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Stories From The Rainforest

An Interview with Jungle Explorer Will Millard
Jamie Bunchuk

Will Millard grew up in a small village in the Norfolk Fens. In his own words leading quite a sheltered rural existence, he didn’t really feel the urge to travel until quite late into his teenage years, when a girl came into school and gave a talk about a Gap Year she’d done in Africa. Her words lit a spark, and after finishing his studies and working at local factories to raise funds, he left Norfolk for a first taste of equatorial climes. Today, the 30-year-old is renowned for having made a series of impressive jungle expeditions, mainly in the rainforests of West Papua, including in 2012 a six-month project aimed at making the first unbroken crossing of the province via its remotest tribal trade routes. He survived. Just.

We ambushed Will whilst at his work for Indus Films, to ask him just a little bit more about his attraction to the jungle; a recent expedition down the Sierra Leone and Liberia border for BBC Radio 4, and why exploration today could never be more important.


Sidetracked: Hi Will. It’s great to be chatting with you. So for starters, in your own words what would you claim your speciality to be?

Will Millard: Not a problem guys. I think at the moment I’m definitely associated with equatorial and rainforest expeditions. To be specific, I think I’ve been most well known over the last few years for lightweight packrafting expeditions. The packraft is an amazing tool. It allows me to combine two disciplines: long distance jungle trekking, and then the option with the packraft to join up river rafting into the expedition. Water is such a wonderful way of moving through any landscape. If you can find a river – unless it’s torrential white-water – it does give you that natural break in the landscape by which to progress through. Apart from packrafting expeditions, I guess I’m also known a bit for the media side of things I do too; I’ve obviously just done this radio series for Radio 4.

Let’s jump to that expedition; would you like to tell us a bit about your recent Sierra Leone and Liberia journey?

The Sierra Leone/Liberia expedition was born out of a very simple reason really: I’m really interested in frontier wildlife destinations. It’s sad to say, but one of the places where you do find the most pristine wildness environments is in former war zones. That’s not necessarily a rule of thumb because there are a few cases where armies exploit the bush-meat to such an extent that they do wipe out entire species. But on the whole, you do find really interesting environments in no go areas. Hence my interest in the upper Guinean forest belt – which is the forest belt of West Africa – was two-fold. The first aspect that attracted me was that here was a relatively pristine environment due to the civil war that had run between the two countries for a decade. The second reason was that these forests are geographically isolated, severed from the main African rainforest around the Congo, and as such have got a series of plant and animal species there that you will find nowhere else. It’s an incredibly rich habitat.

So there was this beautiful mix of incredible diversity, a former war-zone that had kept its unspoiled environment and a chance to see unique African species found nowhere else; that was the bare bones of the idea. However the more I dug into the project the more interesting it became. What I discovered was that Sierra Leone and Liberia, despite having a war-torn boundary for all of those years, these two governments had decided they were going to join their portions of what was left of the Upper Guinean forest belt, across their borders, and form this massive, trans-boundary peace park. It was just an unbelievable initiative; it’s so progressive.

Then, when I discovered that the border of the two countries was actually along a river, it immediately ticked the final box for me. I’d take my packraft to the top of the river, raft the length of the trans-boundary park all the way to the sea, recording what I saw and also what the local peoples’ reaction was to their area – their land – being turned into this international wildlife reserve. It was a real opportunity to tell a developing-world conservation story.

There was a beautiful mix of incredible diversity, a former war-zone that had kept its unspoiled environment and a chance to see unique African species found nowhere else
Stories From The Rainforest - Will Millard

I’m really interested in how people live; how they survive in areas that are so alien to what we experience here in the UK. The kind of skills they develop, the way that they make their houses, how they trap animals, their religious and spiritual beliefs.
And you received the RGS-IBG ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ award as part of this expedition. What was it like making a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the trip?

You know, I’ve done a lot of sound recording as part of my job in factual documentaries, and I guess I went into the project feeling quite confident. But it was actually incredibly challenging; really difficult, and I had to learn an entirely new bunch of skills to the ones I’ve got for filming. Taking any high-end technical equipment into the rainforest is hard. You have to keep it dry, and make sure your microphones aren’t misfiring and you can’t get any condensation inside any of the equipment at all. But then, equally, you’ve got to record your story. So you’re kind of stuck in this really difficult situation where the best recording you can get is the stuff that’s actually happening at that moment in time, yet that moment is usually going to expose your equipment to the most danger of breaking. That’s a hard call to make, between risking your kit and possibly not getting any shots at all if it breaks, or being really careful and just getting those incredibly stayed, piece-to-camera bits at the start and the end of each day.

Then you also have the fact that sound recording itself is hard. When you’re filming with a camera and you see a beautiful scene, you just frame the scene as well as you can and press record and you know you’ve then captured that scene. Whereas when you’re recording your voice, obviously you see a beautiful shot but you have to paint a picture of it for the audience. You can’t just go ‘oh there’s a load of trees in front of me,’ you’ve got to really say what is it about that scene that captures your imagination. That’s a difficult thing to articulate sometimes.

If you had one piece of advice for somebody wishing to make a radio broadcast documentary, what would it be?

Just one piece? It would probably be the same advice I got when I started working in television which is basically, don’t be afraid to risk the kit. It’s probably more robust than you think. You can replace a piece of equipment but once you miss the shot it’s gone forever. If you’re pulling up next to a bush and all of a sudden a group of monkeys come charging out of the canopy, you have to be ready to record that moment. So yeah, risk the kit.

What attracts you to the jungle environment? Is it the wildlife, the forest peoples, or is it something else entirely?

I am really interested in how people live; how they survive in areas that are so alien to what we experience here in the UK. The kind of skills they develop, the way that they make their houses, how they trap animals, their religious and spiritual beliefs. I find that all an endless fascination and that’s just speaking generally.
Specifically to jungles, what attracts me to those environments is the ability to see a complete ecosystem in a single glance. To be able to stand in a rainforest and look at your feet and see the leaf mulch on the floor and the fungus, and then to trace your eyes upwards into the canopy and see lianas, creeper vines, your parasitic plants. Near the top you might see the bigger mammals and at the peak of the canopy even some flowers.

You see a complete, intact ecosystem just from looking from your feet up; I don’t think you can get that in the UK. There are always elements that have been shaped or affected by man, whereas in a proper jungle environment you really get that sense that all the component parts are present right there in front of you. That’s what I find thrilling.

Stories From The Rainforest - Will Millard
Are there any quotes or pieces of text that have inspired you?

Yeah, yeah, definitely. In 2012 we had the poem Invictus with us. There are some amazing lines from that: ‘I am the captain of my soul’. Brilliant. There are also some personal things that family members have said to me for sure which I think about. There’s also – this sounds really stupid – but I remember in 1995, I’m a big cricket fan right – I remember Michael Atherton’s carried his bat in the Johannesburg test; he was 185 not out, I thought that was the bravest thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t have been that old at the time – twelve I think – but I remember reading his autobiography later on.

There was a line from the book that read something like: “Every time Donald bounced me I made a conscious decision to stare at him, to make eye contact and let him know I wasn’t cowed.” I really liked that idea. Being on the back foot but looking your adversity – your adversary – in the eye and still moving forward. I remember that as a really inspiring way to look at the world.

Thanks Will. Do you have any final thoughts or ideas that you’d like to share with the Sidetracked readers?

I think the one thing I’d like to get across is that it isn’t easy to do expeditions in the modern age. Getting the money together is hard; I had to save up what little cash I had and do jobs I didn’t particularly enjoy to be able to do this and get myself to a position where I can – just about – get some money now from other people to go do these projects. But you know as well as I do that you’re never going to be a rich person having this sort of life. Yet I wouldn’t do anything else that’s for sure.

However the main point, and one of the biggest things that stops people going off and doing these sorts of projects is not just money but the feeling that the world has now been explored, that there aren’t any new stories to be told anymore. However I think now it almost couldn’t be more important to be telling stories; we’re at the point of such incredible change across the world in all these different communities, tribal groups and indigenous peoples and even here in the UK. There’s a wealth of new stories that have yet to be told about people living in frontier areas.

It’s important that we try and help people tell their narratives of a changing world, especially if they don’t have access to the media platforms that we do. If you have a mobile phone with a camera on it you’ve got the portal to tell someone’s story; you’ve just got to get out there and do it.


To learn more about Will’s expeditions and reporting, please check out his website: www.willmillard.com or follow him on Twitter @MillardWill. You can listen to Will’s Radio 4 series here.

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