Benedict Allen: The UK adventurer who now calls Prague home
Explorer, writer and broadcaster Benedict Allen is known for daring travels to such spots as the Amazon, Papua New Guinea and the Gobi desert. The British adventurer has documented his often solo journeys in a series of books as well as TV programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters. However, in recent years Allen has been in a rather different environment, Prague, a city he now calls home. When we spoke recently, he told me his earliest inspiration was his test pilot father.
“He was always travelling away, testing his aircraft in the tropics.
“He used to bring things back. I remember a weaver bird nest and a stuff crocodile – a stuffed baby crocodile – and an adder that he put in a bottle. All these exciting things.
“It made me think there was a world elsewhere.
“But I think it also made me feel it’s possible to do these things.
“I knew I couldn’t be a test pilot – especially with the nuclear deterrent [which his father carried].
“I’m much more passionate than my dad. My dad was very, very steady.
“But I felt I could do something else, out there.
“And I clung on to this dream of being, if not some sort of pioneer, then some sort of explorer character – someone who’s investigating the world.
“At school I was getting a bit desperate about my dream [laughs], because I didn’t seem to have what it took.
“Explorers always talk about the snakes and piranhas and how terrible these places are, but to the locals they’re a home.”
“I didn’t have money – that was the main thing [laughs].
“I thought, How am I going to be an explorer? Especially when everybody was telling me the world had been explored.
“And I just thought I’ll give it a go.
“I worked in a warehouse. I used to stack books in this warehouse and I got enough money to go off on my first adventure.
“I headed off to the Orinoco and Amazon, just to… well, just to seize this one chance I thought I would get before having what my mum called a ‘proper job’.
“And I settled into this life of being some sort of explorer, simply because I found it was possible.
“It was possible, almost entirely due to the local people, the indigenous people.
“I lived with people I used to call ‘Indians’ – the people of the Amazon – and they kept me alive.
“And I decided that was the way I would so my adventuring.
“I wouldn’t have much money in my career, but I would go to the local people and learn to see places like the Amazon or Borneo or Papua New Guinea as a home and not a threat.
“Because explorers always talk about the snakes and piranhas and how terrible these places are, but to the locals they’re a home.”
You edited the Faber Book of Exploration. Do you see yourself as part of a lineage of great explorers? Or has that all changed now with technology? Some of those people went away for years.
“Yes… I do go away for a long, long time.
“I am part of a tradition and of course with the British – and I am British, for better or worse [laughs] – there are a lot of these explorer types, certainly in the 19th century.
“And I’m often regarded as a bit of a relic from a previous area.
“I’d say what I do is very, very different.
“Instead of going as an outsider to study people, perhaps expand the empire, which was often what it was like for the British – and the locals felt that, very much.
“Instead, I’m just going to try and listen and learn and immerse myself.
“So it’s a very different tradition from that point of view.
“It’s all about disappearing into a place, rather than sort of marching across it.
“But nonetheless, it has to be said that I am part of a long tradition.
“I think it’s very important, and I try and stress this whenever I talk to children: Exploration isn’t actually something from the past.
“It seems like it, that’s what we’re always told: Exploration’s over.
“I was told as a child that it was finished, but the truth is we don’t understand the world and we need to understand it now more than ever.
“So I’m one person who’s fortunate enough to follow his dream and I do what I always wanted to do, but I think actually it’s about all of us doing the same.
“Now everyone does video selfies, but at that stage it was just me.”
“You in your job, everyone in their job, is investigating the world.
“It’s what humans do. In fact, it’s what living things do. We all investigate our surroundings.
“My job though is to go out and record and come back, [laughs] to stay alive long enough and come back.”
And the approach that you developed was going solo, just by yourself, with a camera and doing everything yourself?
“Yes, the camera came quite late. I wrote about five books, I think, before I did any telly.
“Then this invention came along, the camcorder. This is quite a long time ago now.
“But the video camcorder – everybody was very excited about this thing.
“And the BBC said, Please can you take one of these on an expedition.
“I was never really a presenter. I was simply an explorer, or you could say an adventurer, or perhaps an environmental scientist, which is what my degree was in.
“And off I would go on my adventures and record whatever happened.
“I didn’t know if I was ever going to come back or not. Obviously I hoped I was going to [laughs].
“The BBC certainly hoped that, because I had all this footage.
“I would usually just come back, no health and safety, no nothing – no film crew.
“It was just a proper expedition.
“Then the technology developed. Now everyone does video selfies, but at that stage it was just me.”
Do you think TV viewers today might have different expectations from programmes, given what people have become used to with reality TV and so on?
“Things have changed hugely, to the extent that I really was overtaken by everyone else.
“It wasn’t interesting enough to see some bloke walking along through a desert.
“I walked up the Skeleton Coast, for example, and that journey had never been recorded before.
“And it was a wonderful thing to be able to do with my three camels.
“At the time people were amazed and were thinking, Wow, he’s really alone out there, no set-up shots, he doesn’t know if he’s going to get through this, we don’t know if he’s going to get through this.
“And that was enough.
“But now I can look back – as I suppose people were at the time – thinking, Hmmm, it’s starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.
“You don’t get the beautiful shots, you don’t get the beautiful sounds. No drone buzzing overhead that gives you the perspective: It’s just some bloke with his struggle.
“I suppose this was in the 1990s. Time moved on and people wanted the beautiful shots.
“But what of course they are missing is the real jeopardy, the do-or-die bit.
“You could say it’s faked now. It’s certainly staged very much, on telly.”
You were in jeopardy I’m sure on many occasions. But still, is there an element of tourism in the kind of trips that you were undertaking. Because you are going for an experience abroad, you are interacting with the locals hoping to get something out of it for yourself and you’re coming back and sharing your stories. Is that a kind of tourism? Or maybe ultra tourism, because almost nobody can do this kind of thing?
“Six bullets went past my head.”
“Tourism? It’s funny, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked that, because people think of it as immersion.
“I’ve gone to places that haven’t… not actually that haven’t been recorded, but certainly they haven’t been interpreted, or they were places that were misunderstood, you could say.
“So it needn’t be exploration in that classic sense.
“I mean, I have made the first contact with two very remote lots of people who were being overrun by missionaries and so on.
“But I’d say ‘tourism’ is probably the wrong word, because it sounds like somebody who’s just sort of tripping in and out, and each expedition would actually take six months, nine months, a huge amount of time.
“And in that process it’s all about trying to immerse yourself.
“It might mean learning a language. It would mean certainly bedding yourself into a society and their culture, with a considerable commitment.
“So maybe it’s just personal pride, but I like to think there’s a slight difference [laughs] between package tours and what I do.
“But nonetheless, I do think there’s a huge amount of arrogance about the profession I’m in.
“Because by making yourself into a hero, or allowing yourself to be portrayed as a sort of new Indiana Jones, which I’ve been called, you’re sort of using the world as a sort of platform and making yourself sound better than you really are.
“After all, in a lot of the places I’ve lived in, say in the Amazon, these environments have been seen not only as a home, which is the word I used earlier, but as a resource: food, medicine, shelter.
“They’re not places you need to struggle through and yet time and again on the telly we see our heroes ‘battling against the elements’, when the locals – I know very well – might be just gathering fruit on a day out, as they walk through the forest.
“So I’ve got to be quite careful about that in my career.
“And I think certainly in my earlier days I was seen as too heroic.
“Now I’ve got a new book, called Explorer, and that doesn’t have me on the cover.
“And I think it’s probably important that it doesn’t, because actually the place is what it’s meant to be about, not the person.”
Reading your biography, you have been in many, many extreme situations that most of us wouldn’t last an hour in, but still what do you regard as the most dangerous situation that you’ve been in, in your career?
“There have been a few contenders [laughs].
“Memorably, for me at least, I was crossing the Amazon Basin at its widest, which was something that hadn’t been done and I was just interested to do a sort of cross-section of the Amazon.
“It took me a long, long time – eight months.
“But there was a time when I had to pass through Colombia and I was going down the Putumayo River in a canoe and unfortunately I went past the place where Pablo Escobar, or at least his intimate team, was hiding out.
“He was on the run. He was actually killed six months later in Medellin. You know who I mean – the drug baron.
“And either he or his close associates sent two people to kill me.
“Even something like having to sleep in a room without a window open becomes very hard.”
“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, going right past his camp – he was hiding out on the border between Peru, Brazil and Colombia – and these two people chased me up the river.
“I was just very lucky they were incompetent [laughs].
“They couldn’t fire a rifle and paddle at the same time, because they were town people.
“I wasn’t that good at paddling, but luckily I could paddle enough to get around the river bend.
“So yes, a scary moment. Six bullets, I think, went past my head, and I got away with it.”
Now we’re a very long way from the jungle. What led you to Prague?
“Five years ago, I had this brilliant idea. I said to my wife, who is Czech, why don’t we just live in the Czech Republic for a year? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the children?”
And you had met in the UK? Was that the case?
“Yes, we were living in the UK. I think we had been there 15 years. Everything was going well. We had three children.
“I said, Let’s live in the Czech Republic for a year.
“We came over and we’re still here [laughs].
“We haven’t negotiated, successfully at least, about whether we’re going back again, because my wife says we should be here, and I’m sure she’s right [laughs].”
Just out of curiosity, how did your kids find the transition?
“The one who is now 14 I think became for a time very much more Czech than British.
“I think she wanted to feel connected to this place that she’d suddenly been plonked in: Prague.
“My son feels he’s very British. He keeps on talking about ‘dear old England’, far more than me.
“And the littlest one, who’s only six, she’s essentially Czech.”
You’re known for acquiring skills from indigenous peoples on your travels. Have you also applied this approach to living in the Czech Republic? Have you tried to “go native”?
“My wife would say distinctly no, I haven’t tried hard enough.
“I think my wife’s working on it [laughs] and I suppose I am gradually adapting.
“But the truth is that my expeditions have never been close to home.
“And when I was living in the UK, in a place called Twickenham, I’d be launching out into the world.
“And mentally, because I travel alone – because in some places it can be dangerous – I tend to need to think of home as the safe place to come back to.
“It’s the same now for Prague and that to me is a good sign. It’s a good sign that we are gradually settling into the Czech Republic.
“Because this has become home and it’s the safe place that I need my children to be in, my wife to be in, when I go off and do my danger stuff.”
One thing I’m curious about is, when you go on these solo trips for many months – even though you obviously interact with the locals to some degree – you’re on your own. How do you adjust back to normal life, being around other people, after that?
“It’s always the hardest part of any expedition for me.
“Because, after all, I’m meant to be a professional.
“The business of integrating with other cultures should be what I do – it’s my skill set and for me now whether it’s the rainforest, desert or the Arctic I can cope, unless I do something very silly.
“And yet, something as personal, something as unfathomable really, as the bond you have with your family is very, very hard.
“It’s got much harder since I’ve had children, of course. I find it very difficult.
“When I head off on an expedition, I’m very focused, maybe a bit lonely as I pack and everything, but I have a job ahead of me.
“But coming back, it’s very difficult. It’s much quicker coming back than going out.
“Because going out I have to adjust climatically and culturally and so on.
“But coming back you just jump on a plane, and it’s very difficult.
“I tend not to talk about work with people… when I say work, that might be an adventure, which a lot of people might be intrigued about.
“But I tend to keep that at a distance so that I’m established again as being home and in a different place.”
Is it even weird sleeping in a bed, having heating and all that kind of stuff, after you’ve been away?
“Yes. It is.
“I think I’m getting softer [laughs]. I do allow myself to sleep on something at least when I’m in the rainforest.
“But yes, it is. Even something like having to sleep in a room without a window open becomes very hard.
“I feel claustrophobic. The sounds are different.
“I remember stepping out of the Amazon when I was much younger and just walking along a road and feeling a surface, a flat surface, and I found it bewildering.
“That shows what sort of state of mind I must have been in.
“I was so used to walking on roots and mud – and suddenly there’s a surface.
“At the same, it is reassuring.
“But I think the hardest thing is that when you’ve been in the middle of nowhere, and you’re longing for home…
“I’ve had malaria five times and when you’re semi-delirious you need to believe that you can get back, you need to be able to focus on your loved ones in order to sort of lift yourself out of your condition.
“And then you come back to the reality and of course it can’t match up, because [laughs] it’s lovely to be with your children and wife of course, but it’s not perfection, because life isn’t like that.
“That is a hard thing to cope with.
“There’s no stimulation really – it’s not like being shot at, when you come home – so you haven’t got that adrenalin to help you through.
“And actually things are quite dull after a while, and that’s hard.
“You’ve got to fight that and do your duty to your friends and family and try and be normal, which is not easy.”