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Interview: Benedict Allen

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Benedict Allen, a British writer and explorer most well known for engrossing himself amongst indigenous people, will be speaking at The Adventure Travel Show 2014. This fearless adventurer has stared death in the face on several occasions, yet still has a clear undying passion for traditional exploration and immersion.

Benedict AllenThis isn’t Bear Grylls or Ray Mears, who find their every move tracked by a producer and camera crew. Allen is a lone ranger, going out into the unknown with nothing but an open mind and clear vision to guide him. The joy, for him, comes from making himself vulnerable; open to whatever nature is willing to throw at him.  He has no shortage of stories where danger has presented itself, and it is that lack of planning – that walk into the unknown – that makes him one of the most impressive explorers of our generation.

You can’t learn the art of “exploring” in school – how did you transform yourself into an “explorer”? Who were your early influences?

Essentially, I worked in a warehouse after leaving university until I had enough money to get me to South America and back. I then headed to Venezuela, and gradually made my way to more remote communities to learn from them. My Dad was my chief early influence: he was a test pilot (Vulcan bomber, etc) and that helped me believe I might be able to push my own limits, albeit in my own way.

What is the most important thing to take when going out into the unknown?

In my case (immersing myself amongst people to learn from them) there’s no one single item. More important is an attitude – an openness of mind – together with a very clear vision of what you are trying to achieve.

You’re well-known for relying on maps and compass for navigation. Why do you favour that method instead of GPS? Has modern technology ruined the experience?

Again, it depends on your objective. If you are a scientist, then a GPS and phone, etc, might be crucial. If you want to do a polar trek – essentially not exploration but a sports activity – again, having a GPS might be your thing. But if you are trying to immerse yourself in another world to understand it then – for me – it must be about making yourself vulnerable and not relying on props (brilliant though they are) and companions from home.  It’s about leaving these outside influences behind.

What has been the strangest situation when integrating with the indigenous people?

My guides in West Papua, the Momwina, turned out to have a long-standing war with the Obini, a very remote group I was visiting with them. Everything was fine for three days. Then the Obini began a sort of kangaroo war dance, and at the end of each verse they picked up a weapon. My guides ran off after a while – and I backed out of the village slowly, scattering the contents of my rucksack for them as presents. For two days my guides (waiting in the trees) ran with me away from the Obini, not sure if we were going to be ambushed… rather scary.

How do indigenous communities react when you first arrive?

This has varied hugely – from a sort of raucous dance to total incomprehension as to who I am – and whether I’m just one more whiteman there for my own ends (a missionary, anthropologist, miner, logger, tourist, etc).

Whilst trekking through the Amazon, you resorted to eating your own dog to stay alive. Did you feel guilty?

It wasn’t a pet, but an Amazon hunting dog I was trying to re-home – even so I felt guilty at the time. I should not have felt that guilt, I now think: the dog would have died, I would have died, and I think I had a higher moral duty to do what I could to get out – for my mother and father back home. Also, I was very sick – starving, two sorts of malaria – and delirious. It was one of those terrible situations that few can imagine.

Is that the worst thing you’ve ever had to do?

It was at the time - I was 22/23. I’ve had to do other things that felt as hard – I spent weeks alone in the Skelton Coast not seeing anyone (no phone, no one knowing where I was) just after my mother suddenly died, so that was quite a test of mental strength.

What is the closest you’ve been to death?

Eating that dog, being shot at by Pablo Escobar’s hitmen, being left to die in Brazilian forest, walking alone in the forest for a month, and losing sledge dogs in the Bering Strait. All equally pushing it somewhat.

Since the birth of your daughter, have you slowed down? What has been your most recent expedition?

When I lost those sledge dogs, out on pack ice – yet still survived – I made a conscious decision to allow myself to settle down. And once you’ve had children it’s never quite so easy to take risks. Also, my expeditions rely on maybe six months isolation, without any of the usual communication devices that adventurers tend to take.  It isn’t compatible with family life, and I’m determined not to lesser things – so better I change fields.

Where do you see the future of exploring?

True exploration really means science now; there IS also room for people like me who are looking to communicate what remote or little known places are like subjectively, but the great land journeys have been done – or at least are rather irrelevant and even distracting and self-indulgent, what with the threat to the ecology of our planet.

Benedict Allen will be speaking at The Adventure Travel Show, appearing in The Adventure Auditorium on Sunday the 26th  January 2014 at 13:15 unyil 13:45.

Advance tickets to the show are now on sale Get your tickets for only £6 (that’s saving £4 off the door price!) by quoting ‘TNS’ when booking tickets online at www.adventureshow.com.

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