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

Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Rachel Buller

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 Allen

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

Ex­plorer Bene­dict Allen on a pre­vi­ous visit to Nor­wich

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