Q & A

Want to be an Adventurer?

Various questions Benedict is sometimes asked:

Could you advise me on whether I should abandon everything for a life of being an adventurer/explorer?

"Here'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 – and that's how I felt. I didn't have any money either. But I used the time at uni. to work up a plan – 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 – 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 it'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 that's the only justification for a life of travel – it would be self-indulgent indeed to devote a life to following your own dreams, and no use to the world if you don't share what you've discovered. Writing, and TV, has been my justification – the only reason why I can call myself an explorer, as opposed to adventurer, is because I'm reporting back to my world.
Hope that helps.

Someone one years ago advised me to "Follow your own True North." That's what I'd say to you!

Best wishes..."

Here's another letter, this in reply to a young graduate, inspired by a trip to Namibia with Raleigh International. He wondered if benedict thought he should "take the plunge" and resign from what my mum would have called a "proper job" to dedicate his life to the wildernesses of the world. Was such a life practicable? I hope he won't mind me sharing my reply. I hope it's of use to anyone who, like me, aspired to make his way as some sort of adventurer. Don't be too put off by my experience – where there's a will there's a way...

"I do sympathize! I had the same thoughts, more-or-less. I was 22 and I had no money. The thing to do is acknowledge from the start that it will be a struggle – otherwise everyone else would do it, I suspect. I felt a real NEED – I burning desire - to push myself to the limit. I wasn't interested in "travel" per se, but in exploration – going to unknown places and reporting back. That communication aspect was always crucial to me.

For twelve years I was in more-or-less poverty: I worked in bookshops and warehouses – unskilled jobs – and lived with my mum and dad in Hampshire til I was about 26-27 (that is, between my expeditions) and then a kindly woman didn't charge me much rent when at last I did make it up London. I wrote five books during this time – and no, they did not keep me afloat, even living a fairly modest, bachelor life. The only change came about really when I was given a camcorder by the BBC, and made my first programme, so pioneering the filming of genuine expeditions for TV. Even then, the BBC didn't pay for the first expeditions (both taking 6 months or more of my time). So, mine was a long hard slog sadly – and my financial position is not really secure even now, having forged a name for myself. I have no children, thankfully (I say "thankfully" only from the financial point of view).

Let's hope you are better organized than me – and have more business acumen! I'm sure you can succeed – it's a question of whether you are prepared to make the sacrifices. Most artist/writer/photographer friends of mine have taken about ten years to break through and make a name for themselves. And I think "adventurers" and "explorers" are perhaps more by nature artists than scientists – that is, they are driven, soul-searching people. Unfortunately these people have to be prepared to have a tough time – they are following their own desires, after-all.

There are many routes for you to take: be a tour leader to boost income, book reviewer, journalist. I always wanted to be a writer – but my only viable strategy in the end was to be fairly multi-disciplined. I wrote but I also photographed, filmed, broadcast, gave motivation speeches. Now, when one field of work dries up, I turn to another. But the key in the end is to make a name for yourself – ie be recognized for doing one particular thing. If possible, be THE expert on something, eg on Afghanistan, on deserts, on beetles, on Polar Exploration. I didn't do this, and there was always a danger, in the early days, that I was "spreading myself too thin." Another way is do "a first" – be the youngest Brit to climb K2, first woman to ski to Mars, or whatever. I didn't go in for these records, which (strictly from a cynical career point of view) was perhaps a mistake and delayed my progress. But there's no point in following this "calling" if you are not true to yourself. I have avoided travel journalism, generally, because I thought it would distract me from what I really wanted to do. Better to do temporary jobs and save my energies for what matters, I felt, the expedition.

All in all, not a very cheery message – it's hard to make a living doing what I do. I'm one of the few who do. It's come at great costs – an irregular, often low income and often shattered personal life. But it's what, in the end, I chose to do – and you only get one life don't you?

Perhaps one idea is to take a 6 month career break – and give it a go for a short while. But make sure you chuck the Lonely Planet away and do YOUR journey, something that you define. And think what you are going to do with the experience: someone back home needs to think they can gain from your venture. That's how Columbus got someone to pay for his trip to "the Indies" , that's how Ran Fiennes persuades sponsors to back him, and selling books is how I fund my journeys.

Good luck out there mate!"

Benedict, yours seems to be a dream job! How did you get it?

I really don't think of my job is a dream job! It's the only thing I wanted to do, and it's been a struggle to get to this position – and it always will be to carry on. But it's my life, and the only thing I know. I worked in a warehouse to earn enough money for my first expedition, and carried on doing that for ages – lived at home with my mum and dad til I was 27 ish, again due to money shortages. I didn't do any telly til after my first five books, when the BBC approached me to take a little camera along on my next trip. Essentially, I felt I NEEDED to be an adventurer and writer, and without that drive I wouldn't have been able to do it. Even now, money is uncertain, and my office is chaos! Anyone can be a professional explorer, if that's what they really, really want to do. It's not easy though – but if it was, everyone would do it!

What makes you think an adventure is worth going on?

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.

What, for you, makes an expedition a real expedition, as opposed to journey?

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.

What's the point in going on an expedition?

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.

What advice would you give someone wanting to go on their first expedition?

Set about thinking what you want to achieve, and then start reading up on the place. The key to planning is information - so look at old expedition reports at the Royal Geographical Society, ring up their Expedition Advisory Centre.

What is your involvement with the Duke of Edinburgh Award and why is it a good thing?

I was asked to help out, because I have a high profile in the adventure travel world, and so I hand out Gold Awards from time to time at Buckingham Palace etc. But I didn't do the Award myself at school - should have, really. The Duke of Edinburgh said I'd been trying to make up for it, ever since!

Have you any suggestions on a good first time expedition destination?

Namibia, Mongolia, and even Iceland (where I led my first expedition). All these places are politically stable, and are relatively remote - though not unexplored. In all of them you can be far removed from your world, and seriously enter another. My favourite is Mongolia, perhaps - the nomads form 40% of the population, and the country is the size of Western Europe (though with only a couple of million people in it).

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