I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville


Adventurers & Explorers

Feb 26, 2018

One of the Fathers of Modern Exploration, Folco Quilici, Passes at 87



Lorenzo Fornari

Entire generations around the world were inspired by his documentaries and photos, alas, early this Saturday morning Folco Quilici passed away in Umbria, Italy.

Explorer, documentarist, photographer, novelist, screenwriter, he was not only Oscar-nominated for one of his documentaries, but also named by Forbes as one of the most influential writers in the world for his environmental and scientific contributions. He was commonly referred to as the “Cousteau of Italy” (who also passed at 87).

From a very early start Folco Quilici, born in 1930 of Emma Buzzacchi, artist painter, and Nello Quilici, an influential Italian journalist, had a whirlwind childhood. His father was shot down by friendly-fire in 1940 along with the heir-apparent of Mussolini, Italo Balbo, whom he was accompanying to Italian-held Libya. For years Folco was torn by this sudden loss and by the subsequent decades of conspiracy theories that revolved around the incident.

The last 4 pages of his personal diary, recovered from the wreckage, that were torn out before it was returned to the family, kept him asking questions that would never be answered.

The journalist pedigree and the unrelenting energy to ask questions, given his father’s death in suspicious circumstances, gave way to Folco starting a lifetime dedicated to exploration and documentation. Almost from the start, at barely 22 years old, in 1952, he set out with world champion diver Raimondo Bucher, and his wife, to the Red Sea to document underwater life.

In doing so, he directed the world’s first color full-length nature-documentary film, Sesto Continente (The Sixth Continent) which was released in 1954. For reference, Cousteau’s award-winning documentary, Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World), was released shortly after, in 1956.

While he was best known for this debut accomplishment and often associated to the sea, his real passion was mountains and would travel and document every range, as well as every other possible location in the world, over the next sixty years. From documenting the last cannibal tribes in New Guinea to some of the remotest villages in the Amazon, he took more than a million pictures over the course of his lifetime.

The Last Cannibal. New Britain – 1971 Photo: Folco Quilici Photo: Copyright Folco Quilici-Fondazione Alinari

Like any world-renown explorer of his caliber, he was just as at home in a 4 Seasons hotel in NYC or on a haystack under the stars on a river in the middle of Zaire. During Folco’s “30,000 days” (more like 32,000 if we consider he was just a couple months shy of 88) on this planet and considering the lengths he’d go to in order to realise his documentaries and fulfil his assignments, even in the most remote and austere environments, he had numerous brushes with death.

Once in Turkey, he ran out of air while diving and was eventually rescued by an US Navy submarine. Again whilst diving, in the Maldives this time, he was swept away by an underwater current and was feared dead, only to be found days later on a deserted island on the brink of death from exposure.

Folco reading the article about the Volvo Ocean Race in The Outdoor Journal magazine – Photo: Kevin Pineda

I personally had the privilege of learning much of what I know today about scuba diving and underwater fauna thanks to a Summer aboard his ship in Greece when I was about twelve years old. Along with my father, I dived alongside him and his family, who are also explorers and conservationists, learning from one of the most generous and light-hearted people I’ve ever come across.

Between research dives and exploration, hopping from island to island in the Greek archipelago with his perpetually problematic boat, the Yavanos, we would document the local fauna, formations, and even wrecks. We would play with curious dolphins, catch and prepare octopus as well as bake giant groupers in salt crusts within makeshift stone ovens on the beach of whatever little bay we’d find ourselves in for the night. Under starlit skies I heard my first shooting star, so big and close, it literally ‘swooshed’ overhead.

One day while I was on anchor duty, I discovered a shipwreck a dozen meters below where we planned to set anchor. After further inspection we tried to recover some large brass fittings. Despite our best efforts, we didn’t manage to recover anything from the depths below but we did come away with a great “Indiana Jones” story. As recognition for my find I did, however, get to listen to the shared walkman for an extra ninety minutes the next day. Life is easier at 12.

Folco directed 22 films and wrote more than 25 books, won medals and awards from around the world, like the Silver Bear from the Berlin Film Festival, and directed dozens of nature and cultural full-length TV series. Most importantly, though, he inspired millions of people to travel, discover, and care for our planet.

Folco speaks with Lorenzo Fornari in an interview for The Outdoor Journal – Photo: Kevin Pineda

In a recent, and possibly last, interview (currently in production) with us at The Outdoor Journal, we asked if he had a favorite destination.

Folco: I have a special place in my heart for India, I spent a year documenting the country in the 60s, but right now I’d like to just visit some nice little Meditteranean village… if such a thing exists anymore.

Lorenzo: Where would you want to explore next? 

Folco: I find it fascinating, or paradoxical rather, that we’re sending probes to the farthest reaches of space, but we don’t know what’s right here beneath our own oceans.

Lorenzo: You’ve been in the center of modern nature documentary filmmaking, arguably one of the founders of it, what do you see and feel is the future of the environment and media?

Folco: People are informed about what’s happening to our environment, maybe even too much, but they take little or no action. I feel media does their job, but in the end, it is a cultural problem. Individuals don’t take responsibility for their behavior. I see it around me, people are becoming tired of hearing about environmental problems all the time. Nothing or little has been done in the end. Alas, we have to persist, even double our efforts, to keep informing everyone. It’s better than nothing.

This is only a part of the interview we had with Folco Quilici. When we left him a few months ago, he was working on a book about his travels and favorite places in Sicily. To the very end, he gave everything to his passion of travel and exploration.

A legend has indeed left us.

Folco Quilici Photo: Di Folco Quilici

Stay in touch with us to stay informed of when the full interview with Folco will be published and to stay informed on international adventure stories and news. Feel free to follow and like us on our Facebook and Instagram as well, we love to share only the best and highest quality content.

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Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.



Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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