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The Man Who Climbs Trees: 'Our hut teetered on wooden stilts three feet above ground'

This is the story of a professional British tree climber, cameraman and adventurer, who has made a career out of travelling the world filming wildlife for the BBC

Kayu Besi – Papua, 2009

I’d wanted to visit the Korowai ever since seeing a photo of their treetop houses in a copy of National Geographic many years ago, so it felt surreal to actually be here with them. I’d wanted to visit the Korowai ever since seeing a photo of their treetop houses in a copy of National Geographic many years ago, so it felt surreal to actually be here with them. Their jungle home was a very long way from England, but it wasn’t just the miles that made this place so far removed. Just like the Congo, this land truly felt like another world, as if I’d stepped through a portal into another dimension.  As I slogged through the mud on my way back to camp, my mind wandered back to the astonishing moment I’d met my first Korowai warrior. I now knew him as Anom, but on the evening we met he’d seemed to walk straight out of the mists of another world.

The journey out here from Bristol had been nothing short of epic. A week of travelling that included seven flights and a day’s boat ride. The crew and I had eventually reached a small village called Yafufla, perched on a high escarpment overlooking the Becking River in south-east Papua. Yafufl was on the southern edge of Korowai territory, and our last night’s lodging before arriving at the tribe’s village deep in the forest.

Our hut teetered on wooden stilts three feet aboveground and wobbled like a jelly anytime someone shifted in their sleep or got up to go outside for a pee.

There were six of us scattered around the room: Gavin the principle cameraman, whom I’d just been working with in Gabon; Rachel and Tom from the BBC; Jim, an American anthropologist; and Bob, our Indonesian fixer. A good bunch of people, but it soon transpired that one of them concealed a terrible secret: our hut swayed to the rhythm of some world-class snoring and my heart sank at the prospect of having to listen to that racket every night for the next few weeks. But in the absence of any personal space or privacy we would all need to be super tolerant of each other, and besides, I’m not always the easiest travelling companion myself. I talk in my sleep, get ratty when hungry and whistle under my breath too much. 


The men’s shadows danced in the firelight as I sat and listened to the soft cadence of a language unlike any I’d ever heard

Eventually I dozed off, only to wake again at 3am. The snoring had been replaced by a low murmuring of hushed voices coming from the hut’s entrance. The soft glow of firelight flickered through gaps in the wooden walls, so I pulled on my shorts to see what was going on.

Emerging onto the small balcony, I found Bob sitting next to a fire opposite two men the like of whom I’d never seen before. Their eyes flicked towards me and they fell silent as Bob turned round and subtly gestured for me to sit down beside him. Making myself as inconspicuous as possible, I leant back to study Bob’s companions from the shadows. I hadn’t seen these men before. Everyone we’d encountered so far had worn Western clothing courtesy of the missionaries downriver. But these men were dressed in traditional Korowai clothing, which is to say they weren’t wearing much at all.

Anom was the older of the two and Bob quietly explained that he was here as ambassador from the Korowai, to officially guide us into their territory. Small, dark-skinned and sinewy, Anom was in his fifties but had the taut-muscled physique of a man half his age. He wore a woven fibre headband and a necklace of tiny white shell fragments. Two hoops of rattan were looped round his waist and his manhood was covered with a seedpod. 

But his most striking adornments were a piece of sharpened white bone stuck through his septum, and a tiny cowry shell embedded within a hole drilled in the end of his nose. His face was craggy and his hair wild. He could have been a distant relation of Keith Richards. Behind him – its black polished surface gleaming like oil in the firelight – stood a seven-foot-tall longbow. An immensely powerful weapon that I had no doubt he was master of. Beside it stood a sheaf of arrows, some tipped with wide bamboo blades, others with vicious-looking barbs delicately carved out of bone. None were fletched, and they were four feet long: more like spears.

His companion was younger but dressed in much the same way, with the addition of a long slender cassowary-bone dagger tucked into his woven belt. A thick warrior’s necklace of pig’s teeth hung in a white crescent across his dark chest and his sinewy muscles flexed as he slowly rocked back and forth smoking one of Bob’s cigarettes.

The men’s shadows danced in the firelight as I sat and listened to the soft cadence of a language unlike any I’d ever heard.

Not as clunky as Indonesian and far more fluid than English. Like the gentle murmur of leaves in a forest. I was spellbound.

After a while they lay down to doze next to the glowing embers, so I went back to bed, where I lay awake thinking about what that morning might bring when we made our final trek through the jungle into Korowai territory.

Climbing into the ironwood for the first time had been a fantastic way to stretch the long journey out of my muscles. I wanted to keep this momentum going by getting back up there the next day to rig some camera positions. The following morning, however, was a write-off. Other than Costa Rica, I’ve never been in such a wet jungle. By mid morning it had been raining solidly for seventeen hours, a relentless heavy downpour that leached all colour from the forest and drowned out all attempts at conversation. We Brits think we know all about rain: we don’t. British weather, however bad, generally sweeps through quite quickly. Large tracts of lowland rainforest behave very differently. Rain squats over the same patch for days on end. The trees themselves create it by releasing compounds into the air that encourage water molecules to coalesce into clouds. Trees mould the environment around them, and anything else wishing to live in a jungle needs to deal with getting soaked through on a regular basis. 

Giant orchid in Borneo

Gavin the cameraman and I were sitting under a tarpaulin near the ironwood, watching sheet water guillotine down to create a moat in the mud around us. The long-drop toilets back in camp had flooded overnight and our base was now awash in a slurry of mud and human excrement. To cap it all, one of the tribe’s pigs had crawled into one of the toilets to die. Not a very auspicious start to the day, so we’d decided to head into the forest in the hope of getting up into the canopy the moment the rain stopped. Anom had joined us and cackled loudly as Gavin and I bickered over the best way to light a fire to boil water for tea. It was the first of many times we’d see him laugh at our strange ways, his wild appearance enhanced by a solitary yellow tooth.

It was afternoon by the time the rain eased off into a drizzle and we felt able to begin work. I had my eye on a tall, slender tree adjacent to the ironwood, and set about rigging a rope in its branches. By this time we’d been joined by several Korowai men and women. I got my climbing rope stuck in a high fork, so one of the men offered to shin up and free it. Before I could tell him not to worry, he’d free-climbed eighty feet up and solved the problem.

He used hands and feet to maintain three points of contact at all times and moved with graceful poise, careful not to shock-load or jolt any branch.

Some of the best free-climbing I’ve ever seen. These people were clearly born to the trees, but this display was merely a taste of what was to come.

Once my ropes were rigged I climbed into this adjacent tree to get a new perspective on the ironwood. I was rewarded with the perfect view of its canopy, level with where I presumed the house would be built. Looking back down to the ground a hundred feet below, I saw forty Korowai systematically clearing the jungle around the ironwood’s base. Women tackled the smaller trees and saplings with stone axes, while men laid into the larger stuff.

Climbing the ironwood tree

Despite the fact that they only had one steel axe between them, it wasn’t long before big trees were coming down left, right and centre. Men took turns using this precious metal tool, swinging it left-handed with brutal force to make the directional undercut, while another used a traditional stone axe to attack the timber from the trunk’s opposite side. It was amazing to see stone and metal used side by side, and while the steel axe was undoubtedly faster, the stone versions were still capable of felling large trees surprisingly quickly. The air was filled with the shouts of people and the rhythmic thwack of chopping as one by one the trees between mine and the ironwood were laid low. Their leafy canopies sighed through the air as gravity tugged them down to the ground. None of them were as big as the ironwood, but they still came down with a wallop, and each impact was accompanied by a chorus of triumphant calls from the Korowai.

Several toddlers stumbled amongst the fallen timber, playing with toy bows and arrows. My heart was in my mouth as tonnes of wood rained down around them. Amazingly no one got hurt, but the rainforest was taking a phenomenal hammering and by the end of the following day, the kayu besi stood alone and adrift amidst a sea of destruction. Its exposure served to accentuate its size. I still couldn’t get my head around how these guys were going to get into its canopy without the use of ropes.

Many of the fallen trees were being stripped of their bark for use as flooring, and the smaller trees were being lopped into poles and thrown into bundles at the base of the ironwood. The men were now hard at work using these materials to build a series of wooden scaffolds and ladders up towards the ironwood’s first branches. They worked with incredible speed and dexterity, wrapping bare legs around the uprights as bundles of poles were hoisted up on the end of long rattan ropes. I filmed them from my perch opposite, hanging on safety ropes while they free-climbed around the wobbling scaffold fifty feet aboveground, with nothing to catch them but thin air should they fall. They swarmed over the structure like ants, working together as a team to ensure their best, most experienced climbers had everything they needed to keep pushing up as fast as they could. By sunset they’d reached the ironwood’s first branch and built a level platform of sticks around the tree’s central stem. This seemed to be the launch pad from where they would make a break for the canopy and establish the foundation beams of the treehouse itself.

As dusk approached I was left alone in the clearing to look down on the scene from my perch high above. The end result of the day’s labour was a hectare of forest that looked like it had been blasted by artillery – a ragged mess of chest-high stumps. It was astonishing: within twenty-four hours two acres of primary rainforest had been reduced to a mangled heap of twisted trunks and snapped branches. Okay, there was a steel axe knocking around, but for the most part this speedy clearance had been done by forty people using stone tools. As an experiment in practical archaeology it couldn’t be more thought-provoking: the forests of Neolithic Britain clearly hadn’t stood a chance…

More about the author

The Man Who Climbs Trees

James Aldred (and others)

'A book of heart-stopping bravery and endurance' -- Helen Macdonald
'A great read – incredible adventures and a dramatic new perspective' -- Chris Packham
'[A] delightful, endlessly fascinating book' -- Daily Mail BOOK OF THE WEEK

This is the story of a professional British tree climber, cameraman and adventurer, who has made a career out of travelling the world, filming wildlife for the BBC and climbing trees with people like David Attenborough, Chris Packham and Helen Macdonald.

James's climbs take him to breathtaking locations as he scales the most incredible and majestic trees on the planet. On the way he meets native tribes, gets attacked by African bees, climbs alongside gorillas, chased by elephants, and spends his nights in a hammock pitched high in the branches with only the stars above him.

This book blends incredible stories of scrapes and bruises in the branches with a new way of looking at life high above the daily grind, up into the canopy of the forest.

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