A born adventurer
The hair-raising experiences of Benedict Allen
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.