Mud, Movement Perception and Elephants | A Batek research expedition with Shane Benzie
When three years ago I approached Shane at the Marathon des Sables Expo in London, I don’t think he or I could have predicted that three years later we’d be sitting in the jungle cooking up freshly caught fish and watching Batek tribesmen climb trees. But fast-forward to the day and there we were, after months of talking ideas and possibilities.
I’m not sure exactly the point of this article other than for the sake of presenting the photos from the last week, so I’ll let the short video documentary below (coming soon) do most of the talking. But here is just a brief [edit: turns out once again I’m not good at brief] expedition report and photo gallery detailing a few of the highlights and key talking points from last week.
For a more complete discussion of the research itself see:
I first proposed the idea of a collaborative project with the Batek to Shane, once again in London, early this year, giving him a run-down on the tribe and my experience living with them, and how their tree-climbing and movement dynamics might make for an interesting study.
Being Shane, always up for the adventure, he quickly bit and within a month or two we had discussed logistics and flights were booked. The plan was very much one of exploratory research, with the open-ended aim to learn what we could from Batek movement physicality and tree-climbing proficiency. Meeting once again in mid-July, we tested research methods at my local climbing gym, raising more than a few questions and strange looks from the resident plastic-pullers.
Two goons in a climbing gym
INTO THE JUNGLE
On Sunday 24th November, the one-a-day train rolled slowly into the sleepy town of Merapoh, shadowed by giant limestone pillars and shrouded cloud. Rainy season had begun to arrive in full monsoon, and the afternoon was growing gradually darker and more humid. I met Shane as the train rolled away and we spent a night in the village to prepare for the following few days.
Having put together about five days’ worth of rice and eggs we headed into the jungle the following morning to set up camp in a forest village used previously by the Batek. Now empty and abandoned, the plan was to walk the 40 minutes to and from their village each day, allowing us the evenings and mornings to plan and consolidate each day. In reality, as was helpfully pointed out by a mutual friend, it was a case of two boys playing in the jungle and we rather relished the opportunity in the big green—an eccentric couple of Englishmen; quite an eclectic pair in fact: an old grizzled fisherman and an overzealous young backpacker…
After some time tramping through bog and jungle thickets while I struggled to re-find the camp, we settled in and I cooked up Mark I of what was to become our three-a-day staple of rice, egg, onions and ikan bilis (the wonderfully tasty Malaysian dried anchovies). Bathing and fishing in the river, cooking and cutting firewood became the tasks for the day (and indeed every day), and both myself and Shane readily settled into the jungle camp life. I even put Shane’s fishing skill to test, and on teaching him the Batek method of worms on palm-frond rods, it quickly transpired that his ability to adapt is as good as his long-earned fishing talent, and he rapidly landed a—albeit rather tiny—minnow for lunch.
On introducing Shane to the Batek, he hit it off with them immediately, breaking the ice with some entirely unexpected and much appreciated football skill. Before long he was high-fiving and cursing like any good footballer, perhaps fittingly making firm friends with the oldest man on the pitch. He even scored a goal—no mean feat against a team of lean young Batek—albeit finishing the match rather more cardiovascularly-challenged than his teammates who’d barely broken sweat. Football really is the world’s universal language.
Before long Shane would become affectionately known as Bidan—literally ‘old person’—completely unaware of the hilarity and discussion he caused as he walked around the village. I will never forget, having left him alone for a few hours to say goodbye to old friends around the village, walking back to find him searching for a blowgun dart he’d just fired into the bushes, much to the blatant amusement of a group of tribal women. They revealed to me that, despite his complete linguistic incompetence, he’d managed to purchase a child’s blowgun from one of the men, and was now in the process of ‘figuring it out’. A man sat beside the cooking fire turned to me in concerned bewilderment, asking me ‘How many does he want?’ while desperately producing darts as fast as he could carve them.
Back to basics: Two boys in the jungle
Incredibly, perhaps the highlight of the entire project actually had nothing to do with the tribe itself.
On our first night we returned to camp after dark, having spent the evening communing with a couple of Batek families. After some time slipping about in the rain and mud trying to locate the path that led down the steep slope to camp, we cooked a late meal on the fire and settled in for the night, myself in one of the old Batek hayak sheltersand Shane in his hammock a few meters further on. The rains hammered down and we revelled in our surroundings, comfortable and content.
Hours later, in the absolute darkness of the jungle night I woke to the sound of nearby movement in the brush. It was immediately clear that whatever it was was big—far, far bigger than the routine wild boar…
I sat and listened, growing more and more anxious as the breaking of branches grew louder and closer. And that’s when I heard it, the deep, resonant rush of air like the reverberations of an unthinkably large brass instrument, the song of whales, or the living groans of an enormous tree creaking in the wind. Despite having never heard it before it was unmistakable—an elephant stood less than a couple of meters from me. Even had I not I heard it, the presence of such an enormous animal was tangible, and fear soaked through me in a way I haven’t felt before. Not panic, but deep-visceral fear—the sort a rainforest hunter-gatherer must have felt 10,000 years ago in a similar situation.
Never have I felt such incredible presence, and in the pitch blackness of the jungle night it was a sensation like nothing I’ve experienced before—one of extreme insignificance and powerlessness that’s hard to describe. He or she must have known I was there, and if it had decided to push me about, there was literally nothing I could have done. Sitting on the bamboo platform I clutched my machete in the darkness, knowing full well it wouldn’t help me in the slightest should things turn ill. Hearing at least another two elephants entering the camp from opposite sides, surrounded, I toyed with the options of curling up into my hayak’s far corner or turning on my headtorch and making a dash for larger trees. Neither seemed encouraging—risk getting crushed under my own shelter or charged down in the darkness.
Shane in his hammock was thinking the same, and strung up across the path like a trapped rat he made the decision to move, his light beam thankfully seeming to deter the elephants rather than incite them further. The whole episode made for quite a midnight event, and huddled beside one another in the shelter, neither of us slept much until morning light.
Come dawn we discovered footprints of an unbelievable size, and that the seemingly delicate cracking of branches was in fact the total destruction of the shelter but a few yards from mine. The tin of condensed milk that had been left beside my head overnight had been taken—I had been within touching distance of the jungle’s largest animal. It was the definition of a close shave, and yet at the same time one of the most incredible and deeply memorable experiences I’ve ever had—a reminder and lesson in the sheer power and awesome grandeur of the natural world.
Needless to say the following nights in the jungle were rather restless for both myself and Shane…
Thank god that wasn’t my shelter… what a difference three meters can make.
WORKING WITH THE BATEK
Coming to the point of the expedition, research with the Batek went as well as we ever could have hoped, and we examined the movement of over twenty young men, with two in particular allowing us a lot of time to examine the intricacies of their running and climbing.
I won’t go into the details of the exact research here, but I will make the point of how important it was that we came in off the back of prior knowledge and contact with the group. Having lived with these villagers for over three months now, it enabled us to get what we needed both efficiently and with cultural sensitivity—willing research participation, genuine hospitality and undamaged friendships. That said, discussing abstract ideas on the perception of movement stretched my Batek linguistic skills like never before!
Coupling my knowledge and personal relationship with the tribe with Shane’s wealth of experience in indigenous field research made for a powerful combination, and we got more from those few days than I ever could have imagined possible. And what’s more it was done with smiles and enjoyment on both out part and that of the Batek themselves.
All in a week’s work: research and movement analysis with the Batek
A NOTE ON RESEARCH STYLE
Finally, a quick note on our research methods. By now it’s probably clear to many of you that this expedition wasn’t strictly ‘academic’ in nature. Whilst there was an academic component to our investigations, especially with my work on the tree-climbing, the purpose and approach of this expedition was largely exploratory and intuition-led. It’s something that Shane and I discussed the a number of times whilst sat there in the jungle, and that we both believe is massively valuable and underutilised.
Rather than go into details here and run headlong into yet another tangential rant, I intend to expand on these ideas in a later article (coming soon).
So, to conclude an article that is fast getting too long, it is my belief, and I know Shane’s too, that for all the benefits of hard, data-driven science, research in fields such as ours would benefit enormously from a parallel and underexploited approach of more collaborative, practical, and spontaneous research. By working on intuition and hunch we are able to see the whole and the essence, which is always more than the sum of its academically-dissected parts. Such an approach may not be applicable to the scientific method, but it is a fascinatingly insightful collaborator to pair alongside it.
Research can take on any number of forms—no doubt the Batek were thinking the same…
A massive thank you to the companies below that supported this expedition, and also to Shane for taking me up on such a mad and open-ended proposition. It’s been an honour to work with him and I cannot thank him enough for mentoring me in shaping my own directions and methods of research. I’ve learnt a huge amount and enjoyed some of the best discussions yet—many ideas in the works and I look forward to the next expedition soon to come… stay tuned!