Benedict Allen feels a duty to explain places to people
Certain things capture my imagination about a place and then I decide to go. I first wanted to be an explorer when I was a child, inspired by my dad, who was a test pilot. Certain names first attracted me: the Amazon, Mongolia… I can remember being at a cashpoint in Shepherd’s Bush as a teenager and the person in front of me having a battle with the ATM turned to the queue and said: “I might as well be in Outer Mongolia.” It made me wonder what Mongolia was really like.
I’m not a good traveller. In fact, I don’t see myself as a traveller at all. I’m not interested in wandering around or seeing a lot of sights. I see myself as an explorer, an adventurer, which is a very different sort of art. I am less than interested in adventurers who go off and use world as a playground: it’s self-indulgence. I feel more than ever a duty to explain places to people. As I’ve travelled, I’ve become more aware of world being exploited and destroyed by us. It’s all about a certain objective — about actually running an operation. My operation.
I can’t count how many times I’ve nearly died on an expedition. Someone once called me “the cat that’s used up his nine lives”. In my 20s, during my first expedition, I was attacked by gold miners and left for dead in the Amazon. I’ve been shot by Pablo Escobar’s people in Colombia. I’ve been abandoned by guides and stranded while crossing the Torres Strait from New Guinea to Australia. We got stuck on a rock for two nights. Food wasn’t a problem as we lived on limpets; which are just liquid — and all the time we were being smashed by waves. It was awful watching the faces of my companions drying out, their lips swelling and eyes closing up with salt.
The battle to survive is 90% in the mind. Humans are fascinating creatures, able to do amazing things that animals cannot, as we can envisage a better tomorrow. But if we don’t have that belief, we just crumble. When I was abandoned in the Amazon, I would have died had I not been able to summon belief in myself. It was 110 miles to the nearest help. All I could do was believe in the 100 metres. Every 100 metres I made a notch on a stick, breaking down my challenge. You have to learn to trick yourself.
I dream of moments rather than places. In the Namibian desert with my team of camels, we suddenly came across elephants. It was an extraordinary moment to be hiding among the camels surrounded by elephants. I crave those moments, but I never know if they will turn up. I like coming home, though — having Europe as a base. It restores me. My expeditions are very solitary and immersive. I keep myself sane by plugging back into home, and urban areas are actually very attractive to me as they’re so full of life.
You can have an incredible relationship with a camel. Camels don’t need you and so they can abandon you. My expedition with a camel called Nelson was almost entirely a battle of wills… with Nelson mostly winning. He could cope in the desert as camels are so very strong. As humans, we are weak, but we have that amazing ability to think beyond the present. He liked having a leader who could see danger before it happened. Getting lost is important. I love going to the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela, an amazing labyrinth of mangrove forest that’s so easy to get lost in. That’s what happened to Sir Walter Raleigh when he went in search of El Dorado. Being lost is terrible, but also wonderful in this age when we’re connected to each other every minute of the day — to be disconnected is great. The landscape here is tidal, so always changing. It’s a place of amazing life, with endless birds, mud skippers, catfish, alligators. It’s a great and exciting place to disconnect from the world.
Fatherhood is the most challenging thing I’ve done. The lack of sleep, the mindless sitting around. Expeditions can be like that, spending a month in a village gathering information or supplies. But I’m used to travelling alone and the freedom that gives — all that control is taken away from you as a parent. But I want to ‘be there’ for my children, mentally and physically, and you can’t do that even when preparing or recovering from an expedition. When I think now about what I put my poor mother through… it’s a foolish, dangerous life being an adventurer. Yet I can’t help wondering, looking at my daughter who’s an amazing tree-climber, if she will be an explorer one day.
Benedict Allen, born in Cheshire, read environmental science at the University of East Anglia.
Icedogs, Raiders of the Lost Lake and The Skeleton Coast are just three of several TV series Benedict has filmed for the BBC in recent years.
Into the Abyss: Explorers on the Edge of Survival is his latest book, telling the full story of the Icedogs expedition and surviving hardship.
Benedict’s next expedition will be to the Taklamakan Desert in China. benedictallen.com