Author, environmentalist, film-maker, international motivational speaker.
Arguably no one alive has lived so long isolated and alone in so many potentially hostile remote environments. Benedict Allen is the only person known to have crossed the Amazon Basin at its widest and his catalogue of adventures also include the first documented journey of the length of the Namib Desert and being the only person known to have crossed the full width of the Gobi with camels alone.
“I think it’s important for us to realise that ‘explorers’ aren’t in a different category… we are all explorers, it’s part of the human condition“
It’s not everyday you get an email from one of your childhood heroes confirming he’d love to have a chat with you.
I remember watching Benedict Allen’s documentary Skeleton Coast about his trek down the Namib Desert, where the sand meets the Atlantic Ocean, and being blown away by this world perfectly balanced between beauty and death – to 7 year old me growing up in Buckinghamshire, England, it was unbelievable not only that such a place could exist, but it could also be explored! Moreover, Benedict’s documentary Ice Dogs was the tipping point for me. I’ve always been enthralled by the Arctic and Antarctic, so being taken into these areas by Benedict with his pack of sled dogs was every little boy’s dream (those like me at least). As far as I can remember, as soon as I could read I was reading books about the classic explorers like Shackleton and Scott and seeing their old black and white photographs documenting their journey to the Antarctic – then suddenly, from my own living room, being transported into the Arctic by Benedict Allen and his handheld camera was enough for me to want to become an explorer myself. It was not until I was much older that I truly understood the seriousness and wild hostility of these places and the bravery required to survive them and take those first steps onto the snow, ice, sand or jungle floor.
So you can expect when I received an email from Benedict Allen saying he’d love to have a chat with me about my mission to get people outdoors more, I was equally absolutely terrified and excited beyond belief – my girlfriend rightly described me as being like Paddington Bear on the trail of the great explorer he’d heard of as a child. So, we got it booked in and I remained equal parts excited and terrified up until the moment Benedict’s smiling face appeared on my computer screen ready for our chat.
I didn’t necessarily want a chat about Benedict’s amazing expeditions – no doubt he’s told those stories a million times – I was more interested in his own idols and heroes, his thoughts about exploring and why he believed it was so important that, even in a time of social media, we still need to get out to see the world and allow it to take its effect on us.
You can watch the video here or you can carry on reading below for more information and insights:
As it happens, Benedict was also inspired by those same major explorers who, in the past, I had been in awe of such as Shackleton and Scott but also by Sir Walter Raleigh and the ‘fascinating’ idea of El Dorado. However, his main idol and inspiration was his own father:
‘He was a test pilot…and when I was very little he was testing the Vulcan bomber, this very charismatic aircraft – it would come over our back garden and it was my dad flying it…’
The idea that his father was being a pioneer but also appeared to be a ‘vague’ and poetic character much like himself opened Benedict’s eyes to the possibility of being such a pioneer himself, and allowed him to realise that it was possible to achieve amazing things. Benedict wasn’t necessarily interested in the great outdoors yet though. He later moved to Buckinghamshire, where the Chiltern Hills were literally on his doorstep and where he developed both his interest and confidence in exploring during afternoon family walks in the hills, before realising his dream of exploration in his early twenties.
To Benedict the ‘golden era’ of explorers was coming to an end with the death of Shackleton and there were just a few names left at the time, such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Sir Chris Bonington, who he looked up to and wanted to be ‘some sort of explorer like them’:
‘Someone in that classic sense of exploration…a person who can head off and disappear into a landscape they’re not familiar with…’
Benedict headed off on his first trip to South America to the area of El Dorado and ‘managed to get away with it’, despite contracting two types of malaria and having to eat his dog to avoid dying of starvation.
‘I just thought the world was my oyster…and it was in a way’
Benedict Allen is only one of two living adventurers included in the Telegraph’s gallery of Great British Explorers, the other being Sir Ranulph Fiennes – so I couldn’t help but ask how he felt about now being on the same list as one of the ‘golden age’ explorers he had looked up to:
‘He’s at the other end of the spectrum…he’s a man of a military background and really the ultimate expeditioner‘
Benedict does not have the plan of ‘striding across the landscape’ such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, but rather immersing himself and disappearing into it. Sir Ranulph Fiennes does remain a model of inspiration for Benedict, still able to conquer these great expeditions at his increasing age. At 76, Fiennes has now almost completed his ‘Global Reach’ challenge to cross both Polar icecaps and climb the highest mountain on every continent – he has just three mountains left. So Benedict feels there is ‘hope for me yet’ at the tender age of 60.
As I touched on earlier, Benedict has been through some pretty tough experiences during some of his expeditions – he’s been shot at by Pablo Escobar’s hitmen in the Amazon rainforest, he’s been stranded in the Arctic, and on the edge of death various times – experiences that anybody else may consider as the final straw and subsequently consider a relatively normal life as an accountant instead. So I was interested to know what it was that kept him coming back and thinking ‘You know what, that was great! Next time I’ll do that in the middle of the desert!’ What motivates such a person to carry on?
The answer, as it happens, is fairly straight forward:
‘A lot of these expeditions are not fun…it’s not the sense of doing it but having done it… I’m not a mountaineer, but I imagine that moment – not when you reach the summit, but when you get down again from the summit… ‘
However, that’s not to say that his motivator is a sense of ‘conquering‘ nature – in fact, he finds the idea of ‘conquering nature’ to be distasteful. – Is that really the only reason you did it? So you can brag about it later? What keeps somebody like Benedict going back into hostile environments is the personal sense of achievement and self discovery after being ‘stripped down and knowing yourself.’
‘Even if you fail, you learn’
Is there anything in particular that you look back on an think ‘That was the best thing I’ve ever done?’
‘What going outdoors does is give you a whole range of experiences’ – whereas living your “normal” day to day life can be seen as a straight line, getting outside and taking a trip gives you a whole variety of of ups and downs, and it’s that variety that is so invigorating.
In answer to my question, Benedict recalled a trip that was ‘appalling at the time… but wonderful afterwards’: crossing the Bering Strait, the pack ice connecting Russia to Alaska, with a team of sled dogs (featured in Ice Dogs). To make matters worse, it was the coldest winter in living memory, with temperatures down to approximately -45 Celsius and very quickly his hands were already being attacked by frostbite. The dogs were able to sense his struggle and almost totally lost faith in him, no longer listening to his commands – waiting for their original owner to return. After some time and hard work their faith and trust in Benedict started to return.
‘And suddenly, this expedition which had been so horrible…these dogs began to listen to me and it was the most wonderful thing in the world…and that is the moment…the expedition continued to be painful but it didn’t matter because emotionally I felt I was getting there, making progress in this unhospitable world’
Role models for the next generation and the impact of social media
When I was growing up, there was no social media or Internet showing everybody getting outside and advocating the wonders of the wild world – our knowledge of the world came predominantly from BBC documentaries made by people like Benedict Allen and Bruce Parry, maybe even Michael Palin, immersing themselves in the unknown, almost magical, lands around the world. Now, with the Internet and social media making the footage and images I saw in weekly documentaries as a child immediately accessible in everybody’s pockets, I was interested to know if there was anybody in the public eye, such as Steve Backshall and Levison Wood, who stood out as a great role model to encourage the younger generation to get outside in a world that is so in danger and at a critical level of destruction:
‘All of them do it in different ways and in their own ways…and I think that’s important too’
And upon reflecting about how we all explore in different ways, Benedict highlights how his style was different too. The current explorers on television, such as Steve Backshall, all use a camera crew (big and small) which limits their ability to complete seriously difficult expeditions. Whereas Benedict was his own film crew, exploring the world with just his handheld camera. ‘These days it isn’t possible to do it in the same way’.
There was one part in particular in the answer that Benedict gave that stood out for me however:
‘I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the idea that all humans are explorers ‘
Benedict also touched on the fact that it’s very easy to look at these people and think that they’re special because they do what they do and assume we ordinary folk can’t be like them. This is, of course, a significant problem when you consider that there has been a tendency for middle-aged white males from privileged backgrounds to represent the world of exploring, something that Benedict recognises about himself. But this is something that is changing in time and not so prevalent as it was twenty, thirty or forty years or more ago. For Benedict, it’s still important that we have people going out and documenting the world as it is and showing us the truth instead of letting us get lost in the ‘bubble’ of social media. That is where people like Steve Backshall, among others, come in.
There are also people going out into the world for the wrong reasons, such as to gain ‘kudos’ by doing certain things, and that is not the point of exploration, for Benedict. For him, it’s all about the experience and allowing yourself to be immersed and overcome by the world the around you.
‘For me, I’m just as impressed by the little old lady who walks up a hill – but it’s been a struggle – as I am somebody who climbs Everest with oxygen. Yes one is harder than the other for a human, but relative to their own experience, perhaps that walk up a hill for a little old lady who is frail is a greater achievement’
I was also interested in his general views of the impact social media has on the world of exploration, and whether or not the ability to bring up anywhere in the world on our phones when we’re sat on our sofas (or toilets) reduces the desire to explore in person.
‘There has been a real veracity of truth – and science, I think, has somewhat been eroded by so called “fake news”… but it will settle down because people will want to trust in certain things’
For Benedict though, there are certainly benefits to social media acting in favour of exploration. He sees people posting on Twitter and Instagram about beetles they’ve found in the garden and looking for the names of certain beasts and plants. The information available is endless and often immediate.
He told me that his daughter ran into the room earlier that day to ask if he knew that there was a toad that weighed 3 kilos, information she had discovered on TikTok. Of course there are those who use social media for their own personal and financial gain and those who do observe the world entirely through social media but;
‘I don’t think it will stop my daughter looking for a 3 kilo toad’
Getting people outside
Of course, the whole mission and ethos behind Into The Sticks is to try to encourage more and more people to get outside and engage with the wild world around them, but to start doing that we need to identify what the barriers are for various groups of people. What is stopping people? I was interested to hear Benedict’s theory;
‘What is stopping people? I think it’s [not] believing that they are one of the adventurers’
Part of this is connected to what he was saying earlier regarding those people on television. It’s easy for everybody to sit there and think ‘These people are amazing and special’ because they are intentionally made to look amazing and special. Again, the lack of diversity of who we are looking at on television is a problem, and might lead some to believe that unless you look like the explorers on TV, you can’t do what they do – which couldn’t be more wrong.
Benedict is incredibly in favour of ‘micro-adventures,’ the idea that you can just have an adventure in a day. Just taking your bicycle out, or going for a walk;
‘I think that’s great…it’s making people think “I don’t have to sacrifice my job, or be worried about getting malaria.” – You don’t have to have adventures in the way that people did when I was younger.’
So, in your opinion, why is it so important that people get outside and engage with the world around them?
Benedict highlights a number of reasons why it’s so important to get outside, mostly relating to our physical and mental wellbeing. But he also spoke about the fact that it’s great for your soul and important that you get outside and realise that you are part of something far bigger than yourself, helping to put your problems and life into perspective with the world around you and understand where we sit in the ‘grand scheme of things’.
‘There is so much pressure on us in traditional society and I think it helps so much to step away from your work, away from your problems, to just feel part of things’
I added that we do have a tendency to separate ourselves from the natural world when in fact we are all part of it – we are just another animal living amongst the natural world, not separate from it at all. In fact, Benedict further added that some of the indigenous people he has stayed with in the past do not even have a word for ‘nature’ because it is simply not a separate entity from themselves and they understand that they are just another element of their environment.
The way I’ve heard Benedict speak about the indigenous people he has stayed with in these spectacular parts of the planet, I’ve often wondered if, when it comes time to leave them, he ever considers fully immersing himself into their culture and staying.
‘I have brief worries that I might feel like that…but I’ve been very aware that I do not belong, I think it’s an illusion to think you do…I know I’m the one most likely to get malaria and I know I would be the one to go mad…‘
It’s understandable that, no matter how much you may like and admire the way these other cultures live and view the world, the shock would be far too much for somebody in the modern western world to fully immerse themselves – as Benedict says, he would be the one to go mad if he was forced to have two, three, or four wives and lots of children. He worries that he would become trapped, either by the delusion that he could make a life for himself in the jungle (which brings on images of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now) or that he would be framed for something in order for people to keep him within the community – which has supposedly happened previously.
‘My job is to go, find information and come back. And it’s always been very clear cut to me that that’s what I need to do…I don’t like to be distracted from my “mission” and it helps mentally to know exactly what I’m doing…’
When you first said; “I’m going to go to the Amazon, canoe down the river and have a walk in the rainforest” did anybody ever turn around and say “That’s probably not a very good idea”?
Benedict’s parents had very conflicting views about his ambitions to explore and cross the Orinoco Basin when he first expressed his desires to travel. His mother was ‘terrified’ because he was so ill-matched. Not coming from a military background and having little to no exploration experience, it’s understandable to see why she would be so scared of the idea. His father, however, was entirely encouraging, most likely because of his life as a test pilot whose job it was to put himself at risk everyday – especially piloting a huge aircraft like the Vulcan which carried our nuclear weapons.
‘I had very little expert advice, but those people who did give me expert advice just thought I wouldn’t get very far…I’d come back home having had a gap year type of adventure…I really was very fortunate to get away with it’
With the power of retrospect, being now 40 years after his first disastrous trip to the Amazon where he was less than 24 hours from death caused by starvation – having to kill and eat his dog to survive – and now being a father of three young children himself, how would he feel if his children came to him and said, ‘I want to do what you did?’ Would he support them or try to stop them?
Benedict like to think he would support them if they wanted to do the same thing, however, times have changed and so has the condition of the planet we live on:
‘I think if you’re doing an expedition you have a duty to acknowledge that…It’s not enough to just have an adventure if you’re devoting six months to it…There’s more to the world than just using it as a playground’
Benedict, with that in mind, would of course encourage his children to explore the world but would ensure that they did it for a particular reason and to bring something back other than “finding themselves” and growing as an individual. There is a lot that he would want them and everybody in general to be aware of.
‘We see heroes and heroines out there doing great things, and they are inspiring, but wouldn’t it be better to have role models for the young who are doing something more than just a physical feat?‘
‘The younger generation are often isolated from the world which is in trouble around them.‘
It was really great to have this conversation with Benedict Allen and to see that our views of exploring and the world in general are very much aligned.
There is much to be learned from people like Benedict and one of the many lessons I’ve taken from our conversation is this:
We are all explorers, we should all get outside and explore the world but for the right reasons. Leave the world in a better shape than you found it, be aware of the trouble the planet is in and use your explorations of the world to learn how you can help preserve it for the next generation.
A huge thank you once again to Benedict Allen and the team at Jo Sarsby Management, it was certainly a highlight in this wannabe explorer’s life.