I’m sipping coffee with explorer Benedict Allen in the quintessentially British environs of the British Library. Civilisations may rise and fall but this antique institution stands unshifting. Allen too has been standing some time. For a man who recently cheated death, the explorer, tall and rangy, looks pretty chipper. Not a missing tooth or graze in sight – quite a feat considering the mental and physical degradation he has been through.
In case you missed the story, Allen scooted off into the Papua New Guinean jungle last year, without a mobile phone or GPS. He’d gone there to re-encounter a remote tribe, the Yaifo, whom he’d met as a young man 30 years ago. His last tweeted words were: “don’t try to rescue me, please – where I’m going in PNG you won’t ever find me you know.”
During his quest he was caught in a tribal war, contracted malaria and dengue fever, witnessed an electrical storm ravage his route back, ended up with exhaustion, shock, dehydration, malnourishment and eventually landed at the mercy of local tribespeople with no way to contact home. Having missed his rendezvous by several days the alarm was sent out and UK newspapers fell into a total frenzy – “British Explorer Missing!”
And then – when all hope was lost – he was, indeed, found by, of all august institutions, the Daily Mail. He says it has taken him three to four months to recover.
“The exhaustion and shock made me feel very tired. There was a lot of stress after it too so it took a while to gather myself.”
It begs the question – what was he doing out in the wild without any modern conveniences?
The thing is, Allen is old school. He doesn’t carry smart phones or GPS. He has no camera crew watching him. He has no Instagram account. He pursues what he calls a “total immersion” philosophy which has led him into some breathtaking, ridiculous adventures. The first was a 600-mile solo expedition across the Amazon with no more than a basic map of South America. There he got chased by knife-wielding gold prospectors and was forced to eat his dog as he wandered through an unforgiving jungle.
In a subsequent Amazonian adventure, Pablo Escobar’s gang shot at him and he had to jump out of his canoe into a river to escape; there was also the time he sewed up his own chest with a boot kit; or that other occasion when loggers kicked away the tree bridge he’d used to cross a river; also the time he was driven over a cliff in Siberia by his huskies. Despite the seemingly endless run of mishaps, Allen considers himself to be pretty fortunate.
In the Amazon I had that naivety of youth and the belief you are immortal – it only happens once in life
“I was very lucky,” he says. “In the Amazon I had that naivety of youth and the belief you are immortal – it only happens once in life. Looking back it is a terrifying thought. I didn’t know what I was doing but somehow got away with it. Then I realised I had to get serious about this and learn.”
Allen follows in a long tradition of very British explorers. It is a vocation that seems more popular than ever with legions of dishevelled men – and women – travelling around the world kicking down doors in far-off lands, riding backwards on bicycles, drinking rhinoceros piss – that kind of thing – and then publicising it. Allen is different. Unlike most of the modern day-ers, he doesn’t believe in self-aggrandisement. The point of an explorer is to document the world and spread information, he says.
“The whole point of being an explorer is that you’re a communicator – a scientist. Lots of people who are adventurers are doing it for their own vanity. It should be all about immersion and not saying ‘wahey, how great am I’. Exploration should be about anywhere we don’t understand – that could be inner city London or the forests of PNG.”
While he admits that exploring is “incredibly exciting and addictive,” the Pablo Escobar escapades are few and far between. Most of the explorer’s life is not, in fact, adventurous.There are the long periods spent sitting in local camps with tribes learning the language and adapting to environments. But here’s the interesting thing – meeting new people and understanding other humans seems to be the most rewarding activity of all.
The first time he went to PNG, age 23, looking for people in the misty unknown, he found the Niowra. He ended up getting welted all over his body in a crocodile nest initiation ceremony. The scars remain and so does the camaraderie and connection with the people. After that he met the remote Yaifo tribe – portrayed as savages in the recent press – who were very helpful and generous to a young, alien face suddenly appearing out of the jungle.
“I was 26 years old and very vulnerable. I had no medical back up at all. Two Yaifo came down to meet me. They helped me get over the mountain.”
The help recurred last year. This time two brothers from the Hewa tribe went off on a 30-mile trek up a mountain to look for a mobile phone signal as Allen lay wilting from malaria in a remote mission station.
There’s been others – the Chukchi of Siberia who helped him forge through Arctic tundra; the semi-nomadic tribes in the Amazon without whom he’d have been lost in the rainforest; of course the diverse tribes of Papuans.
He says he feels indebted to the kindness he’s received from local people and for this reason was disappointed by negative press on Papuans last year who, not for the first time, were hung out to dry by the papers as he was painted as a pith-hatted imperialist explorer.
True exploration is entering a golden age – it is not just a privileged few but it has become much more open to everyone
“I think the local people are the window into the places I was scared of once or twice. I felt without communities I would be very helpless, and I look in gratitude now at how they helped me. I felt indebted to local people and it does depress me how they are portrayed in the press.”
And that’s what this exploration lark is really all about – showing the kindness and not the savageness of people.
“It’s not really about eating frogs or spiders but in the mind. For me it is the feeling and perception of places. To do it you need resilience, doggedness, a sense of humour, patience and having a clear vision. If you can keep the mind strong and also have food, shelter, water, then you should be good.”
But, of course, things have changed for Allen since the old days. He now has kids and a wife. It is the part that seems most difficult. Being an explorer on your own is one thing. Having people who rely on you and need you to keep your end up by not dying is another.
So will he go out again? There’s nothing fixed. But he says the latest PNG misadventure left some regrets. While he was grateful for the escape, he considers he was rescued too early.
“I had a big challenge ahead of me and suddenly this newspaper came,” he says. “I had no idea the outside world was interested. I was grateful for the sake of my family but it was quite traumatic to have it suddenly taken away from me. I feel a little bit of me is still in PNG. There is a need for completion.”
The unfulfillment of the trip makes it seem inevitable he will go a-roving once more. And why not. Allen says the world needs explorers now more than ever to document cultures and the changes happening in the world caused by all things from technology to climate change.
“True exploration is entering a golden age – it is not just a privileged few but it has become much more open to everyone. Humans are all explorers. If you don’t document it then it is worrying. Especially when there are so many environmental problems and so on. If you have experience and it’s no use to anyone else then it’s a waste. And you don’t have to be a white middle class bloke to do it.”
For more info, see Benedict Allen