Dengue Fever, Treacherous Expeditions and No GPS | A Q&A with Benedict Allen

5 January 2018

Explorer Benedict Allen is known as one of the last ‘great explorers’, conducting his missions without a TV crew, he has continually remained faithful to the old ways of doing things. His unimaginable adventures through the unbeaten tracks of the world have been documented for the public on the BBC since the 1980s.

His most recent trip has attracted him global media attention. This trip was his solo expedition to the remote region of Papua New Guinea. Benedict's aim was to reach the fairly unknown Yaifo tribe, a tribe with which he first made contact with over 30 years ago. However, he was forced to make an unexpected detour due to warring tribes, sudden storms and worsening fever from malaria. Spending three weeks alone in the jungle, Benedict’s plight ensued a multi-national search and rescue mission. Despite recovering from malaria, Benedict made time to speak to us about his adventures.

Can you tell us about your most recent expedition in the remote region of Papua New Guinea?

Last year I was filming with the BBC – my mission to take BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, who is wheelchair-bound, into the heart of PNG’s forests (Birds of Paradise: The Ultimate Quest) when I discovered something extraordinary. The remote community that 30 years ago I made first “outside contact” with, the Yaifo, still lived up as they once did, in their mountains. More extraordinary still: in the 3 decades since my visit, no other outsider had made the treacherous journey up the mountain to visit them. So, I decided to return to New Guinea to see how they were faring. I was dropped by helicopter, assembled an expedition of locals, and hiked through the forests – eventually finding them. It was an extremely moving moment to be reunited with people who were not only some of the most remote on the planet but who were once my friends. But, a greater drama was still ahead of me: I still had to cross PNG’s notorious Central Range (it had been crossed by only one outsider before – me!) and since war had erupted between two communities ahead of me. I was trapped.

Sounds pretty scary, we can’t imagine what that must have been like, can you share some highs and lows of this experience?

The “high” was undoubtedly meeting up with the Yaifo, people who I learned to trust, all those years ago. One particular man, Korsai, guided me as a very young man over the dreaded Central Range – and now, as an old man, he gave me such a hug as I’ll never forget.

"I am someone who has always pushed himself to the limit, and I enjoy trying to inspire others to do the same"

The “low” was suffering from both malaria and Dengue Fever, and trying to clear my head in order to make a last bid to walk out of the forest alone, using every ounce of my experience as a specialist in the most remote terrain on the planet. I should mention: I am highly unusual in that I am NOT a believer in taking satellite phones, GPS and other outside “backup” – my backup system is always the local people, who are the real experts. I want to be able to look them in the eye and for them to know I trust them, that I am not more important than them. As it happened, I was saved from having to do that final trek out – a newspaper had decided to come and find me!

Wow, that was lucky! Papua New Guinea is a country which has received some ill-informed press, can you tell us about your experiences there?

Papua New Guinea is a country very close to my heart – it was very disappointing to hear all the old stories of head-hunters and cannibals resurface again. Had I been kidnapped? Had I been eaten? No. The opposite – my companions never let me down.

"I’m an expert in tackling extremes, but in the end, we are ALL explorers – it’s part of our human condition."

Universally, I was given a warm welcome and looked after. Away from towns, PNG is one of the most hospitable places in the world. I have known the country for a long, long time – as a 24-year-old I went through a traditional ceremony to be made a “man as strong as a crocodile” – and have a huge respect not just for the people, but the pristine forests I’ve lived in. There are dangers, of course, but live with the “locals” and you begin to see the forest not as a threat, not somewhere to “survive” in, but as a resource, a home.

Sounds like you have really learned a lot from your expeditions, but what do you hope people will learn from your adventures?

Not to think of the world as strange and exotic, and somewhere to conquer, rather the opposite. The “tribal” peoples I live with are just ordinary people who are specialists in living in places that we don’t understand – and that provide food, medicine and shelter. I’m the son of a test pilot and I’m much like my dad – except that my own mission is to get to misunderstood places on our planet and report back. At a more personal level, I am someone who has always pushed himself to the limit, and I enjoy trying to inspire others to do the same. I’m an expert in tackling extremes, but in the end, we are ALL explorers – it’s part of our human condition.

Speaking of explorers, what advice would you give to a young person trying to begin a career as an explorer?

A true “explorer” – as opposed to adventurer – discovers things, or reveals things, about our planet. So, it’s not enough just to go on exciting adventures, you have to contribute something – push boundaries. So, you need a skill – be a scientist (or say photographer or writer), bring a skill to your vocation.

What is the one item you can't survive without on your expeditions?

A picture of my little collection of children (plus wife!). This sounds really soppy, but any “survival situation” in truth comes down to the state of your mind. The most important thing, by far, is to remind yourself what you are fighting for. I call it ‘The 80% Factor’, the rest – 20% - is down to a few tricks (water, shelter, food), the sort of thing you see on the telly shows. But reminding yourself, as you lie on the wet forest floor with malaria, that you will be missed back in your homeland – that, say, your children will be orphans without you –  is the most powerful incentive you can have.

Good advice and now you are home, what are your plans for the future?

Contrary to all the stories in the press, my dear wife wasn’t angry with me for getting “lost” - as they put it. She knew that I’d never allow myself to get lost, and that I’d be fighting with every last breath to get out.  And now she’s already wondering when I’m off next – though I’m still recuperating from the last venture, so it may be a few months! After all those damp trees, it’ll be a desert next, I feel!

We think that is a wise move, thanks for sharing your wisdom with us, Benedict.

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