British adventurer-explorer Benedict Allen, 53, is best known for his approach to expeditions which is to forgo all modern backup: satellite phones, GPS etc, and rely entirely on immersing himself among indigenous people to learn their skills. Filming without a crew, he was the first to bring to our screens authentic immersion among remote terrain and societies, paving the way for the current generation of TV adventurers. His experiences are depicted in ten books and six BBC television series. Benedict is currently working on a novel about time spent in the Congo…
Interview by David J. Constable
I’ve visited so many countries and far-flung locations that it’s sometimes difficult to recall where and how it all began. I remember family holidays when we’d nip across the Channel to Cherbourg in Normandy, and there were some camping holidays around Brittany and wider France. The first was in Cap d’Agde, a charming pine-forested place near Cannes. We’d travel to Carmague to see the wild horses and attempt, always in vain, to avoid the large and ferocious mosquitoes.
As a child I was an avid fossil collector after discovering the Jurassic Coast on a trip to Dorset. Aged eleven I went on a safari trip to Kenya and Tanzania to see the Maasai-Mara, which really sticks in my memory. It was quite an unusual thing to do as a family in those days (1970) and only really possible because my father was a pilot and able to fly us part of the way. He was a test pilot in his early career and part of the team that developed the Vulcan bomber. I have a photo on my shelves of him teaching Prince Philip to fly. To hear your Dad over the aeroplane speaker saying, ‘This is your Captain speaking…’ took some beating!
The African savannah began to define how I’d be as a traveller. I understood then that it was possible to travel widespread to locations not always sold as ‘holiday destinations’. I was determined to be some sort of explorer. I set my mind on South America and the goal of crossing perhaps the most remote length of the Amazon, a stretch of 600 miles that is more-or-less uninhabited. I had little money, but that wonderful naive optimism of a young person that all would somehow be alright. I think now that the various indigenous groups who helped me on my way just felt sorry for me. Perhaps, they didn’t want me to die in their hands!
‘In 2001 I completed a 1000km trek through the Russian Arctic with a dog team in what is now referred to as the ‘worst winter in living memory’. The BBC and National Geographic Channel covered the expedition as part of Ice Dogs, but I’m thinking about going somewhere a little warmer for future television productions.’
The final leg of that adventure will always stick with me. Some 60 miles from the outside world, heading to Macapa on the Brazilian Amazon, I was attacked by gold-miners. The reasons are still not clear to me. Perhaps they thought I had taken some gold of theirs, perhaps they were scared I’d report them (they were there illegally) – certainly they were drunk. I was isolated for three-weeks, perhaps even a month? I crawled along the forest floor with two sorts of malaria, delirious and starving, and escaped. I was picked up eventually by a local man who rested me in his hammock and spoon fed me a bitter anti-malarial liquid. Throughout my life I think I’ve needed, in some way, to replicate that experience – push myself to the limit.
Maybe I should just book a holiday to a B&B or a long-weekend in the Cotswolds, but the need to explore is too embedded now. I’ve been at my very lowest during some of the expeditions, but it’s balanced with some extraordinary highs. I’ve met and learnt so much from indigenous people, whose knowledge and skills have helped me see ‘hostile’ places as home.
In 2001 I completed a 1000km trek through the Russian Arctic with a dog team in what is now referred to as the ‘worst winter in living memory’. The BBC and National Geographic Channel covered the expedition as part of Ice Dogs, but I’m thinking about going somewhere a little warmer for future television productions.
Recently I’ve been to Brunei, the small Sultanate on the island of Borneo – just a personal trip for no reason other than that I went there as a student and accidentally discovered seven species of fig wasp (more-or-less randomly shoving a few passing insects in a tube then popping them in the post to the Natural History Museum in Kensington). With the passing years and so much destruction on Borneo by the Indonesians and Malaysians, I felt guilty that I hadn’t lingered longer in the trees and found more. In a sense I needn’t have worried. The forest I saw three decades ago was still there – unlike the rest of Borneo it hasn’t been abused.
I took a tourist excursion up river on a longboat, which is just as well as I’m 6ft 4in, and into the Ulu Temburong National Park. The memories of seeing the forest for the first time all came back to me, complete with the whooping gibbons and hornbills.
Recently Royal Brunei Airways have kindly offered to fly me out and see the forest again. And who knows, there may even be another opportunity for me to find more species of fig wasp?