About Benedict

A recent interview for Global Adventure Magazine

  1. To be an explorer is every young boy's dream - either that or a footballer. Was it something you've always wanted to do?

    Yes - my dad was a test pilot, and travelling all around the world. He brought back weaver bird nests, a baby stuffed crocodile and so on. As a child I simply wanted to go and see these exotic places for myself. Normally, as we grow up we are told that it's no longer possible to be an explorer - that the world is already explored. But my father gave me a sense of there still being an exciting world out there - and I hung on to my dream of being some sort of explorer. As I got older, I could see it wasn't going to be that easy - there was no degree in "exploration," and I didn't have any money to simply go off. I saw I'd need to have a craft of some sort, to pay to get me to extremely remote places.

  2. How did your career first start - do you have any qualifications or have you had any specific training?

    I went to university, studied Environmental Science - which gave me a wonderfully broad understanding of the world. Then I went on to Aberdeen and read Ecology - but this was a disaster. By then I was really restless - I wanted to go and live my dream. I flunked the final exam, concentrating on my plans for my first solo expedition in stead of gaining a second degree. So I have the rare distinction of having been awarded a 100% mark for a degree thesis at one university, and to have failed at the second.

  3. So you graduated from The University of East Anglia with a degree in Environmental Science. What was your first job after graduating?

    Much to my mum's exasperation, I never went on to have a "proper job." She was very understanding in fact, but it must have been hard. I simply worked in a warehouse stacking books - that got me enough money to go to the Orinoco river mouth, where I set about my first solo adventure, and crossed to the Amazon mouth through 600 miles of forest. This was the Land of El Dorado that I'd dreampt of since a boy.

  4. 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?

    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.

  5. You've travelled alone to some pretty remote places - such as the notoriously inhospitable Namib Desert - what's your motivation to visit isolated places?

    As a boy I was driven simply by curiosity. But this seems to have evolved into something more complex. I am incredibly driven - I don't go for fun to these extreme places, but because they offer me extraordinary peace. Deserts of course have always had this spiritually charging effect on humans - Jesus, Mohammed, John the Baptist. There are no distractions out there - it's as if the emptiness becomes filled with your own hopes and fears, what we think of as God and the Devil. To face these is somehow very purifying - it's difficult to explain this, but anyone who has been quiet for a few minutes even in a desert I think has felt at least wonder. There's also an element of challenge in my objectives - the reward gained through having pulled off a great achievement, such as crossing the Gobi alone with camels, as I did over six weeks.

  6. You show incredible sensitivity to the people of the places you visit and seem to thrive on human interaction. Do you prefer to go somewhere remote where you may not see anyone for days, or to more populated areas?

    A mix of the two. Indigenous people tend to be my tutors, and are a great comfort and safety line for me. But being alone you know there are no responsibilities to other team members, and that only you and the natural elements decide your destiny. You set your pace, you modify plans according to your needs. But it can be lonely - there's no-one to share the triumph, the exquisite sunset. That is when I write best in my diary, or talk best to my video camera - I'm communicating as if to an imaginary friend.

  7. You've seen some amazing things on your travels that seem to contradict traditional western thought. Is there anything that's really made you question your own beliefs?

    Question them yes, all the time. But change them, no. I've never been a great believer in consumerism, never in Jesus as anyone other than simply a teacher of a sound philosophy and moral code. As scholars point out, but for the radicalism of St Paul, Christianity would most likey have died out and been nothing more than another minor Jewish sect. And nor have I ever entirely trusted our Western culture's scientific, rationalising take on the world. Of course, that's made it easier for me over the years to accommodate cultures which have other slants on life - though I've never much believed in bewitchings and the supernatural either. It's a common misunderstanding that travel broadens the mind. It doesn't - not in my experience of other travellers. It educates them, yes, but generally there are those who are by nature broadminded, and those who are not. Broadminded people though, tend to be drawn towards travel - they want to learn more. One of the greatest European travellers of all time, Richard Burton, loathed Africans and all they stood for, thinking them primitive and uncivilised. He was devoted to the Arabs - who were the great slavers. Travel only intensified this racism in him.

  8. Like Jim Morrison of The Doors, you've tried peyote. What was the experience like and were you ever tempted to form a rock band?

    Jim Morrison was a poet, but also using the drug recreationally. For the Huichol, remote people of the deserts of NW Mexico, peyote was a gateway into paradise, and must never be used outside careful rituals. It was a spirit, that of a sacred deer tat bore you to something like Heaven , not an hallucinogenic substance. I sat in the desert eating it with other Huichols and found the stones all around me become incredibly coloured and textured, at first. Then they seemed to take on vitality - in fact everything around me seemed to have a "presence." I had a feeling of euphoria - but not that of a drunked. My movements were very precise, my mind moving fast and exactly - I was very aware of everything. And finally I felt a great feeling of security. Every object around me was my friend - there were no divisions between man and god, the animals and plants. We were all unified. In other words, it was as if I had entered Eden - this was paradise. And for the Huichols, this was a chance to talk directly with the gods living there. Sadly, I didn't have the culture to know these divine creatures, and so couldn't see or hear them.

    Haven't thought of forming a rockband - great idea. During my New Guinea male initiation ceremony I taught fellow initiates to sing Old MacDonald Had A Farm once - not quite the same thing, is it?

  9. You must have eaten some unusual food during your travels. What's been your most pleasant surprise?

    Honey ants - in the Gibson Desert. Their abdomens swell to become beads of pure honey. You can quickly forget you are eating the back end of an insect.

  10. And what's been your worst?

    A sago grub, in Irian Jaya. It was still alive -a bout the size of my little finger, and very juicy and wriggly. And it was determined not to die. It turned around in my throat, and began crawling out.

  11. We've all seen Indiana Jones and danger seems to go with the territory. Have you ever had any really frightening experiences?

    There've been about a dozen which I was fortunate to survive. On my first journey, I had to eat my own dog - when I was attacked by Amazon gold miners, and ended up walking through the forest for weeks without food or possessions. Elsewhere, I ran away from the Obini (Irian Jaya) - an uncontacted group. They turned out to be at war with my guides. In the Amazon again, I was shot at by drug hitmen, but jumped to freedom from my canoe into the forest to make my escape. And on the same trip, my guides abandoned me, kicking away the log bridge we'd made across a river, and, with the river separating us, walked off with all my supplies. Then there have been various camels that have walked off in the midsts of the deserts, abandoning me. And last year in Siberia, I lost my dog team while alone in the Arctic - more-or-less a certain death sentence. I found them only after sheltering one night in a snow hole.

  12. Have you ever had a bad experience with animals?

    In twenty years, I've never been attacked by a wild animal - and as I suppose there are few Europeans alive who have travelled so long alone in the Amazon, it shows what a myth the threat of piranhas and snakes is.

  13. And what about people - have you ever had any unpleasant experiences with the people you've met?

    The Obini whom I've mentioned began a sort of war dance, soon after my arrival. At the end of each verse, they picked up one weapon. There were a lot of verses, and by about the tenth, we were fleeing. The various other incidents have been with non - native peoples. Frontiers attract opportunists - and as a lone whiteman I was quite an opportunity. I was even poisoned once in the Peruvian Amazon - fortunately my body is extremely resilient (and it helps I'm almost two metres tall (6ft 4 inches).

  14. You've done a fair bit of tramping on your travels; any suggestions for footwear?

    By choice, I've always gone with the Hi-Tec range. Partly because I like their stuff, but also because they are not one of the big corporates - Nike, Adidas and so on. I think we all need to do our bit not to help the big logos spread their reach to other, smaller cultural groups already threatened by globalisation.

    Lightweight boots that breath and have ankle support are crucial - without your feet you can't go anywhere, let alone get back in an emergency. So they are your most important equipment: more important than a mosquito net or rucksack, more valuable even than your hands.

  15. On your back; are you a fan of the conventional top-loading rucksack or the fully zipped opening ones?

    I'm a top-loading man. I don't like too many zips - partly because they can get snared in rain forest, or can be hard to manage if you are wearing gloves (in extreme cold, say). I line my rucksacks with a waterproof bag, to seal the contents from water and pests. One big, wide top entrance allows this inner bag to be opened easily, and this opening being high up helps maintain its waterproof integrity, if you fall into water.

  16. What's the one piece of practical kit that you'll never leave home without?

    A white Swiss army knife - white because it can be seen better in bad light, or if dropped in leaf litter etc. Red is asking for trouble! In addition, I always have a small survival kit - waterproof matches, spare compass etc - and this goes around my waist, not to be opened in any normal circumstance.

  17. What's the one luxury item that you'll never leave home without?

    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!

  18. What do you miss most when you're away from home?

    I'm not one of those people who pines for roast beef, loo rolls or even a hot bath. If you are really hungry, you don't care about the food, and as my trips are a minimum of three months I tend just to adapt. I think just companionship of my own tribe - to be able to have a good laugh with someone about a Far Side cartoon, or lean on a bar and share thoughts on the merits of some vacuous pop idol.

  19. So, you're marooned on a desert island with only one book, one album and one food item to save you from insanity. What are they?

    Leaving aside Shakespeare - bit predicable, but he really is very good, you know - I'd plump for The Faber Book of Utopias - an anthology of all these individuals who've dreampt of - or tried to set up - a better world. Surely after a year or so, I could come up with a better civilisation, by mashing them all together. My one album: Abbey Road - can't beat the old Beatles favorites, can you? They were a bit before my time, but everything since, like Brit Pop, has been derivative. Food: Potatoes - I 've learnt the hard way that only staple foods don't become nauseating after a few months. The staples - maize, wheat, potatoes, rice etc are dull but keep you going. You can always spice 'em up with a sprinkling of crunched-up locusts.

  20. Do you ever just go on holiday and kick back by the pool with a few margaritas or do you always take the hat and bullwhip and go off in search of adventure?

    No, no, a few margaritas and pools are just my thing. By the way, if I really did live the action-man life of Mr I. Jones I wouldn't have survived very long. These remote communities only look after me because I'm harmless. They adopt me, like you might a child. It's also a sound philosophy to be ready to learn from scratch, just like an infant.

  21. What has been your favourite destination and why?

    Namib Desert - there's a river valley that passes through, called the Huanib. Its a long, thin oasis among the rocks and sand with elephants, giraffes and ostriches. The elephants troop up and down, seeking out water - and snaffling up pods of the ana tree, which they adore. It's like a little strip of paradise, an Eden.

  22. Is there anywhere where you haven't yet been that you'd really like to go to?

    The Taklamakan, northern China - the largest waterless place in the world. The Silk Road splits to avoid it - but heading straight through this empty sand place alone with camels would be just about my perfect journey.

  23. You've filmed for television both on your own and with a crew. Which method do you prefer and why?

    By myself, I can do a real expedition, and film it as I go along. I simply strap solar panels on the humps of my camels, to charge batteries - but I don't get good wildlife shots, and no aerials of course. So you miss the bigger picture, and the glorious detail of a place. What you do get in exchange is much more reality - video diaries score highly with real emotions, the nitty gritty ups and downs of an expedition.

    With a film crew, you can't do a serious expedition of any sort - I've only used a crew when I'm staying with a community, or doing a short trip. The truth is, crews give you a polished-up version of a journey - at £2000/day, a crew can't hang around to wait for things to happen. The result: no scenario you see is actually very real at all. The making of celebrity travel programmes is especially farcical - wish I dared spill the beans more.

  24. Your six part series Ice Dogs has just started showing on. Can you tell us a bit more about the series?

    I did a 1000 mile trek with ten dogs through the remotest Siberia - which sadly turned out to be experiencing the worst winter in living memory. It sounded a good idea back in Shepherd's Bush - I wanted to learn how native sledge dogs allowed the Chukchi and "Eskimo" Inuit to survive in the tundra. It was a bad year to try - whole villages were lost under the snow, and whole limbs lost to frostbite. I was soon experiencing daily temperatures of minus 35 degrees or worse plus windchill - this was a place colder than the North Pole. The blizzards were so bad I couldn't even reach my dogs for three weeks - by which time their owner had gone, and I couldn't find out their names - or even commands. Trying to train my wayward dog team, I got frost bite within days. But despite a diet of raw whale and walrus, and despite snowdrifts and killing winds, when I did reach my target, the Bering Strait, three months later, I had at last somehow earned the status of "Top Dog" from my ten furry expedition colleagues. Great to be out in the Arctic alone with the dogs - but I think we were all relieved to be back safely. I didn't have a gun or radio communication and Polar bears don't take prisoners.

  25. Is there any rivalry between you and the other big names from the world of outdoor explorers or do you all meet up and camp at each other's houses and stuff?

    I'm not a very clubby person, but the Royal Geographical Society is still the great forum. As yet, there's still no one doing what I do - filming substantial expeditions as I go along - so I haven't had any inter-explorer battles lately. No one has camped at my place recently - maybe it's because Shepherd's Bush is not the sort of place you want to hang around in, unless really seasoned!

  26. Finally, which inhospitable environment are we likely to find you in next?

    Dunno yet. I had this idea of living in a treehouse in the Amazon. I wouldn't be presenting about the rain forest, like Attenborough, but actually living it - with monkeys, strangling trees and snakes my neighbours. The BBC says it's too expensive - and perhaps I was being too ambitious, with cameras set up in all the neighbourhood snake holes, and so on, to monitor life around me. But for a moment recently the idea became viable again because someone had the bright idea of putting a beautiful girl in the treehouse with me. It was suddenly going to be Tarzan and Jane - but hopefully with Tarzan at least being a little more articulate than that vine-swinging yoddler that we know and love.


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