The World According to Archie Miles

Author, photographer and tree expert Archie Miles on how Monarch butterflies brought him to tears

3 mins

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

With my passion for trees people would expect me to say ‘jungle’, but jungle as such is actually often quite dull, and well nigh impossible to penetrate – the same species for mile after mile and all the wildlife disappearing in the opposite direction.

On my first visit to rainforest I expected snakes to be hanging from every bough – of course they weren’t. If the jungle can be the best of British woods – then absolutely – proud to say that within our small island we have some of the greatest woodland diversity in the world. Otherwise, it’s mountains every time – the sense of elation never better for me than walking the High Atlas in Morocco, but almost any mountain will suffice.

First travel experience?

The first travel I can remember was at the age of eight – holidaying with my family near Barmouth in north Wales and, joy of joys, being hauled all the way by steam engines over the Cambrian line. Smuts in eyes, deep steam inhalation and those wonderful old plums and custard carriages with horsehair seats – bit scratchy for little lads in shorts!

Favourite journey?

I was lucky enough to take a special trip with a small group high up into the mountains of central Mexico, on horseback, to photograph the Monarch butterflies hibernating in the pine forests. The mountain was incredibly steep and difficult, even for an experienced horseman (I hadn’t ridden since my teens), but I was pleasantly surprised how easy I felt in the saddle (and no after effects at the end of the day!).

The sight of millions of these large orange butterflies covering the trees so densely that the boughs were bent double, the ground covered with waking butterflies seeking water, the incessant beat of the wings all around, butterflies on my head, on the end of the lens. The five of us sat down in the middle of it all, choked with emotion, monosyllabic, barely whispering – I truly believe this is one of the most incredible phenomena in the natural history of the world.

Top five places worldwide?

Atlas Mountains, Morocco; Bequia; mountains of Andalucia; Mannin Bay, Connemara; Cat’s Back Ridge, Black Mountains.

Special place to stay?

After completing my first tree book, Silva, my patron – a printing magnate with a stupendous house on Mustique kindly offered it to my family for ten days. It was fabulous to the point of being somewhat surreal. Once owned by David Bowie (!) it was built in the Javanese style. We had staff to minister to our every whim, sumptuous food prepared for us, an infinity pool to dream away the hours and silvery beaches to swim and snorkel. It is another world, but it was fun to have a sniff of it.

Three items you always pack?

Cameras – obviously! The Nano; Arnica.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?


Passport stamp most like to have?

Madagascar – to see some of the unique wildlife and plants.

Guilty travel pleasure?

Olives – a pleasure I only discovered a few years back while in Spain, but these days of course we are lucky enough to get splendid olives in this country. So now merely a gentle stroll to the deli.

Window or aisle?

Window for cloud gazing – never forget weaving through the anvil clouds in the Caribbean – narrowly avoiding the storms.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

My woman, my love, my life partner, Jan.

Best meal on the road?

Best – arriving in a tiny town in western Newfoundland at 11.58 pm and the café that was still happy to get everything up and running to feed us even though they were just about to go home. We went for a big bowl of moose casserole with hunks of homemade bread and an ice cold beer. Mmmmm... and even though they must have all been weary after a busy day they were so nice to us – nothing was too much trouble.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Most disappointing visit missed was after spending three weeks working in the arid, dusty desert of Syria and with a promise of a trip to Palmeira before I left. One of the Brits on the crew I was with thumped a young Syrian in an argument. He turned out to be a government minister’s son and before any backlash the company I worked for wanted the Brit out of the country PDQ! I was obliged to leave on the same flight, thus missing seeing one of the most amazing Roman cities in the world.

Where do you NOT want to go?

I have already been there – Nigeria. What a terrifying place. Corruption is rife.

The police, the customs and the military, who you might expect to protect your interests were a nightmare. Especially when travelling with several thousand pounds worth of cameras. It’s the only place that I have been held at gunpoint – by an army sergeant who had been drinking. I think that qualifies as terrifying.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

I have been fortunate to do much of my travelling as part of my photographic assignments and I’ve always tried to eek out a few extra days over and above the jobs to take in the country. It’s always more interesting to see the backside of a place rather than the tourist fronts.

Travel heroes – all those mid-19th century pioneer photographers who travelled to barely charted points on the globe and brought back stunning images to a waiting world – John Thompson in China, Auguste Bisson and his remarkable ascent of Mont Blanc, Carlton E Watkins and William Henry Jackson in The States, but most especially Samuel Bourne in India. What would these men have made of the point and shoot digital age?

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

All sorts! I have pretty eclectic tastes – mainly indie, rock, singer songwriters 1970s to current.

A song that takes me back? Roaring down the endless, virtually empty, open coast road in west Newfoundland, keeping a weather eye out for moose, as the sun sank down, on a soggy sofa of a gas-guzzling American motor with Avril Lavigne’s Under my Skin album blasting away.

What do you read?

It varies, but Bill Bryson has accompanied me on several trips.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

The girls in that Newfi restaurant were absolute gems. Do you suppose that would have happened in the UK?

Then there were a couple of blokes in Turkey who came to find me in the supermarket where I was shopping. With no common language whatsoever and by rudimentary signs and noises they urged me to come out to the car park. I feared someone had crashed into the hire car. Several of their friends were looking anxiously at a large puddle of water beneath the car. Fearing that the radiator was damaged we checked under the bonnet. No problem – then it came to me that it was simply the air con reservoir that had flooded for some reason. Much relief and hilarity all round, but how lovely that they had troubled to come and find me.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

'Avez vous quelque chose pour le' (and I really struggled for the next bit – ‘mal des yeux’ – perhaps). ‘Ah,’ said the pharmacist, ‘you mean conjunctivitis; it’s the same in France.’ Felt a bit of a plonker, but I think I got the odd Brownie point for having a go.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

You’d have to ask someone I’ve travelled with…

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

Sorry, far too chilly – wouldn’t be there in the first place – but how about my best rendition of The William Tell Overture with armpit music!

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

1982. Jan and I stayed in a remote cottage belonging to friends at the southern end of Mannin Bay, near the village of Ballyconneely. There was only one other cottage further west along the peninsula. We had to pump our water from the hillside, no electricity or phone, bottled gas for the cooker and peat for the fire. The sun shone every day. The sea was a ten minute walk through fields and dunes full of amazing wild flowers; it was bitterly cold, but we skinny-dipped all the same. We went out in the row boat and the mackerel jumped on to the line. We drank lots of Guinness, ate from the sea and the garden’s veggie plot, walked, talked and laughed a lot.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

Opening a bottle of San Miguel – I know you can buy it here these days, but for years it was synonymous with holidays in the Med.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

The challenge of travel in the mid-19th century must have been extraordinary for a photographer. Samuel Bourne transported hundreds of 12”x10” glass plates and all his photographic paraphernalia across India and Burma in the 1860s. We know he had lots of porters to help (48 of them on the nine month expedition to Kashmir of 1864) but it must have been like a military manoeuvre to carry all that equipment, chemicals, dark tent... and then to sensitise his wet plates, expose them and develop them before they dried... and to get them home in one piece. I’d love to have been one of his assistants.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

Granada for The Alhambra; Amsterdam for its laidbackness; Hereford because it is my adopted home – small city, big community.

Archie Miles’s latest book, Heritage Trees Wales, takes the reader on a journey through the ancient Welsh countryside to visit the country's most remarkable heritage trees. Order your copy on Amazon now.

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