Have Pen, Will Travel: The Adventures of Writer Paul Raffaele

By Peter Carlson

The Washington Post

Suddenly, in the pitch darkness, comes this bloody big bull elephant!” says Paul Raffaele. “He puts his ears back and you could see murder in his eyes. I knew he was going to charge. It’s a strange, eerie feeling.”

Raffaele, 63, just might be the last of the great old-fashioned adventure writers. A veteran Australian reporter, he travels the world hunting true tales of wild animals and primitive tribes, preferably those that eat humans. He’s in Washington to powwow with his editors at Smithsonian magazine, which has published his stories on Indonesian cannibals, killer jellyfish and, in the August issue, on modern pirates. He’s sitting in the courtyard of a Holiday Inn, trying to tell the story of the elephant that nearly killed him last week in Kenya. But he keeps interrupting himself.

“We’re used to Asian elephants, those dainty little dumbos, but this bugger was huge!” he says. “He came straight at us and I thought, ‘How are we going to get out of this one?’”

He interrupts his story to talk about his other near-death experiences, like the time he was captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers in Cambodia or the time he was caught in the middle of a riot in Bangkok and a drunken rioter put a gun to his head.

“The thing about being in danger is the mind protects itself,” he says. “It’s only afterward that it really hits you. So I was calm. I looked at the elephant and I’m thinking, ‘This is really interesting,’ and the driver put (the car) into reverse and then he tried to go forward and the wheels started to spin and the bloody elephant’s coming at us.”

He interrupts the story to explain why he wasn’t driving the car. “I can’t drive,” he says. “I decided at 16 that I like danger so much that I would kill myself if I drove a car. So I took a pledge at 16 that I will not drive a car, ever.” He smiles. “Maybe that’s why I’m still alive.”

Okay, fine, but what about the elephant?

He apologizes for the digressions. “I’m jet-lagged out of my mind, mate,” he says. “I flew from Kenya two days ago. The plane was packed. It was like a flying refugee camp. I’ve flown 500 of them over the years. Every time, I say, ‘Never again! I hate it! I’m finished! I’m never going on the road again!’ And then you get home and you finish the story and you say, ‘I can’t wait to go out again!’”

Right, right. But what about the charging elephant and the spinning wheels?

“Finally, the wheels gripped,” he says, “and we turned and drove away.”

Now, something has caught his attention. He’s staring at a group of young black women who are striding down a hallway in the Holiday Inn.

“Black girls here, they walk differently than African girls,” he says. “I’ve been watching them. They walk confidently. The African girls walk like, ‘We are.’ The American girls walk like, ‘I am.’ It’s very confident, very American.”

Then he finishes his elephant story. “Anyway, off we went and we got away,” he says. “But I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. I thought, this bastard really wants to kill us.”

Raffaele is a short, pudgy, gray-haired guy wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt that doesn’t quite hide his potbelly. He’s a white, middle-class Australian family man with a wife, Cecilia, 63, and daughter, Catherine, 31, back home in Sydney. But he’s also a professional adventurer, perhaps the last in a long line of popular writers who ventured into wild places and returned with electrifying tales of fearsome animals and strange humans.

“He’s the last of a breed,” says Carey Winfrey, Smithsonian magazine’s editor in chief. “I don’t want to use the word ‘throwback,’ but he is a throwback.”

He’s a throwback, Winfrey says, to such 19th-century British explorer-writers as Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke and to the American writer Richard Halliburton, who traveled to Devil’s Island and swam the Sea of Galilee and followed Cortez’s route through Mexico and wrote about it all in countless articles and best-selling books in the 1920s and ’30s.

“He has a childlike curiosity and enthusiasm for people and places,” Winfrey says. “His world is a world of infinite possibilities and infinite heterogeneity. It’s the world as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old schoolboy.”

Raffaele began his career in 1965 as a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corp., covering China, Cambodia, Vietnam and North Korea. Then he spent 12 years at Reader’s Digest in Sydney, writing feature stories from Australia, Africa and Asia. In 2003, he published The Last Tribes on Earth: Journeys Among the World’s Most Threatened Cultures. Since 2005, he’s been freelancing for Smithsonian, writing about slavery in Niger, hippos in Zimbabwe and a strange South Pacific “cargo cult” that worships a fictitious American sailor named John Frum.

“I became a penurious nomadic adventure writer,” he says, smiling.

Now, sitting in the courtyard of the Holiday Inn as dusk falls, Raffaele flips open his laptop and clicks to a gallery of photos that his daughter had gathered for him. The first shows Raffaele as a young man in China.

“I was there for the last years of the Cultural Revolution,” he says.

He clicks the mouse and the picture disappears, replaced by a shot of Raffaele riding a pony. “That’s Tibet,” he says. “I was up there for the chasing of the demons – they exorcise the whole city over three days with great dances. It’s fantastic.”

Click. The next picture shows Raffaele in Venezuela with a huge anaconda wrapped around his neck. Man and snake are both sticking out their tongues.

“You can see that I’m scared,” he says. “That bugger nearly broke loose of my grip.”

Click. This shot shows Raffaele standing with two tiny men. “That’s me 12 years ago with the Pygmies,” he says. “I love the Pygmies.”

He tells a story: He was in the forest with his Pygmy friends, Wasse and Wunga. They told him that if an elephant charged, he should stand behind a tree. Then an elephant did charge. Raffaele stood behind a tree. The Pygmies ran as fast as they could. When he finally caught up with them, they were laughing hysterically.

“Wasse said, ‘We just wanted to see if the white man was stupid enough to stand there instead of doing the sensible thing, which is running,’” Raffaele says, laughing.

Click. It’s a photo of a fierce-looking Indian mystic, a member of a cannibalistic cult. Raffaele met him at the cremation ghats in Benares.

“I went there at midnight,” he says. “What an experience! It’s pitch-black. You can’t see anything but the eerie crimson glow of a body being burned.”

Click. An Indonesian cannibal holds a broken skull. It’s a photo Raffaele took for his story on the Korowai tribe of cannibals, which Smithsonian published in September.

“He was very scary,” Raffaele says. “He wouldn’t look you in the eye. I think he was autistic, actually. Very scary.”

The Korowai he visited had heard about white men but never actually met one, Raffaele says. He climbed into one of their treehouses and talked with them, through an interpreter, for an hour. Then their war chief told him: “When I heard you were coming, I thought you’d be a ghost. But now I can see that you are a human being, just like us.”

“That brought tears to my eyes,” Raffaele says.

Moments like that are what keep him on the road. “It’s the ultimate adventure,” he says. “These are people who live as we might have lived 10,000 years ago, and yet 95 percent of them is like you or me. They love; they get angry. But we’ve lost the overlay of customs like cannibalism. And you know that within a decade or two they’ll be gone. What a privilege to meet them! What a privilege!” He smiles. “And I get paid for it.”

By now, it’s dark in the courtyard. Raffaele closes his laptop and heads inside for dinner. He sits at a table in the hotel restaurant. A waitress hands him a menu. He stares at her face.

“Are you Ethiopian?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says.

“I was there in January.”

“In Addis Ababa?” she asks.

“Addis and Aksum and Gonder,” he says. “I went to a wedding in Gonder. It lasted all day. We drank a lot of fermented honey and danced for hours.”

He stands up and starts doing his own Australian version of an Ethiopian dance, shuffling his feet and shaking his shoulders up and down while the waitress laughs.

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