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Author: Mike Leahy

Mike Leahy's Med diary: Behind the scenes

Updated Thursday, 27th September 2007
Mike Leahy leaves behind the comforts of an Oxford college to face challenges in the middle of nowhere...

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Mike Leahy

Saturday 10th July - 2 days before the challenge begins

I hadn't slept too well because I was excited about the prospect of taking part in the '‘Rough Science’ project.

My girlfriend, Kate, took me into the Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University, where I was reminded of how dire my daytime job really was, before I made the short walk to the bus station and set off to Gatwick.

Entering the airport the excitement really set in, but I was the first to arrive (a pattern that was going to prove very familiar), and had to kill time for a while before I met anyone else from the team.

Vanessa was the next to turn up, and we chatted for a while before meandering over to the location where we had arranged to meet up with the rest of the party.

Before long we were reacquainting ourselves with the others, and were just about to check in when Paul Manners, our producer, realised that Anna, the newly recruited ethno-botanist hadn't turned up. This was another pattern that we would see repeated many times.

Eventually Anna bustled up, red faced and brim full of apologies. We made our way to a cafe for something to eat. Boarding the plane, I realised that I was placed next to Paul and I hoped that I wouldn't piss him off too much before we arrived at the deserted island.

I was aware that I am unbearable when I'm happy or excited. It is something that Kate can't cope with even after four years. I needn't have worried because Paul turned out to be the most tolerant person I have ever met.

Cutting a long story short. We landed to be greeted by a perfect climate, took a bus to Livorno and I spent the evening quietly getting merry while waging war on the largest steak I have ever seen.

Sunday 11th July - 1 day before the challenge begins

We set off on the two and a half hour ferry trip after I had enjoyed a brilliant night's sleep. Anna, as usual, rolled up late.

She hadn't slept a wink “because the motor scooters were so noisy”, and she had been bitten to death by mosquitoes. I suggested that she should have drunk more wine, but she didn't think that this would help.

Some bloody ethno-botanist, I thought. Even I know that half the western world uses alcohol as a cure for insomnia.

The weather wasn't as good as the previous day, and at first it began to drizzle before miserable rain set in. Bugger!

Arriving at the tiny port, we met David Shulman who had arrived several days earlier to prepare, before being loaded into a convoy of Land Rovers and carried off to the filming location.

The island was small, with only one small port, and within minutes we could see a good portion of it, as if it were an aerial photograph.

Our drivers were called Fabio and Giovani, and over the following days we would form lasting friendships with them.

We passed through an old stone archway, and as the Land Rovers lumbered over potholes looking more like open cast mines, and boulders big enough to break a lesser vehicle, we passed many disused buildings.

The island had been used as a prison until 1986, and we were to be based in an old prison building near the northern tip of the island, high up in the hills.

At this point we didn't know this, and our Land Rover left us some distance from the top of the hill, so that we had to walk the last stretch. By the time we reached the prison building, the film crews were already set up to record our reactions.

I thought that the place looked a bit grim, but the others were impressed (or acting). Entering the ramshackle building we were immediately slapped in the face by the stench of rotten goat shit.

There were no doors, no glass in the windows, but the bars were still there.

I scoured the floor of the yard for useful bits and pieces. Long rifle cartridges lay everywhere, interspersed by shorter cartridge cases looking more like those used in 9mm pistols.

I looked at the broken plaster on the walls and wondered. After wandering around the complex we were grouped together and told on camera what our challenges would be.

This was followed by a 'brainstorming' session.

I was thinking more about haemoragic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS) which is contracted from rat piss, and wondered what welcoming pathogens we would come across during our stay.

Monday 12th July - Day 1

Woke up late, if 4.45am can be termed late. Headed down to the port and got into a small wooden rowing boat in which we would enact the landing scene.

I was feeling dog rough, and thought that I was going to vom at any minute. Eventually we arrived at the landing point and we prepared to climb out onto the rocks.

The sea had other ideas however, and the waves made the jump to the shore pretty tricky, especially with a hangover. Just as we were going to jump, the boat hit the rocks, but we made it. Giovani, the boat owner was not impressed though.

While we were playing around with the boats, Drew filmed us from the cliffs above, but not everyone could get out of the little craft, so we returned to the port and walked back to the landing site to do some walking scenes (several times).

As we sat down between takes, ticks climbed up our legs, but none attached. Even so it was pretty amusing, especially as Vanessa later found one crawling around in her knickers.

Following lunch we left for the prison where Jonathan and I started work on our crystal radio and a sextant/quadrant with which to measure our latitude.

Before long I had got a monk on. The filming often prevented us from doing any work, and there was little I could do to help Jonathan with the radio because it was very much a one-man job. I became bored and moody, and ended up falling asleep.

Finally, when it became dark enough to see the North Star, it was my turn to do something, and we took a latitude reading with the quadrant which turned out to be pretty accurate.

Tuesday 13th July - Day 2

It was my birthday, and a relatively late start. My alarm failed again, and I woke at 8am full of the joys of spring, but with no breakfast. We headed straight up to the prison.

Today I had more to do, but I was totally dependent on the radio, which was coming together very slowly. As I busied myself putting up a huge barbed wire aerial, thunder started rumbling in the distance further delaying my activities - bummer!

Even so, after the storm had passed I made reasonable progress, and by lunchtime had made a pendulum, a North-South transept line, a sundial, and had taken a few quadrant readings from the sun.

Noon came and went, and we still had no radio. By mid-afternoon Jonathan was becoming very tired, but he persevered and started to make progress. Even so there was constant debate.

Plans were changed, then changed back, and for a while I thought that nothing was being achieved but the release of much hot air. Eventually tempers flared, and David suffered a foot stamping attack following a disagreement with Derek. By this time I had nothing to do, so I chilled out on a rock overlooking the sea.

We finally returned at about 8pm after a pretty unproductive day. The evening made up for it. First I was given a birthday card signed by the whole team, then bottles of champagne were presented, and I was given a pudding with a candle in it.

I forgot how many times the crew sung happy birthday, but the result was the best birthday party I have ever had.

Wednesday 14th July - Day 3

Our last day of filming for the first programme. We had a pretty reasonable starting time of 8.30, but loads to do. Jonathan had been thinking about the radio overnight, and set to work immediately, changing the dirty old wires he had previously used for new stuff.

The signal that had previously disappeared, and then reappeared just as suddenly, was now fading in and out as it should do with a simple short-wave set. There was still a poor signal, and no selectivity, however.

To improve the signal we erected more aerial pylons by tying scaffold poles to existing fence posts. In the wind the scaffold poles were extremely unwieldy, and erecting one, half way up the hill from the prison proved to be a test of both strength and technique. Jonathan and I really struggled.

Once it was safely up, beads of sweat forming on our foreheads, we started to make guy lines, but as we were tying them down we heard the dreaded voice of our director. He wanted to film us having another go.

Dutifully we repeated the whole process. By this time sweat was streaming into our eyes and down our backs, but it wasn't enough for David, so down it came again. Luckily the third time we pulled the pylon into place was the last.

I had the distinct feeling that had we tried to erect it again we would probably not have succeeded, and should we have slipped, the post would have landed on Drew's head - which would have been awful. Finally, David left us to carry on, and before long we had the new aerial connected up - just in time for another thunder storm. Great!

The selectivity problem was traced to the saucepan. Jonathan was certain that there was too much capacitance, and as he took the radio apart, I sawed the bottom of another pan, cut a right-angled segment from it, and rubbed the rough edges off.

Once Jonathan had covered the new saucepan base with polythene, we installed the new capacitor and tried the radio. This time reception was better, and more importantly the new saucepan improved selectivity so that we could tune into individual radio stations.

Within minutes we had found Swiss, German and French radio channels, and within an hour we had a time check that we could use to calculate our longitude. Last of all we filmed the final scene where we showed off our inventions, and pointed out where we thought we were on a huge world map. Then the Champagne flowed. It was a wrap.

Later, as we all sat around the table, thanks, mutual congratulations and speeches flowed as effortlessly as the wine. Everyone had survived the filming of the first of the four programmes, and genuine friendships had been forged. Paul thanked David. David thanked everybody.

Each of us received a tee shirt and an individual present from David. Jonathan and myself were given key rings with rotating globes on them - very appropriate.

We carried on eating and drinking until we were an hour into John's birthday. Throughout most of the trip I had felt fine - not a hint of tiredness - but by now I was beginning to feel the pace, and I retired to bed before many of the others.

Thursday 15th July - Leaving the Island

I got out of bed at 6.20 a.m. - ready for our trip back to the UK. It was not an enjoyable experience.

A quick breakfast and we were off. As usual some dragged their feet, the normal characters rolling up about a quarter of an hour after the agreed meeting time, but it was no problem - the ferry was also late.

At the port we took loads of photos before boarding. I didn't want to go home. The ferry cruised away from the island while dolphins played in the distance in the deep blue sea.

The flight home was long enough to think back about our few days on the island. As we climbed across the Med, we looked out of our windows.

Punctuating the beautiful deep blue sea were several small islands, and as I looked immediately below the aircraft Capraia appeared, with a perfect view of the port, complete with a ferry at the jetty.

It was a shame to leave, but at least we knew that we would be coming back in a couple of months time to film the remaining three Rough Science programmes.


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