Benedict Allen: Ex-UEA student and adventurer interviewed
Explorer, adventurer and UEA graduate Benedict Allen is set to reveal all about his controversial Papua New Guinea expedition when he appears in Norwich this month
explorer Benedict Allen found himself at the centre of a slightly different storm to those he usually expects to navigate.
Having disappeared in the remote Papua New Guinea jungle during an expedition, there were suggestions among some of his more high-profile friends that it was his refusal to carry any sort of communication equipment that landed him in such hot water and caused such concern for his loved ones.
For Benedict’s part, he remains resolute and has no intention of changing his adventurous ways – in fact he believes they are more relevant than ever.
“I think it was a very interesting moment,” he says carefully. “I was very seriously ill with malaria and dengue fever, stuck in the jungle, but funnily enough, up until that point, it was the most wonderful trip. You do find yourself reassessing things, but I will continue to do things the way I always have.”
This extraordinary story will be one of many jaw-dropping tales he will share when he brings his Ultimate Explorer tour to Norwich Playhouse as part of Norwich Science Festival later this month and he promises to tell the whole unvarnished truth about that now infamous trip.
Considered one of the world’s most renowned adventurers and explorers, he has spent the past three decades visiting some of the most remote parts of the world, ingratiating himself with indigenous communities and embracing their ways, some of which have left him physically scarred for life. His intrepid adventures have been the subject of several BBC series and he has written 10 books about his experiences.
“I love doing stage tours and I want audiences to be inspired, especially youngsters, to show that they too can have a role to play in exploring the world and the environment around them,” he says. “There is an archetypal image of an explorer but I want to break that down. It is essential that exploration of this incredible world continues and it is more urgent in many ways than ever before.”
But back to the Papua New Guinea adventure. Benedict had travelled alone to the island to attempt to find the Yaifo tribe, one of few groups in the world said to have little to no contact with outsiders, which he had first visited some three decades previously.
However, fears for his safety grew after he failed to meet his planned flight home and he was believed to be lost in the dangerous Papua New Guinea jungle. Five days later he was found and airlifted to safety from a remote airstrip.
His disappearance and subsequent rescue drew huge media interest – and then an even larger amount of comment about his decision never to travel with a satellite phone or tracking devices. “Afterwards, people were saying ‘you are going to take some proper equipment aren’t you when you go on your next expedition?’ But I feel I want to take a stance and it is a principle that needs to be defended,” he says.
“I learned from the old days of exploration that the best way of learning about a place is from its local people and for that you need to be accepted by them. If you haven’t got all this back-up and equipment, it is easier to look the locals in the eye and say ‘I am trusting you’, which means they are more likely to trust you in return.
“We are so interconnected with all our technology I think we could all do with standing back and actually disconnecting for a while. I think it has become more relevant that I don’t take all these gadgets with me.”
When we speak, he is planning a return to the Amazon, his first expedition since what he describes as the ‘palaver’ of Papua New Guinea, about which his family, he says, were very understanding. “I would say my wife was concerned rather than angry.
“She’d have been angry if I hadn’t come back though,” he laughs. “The trip was actually very good, and I did exactly what I had hoped to do. It wasn’t the local people who were the problem; they were amazing, exceptionally friendly. It was the fighting that blocked my exit. I am in no way a macho man or a soldier, so it wasn’t something I wanted to be involved with.”
It was here in Norfolk that Benedict took his first adventurous steps, as a student at the UEA studying environmental sciences. “Growing up I wanted to be an explorer so much, to go on a mission, like my dad would have done as a test pilot. I was almost frantic to get out there by the time I arrived at university. As part of my course, I went on a scientific expedition to Costa Rica, which I absolutely loved. But I came away feeling like I wanted more, to do it in my own way. I am very visceral and passionate about following my own lead and I was even then.”
After graduating from the UEA, he embarked on his first big solo expedition – before ‘settling down’.
“Looking back now I had no idea what that ‘settling down’ something was but I was desperate to get to the Amazon. I was incredibly naïve; I just booked a cheap flight and got local buses and taxis until I found myself in the remotest of places. I think people just felt sorry for me and I realised quite quickly that I knew nothing at all. I got adopted by some local fishermen and they then dropped me off in this remote community. It was an extraordinary experience.
“But I have to say my romantic ideas of life in the rainforest left me somewhat when I realised how tough it was living in the Amazon. Big infant mortality rates, violence, threats to the tribe’s existence; I saw a rough side as well.”
He describes his undergraduate days in Norwich as an “intense experience” where he was incredibly focused on his studies.
“I loved my student days in Norwich but I was so serious about being an explorer and I definitely thought my time there would be the launch pad to my dreams. I absolutely loved the ecology trips to places like Scolt Head Island, the magic of the salt marshes. When I was having any dire moments in my travels, those places were my vision of England that I wanted to get back to.”
Benedict, with friend Howard of the Hewa People from Papua New Guinea
Explorer Benedict Allen on a previous visit to Norwich