Mr Allen ... I presume?

| May 21, 2018

Explorer Benedict Allen made headlines last year when he failed to return home from a mission to Papua New Guinea. Simon Usborne tracked him down for an interview about what really happened.

Benedict with friend Howard from the Hewa people

Even from the age of 10, Benedict Allen, now 58, was determined to be an explorer – a proper one, in the mould of Livingston. He made his dream come true, spending most of his life on exploration missions, immersing himself in societies of indigenous people and travelling without modern technology or sponsorship, preferring instead to rely on local people and his own skills. His experiences have informed his 10 books, he frequently talks at events and has made many self-filmed TV shows, as well as a documentary last year with BBC Security Correspondent, Frank Gardner, in which they returned to Papua New Guinea to look for birds-of-paradise.  

While Benedict has almost come a cropper several times – including once in the Brazilian rainforest, when he famously had to eat his own dog to survive – he says he has never truly been lost. That didn’t stop the British press going into overdrive last November, with front page stories about his supposed ‘disappearance’ in Papua New Guinea, and eventual helicopter rescue (by the Daily Mail). He was returned home safely and has now recovered enough to set the record straight.

Your rescue from the jungle last year was a huge story. What actually happened?

It had started very well. I’d set off from the lowlands of Papua New Guinea to find out what had happened to a ‘lost tribe’ I had met 35 years earlier. I was travelling in my normal style, relying only on local people, immersing myself in their lives without technology, and all was well. It was wonderfully moving to see these people, and they were fine.

But I couldn’t get out, because two ethnic groups were fighting in the forest using bush knives, homemade rifles, and bows and arrows. Then I got malaria and dengue fever, and soon I was away for longer than the three weeks I had planned. I made my way to a missionary station and sent people to find a radio transmitter to alert the world to my whereabouts. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the world was getting into a frenzy.

Benedict Allen © Martin HartleyWhen did you realise what was going on?

With the transmitter, I was planning to call in a plane to the airstrip at one of the mission stations. But I was also considering making the journey by foot when, out of nowhere, a helicopter arrived. This is very remote rainforest and you don’t get many helicopters; I thought maybe it was gold miners who had got lost. As the helicopter landed, I could see a man filming me. He walked towards me and looked quite fresh-faced and quite, well, English. He came up to me and said, “Mr Allen, I presume”. It was a man from the Daily Mail who had come to extract me. My wife Lenka had been getting concerned. She had notified my agent, who phoned around and the story gathered pace. It was so surreal. I couldn’t get my head around it because I was just doing what I always do. I’ve been shot at, I’ve been left to die and robbed in the Amazon and nobody has taken a real interest in it, yet somehow getting lost had captured the public imagination. And I wasn’t even lost.

Why do you think the story took off like that?

I think people were fascinated by the idea that somebody could disappear in this age where we’re all so connected. It played into a sort of fantasy we have, or maybe an archetype, of the explorer of 140 years ago. Someone like Livingston. The idea that there are lost tribes and that it is possible for someone to vanish. That someone would willingly disconnect himself from such a connected world. I think that’s exciting to people. Different newspapers also had their own agendas. Some wanted me to be the hero, others a sort of throwback imperialist. Yet, at the heart of it was a simple trek of the sort I’ve been doing for 35 years. I was trying to clear my head and recover, and was gathering myself for this big walk out, when suddenly my destiny was taken out of my hands. And a couple of hours later I was sitting in a hotel, pacing back and forth. I’m still trying to get my head round it.

Are you a throwback?

I think that’s how I’m portrayed, but for me, that’s why what I do is perhaps more relevant than ever. Because we do have to disconnect sometimes and evaluate ourselves independently from everyone else, to not always be in touch with what we are comfortable with. And I think I also justify what I do because I document the world. Exploration of that kind is more important now than ever, because the natural world is being plundered and we need people to get out and record it. 

What drove you to start this kind of travel?

I think the initial inspiration was my dad, who was a test pilot. He would fly a huge Vulcan bomber overhead, tipping a wing to his five year-old son below. That sort of made me think, ‘wow, it’s possible to be a bit different, a pioneer’. I was also very independently minded and curious; I collected fossils up and down the Dorset coast, and converted the tool shed into a fossil museum. From the age of 10, I was determined to be an explorer. Later, I read environmental science at university. I was learning about climate change and it seemed so logical to go out there and witness the world before it changed too much.

Benedict Allen

Benedict Allen

How do you regard the modern explorer?

It’s a funny thing. I suppose I’m the odd one out. Some of the people who go off and do things are athletes doing extraordinary feats, but don’t necessarily report back. If it’s just an athletic feat without pushing other boundaries, it’s not really exploration. We have to keep on going out there to express what the world is and not to think of true exploration as something of the past because, if anything, it’s a golden era, because it’s much more democratic. What I don’t quite get is when people say they’re doing something solo, when it’s not solo if you can communicate and could be extracted at any moment. I’m also a bit old-fashioned, and tend to think that it’s not about sponsorship money, or even the prize of climbing the mountain, but the experience. To me, exploration isn’t about planting a flag or making a mark, but opening yourself and letting a place make its mark on you. You’ve got to be sensitive to a place and not use it as a playground on which to show off.

How do you balance that with the concerns of your family?

Well, for a long time I balanced it by not getting married and not having children. But then I met Lenka at a party. She’s Czech, but was in England learning the language. Ten years ago we got married and we now have Natalya, who is 10, Freddie, eight and Beatrice, who is two. I’m 58 now and I had basically retired. But then I did this trip with Frank Gardner, the BBC security guy, who is a friend. We went off to Papua New Guinea to find birds-of-paradise for a BBC programme that went out early last year. While we were there, I had a chance meeting with someone who told me that the people I was trying to find in Papua New Guinea were still there. I thought, I’ve got these skills – I should be out there. But it’s a myth that a sat phone is always useful, or that you can be extracted straight away. I always have backup and my backup is local people. And that’s about them believing in my journey. If they can see I have a phone that will extract me, it gives me special treatment and I feel like I can’t look them in the eye and say, ‘I’m just the same as you and I want to learn’. If I’m alone, trusting in them and doing what they do – making shelters, navigating – then that’s an incredible safety device. My worry now is that my family is worried. Lenka has every faith in my ability to get home, but she hasn’t had much experience of being an explorer. This time it was a freak thing – a war I had no control over – but I’m more careful these days than I was as a rash young man.

So are you back in retirement?

Good question. I don’t know. I do feel like I’m a bit wasted sitting around here but I’m Benedict Allen in the junglestill in recovery mode to be honest. I don’t want to cause more worry but I do get the feeling I will head off at some point. I said to my wife, half joking, that she could come with me and she didn’t think that would solve everything at all. But she likes what I do and the way I stick to my principles, so let’s see.

What does a normal family holiday look like for you?

Horribly conventional. It’s buckets and spades, running to the beach first thing, fishing in rock pools. Occasionally we go camping, but even that seems like work to me, so it’s more likely to be cheap accommodation – a last-minute deal in the Med. I’m like everyone else, perhaps, in that I savour those family moments, but when you’ve spent 10 years of your life cut off from society, on and off, they’re really powerful.

Is it fair to say that your style of exploration has not been lucrative?

Yes, partly because I don’t want sponsors. If I showed up wearing a cap with PG Tips on it, I feel like it would be imposing. I was also quite anti-establishment as a young man and when I started exploring, I had no money. Then it felt like the best way to do it. The trouble now is trying to bring up a family. I’ve turned down sponsorship and TV stuff. They asked me to do I’m A Celebrity… quite a while ago. It’s not that I’m a miserable bloke who only wants to do it like Livingston, but that, I felt, was too much.

How can we all get a bit more adventure in our lives?

That’s part of my mission during my Ultimate Explorer theatre tour, which I start in September. We’re always told that the world has been explored, that there’s nothing left. But there’s so much we don’t fully understand; climate change, the life of the earwig – you name it. We can all be explorers in our own way and that doesn’t have to mean pushing yourself to the limit. It can mean just getting out there, getting away from your screens and living more, and learning more.

Benedict Allen is touring the UK with Ultimate Explorer from September 2018.

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