A life of travelling

 

 

Wearing an Arabian headcloth, or kefia, I am seated in a guest house, or mudhif, built of reeds, in the marshland of southern Iraq, January 14, 1973. (Photo Arne Koch Christoffersen, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

On a cold spring day, a large pot of hot noodles does a lot of good! Judy and I are seated at a table outside a Buddhist temple on Fung Shan (‘Phoenix Mountain’), near Weining, Guizhou Province, China, together with biologist Li Ching (2nd from left), Mrs. Li (left), and our driver, Uh Tao. – March 12, 2009. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

An early interest in animals
I grew up in a suburban town near the city of Aarhus, Jutland, during the 1950s and 1960s. My first recollection is from a park in Aarhus. I was probably three years old. I was holding on to my father’s hand, but something must have caught my attention, as I let go for a moment, and then again took his hand. When I looked up, I saw, to my horror, that I was not holding my father’s hand, but the hand of a stranger, who gave me a very friendly smile. Howling, I let his hand go and ran back to my father, who received me with a broad grin.

From a very young age, I have had a great interest in animals, in the beginning centered around dogs and cats. My parents later told me that once we were out driving, I suddenly shouted: ”I want to see dogs!”

I pestered my parents to have a puppy, but my father, very wisely, objected to that idea. He probably knew who was going to take care of the dog when it had lost its initial charm. Instead, I focused my interest on birds – an interest I have had ever since. My first recollection of a bird was a jay – a beauty in reddish plumage, having a black moustachial stripe and a fantastic blue and white patch on the forewing. From that day, I was hooked.

In my school, our grade had a brilliant biology teacher, Wagner Nielsen, who managed to catch our interest. One day, I think it was in 7th grade, he suggested that all of us, on the following Sunday (which was our only day off), should make a trip on bicycles to a wetland about 20 km away. Everybody agreed to this idea. ”Remember rubber boots!” he said.

As the trip was going to start at 4 A.M., I expected some, especially among the girls, to stay away, but everybody showed up! A couple of the girls were wearing shoes. Wagner, as we called him, just laughed and said that they would surely get their feet wet. Off we went on our long trip, and everybody endured. On this trip, I and two of my class mates, Peter and Bent, became interested in birds in earnest, and in the following years we often went birding together.

Peter was acquainted with another birdwatcher one grade above us, Torben Hviid Nielsen, who introduced us to a local club for young people with an interest in nature. Here, we met a lot of like-minded youngsters, many of whom are still my friends today. We investigated areas for birds, mammals, plants etc., and we went on day-long excursions in a rented bus to see new areas, which were unfamiliar to us, such as moors and raised bogs.

 

 

Two-year-old in a pushcart, together with a girl from the neighbourhood, summer 1951. I had a toy dog, which I carried around day and night. Perhaps my interest in animals stems from this dog. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

In this picture, I am feeding a sika deer in a local deer park, February 9, 1964. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Birdwatching trip to Nissum Fjord, western Jutland, summer 1965. (Photo Torben Hviid Nielsen, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

I enjoy a break during a birding trip to Limfjorden, northern Jutland, summer 1966. (Photo Leif Halberg, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

A camping trip to Austria in July 1966, together with my brother Leif (left), my parents, and my grandmother, turned out to be a very wet experience. In this picture, we are playing cards on a rainy day. (Photo Elly Halberg, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Two books that changed my life
As time went by, I developed an interest in exotic peoples. As I had very little money, I was not able to go travelling to visit them, and instead I bought a lot of second-hand travel books and imagined myself going through malaria-ridden swamps and up steep mountain slopes.

As it turned out, two of the books I bought were going to influence my life tremendously. One, called Bøj dig for Shiva (’Bow to Shiva’), was written by a Dane, Sten Kjærulff Nielsen, who described a long journey he made 1960-1961 to the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. Nielsen’s trip was very cheap indeed, as he hitch-hiked most of the way, living as simple as possible.

In his foreword, the following passage appealed a great deal to me: ”If you don’t ask anything of your life, but keep to the bottom, you’ll always manage, and be happy, too. Not so many people are happy. The Indians have something they call ’the sacred indifference’: What is all this nonsense to me. It’s just Maya, just bluff and smoke. Future career, your place in The Machine, and all that.”

After high school I joined university to study anthropology, but soon got the impression that foreign peoples were made into simple study objects. I felt exactly like Nielsen. Instead of grouping peoples into academic systems of society and kinship, or describing their way of life in a dry and scientific form, I would much rather go out there to meet them at their own level, without any thoughts of a future academic career, or of publishing peer-reviewed papers. Consequently, I gave up studying anthropology.

 

 

High school, 1967. I am third from right, middle row.

 

 

 

Doing civil work
The other book, which inspired me a great deal, was The Marsh Arabs, by British explorer Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003). In this book, he describes a huge marsh area in southern Iraq, between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. In these marshes lived the Madan, a people of mixed heritage, their way of life completely adapted to the wet habitat. They moved about in canoes, built their reed houses on islets, and made a living by hunting and fishing, growing rice, and raising water buffaloes.

Thesiger’s stay in Iraq ended abruptly in 1958, when a revolution took place in the country. The Iraqi royal family was murdered, and all British citizens were told to leave immediately. Iraq was declared a socialist republic, its new government being on friendly terms with the Soviet Union. After a number of chaotic years, Iraq became a relatively stable and safe place, where tourists were, if not exactly made welcome, then at least accepted.

I felt that these swamps were an area within my economic possibilities. What if I found a fellow traveller, and we bought a second-hand car, maybe we could drive to Iraq?

However, before this could take place, I had to do 16 months of civil work for the government, instead of military service. One evening, in a work camp, I was playing billiard, when another civil worker, whom I hadn’t met before, approached me, saying:

”Are you the one watching birds?”

“Yes.”

”And you have planned to go to Iraq by car?”

“Yes.”

”Can I join you?”

In this way, I was acquainted with Arne Koch Christoffersen, a fellow birdwatcher, and by profession a mechanic, which was highly convenient, as I had planned to go to the Middle East by car, and my mechanical knowledge was next to nil.

Together, we made plans for our trip. In 1972, we bought a second-hand Volkswagen van, constructed sleeping berths in the back, bought a gas stove, put clothes and several books into a few old wooden beer crates – and off we went. We were very young and very inexperienced travellers, ignorant of red tape. Just before leaving, we learned that we would need a carnet de passage, a document which ensures that when you bring a foreign car into a country you also export it again, unless you want to pay import duty.

 

 

Expelled from Yugoslavia
This was the start of a very exciting and educational 9-month-journey. However, the beginning of the trip was far from pleasant. One day, near the town of Titov Veles, southern Yugoslavia, we noticed some griffon vultures and golden eagles, soaring over the mountains. To have a better view of them, Arne took out his telescope, mounting it on a tripod. As we were enjoying the birds, a car came to a halt in front of us, and a couple of grimly looking police officers alighted from it. Using sign language, and a few German words, they made it clear to us that we must follow them to the police station in Titov Veles. Here we learned that it was not allowed to stop, where we were watching the birds, and that photography was strictly prohibited.

“We didn’t take any photographs, we were just watching some birds in our telescope.”

They refused to believe us, and I had to hand over the film roll in my camera, my protests being of no avail. The police officers then put a stamp in our passports, ordering us to leave Yugoslavia the same day. This was not a problem, as a couple of hours’ driving would bring us to the Greek border. We hastily left the unfriendly police officers.

“They are not quite right in their head!” said Arne.

 

 

The police in Titov Veles stamped our passports, ordering us to leave the country the same day.

 

 

 

Encounter with Iraqi bureaucracy
By now, it was November, and as the nights were getting really cold, we hurriedly passed through Turkey. We had no problems entering Syria, so, naive as we were, we continued towards the Iraqi border. At the border control post, we realized that we had made a grave mistake. The imposing immigration officer scrutinized our passports for some time, and then said: “Mister, where are your visas for Iraq?”

Visas? We thought we would get them at the border, like we did when entering Syria. We spent some nerve-shattering hours on a bench, while the immigration officers called their boss in Baghdad to ask, whether or not we must go back to the Iraqi consulate in Halep to get visas. Just before dusk, the officer handed us back our passports, saying: “Mister, go to Baghdad, to the Residence Department. You will get visas there.”

Experiencing Iraqi bureaucracy in the Residence Department was a farce, which you may want to read about elsewhere on this website, see Travel episodes – Syria & Iraq 1972: “Welcome to Baghdad!”

“They are not quite right in their head!” said Arne again, when we left the building – an expression that he would often use on the rest of the trip!

 

 

In the Syrian Desert, Arne and Michel, a French hitch-hiker, study our somewhat faulty road map. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Visiting the marshes
We spent a couple of weeks in the great marshland of southern Iraq. This was before Saddam Hussein attained power in Baghdad and began draining the marshes. (They have now been partly re-created.) In these marshes, we wanted to watch birds, and to visit the local people, the Madan, who welcomed all strangers as honoured guests. In those days, there were almost no roads in the marshland, and almost all transportation took place in slender black canoes, called meshof. Motored boats had only been known here since the 1960s and were still scarce in 1972.

After spending a week in the relatively modern town of Chibayish, we drove further west to the town of Hamar, to be able to visit more unspoiled areas of the marshland. In Hamar, we went to the police station to get permission to rent a boat and a man to punt it into the marshes. As always, no matter where and for what purpose you have come, sweet, strong tea was served in small glasses. There was no hurry. The officers scrutinized our passports and carefully noted our names in a large book – in Arabic script. Arne’s surname, Christoffersen, was indeed troublesome to them. When they learned that we would like to visit the marshes, they instructed us to talk to the mudir, the town mayor, who was also the head of the police force.

We met the mudir at dusk, a small, corpulent man, wearing a Western suit, and sporting a thin moustache. He greets us somewhat formally, and of course he wants know all the facts that we already presented to the police officers earlier in the day. But, as it turned out, he was a really nice person, who assured us that it was no problem for us to rent a canoe to visit the marshes. He invited us for dinner in his house, and when we asked for permission to sleep in our car, he instructed us to park for the night in front of the police station, as he didn’t want anything to happen to us.

The following day, we went on a lovely trip into the marshes, and in the evening we were again invited for dinner by the mudir. We asked him for permission to stay a few more days in Hamar, as we would like to go on several trips into the marshes. He readily agreed to this. Every day, he invited us for dinner, and he also saw to it that we got lunch from his house. The lunch was served by his beautiful sister-in-law at our car, which was parked at the lake shore near their house. Every evening, after dinner, the mudir wanted to discuss all kinds of topics, which was often a lengthy affair, as his English, to put it mildly, was rather inadequate. As it turned out, his main interests were scantily dressed ladies and sex, which caused many funny incidents. Late in the evening, we parked our car in front of the police station to sleep in it. The officers must have thought that we were very merry, judging from the howls of laughter from the car.

Read more about our adventures in Iraq, see Travel episodes – Iraq 1973: The hospitable mudir, and Dust storm and sheep’s head.

 

 

Several times we rented a boat to go into the marshes of southern Iraq, watching birds and visiting the local tribal people, the Madan. – January 6, 1973. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

In the Iraqi town of Diwaya we met a nice guy named Hasan. In this picture, we have gone on a pilgrimage to the grave of Said Achmet al-Rifai, near Diwaya, driving on horrible roads and fields, and crossing irrigation canals on dilapidated bridges. Arne is in the centre, Hasan to the far right. – January 15, 1973. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Spring in Iran
We now continued our journey, crossing the border to Iran, where we spent six weeks in Luristan, situated in the Zagros Mountains in the south-western part of the country. Spring was on the threshold here, and we felt no inclination to drive further north into Iran, where freezing temperatures were still prevailing.

One day, we were invited to the house of a village leader, named Muhammed, where we spent three weeks. He was indeed a character, causing many unusual or grotesque incidents to occur during our stay, which you may read more about elsewhere, see Travel episodes – Iran 1973: In the mountains of Luristan.

Finally, we left Luristan, driving north to the Caspian Sea to study bird migration along a 70-km-long sand spit, named Mian Kaleh. In this area, we had an accident with our car, as a wheel bearing cracked. We managed to drive to a nearby town, Bandar Shah, where we found a mechanic, named Yasha – a small, powerfully built man, who had emigrated here from Russian Armenia. He spoke Russian, Farsi, and Turkomani, but no English. However, that was hardly necessary to understand our problem.

Some days would pass, before the damage could be repaired, as the spare parts had to arrive from Tehran. We were allowed to sleep in the car on the mechanic’s premises, and the following days were spent in the company of Yasha and his workers, and two of his friends, Ali and Albert, who worked in a bank and spoke a little English. We chatted, ate together, and went on trips into the mountains, bringing beer and packed lunch.

Finally, the spare parts arrived, and the mechanics set to work. In the evening, we had a farewell party, and, although we were not quite sober, we managed to say that we would now like to pay for the work. Yasha blankly refused to accept any payment – we only had to pay for the spare parts!

Read more about our adventures at the Caspian Sea elsewhere, see Travel episodes – Iran 1973: Car breakdown at the Caspian Sea.

 

 

In the mountains of Luristan, south-western Iran, we were invited to the village of Mirabad, staying in the house of the village leader Muhammed. In this picture, he is seated at the tea with a small part of his huge family, including his wife Badri (left) and his 16-year-old daughter Maria (centre). February 1973. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

While waiting for spare parts for our car in the town of Bandar Shah, northern Iran, the mechanic Yasha, and his friends Ali and Albert, took fondly care of us. In this picture, we are on an excursion into the Elburz Mountains, bringing beer and lunch along. From left Arne, Ali, myself, and Albert. April 12, 1973. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Return trip across Turkey
Initially, we intended to go to Afghanistan, but the spare parts had eaten much of our money, so we had to start our return trip instead. A leisurely trip brought us across Iran, and when we had crossed the border to Turkey, we parked our car at the edge of the road, to spend the night here, as we always did. But this time we were not allowed to rest for long. A car came to a stop, and somebody shone a torch through our rear window. When we opened the door, a police officer and three soldiers, armed with rifles, approached us.

“Kurdistan! Kurdistan! Bum-bum-zip!” said the police officer, using sign language to illustrate how Kurdish bandits would arrive during the night to shoot us and afterwards cut our throat. We tried to make light of it, as other travelers had told us that the Kurdish people didn’t mind foreigners, only Turks. But the officer ordered us to follow their car to the nearest town, Dogubayazit, and spend the night there. You may read more about our trip across Turkey on this page: Travel episodes – Iran & Turkey 1973: “Kurdistan! Bum-bum-zip!

After Turkey, we stayed some weeks in Greece and Yugoslavia. We had feared that the notorious stamp in our passports would give us trouble entering Yugoslavia, but when the border officers had made a short phone call, they let us enter. In July, we were back in Denmark, after 9 months on the road.

 

 

One evening, we made a stop on the Black Sea coast, between the towns of Giresun and Bulançak, to spend the night in our car. The following morning, we woke up to discover that we had parked just outside a village school. In this picture, we are posing with teachers and students in front of the school. Arne wears a green shirt, whereas mine is blue. The young man wearing a checkered shirt is a German, who joined us on this part of the trip. – May 3, 1973. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

A life of travelling
This trip was the beginning of a nomadic life for me. Virtually every year since then, I have made a longer journey to some remote part of the world – by car, bus, train, or plane, by oxcart or on camel, on foot or hitch-hiking. I made money for the trips by working on and off and by writing articles for magazines about my travels. For many years, I worked as a bird watcher and botanist in various Danish scientific nature reserves, and in 1981, I joined a Danish picture agency, Biofoto, through which I sold a lot of photographs during the next twenty years. In 1985, in Indonesia, I met another travelling Dane, Søren Lauridsen. In the period 1991-2015, we wrote several travel guide books together for a Danish publishing agency.

In 1988-1993, I participated in four expeditions to Tanzania, the aim of which was to count wintering waders, and to investigate bird life in coastal forests. In 1989 and 1991, respectively, I participated in two expeditions to Arctic seas around Greenland and Iceland to count sea birds and whales.

Quite consciously, I have often travelled to far-away places to meet tribal peoples, some of which have preserved a part of their traditional way of life, and have not yet been transformed into humble servants for the tourism industry – a transition that has taken place with an alarming speed.  My interest in nature has also often guided me to areas, where very few tourists come.

Especially during the first years, between 1972 and 1989, I hardly made a trip without experiencing one or several exceptional, strange, or even grotesque events – many of them caused by differences in the mentality of the Westerner, with his logical way of thinking and his need to explain everything, and of the Oriental or the African, who stoically accepts events that cannot be avoided or explained. My experiences with shamanism in Borneo and the Philippines show that nature religion still thrives in some areas and can perform healings, which we Westerners cannot understand or explain.

At first, many of the exceptional events on my trips often caused irritation or anger. But, in many cases, the strange thing happened that these events, after a shorter or longer period of time, turned into something comical, and – even more remarkable – they became some of the most important events on the whole trip, overshadowing the original purpose of it. Numerous times, my fellow travellers and I have discussed these events, causing us to have yet another hearty laughter.

Other events were not so funny. An episode with robbers in Pakistan showed us that you may run into hostile people when you least expect it. Read about this incident on the following page: Travel episodes – Pakistan 1978: Encounter with robbers.

 

 

Sitting among scattered birch trees near Børselv, northern Norway, I am preparing brown birch boletes (Leccinium scabrum) for our evening meal, July 23, 1974. (Photo Jørn Halberg, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

I pat a tame bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata), belonging to a couple of fellow travelers, whom we met near Jacobabad, Pakistan, January 14, 1978. (Photo Arne Koch Christoffersen, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

On board an Icelandic research ship, Bjarni Sæmundsson, I’m suitably dressed to make ornithological observations in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, September 21, 1989. (Photo Jacob Waage, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

During the Hindu spring festival of Holi, one of the activities of devout Hindus is to throw brightly coloured powders on one another. Participating in these festivities in Charbhuja, Rajasthan, India, I (and my camera) got our fair share of red dye. Read more about this experience on the page Travel episodes – India 1991: Attending Hindu festivals in Rajasthan. – March 15, 1991. (Photo Ann-Christine Lomosse, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Strangler figs sprout on branches of other trees, growing numerous aerial roots, which envelop the host tree and eventually suffocate it. Here I am standing inside a Ficus chirindensis, which has killed its host tree, leaving a hollow cylinder of aerial roots. – Chirinda Forest, Zimbabwe, February 17, 1997. (Photo copyright © by Uffe Gjøl Sørensen)

 

 

A changing world
When reading my travel episodes, you must bear in mind that many of the described areas have changed tremendously since then. The events in Iraq took place, before Saddam Hussein came into power in Baghdad and began his destruction of the marshland in southern Iraq. (It has now been partially restored). I was in Iran, before the Ayatollahs usurped Shah Muhammed Riza Pahlevi and his followers. Our trip through Turkey took place, before the Turkish air force bombed Kurdish villages, and the PKK as a retaliation placed bombs in tourist areas around Izmir. In Syria, a civil war is raging, and IS (Islamic State) activities make travel impossible there.

The rainforest on Borneo now only covers a fraction of its former distribution, and the free way of life of the Dayaks as hunters and fishermen has vanished forever. For a long period of time, the civil war in Sri Lanka made travelling in the eastern and northern parts of the country a very risky affair. The Veddas have since long been engulfed by modern life, as their jungles are today full of dams and hydro-electric power plants, and numerous settlers have occupied their former land, see Travel episodes – Sri Lanka 1974: Among the Veddas, and Sri Lanka 1983: Jungle trip with Ranjan. In 1987, shortly after my trip to Tibet, Chinese authorities closed this land to individual travellers, and today there are still quite a few restrictions on travel there.

On the positive side, I would like to mention India and Nepal. The Hindu religion causes Indians and Nepalis to stay some of the most conservative peoples in the World, and, despite nuclear bomb tests in the Thar Desert, computer industry, and the insane traffic in the cities, much is still the same in these countries. In India I get tired and dusty, and I am irritated by foolish questions from students, who want to practice their English on me – but then I am overjoyed by a sunrise in the Himalaya, adding a pinkish glow to the snowy peaks; or a group of Hindu pilgrims, gathered in puja in a temple, dedicated to one of their numerous gods; or a herd of camels, peacefully chewing their cud on a misty morning in the desert of Rajasthan.

On the positive side is also Taiwan, where I have spent long periods with Judy in my later years. On this island, a colourful and unspoiled religion exists, a strange blend of Buddhism and Daoism, mixed with many elements from animism, which dates back to pre-Buddhist times. I am also very fond of the American Southwest, with its superb landscapes and an extremely rich wildlife.

Lately, I have been much engaged in taking pictures of mountain flora, especially in the Himalaya, where more than 10,000 species of seed plants are found. The same issue has brought me to montane areas in the Alps, the Pyrenees, Norway, Kyrgyzstan, Taiwan, Chile, the Appalachians, and the Sierra Nevada of California, see the following page: Plants – Mountain plants.

 

 

Visiting Hari Mandir, the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar, northwestern India, I bring an offering, prasad, comprising ghee (clarified butter), flour, and sugar, to the temple. Inside this temple, your hair must always be covered. Read more about Hari Mandir on the page Travel episodes – India 1997: Golden Temple of the Sikhs. – November 6, 1997. (Photo Søren Lauridsen, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

After spending a night on Djebel Musa (Mount Moses), Sinai, Egypt, I try to keep warm inside my sleeping bag, waiting for the sun to rise, March 13, 1999. (Photo copyright © by Uffe Gjøl Sørensen)

 

 

Lying in the sand in the Zaranik Protected Area, Sinai, Egypt, I am taking pictures of an Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni), a threatened species. – March 7, 1999. (Photo copyright © by Uffe Gjøl Sørensen)

 

 

Enjoying a packed lunch near Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, October 8, 2011. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Zajagan
A suitable motto for me would be the last three lines of the poem The Road Not Taken, by American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963):

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

In his book Zajagan, from 1935, Danish explorer Henning Haslund-Christensen describes, how a high lama tells his fortune by throwing three vertebrate bones on a piece of cloth, whereupon he predicts, ”Your road heads west like the life-giving sun. I see your route. A great hutuktu is awating you, and your meeting is the will of the gods. Now go, Zajagan is before you.” A young Mongolian informs him, ”Zajagan is great fortune – travel fortune.”

Since those days, the World has changed tremendously. But despite Modern Man’s effort to destroy himself through his insatiable greed, it is still possible to find remote and exotic places on the planet, which afford exciting challenges. I hereby wish my readers Zajagan!

 

 

During a hike up the Gunung Rinjani Volcano, on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, Judy and I enjoy a well-deserved break with our cook, Sutardi, December 6, 2012. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

In this picture, I admire a twisted fig tree, growing on Hu-tou Shan (‘Tiger Head Hill’), Tungxiao, Taiwan, January 5, 2019. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

References
Haslund-Christensen, H. 1935. Zajagan. Gyldendal. (In Danish)
Kjærulff Nielsen, S. 1965. Bøj dig for Shiva. Forlaget Fremad. (In Danish)
Thesiger, W. 1964. The Marsh Arabs. Longmans

 

 

(Uploaded November 2015)

 

(Latest revision January 2019)