A Chat with Adventurer Benedict Allen

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A Few Words on Expeditions and How to Make them Successful

Benedict Allen’s greatest journeys have included a five-and-a-half month trek by horse and camel from the forests of Siberia and a 3,600 mile crossing of the Amazon Basin at its widest point, without navigation by map or compass, but with help from the Matses Indians.

His latest book, The Faber Book of Exploration, is an anthology of the world’s greatest explorers. Here he talks about what going on an expedition means to him.

What, for you, makes an expedition an expedition?

Having a clear objective, and a plan with which to pull it off. Unless it’s an expedition of the pure adventure type, there should be some element of research and – importantly – an intention to report back on your findings.

What’s the point in going on an expedition?

Either to bring back some useful information, or to bring a more considered or “higher” approach to your travels. Most travel is self-indulgent and, while there’s nothing wrong with wanting a bit of fun, if you want to achieve something meaningful for others, or achieve something perhaps at a higher level of achievement for yourself, an expedition-approach is a good idea. Want to climb a great mountain? Then you need an expedition. It’s the same with most other achievements on the horizontal plane.

What advice would you give someone wanting to go on his or her first expedition?

Set about thinking what you want to achieve, and then start reading up on the place. The key to planning is information – so read this website, look at old expedition reports at the Royal Geographical Society and go to their Expedition Advisory Centre.

Have you any suggestions on a good first time expedition destination?

Namibia, Mongolia, and even Iceland (where I led my first expedition). All these places are politically stable, and are relatively remote – though not unexplored. In all of them you can be far removed from your world, and seriously enter another. My favourite is Mongolia, perhaps – the nomads form 40% of the population, and the country is the size of Western Europe (though with only a couple of million people in it).

You have written much on the history of exploration. Who are your heroes?

  • Captain James Cook – He was a navigator of genius, but also wonderfully able to see the natives simply as people. He was very good at not judging – a real man of the Enlightenment.
  • Nansen – The great Norseman, and one of the great early Arctic explorers. He was the guru really of Amundsen, the first to the South Pole, and taught him what was what in the extreme cold. As a result he made an easy job (also due to his professionalism) of getting to the Pole. He knew the key was simply to take dogs, and to be thorough.

If you hadn’t become an explorer, what do you think you would be doing now?

I’d be an artist, I think. I almost went to art school. What I’m trying to do, through my books and expeditions (I rarely write articles, and the TV is just a tie-on) is simply trying to make sense of the world for myself, like any other person with creative drive, perhaps.

What tips do you have on how to make day-to-day travel in extreme conditions bearable?

  • Extreme heat – Keep yourself covered – always long sleeves and trousers, to stop evaporation. Wear a hat and shades and use a stick of sun block for nose. Put white tape on your penknife – or a colour that will show up if you drop it in sand. Red doesn’t normally show. Carry a whistle – can be heard for miles if you are lost, hopefully. Water purification tablets and matches in your survival kit. Torch and/or flares for attracting attention at night.
  • Extreme cold – Remember it’s a cold desert. You will need a stove to melt ice in order to drink. I always carried a spare mini stove in my emergency kit – and a survival blanket and flapjack etc.
  • Rainforest – Keep yourself clean – fungi will grow all over your skin and start rotting it, especially your groin and between your toes. Carry a salt cellar – just sprinkle it on leeches and they’ll come off. Get a mosquito net which is impregnated with anti-mosquito repellent. Keeps them from biting through. In your survival kit carry water purification liquid/ tablets, and anti-malarials. Compass, of course, and waterproof matches.

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