Benedict Allen, author, explorer, public speaker and presenter, is one of Britain’s best known explorers. He has published nine books, two of them bestsellers, and his pioneering films of his expeditions â€“ occasionally with a film crew but more typically without â€“ have paved the way for the current generation of TV adventurers. Uniquely in television, his philosophy is to immerse himself in extreme or alien environments, relying not on satellite phones and other â€œbackupâ€ but to go alone and learn from indigenous people.
His approach to exploration is exemplified by his decision to undergo the harrowing â€œcrocodileâ€ initiation ceremony in New Guinea â€“ he was given extensive crocodile scars and beaten for six weeks. It was an attempt not just to report back about things never before witnessed at the frontiers of our knowledge but to understand a different perspective on the world.
“To me exploration isn’t about conquering natural obstacles, planting flags… It’s not about going where no one’s gone before in order to leave your mark, but about the opposite of that – about making yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to whatever’s there and letting the place leave its mark on you.” – Benedict Allen.
His belief in leaving the back-up systems often employed by adventurers â€“ satellite phones, GPS navigation etc â€“ at home make his solo expeditions particularly precarious; likewise, his technique of not bringing along camera-crews continues to ensure he is the only â€œadventurerâ€ on TV often in very real and constant jeopardy; arguably, he has the most dangerous job seen on television.
According in a Radio Times cover feature “television’s most fearless man,” Benedict is far more proud of having immersed himself, months at time, among indigenous, so called “tribal” people to learn from them. He is at home whether in extreme desert, rain forest or Arctic conditions. Few Westerners have lived so long at a time isolated and alone in so many different potentially hostile environments.
Twenty years on, few Westerners have spent so long continuously isolated in so many remote natural environments. With the help of Matses Indians he’s crossed the Amazon Basin, a journey of almost eight months; and has twice lived with Aborigines in the Gibson Desert – the first time arriving in Australia by canoe across the treacherous Torres Strait – and also spent time with the Iban (Borneo), and almost six months travelling three thousand miles through Mongolia by horse and camel.
Benedict Allen has experience of surviving adversity across the remote world second to none. He uses his knowledge and experience as one of today’s most prominent explorers to help others around the globe achieve their own personal targets and succeed in their own harsh environments back home.
The thing to do is acknowledge from the start that it will be a struggle â€“ otherwise everyone else would do it, I suspect. I felt a real NEED â€“ I burning desire – to push myself to the limit. I wasnâ€™t interested in â€œtravelâ€ per se, but in exploration â€“ going to unknown places and reporting back. That communication aspect was always crucial to me.
Benedict’s presentations show how over twenty years he has achieved his goals by remaining focused and utterly committed to his final objective, surviving adversity in the harshest of environments around the world. His extraordinary record of success demonstrates the importance of drawing upon the resources within and around us and also the value of teamwork – the Amazon jungle, just like the corporate world, is too big to fight alone.
Using his formidable experience of surviving against the odds, whether in creating an Arctic dog team from scratch at minus 45 degrees, crossing the 5,600 mile Amazon Basin without a map, or undergoing the world’s harshest male initiation ceremony to become “a man as strong as a crocodile,” Benedict gives a stunning demonstration of how we can succeed in our own deserts and jungles back home.
Q : Could you advise me on whether I should abandon everything for a life of being an adventurer/explorer:
A : “Hereâ€™s a letter I wrote to an American student, who was wondering whether I thought he should leave College and go off to wander the world:
My feeling is that you should stay in college, and use that time to PLAN something. The key is that you say you NEED to go â€“ and thatâ€™s how I felt. I didnâ€™t have any money either. But I used the time at uni. to work up a plan â€“ and I think it is vital to dream up an adventure or challenge, not just drift. Any one can be a backpacker, but I think you can do more than that all your life. Read and read â€“ look at old/new maps. And start to hatch a plan. Nothing like an empty place on a map to excite me!
In the end you must look to your own desires, but, regarding your education, I think itâ€™d be unwise to drop it, however restless you feel. In the end, my journeys have been all about trying to make sense of the world. I think a formal education helps structure your thoughts, and helps you argue your case and cause. Increasingly, I get satisfaction out of doing the journey for others, not just myself. And really thatâ€™s the only justification for a life of travel â€“ it would be self-indulgent indeed to devote a life to following your own dreams, and no use to the world if you donâ€™t share what youâ€™ve discovered. Writing, and TV, has been my justification â€“ the only reason why I can call myself an explorer, as opposed to adventurer, is because Iâ€™m reporting back to my world.
Q : You’ve come from a scientific background but your beliefs seem to have evolved into something more spiritual, inline with some of the indigenous people who inhabit the areas you visit. Can you tell us more about that?
A : By nature, I’m more artistic than scientific. I’ve never felt I was “lost”, searching for answers. I was simply trying to portray the world through my writing. Nor have I ever wandered about on expeditions, seeking out spiritual answers. I’ve always had a very precise physical goal – to cross a desert or whatever. Early on I quickly saw that exploration nowadays is all about science – which has become more and more specialised – but also ideas. Ideas were where I came in. My job was to portray landscapes afresh, and the key to doing that was always the locals, who had been passed by, or trampled on by previous generations of explorers. Besides, as I had no money, I had to evolve my own way of doing expeditions, and that was to launch out with the help of indigenous people, not from the west in a team with lots of equipment in the conventional mode.
So I went about by sinking into remote communities and re-interpreting how we see jungles and deserts by learning from them. I’ve gone through rituals, even through a brutal 6 week male initiation ceremony in New Guinea to make me “a man as strong as a crocodile” – but this was only to explore other ways of seeing the world. I’m somewhat spiritual in my outlook on the world, but don’t follow an organised religion. Nor do I share beliefs of the tribal people I’ve lived with – I think that is impossible for someone of an alien culture. I’m sympathetic to remote peoples’ world views, because part of my job is to give them expression. But a Westerner can never adopt the gods and spirits or even ethic of people whose life is dictated by the forest or desert. Our mindset is shaped by a society of cars. We are sheltered, buffered and separated from what we call nature.
Q : What makes you think an adventure is worth going on?
A : Sometimes certain places and challenges seem irresistible to me. Certain ideas stand out, above the rest – places like the “Skeleton Coast” sound so magical, a natural challenge to me. So I look on a map and see whether the place looks interesting enough in reality. For me, journeys are all about learning to live in a hostile environment from remote people who see that place as home. So I would need to see if there are indeed remote, indigenous people there who could teach me, and launch me out on a great-sounding journey.
Q : What, for you, makes an expedition a real expedition, as opposed to journey?
A : Having a clear objective, and a plan with which to pull it off. Unless it’s an expedition of the pure adventure type, there should be some element of research and – importantly – an intention to report back on your findings.
Q : What’s the point in going on an expedition?
A : Either to bring back some useful information, or to bring a more considered or “higher” approach to your travels. Most travel is self-indulgent and, while there’s nothing wrong with wanting a bit of fun, if you want to achieve something meaningful for others, or achieve something perhaps at a higher level of achievement for yourself, an expedition-approach is a good idea. Want to climb a great mountain? Then you need an expedition. It’s the same with most other achievements on the horizontal plane.
Q : Isnâ€™t filming intrusive? Havenâ€™t you had a detrimental effect on the people youâ€™ve lived with?
A : Iâ€™ve often thought about this, and itâ€™s important that I keep doing so. I think my approach of going alone means I have little direct impact on remote people; the sad truth is that the places I visited two decades ago have severely changed regardless â€“ loggers, gold miners, and the outside world generally have moved in. And my justification for intruding (and by the way I think travellers nowadays do have to justify their travels â€“ the world is no longer a playground, or shouldnâ€™t be) is that Iâ€™m recording worlds that are fast disappearing. However, there is a wider effect of my TV programmes â€“ obviously I help encourage people to want to go. I donâ€™t know of anyone who has ever followed quite in my footsteps, but nonetheless all travel programmes are guilty in this respect. The thing is to fight the BBC and others who broadcast silly ones â€“ which effectively exploit the locals through making them a source of entertainment. Even if the producers donâ€™t aim to do this (and many presently most do) you can imagine the impact of each film crew (which will typically include cameraman, soundman, director, government “minder” and four or five drivers and those having to lug all the equipment etc. NONE of these â€“ including the presenter â€“ will have a sensibility or knowledge of the area, which is brought about only through time, not just a week or month in the region)
Q : How has being close to death affected you?
A : Maybe 6-7 times I’ve almost died. On my first journey, after I set out aged 22, for example â€“ and not just when I stumbled out of the forest alone at the end. I took a lot of risks on the trip â€“ and was essentially out of control much of the time. The locals looked after me â€“ but I was relying, in my innocence, on luck. Looking back, Iâ€™d never do it again, even with all my experience! Looking back on my career generally, I’ve obviously had to think about what my life means to me a lot, and what I want to do with it. Effectively, I’ve now got a career as an adventurer, so in that broader sense as well my journeys have changed my life. But most of the changes to my life have been gradual – it hasn’t been about the terrible moments, being lost in the jungles of the Amazon, it’s been the rest of the time, when I’ve just had to learn to be patient, sitting in remote Indian villages, or learning over many weeks to handle camels. This is what being an adventurer is all about – not falling off a cliff (as I did in the Arctic) or being shot at by drug barons (as I was in the Amazon) but learning to adapt to a different world, so you are better prepared for whatever happens next.
Q : How intrusive is the camera to you in your travel and exploration?
A : Filming is highly intrusive in terms of completing my physical objective – in that it takes a lot of each day, and was actually the most dangerous part of my 1000 km Siberia trip, because it was breaking every rule in the book to leave my dog team, set up the camera, and then retrieve it while alone in the Arctic.
In terms of intruding on my personal experience: I’ve found the camera a rather endearing and useful companion. I just spill out my thoughts, and (for example when I thought I might die having lost my dog team while alone in the Bering Strait) am startled and interested by the extra perspective it gives me, once recalling the journey back home. I am not a “presenter” – I’m just recording what’s going on during my journey, so this visual record gives an extra layer to the whole business of bringing back the experience to those of my culture, once back here.
As for the intrusion caused to local people I encounter: interestingly, the camera has turned out to be a great bond. This sounds counter-intuitive, because it’s a obvious piece of alien technology of course, and can produce dramatic responses when you play back filmed tapes to a community. But I’ve found that, by filming myself then handing the camera around for everyone to see the resulting tape, I show I’m happy to share in the procedure of recording/being recorded. Next move often is to film children, and let them film themselves. Parents often then gather round the camera, wanting to take part… Conversely, a stills camera (ie just for pictures) I’ve found gives the opposite result – the act of taking photos seems to be innately aggressive, a capturing activity.
Q : Why your stance against the GPS and satellite phone? And why have no “backup” on your expeditions? Isnâ€™t this a bit backward â€“ or simply foolish?
A : First of all, yes, itâ€™s true that Iâ€™m no fan of the GPS or satellite phone – or all the rest of that wonderful techno equipment that modern travellers favour. Itâ€™s simply an extension of my “philosophy” of travel: it seems to me that if you call yourself an adventurer â€“ let alone an explorer – you should be disconnecting yourself from home, and testing yourself (or simply experiencing) what is unfamiliar to you. These gadgets maintain the umbilical link with familiar territory. Travel for me is all about breaking that link. But let me say I do understand that these gadgets offer security and a phone does connect people â€“ for example, members of the same expedition – in a wonderful way. All I mean is that, if your objective is to test yourself, or immerse yourself, then taking these devices is to miss the point somewhere: mentally, you are not adjusted to the world you are in.
Iâ€™m not encouraging anyone to take unnecessary risks â€“ rather, Iâ€™m saying that perhaps travellers shouldnâ€™t go so far off the beaten track, if they are relying on others to come and rescue them or offer them moral support. By the way, if I take risks, they are calculated risks (in theory!).
Am I a bit backward? A romantic belonging to a previous era? Some would say so. Iâ€™d say I was being true to what we are all non-scientist “explorers” are surely trying to achieve in the end â€“ genuine immersion in a place – and many of these people today have been led astray. If you want to call yourself an “explorer” now, and â€“ as I say – you are not a scientist, somehow you have got to experience that other world and not bring these comforting props from home along with you. Actually, I have used a GPS on some expeditions â€“ and even been forced by the BBC to use a sat phone for a while on my trip. But Iâ€™m not very happy with them â€“ itâ€™s map and compass for me!
Another thing to say is that I do have backup â€“ but that backup is the local network of contacts, and also the skills Iâ€™ve built up out in the Amazon or where-ever, rather than a team of outsiders waiting to come to help me. Local trappers, hunters and indigenous groups are far more likely to of assistance than a “search and rescue” party launching from some H.Q. miles away. Similarly, what happens if your GPS breaks, your batteries run down? Better to rely on skills inside your head that allow you to tap into the local environment, allow you to see it as a resource, rather than somewhere to try and survive.
Q: What’s the one luxury item that you’ll never leave home without?
A: Tabasco sauce – a small bottle goes a long way. Even if you are living with a large tribal group, you find it doesn’t tend to be finished off quickly – generally, the curious try it only once!
Q : What is your personal motto?Â
A : I have a whole range!
“Control Your Destiny, or someone else will.” (This saying is not originated by me â€“ but Iâ€™ve found itâ€™s true that everyone else has their agenda, and we all tend to get distracted from what we want to do with our lives. ) Linked to this:
“The world steps aside for someone who knows where heâ€™s going.” Again, itâ€™s not my phrase â€“ but it seems very true to me.
BUT my favorite version of this is: : “Follow Your Own True North” â€“ it was the advise of a friend who was worried I was getting distracted by the agendas of others. We should navigate our way through life with our compass â€“ ie following our instincts – but be aware that there is Magnetic North â€“ but also TRUE (geographical) North. And be aware of magnetic anomalies (if you know about geology, these are lodes in the earth which create false magnetic readings) – distractions and falsehoodsâ€¦