Macintyre: Edge of Existence

macintyre: edge of existence
bolivia (4/4)
tuesday, 20.00–21.00

Donal MacIntyre puts his life and reputation on the line as he tries to live at the limits of human habitation in this four-part documentary series. In this final episode, Donal travels to the one of the most inhospitable places on earth –the high mountains of the Andes –to follow Quechuan Indians in their native environment.

Donal’s latest adventure has brought him to the altiplanoregion of Bolivia, a mountainous area some 17,000 feet above sea level. This harsh land is home to the Quechuan Indians, an indigenous people who pre-date the Incas. The highly spiritual Quechuan eke out a living in one of the remotest regions of South America’s poorest country.

Donal is initiated into Quechuan life when he arrives in a small town and witnesses a ritual to celebrate Pachamama, or Mother Earth. The Indians, dressed like Spanish Conquistadors, sacrifice a sheep to appease the gods and set its still-beating heart on the ground. A dance ensues, in which the Indians – fired by alcohol – engage in mock fights. Donal is dragged into the ritual, enduring kicks and punches before being wrestled to the ground.

The next stop on Donal’s tour is the vast salt lake at the heart of the region, the Salar de Uyuni. The enormous white salt flat is reminiscent of a polar landscape, and Donal’s guide explains that it is the only place on Earth where you can see thecurvature of the planet.

Under the blinding sun Donal feels the first effects of oxygen deprivation, making him all the more astonished to meet a man who lives and works on the flat. Wilfredo carves blocks of salt out of the ground, wearing a balaclava and sunglasses to protect himself from dangerous UVradiation. “It’s backbreaking work in terrible conditions,” Donal says – as he soon finds out when he volunteers to help. Despite being younger and bigger than Wilfredo, Donal is operating on half the oxygen to which he is accustomed, and is unable to complete his task of cutting 50 blocks by nightfall. As the temperature plummets, the pair retreat to Wilfredo’s shack to share cocoa leaves and tea.

The following day, a driver picks up Wilfredo’s blocks of salt for sale, and Donal joins him on his trip further up into the mountains. There he meets Raymundo, a Quechuan trader who uses his 50 llamas to carry the precious salt to the most inaccessible villages. Donal is to accompany them on their 60-mile trek, but their first job is to load the llamas with salt – no easy task as the animals dodge their handlers. “Grab the llama’s ears and hold on,” is Raymundo’s advice.

Once the journey is underway, Donal talks to Raymundo’s 15-year-old daughter, Fidelia, who hopes to go to university and become a teacher. She is aware that a more comfortable life is to be found in the city: “Many people suffer in the countryside,” she says. “It’s a very hard life.” Fidelia shows Donal how to use a slingshot to keep the llamas in line and teaches him the animals’ nicknames.

Donal is impressed by how close the Quechuan family is: “I suppose it’s because everybody has to do their bit – everybody has to be cooperative… to survive,” he muses. At night, the herders sleep outside in “unbelievably, bonenumbingly cold” temperatures reaching –10° C. After three days, they arrive in a valley and deliver the salt to the local people, who trade corn in return. Taking stock of his journey, Donal admits that he was initially “shocked by the brutality of the environment”, but he has warmed to the tenacious Quechuan people, who, against all the odds, manage to survive at the edge of existence.

macintyre: edge of existence
oman (3/4)

Donal MacIntyre puts his life and reputation on the line as he tries to live at the limits of human habitation in this four-part documentary series. Tonight’s episode sees Donal travel to Oman to encounter the Bedouin people.

The Arabian desert has not seen rain for two years. Very little can grow here and survival requires exceptional skill, yet the Bedouin tribes have called it home for thousands of years. Why, in the 21st century, would anyone choose to live in the barren desert rather than the modern world? MacIntyre decides to find the answer.

From the capital Muscat, he heads south to the Sharqiya Sands on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Extreme temperatures and a lack of water mean that this environment is unwelcoming to the novice, but Donal is in good hands. His guide and translator, Ali, knows the land well and introduces Donal to the Bedouin family with whom he will be staying.

The Bedouins govern their lives by a set of strict rules, stressing the values of loyalty, honour, obedience and hospitality. With such stringent etiquette in place, Donal finds he is initially more worried about upsetting his hosts than surviving the arid landscape. “I’m afraid I could cause offence at any time,” he says.

As he approaches the small settlement that will be his home for the coming days, Donal is received by the al-Amri family. After a customary greeting involving the sharing of news and the exchange of gifts, he is treated to an elaborate welcome party, also attended by many members of the wider community. His warm welcome takes him by surprise: “In one of the most inhospitable places on earth, I’ve been treated like a king,” he reflects.

The following dawn brings trouble for Donal, as he arrives late for his duties assisting Samta, the mother of the family. Bedouin women have many responsibilities in the desert, but by the time Donal wakes up, most of the tasks have been performed. Shattering his illusions of submissive Islamic women, Samta informs Donal that the Bedouins eat less and work harder than Europeans. Bearing the brunt of Samta’s harsh tongue, however, is the least of Donal’s worries as he prepares to experience the real power of the desert.

One of the duties of Sayeed, the eldest boy in the nine-strong family, is to scour the desert for firewood –a tough job when there is no sign of trees for miles around. As Donal accompanies Sayeed on his latest search, his romantic notions of desert life begin to dissolve: “I don’t think my body was made for temperatures like this,” he concludes.

After a hard day’s work, Donal is invited into the company of Salam, Sayeed’s father, and treated to the traditional Bedouin power snack of dates and coffee. The family’s main income comes from their 40 goats, but Salam earns extra money by breeding and training camels for racing. In the desert, the camel is the most important possession a Bedouin can have, so despite his misgivings, Donal must learn to live with them.

It is not until the next day, however, that Donal begins to get some real riding practice. Sayeed has invited Donal to join him on a long jouney across the sand to trade at the Arabian sea. Donal accepts the invitation, but is ill-prepared for such a gruelling journey and soon begins to suffer burns, aches and exhaustion. He manages to stay positive, however: “In many ways, the desert doesn’t allow you to get stressed,” he says.

Three days later and Donal is greeted by the welcoming sight of the sea. The journey has been incredibly tough for Donal, but his time spent in the desert has taught him a great deal. Not only is he beginning to love his camel, but he is starting to understand what makes the Bedouin want to live in such an unforgiving environment: “What at first appears to be a very harsh existence,” he reflects, “is for them a very happy one.”

macintyre: edge of existence
borneo (2/4)

Donal MacIntyre puts his life and reputation on the line as he tries to live at the absolute limits of human habitation in The Edge of Existence, a new four-part series for Five. Tonight’s episode sees Donal travel to Borneo in southeast Asia to experience life with the sea gypsies.

After a gruelling three-day journey through the shark and pirate-infested waters of the Celebes Sea, Donal arrives at the port of Semporna on the southeast coast of Borneo. Here, he hopes to learn of the Bajau-Laut –a nomadic tribe of people who were born, live and will die at sea. But since the Bajau-Laut –or sea gypsies –are rarely on land and do not keep to a conventional calendar, they are very hard to find. As Donal sets off into 100,000 square miles of water, he is apprehensive: “I’d love to tell you what’s going to happen over the next while,” he says, “but I’ve no idea.”

His initial fears are allayed when he approaches Omadal island and receives a warm, traditional welcome from the inhabitants of a small settlement. These villagers were once sea gypsies themselves, but have since transferred their lives to the land. Their existence is still centred around the sea, however, as Donal soon discovers.

Following a breakfast of barbecued fish, Donal meets two of the village’s best fishermen and realises that in order to be accepted, he must join them on a dive for fish. Once out on the water, Axan, renowned as an excellent free-diver, shows Donal how it is done. Holding his breath for over two minutes, he deftly plunges to depths of 30 feet and collects giant clams from the ocean floor using nothing other than a homemade spear. When it comes to Donal’s turn, he quickly realises that this is not for amateurs and returns to the surface after just a few seconds. “I’m worried that I won’t be able to do half of what’s expected of me,” he says.

Donal enjoys the villagers’ hospitality and training for a couple of days, before the news for which he has been waiting arrives –some real sea gypsies are moored nearby. The village imam has negotiated with the gypsies so that Donal can join them onboard, but he has some wisdom to offer: “I don’t think you will be able to adapt,” he warns.

Pilar and Sabung live with their respective families on one small wooden boat. Despite having 20 people onboard, they welcome their new guest as one of their own, and it is not long before the boat leaves and Donal’s journey into the unknown begins. Their first port of call is Kapalai reef, where they hope to catch a good haul of fish. The family, who have lived at sea all their lives, store no food and must constantly search for their next meal. “If we don’t catch fish,” explains Donal, “we don’t eat.” Fish is also key to the sea gypsies’ nomadic lifestyle –since they have no other currency, they must trade any extra fish they catch for fuel.

As the boat approaches its destination, Donal is amazed at the air of serenity, despite the cramped conditions. There is little chatter among the people, with much of the communication being conducted using body language. “There is a gentle simplicity about life here on the boat,” Donal reflects.

The next day, Donal once again tries his hand at spear fishing. Though he is slowly adjusting to the technique, he still finds it hard work and, after five tiring hours, he, Pilar and Sabung return to the boat with just five fish. They have caught enough for tonight’s dinner, but will need to do much better if they are to replenish their fuel reserves. Donal, however, has yet to experience the true extent of the sea gypsies’ fishing skills. Having met up with another family, Donal’s hosts allow him to partake in an amazing spectacle they call ‘mass fishing’. Swimming underwater in a long line, the gypsies drive a school of fish towards a net they have laid on the reef bed. Donal is thrilled to have witnessed this “underwater ballet” and begins to feel at home in this once alien way of life. “I’m feeling like a part of this boat,” he says, “and a part of this family.”

macintyre: edge of existence
papua new guinea (1/4)

Donal MacIntyre puts his life and reputation on the line as he tries to live at the absolute limits of human habitation in The Edge of Existence, a new four-part series for Five. Tonight’s opening episode sees Donal travel to Papua New Guinea to live with the Insect Tribe of Swagap.

Throughout the world there are places so inhospitable that humans cannot survive there in the long term. The Edge of Existence shows what it is like to live in these places, as Donal experiences first-hand the natural world at its harshest. Combining survival know-how, anthropology and extreme physical challenges, Donal travels to some of the most spectacular locations in the world.

Deep in the heart of Papua New Guinea’s jungle, several days’ journey away from civilisation, lives the Insect Tribe of Swagap. The tribe is so-named because its members worship the preying mantis, and have in the past been known to engage in tribal warfare and cannibalism. Unknown until the 1950s, they live on fish and whatever they can hunt in the surrounding jungle. For the first time ever, the tribe has allowed a visitor to experience their way of life.

When Donal arrives he is greeted by an impressive tribal dance. “It looks like a cross between a war dance and a welcome,” he says, eyeing the ranks of warriors with face paint and spears. “Thankfully, this time it’s a welcome.” Donal will be staying with English-speaking Samwell, who introduces him to his two wives and three children.

Donal’s first challenge comes on the second day, when he joins the men to catch wild boar. The chief orders Donal to join the village elders on bamboo platforms above the river water, out of harm’s way, while the young hunters venture into the jungle to flush out the boar. Donal stands poised with a heavy metal spear, scanning the trees for movement. When a boar finally emerges from the jungle, it flashes past the hunters and dodges a shower of spears. “I can’t believe its speed,” Donal says. The boar escapes but the hunters in the forest catch a sow and the tribe perform a sing-sing ceremony to give thanks.

One aspect of tribal life fascinates Donal – the status of females. He is warned that any woman caught speaking to an outsider faces death. His guide Philip tells him that a woman who breaks this taboo will have a spell cast upon her. “They’ve got some spirits to kill the woman,” he explains. Donal accompanies the women downriver to dive for clay to make pots. He successfully dredges up the clay, but his efforts at pottery fail to impress: “No good,” is one verdict of his attempted pot.

Now the moment arrives that Donal has been dreading: crocodile hunting in a wooden canoe. The waters of the Sepik River are among the most crocodile-infested in the world. The skin of the saltwater crocodile fetches high prices and provides the tribe with their main source of income. But despite being in the company of some of the best crocodile hunters in the world, Donal is nervous: “Make no mistake,” he says, “this is terrifying.” The hunters mimic the sounds of the crocs, but narrowly miss making a catch.

Alfonse, the hunt leader, takes Donal to see a crocodile nest and talks about the tribe’s fear that a plan to build a goldmine on the river will damage their environment, as it has in other parts of the country. Back at the village, the tribe’s spiritual leader is also despondent: “Sadly, my spirits don’t have the power to remove the mining companies.”

Donal’s stay is not over yet, and he accompanies the hunters as they go on a night hunt for crocodiles. Using a special camera, Donal records the drama as his hosts pursue an elusive four metre-long croc – worth the equivalent to a sixmonth salary. But floating in a delicate canoe in complete darkness surrounded by these unpredictable beasts is enough to provoke a cold sweat in Donal: “If this canoe capsizes, we become the hunted,” he says.

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