Writer, BBC presenter, and expedition leader, Will Millard, has been leading expeditions in Indonesia and West Africa since 2007. He's probably best known for his work as a presenter on of BBC Two's series Hunters of the South Seas, which aired in 2015. This May, he will be undertaken his debut tour: The Last Hunters - Adventures of the South Seas.
By way of an introduction to our man of the moment, we asked Will to take part in a quick Q&A before he heads out to West Papua to begin filming his next series for the BBC...
You’ve led expeditions for the past nine years, tell us a little about your first expedition and what got you hooked?
My first big expedition was a complete disaster. It was my first attempt to walk across West Papua, almost ten years ago now. I had no money, no map, and a roller suitcase filled with noodles. I made it about three days out of the main town before I had to give into the environment and admit no-one was going to help me for free. On the truck heading home a Papuan man stepped out of the forest. He was smeared dark black with pig fat rolled in ash and was wearing nothing but a penis gourd and a thick white pig's tusk, which was impaled directly through his septum. He mock-fired his bow and arrow in our direction and I remember thinking that I had to return to try and tell the remarkable story of this place, and its people, with just a little more professionalism!
Of the expeditions you’ve undertaken, which has been the most challenging to date and why?
In 2012, whilst attempting to link a 1000km trade route between the Dani tribes of the highlands and the Mamberamo clans, I made a critical error of judgement that led myself and my partner deep into the heart of the remotest forest in New Guinea; a place where we were later told no man had been before. I lost 2.5 stone on the subsequent retreat, and as all of our satellite communications had been wiped out by a white water river in the weeks before, we caused near unforgivable levels of stress on our friends and family, who assumed we had probably lost our lives.
You undertook a solo descent of Sierra Leone’s River Mano, which was subsequently broadcast in a critically acclaimed two-part series on BBC Radio 4, this must have been an incredible experience. Tell us a bit about this journey and what inspired you to take it on?
In 2013 the Government’s of Sierra Leone and Liberia were about to undertake a landmark initiative to unify their forested borders into a massive Transboundary Peace Park. I wanted to find out how it was going to affect the local tribes living in the jungle and pay homage to the proposal, that would have seen a massive increase in the level of protection offered for this critically important jungle environment.
The plan was to packraft the river that runs through the Park and down the borders of the two nations. I encountered dawn Chimps, illegal miners, giant fish, and one of the finest forest environments in all of my work in jungles. Sadly, I also contracted malaria and ended up in another survival epic, but it was nothing compared with what happened to that border the following spring with Ebola. The project is only just picking itself up again now, so my fingers are crossed that it all still goes ahead.
What attracts you to the jungle environment?
I love the way you can stand still and see an entire ecosystem at work. The leaf mulch and fungus at your feet, parasitic plants on the tree-trunks, the birds and mammals of the high canopy, and then, of course, all the insects that are honing in on you for a free lunch!
We understand you have a bit of a penchant for packrafting, what is it about the packraft that you like so much?
It is so liberating. You can trek for weeks, and then switch to rafting, without needing loads of hands to carry heavy gear. Of course, you have to be careful that in unlocking this habitat you’re not opening yourself up to a whole new world of trouble too!
What’s the worst thing you’ve encountered and/or experienced during an expedition?
There have been many times I have worked in developing world environments with very poor healthcare. Try as I might, there is only so much I can do to help the local people with a Basic First Aid kit. Leaving people to their fate is exceptionally hard. I just hope my work goes some way to telling their stories and building the call for community based development in some of the planet’s unreachable spots.
How do you prepare yourself for an expedition?
I try and think positively. To assure myself that no matter how hard it gets, I’ve got the experience to get myself out of the worst spots, but also to remind myself that I am immensely privileged to be making a living out of what I love.
More recently, you spent time living with Bajau fisherman Kabei and his family in their small stilt house just 8ft above the sea in the BBC Two series, ‘Hunters of the South Seas’…
What’s the most fascinating thing you learnt during your stay?
There was no state of tide the Bajau couldn’t harvest! At low-tide we were out hunting octopus and lobster, at high-tide it was all out spear fishing. These guys could breath-hold for 5 minutes at a time and take out fish with hand-made spears and goggles from 20 metres down. It was extraordinary to watch!
What challenges did you face?
Being over six foot tall, clumsy and, in their eyes, quite fat, did me no favours when it came to adjusting to a life suspended above the sea.
The Bajau very rarely set foot on land and live in stilt houses in shallow seas, as such they are pretty acrobatic. In the month I lived with Kabei and his family, I fell in the sea several times, got stung head to toe by jellyfish, and dropped my only pair of glasses straight down the local toilet!
I guess it endeared me to those guys…luckily!
What was your most memorable moment?
At night, out at sea, the village would vanish amongst a blanket of stars. There was no electric and very little unnatural light. We would wade out at low-tide and hunt in silence using a paraffin lamp. I think that experience would tug at something deep within anyone’s soul.
Kabei’s son, Lobo, touched many hearts when the series aired. It must have been exceptionally difficult to leave having created such a strong bond. Do you keep in touch with the family?
I think about Lobu every day and his situation still cuts me up. It isn’t possible to keep in touch but the popularity of the series has meant messages have got back to me with people who have since worked in the village. I will go back one day.
What has been your greatest achievement to date?
Making out of the forest alive after the 2012 disaster in Papua.
What projects do you have coming up?
I’m about to fly out to begin the follow up to ‘Hunters’ for the BBC – I can’t say too much at this stage, but I’ll be going further and deeper for much longer than ever before. I can’t wait – stay tuned guys!