About Benedict

Career

Benedict Allen was born in Macclesfield, UK, the son of a test pilot (then helping develop the Vulcan bomber), and read Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia - where he crammed three expeditions (to a volcano in Costa Rica, remote forest in Brunei and a glacier in Iceland) into his final year. There then followed a stint at the University of Aberdeen, where he tried to work out how to cross perhaps the remotest forest on earth, which lay between the mouth of the Orinoco to the mouth of the Amazon.

Benedict Allen

The idea he developed became the cornerstone for all his future ventures: instead of raising money through sponsorship back home, he would immerse himself among indigenous people and hope for their assistance – after all, they saw many apparently hostile environments, such as the Amazon and Borneo, as a home rather than threat. The philosophy offered another bonus: by travelling "light" he could be quick to take advantage of any opportunities and progress with speed (like the Alpine approach of mountaineers), and the crossing of so much formidably remote forest might actually become possible.

Having worked in a warehouse for sufficient basic funds, he arrived in South America – and that same year, 1983, he and a string of locals pulled off that objective, notably a precarious 600 mile dash through the forest by foot and canoe. This almost cost him his life. He walked out of the forest alone and with two sorts of malaria - having been attacked by gold miners, fled and eventually resorting to eating his native dog companion for nutrition.

Benedict Allen while undergoing the 'crocodile' initiation ceremony (New Guinea).

Allen's first book, Mad White Giant, followed from that experience– as did his decision now to submerge himself among some of the most isolated people on earth to help understand the forest that had so nearly killed him.

In West Papua/Irian Jaya he led a band of remote people - Allen pointedly avoids the word "tribe" - called the Momwina through dense forest to make first contact with their neighbours the Obini. He was forced to beat a hasty retreat when the Obini became intent on doing battle with the Momwina but months later, in Papua New Guinea, settled in the Middle Sepik with the Niowra and in time underwent their harsh male initiation ceremony, designed to make their boys into men "as strong as a crocodile." This resulted in the second book, Into the Crocodile's Nest.

Many ventures followed, with the Iban of Borneo, Mentawai of Sumatra - where Allen memorably had to stitch up his chest with his boot-mending kit (Hunting the Gugu) - and various peoples in New Guinea and the Gibson Desert, Allen arriving in Australia by seafaring canoe, having become marooned while crossing the Torres Strait (The Proving Grounds).

Benedict Allen

It was for the next expedition, a crossing of the whole of the Amazon Basin, that the BBC had asked Allen to take along a small Hi-8 video camcorder (then still a fairly new technological innovation). With training from the Matses he indeed completed the 3,500 mile journey, but over the course of the almost eight month trek ran into so many difficulties – he broke three ribs falling off a horse and famously on Columbia's Putumayo River was shot at by associates of the drug baron Pablo Escobar, then on the run – that he abandoned his attempt to make a TV programme. (Through Jaguar Eyes).

RAIDERS OF THE LOST LAKE, centred on his return to the Matses and gained the highest viewing figures in the history of the Video Diary strand - and was to transform the way remote travel was depicted on TV. He continued to develop the "travel-adventure genre" with The Skeleton Coast, his record of a three and a half month walk with camels through the Namib Desert; and Edge of Blue Heaven, about his five month trek through Mongolia, culminating in a six week lone walk across the Gobi Desert with a string of baggage camels.

Benedict Allen during a Vodou purification ceremony (Haiti). © Steve Watkins

Benedict Allen also presented MOMBASA TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, for the prestigious Great Railway Journeys BBC/PBS TV series. With the help of producer Ruhi Hamid he filmed THE BONES OF COLONEL FAWCETT, about his search for the missing 1920s explorer in the Mato Grosso. Next, this time experimenting both with self-filming and the use of film-crews, came The Last of the Medicine Men, in which he investigated healers, shamans and so-called "witchdoctors" around the world.

In 2001 Benedict completed a 1000 kilometre trek through the Russian Arctic with a dog team in the "worst winter in living memory" – this the subject of Ice Dogs, his fifth TV series for the BBC and later adapted by National Geographic. He has since published his much-praised anthology of adventurers, The Faber Book of Exploration – with excerpts from heroic pioneers ranging from Burton to James Cook, Shackleton and Mallory (as well as many unsung explorers, past and present). It was, according to the Literary Review, a "monumental feat of compilation and editing."

His most recent book (Into the Abyss: explorers on the edge of survival) tells the full story of the Icedogs expedition and Benedict's quest to understand what it is that enables any of us to survive hardship.

School drawing by Chloe Garland

Picture by Chloe Garland, aged 7, a pupil at The Harrodian School, southwest London

More recently, Allen has presented ADVENTURE FOR BOYS, a documentary on Rider Haggard for BBC 4, and TRAVELLERS CENTURY, a series on the great tradition of British travel writing, featuring the three writers Eric Newby, Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor. He presented the series UNBREAKABLE for Channel Five – eight "ordinary" members of the public being pushed to their physical and mental limits around the world. He was one of four "elite explorers" depicted in EXPEDITION AFRICA, the huge series for the History Channel and in 2012 became only one of two living explorers in the Daily Telegraph gallery of the greatest ever British explorers.

Benedict is a much sought-after motivational and after-dinner speaker in Britain and around the world – but also gives talks, when time permits, at schools.


Next section: Bibliography/Filmography

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