How weird my world is at the moment. Last weekend I flew back from LA after a few days at the TCA press tour. This is a conference of the USA’s top TV critics held in the stunning Langham Hotel in Pasadena. Twice a year the TV networks gather there to promote new shows. I was attending with Jack and Todd Hoffman, the two leading characters of Gold Rush Alaska, to give interviews and insight into the show. At present the series is the #1 show in America for men and Discovery Channel have really got behind it.
I saw Oprah Winfrey, who was launching her new network, OWN; Mike Tyson, who spoke about his love for pigeons; and Jennifer Aniston who walked by looking serene. I probably should have spotted a host of other stars that to my wife’s despair I didn’t recognize. The reception, hospitality and access that was laid on by Discovery was amazing. And to cap it, each night when I went back to back to my bedroom there would be a new surprise awaiting. One night a cool bloggers bag; the next, three ingots of Gold Rush Alaska chocolate and on the last night, a hand carved didgeridoo...a fitting end to a weird and wonderful adventure.
So this is what has been obsessing me for the last year and why most of my friends and family haven't seen me for ages. I've been producing 10 x 1 hour documentaries for Discovery Channel in the US. The series is called Gold Rush Alaska. You can see the promo here . The show follows the fortune of a gang of unemployed men from Oregon who head north to Alaska in search of gold. It's been a rock-n-roll shoot and edit but there's a good buzz about the series. The subject has genuine and profound jeopardy and with gold prices going through the roof , unemployment rising and the recent swing to the right in the US it's very current. I hope it does well not least as recognition for all those who went above and beyond to get it on the screen against all the odds. It premieres on Friday the 3rd of December at 10pm EST on Discovery in the US. It's a Raw TV production of course.
I’ve been writing this particular blog about my adventures with Mark and Olly for some time now. To see the rest of the blogs in sequence click here. But if you haven't the time to read the backstory, here is the story so far. I produced a series of eight one hour documentaries for Travel Channel and Discovery in the remote rain forests of West Papua two years ago that was great adventure. Along with explorers, Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds, a production crew from Cicada Films and many local 'Yali', porters we climbed into the mountains of West Papua in search of the ‘Mek’ people. This elusive tribe have had little contact with the outside world for thousands of years.
The previous year, Mark and Olly had lived in with the Kombai people in the swamps of West Papua. During their three months there, the two explorers became aware that things were changing fast for the native people of Papua. Money, religion, politics, education, logging, military action, disease, metal goods, converse sneakers, tee-shirts, cheap chinese lighters; all these things and many more were flooding into these remote and ancient cultures, altering them irrevocably.
Spurred on by this experience, Mark and Olly decided to go to West Papua again, but this time they were to go high into the montains to make a series of films see with the Mek people. It was a big ask. The territory was ferocious and there was little guarantee the tribe would allow them to stay for the four months the two explorers and our film crew needed to really get under the skin of village life.
The Mek tribe of around two thousand people had been known to the outside world for many years. But there were small villages on the edge of Mek territory that we hoped still stood on the cusp of modernity where we could still learn of the old ways while witnessing how the tribe adapted to the new.
The blog picks up after we’d been four days into the expedition and just spent an uncomfortable night in a village called ‘Tohamak’. Our guide, the ‘Legendary Bob Pelege’ had hoped the villagers might let us stay. But in the end it was a rather disappointing encounter. The villagers were Mek people but they had moved further into modernity than we’d hoped for. This was demonstrated when they asked us for $800 dollars to kill a pig for a feast of welcome.
Our porters were from the Yali tribe and the Mek are their traditional enemies. The tension in the village was palpable as we tried to sleep in a village where not so long ago we would have been killed and eaten for such a transgression. Come first light we head further into the mountains. Bob planned to take us to the village of Merengman. It was two days walk away through ever worsening territory but it was there that he believed we'd find what we were looking for. I was sick with nerves by now. Months and months planning were hanging in the balance.
Day five’s march was awful with leeches, vertical walls of vegetation, torrential rain and a gnawing uncertainty about whether I was leading the expedition towards disaster. A night camp made in the pitch black under what seemed like a waterfall didn't help the mood either. But on day six when we encountered a staff of pigs jaws we knew we were nearing what we hoped would be our final destination. This frightening totem marked the territorial edges of Meregman. I felt exhausted, worried but elated mostly. All the hard work, all the blood sweat and tears had all lead to this point.
The following day, after little sleep, we edged closer to the village. Bob knew that by tradition, no stranger would be allowed to enter the village without a show of strength. Less than two hundred meters from the village a tribesman who turned out to be the chief himself, leapt from behind trees and challenged us to leave his territory. We spoke English, the porters spoke Yali and and Indonesian and a few words of Mek. Between, Bob, Olly, Mark and the porters, we managed to get the Chief, Markus, to allow us to enter the village.
It was an amazing sight. The villagers looked on with a mixture of anxiety and curiosity. Ed Kelly, the camerman and director allayed people's fears by letting them see and hear what we were recording. We'd decided that if we found somewhere that would let us stay we would share our world with them as we hoped they would do with us.
Chief Markus called a meeting of the elders and after some debate they decided to let us stay and see what we were made of. Exhausted but elated we started to make camp and prepare ourselves for what we hoped would be the long haul. We were in.
Since I’ve spent the day writing about TV shows and doing scripts for Locked Up Abroad, I thought I should update the blog on where I got to on the ‘Adventures of Mark and Olly – Living with the Mek’. This is a show I did for Discovery Channel and Travel Channel a couple of years ago. I’ve documented the journey we took to find the Mek tribe in the mountains of West Papua so far in the blog and this is the next instalment.
After a hard days march we came to our first Mek village. It was called Tohamak and after the appropriate show of strength the villagers let us in.
Things seemed to be going well until the village chief asked Olly and Mark for $800 to kill a pig for a welcome feast.
We politely declined and spent an awkward night camped in the village before moving on early the following day deeper into the jungle.