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.
“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.
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