Benedict Allen aged about ten,
on a fossil-hunting venture
along the Dorset coast.
Benedict Allen was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, the son of a test pilot,
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.
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. It was a remarkable feat
- and it 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
eaten his dog to survive.
Allen’s first book, MAD WHITE GIANT, part
of a planned quartet, followed from that experience – as did his decision
now to submerge himself among some of the remotest people on earth to help understand
the forest that had so nearly killed him.
In Irian Jaya, he led a band of remote
people - Allen pointedly avoids the heavily-loaded 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 seemed intent
on doing battle with his Momwina band, 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 NEST.
Benedict Allen on his first expedition
– a crossing between the Orinoco
Amazon river mouths – aged 22-23.
© Benedict Allen
Allen aged 24 – a
lone “white” man doing his best to recruit remote Momwina guides
with sign-language, on his way to the uncontacted Obini.
© Benedict Allen
Allen with his band of Momwina recruits on the way to the Obini.
© Benedict Allen
A string of expeditions 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 on one occasion by seafaring
canoe, having become marooned while crossing the treacherous Torres Strait (THE
With training from the Matses “Indians” he went
on to cross the whole of the Amazon Basin, a 3,500 mile journey of almost eight
months; during this he broke three ribs falling off a horse and on Columbia’s
Putumayo River was shot at by assassins belonging to the drug baron Pablo Escobar.
(THROUGH JAGUAR EYES).
It was now that the BBC asked Allen to take a video camera on his adventures.
His first programme, RAIDERS OF THE LOST LAKE, gained the highest viewing figures
in the history of the Video Diary strand; there followed THE SKELETON COAST series,
the story of his arduous three and a half month walk with reluctant 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 entire Gobi Desert with
a string of baggage camels.
Benedict Allen also presented MOMBASA TO THE MOUNTAINS
OF THE MOON, for the prestigious Great Railway Journeys BBC/PBS TV series. Also
for the BBC he filmed – with the help of producer Ruhi Hamid - THE BONES
OF COLONEL FAWCETT, about his search for the missing 1920s explorer in the Mato
Grosso. Next came, with film crew assistance at times, LAST OF THE MEDICINE MEN,
in which he investigated healers, shamans and so-called “witchdoctors” around
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 ICEDOGS, his fifth TV series for the BBC and later adapted by
National Geographic TV. He has since published his highly-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 is, 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
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.
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.
The picture on the left was by Chloe Garland, aged 7, a pupil at The
Harrodian School, southwest London.