By: Matthew Irving
I peered through the brush toward what I thought was the edge. It was hard to distinguish through the thick vegetation. Sounds of the jungle echoed up the canyon walls. Unseen birds called out. Somewhere below a river thundered, carving out the valley that had been formed over millennia. I stood motionless for a second. A low frantic hum drifted through the air. Over the edge was a hive that swarmed with tens of thousands of the largest honeybees on the planet. I examined every inch of my protective suit, making sure that there was no skin exposed.
It felt like a dream.
Renan came over and double-checked my rappel device. I took a deep breath and worked my way down, fighting through the brush until gravity could take over. It was hot and humid. Sweat dripped down from my helmet and stung my eyes. I pushed through to the other side, hung momentarily, and gathered my thoughts.
Below was a thirty-foot vertical face that ended on a small ledge with a couple hundred feet of air after that. The cliff sloped inward so getting to the beehive would require a little bit of elbow grease; finagling pieces of protection in the crumbly rock on my way down, otherwise I’d end up floating in space, slowly rotating with nothing to hold on to.
After reaching the ledge, I walked over to the end and built a questionable anchor. I clove-hitched my line to it and gently leaned out, staring at the protection, doubting myself. I questioned whether it was good enough. The thought of it failing and swinging into the abyss was hard to ignore. I pushed the doubts from my mind and tried to think about the task at hand. The distraction that I needed was 20 feet below me. I could now see it.
When Renan asked me to come along and help with some of the high angle filming, I was ecstatic. I had dreamed about working for National Geographic since I was young and here was an opportunity to not only work for them but also work alongside some great filmmakers on a project that seemed out of this world. This was the second attempt to document the life of Mauli Dhan, the last honey hunter in his village of Kulung.
The honey that Mauli harvested possessed distinct psychotropic properties that made it ideal for some black-market channels around the world. The beehives themselves could only be reached using homemade rope ladders that were lowered down from above. It was complicated work on many different levels. Most of the principal filming had been finished on the first trip, but because of the complex nature of filming on the side of a cliff in a bee suit in the middle of the jungle, one more trip was necessary to get everything sorted.
The decade I had spent getting comfortable filming from ropes didn’t prepare me for what I saw when I lowered below the ledge. The beehive was larger than I was and was completely covered in a mass of black and yellow bodies. I was so close to it I could have touched it with an outstretched foot. There were layers and layers of them, pulsating like sound waves, moving outward in perfect circles, getting bigger and bigger the further out they moved. The sound was deafening.I looked over at Renan and Ben who were both dangling out in space, prepping gear. I quickly attached myself to the base of a tiny little tree sticking out of the rock and grabbed a runner that Renan had thrown my way. I pulled him into the tree and prepped my own camera kit.
The filming itself wasn’t that difficult once we were in place. It was the end of the season and they were getting ready to leave their hive for a different location. This meant that they were much more subdued and a little lethargic. We were still suspended in a cloud of bees, however, it didn’t seem like they were interested in attacking us, which turns out is exactly what they were interested in the first trip to the cliff.
I can’t say that I’m disappointed they weren’t more aggressive, however part of what makes a story memorable is the pain and suffering that goes into it. This was a project I will no doubt remember for the rest of my life, I just think maybe I’d remember it more if I would have had the shit stung out of me.
Photography: Matthew Irving