A born ad­ven­turer

The hair-rais­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of Bene­dict Allen

Paradise - - In Paradise | Contents -

The Lon­don Daily Tele­graph has rated him one of the top 10 Bri­tish ex­plor­ers of all time, in a list that in­cludes Liv­ing­stone, Shack­le­ton, Stan­ley and Bur­ton.

From Siberia to the Gib­son Desert, the writer, documentary maker and con­ser­va­tion­ist is cel­e­brated (mostly) for his dar­ing in­de­pen­dent jour­neys to re­mote re­gions.

Bene­dict Allen is also known for a tal­ent to en­gage with in­dige­nous peo­ple, who he cred­its for his sur­vival in many coun­tries. In par­tic­u­lar, he counts treks through PNG, dat­ing back 35 years, among his most mem­o­rable and lifechang­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

Cer­tainly, the boy from Shep­herd’s Bush was born to a life of ex­plo­ration.

“My dad was a test pi­lot fly­ing Vul­can bombers and since the age of 10 I wished I could be an ad­ven­turer like him,” he says.

Allen es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion de­scrib­ing var­i­ous lone jour­neys dur­ing the 1980s across the least ex­plored re­gions of the Ama­zon, PNG, West Pa­pua and Su­ma­tra.

Later jour­neys in­cluded a cross­ing of south-west Africa’s Namib Desert with three re­luc­tant camels. Lo­cal no­mads taught him how to sur­vive with lit­tle food or wa­ter for the 14-week odyssey.

Allen spent al­most six months ex­plor­ing the Siberian dry­lands by horse and camel. He also trav­elled 4000 kilo­me­tres through the frozen Arc­tic by dog sled, vis­it­ing the Chukchi and Inuit peo­ple.

How­ever, the orig­i­nal path that took him to PNG was per­haps more tor­tu­ous.

In 1983, Allen crossed the widest part of the Ama­zon Basin by foot and dugout ca­noe, earn­ing the af­fec­tion­ate nick­name Mad White Gi­ant from vil­lagers he met dur­ing the five-month jour­ney. But not ev­ery­one was friendly. “I came across some gold­min­ers who at­tacked me in the night. I was only 22, naive and very scared,” he says.

The at­tack left Allen with­out food or pos­ses­sions and he ended up lost in the rain­for­est, ac­com­pa­nied only by a dog he’d found along the way.

“As we walked we got steadily weaker and af­ter about three weeks, I was starv­ing to death; I had malaria and I was deliri­ous.”

Allen was forced to eat the dog to sur­vive. But when the story got out, he was con­demned back home by a na­tional news­pa­per and re­ceived a sack full of hate mail from an­i­mal lovers.

“Al­most un­be­liev­ably, two RSPCA in­spec­tors came to visit me in Hamp­shire af­ter the jour­ney, to in­quire about the wel­fare of our fam­ily pet dogs,” he says. Allen’s re­sponse was to visit PNG. “I had to make sense of it all. I barely sur­vived the Ama­zon and had to come to terms with why I hadn’t died,” he says.

“I wanted to find a new place where I could live in the for­est with in­dige­nous peo­ples and learn sur­vival skills.”

End­ing up in East Sepik Province, Allen made con­tact with the Yaifo and wrote about his ex­pe­ri­ences in a book called The Prov­ing Grounds.

“I was the first out­sider to see them and they did this dance to greet me – armed with bows and ar­rows if I caused trou­ble.

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