Looking for spirit of Dersu

11th July 2003 at 01:00
Physics teacher Simon Chapman prepares for his holiday break - a tiger-tracking expedition near Vladivostok

Last time I constructed my Pakcanoe I was by the Rio Verde in Brazil listening to a pair of macaws in a nearby palm tree. Now it's a Sunday afternoon on my back lawn in Lancashire, where hedgetrimmers and lawnmowers provide incongruous sound effects. With the "help" of my children, Joseph, four, and Hannah, two, I'm slotting aluminium poles into the five-and-a-half-metre green neoprene skin. Luckily the crosspieces are clicking into place just as they should, although it worries me that Joe is developing a liking for the smell of the adhesive that I'm smearing over some of the tears.

This is a boat that can get you just about anywhere. You can carry it dismantled in a couple of rucksack loads over mountains and through forests, then reassemble it when you get to a river's headwaters. You can get to places where few, if any, people have travelled before; as I've done on jungle expeditions in Brazil and Bolivia several times in the past seven years. This time, I'm off to Siberia.

Just to dispel any preconceived ideas that the name conjures up, I won't be travelling through some ice-bound barren wasteland. I prefer to think of the area I'm going to as Jungle Siberia. It's the forested coastal range above Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. Find Japan in an atlas and head west for a couple of hundred kilometres. It's on the same latitude as the south of France. And I'll be going in summer; the only five-week chunk of time I can spend away from school will be when Siberia is at its hottest and most insect-ridden; and, as this area, Ussuria, is monsoonal, possibly it will be the wettest time to go, too.

Dave Clark, a photographer friend, and myself are going to look for tigers - the "tiger spirit" as we like to call it. Tigers are prominent in the local mythology as portents of doom. We hope to talk to Nanai and Udege tribal people as well as doing our own expedition down the Armu River to look for signs of the creatures themselves. We'll be following one of the routes of Vladimir Arseniev, a Russian explorer who mapped the area over several trips to Ussuria between 1901 and 1910. In 1975, his exploits, or rather those of his Nanai guide, were made into an Oscar-winning film, Dersu Uzala, by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It would be good to find our own version of Dersu on our journey. But we shall see.

Simon Chapman is head of physics at Morecambe high school, Lancashire, and author of "The Monster of the Madidi" (Aurum Press) and "Explorers Wanted!"

series for children (Egmont). Follow him through Jungle Siberia every week in "The TES" this summer

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