and will always attract other desert travellers.

The usual advice is to stay with you vehicle- but if you are travelling in only one vehicle then you’re already taking a big risk. If you have told people where you are going and when you’ll be back- stay with the car and burn the tyres. If no one knows where you are and you are confident- walk. Think about that half-flask of coffee and that orange.

Monday
Mar122012

Making rafts and emergency boats

Making rafts is easy if you have plastic barrels or slabs of polystyrene to hand, less easy if you don’t. If you make a frame of long pieces of wood and then tightly tie plastic chemical barrels in place you can quickly make a good raft. Likewise if you can get hold of big slabs of polystyrene you can tie it to a wooden frame to make a good raft.

The simplest emergency boats are made from found objects: pallets with plastic drums strapped to their underside, a duvet stuffed with bubble wrap, old inner tubes.

Usually however there are only logs to hand and it depends on the kind of wood- some, like heart oak, actually sinks, and others barely support any weight at all.

Twelve logs of larch each 30 lbs in weight making a monstrously heavy 360lb raft will only support a single 12 stone man without sinking. Poplar is best (apart from super light woods like balsa)- a 200 lb raft will support 120lbs weight.

Reed rafts work much better- you can fashion a wooden frame and then bundle reeds beneath it to make it float. You can also inflate animal skins or, for the squeamish, plastic kit bags sealed tight with cord. These can be fastened under your raft frame.

Many travellers now carry inflatable thermorest mattresses. Four of these bound to a light wood frame will work as an inflatable to carry one man to freedom- say across a river swollen by seasonal rain. Chris Macandless, the subject of John  Krakaur’s excellent Into the Wild, died in the Alaskan wilderness because he dared not cross a river in flood. Through he successfully killed a moose he made no move to use its skin as the covering for an improvised boat or as a float. The technique requires sewing up the skin as air tightly as possibly around a stuffing of hay and thin branches. As inflated goatskins are commonly used as rafts on the Tigris it is by no means farfetched to suggest this might have saved him.

Bamboo, if you are in tropical climes, makes an excellent raft material. Each sub-section within a pole is a self contained floatation chamber. You can use slivers of bamboo cut from the poles to tie the raft together.

If you have no saw or axe then you must burn down trees. Two men can start twenty small fires and attend to them all in order to fell twenty trees. For obvious reasons this method of felling has its vocal opponents- but if they’re around then they can save you and you don’t need a raft.

Dugout canoes are common from Canada to Chile. They are easy to make, but take time. The best tool is an adze. Start a fire on land and transfer the glowing coals to the log. Surround the embers with wet mud to contain the spread of the fire. Now build up the fire. Every few hours shift it along and hack away at the charred wood. Time consuming but not unpleasant work.

If you find yourself in gourd or calabash country, the Congo for example, these may be used as floats for a raft. Take the largest dried gourds you can find, line them upon two long thin logs and then tie two logs more along the top. The gourds thus trapped you have a single long float. Make three of these, bind them together and you have a fine watercraft known locally as a makara.

If you can weave a basket shape large enough you can cover it with the flysheet of your tent and make an excellent coracle. Willow is best for weaving though any thin springy wood unseasoned will usually work.

Hide trays are used in both Peru and Tibet- take an oxhide and pinch up the corners, rather like pinching up the corners of a piece of paper to make a crude open box shape. Make holes at each corner top and use thongs to keep them together. Sticks can be wedged inside to give the ‘tray’ some solidity.