We are delighted to bring you more news from Merlin Hanbury-Tenison about his father Robin Hanbury-Tenison and his long recovery from Covid-19. I travelled with Merlin and Robin to the Yawanawá tribe in June 2019 for the first chapter of Last Chance to Paint – ‘Spirit of the Rainforest’, and the events and memories of that eventful adventure, combined with my travels to Borneo with Robin for chapter 2 – ‘Person of the Forest’ in September 2019 are infusing Robin’s mind with wondrous events.
‘There is a giant python slithering across the foot of my hospital bed. It’s at least eight feet long and it’s looking right at me.’ My father, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, is recovering from Covid-19 at Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital so it’s highly unlikely that there are any giant reptiles in his acute ward. He’s been there for over six weeks now and has been conscious for the last two and able to speak with his family on video calls. At first, this was just the occasional rasped sentence as he struggled to push words out through his tracheotomy and the nurses held the telephone for him, but we have watched with joy and relief as he has gained in strength with every day that passes. Now he is almost in full control of his body and mind. The tracheotomy has gone, he can call us rather than us having to call the nurses station and he’s back to his old verbosity where it’s hard to get a word in edgeways. At the start, he would slide from lucidity back into delirium frequently and often didn’t make much sense. One minute he would be asking how the dogs were and whether I was remembering to feed the chickens and then suddenly a vacant look would enter his eyes and he’d be rambling about the Borneo rainforest and the indigenous people that he thought he was surrounded by. As an 83-year-old explorer who’s spent a great deal of his life travelling and living with tribes across the world, this wasn’t as strange as it might seem. We would gently try to bring him back to the present and the hospital but often it would be difficult to pull him out of the clouds. It was almost as if he was seeing into a different plane. Last year I travelled with him deep into the Brazilian Amazon, to Acre District, near the Peruvian border. The journey was long and arduous and the final stretch up the Rio Gregorio took many hours in a small boat driven by a member of the tribe we were visiting. This was Yawanawá country and every member of the tribe has a close connection to the spirit world. The whole village holds a ceremony twice a week where their shaman administers the psychedelic drug ayahuasca rather like communion wine being passed out during mass. After drinking this bile-like substance the community dance and sing together into the small hours and one by one they are transported into another dimension where they can have their questions answered and discover their true purpose. It’s most certainly not a recreational experience and forms a central pillar of their culture and identity. While we stayed with them we watched with huge interest as these ceremonies were conducted. In 1990 my father was one of the first people to travel to visit the Koryak people of Kamchatka in northern Siberia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Koryak are predominantly reindeer herders and live a necessarily itinerant lifestyle. He speaks with fond memories of helping a tribal elder to gather the amanita muscaria mushroom from around their camp. He knew that this was a potently poisonous fungus and asked the elder why they gathered it in such quantities. The elder sagely told him that the mushroom was a gift from the gods and that it was their gateway to the spirit world. The tribe knew that it was poisonous so they fed it to their reindeer, who were unaffected. By drinking the reindeer’s urine the tribal leaders would then be transported to an astral plane where they could meet their forebears and hold council meetings with the gods. My father always claims that the efficacious powers of this mushroom are why Father Christmas’s reindeer fly. The Tuareg are a deeply spiritual people who spend their life in the desert and feel out of place in towns and cities. The leader of their group told my father that once they left the town of Iferouane, the desert would envelop them and they would pass from this world into one of peace and tranquillity in amongst the dunes. After a few days the noise in the mind stops and a truly religious experience can be grasped without the need for any herbal additives. My father has always been fascinated by the ease with which indigenous peoples slip between different realities. Through all of his travels he has always been a respectful observer and has never tried to partake. Until now. As his clarity returns day by day, he is convinced that he has been stepping between spiritual realms similar to those that tribes across the world have a deep and fervent connection with. The medical world is beginning to understand Covid-19 better and it seems that it affects more than just the lungs and can have a profound impact on the liver, heart and brain as well. In Robin’s case, all of his organs appear to have returned to rude health but his mind has been altered by the experience. He still sees strange things that aren’t there, like pythons and burrowing owls, and describes being able to pass through a white wicket gate from our reality into an alternative one at will. Has coronavirus unlocked new and untapped psychic potential in its sufferers or will all of us with loved ones returning who have been stricken low need to be patient as they slowly re-anchor themselves to reality? Whatever the truth, my father has certainly been on the expedition of a lifetime, all from the confines of a hospital bed."
WRITTEN BY Merlin Hanbury-Tenison