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Need a survival tip?
In an emergency, stay where you are if rescue is likely to come. If not, shelter, water, food are your priorities. But my best advice is to be thoroughly prepared in the first place.
A few practical tips that I’ve found useful:
If you are in any way vulnerable to the elements, carry a SURVIVAL KIT: something that’s very small and light, and that you won’t feel tempted to leave behind at camp. Contents I include vary enormously, depending on if I'm in hot desert, when it might include distress flares, and a mirror for signalling from the sun, to cold desert (when it would have a mini stove, for melting snow for water) to "jungle" (when it might include extra antiobiotics, fishing line and fishing hooks). But there's always a compass, sometimes a GPS (although I tend not to navigate with one normally) and some sort of map, and waterproof matches, water purification tablets and some basic antibiotics, a high energy food item (nuts, pork scratching, a chocolate bar even), and a pencil and paper for leaving messages.
In addition, I always carry crepe bandages – in case I sprain an ankle, as I’ve been prone to do in rain forest. Remember that your feet/legs are your most important asset – more important than hands even. Break a leg and you can’t go anywhere.
Keep yourself covered - always long sleeves and trousers, to stop evaporation. Use a hat, shades, and stick of sun block for your nose.
Put white tape on your penknife - or a colour that will show up if you drop it in sand. Red doesn't normally show.
Carry a water bottle with you at all times; and a whistle - can be heard for miles if you are lost, hopefully. Torch and/or flares for attracting attention at night.
Remember it's a cold desert. Above all, you will need a stove to melt ice in order to drink. I always carried a spare mini stove in an enlarged survival kit - and a survival blanket and flapjack etc for calories. Water may be obtained from the snow and ice, but ingesting it in large amounts can dangerously lower your core temperature.
Keep yourself clean - fungi will otherwise tend to grow on your skin, and start rotting it, especially groin and between toes.
Carry salt - just sprinkle it on leeches, and they'll come off.
Carry a mosquito net which is impregnated with anti-mosquito repellent. Keeps them from biting through.
Stick to rivers if you want food – it’s what indigenous people do. Piranhas and snakes are only VERY rarely a danger – I’ve never been attacked by either, and there are few people who’ve spend so longer alone in Rain Forest. Piranhas make an easy source of food in the Amazon, but you’ll need wire to connect your hook (baited with insects/grubs etc) to the line – to prevent their teeth biting through.
Want to be an explorer?
Various questions Benedict is sometimes asked:
Q : Could you advise me on whether I should abandon everything for a life of being an adventurer/explorer:
A : “Here’s a letter I wrote to an American student, who was wondering whether I thought he should leave College and go off to wander the world:
“My feeling is that you should stay in college, and use that time to PLAN something. The key is that you say you NEED to go – and that’s how I felt. I didn’t have any money either. But I used the time at uni. to work up a plan – and I think it is vital to dream up an adventure or challenge, not just drift. Any one can be a backpacker, but I think you can do more than that all your life. Read and read – look at old/new maps. And start to hatch a plan. Nothing like an empty place on a map to excite me!
In the end you must look to your own desires, but, regarding your education, I think it’d be unwise to drop it, however restless you feel. In the end, my journeys have been all about trying to make sense of the world. I think a formal education helps structure your thoughts, and helps you argue your case and cause. Increasingly, I get satisfaction out of doing the journey for others, not just myself. And really that’s the only justification for a life of travel – it would be self-indulgent indeed to devote a life to following your own dreams, and no use to the world if you don’t share what you’ve discovered. Writing, and TV, has been my justification – the only reason why I can call myself an explorer, as opposed to adventurer, is because I’m reporting back to my world.
Hope that helps.
Someone one years ago advised me to “Follow your own True North.” That’s what I’d say to you!
Here’s another letter, this in reply to a young graduate, inspired by a trip to Namibia with Raleigh International. He wondered if benedict thought he should “take the plunge” and resign from what my mum would have called a “proper job” to dedicate his life to the wildernesses of the world. Was such a life practicable? I hope he won’t mind me sharing my reply. I hope it’s of use to anyone who, like me, aspired to make his way as some sort of adventurer. Don’t be too put off by my experience – where there’s a will there’s a way…
“I do sympathize! I had the same thoughts, more-or-less. I was 22 and I had no money. The thing to do is acknowledge from the start that it will be a struggle – otherwise everyone else would do it, I suspect. I felt a real NEED – I burning desire - to push myself to the limit. I wasn’t interested in “travel” per se, but in exploration – going to unknown places and reporting back. That communication aspect was always crucial to me.
For twelve years I was in more-or-less poverty: I worked in bookshops and warehouses – unskilled jobs – and lived with my mum and dad in Hampshire til I was about 26-27 (that is, between my expeditions) and then a kindly woman didn’t charge me much rent when at last I did make it up London. I wrote five books during this time – and no, they did not keep me afloat, even living a fairly modest, bachelor life. The only change came about really when I was given a camcorder by the BBC, and made my first programme, so pioneering the filming of genuine expeditions for TV. Even then, the BBC didn’t pay for the first expeditions (both taking 6 months or more of my time). So, mine was a long hard slog sadly – and my financial position is not really secure even now, having forged a name for myself. I have no children, thankfully (I say “thankfully” only from the financial point of view).
Let’s hope you are better organized than me – and have more business acumen! I’m sure you can succeed – it’s a question of whether you are prepared to make the sacrifices. Most artist/writer/photographer friends of mine have taken about ten years to break through and make a name for themselves. And I think “adventurers” and “explorers” are perhaps more by nature artists than scientists – that is, they are driven, soul-searching people. Unfortunately these people have to be prepared to have a tough time – they are following their own desires, after-all.
There are many routes for you to take: be a tour leader to boost income, book reviewer, journalist. I always wanted to be a writer – but my only viable strategy in the end was to be fairly multi-disciplined. I wrote but I also photographed, filmed, broadcast, gave motivation speeches. Now, when one field of work dries up, I turn to another. But the key in the end is to make a name for yourself – ie be recognized for doing one particular thing. If possible, be THE expert on something, eg on Afghanistan, on deserts, on beetles, on Polar Exploration. I didn’t do this, and there was always a danger, in the early days, that I was “spreading myself too thin.” Another way is do “a first” – be the youngest Brit to climb K2, first woman to ski to Mars, or whatever. I didn’t go in for these records, which (strictly from a cynical career point of view) was perhaps a mistake and delayed my progress. But there’s no point in following this “calling” if you are not true to yourself. I have avoided travel journalism, generally, because I thought it would distract me from what I really wanted to do. Better to do temporary jobs and save my energies for what matters, I felt, the expedition.
All in all, not a very cheery message – it’s hard to make a living doing what I do. I’m one of the few who do. It’s come at great costs – an irregular, often low income and often shattered personal life. But it’s what, in the end, I chose to do – and you only get one life don’t you?
Perhaps one idea is to take a 6 month career break – and give it a go for a short while. But make sure you chuck the Lonely Planet away and do YOUR journey, something that you define. And think what you are going to do with the experience: someone back home needs to think they can gain from your venture. That’s how Columbus got someone to pay for his trip to “the Indies” , that’s how Ran Fiennes persuades sponsors to back him, and selling books is how I fund my journeys.
Good luck out there mate!”
Q : Benedict, yours seems to be a dream job! How did you get it?
A : I really don’t think of my job is a dream job! It’s the only thing I wanted to do, and it’s been a struggle to get to this position – and it always will be to carry on. But it’s my life, and the only thing I know.
I worked in a warehouse to earn enough money for my first expedition, and carried on doing that for ages – lived at home with my mum and dad til I was 27 ish, again due to money shortages. I didn’t do any telly til after my first five books, when the BBC approached me to take a little camera along on my next trip.
Essentially, I felt I NEEDED to be an adventurer and writer, and without that drive I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Even now, money is uncertain, and my office is chaos!
Anyone can be a professional explorer, if that’s what they really, really want to do. It’s not easy though – but if it was, everyone would do it!
Q : What makes you think an adventure is worth going on?
A : Sometimes certain places and challenges seem irresistible to me. Certain ideas stand out, above the rest - places like the "Skeleton Coast" sound so magical, a natural challenge to me. So I look on a map and see whether the place looks interesting enough in reality. For me, journeys are all about learning to live in a hostile environment from remote people who see that place as home. So I would need to see if there are indeed remote, indigenous people there who could teach me, and launch me out on a great-sounding journey.
Q : What, for you, makes an expedition a real expedition, as opposed to journey?
A : Having a clear objective, and a plan with which to pull it off. Unless it's an expedition of the pure adventure type, there should be some element of research and - importantly - an intention to report back on your findings.
Q : What's the point in going on an expedition?
A : Either to bring back some useful information, or to bring a more considered or "higher" approach to your travels. Most travel is self-indulgent and, while there's nothing wrong with wanting a bit of fun, if you want to achieve something meaningful for others, or achieve something perhaps at a higher level of achievement for yourself, an expedition-approach is a good idea. Want to climb a great mountain? Then you need an expedition. It's the same with most other achievements on the horizontal plane.
Q : What advice would you give someone wanting to go on their first expedition?
A : Set about thinking what you want to achieve, and then start reading up on the place. The key to planning is information - so look at old expedition reports at the Royal Geographical Society, ring up their Expedition Advisory Centre.
Q : What is your involvement with the Duke of Edinburgh Award and why is it a good thing?
A : I was asked to help out, because I have a high profile in the adventure travel world, and so I hand out Gold Awards from time to time at Buckingham Palace etc. But I didn't do the Award myself at school - should have, really. The Duke of Edinburgh said I'd been trying to make up for it, ever since!
Q : Have you any suggestions on a good first time expedition destination?
A : Namibia, Mongolia, and even Iceland (where I led my first expedition). All these places are politically stable, and are relatively remote - though not unexplored. In all of them you can be far removed from your world, and seriously enter another. My favourite is Mongolia, perhaps - the nomads form 40% of the population, and the country is the size of Western Europe (though with only a couple of million people in it).
Is there anywhere left to explore?
A : It’s a myth that exploration is something belonging to the past – some Golden Age in which explorers stalked the earth in pith helmets, or some earlier time of the Ancients when man sailed the oceans wondering if he was going to fall off the edge of the world. It’s true that the land surface of our planet has been well-and-truly mapped – by satellite if not on the ground. But we know the surface of the moon better than the surface of the ocean floor. Only one or two people have reached the bottom of our major ocean trenches. That said, the great romantic journeys are done. We simple can’t ride off by camel and expect to see the totally unknown. While there remain a handful of uncontacted peoples – really only in the Amazon now – there are next to no encounters with unknown worlds to be had. Exploration of the planet – what I’d define as the quest to push barriers of the known, and report back that information – then comes down to two types. 1. Science in ever increasing detail and complexity – there are perhaps 10 million species on earth (maybe 100 million if you include bacteria etc) and we have only named 1.5 million of them, let alone learnt to understand their function and ecosystems. 2. Interpretation of far off distant or inhospitable places and peoples that we have a hazy or wrong ideas about. This is my personal focus. When Livingstone explored Africa, much of it was a place well understood (although un-charted) by the Africans, and well known to the Arabs. What he was doing was bringing an interpretation of it back to Victorian Britain, and wider scientific world. In the same way (maybe to a lesser though still valid extent) we must keep interpreting these remote “exotic” lands for our current age. Hence I try not to take navigation aids and backup from the UK. IF you want more than just an adventure, this type of exploration must be about immersing yourself in these alien environments and trying to bring a picture of them back to your people.
Q : You have written a huge anthology, The Faber Book of Exploration. Who are your heroes?
A : Capt. James Cook - a navigator of genius, but also wonderfully able to see the Natives simply as people. He was very good at not judging - a real man of the Enlightenment. Like when he came across a Maori warrior, and walked up to him and gave him a hug, and rubbed his nose with him in the traditional greeting.
Nansen - the great Norseman, and one of the great early Arctic explorers. He was the guru really of Amundsen, the first to the South Pole, and taught him “what was what” in the extreme cold - with the result he made an easy job (also due to his professionalism) - of getting to the Pole. He knew the key was simply to adapt to the place – which meant relying on dogs and skis - and to be thorough.
Q : If you hadn't become an explorer/travel writer/broadcaster what do you think you would be doing now?
A : I'd be an artist, I think. I almost went to art school. What I'm trying to do, through my books and expeditions (I rarely write articles, and the TV is just a tie-on) is simply trying to make sense of the world for myself, like any other person with creative drive, perhaps.
Q : Isn’t filming intrusive? Haven’t you had a detrimental effect on the people you’ve lived with?
A : I’ve often thought about this, and it’s important that I keep doing so. I think my approach of going alone means I have little direct impact on remote people; the sad truth is that the places I visited two decades ago have severely changed regardless – loggers, gold miners, and the outside world generally have moved in. And my justification for intruding (and by the way I think travellers nowadays do have to justify their travels – the world is no longer a playground, or shouldn’t be) is that I’m recording worlds that are fast disappearing. However, there is a wider effect of my TV programmes – obviously I help encourage people to want to go. I don’t know of anyone who has ever followed quite in my footsteps, but nonetheless all travel programmes are guilty in this respect. The thing is to fight the BBC and others who broadcast silly ones – which effectively exploit the locals through making them a source of entertainment. Even if the producers don’t aim to do this (and many presently most do) you can imagine the impact of each film crew (which will typically include cameraman, soundman, director, government “minder” and four or five drivers and those having to lug all the equipment etc. NONE of these – including the presenter – will have a sensibility or knowledge of the area, which is brought about only through time, not just a week or month in the region)
Q : Why do You People go on adventures?!
A : Some whom I know want to become famous, or Make Their Mark, like sportsmen, others are scientists or specialists looking for something in a remote place, or sometimes, like me, there is just something about their personality that drives them to have adventures. I have never understood why I risk my life by trekking through the Amazon, or walking across the Gobi Desert with camels. I know some explorers who've had an unhappy childhood, and they've wanted to prove themselves to their parents who didn't love them, or died young. But in my case I had a happy childhood. Yet I feel "driven" - my “soul,” if you like, seems to long to be out in the middle of nowhere, where I am forced to confront "nature." It's very difficult to give a good reason. But after having had one adventure, the feeling you get having succeeded against so many obstacles - eg having walked up the Skeleton Coast with camels, as I did in Namibia for instance - is so wonderful, that eventually you want to go back and try a new challenge.
Q : Are there more adventurers today than 100 years ago?
A : Definitely. There are many more people out there - we have more time, more opportunity, more money than our forefathers did 100 years ago. Exploration used to be done by a few people who were specialists. Now adventure is much more democratic, in a sense. Anyone, with very little money, can jump on a plane and disappear into Africa. The places aren't so remote, but there are the adventures still - white-water rafting, etc...
Q : How has being close to death affected you?
A : Maybe 6-7 times I've almost died. On my first journey, after I set out aged 22, for example – and not just when I stumbled out of the forest alone at the end. I took a lot of risks on the trip – and was essentially out of control much of the time. The locals looked after me – but I was relying, in my innocence, on luck. Looking back, I’d never do it again, even with all my experience! Looking back on my career generally, I've obviously had to think about what my life means to me a lot, and what I want to do with it. Effectively, I've now got a career as an adventurer, so in that broader sense as well my journeys have changed my life. But most of the changes to my life have been gradual - it hasn't been about the terrible moments, being lost in the jungles of the Amazon, it's been the rest of the time, when I've just had to learn to be patient, sitting in remote Indian villages, or learning over many weeks to handle camels. This is what being an adventurer is all about - not falling off a cliff (as I did in the Arctic) or being shot at by drug barons (as I was in the Amazon) but learning to adapt to a different world, so you are better prepared for whatever happens next.
Q : What camera do you use?
A : My first two series (Skeleton Coast, Edge of Blue Heaven) were shot on Hi-8, others with a Sony PD100 – but it’s out of date now, and I’m out of touch with what’s best.
Q : Do you always obtain permission to film your subjects and do you tell them that they may appear on film that will be seen by millions?
A : Remoter/less "acculturated" people I have not, as a rule, filmed as I arrive amongst them. Instead I've brought my camera out slowly, once I have been given some sort of trust and feel it would not cause alarm/discontent. So there has been little problem generally filming people who, after a couple of days, have become companions. I think the key here has been that I've come (a) alone or with just local people and therefore don't cause much disruption to a community or family I've appeared amongst, or if I have I'm perceived simply as a fairly harmless curiosity rather than intrusion; (b) on a mission which has generally been to get to know individuals as friends to learn from, rather than to study as subjects. Of course, the results are not objective, and my field observations would match up poorly to that on an anthropologist, but there again, in the end my story is all about conveying an experience - mine specifically, and more generally, mine of another peoples' world. It's about how I saw the world, and less a depiction of that world per se. When I have filmed secret/sacred rituals - particularly for the BBC series Last of the Medicine Men - I have spent weeks or months getting to know the individuals, and generally have purposely focused on getting to know an individual or two, before filming their ritual. I've never felt the need to talk to them about how the film might be shown to millions - their understanding has always been that this record of mine is escaping the community, and being released to the outside world. Whether to one whiteman or a billion, has not been an issue: the importance has been that I'm being trusted to use it responsibly. Incidentally, I have often been encouraged by shamans to film them - partly I think because this has added to an individual's prestige (they might like the idea of being singled-out by me as having sacred knowledge) but also, poignantly, because these individuals feel their role/knowledge is becoming less important to the community nowadays, and they have enlisted my support to bolster their "cause" (as among the Huichols of Mexico) or even wanted me to make a record, lest it was soon gone for ever (as among the Mentawai of Siberut Island).
Q : How intrusive is the camera to you in your travel and exploration? How much do you think remote people play up to the expected authentic behaviour to the point of it becoming what the traveller expects to see and is unauthentic?
A : Filming is highly intrusive in terms of completing my physical objective - in that it takes a lot of each day, and was actually the most dangerous part of my 1000 km Siberia trip, because it was breaking every rule in the book to leave my dog team, set up the camera, and then retrieve it while alone in the Arctic.
In terms of intruding on my personal experience: I've found the camera a rather endearing and useful companion. I just spill out my thoughts, and (for example when I thought I might die having lost my dog team while alone in the Bering Strait) am startled and interested by the extra perspective it gives me, once recalling the journey back home. I am not a "presenter" - I'm just recording what's going on during my journey, so this visual record gives an extra layer to the whole business of bringing back the experience to those of my culture, once back here.
As for the intrusion caused to local people I encounter: interestingly, the camera has turned out to be a great bond. This sounds counter-intuitive, because it's a obvious piece of alien technology of course, and can produce dramatic responses when you play back filmed tapes to a community. But I've found that, by filming myself then handing the camera around for everyone to see the resulting tape, I show I'm happy to share in the procedure of recording/being recorded. Next move often is to film children, and let them film themselves. Parents often then gather round the camera, wanting to take part... Conversely, a stills camera (ie just for pictures) I've found gives the opposite result - the act of taking photos seems to be innately aggressive, a capturing activity.
I haven't had much experience of acting up - generally, my subjects haven't been filmed before, and anyway I film whatever is happening, and no more. "The truth is always the most interesting" is the dictum. If someone is battling with a truculent horse, I go up and film it. If I havre to eat the guts of a rat, I film that too. The secret is having months in which to observe interesting things happen - and being alone and isolated. On one expedition - they take perhaps six months - I might end up filming 400 hours of tape!
I should emphasise that my approach is not to use a film crew. Film crews cost something like £1000 - £1500 a day , and so activities - rituals, interviews, travelling sequences - have to be pre-arranged. In my experience (eg of presenting a film for the BBC series Great Railway Journeys), if there isn't acting - up, then there is certainly an element of acting - the film crew can't afford to wait around for something to happen. And the idea is to fit it into a pre-arranged story perhaps thought up in Shepherd's Bush somewhere.
Q : Do you worry that the truth is being distorted during editing of your programmes?
A : Editing is where I think an element of distortion necessarily creeps in. I am really proud that my series are fairly factually correct, or to the best of my knowledge so. Simply put: whatever happens gets filmed and may be included in the programme. But here's the problem: if you don't film enough of a particular storyline or incident, or in an interesting enough way, it won't make the final programme. So whole chunks of my experience might be cut out, just because the camera broke or I made a mess of filming it. Furthermore, there are always distortions of time - in Mongolia I filmed for 7 months and this was concentrated into 3 hours of TV. You simply have to simplify the story - and this is of course a type of distortion. And I do from time to time find myself having to allow the editor to move a shot of my camels, for example, to a totally different sequence - because I failed to get the right shot in the original scene. The only alternative is often to cut the scene altogether, and, I argue, that might be a worse distortion of reality. But nothing is pre-arranged, or acted out and no sound is faked - these elements are rare in documentary TV. The exception is the travelling shots : I have to set the camera up, and travel through the shot with dogs/camels etc. But I think the public accepts this is part of the language of TV.
In conclusion, I'd say that my "self filming" technique has certain advantages - and disadvantages. I score better with capturing "reality" - whatever happens, happens. I capture best the nitty gritty of the experience - the ups and downs, the texture of emotion. A cameracrew simply couldn't get the access I can get with time and effort and isolation. But I can never capture the polished beauty that a camera crew can - with my little Sony PD 100 I never pan my camera, and never zoom - nor the sound quality of a dedicated sound man.
Q : Have you regretted elements of your programmes?
A : Many. Large parts of Raiders of the Lost Lake especially trouble me. Generally, my allowing myself to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones figure was a little naïve – but the programme was actually incredibly honest and did have a certain valuable freshness. I do regret that I didn’t put into context one incident in particular: a large ocelot, or small jaguar, gave me a scare (because I was alone in a rarely visited part of the forest and the Indian guides refused to accompany me out of fears of the cats there) and this comes over as pure exaggeration. It was, though, the truth as I saw it at that moment, and the programme as a whole was groundbreaking in the degree of “immersion” I achieved with a TV camera in an alien remote world. If it’s any comfort, I only got paid a £1000 for the programme – it cost me £5000 – and never get a fee for repeats. Perhaps that’s as well - and if I had my way it would never be broadcast again!
Q How do I get my book published?
My advice is to get an agent. Publishers get so many hundreds of manuscripts
every week, and they are unlikely to give your work much consideration without
someone who has put some thought into which editor should take on your work.
Even agents get flooded with manuscripts – a friend works in a very small
one which returns 20 manuscripts a week - though she says most of these are “rubbish”).
So, first secure an agent – because the publishers trust and listen to
them. A good agent will always pay for themselves anyway – they take 10-15%.
And you get their advice and encouragement too. Best source for an agent is the
Writers and Artists Yearbook, published annually. Curtis Brown is just one example
- large, but has a good reputation.
Regarding the actual manuscript: You’ll need to offer a synopsis of
the book – ie a chapter by chapter summary – and then a couple of
polished chapters. Ideally, you’d write the whole book – but I wouldn’t
recommend submitting a rough draft, or even draft – loose grammar etc is
not going to help them reach a favourable decision. (Obviously if the publisher
likes the gist, they will edit it, but you need to help them enjoy it.) However,
writing a whole book is time-consuming, obviously, and a more practicable tactic
is to pick out the two most engaging chapters – preferably the first two,
so they can get “into” the narrative. The publisher can always ask
for the rest.
The key is, of course, to have a story which is special. To be very blunt
about it, there are any number of people who have had adventures – there
are even any number of people who have been up Everest or plodded to the North/South
Pole. Why does your experience stand out from the others?
Q On your travels, how often do you use indigenous medicines - as
opposed to our, Western, ones?
I haven't had much time to think about usage of indigenous medicines for
Western travellers, sadly. Here are a few thoughts. Hope I'm not disappointingly
conservative to you - I used to be much less cautious about these things.
I have used all sorts of things given me - and mentioned them sometimes in
books - but I've always kept descriptions vague because I'm not much of an expert
on the subject and it’s a very complex matter, especially as "cures" in
many communities I’ve visited are often sought by tackling what are perceived
as spiritual problems that manifest themselves in physical sickness – as
opposed to a chemical or biological problems, as we tend to see things.
I've been given various barks to brew up in hot water and drink as a sort
of tea, to alleviate fevers (which might result from malaria for example) but
don't recall their names off hand. My rule now is that I will take local “medicines,” but
generally nowadays I’ve very cautious when alone. Years ago, I was much
more casual about these things!
As a rule, I'd say that "local" medicines - that is, concoctions
of herbs and so on - are NO substitute (for the Western traveller) for our own
remedies. I take with me malaria tablets, I take broad and narrow spectrum antibiotics
- for anything from severe chest infections to blood-poisoning. That is not to
say these indigenous and local medicaments are useless, but:
(1) we know what "our" medicines are meant to do. It helps a doctor
(when eventually he/she is located) understand what is necessary for treatment
if you are, say, half way through a course of anti-biotics and you are not responding.
(2) we do not know what side affects the local stuff might produce - unexpected
unpleasant/dangerous or just misleading side-effects and so on.
Generally speaking, I follow the premise that the West is best when it comes
to (a) surgery; (b) chemical treatment. And other local/ Eastern medicine is
better when it comes to more holistic matters - treating the mind/spirit, and
In a nutshell, if I was walking now alone through the Amazon and got struck
by a fever, I would see what I had in my medicine kit first, and turn to whatever
local medicine was suggested second - certainly I would not ignore what the locals
had to offer, especially as many local brews can be very affective in, say, relieving
symptoms. But I would never assume local herbs were actually a CURE, and substitute
them for Western medicine if this was available.
My experience in Siberut (written up in Last of the Medicine Men) gives more
of an idea about the complexity of treating with local physical/spiritual compounds.
Q Do you ever feel disconnected from your friends and loved-ones?
(These are some thoughts in response to a medical aid worker, who felt she
didn’t totally “belong” back home anymore:) Yup, I often feel
the odd one out. And it's inevitable. I think the first step must be to recognise
Writing is, for me, the answer. Each time away can be captured, shared, distilled
within the page. It's extremely cathartic. Each expedition brings with it inevitable
trauma - the separation, the estrangement. And the book helps heal that. In your
case, it might be harder to justify a book - my expeditions are specifically
designed with that publication in mind.
Perhaps you should think of yourself in the same way, though - that is, as
an artist, carried by your muse, your inspiration (whatever drove you to work
with Medicin Sans Frontieres ) not as someone within society.
I like your line about feeling you are growing outwards rather than upwards.
Surely not a bad thing?
If you are unable to distil your experiences to friends, release them to strangers,
as I am able to do through writing books. You do mention that you write, but
there are many other creative outlets of course.
In the end, there ARE no complete answers. I have all the angst that you
mention. I am extremely driven - it's why I've pushed myself to the limit around
the world. And I suppose I, like you, have to accept that the peacelessness is
part of the whole process. Without being too grand or self-conscious about it,
perhaps think of yourself as a shaman - shamans are always outsiders. That is
their role - and it brings insight to them, and anguish and loneliness. Same
with Picasso, same with anyone who has reached beyond the ordinary. Hard to accept,
but part of the whole "deal" as certain East Coast Americans would
Yup, I have more or less kept up with friends. They are very forgiving. I
make a hopeless Godfather, and so on. And like you I always had a lovely family
to launch from when I was younger.
So, no very helpful answer, from me. But you are accumulating all this experience,
and I think it will show itself, perhaps in things you write, talk about or do
in later years. That will be your eventual consolation - a considerable one...
I don't think I'll keep doing expeditions til I'm old - I'll hide away and
write or explore home. Maybe you'll also not feel the need to run for the far
hills, to see the horizon. Is that a comfort? I'm not sure. But I enjoyed hearing
your thoughts and your own dilemmas. You are not alone!
Q Have the initiation markings helped you integrate with other remote
peoples - or been a problem for you with other peoples?
The crocodile marks generally have helped me integrate – as “ white” people
like me are commonly viewed as outsiders who are likely to exploit the locals,
ie the indigenous people. Thus the situation has changed from one in which so-called “tribal” societies
were at war with one or other of their neighbours – at this stage these “tribal” markings
helped define who belonged and who didn’t - to one in which all “small” peoples
are up against a common enemy – the outsider. Although missionaries are
commonly seen as being to blame for undermining cultures of remote people, this
is a gross oversimplification, in my experience. Missionaries are often the only
friends indigenous people have. The problem is with outsiders looking to cut
down rainforests, dig gold or oil. Very often we, or the national government,
are sponsoring these activities in the name of progress or simply for personal
gain. So identifying yourself with one indigenous group or other has, ironically,
had its advantages elsewhere – the Aboriginals of Western Australia saw
my crocodile marks as my passport to their community: I’d been given the “thumbs
up” by another group of people who were not “white.”
That said, I’m talking about a time when it was possible for someone
like me to sink into an extremely remote society. Now we are in the age of Mass
Tourism, and only very few communities anywhere are outside the all-pervading “Global
Village.” Despite what our TV presenters and journalists continue to tell
us, there is NO WHERE in New Guinea, for example, with “uncontacted” peoples
(let alone cannibals) - however much they might want the locals to be such.
Q Can you give me some travel advice?
It’s hard for me to offer an advice service – a question of time,
I’m afraid. I get 30 out-of-the-blue queries a week – sometimes many
times this number. I enjoy reading them, I really do – but it’s so
difficult to find time for a really good, well thought out reply. Besides, my
type of travel is unlikely to be similar to the sort most people undertake. I
go alone, usually over many months (often staying put in the same community for
most of this time ) and don’t favour the use of a GPS or satellite phone.
It would be foolish, perhaps, for the inexperienced hiker of Remote Parts to
follow my lead. Nor is my motivation “travel” per se, but largely
about learning skills that will allow me to push myself to the limit and record
that experience of a remote world. I suppose I mean that I don’t go for
enjoyment, but because I feel driven to go – as if nothing would stop me
- though of course I know it’s a privilege to see these far-flung places,
and do have very wonderful times.
Sources of advice:
The Royal Geographical Society offers the information body called “Geography
Outdoors” (formally, the Expedition Advisory Centre) at http://www.rgs.org
- follow the links Our Work, then Fieldwork and Expeditions. For specialist medical
equipment, look up http://www.travelpharm.com/
Q Should I take malaria pills?
In a word YES. There’s been much, generally exaggerated, talk of side-effects,
particularly from Larium. Most of these problems have been ironed out now. For
malaria advice, see the website http://www.malariahotspots.com
Q Why your stance against the GPS and satellite phone? And why have
no “backup” on your expeditions? Isn’t this a bit backward – or
First of all, yes, it’s true that I’m no fan of the GPS or satellite
phone - or all the rest of that wonderful techno equipment that modern travellers
favour. It’s simply an extension of my “philosophy” of travel:
it seems to me that if you call yourself an adventurer – let alone an explorer
- you should be disconnecting yourself from home, and testing yourself (or simply
experiencing) what is unfamiliar to you. These gadgets maintain the umbilical
link with familiar territory. Travel for me is all about breaking that link.
But let me say I do understand that these gadgets offer security and a phone
does connect people – for example, members of the same expedition - in
a wonderful way. All I mean is that, if your objective is to test yourself, or
immerse yourself, then taking these devices is to miss the point somewhere: mentally,
you are not adjusted to the world you are in.
I’m not encouraging anyone to take unnecessary risks – rather,
I’m saying that perhaps travellers shouldn’t go so far off the beaten
track, if they are relying on others to come and rescue them or offer them moral
support. By the way, if I take risks, they are calculated risks (in theory!).
Am I a bit backward? A romantic belonging to a previous era? Some would say
so. I’d say I was being true to what we are all non-scientist “explorers” are
surely trying to achieve in the end – genuine immersion in a place - and
many of these people today have been led astray. If you want to call yourself
an “explorer” now, and – as I say - you are not a scientist,
somehow you have got to experience that other world and not bring these comforting
props from home along with you. Actually, I have used a GPS on some expeditions – and
even been forced by the BBC to use a sat phone for a while on my trip. But I’m
not very happy with them – it’s map and compass for me!
Another thing to say is that I do have backup – but that backup is the
local network of contacts, and also the skills I’ve built up out in the
Amazon or where-ever, rather than a team of outsiders waiting to come to help
me. Local trappers, hunters and indigenous groups are far more likely to of assistance
than a “search and rescue” party launching from some H.Q. miles away.
Similarly, what happens if your GPS breaks, your batteries run down? Better to
rely on skills inside your head that allow you to tap into the local environment,
allow you to see it as a resource, rather than somewhere to try and survive.
Q What do you think of those who walk to the North and South Pole – these
seem to be a very different sort of explorer?
They are not explorers at all! They are athletes. I don’t mean to say
these people don’t often accomplish very great achievements. But they are
the achievements of sportsmen or women. I have no interest in walking to the
Pole – it would be no different from running along a running track. Visit
the Arctic or Antarctic, yes, trek across it yes – but you can’t
claim to be an explorer unless you bring back some new insight. That’s
why I’ve called Sara Wheeler an explorer of Antarctica, though she didn’t
trek anywhere. What she did instead was document the male scientific community
that has colonised that continent!
Q What do you carry, on a typical expedition – beyond the obvious
sleeping bag etc?
1. A survival kit - this would vary with the terrain. It must be small, so
that you are not tempted to leave it behind in camp. And it would contain waterproof
matches, a spare compass, distress flares (desert), fishing hooks and line (jungles),
a survival blanket, a straw for drinking water from shallow puddles, a very light
stove and petrol (Arctic), and paper and pencil for leaving messages. Malaria
tablets and anti-biotics. Mint cake or similar, for calories.
2. A good compass - I stick with a basic Silva model
3. A bivvi bag - nothing like knowing you can camp out wherever.
4. Porkscratchings! Or mint cake. Chocolate melts in the tropics, but these
and nuts are good energy raisers and also moral boosters. Cheered me up no end
having these to fall back on when I lost my sledge in the Arctic.
5. A miniature copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets, given me once as a good-luck
prezzie by my dear old mum.
6. A knife made by a crocodile hunter and given me in the forests in PNG.
Has a sheath made of lizard skin, a pig tooth carved handle, and the blade is
sharp enough to pierce a crocodile through the eye (we're talking emergencies
here!) Failing this: a Swiss- army knife with a white blade – easier to
find at night.
7. Diary. I keep the left side of each page as a running log of all that's
happened. The right side is for odd notes - the lie of the land, the distance
a guide has said it is to the nearest habitation, the texture of a bark of a
tree, an odd important local phrase (eg Help!")
8. Postcards of the Queen, Piccadilly Circus. And personal photos - - snaps
of my kitchen, roof terrace and loved ones. They provide a bridge to strangers,
especially if you have no language in common.
9. Loo paper - the hard, flat packed sort. Don't keep if in your bags - which
will get separated from you on the bus, just as you get Delhi Belly. I always
(when on expeditions only!) keep a few pieces in my back left pocket.
10. A US$100 bill. It's amazing how good it feels, knowing you have a hidden
source of money whatever else gets stolen. Buy a spare pocket for it from a haberdashery
and sew the pocket inside your favourite trousers. If in doubt, carry two of
these bits of paper!
11. Waterbottle – and sterilizing liquid
12. Photocopies of air tickets, passport, key phone numbers
Q What is your personal motto?
I have a whole range!
Control Your Destiny, or someone else will. (This saying is not originated
by me – but I’ve found it’s true that everyone else has their
agenda, and we all tend to get distracted from what we want to do with our lives.
) Linked to this:
The world steps aside for someone who knows where he’s going. Again,
it’s not my phrase – but it seems very true to me.
BUT my favorite version of this is: : “Follow Your Own True North” – it
was the advise of a friend who was worried I was getting distracted by the agendas
of others. We should navigate our way through life with our compass – ie
following our instincts - but be aware that there is Magnetic North – but
also TRUE (geographical) North. And be aware of magnetic anomalies (if you know
about geology, these are lodes in the earth which create false magnetic readings)
- distractions and falsehoods…
Q How can I get a TV commission?
I get asked about how to get an expedition onto telly about once a week -
that shows what the competition is like.
Perhaps the best answer is to get in touch with one of the independent TV
companies (“Indys” ) and work up an idea with them – if they
are interested. Even then, only one idea in twenty that is submitted to a broadcaster
will be accepted.
TV is, though, essentially a medium full of falsehood when it comes to travel!
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the golden days - when I was doing
my self-filmed expeditions – are gone. Instead, there are only – almost
without exception – presenters making programmes with their film crew circus
entourage. The problem is that, because a film crew is anything from five to
ten people (with vehicles, battery chargers, government minders, translators
etc etc ) and highly expensive, this means “managing” an expedition
into a 3-4 week shoot and, of course, creating the drama that viewers nowadays
expect. Then there are ethical issues of how local people are depicted or exploited
by television. Some genuine expedition stuff (I mean with genuine jeopardy and
isolation) does get on the TV – but it remains rare. So I’d stay
clear of TV, if you are trying to make a life as an authentic traveller.
One idea is to forget TV and go for the Journey of a Lifetime Award (I'm on
the selection committee) , which is a Radio 4 project in conjunction with the
RGS. If you win, you get training, equipment to take, and your programme is broadcast.
Q Why are you anti-sponsorship?
I have had sponsors in the past, but not very often, and always low-key ones.
Again, it comes down to what I think travel is all about: leaving home behind.
If I have to wear a hat saying “Typhoo Tea” or have a DHL slogan
over my camels, I feel I would have spoilt my objective. Advertising a product
or service from home seems to me to erode the ethos of going.
And is it really necessary to “sell-out” – as some would
see it - by advertising some probably unnecessary sports product anyway? If you
want to keep your journey “pure”, I’d say that where there's
a will there's a way, even without any telly profile – as Chris Bonington
and Doug Scott also found... If I was setting out on this career now, I'd draw
comfort and inspiration from these people, I think. I kept a poster of the latter
in my bedroom – it kept me going at times. People forget that I wrote five
books before I made any TV or radio programmes – and if I can survive 15
years without any other permanent job, so, I feel, can you! It’s DEFINITELY
POSSIBLE if you are determined. Take heart…