Dangling into an icy crevasse, running marathons through the desert, swimming with crocodiles - is there anything Ben Fogle won’t do?
Fogle - an adventurer, writer and TV presenter - is one of Britain's best-loved daredevils. His exploits on programmes like Extreme Dreams and Swimming with Crocodiles have gripped viewers across the world, and his Atlantic rowing challenge and race to the South Pole have inspired a generation of would-be adventurers.
So how does he do it? The 38-year-old dropped by Lonely Planet’s London office last week to tell all about filming Year of Adventures (a TV series based on the Lonely Planet book), his forthcoming Atlantic swim, and a seriously scary snowman...
Year of Adventures spans a lifetime's worth of amazing feats, filmed within a matter of months. Fogle scuba dived in Iceland, ran the punishing Three Peaks Race, and swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco - to mention just a few of the exhilarating, gruelling and downright sweaty expeditions captured on film. And if that wasn't enough, Fogle has already announced his latest challenge: an attempt to swim the Atlantic. Does this mean he is fearless?
“I have a well-known fear of heights, believe it or not,” he says. “And there were quite a lot of heights involved [in Year of Adventures].” (He did a solo skydive for the series, and says recalling it makes him “physically sick”.) And first-time adventurers may be heartened to know that he hasn’t always been so bold.
Pushing the limits
“As a child, I was the most unsporting person,” he explains. “I failed all my exams, I took my driving test seven times, I was terribly shy.” So how has he got to where he is today, taking on marathons, dives and stunts galore?
“I’ve had to work quite hard. And I’ve done that by seizing something that I think I’m quite good at, and that is adventure.” Which is not to say that some of the challenges haven't pushed him to his limits. The Moab 24, a 24-hour bike race in the Utah desert, was particularly punishing for Fogle and his film crew.
“Colossal speed, a ridiculous course…we had to practically abseil a bicycle down some of the sections, it was so steep,” he recalls. “I actually found it terrifying, and how I didn’t break a limb I have no idea.” And despite an affinity with the natural world (Fogle has been close to everything from Namibian cheetahs to pampered poodles during his television career), nature hasn’t always loved him back.
“I went scuba diving with crocodiles in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and our cameraman got attacked when a croc snuck up on him,” he frowns. “Having said that, it was a magical experience, really amazing.” Magical, amazing - words not often used to describe an experience that could have left you and your film crew as a reptile’s breakfast. Does he ever refuse a challenge?
“I said ‘no’ once in this series,” he admits. “We were going to do a wreck dive in Western Australia and a week before, someone was killed by a Great White shark. All my common sense said it is not going to happen again.” Until, that is, some research revealed that another individual had been killed at exactly the same spot, two weeks prior to that.
“What I decided was that a 30m wreck dive would have been complex enough for me anyway, without worrying about Jaws coming and taking my legs off.”
When it comes to Fogle’s forthcoming challenge to swim the Atlantic - an expedition only achieved once before - sharks are the least of his worries.
“The hardest thing will be being away from my family.” (Fogle has a wife, Marina, and two young children.) But he is all too aware of the physical toll of the swim, reeling off the wear and tear ahead: “salt burn, the blisters, the rash, the rub, jellyfish stings…”
Sleep deprivation? I ask.
“Actually I think this is one of the few challenges where sleep is not a problem!”, he laughs. “I’ll get more sleep on this than on any other challenge I’ve done.”
Frostbite, parasites and hallucinations
Certainly, the perils Fogle has endured on his travels are well documented - he famously contracted a flesh-eating parasite from a sandfly bite in the Peruvian jungle, and his 2009 race across the Antarctic left him and his long-time adventure partner James Cracknell frostbitten and hypothermic. The mental toll of some of his expeditions has also been intense.
“In Antarctica, we were always within a few feet of each other but with your big hoods up and in the howling wind you can’t hear one another,” he recalls. “And I remember talking to myself - I used to have pretend conversations with my wife.
“Especially if you’re on your own, you need company - and you can create artificial company. I have a friend who rode solo across the Atlantic with a spade that was his friend. He drew a face on it, and started talking to it.
“Experiences like [the Antarctic expedition] are highly emotive - you can make life-changing decisions that might be inappropriate once you are back at home.” And that’s before we even get on to the topic of hallucinations…
“I was on the mountain called Cotopaxi in Ecuador and we went up too fast and in terrible weather,” recalls Fogle. The extreme altitude, exhaustion and poor visibility were a potent cocktail: “As we reached the summit, a snowman started running towards me, and screaming at me. It was very strange.”
Advice for adventurers
Apart from looking out for abominable snowmen, what advice would Fogle give a first-time adventurer? “I think you have to have confidence in yourself,” he says simply. “I’m a firm believer that to achieve things you have to take on big challenges.”
And that doesn’t necessarily mean month-long treks or long-term voyages - life-changing challenges can be undertaken in just a few days, a “short, sharp shock”, as he describes it. “You come back from that precious seven days feeling like you’ve been away for a whole year. You’ve got tales to tell, you walk taller afterwards. That’s what adventure can do.”
With so many intense travel experiences under his belt, I have to ask: does Fogle ever take time out to lie in a hammock on the beach?
“Yes, very much so!” he laughs. “The idea of a holiday is sometimes being back at home, but that doesn’t really wash with my family. I like a completely relaxing holiday. I spend a week or two every summer in Austria in the mountains, I spend a lot of time in Portugal…”
Even after venturing to enough parts of the globe to make even seasoned travellers whimper with envy, Fogle still has a special place in his heart for his homeland, Britain. (He describes carrying the torch ahead of the London Olympics as “probably one of the proudest things I’ve ever done”.) Canada, Namibia, Bolivia and Papua New Guinea also score highly in his travel memories and he reels off a host of extraordinary landscapes that have stayed with him - Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, the lost world of Venezuela… Hearing about this globe-trotting life, it’s hard not to be a little sceptical when he says he plans to slow down and take a break after his Atlantic challenge, but we can only guess at what’s next for this unstoppable adventurer.
“I don’t think I’d turn down a ticket into space,” he chuckles. And somehow, coming from Ben Fogle, that doesn’t sound at all far-fetched.
This article was first published in May 2012 and was republished in July 2012.
Year of Adventures aired in a number countries around the world, including New Zealand, India and Italy.
Plan your next travel challenge with a copy of Lonely Planet’s book, A Year of Adventures.