The Bridge Interviews
Viv and John Bean
Leopards, Alsatians, Altitude Sickness, Dangerous, Inaccessible Regions, Plane Building..… and walking and cycling in the Cotswolds!
This month The Bridge went to see Viv and John Bean at their home in Fordwells. (Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that we have added Fordwells to our masthead in their honour). There are many people in The Bridge area who have led remarkable lives but it is rare to meet a couple who have both, mainly separately, had so many adventures while at the same time helping to make the world a better place.
There must be few people who have visited so many countries under their own steam. The travel bug bit Viv at a very early age. She was born in Nottinghamshire and studied dentistry at Leeds University. After graduating she spent a year in Cork, Ireland, which she says was a very foreign country in the 1960s. She did a lot of hunting there with the Bardon Hunt (“very hairy”). Next she went to New Zealand by sea via the Panama Canal, a voyage of six weeks, to join her sister there. She spent some months doing the Big Walks in South Island (now very well trodden) interspersed with waitressing and picking apples in idyllic locations, before a year of oral surgery in Auckland hospital. After this she went to the Northern Territory of Australia where she worked for the government as a dentist for two years. She covered the whole area from Darwin to Alice Springs (nearly a thousand miles). Aged 25, she had to drive around the territory, with only a nurse for company, towing a caravan which acted as the dental surgery. At other times she was flown into remote Aboriginal settlements.
This was just the prelude. The real adventure began when she travelled back to the UK overland. (“She was a hippie” interjects John). She went first to the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides and Papua New Guinea where she worked in a highland hospital for six months. Patients would walk 50 miles to the surgery and arrive in grass skirts with bones through their noses.
Next came Bali, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma and Laos. The last two were completely untouched by western influences, and locals were fascinated to meet her. She sold a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky in Burma and that covered her expenses for a week. She met a European woman who had not seen another European for 15 years. Laos was getting dangerous because of the Vietnam war but Viv carried on (a recurring theme in her travels).
Viv continued through Nepal, India, Afghanistan (“Kabul was a lovely city”) and across the desert to Europe. All this was on her own.
When she got home, she discarded her hippie gear and joined the RAF in 1975 as a dentist with the rank of Squadron Leader. She served in exotic places such as Lincolnshire, Cyprus, Gibraltar and Brize Norton (where she met John).
Viv left the RAF in 1981 and had her final flight in an RAF VC10 to Miramar (California). She set out to travel to Chile overland on her own with her tent and backpack. After stopping off in Guatemala to learn Spanish she travelled as far as Bolivia, crossed the Andes three times on foot, walked up to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail and visited the Galapagos Islands. She was unable to visit Argentina because of a spot of bother over the Falklands, so returned homewards on a banana boat down the Amazon.
We are now in 1983 (keep up at the back) when Viv set off once more, this time to Africa. She hitch-hiked alone through South Africa (another risky activity) and travelled north, climbing Mount Kenya (17,057 ft) and Kilimanjaro (19,344 ft) in rapid succession. A year later she worked as a locum dentist in Witney and Oxford until a patient who worked for the Red Cross told her they needed a dentist to look after refugees in Hong Kong. These “boat people” had fled by sea from Vietnam during and after the war. They were not welcomed in the places where they arrived and in Hong Kong were “imprisoned” in camps on an outlying island. Viv spent a year there doing her best for 15,000 refugees.
Viv then “settled down” in a dental practice in Hook Norton where she worked for 15 years until retirement, in between taking time off for more travel. She had several visits to West Africa to work on Mercy Ships who provide medical/dental support to developing countries. She also worked for Bridge2Aid, a charity in Tanzania where she trained local health workers to perform painless extractions and simple fillings in a country where there is a dentist for over 50,000 people.
She has done many long distance walks in Europe including the length of the Pyrenees from but thinks you cannot beat the beautiful variety of the Coast to Coast and the South West Coastal Path in the UK.
What are her favourite walks in the Cotswolds? “The one I love to return to is the magnificent circuit from Snowshill to Stanton, Stanway and Buckland. Also a circuit from Longborough to Blockley via Hinchwick Manor and back via Bourton-on-the-Hill and Sezincote. And of course the always lovely walk from the duck pond at Swinbrook, across fields to Fulbrook, Burford and back along Windrush to Asthall, up the hill to Gipsy Lane and back to Swinbrook. I NEVER tire of this walk.”
Has she ever been frightened? Yes, but her memories are of the kindness of strangers. Once in Himachal Pradesh in the India Himalayas she followed a trail for a week on her own. One evening she put up her tent by the path. A young boy came along herding sheep. He disappeared and came back with his father, who indicated that it was not safe to camp as leopards had been seen in that area. They took her back and put her up in their home where they lived on the upper floor while animals lived below. The next morning she resumed her journey and, sure enough, there were leopard prints in the sand where her tent would have been.
On another occasion she describes “I was trekking in Patagonia, arriving at a remote frontier post in the Andes between Chile and Argentina when an Alsatian dog appeared and sank its teeth into my calf. The customs man was most concerned and ushered me into their kitchen to clean up, having found my first aid kit from my rucksack. Meanwhile, their friendly pig rooted in the rucksack and had a feast from the few food supplies I was carrying. So of course I burst into tears with this unexpected sequence of events, but was offered accommodation for the night and restocked with supplies so was able to carry on next day!”
John was born in Lincolnshire. His father was serving in North Africa in the RAF and did not see John until he was three. He followed his father’s various postings, going to 14 schools by the age of 15. He then became an apprentice aircraft fitter in the RAF. Later he became aircrew as a flight engineer on VC10s which brought him to Brize Norton. He left the RAF in 1983 and worked for an airline in Bahrain, and later for British Caledonian and British Airways.
While Viv was away on her various travels, John had a project nearer home; he built his own aeroplane in his garden shed. He had already obtained a private pilot’s licence and the aircraft, a two seater fibreglass model, is kept at Enstone.
One of his friends was Dr Sandy Scott, a GP in Milton-under-Wychwood (now retired). He had taken part in several Everest ascents as expedition doctor. He founded the Everest Memorial Trust and he asked for John’s help in putting up a memorial on the mountain for climbers who had died there. For various reasons it was not possible to build the memorial as planned so it was decided to build a hospital there, Pheriche Hospital, the highest in the world at 14,600ft, 12 days walk from the nearest road. This would benefit the local population as well as climbers and would also serve as a memorial. The existing building was run down, the only electrical power being a car battery and a string of Christmas fairy lights, no water, no sanitation, cracked and broken windows and wind blowing through gaps in the stone walls. It was used only as a rescue centre for climbers, mainly for those suffering from altitude sickness. (More details can be found at www.emt.org.uk - donations are welcome).
This was where John came in. A benefactor from Shipton Under Wychwood had donated the electrical equipment for the building. John installed it. He went to Everest 22 times, for up to two months in the spring and in the autumn for 10 years. The building was paid for by donations and by charges paid by trackers and climbers for medical care. At first any message to the outside world had to be carried by a sherpa, a five day round trip. The hospital now has modern communications. All the building material and equipment had to be brought in by helicopter or sherpa. One helicopter load is equivalent to what 100 sherpas can carry at the same cost with a lot less loss and damage!
John doubled the size and insulated the building. This was essential as injured climbers had to be undressed where the temperature is -20C. He fitted clean running water, sanitation and the electrical system allowing the use of a donated oxygen generator. Altitude sickness, he explains, can kill in four hours. By use of oxygen those suffering from it can be treated and make a full recovery. This equipment saves an estimated five or six lives every month. It is estimated that 280 people have died from various causes on Everest in recent decades. At the time of writing seven have died this year. Last year there were 19. It is a very, very, dangerous place. John emphasises that there is no way of predicting whether any individual will suffer from altitude sickness. Physical fitness is no guide; indeed fit people can be at greater risk if they go too fast.
The hospital is of great value to the local sherpa population who use the facilities extensively for all medical needs. The numbers of really sick are “local” as against the “worried well” trekkers.
At the time of our meeting Viv was sporting a black eye and a broken wrist incurred on a recent walking trip in northern Greece. Their activities are not planned much in advance, they say, and they have nothing in view at the moment. We can be sure that some other exciting project will come along soon enough, although they are definitely not yet ready for a cruise!.