Tarzan inspired this journalist to seek adventure

When Paul Raffaele describes in gory detail the hazards that await those who dare venture into the Amazonian swamps to meet the infamous anaconda, you get the idea it's just another day at the office for him.

Part Sir Richard Attenborough, part Indiana Jones and sure as hell, part Crocodile Dundee, the 73-year-old Australian adventure writer has had a gun trained at his head, an elephant charge at him, a bomb knock him out cold … he has ticked the kind of boxes we can only imagine … and lived to tell the tale like the storytelling journalist that he is.

And even with his extensive travelling, everywhere from Tibet to deep inside Ethiopia, he doesn't drive, making his mind up at 16 that the adventure in his life was sufficient.

Treading the path less-travelled would put it mildly, but Raffaele knew from a young age that he wanted very much to get into the jungles of Africa, and live like his initial source of inspiration, Tarzan.

"The great apes also fascinated me, although I had no desire to swing through the jungle on vine ropes," said Raffaele, who's quick with a joke. Tarzan made way for a voracious appetite for reading, the aspiring adventurer gorging on issues of National Geographic, which showed him what lay beyond Australian borders.

He had his first adventure with people from foreign lands while attending high school at Holy Cross College in Sydney, after moving to the city. He said of the boarders there from Hong Kong: "I was puzzled by the strange to me, sound of their language, Cantonese, and enjoyed listening to their tales about that far-off English colony."

The atoms in his body began to vibrate and he duly obliged the urge to travel.

"Perhaps it began when I was born with the DNA of wanderers. My paternal great/grandfather was a mariner from a small Italian island just off Tunisia, Pantelleria. He arrived in Melbourne in 1854 as a sailor on a three-master and jumped ship to join the Great Gold Rush and become a miner. He was 40, didn't speak English and married the 20-year-old daughter of an English convict transported to Hobart in Australia in chains a decade earlier.

"He'd stolen a suit. She never learned Italian. Love conquers all it seems," he revealed in an e-mail. And it was this English ancestor who has related him to the Bard, William Shakespeare … and he has the documentation to prove it, too.

Raffaele finally got his break when on the day he hit 18, he was sent to Papua New Guinea as a trainee in the Australian administration charged by the United Nations with bringing the country to independence.

Naturally drawn to foreigners from his school days, he was attracted to a 22-year-old doctor from Hanuabada, his first girlfriend. "She had tribal tattoos on her cheeks and hands and her hair was done in what we later called an Afro, and massaged with coconut oil."

His journalistic career began with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and through the years, he's churned out revealing and thrilling tales which have appeared in Reader's Digest and Smithsonian magazines.

Raffaele with a great white shark behind him in Gansbaai, South Africa, attempting to prove that these predators are almost always not interested in humans as food. Photo: Paul Raffaele

The nature of his occupation has placed him in the natural habitats of great white sharks, Siberian tigers, hippos, lions and gorillas - stories from which educate and highlight the need for us to conserve.

Of course, he has also interacted with his fair share of cannibals, a meeting with the Korowai tribe of New Guinea leaving a lasting impression on him.

"They live in huts built on trees and kill and eat fellow clansmen they regard as khakhua, or witchmen from the netherworld," he shared. According to him, he was the first journalist to meet the tribe two decades ago.

Raffaele operating in bandit territory in the Sahara, searching for salt camel caravans. The environment was so dangerous, he had to get tough Tuareg camel soldiers from the Mali army to accompany him. Photo: Paul Raffaele

A decade later, he trekked deeper into the jungle and met Korowai who had never seen a foreigner before. He was fortunate to meet the clan's war chief, who told him that they expected to see a "ghost-demon", a laleo, when told of the stranger in their midst.

Raffaele reckons that these people will no longer exist in a few decades, and that they should be appreciated now.

Then there's the near-death situation in Afghanistan, where a 12-year-old suicide bomber killed 23 soldiers and policemen. And Raffaele was right smack in the epicentre of the carnage: "I was just five paces from him and was seriously wounded," he said.

In 2008, Raffaele was caught in the crosshairs of a 12-year-old Taliban suicide bomber in Afghanistan. This picture, featuring him and Special Forces officers, was taken two hours before the bomb went off. Photo: Paul Raffaele

A horrific scene of heads, arms, legs and torn off limbs appeared in an instant when the bomb went off. "It took me a full year to recover, but I still have three chunks of shrapnel embedded in my brain and 10 in my torso, one nudging my heart," said Raffaele, laying down the bare facts of the dangers of his job.

The explosion caused three pieces of shrapnel to be embedded in his brain and 10 in his torso, one nudging his heart, all of which remain in his body. He has no memory of this picture being taken.
Photo: Paul Raffaele

But preparation is key in this line of work, if one plans to stay safe. "I just don't barge into dangerous places but read as much as I can about them first and then hire the best available local guide to take me there."

He has been told numerous times that he has a death wish, to which he scoffed: "That's nonsense. I have a vibrant life wish, a curiosity to see up-close enthralling cultures and exciting animals."

Regular workouts in the gym keep him fighting fit for when the next assignment comes a-calling.

While many of his adventures have taken him to far-flung locations, his native Australia apart, he has a "home" in Malaysia. He met his Malaysian wife in Sydney, and in 1966, made his first trip to her native Sabah to meet her parents to secure her hand in marriage.

"I was entranced by the mingling of cultures and harmony between the peoples and beauty of the landscape."

Raffaele wrapped up in a body bag at the US airbase at Jalalabad, waiting for a Medivac chopper from Bagram to take him to the US military hospital there. Photo: Paul Raffaele

His association with the state also saw him drawn to its governance, then chief minister Tan Sri Harris Salleh grabbing his attention, in particular. His glowing description of the state in a late 1970s article in Reader's Digest earned him the gig of writing Harris' authorised biography in 1986, Harris Salleh Of Sabah. It was his first book.

Recently, an unauthorised version has seen the light of day, where he has included bits that were not endorsed by the protagonist. In it are juicy bits of the state's trials and tribulations, and its influential figures.

He is also the author for The Last Tribes On Earth: Journeys Among The World's Most Threatened Cultures, Among The Cannibals: Adventures On The Trail Of Man's Darkest Ritual and Among The Great Apes.

Raffaele's accomplishments can hardly be quantified - the man has done more than a few lifetime's worth of living, and on the edge, no less.

But his biggest contribution, in his estimation, is being the father of his daughter, Cathy. "She is my greatest contribution to the world and I am very happy, and so is she, that she is half-Malaysian."