Summer 2017
Boats, Beijing and Big Mountains

I've had a busy summer, filming for a new BBC2 series that's going to hit your screens soon (hopefully this autumn, tbc). It's about six traditional boats that reveal the social history of our nation - including sailing barges, dinghies and narrow boats - from quiet rivers in west Wales to the fens of East Anglia and the tidal challenges of the Mersey. The series is called Britain Afloat. More news soon!

I also scampered up to the Isle of Skye to tackle the INNACCESSIBLE PINNACLE on the Cuillin Ridge. Very proud of myself I am too. A new short film with the BMC will be out in the Autumn.

And finally, a couple of extra trips - one to Uganda to finish recording for our long-awaited radio documentary about Male Circumcision, a 48-hr trip to Beijing to discuss how China is changing under Xi Jinping's leadership, and a trip to Stockholm meeting people on both sides of the surrogacy debate.
April 2017
Keep Digging on BBC Radio 4


We've managed to send a probe, Voyager 1, more than 20 billion kilometres away from the earth. We've witnessed a man skydive from space. We'll probably put people on Mars within the next lifetime. But...we haven't yet managed to reach the mantle, the layer of the earth beneath the crust, directly beneath our feet. In some places it's just 6km down - but still we haven't done it. The research that has been done reveals just how little we actually know - fundamental questions about the evolution of our planet, the water, hydrogen and carbon cycles of our earth, the limits of life...Why? I meet the scientists who are at the cutting edge of deep ocean drilling, on a quest to dig into the centre of the earth.
(pic: the mineral olivine, which makes up the majority of the earth's upper mantle. This chunk was found on the surface, encased in basalt lava flow)


Women's Winter Week

I love heading into the mountains. It's beautiful, it's fun, it can be challenging, exciting, and easy all in one day. I know that there are lots of people who think 'that looks amazing...but it's not for me. You have to be tough/strong/fearless...'

Well, that's not true. There's a way to enjoy the mountains that's right for everyone. And the sterotypical image of what a mountaineer looks like isn't actually accurate. The Women's Winter Week was a chance to bring women together, learn new skills and enjoy the mountains. From winter walking to introductory mountaineering, to ice climbing, there was a level to suit everyone. I had a go at some mountaineering routes. Scary and fun and you didn't need to be hard as nails or ironman strong to do it! Just brave enough to have a go.

There are summer courses running later this year - at Plas y Brenin in North Wales, and at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms in Scotland, for walkers, scramblers and climbers
Read more

For details of upcoming Hidden Histories talks & walks, CLICK HERE

New book...

Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape is out now.


I hope it's the perfect companion for anyone who's ever spent time puzzling over intriguing features in the landscape.


Hidden Histories gives you the pointers to know what to look for, what else it might be, and why it's there in the first place. Get set to explore burial mounds, deserted plague villages, timber framed cottages, dolmens, church architecture, packhorse bridges, strip lynchets, field systems, ancient woodlands and pubs.


Buy your copy now, or join me at an event.


The gorgeous cover artwork was created by Ian O'Halloran.

TIBET: land of yaks, monks & thin air

I was privileged to spend Summer 2016 with a fantastic team in Tibet. The documentary series will profile the culture, natural history and technology that makes everyday life in Tibet tick - we're the first foreign film crew to be allowed in for more than a decade.

The Tibetan plateau is an inhospitable place to live - beautiful but brutal. But for millennia, people have found a way to survive, and thrive, on the roof of the world.

The documentary will be out later in 2017. But to get a peek into the life of a yak herder, listen to my piece on BBC Radio's From Our Own Correspondent.
 

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Quick trip to Jordan
July 2016


A beautiful country, packed full of world-beating archaeology: Petra - hidden city of the Nabateans. Jerash - the most amazing Roman site you may have never heard of. The astonishing Crusader castles, like Kerak. Earlier castles in the desert, like Qasr Amra. The biblical sites like Bethany beyond the Jordan. The incredible desert vistas of Wadi Rum, made famous by Lawrence of Arabia.
Watch the film here.

If you're thinking of visiting - for the archaeology, the beaches, the desert (climbing! riding! star-gazing!), and/or the amazing food - I say DO IT.
It's a cracker of a question, isn't it?!
The gutsy lot at ARD-Alpha sent me off on a mission to find out - commissioning a series of short films that explore British attitudes to those confusingly familiar yet-oh-so-different sausage-eating almost-neighbours.

We take on football, food, music, beer, cars, the (don't mention the war) war, why they seem to be so much better at engineering...And we discover how many Brits don't actually know where Deutschland is...

Watch the whole series now - video link on the left!

What do the British think of the Germans?

Toilets: the most important thing we take for granted

Well, some of us. I get to 'flush and forget'.

But 2.3 billion people in the world don't have access to a decent toilet. 1 billion people don't have anywhere at all to go, except behind a bush or on the street.

It's fun to 'go wild' if you're camping.

If it's everyday reality...well, then your children may die of preventable disease, your family and neighbours will get sick a lot, your drinking water and food will be contaminated, chances are your kids will be malnourished. Dignity and health come with having, and knowing how to maintain, a simple but decent toilet.

I've been to three incredible places this year, discovering what life is like without a toilet. First up, India and Bangladesh. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is home to 11 million people. 80% of people's waste is dumped in rivers and drains entirely untreated. It's a problem mirrored in megacities around the world.

In India, they have the money to tackle the problem of Open Defecation. But still, 800 million people shit in the open. Why? Because changing toilet habits isn't just about hardware - it's also about behaviour. If no-one explained to you why the thing you've always done (go to the fields in the morning) was also the thing that causes illness and death, why would you associate the two? Why would you think pooing in a small shed into a hole in the ground just near your house was better, cleaner, than going out into the open? India has set itself the goal of becoming Open Defecation Free by 2019. How will they fare? What are the challenges? And what does the future of toilets look like?

Reporting for BBC Radio 4, producer Nick Minter and I reveal the Dirty Secret of global sanitation - the global development goal we're failing to achieve. And we met some of the brilliant people trying to change things for the better.  And, as an extra bonus, we were delighted to be highly commended by the Medical Journalists' Association for 2016 Feature of the Year, and are currently in the running for the One World Media Awards!

Listen now: A Dirty Secret

Then to the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the fab charity, Toilet Twinning. Here, toilets are a sign of hope, in what is otherwise a brutally difficult place to live. After more than twenty years of conflict, often targeting civilians, basic infrastructure is gone. There's no real rule of law, and no meaningful government support. Life is still very precarious, but people like Bawili Amisi want something better for their children. Read her story here, and hear a really cool song about handwashing: Sex, Death and Toilets in Congo

If you're interested in finding out more about the impact of toilets, I'd recommend the fantastic book by journalist Rose George The Big Necessity
 


Britain
's Secret Treasures
at ChipLit fest Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Rocks, holes and pots of gold:
Thousands of artefacts are discovered in the British Isles every year. Some of them earn their finders enormous sums of money, but most are priceless in a different way, telling the stories of our ancestors’ lives, revealing the secrets and beliefs of the folk who lived here before us.

 

Hear about the oldest manmade object ever discovered in Britain, the Viking stone used to weave magic into cloth, the corpse stones Highland parishioners used on the way to church, the stash of buried treasure hidden from the Nazis and only rediscovered in 2007. And the witch found just up the road.

 

Tasmania: Land of secrets
January 2016

30 hours after returning from India, I was off to Tasmania to film a documentary special for Animal Planet about the officially extinct marsupial carnivore, the thylacine. Probably better known as a Tasmanian Tiger. The 'last' one died in a zoo in 1936...but is it possible there may be some survivors out there still..?

What's certain is that the only reason these beautiful, striped hunters became extinct (or almost extinct) is because we hunted them to destruction. Right up to 1909 the government was still paying bounties for dead thylacines. Tasmania has many chapters of very dark history - towards its native people, towards its native wildlife, towards its forced convict immigrants...a beautiful, friendly and haunting place to explore.

The British Mountaineering Council: not just for climbers

Or, indeed, for mountaineers. The BMC also represents hillwalkers. Like me. Not only do they campaign for access, represent us in the halls of power, run subsidised skills sessions and a host of local clubs...they're also working really hard to encourage more people to have the confidence to get out and enjoy the hills and mountains. I'm super proud of the films we made together in the Lake District:

Watch our films here:  Great Walks Lake District


Interview in Summit Magazine

How cool is this?? Absolutely chuffed to be featured in the British Mountaineering Council's Summit Magazine

Expedition 2015
The Simpson Desert, Queensland, Australia

As featured in Geographical magazine & TGO.

Wherever you are in the world, you can listen to my dispatch
for BBC Radio's prestigious From Our Own Correspondent show. My bit starts at 17.35 minutes in, on the 'High Risk' episode. Enjoy!

BBC World Service: Camels in the Simpson Desert - Mary-Ann Ochota

Feature in Geographical Magazine.

Central Australia is one of the harshest environments in the world, but for thousands of years Aboriginal people made it their home.  How?  With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants, animals and weather patterns of the desert. The boom-bust cycles of the Australian arid zone, where fire follows flood as surely as night follows day, are the key - head into the desert when times are good, retreat when it's hot, dry, dead. 


To succeed in this land you need to rely on the knowledge of those who have gone before. It's true for a successful modern expedition with pack camels, 4 tonnes of kit and almost a tonne of water. It was also true for the Wangkangurru, the desert people of this region, who lived here permanently until 1899. 


They needed to safely navigate thousands of miles across dune and claypan, locating water sources, camps and hunting grounds. They needed to know the location and techniques to harvest resources that could be traded with other groups. Men and women learned the songs of the land - epic stories which told the journeys of Dreamtime ancestors who walked Country, naming plants, animals, desert features.

 

Some of these songlines have now been lost, and with them, the knowledge of where these important sites are. 


In the biggest parallel ridge sand dune desert in the world, relocating them is no mean feat.  Cue a meeting between Don Rowlands, Wangkangurru elder, the ancestral owners of these lands, and Australian explorer Andrew Harper.  Poring over Google Earth, they’ve identified spots that look unusual - spots that might shed some light on how people lived out here, what routes they travelled.

 

Because of the arid conditions and sheer remoteness, many Aboriginal desert sites are held frozen in time. Stone tools lie scattered on the ground, wells still hold fresh water.  The archaeological payoff promises to be huge. But it's not easy to get out here.

 

I headed out to join a research team led by Andrew Harper, and 17 pack camels, to explore a 400 mile corridor of the brutal, beautiful Simpson Desert.  I filmed parts of the trip - soon to be edited! 

Where are we headed?

I fly from London to Brisbane, then take a small plane to Bedourie, 1500km west. From there, we transfer by 4WD vehicles to Ethabuka ecological reserve, a further 130km, into the semi-arid northern fringes of the Simpson Desert, part of the Munga-Thirri National Park. 


The name 'Munga-Thirri' means 'Big sand hill country' in the Wangkangurru language.


From Ethabuka we head south. The area is not accessible by vehicle, so we'll be walking, using camels to carry our water and equipment.


Each camel can carry a staggering quarter of a tonne, but nonetheless, water will have to be strictly rationed with no spare for washing. So that's two shirts and eight pairs of socks for forty days! The only thing more stinky than me will be the camels!


We'll be camping each night in the open with 'swags' - the Australian equivalent of a robust bivvy bag.


Temperatures will hover in the mid-20s C (70F) during the day (it's winter in the desert - summer temps can reach 50C (120F!)) and at night, the clear desert skies could drop us below freezing (32F).

The Desert:

The Simpson Desert is the largest parallel-ridge sand dune desert in the world, with dunes up to 30m high, all lying in a north-north-west / south-south-east direction. Prevailing winds make the eastern faces very steep, the western sides more gently sloped, and there are flatter, stony channels between the dunes. These dunes are relatively stable, meaning that archaeological sites between the dunes have been preserved but not covered with sand.


Violent flood events happen every few decades (the last was in 2010) but apart from these, there are no permanent water courses.


Nonetheless, the Wangkamadla and Wangkangurru people made the desert their permanent home for thouands of years, by skillfully harvesting the desert resources, and maintaining a series of native wells, known as 'mikiri'.  These are natural seeps where small amounts of rainwater are trapped above an impermeable clay layer, preventing it from draining away or evaporating off.


If you know how to read the country and know what to look for, these tiny cracks in the earth can provide enough water for survival. By digging narrow shafts down through the sand (sometimes up to an incredible 7m (23ft) deep), water could be obtained, a cup at a time.


The last families walked out of the desert in 1899, and since then, the locations of some of these mikiri, as well as other important sites for hunting and gathering, ritual and burial grounds have been lost.

Why Camels?
Camels are the only pack animals that can survive this harsh environment. Many 'whitefella' expeditions in the 1800s ended in tragedy when horses and donkeys died of thirst and exhaustion. From 1860 camels were imported from Afghanistan for use in outback exploring.

Australian Desert Expeditions' camels are descendants of these Afghan camels, and were the camels used in 2013's hit film, Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska.

For an incredible picture of a camel carrying a boat, and more information on the history of pack camels in Australian exploration, check out http://www.desertexpeditions.org/our-heritage.html