A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times Newspaper of Singapore on 8 March 2020.
A century ago, up to 12 million of the world's heaviest land mammals roamed the earth. Today, there are only about 500,000 elephants left. Despite a 1990 ban on international trade in ivory, and even if the demand for animal tusks has decreased over the last few years, these majestic animals are alarmingly close to extinction.
In October 2019, our ‘HER Planet Earth’ all-female team, had the great privilege of trekking 100km with Samburu warriors in the Karisia Hills of Northern Kenya. The Samburu are nomadic pastoralists who have lived harmoniously with nature in this region of Kenya for centuries. Following patterns of rainfall in search of fresh pasture and water for their cattle, camels, goats and sheep, they have developed a special relationship with the environment and this has created a biocultural landscape that promotes both Samburu culture and biodiversity.
During our week-long sojourn in this remote part of Kenya, we witnessed incredibly stunning landscapes and ever-changing sceneries, from dry deserts and rocky volcanic terrain, to lush green forests and meadows as we climbed higher in altitude to 2,550 metres above sea level. Travelling with a full safari train, made up of twenty-eight transport camels loaded with our tents and supplies, our team walked side by side with an armed Samburu escort composed of proud local warriors, trackers and rangers.
Each day we covered about 18 to 20 kilometres on foot, leaving camp just as dawn broke, and arriving at our next campsite by early afternoon. Our Samburu guides kept us safe throughout, scanning the path ahead meticulously, constantly on the lookout for signs of wildlife or other visitors. They were attentive to every detail and looked after us with sincere and generous hospitality, which made all the difference.
The objective of our trek was to increase awareness of the impact of climate change in this region and raise valuable funds for Conservation International and their programmes aimed at building the resiliency of the local people of Northern Kenya, and women in particular, who are the hardest hit by climate change. In Kenya, women are the natural custodians of the environment and the first to be affected by environmental degradation. This is because they are the ones who walk for hours looking for water, who fetch firewood and who provide food for their families. Our support, which culminated in a team total of S$145,000, was aimed at creating more livelihood opportunities for women in this area - focused on wildlife conservation.
Elephants and Samburu Culture
As we journeyed with the Samburu through their territory, we learnt a great deal about their love of nature and their deep respect for elephants especially. These beautiful mammals have influenced Samburu tribal culture since the dawn of time. Elephants create paths to water and break branches that can be used for firewood, two functions that benefit the Samburu people’s survival.
As we soaked up the beauty of the region during our long days of walking, we came to hear about a local legend that tells the tale of elephants who once lived in homes and worked with the Samburu women, demonstrating that elephants are ancient relatives and therefore deserve love and respect.
The Impact of Climate Change
We soon also realised however, that the Samburu way of life is being severely threatened by the impact of climate change. Droughts are leading to conflicts, human and livestock displacement, animal diseases, and food insecurity. These nomadic herders frequently have to dig deep holes to find water for both themselves and their livestock. They call them ‘Singing Wells’ because they sing to their livestock as they dig, and the cows recognise their family’s song and come down to their well to drink. The difference between each family's song is usually clear but can be very subtle. At night, thirsty elephants seek out these wells. The adults, with great long trunks, have little problem reaching for the water, but the younger, inexperienced elephants can tumble in. If the animals can't be pulled out, the elephants are forced to abandon their young.
Over twenty of these abandoned elephants now live at the nearby Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the first community owned elephant reserve in Kenya. At Reteti, the baby elephants are being devotedly taken care of and bottle fed, until they are big enough and old enough to be re-introduced into the wild. It's a unique form of conservation, where the local Samburu people collectively own and manage the 3,400-acre property.
As the largest of all land mammals, African elephants play an important role in balancing natural ecosystems and part of our team’s fundraising went to support this elephant sanctuary to help them grow and develop the programme, so as to employ more local women to care for these beautiful creatures.
Female Empowerment & Eco-Livelihoods
Additionally, our team’s efforts were focused on giving a voice and providing a platform for the development of sustainable enterprises and family livelihoods. The ripple effect will extend to education, health, family income and even security, peace and stability. Gender imbalance is a major factor obstructing sustainable development in Africa and poverty is a key element undermining a girl’s right to education; a cycle that reinforces a large gender gap. Many aspects combine to truncate a girl’s education and a young women’s career, limiting the full realisation of her productive capacities. On the other hand, educating a girl means that as a woman, she is then empowered and more likely to participate in development efforts and in political and economic decision-making.
One of our beneficiaries is a Conservation International Fellow, Rufo Halakhe, whom we met during our visit. Rufo will use her fellowship to explore how women are affected by tribal clashes involving communities in her region and how women can be champions of peace through their existing cultural structures. Another very special lady we met during our trip is Josephine Ikuru, a community leader and the first female peace coordinator for the Northern Rangeland Trust, a partner of Conservation International. She’s been a champion for women’s rights in Northern Kenya since her teen years, defying gender norms to attend local meetings traditionally dominated by men. Josephine gained a passion for conservation through her efforts to reform poachers, working to end both the devastation of her beloved wildlife and the poverty that has given rise to it. By age 22, she was elected the Chairperson of the Nakuprat-Gotu Conservancy, bringing together rival tribes to curb poaching and conserve the native wildlife. Throughout her career, Josephine has successfully reformed dozens of poachers, helping convert several of them into conservationists and peace ambassadors.
Our team spent a day with the Northern Rangelands Trust to better understand how our funds could help further develop their mobile anti-poaching unit. This group is comprised of highly trained men and women from the Kenyan National Police Reservists, who are tasked to protect the whole area. The rangers are extremely skilled in several disciplines, including physical training, first aid, weapons handling, navigation, legal briefing, and also work with a K9 task force, making them a unique influence for stability and safety in the community.
Their efforts since their inception have contributed significantly to a reduction in the illegal killing of several endangered species in this part of Kenya. The local elephant population has bounced back as a result, from an all-time low, since the introduction of this team. The success and continuation of this ranger unit provides an example to other communities of what can be achieved with the right resources and training.
Overall, our time in Kenya was a truly enriching and insightful experience. This magnificent country of epic landforms stirred in us deep longing for the rest of the African continent. And when you depart, as the plane lifts, you feel that more than leaving a continent, you are leaving a state of mind. Our hearts are full from the staggering beauty of the local people whom we came to know during our journey. They brought soul and colour to the earth. We will never forget the vast multicoloured grasslands peppered with immense herds of wildlife, which we traversed.
As with many of our expeditions, it’s not so much about the destination but more about the journey itself. The conservation mission is difficult and urgent, and the odds are seemingly stacked against us. The path is rocky, steep, hard and dusty. At times we feel overwhelmed, it’s difficult to take just one more step forward, but then we see our teammates, who are just as thirsty and tired as us, and we know that we are not alone in this journey. Together, we lift each other up and it inspires us to keep going, because this pursuit is too important. We must never give up.
A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times Newspaper of Singapore on 26 October 2019.
Landing in Iceland makes you feel like you are arriving at the very edge of the world. For avid trekkers, this place is paradise because of the incredibly rich topography and varied landscape. Also known as the Land of Fire and Ice, it has stunning blue glaciers, black sandy deserts, over 130 volcanoes, obsidian lava fields, multicoloured snow-capped mountains, and explosive geysers. Indeed, Iceland’s very existence is a geographical oddity. It marks the point where the European and American tectonic plates meet, and are pushed apart by volcanic activity, making it one of the most geologically active places on earth.
In an area approximately the size of New York, but with a population of just over 360,000, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The first permanent settlement wasn’t established until 874 AD, when a Norse Viking Chieftain called Ingólfr Arnarson arrived off the cost with his family. According to local lore, he threw two carved pillars overboard vowing to set up home where they landed. The pillars washed ashore on a coastline dotted with steam vents, so he called the place Reykjavik, which means ‘Bay of Smoke’ in Norse. His settlement is still the capital today, and home to two thirds of Iceland’s tiny population.
On an August day towards the end of the Icelandic summer, our team of 12 women - part of HER Planet Earth, a Singapore-based NGO that promotes female empowerment and environmental conservation – has just arrived in Reykjavik. We are for the most part based in Asia and no one has ever set foot in Iceland, except one person. The journey ahead is exciting and we look forward to spending five days traversing one of the most active, volcanic and alien landscapes of Iceland, Laugavegur, a trail in the Southern Highlandsoriginally formed by an eruption in 1477.
We chose Iceland because it is one of the countries already feeling the brunt of climate change. In fact, land in Iceland is rising at an average of 1.4 inches per year in certain areas, as a result of climate change. The melting of the country's glaciers reduces pressure on the land below and allows the surface to rise. This changing geography is another tangible showcase of the effects of global warming.
Just a few weeks ago, Iceland held an actual funeral for the first glacier “killed” by climate change - the 700-year-old Okjokull, which is the first of Iceland’s major glaciers to die. If a glacier melts and becomes too thin, it stops moving and then it is declared dead. Actions like Iceland’s glacier funeral are a vital part of the mourning process. As symbols of man’s connection with nature, glaciers have great cultural significance in the Nordic country and at current rates of warming, all of the country’s glaciers will suffer Okjokull’s fate in the next 200 years, one by one.
Our determined team is using this expedition to raise awareness and funds for underprivileged women affected by climate change. We want to highlight that gender often remains the untold story behind climate change. Indeed, in many countries around the world, women are among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation, partly because women make up the larger share of the agricultural workforce and tend to have access to fewer income-earning jobs. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its effects are felt locally, and poor people suffer the most - among the world’s 1.3 billion poor people, the majority are women.
After a bone shattering three-hour drive east of Reykjavik on the rough dirt road, we reach our first camp in the late afternoon, at the start of the Laugavegur trail. The area is only open to trekkers from June to August, because the rest of the year, the weather is simply too ferocious to risk hiking. As we step out of the van and breath in the crisp 6°C air, it’s easy to forget that we are still in the middle of summer. Nevertheless, the camp has a great surprise in store for us - a natural geothermal hot spring for campers to bathe in.
This first evening, the group is in high spirits. In the summer, Iceland never really gets dark so we are tempted to stay up late, despite the early start planned for the next morning. The trail awaits. Considered one of the finest walking routes in the world because of its staggering beauty and diversity, Laugavegur ranks right up there with the Inca trail in Peru and the Milford track in New Zealand.
We set out the next day under clear blue skies, and as soon as we step out of camp, we are greeted by the most extraordinary, heart stopping landscapes. The hills are breath-taking, barren with more than 50 shades of brown. As we climb higher, the wind starts to bite.
This place makes you feel as if you are a character in the Lord of the Rings. It is no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien was fascinated by Iceland. They say this part of the country is as close as you will ever get to Middle Earth, the fantasy land he describes in his novels.
As the day progresses, we make our way to the heart of this geothermal wonderland, and come across stunning sceneries at every turn: incredible lunar surfaces, volcanic rocks, majestic waterfalls and steaming hot geysers with their bubbling sulphuric acid pools. Respect for the landscape grows deeper with every step. It is this otherworldliness that brought Nasa to Iceland on numerous occasions to train astronauts for the geological conditions they would encounter on the Moon and Mars. Across most of Iceland, people live mainly on the coastal areas, because of this, you could walk for miles inland and see no sign of human life, no roads, no houses, nothing.
In the thousand years since Iceland has been inhabited, there have been over 250 eruptions in a volcanically active zone covering a quarter of the country. Our trail runs through the heart of this zone, which makes me wonder just how dangerous it is to trek here. “Surely they would close the trail…” I think to myself, “if there were any signs of an impending eruption.” We soon come across a sobering reminder of why never to underestimate the risks on mountains. It’s a memorial for a young Israeli man called Ido Keinan, a modest pile of stones with a metal plaque that says: “In loving memory of Ido Keinan who passed away in a blizzard so close to the safe hut nearby yet so far at only 25 years old June 27, 2004.” The frightening part is just how close Keinan was to safety when he died. This tragedy took place at the height of summer. We are walking in August and it does not feel like it. Just a few hundred metres later, we reach the Hrafntinnusker campsite for lunch.
Throughout the trek, we camp outdoors and experience a range of temperatures from beautiful sunny days, to cold, windy and rainy spells, with 5-6°C temperatures, for the most part. We hike about 10 hours per day and the team is relieved and joyous when at the end of each day, we finally reach our campsite for the night with warm food and rest.
The landscape is ever changing. Descending into the valley, we go from slopes covered in electric green moss, to lunar landscapes and artic trails, before entering a thick fern and birchwood forest called Thorsmork, named after the Norse God of Thunder, Thor.
As we hike through the woods, our intrepid, experienced guide Helga, shares with us, “We do have trolls who live in these mountains. They only come down to forage for food at night. If they are caught in the sunlight, they immediately turn to stone.” It seems the majority of Icelanders believe in, or at least refuse to deny the existence of elves, trolls, and other hidden beings.
On the third day, the weather catches up with us. The showers come and go as we march on through black volcanic rock covered with a thick layer of dust and sand. But this isn’t any ordinary dust. This is the stuff that caused chaos all over Europe when in 2010 the volcano under a glacier known as Eyjafjallajokul began erupting for the first time since the 1820s, spewing ash 9,000 metres (30,000 feet) into the air and causing the largest international airspace shutdown in years.
On the last day, the conditions worsen. Weather closes in and becomes quite menacing quite fast. The wind and rain are relentless and intensify in strength. This forces us to seek shelter and plan for an early evacuation, as 51km/h gale-force winds start battering the mountains.
Despite the poor conditions, Iceland has drawn us in. The team has covered close to 80km of undulating mountainous terrain, crossing numerous freezing rivers in the processes and enduring unpredictable and capricious micro-climates. The whole experience is surreal, and for many of us almost spiritual. The stunning beauty and dramatic lunar landscapes of Iceland have kept us transfixed throughout the journey. Pushing our limits for a very worthy cause has made the whole experience even more meaningful. We are bonded in our sisterhood and in our common goal. The team returns home with an unforgettable impression of this truly wild and awe-inspiring Land of Fire and Ice.
A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times Newspaper of Singapore on July 7, 2019.
The siren call was simply impossible to resist. The moment I first heard about its existence, I simply knew that I had to find a way to see it with my own eyes. Indeed, Son Doong Cave, or Hang Son Doong as it is also known, is the largest cave in the world. It is an otherworldly place full of wilderness and grandeur, a true masterpiece of nature with awe-inspiring landscapes, and enormous stalagmites and statuesque stalactites, hanging from the ceiling and rising from the ground like alien species. They say life is about great friendships and spectacular adventures. Our week-long jungle expedition to the heart of Son Doong cave in Vietnam turned out to be precisely that, an unforgettable journey to a magical place as ancient as time, where we found ourselves constantly at a loss for words in front of so much stunning beauty and splendour, as we solidified friendships.
Located in the heart of the Unesco-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in the Quang Binh province of Central Vietnam, it was initially discovered by a local lumberjack named Ho Khanh in 1991. He did not dare venture in because he thought the powerful and mysterious wind blowing from inside the cave came from monsters of local mythology. The cave was then explored in 2009-2010 by the British Cave Research Association. It is now open to the public, but only officially since 2013.
In Vietnamese, Hang Son Doong means “Mountain River Cave,” and the grotto wears its name well, since it has its own underground jungle and ecosystem, with trees rising up 30m above ground, and a sinuous river that rushes through its gigantic chambers — distinct features that set the cave apart from many other grottos around the world.
The journey to the entrance of Son Doong cave involved two days of intense trekking through the thick jungle, multiple river crossings, and one night of camping in Hang En Cave (the third largest cave in the world). Once at the entrance of Song Doong, we harnessed up and abseiled down about 80m through tight and slippery passages, scrambling over huge boulders into the cavernous belly of the mother of all grottos.
Travelling through the cave’s depths required intense concentration. We had to stay alert at all times, lest we trip on the slippery rocks, and tumble down into a ravine lined with razor-sharp stones. Up and down we went using the wooden ladders wedged between the rocks; sometimes removing our backpacks so that we could squeeze through tiny crevices, splashing across icy rivers, wading through muddy streams, pulling ourselves up with ropes or sliding down on our muddy bums over sloping stone walls, and balancing precariously on narrow and rickety bridges to cross wide-open echoing spaces.
The cave’s proportions are extraordinary. Its main chamber is the largest in the world by volume (38.5 million cubic metres), measuring more than 5 kilometres in length and running approximately nine kilometres in total. Its largest section peaks out at 200m high and 150m wide. The only way to get a real sense of perspective on the sheer size of Son Doong is to have fellow trekkers scatter throughout the limestone galleries. Even then, it’s hard to properly comprehend the enormity of a place that could house an entire New York City block or could even store 68 Boing 777 aircrafts in its main passage.
The difference in temperature between the air inside and outside of the cave creates hovering clouds of mist that give rise to a mysterious and surreal atmosphere, enveloping many areas of the cave in a dense fog and contributing to the eerie sensation. The vegetation is extremely diverse, with lush and green foliage in parts where sun rays break through the openings, and practically non-existent in the hallowed and dark chambers of the cave.
Because of its colossal size and the high levels of rainfall in the region, erosion happens at an accelerated rate. Occasionally, the weight of the limestone gives way and collapses, creating what is known as a “doline.” Derived from the Slovenian word “dolina,” meaning “valley.” These sinkholes form huge gateways to the outside world, and at certain times of the year when the conditions are right, incredible sunbeams penetrate through these exposed sections, creating a mesmerizing light show.
On occasion, during pauses in our itinerary, we would look up and shine our helmet’s torchlights on the colossal limestone ceiling above our heads and marvel at the awe-inspiring majesty and beauty of this underground cavern. In those moments, we would be reminded of how unbelievable and rare this whole experience truly was. In reality, fewer people have seen the inside of Son Doong cave than have stood on the summit of Mount Everest.
Our Vietnamese guide, Vu, shared that the cave was estimated to be about two to five million years old and was initially formed by river water eroding away the weak limestone underneath the mountain, creating huge skylights. In many parts of the cave, we saw fossils believed to be millions of years old and thousands of cave pearls neatly packed into terraced compartments on the grotto’s floor. The cave pearls are a natural phenomenon formed over hundreds of years when dripping water creates layers of calcite that build up around grains of sand.
At times, we would encounter crawling white insects, almost transparent in hue, that had probably never seen the light of day. Other times, we would step over the remains of small animals such as deer or rats, their bones mixed with mud and dust. One morning on the first day of the expedition, we were awakened by the chirping of hundreds of swifts sweeping across the cavernous hall above our heads. The whole experience was genuinely mystical and surreal.
In truth, it was a spectacular adventure from start to finish. We used ropes once again, to climb out and exit the cave via the Great Wall of Vietnam, a calcite wall totaling 90m in height. This expedition required 28 porters, safety advisors, and guides, who really were the heart and soul of this fantastic journey. In the same way that the Sherpas of Nepal are instrumental to a climber’s success in summiting some of the highest peaks, the local porters of Son Doong are the true heroes of this multi-day caving expedition. These men all hail from Quang Binh, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, and come from a variety of working backgrounds such as farming, hunting, and logging. One thing they all have in common is their astounding ability to survive and thrive in the jungles of Phong Nha. All in all, seventeen porters, two chefs, one national park ranger, one porter team leader, five safety guide assistants, one lead guide and one British caving experts made up the team that took us on this remarkable journey inside the world’s largest cave.
The voyage was made even more poignant because our HER Planet Earth team was supporting a significant cause. This expedition aimed to raise awareness and funds for programmes that help the economic empowerment of women in rural Vietnam, strengthening their climate change resiliency. Thus, from the onset, thanks to this shared vision, our team was united in our purpose and humanity.
As we left the cave, my heart sank because a part of me wanted to run back to this precious Garden of Eden. Had we stepped back in time through a magical passage, deep inside the earth’s inner core? Or perhaps, taken a voyage to a lost world millions of years old? It felt that way to me. So much so that returning to my daily life took some time and readjustment. As we look back, the team and I feel privileged to have witnessed a glimpse of what the world must have looked like when dinosaurs roamed the earth and humanity was not even in its nascent stages. Somehow far from civilization’s hustle and bustle, everything seemed so much purer and simpler down there.
Photo credit: Sandra Lim, Oxalis Adventures & HER Planet Earth
They say the best journeys run deep and reconnect us with what it means to be human. Our sailing expedition to one of the most remote corners of the Philippine archipelago, Palawan, turned out to be exactly that - a deeply inspiring and revitalising voyage of self-discovery and exploration. We spent an adventurous week sailing on a stunning traditional 74-foot Paraw sailboat, the largest in the Philippines, which is a revival of an almost forgotten Filipino maritime culture dating back to more than 1000 years. Natural splendour abounded as we camped on deserted white sand beaches, swam through turquoise waters sprinkled with brilliant tropical fish, snorkelled around World War II shipwrecks, sampled native delicacies and simply revelled in the purity and wilderness of one of nature’s last ecological frontiers.
Our ‘HER Planet Earth’ team of explorers formed by ten intrepid women of diverse nationalities and backgrounds hailed from all corners of the world. And what brought us all together in the first place, apart from our adventurous spirit and a yearning to push boundaries, was a genuine desire to empower underprivileged women and to protect our beautiful planet.
We began our expedition in El Nido and made our way to Coron, meandering through the beautiful Linapacan island group. From the onset, the weather and tides dictated the itinerary and schedule. The wind in this part of the world blows strong, and reliably. It is sunny almost all the time, and there are literally thousands of islands in the Philippines - 7,107 at last count. Just a few days prior to our departure, a storm had prevented boats from setting sail from El Nido. Luckily, the weather Gods were on our side, and as we embarked on our journey, the sun shone brightly in the deep blue sky. The fair weather lasted throughout most of our trip, allowing us to combine stretches of pure, calm sailing with exploration of the islands, reefs and caves - carved into towering grey limestone cliffs estimated to be over 250 million years old. Palawan, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, literally looks like a Jurassic world, with its dramatic jagged rock faces and lush, green tropical foliage. And as we reached our base camp on the first night, we left the boat safely anchored in the bay, while we swam noiselessly ashore with the full moon suspended in the pitch-black sky above our heads to guide us forward.
Founded by eco-conscious British and Filipino Entrepreneurs, TAO, our local partners on this expedition, started a decade ago by running sailing trips across the islands, establishing a network with local families and fishermen. Today, they have grown it into a social enterprise that aims to immerse participants into the true Filipino island life, while at the same time support the remote communities of Northern Palawan. In Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, ‘TAO’ means ‘human’ and is pronounced TA-O, in two syllables not one. To me who grew up in the Philippines and who has travelled to many parts of the world, their expeditions, although not for the faint of heart, are probably one of the most authentic things you could ever experience in my home country.
The highlight of the trip was discovering Tao’s Kalahi Foundation & Farm projects - all of which focus on the advancement of women, children's education, organic farming and local traditional crafts for this precious region of Palawan.
Founded in 2008 the Foundation works like an extended family in a sustainable micro-economy across a 200km stretch of islands. Creating jobs and providing opportunities for women’s group, food production, water security, schools, and scholarships – offering alternative means of livelihood and access to education among families challenged by isolation and the collapse of the fishing industry. The foundation works with what is already available in the islands; utilising abundant resources and harnessing existing skills to come up with sustainable solutions.
Tao’s main base camp is on Culion Island, where we stayed for one night. From there, they run a children’s school, a women’s association which focuses on teaching them how to give massages, weave and make organics soaps and shampoos. The foundation also educates the islanders on responsible and sustainable farming, from maintaining an organic farm to domesticating animals and producing their own vinegar - one of the main ingredients in Filipino cuisine.
During our trip, we slept in bamboo huts on the beach. The huts or ‘Tukas’ as they are a called locally, are built to survive strong winds and even typhoons. Because they are not anchored to the ground by concrete bases, they tend to bend with the wind and occasionally get blown away during typhoons - hopefully not too far- so that they can be picked up, straightened out and re-used after the storm has passed.
For showers on the islands - if we had access to fresh water - we would wash using a bucket in makeshift outdoor showers or at a local spring. At night, the crew, who were nicknamed ‘The Lost Boys’ - because they truly were the heart and soul of this adventure - would build a bonfire and bring out their guitar to sing along with everyone.
One very important member or the crew was a pet Jack Russel named Amo, who answers to no one but his master, Gener, the boat’s Captain. Amo was our little expedition mascot! He was often patrolling the horizon watching out for intruders and made sure he was always the first to get off the boat when we came ashore – jumping eagerly into the transport kayaks before anyone could even get a seat.
Everything we ate during the expedition was delicious and prepared with the freshest ingredients found on the islands, either farmed or grown in the wild. A typical meal consisted of fresh fruit and greens, rice, and fish or pork. Seafood was bought every morning from local fishermen, livestock used for consumption are always raised on the Tao farms and surrounding communities. Most importantly, fruit and vegetables are grown without harmful chemicals, so as to minimise the ecological footprint of the whole operation.
As I reflect on our expedition, I realise how important such journeys are to open up new perspectives and recalibrate our priorities. They force us to step out of our comfort zone, grow as adventurers and empower ourselves, so that we can in turn empower others. The team and I are deeply grateful for these unique life experiences, because we learn so much about the issues many underprivileged people face around the globe, especially women - making us understand how fortunate we are and as a result how much more we should try to support this kind of sustainable and responsible tourism.
Indeed, at the heart of sustainable development is a deep respect for the earth and future generations. No matter how remote we feel from the problem, every act each one of us takes in our everyday lives affects our planet’s fragile ecosystem. Climate change and environmental degradation are barriers to sustainable development, augmenting existing inequalities. And gender often remains the untold story in this dilemma.
In many countries, women are among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental impacts, partly because they make up the larger share of the agricultural workforce and tend to have access to fewer income-earning jobs. The destructive forces of nature, warped by rising global temperatures, manifest in typhoons, floods and other extreme weather conditions can act as negative force multipliers in societies already riven by inequality. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its impact is not spread across a level playing field. In fact, its effects are felt locally, and poor people suffer the most – and nowhere is this more apparent than in places like the Philippines.
During our time there, we were privileged to meet authentic and untouched communities. We learnt about their many life challenges, hopes and dreams. Ultimately, such expeditions are exceptional because they are made up of what each traveller brings with them on the journey, and this gets intertwined with the stories of the people we meet along the way. And while ‘The Lost Boys’ did their utmost to look after our every need, it was truly an unforgettable voyage through some of the most isolated and hidden frontiers of the Philippine archipelago, where every day is an adventure and were new discoveries await explorers at every turn.