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Benedict Allen, while in the forests of Siberut, Indonesia
© Steve Watkins
I'll try to be as open and frank as possible here and hope these thoughts are of interest - and even of some use to others maybe setting out on their own path.
First of all I should say that my "philosophy" of not using backup, GPS and other aides came about through nothing high-minded. The same goes for my stance against commercial sponsorship. If I were to become an "explorer" – as I was determined from aged ten to be - I had to solve a practical problem: how to carry out my adventurous "quests" without any money. My parents didn't have any – the private school I'd been to had been paid for out of their savings, topped up by my grandmother. Furthermore, I was at the tail end of the era of "classic exploration," if that means discovery through isolated travel, and nearing the era of adventure tourism. Put another way, any trek to the North Pole, down the Nile or across Borneo might be a great physical feat but it wasn't actually of any great relevance anymore. The true frontiers were being advanced only by specialist scientists – so it would seem.
However, it struck me that man is not a rational creature- and for that reason exploration is also about how we perceive the world. Subjective observations also count - and the world will always need interpreting afresh, just as Livingstone "explored" central Africa (already actually quite well known to the Arabs) for the Victorian world. As I evolved my first objective, to cross from the mouth of the Orinoco to the mouth of the Amazon - this would take me through what was, I calculated, the least traversable portion of the Amazon Basin (but in those days nonetheless facing an ominous road project) - it struck me that the locals didn't have any money either! So what I should do, I decided, was go alone, learn skills from the indigenous peoples and then launch out. It was a naive notion - but, after a fashion, it worked! From this emerged the principle of immersing myself with remote people - and from this the idea of not taking 'props' from the outside world. Advertising a product didn't sit well with the idea of immersion - so that cut out any commercial sponsorship that did now come my way. Feeding into all this was a suspicion that the first deteriorating natural habitats should no longer be a playground for adventurers wishing to promote themselves (this became a central theme of Mad White Giant – hence the title): travel by anyone calling themselves an "explorer" had to break seriously useful ground. As a 22 year old, I was rather earnest, I fear!
At home at his writing desk
© Anna McCarthy
The first objective - that NE Amazon crossing - seemed the perfect context for the first of what I planned to be a quartet of Rain Forest books. These would break away from the established travelogue tradition, I decided. Somewhere I'd read that Brahms had wondered what he could ever achieve with his music – Beethoven had already reached all the heights – concluding that he must look sideways. I decided I must do the same in my own chosen field: I'd go off on into the remote world and explore the themes thrown up by each journey rather than, as in a traditional travelogue, simply record my impressions of the place I passed through. I wrote the first book, worked again in a warehouse, then again headed off on the next mission – and so on.
People sometimes ask whether I didn't have doubts, during these first years, about my "prospects" – after all, by the age of thirty I still didn't have what my mum fondly called a Proper Job – and I'd like to say a bit about this because I know there are lots of people who are like I was back then. Yes, you bet I had doubts! It was easy for me in one sense, though: I was driven. I couldn't see any other choice. What did make this aspect harder was that I was ploughing my own furrow: for a number of years I was, even within my profession, regarded as a maverick - or not even believed. Doubtless, much of this was my own fault: I took huge risks; travelling without equipment or outside companions enabled me to travel at great pace - and I didn't even bother to explain or document each operation. Worse, my first book satirized us, the intruding outsider. "Imperialism is the lifeblood of exploration!" I delighted in telling one RGS audience. I was young. "Bolshie."
But that's enough on all this. In time my track record did begin to speak for itself. It was a question of "hanging on in there." (Incidentally, history repeated itself when, years later, in my first foray into TV I again ribbed the idea of the "explorer" figure - in Raiders of the Lost Lake.)
This is all by-the-by. All I'm saying is that you have to expect criticism if you are attempting something new - and doubtless I was arrogant in not making my process and intent clearer. Until well into my thirties I was dependent on kind-hearted people who let me sleep in their spare rooms or on sofa-beds for little or no rent. I wrote my quartet - four books written in different "moods" – which would, I hoped, combine the many themes of journeying into the unfamiliar – Homer's The Odyssey, but rooted in very real experience.
Then, my family and agent by now despairing, a piece of luck: Bob Long, of the Communities Programme Unit of the BBC, invited me to take a camera on my return expedition to the Amazon Basin (this time to cross the whole thing at its widest point). He couldn't then pay for a camera - nor could I - but Anita Roddick (of Bodyshop) had once said to me that if there was anything she could do to further my work, be sure to let her know: she sent a personal cheque by return of post. And that's how my first telly programme, and the genre of "television adventure" came about!
So what does this all add up to? Much of what I've done I'm proud of - and some of it I'm not. I feel that my more physical feats were the more honest for me not having a phone or other outside help – but then these endeavours were reliant on indigenous people, who I sometimes didn't enough acknowledge or allowed to be misrepresented. My early books and those journeys without 'backup' have not yet revolutionized our approach to 'exploration' – rather, my long marches seem at times like the nostalgic tramps of an Edwardian relic... My early television programmes - "whatever happened happened" (no Health and Safety restraints for me!) - did change the landscape of TV, but only for the following generation of programme-makers to do 'adventure' and 'anthropology' with little appetite for authenticity.
Time moves on – this is the YouTube generation. In a sense, we are all "explorers" now. And I find that exciting. The rather surprising thing is that with each year I feel less and less a "throw-back": it seems to me more important than ever to disconnect from our own highly-connected, 'known' world.