Wandrin’ star: globe-trotting adventures of Merle Van den Bosch

Angela Cobbinah chats with the pioneering photographer about travels with her trusty Pentax camera

Thursday, 10th February — By Angela Cobbinah

Merle with festival goers in Papua New Guinea. Photo Gottfried Heuer

Merle with festival-goers in Papua New Guinea, 1978. Image: Gottfried Heuer

IT was while sailing across the ocean from Trinidad to the UK as a young woman in the 1960s that photographer Merle Van den Bosch caught the travelling bug. “I travelled for 14 days on the blue waters of the Atlantic, having never travelled before and it was an amazing experience. From that moment on, I had a strong desire to explore the world,” she says.

She had joined the Windrush generation to become a nurse at her mother’s behest, but after taking a course in photography in her spare time she decided to jack it all in and follow her wanderlust, first of all touring the US by bus, then spending a year in places as far afield as Mexico and Papua New Guinea, all armed with her Pentax camera.

She would go on to exhibit her photographs internationally, most recently at Get Up, Stand Up Now in Somerset House two years ago, and is now displaying them online as well as typing up her globe-trotting diary with a view to writing a travel memoir.

“My photographic work captures my interest in faraway places and cultures,” says Crouch End-based Merle.


Papua New Guinea, 1978. Photo: Merle Van den bosch


“When I was on the road back then there was no Lonely Planet and I never came across another black person travelling like me, so it was a unique way of seeing the world.”

Merle arrived in the UK in 1962, doing her nurse’s training in Bedfordshire before working as a cardiac and intensive care nurse in London, including at St Thomas’ Hospital.

But all the while she would dream of visiting places she’d read about in National Geographic magazine and after taking a photography course at Sir John Cass College of Art she decided to take a three-month break in the US with her friend Gottfried.

Climbing on board a Greyhound bus in New York, their mutual interest in natural wonders took them from Niagara Falls and Yellowstone Park to Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, with time spent with the Sioux and Hopi peoples on their reservations.

“We both enjoyed ourselves so much that we thought ‘why don’t we travel around the world?’” she recalls in her lilting Trinidadian accent.

“We spread out our world map on the floor and put pins into the places we wanted to see, then created a route to 20 countries and took it to the travel agent’s to buy the tickets. They were amazed.”

In 1978 they set off, taking in the ancient sites and breathtaking scenery of Central and South America before arriving in the Galapagos to view its weird and wonderful fauna. From Chile, they flew to Easter Island, thence to Tahiti and Fiji to end up in little known Papua New Guinea, where a major festival was under way.


Papua New Guinea, 1978. Photo: Merle Van den bosch


Papua New Guinea. Photo: Merle Van den bosch


“Every two years they hold a harvest festival comprising 800 tribes who gather in Goroka, a town in the Highlands region, to sing and dance for two days,” explains Merle.

“As you arrive you can hear the singing in the distance. It was an amazing sound.”

Another highlight was their hair-raising nighttime trip on the crocodile-infested Sepik River. “The boatman would point his torch in the water and all you could see were two eyes. He would point it at the other side of the boat, the same thing. The wider the eyes the bigger the crocodile,” she laughs.

After a stay in Australia, where Merle, a founder member of Autograph, the Association of Black Photographers, staged her first photographic exhibition, the friends headed for Bali and Java, bowled over by Borobudur, the biggest Buddhist temple in the world.

“I would go to the beach each morning to watch the sun rise and listen to the temple bells ringing.That really does something for the soul.”


Papua New Guinea. Photo: Merle Van den bosch


The two adventurers seldom booked into hotels, preferring to stay with families, but en route they would often find themselves kipping on trains and buses and sometimes even beaches.

Merle quickly got used to being stared at. “People were only used to white tourists. When they saw me, instead of me looking a them, it was them looking at me,” she laughs again. “I thought it would be different in Papua New Guinea where people are a similar shade as me, but I was wrong. Their features are completely different and children still hid behind their mother’s skirts.”


In the Galapagos. Photo: Merle Van den bosch


After 12 months of being on the road, the two arrived in Sri Lanka, where they decided it was time to go home. “We had already taken in so much and were by now really tired and stretched out.”

On her return to London, Merle exhibited the photos she had taken in Papua New Guinea at the erstwhile Commonwealth Institute, the first of many shows featuring then seldom seen tribespeople in all their finery.

Leafing through the neatly written pages of her travel diary, she smiles. “Every place I visited I have a story to tell of what I saw and experienced. That trip changed my life for ever.”

For details visit https://merlevandenbosch.com

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