Benedict Allen - explorer, author, filmmaker, public speaker
 Benedict Allen - explorer, author, filmmaker, public speaker
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About Benedict Allen

 
     
click to download larger photo of Benedict Allen - immersed in a sacred mud bath, during a Vodou ritual for Ogou, the warrior deity.
Benedict Allen immersed in a sacred
mud bath, during a Vodou ritual for
Ogou, the warrior deity.

© Chantal Regnault

One of Britain's leading adventurers, Benedict Allen, is particularly known for his television programmes - occasionally made with the help of a film crew but more typically without. He paved the way for the current generation of TV adventurers.

Uniquely in television, his philosophy is to genuinely immerse himself in extreme or alien environments, going alone and learning from indigenous people. As The Sunday Times put it: “Filming whatever actually happens, without all the hidden paraphernalia of a film crew, and whether in danger or lonely or undergoing various exotic rituals, he has effectively taken the viewers’ experience of adventure as far as it can go.”

However, most of his more challenging journeys – depicted in his first five books – in fact took place before he began filming his exploits. “I belonged to the last generation that might pass through a wilderness for months on end and not encounter a single person of my own culture. It was a privileged time: never in all those years can I remember coming across a single other foreigner, whilst out on a trek.” Such isolation seems inconceivable today.

   

Twenty five years on, Benedict Allen has narrowly escaped death six times; arguably, no one has more experience of living continuously isolated in as many remote environments.

» Read interview with Global Adventure Magazine

 

What’s exploration, Benedict style?

“In a nutshell, it’s about leaving things at home! Your GPS, satellite phone, modern transport, sponsorship and companions – all these things may well be useful, but they each get in the way. They impose a cost on your objective: they keep you in your comfort zone and prevent you from engaging with, and therefore understanding, alien terrain. I‘m not talking here about scientists, who of course need these devices to further a serious mission, but for all the rest of us who are trying to get to know a place. And especially the professionals: how else can we in this day and age claim to be “explorers” if we aren’t truly face-to-face with the environment we are “exploring”? We become less and less explorers, and more and more like adventurers or athletes. Incidentally, all this backup also of course undermines any physical achievement. If you’re dependent on these aids, are you really “unsupported,” or “solo” as you plod on through the wastelands? I know I’m being harsh, but it’s also the sad truth: with such backup at your disposal how do you know that what you’re doing is through you own ability? Maybe you shouldn’t be tackling Everest, but a nearby hill!”

Benedict Allen, answering questions on his Into the Abyss theatre tour, 2007

 

   

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click to download larger photo of Benedict Allen - in the forests of Siberut, Indonesia.
Benedict Allen, while in the forests
of Siberut, Indonesia

© Steve Watkins
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Why do you call yourself an “explorer” in this day and age?

“At one level of course we are all explorers - whether working in a Zurich bank, or wandering the forests of Borneo. That’s what makes us human: the desire to push our limits and investigate our surroundings is something we all do naturally. But there are also two types of professional “explorer.” Firstly, there are scientists, those whose job it is to piece together rationally how our world works. And secondly there are specialists who also discover new things in remote terrain but whose focus is perception, in the subjective, in how we respond emotionally or intellectually to alien places and people. This is where people like me come in: as I see it, my job is to go to unknown, little known or misunderstood parts of the planet and describe and challenge our ideas about them. But whichever type of explorer you are the difference between you and, say, someone travelling as a tourist, traveller, adventurer or a Polar sportsman, is that you set out with the specific objective of systematically tackling that frontier of knowledge and – here’s an equally important bit – you then report back your findings.”

Click here for MINI BIOGRAPHY
e.g. for use with speaking engagements.

Benedict Allen Full Biography

Benedict Allen aged 10
Benedict Allen aged about ten,
on a fossil-hunting venture
along the Dorset coast.

© Benedict Allen


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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.

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benedict allen, first expedition
Benedict Allen on his first expedition
– a crossing between the Orinoco and
Amazon river mouths – aged 22-23.

© Benedict Allen

b allen recuiting Momwina guides
Benedict 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

b allen on way to Obini
Benedict Allen with his band of Momwina recruits on the way to the Obini.
© Benedict Allen

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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 PROVING GROUNDS).

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 the world.

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 survive hardship.

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.

Benedict 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.

Inside story: click here for Benedict’s own thoughts on his work

 

Benedict Allen in the Andes as he set about crossing the Amazon Basin at its widest point.
Benedict Allen in the Andes, as
he set about crossing the
Amazon Basin at its widest point.

© Benedict Allen
Benedict Allen Modern Day Explorer illustrated by Chloe Garland, aged 7
Chloe Garland
'my project on a modern explorer'

Images by two of the greatest portrait photographers
© New York Times, Bruce Weber (the outdoor photos) and Vogue, Steven Meisel (the formal black and white studio portraits)

     

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