Christina Dodwell

Katie Jarvis meets the in­trepid Nailsworth­based ex­plorer, lec­turer and travel writer

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS - From the book In Pa­pua New Guinea, by Christina Dodwell PIC­TURES BY ANTONY THOMP­SON

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.’”

Christina Dodwell FRGS, ex­plorer, travel writer and lec­turer at her home in Nailsworth

Pad­dles from Pa­pua New Guinea

A sa­cred flute from Pa­pua New Guinea

Christina pho­tographed with a di­nosaur bone from Mada­gas­car

Christina with the bri­dle for her horse

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