Katie Jarvis meets the intrepid Nailsworthbased explorer, lecturer and travel writer
Explorer and travel-writer Christina Dodwell has experienced a world few other Westerners have encountered. She’s been initiated into manhood in a skin-cutting ceremony in New Guinea, and paralysed for 10 days by a spider-bite in Kenya; she’s watched hunters catch crocodiles with their bare hands, eaten maggots and hairy pigs’ ears, and been thrown into prison as a spy. The golden rule of survival is to make yourself a nuisance or a novelty, she tells Katie Jarvis. A crocodile swam lazily upriver and as if by mutual agreement we ignored each other and he passed by. Now I had to begin looking out for a line in the tall grass that would show me the short cut to avoid a block in the river that I had been advised was further down. I kept a careful watch, but when I came up against a dead end I realised that I had over-shot it and was lost. I stood up in the canoe in order to see over the grass and to see if I could find any signs of a way out, but there was nothing, nothing but masses of small, still lakes. It was very quiet; there wasn’t another soul in sight.
Let’s start from the left,” Christina Dodwell says, pointing to an exotica of unguessable objects on a shelf that hovers above the stairs, in a house that hovers above Nailsworth.
(Standing on her patio, looking out at my home-town from a rarely-seen angle, even familiar sights seem exotic. Is that Morrison’s? Are there really this many trees? Why did I never realise how the clusters of houses interconnect?)
“That’s kind of useful – in fact, it’s a bottle-stopper,” she says, picking up a carved-wood figure holding a snake, soot-blackened by years over a fireplace.
“And this one…” she pauses, brow momentarily furrowed. “I’m not sure. What is he? He’s not a stopper because he’s got a crocodile tooth attached to his legs. He came from the spirit house in New Guinea. The Sepik [the area around the island’s longest river, where she lived for many months in the early 80s] is full of spirit houses.”
For local women, entry to the sacred spirit house – the haus-tamboran – is forbidden.
“But when I went down with malaria, [the local people] were convinced I was about to die and that they’d be accused by the Government of killing me. So they did anything to get me up,” she says, ready humour in her rich, smoky voice. “‘Come and carve in the spirit house!’, they tempted me.”
Ah, yes. I remember her agonising account of that illness, when – fever raging, skin scalding – she dragged herself to a pond in a sago grove, scooping cooling water with a coconut shell; before tossing and turning on a hard floor-mat, chasing tantalising dreams of toasted cheese and milk shakes.
Did she feel better for entering the haus-tamboran?
“I did feel better eventually. Curiously, I was actually going through a bout of West African malaria; but the mosquitoes were fearsome in New Guinea. There were points where you just didn’t want to go for a pee: How quickly could you get your jeans down and up before you got bitten all over your bum? But that was part of the challenge.”
I’m not sure this is absolutely true (I don’t mean the jeans. That’s definitely true: neither smouldering coconut husks nor raffia-fringed flyswats proved adequate mosquito-deterrents in New Guinea).
No - I mean the idea that they let Christina Dodwell into the spirit house to mitigate her dying. In fact, she’d already earned her ‘honorary man’ status by
‘There were points where you just didn’t want to go for a pee. How quickly could you get your jeans down and up before you got bitten all over the bum’
appearing among isolated tribes in a lone canoe, which she’d paddled through the backend of nowhere: intrepid, resourceful, unafraid. And then, along with teenage boys, allowing her skin to be cut by razor into a pattern of crocodile scales in an agonising coming-of-age ritual.
But I like this about her – her non-romantic rationalisation; her pragmatism; her common sense.
These are qualities that come into play time and again during her travels. Such as when, in Eastern Turkey, she and her horse negotiated snow-patched tors until they chanced on a temporary yaila of tents and rock shelters. The women who inhabited it – living high up in the mountains, tending grazing herds while their men-folk harvested in the pastures below – rushed out to examine her. A no-holds-barred examination. Without so much as a by-your-leave, their welcoming gesture was to run their hands up and down her chest, intimately.
Did Christina baulk (as I would have done) or complain or instinctively push them away? Not at all.
“…it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps they were just checking I really was a woman, because they would never have encountered a solitary foreign woman travelling on horseback as I was, dressed as a man in trousers and shirt, my long hair caught up inside a man’s cap.”
Or when, on the Royal Road from Sardis to Susa – on a track that snaggled beside a stream where an enamel-blue kingfisher swooped for fish - a gaggle of boys pulled a long knife on her.
“But I had just begun a bout of hay fever and I couldn’t pay attention to anything while sneezing almost continuously. The sneezing kept the boys at bay.” So is she never afraid? “There are lots of different kinds of fear,” she tells me, as we progress along the treasure shelf (a dinosaur bone she unearthed in Niger; penis gourds given by her New Guinean guides; a fearsome collection of bows and arrows, each with their specific use). “There’s slow fear, fast fear... Fear can be something you go through as one of many emotions, if you’ve got long enough. If somebody pulls you over and tries to lock you in a jail, you go through fear; but that gets overtaken by anger.”
Where other people arm themselves with first-aid kits, Christina travels with tried-and-tested exit-strategies. Like when she’d just swum across a South African river with her horse and “Somebody got me in a bear-hug and started saying the same thing over and over, while dribbling. And I thought: A situation going out of control!
“So I said – and occasionally you can hit the right tone of voice – ‘My horse! My horse! I must catch my horse!’ And he let go. Because he understood that that, actually, was more important.”
Ha! Distraction taken to stratospheric levels of brilliance.
She shakes her head. “I was lucky. Had there been two men, it wouldn’t have worked. But I’m an absolute wimp. I’ll pretend that my husband is a huge
policeman, waiting for me in the next village. That the chief is waiting for me. I’ll tell a lie – any old excuse. You’ve got to catch a situation before it spirals.”
Christina Dodwell was born and raised in West Africa where her father, Christopher, was district officer in the Western Provinces of Oyo, Nigeria; and her mother created homes in the middle of nowhere without electricity or mod cons. A childhood filled with freedom. “Yes, freedom… but the snakes!” East Africa is said to be God’s own country; West Africa is not.
“In many ways, though, it was a great place to grow up. I remember my sister eating all the chillies off a bush and turning bright red. I think it was her, as well, that fell in an ants’ nest.
“At a local ceremony to placate the crocodiles by feeding them a couple of girl-children, my sister and I disappeared. Our worried parents finally found us sitting safely on the chief’s broad knees, hidden by his robes. He had obligingly obeyed my father’s ban on sacrificing virgins and was giving chickens instead. We had our share of adventures.”
When she was aged six, the family moved to England – “Camberley, for a while, when it was more of a village” before boarding school.
From which she was expelled, so I hear?
“Something along the lines of ‘asked to leave’ and not permitted back,” she grins. “Probably I’d made a point of breaking every rule I could find. I was a rebel, but not an evil one. And I worked well in class. I loved geography, though my geography teacher hated me. She called me a rotten apple – so she must have doubly hated that I loved the subject so much!”
It might have been an unconventional start; but her first career foray was startlingly par-for-the-course: a stint at secretarial school (“But, boy, if I hadn’t learned to type! As a writer, it’s proved a very useful skill.”), followed by a year in the art department at Queen Magazine.
“And then various things came to a head…” she says, as though at a slight loss to explain the next turn of events herself. “I think my boyfriend dumped me… I mean, I never really set out to do any of this.”
Whatever long-forgotten crisis prompted it, this was a turning point: the start of her travels. Fed up with life in England, she and a couple of lads joined with a nurse called Lesley – who answered an ad they’d placed – bought a Land Rover and set out to cross Africa.
Their adventure was meant to
take a couple of years.
“But it only lasted a month. We’d got across the Sahara when the two boys stole the Land Rover and vanished.”
Lesser girls might have been thrown by such abandonment in the middle of nowhere.
“But you know the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar-baby? ‘Throw me off the deepest, highest cliff; drown me in the deepest ocean; throw me in the worst briar patch. Ha ha. This is where I was born and raised’. It was the same for me. Those lads had abandoned us in the place where I was born and raised.
“So I merely said to Lesley, ‘Let’s go and have a little look around.’”
They had a ‘little look around’ Cameroon, following smugglers’ trails on horseback, improvising with their sleeping bags as saddles. And then they got hold of canoes and paddled down rivers.
“I learned a lot from Lesley. She was a nurse with a lot of practical sense. I remember saying to her, as we set out on the water, ‘We’re getting a reaction from people that indicates this isn’t quite the right thing to be doing’.
“And she said, ‘Well, I don’t think anybody has been down this river in a canoe before!’
“I said, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ And she replied, ‘I didn’t think you’d listen’.”
When Lesley had to head off home, Christina carried on. And on. In the decades since, she has made lone expeditions through West Africa, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Turkey, China, Afghanistan, Madagascar, Siberia and Kurdistan, by horse, canoe, elephant, camel and microlight, writing books as she travelled. During her journeys, she has lived with local peoples, participated in their culture, immersed herself in their lives. Often – such as when crossing wooden bridges on horseback over 20-foot drops (having to find logs to fill gaping holes) – she must have wondered what on earth she was doing.
But I love the books that result. Not only the madness – swimming swollen rivers; climbing mountains to see fasteroding sacred cave paintings – but the culture shocks, too. Shocks for me, that is. Not for Christina, who accepts what she finds without interference.
She comes across tribes such as the Hewas, who eat their dead in the belief that it gives them immunity from sickness. Cannibalism by any other name – but “I never felt threatened.
Partly I think that my safety lay in the fact that I am a woman and a woman is more of a novelty, while a man can be seen as a threat.”
There are times when she’ll sit and watch a mother break the hind legs off a grasshopper for her child to use as a plaything. Or take part in a sing-sing celebration – this particular one where a baby was given to a childless couple – at which a chicken is beaten to death as part of the entertainment. “The scene that would have upset me in England, didn’t upset me here. I had come to share their lack of sentimentality over animals and to recognise their importance as a much needed source of meat.”
This lack of judgmentalism – this sheer acceptance – is refreshing and even salutary. Such as when she writes about the chador: “I don’t think women mind as much as their liberated sisters would want them to”. Really? “It depends why they’re wearing one… But a lot of women are stark naked underneath, you know. Not only are you cooler because you don’t need all those clothes; you’re also free of identification. Nobody’s trying to see who you are when you’re in chador.”
She’s just come back from a week in Sicily – pure holiday – with her sister. Is her sister as adventurous?
“Completely mad,” Christina says, relating how she had them both clambering up the ashy slopes of Mount Etna on an impromptu trail, hotly pursued by a couple of innocent German tourists with no idea of the adventurous company they were in. And next? Who knows… Holidays are planned. Travels are open-ended.
“For example, when I went to Siberia, I was one of the first foreigners to go into the Kamchatka. I bumped into this troop of Koryak dancers – reindeer herders – who were heading off into the tundra for the first time since the end of Perestroika. They said, ‘Do you want to come with us?’ And I said, ‘Yes, why not.’”
Paddles from Papua New Guinea
A sacred flute from Papua New Guinea
Christina Dodwell FRGS, explorer, travel writer and lecturer at her home in Nailsworth
Christina photographed with a dinosaur bone from Madagascar
Christina with the bridle for her horse