- James Aldred’s tree-climbing skills are widely sought after within wildlife TV
- His new book documents his experience working with Sir David Attenborough
- He shares tales about angry gorillas, killer bees and flesh-eating maggots
- Aldred also recalls time he was asked to rig up cameras in the Palace gardens
Book of the week
THE MAN WHO CLIMBS TREES
James Aldred (WH Allen £16.99)
James Aldred’s sister offered him some tongue-in-cheek advice before he set off for a work assignment in Costa Rica 16 years ago.
‘For God’s sake, don’t drop him,’ she said. The ‘him’ in question was Sir David Attenborough. It was Aldred’s job to hoist the great man high into the rainforest canopy, to film a segment for the BBC series Life Of Mammals.
Admittedly, Aldred was not alone as he set about scouting the perfect tree for Attenborough to ascend. But it wasn’t company he would have chosen.
Howler monkeys are the loudest land animal on the planet, and eight of them, lined up on a branch alongside him, 150 ft above the forest floor, screeched at him to leave their habitat. Bravely, he resisted their exhortations. He had a job to do.
James Aldred’s tree-climbing skills are widely sought after within wildlife TV. In this book, he documents how his job working alongside Sir David Attenborough on the BBC series Life Of Mammals came about
This delightful, endlessly fascinating book explains how that job came about. It is Aldred’s first literary venture, but written with the elegance of a veteran as he explains how a boyhood passion for climbing trees in the New Forest evolved into a career that has taken him to many of the natural world’s most compelling destinations.
Central London, by any measure, is not among them. But it was there that Aldred had one of his most singular experiences, when climbing one of the twin plane trees, named Victoria and Albert, that stand in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
He was rigging cameras for a TV documentary, but nobody had told the Queen. While he was up there he spotted her staring at him in disbelief, from the window of her private apartment.
Aldred quickly abseiled down, to be met by a pack of barking corgis and a royal flunkie, who said: ‘The boss would like to know what you are doing in her favourite tree?’
Aldred’s tree-climbing skills are widely sought after. In Borneo his task was to show climate scientists the ropes, quite literally, so they could collect their own atmospheric data.
In Gabon he was commissioned by a film company to build the ultimate jungle treehouse. That project took him high into an ozouga tree where he blundered into a nest of African bees. His account of their attack, and the way they forced their way into his mouth and up his nostrils, is one of many passages that could make a statue wince.
James has faced angry gorillas, killer bees and flesh-eating maggots in his job – but nothing was scarier than being caught in the Palace gardens by a very unamused Queen..
In the Congo ‘a blizzard of large black flies with bulbous red eyes’ laid eggs that hatched on his clothes, releasing tiny maggots that burrowed into his skin.
In Peru his assailant was a bullet ant more than an inch long. Bullet ants carry the most toxic venom of any insect and are ranked top of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. Aldred describes the feeling as akin to ‘having a cigar stubbed out on my skin . . . the headache that followed could have felled a rhino’.
Insects are not the only creatures he has to contend with as he makes his way to the tops of the world’s tallest trees. In Venezuela, a female harpy eagle considered him a threat to her chicks and encouraged him to move on none too politely. Back in the Congo he was stealthily tracked by a leopard, forcing him to switch on his head torch and risk revealing himself to the troop of gorillas he was there to photograph.
THE MAN WHO CLIMBS TREES James Aldred (WH Allen £16.99)
Happily, the gorillas didn’t clock him, and he was able to chronicle their remarkably civilised lifestyle, dictated by a 400 lb silverback named Apollo who led their foraging for food.
‘The only noise I heard was a short scream from one of the females that made Apollo stand up on all fours and posture with a tense expression of tight-lipped annoyance. But a few seconds later he sat back down to resume breakfast and all was again quiet apart from a soft chorus of satisfied belches.’
Two years later, tragically, an outbreak of ebola ripped through the forest, killing Apollo and his entire family. Of the region’s 143 known gorillas, 130 perished.
Aldred’s stylish prose enables us to feel his pain. Not literally, of course; he has experienced pain of such intensity that I can hardly begin to imagine it. But he stirs great empathy in the reader, perhaps also because his jaw-dropping adventures all stem from such a prosaic childhood enthusiasm.
I loved climbing trees as a child. It was one of the reasons we moved to the country when our children were little, so they would know the joy of making dens deep in the woods.
But the teenage Aldred went further, scaling a mighty sequoia on the edge of the New Forest, naming it Goliath, and realising from the embrace of its upper branches that there was an entire canopy-world out there, waiting to be explored. He’s been at it ever since.
Courtesy: Daily Mail Online