Twice a year for nearly 12,000 years, men of Gurung tribe of central Nepal have braved the Himalayan foothills to harvest the honey of the world’s largest species of honeybees. The knowledge of extracting honey from hives that were precariously parched on the hillsides was passed from father to son for these millennia, and in 1987, the 63-year old villagehead Mani Lal was the last of his village to have mastery of the technique.
But that year, he was aided not just by an experienced team of his fellow villagers; he was accompanied by the French photographer Eric Valli and his Australian wife Diane Summers who was acting as a filmmaker (Summers was a lawyer when she met Valli on a Nepali bus). The couple had spent the two previously years tracking and searching a thousand Himalayan cliffs for the rumored master honey hunters of the Himalayas.
They finally found Mani Lal, who was planning to retire the very next season, and agreed to take Valli on the dangerous mission. The photographer dangled from a nylon rope down a 395-foot cliff to make what is perhaps one of the most breathtaking nature photoessays of a generation. They appeared in National Geographic, and handily won that year’s World Press Photo Award for Nature Stories, and the accompanying well-narrated book was a hit. (See other photos from the series here).
The book also was an illustrated lesson, showing how Mani Lal descends down the rock cliff, how he dislodges beehives with bamboo poles, and how the hive is lowered using pulleys, and was responsible for kickstarting an anthropological interest in these arcane honey hunting skills of the Gurungs. Ironically, soon their way of life was threatened not by obscurity but by over-exposure as anthropologists and tourists hiked up there.