BENEDICT ALLEN

Cotswold Life - - NEWS - WORDS: Katie Jarvis

Benedict Allen is an ex­plorer with a unique at­ti­tude to travel. His ex­pe­ri­ences in­clude find­ing ‘lost’ peo­ples and tak­ing part in a bru­tal Sepik com­ing-of-age cer­e­mony. Last year, Benedict hit the head­lines when he failed to show up for a flight out of the iso­lated forests of Pa­pua New Guinea – just one of the ad­ven­tures he’ll be talk­ing about on his up­com­ing UK tour

“… ul­ti­mately all sis­ters and moth­ers took pride in the boy prov­ing his worth, and girls turned their noses up at those without the beau­ti­ful crocodile pat­terns.” – Benedict Allen, Into the Crocodile’s Nest: A Jour­ney Inside New Guinea

It’s 1984 and a 24-year-old Benedict Allen is mak­ing his way along the Sepik, through the wilds of New Guinea, in a dug-out ca­noe. This is a river of re­mote vil­lages and dense for­est; where life has changed re­mark­ably lit­tle through the pass­ing of count­less mil­len­nia.

Benedict is an ex­plorer; an ex­plorer so un­sat­is­fied with a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence on his pre­vi­ous ex­pe­di­tion (a 600-mile trek across the Ama­zon, dur­ing which he caught malaria and sur­vived near-star­va­tion), he’s now chas­ing an­other.

Most strangers would be fran­ti­cally pad­dling in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. But not Benedict.

He’s begged the el­ders of a Niowra vil­lage to let him take part in the most bru­tal of ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­monies. For six weeks, he will be held in a spe­cially con­structed vil­lage com­pound – along with 29 other young ini­ti­ates – rit­u­ally hu­mil­i­ated, and bru­tally cut with bam­boo blades; and then those ten­der wounds will be re­peat­edly beaten un­til his skin bears per­ma­nent scars: the in­deli­ble ‘scales’ of a crocodile. The only pain-re­lief lies in chew­ing on acidic be­tel nuts (which work if you be­lieve they work).

He will emerge from the or­deal no longer a youth but a man with the strength of a crocodile. He will emerge hav­ing lost two pints of blood, so weak he can hardly stand. He will emerge feel­ing priv­i­leged that he has had an ex­pe­ri­ence – a sa­cred ex­pe­ri­ence, hon­our­ing the spir­its of the swamp.

(Not your av­er­age Thom­son hol­i­day, cer­tainly.)

The Western World barely blinks as Benedict un­der­goes this re­lent­less, drawn out or­deal where death is not un­known…

Three decades pass. It’s 2017, and Benedict is back again, a sea­soned ex­plorer and now a stal­wart of TV and ra­dio. Three weeks into his lat­est trip – as usual, without GPS or satel­lite phone (“I may be some time (don’t try to res­cue me, please – where I’m go­ing in PNG you won’t ever find me

you know)…,” he tweets), he misses a

planned flight home.

And the world pan­ics.

“I was only five days late and it was at­tract­ing world head­lines!” he protests, as though he had sim­ply and in­con­ve­niently missed the last bus out of Eal­ing.

“Five days!”

“Hello!” I cheer­ily say, over the phone to Benedict Allen. “It’s Katie here from Cotswold Life.”

“Widely adored as a mag­a­zine,” he

replies, with en­gag­ing flat­tery.

Gosh. Even though he was born in Mac­cles­field, grew up in Hamp­shire, and lives in Lon­don and Prague, I feel sure he’s talk­ing from con­vic­tion. I can

al­most pic­ture him, strapped into one of those light air­craft he fre­quently catches – maybe a vul­ner­a­ble Cessna (“which looked like a puny red and white fly that sus­pected some­one was out to get it with a swat­ter”); I can see him - as the plane gears up for a wob­bly take-off on a ter­ri­fy­ingly small run­way in the wilds of the un­known world – clutch­ing glossy Cotswold pages for dis­trac­tion. Read­ing from the prop­erty sec­tion - A char­ac­ter­ful stone barn in

charm­ing Up­per Slaugh­ter - as the pi­lot op­ti­misti­cally swoops up into thick white cloud, rather hop­ing a break will re­veal the deathly wall of cliffs in front.

Or maybe Benedict Allen is just be­ing re­ally, re­ally nice.

Af­ter all, be­ing nice – a de­cent, un­de­mand­ing hu­man be­ing – seems to have saved his skin on more than one oc­ca­sion. Such as the time he vis­ited the re­mote Obini peo­ple on the Kolff river (or was it the Abi? Even the lo­cals couldn’t agree), sit­ting with them in an open-ended build­ing with walls of feather-shaped palm leaves.

Af­ter two un­easy days, th­ese West Pa­puan peo­ple sud­denly picked up men­ac­ing fire­wood and ar­rows and banged them in his face, screech­ing the war-dance chant: “Ee-ye-ar, ee-ye-ar wani-wan­imo.”

His solution to this seem­ingly in­tractable prob­lem was to back out pleas­antly, with min­i­mum of fuss… and then to run for his life through dense for­est for two days.

But! Hold your wild horses. If all this sounds ter­ri­bly Raiders of the Lost Ark, then rewind. Be­cause you’ve got the wrong end of the bam­boo stick. That’s the op­po­site of the kind of ex­plorer Benedict is.

“Ex­plo­ration has got this strand – it seems to be a par­tic­u­larly male thing,” he muses, “- of men show­ing their worth; plant­ing a flag, not just for a nation but show­ing they are the al­pha male.

“It’s be­come a fe­male thing as well now – more so lately – show­ing women they are the top of the dung heap, as you could say…. Per­haps I shouldn’t say ‘dung heap’,” he adds, with wise cau­tion. “The pile?” I sug­gest.

“Thank you. That’s bet­ter.”

So if they’re not In­di­ana Jones; if they’re not Scott of the Antarc­tic; if they’re not try­ing to be top of the dung heap – sorry, pile – then what are they?

“Part of an ex­plorer’s job is to record

what’s out there. To help peo­ple through the myths,” he ex­plains.

So when Benedict got lost in the Brazil­ian Rain­for­est – in 1982; a trip where he was at­tacked by gold­min­ers, lost all his pos­ses­sions in the chaos, and, starv­ing and des­per­ate, ended up eat­ing a dog he’d res­cued – this life-threat­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was in pur­suit of ideas. Not spe­cial­ist sci­ence or machismo or Em­pire.

But ideas.

I like that.

“In my case, I wanted to show that [the Ama­zon] isn’t a place of snakes and pi­ra­nhas and all those hor­rors. Nor is it a Gar­den of Eden. Yet we still have this no­tion of both.

“When I was… when peo­ple thought I was lost in Pa­pua New Guinea, there was a huge thing about that. I wasn’t ac­tu­ally lost at all but I was late get­ting out of the forests.”

(Hang on. We’ll get onto that in a minute.)

“So you can see all th­ese myths even now.”

(Oh, OK. I see the con­nec­tion.) “There was I, ‘in search of a lost tribe’, some peo­ple were say­ing. Oth­ers said I was kid­napped by head-hun­ters. Hu­mans have al­ways wanted there to be some place worse than home, with can­ni­bals in, and so on. And hu­mans have al­ways wanted an ideal place of noble peo­ple who can teach us wis­dom. Both are false ideas.

“It’s not just the white man who has th­ese ideas. When I was liv­ing in New Guinea 25 years ago, the peo­ple would of­ten say, ‘Don’t go into that val­ley! There are can­ni­bals! And I’d go into the next and they’d say, ‘The other lot are can­ni­bals!’ So it’s not just us.”

So where does Benedict Allen get it

from? Where does he get this de­sire to leave his fam­ily – he now has a wife, Lenka, and three chil­dren aged from two to 10 – to im­merse him­self in alien climes? To em­bark on ad­ven­tures that

do (to me, at least) sound more In­di­ana than Jones. (Such as when he trav­elled to Su­ma­tra to in­ves­ti­gate the fabled Orang Pen­dek ape-man and ended up hav­ing to sew his own chest back to­gether with his boot-re­pair kit. Or the three-and-a-half months he spent with some ex­cep­tion­ally re­cal­ci­trant camels in the Namib Desert, learn­ing from the semi-no­madic Himba peo­ple how to sur­vive with the min­i­mum of food and wa­ter.)

It is, he says, sim­ply, an ir­re­sistible drive. A drive he traces back to his dad, Colin, a Vul­can test-pi­lot cred­ited with teach­ing Prince Philip to fly.

“I re­mem­ber see­ing him, when I was a lit­tle boy, tip­ping the wings one day. It was al­most like this was a sig­nal to me. That’s prob­a­bly go­ing too far – but I love to think now it was a sort of sign like a thumbs-up: You, too, can be a pi­o­neer. It cer­tainly had an in­flu­ence on me.”

‘Peo­ple said I was lost, but I was never lost. The ex­pe­di­tion went so well un­til I tried to get out’

His dad was sur­pris­ingly gen­tle, he says; al­most vague: “And he re­spected peo­ple who were gen­tle; I sup­pose that may be the case of some peo­ple who are used to han­dling ex­tremes.”

(And I can see echoes of that. Even in the way Benedict pref­aces an­swers to my more out-there ques­tions with an un­der­stated ‘Blimey’.)

“One thing I do know about him is that he was very good in a cri­sis. And I think I’m good in a cri­sis. Of course, the worry is that you want to put your­self into cri­sis in or­der to feel like you’re in con­trol, weirdly. You don’t stop look­ing for those mo­ments of adren­a­line, be­cause you know how well you func­tion [in them].”

Is that a dan­ger in it­self? Is it easy to get a false sense of im­mor­tal­ity, the more dif­fi­cult the sit­u­a­tion and the more you sur­vive? Af­ter all, he’s dodged more bul­lets than Pablo Es­co­bar – in­clud­ing the time when he dodged bul­lets shot by Pablo Es­co­bar. (Or his gang, at least.)

“I think so. I moved from rain­for­est to desert, and then onto the Arc­tic. And th­ese are all pro­gres­sively more dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ments. Al­ways I was learn­ing from lo­cal peo­ple. None­the­less, in the desert, you don’t sur­vive more than three days without wa­ter. In the Arc­tic, it can be 30 sec­onds in the wa­ter.”

Learn­ing from lo­cal peo­ple has al­ways been the fo­cus of his trav­els. The whole fo­cus. Some­times the lessons have come from adults. Some­times from chil­dren as young as his own. “One girl in the Ama­zon taught me 20 species of herbs that were sim­ply dis­in­fec­tants.”

So has he taught them any­thing? “Umm. I think I’ve… per­haps un­wit­tingly given them a lit­tle bit more sense of se­cu­rity. I’ve come across re­mote peo­ple who’ve said, ‘We know we’re prim­i­tive. We know we’re back­ward. We know we’re called Stone Age by mis­sion­ar­ies and ev­ery­one else. The Gov­ern­ment is telling us to wear clothes and come out of the for­est. But thank you for com­ing to visit us.’

“And I’d say, ‘No, hold on. I’ve come to learn from you’. I think I re­in­forced a sense that they had some­thing.”

Yes, I can see that. What I like is not only his re­jec­tion of 19th cen­tury im­pe­ri­al­ist ideas – the flag-plant­ing claimer of land - but also his re­jec­tion of 21st cen­tury ones, too. Let’s re­turn, a mo­ment, to that un­speak­ably bleak ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony he un­der­went in his 20s. Most out­siders, surely, would have tried to out­law it as in­hu­mane – not em­brace it, as he did?

“It is strange that I went through it,” he con­cedes. “And I have to say I wouldn’t want my lit­tle son Fred­die go­ing through it.

“But what right have we to judge? The lo­cals haven’t de­stroyed their en­vi­ron­ment. We’re the ones mov­ing in to cut down trees and do heaven knows what. The lo­cals – who are called the Niowra – are in bal­ance with their place; they have a role-model who’s a crocodile, who has sur­vived in­cred­i­bly well in that swampy en­vi­ron­ment.”

So what’s Benedict go­ing to talk about on his tour – in the un­charted wilds of Chel­tenham, Worces­ter and Malvern, among other places?

Well, partly about last year’s ex­pe­di­tion in which he didn’t get lost but had to buy his wife a huge bunch of flow­ers any­way.

“Peo­ple said I was lost but I was never lost. That I was a blun­der­ing id­iot. In fact, it was a per­fect ex­pe­di­tion. It went so well un­til I tried to get out.”

(Not too many spoil­ers here – but the bad bits about the trip were climb­ing a moun­tain and dis­cov­er­ing a war was go­ing on between the next two lots of peo­ple; get­ting malaria and dengue fever; and the nasty re­al­i­sa­tion that a vi­tal vine bridge had been swept away.)

Partly about the fact that he re­fuses to take GPS and satel­lite phones on his ex­pe­di­tions.

“It’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to dis­con­nect from our world – and ever more im­por­tant be­cause we’re so in­ter­con­nected. Even my 10-yearold daugh­ter is on the phone all the time, chat­ting away to her friends. But it is im­por­tant to stand back, away from ev­ery­one else, and just think for your­self.”

And, partly, he’ll talk about the fact that we’re all explorers. From the child col­lect­ing stamps and the adult go­ing to the opera, to the el­derly lady climb­ing a lo­cal hill even though it’s a bit of a strug­gle.

“We’re all cu­ri­ous about the world; all try­ing to make sense of it.

“I sup­pose, what I want to do – es­pe­cially if there are younger peo­ple in the au­di­ence: I want them to be­lieve it isn’t all over. It’s still a won­der­ful world out there and that won­der is im­por­tant to nur­ture.

“Thanks for your lovely ques­tions,” he says, as we fin­ish. “Provoca­tive.” And then, just in case I’m of­fended:

“Not provoca­tive! In­trigu­ing! In­trigu­ing ques­tions.”

Benedict Allen is bring­ing Ul­ti­mate Ex­plorer to Pittville Pump Room, Chel­tenham on Septem­ber 26. Tick­ets for this event, and other venues, are avail­able at www.bene­dic­tallen.com/ tour2018

LEFT: Ex­plorer Benedict Allen in the forests of Siberut In­done­sia, where he learned herb-gath­er­ing from the semi-no­madic Mentawai peo­ple

Benedict with Howard, a friend from the Hewa peo­ple of Pa­pua New Guinea

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