Few travellers have pushed the boundaries of exploration like Benedict Allen. From the age of 22 he struck out alone to explore some of the most remote and hostile environments on Earth – from the windswept wilds of the Gobi Desert to the Central Mountain Range of Papua New Guinea and the jungle swamps of the Amazon Basin.
In his years on the road, Benedict has faced many challenges including rogue hitmen, malaria, starvation, being shipwrecked and enduring a ruthless initiation ceremony. But by assimilating the culture of indigenous people, he has developed the survival skills that led to him being dubbed 'the adventurer with nine lives'. We caught up with the intrepid traveller to learn more about what inspired his thirst for extreme exploration, what life was like living amongst remote tribes and why he values going it alone.
Benedict Allen's travel CV reads like an encyclopedia of epic adventures © Martin Hartley
Where was your last trip?
I went on an expedition to Papua New Guinea with journalist Frank Gardner in search of birds of paradise. Frank uses a wheelchair after being shot by terrorists in Saudi Arabia and had always dreamt of seeing these birds, and I was determined to help him. Thankfully we were successful.
Where is your next trip?
The specifics are top secret, but I am hoping to take my kids on one of my next adventures. I want my children to be out there in places like the Amazon learning from children of different cultures.
What is your first travel-related memory?
When I was around eight years old we used to go on little camping holidays to France. They were so idyllic – lots of bent tent pegs and searching for scorpions.
Benedict's early travel memories hark back to idyllic days spent camping in the French countryside © David Hughes / Shutterstock
Aisle or window seat?
Window. Not for the views but because I’ve got such long legs and I find they get bashed if I’m sitting in the aisle.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
When I’m travelling I always keep loo paper in my back-left pocket. You know how it is, loo paper is always useful.
What sparked your thirst for adventure?
My dad was a test pilot on the Vulcan bomber, an aircraft used to carry nuclear deterrents for Britain. I knew even then, as a five- or six-year-old, that I wasn’t the right sort of person to carry the nuclear deterrent, but seeing him on these test flights and outlandish expeditions made me feel like I could also be a pioneer in my own way.
Tell us about your first solo adventure.
My first adventure was to the Amazon when I was 22 and I hated it. I remember paddling down the Amazon River one day and finding myself being shot at by two hitmen – it turned out I was passing through the camp of Pablo Escobar, the drug baron who was hiding out there at the time. I managed to escape by jumping out of my canoe into the forest, and it ended up being a huge lesson for me. I realised that this place that seemed so alien and hostile could actually be on my side, because as soon as I jumped into that forest I was safe. I decided then that I would come back to the Amazon one day and cross the whole lot in an attempt to try and understand it better.
The Amazon rainforest can both be a place of unease and refuge for those travelling in this region © Fotos593 / Shutterstock
One of your more formidable adventures was enduring the ‘crocodile initiation’ of the Naiara tribe in Papua New Guinea, what did that involve?
When I was in Papua New Guinea one of the locals I met said, ‘if you call yourself an explorer you should do whatever it takes to understand this forest and understand us, and for us that means going through the initiation ceremony.’ Before I knew it, my head was being shaved and I was being prepared for a brutal ceremony.
A fence was erected around a spirit house in the heart of the village, this was the so-called crocodile nest. Me and about 20 other initiates would be kept there for as long as it took to become men as strong as crocodiles (the animal revered by this particular tribe). The ceremony involved being repeatedly cut with bamboo blades to create the scars that are supposed to emulate the crocodile's scales. The next day we were told to dance happily around the spirit house while all the old men came out and thrashed us with sticks. This went on four times a day, every day for as long as it took.
How do you arm yourself mentally for this kind of intrepid travel?
I was always harking back to my dad in my mind, having him as a role model helped enormously because it armed me with self-belief. I think genetically I have a high pain threshold and am very stubborn and one-track minded, although I do believe you can acquire those things from experience. But I can’t stress how ill equipped and naive I was in the beginning. I was a dreamer, but gradually, by a huge number of mistakes and a huge amount of help from indigenous people, I learnt the skills needed to survive.
Benedict with one of his camels crossing the Gobi Desert © Benedict Allen (Edge of Blue Heaven)
What were some of your high and low moments on your travels?
The highs tend to be strange little moments when it all comes together. I remember emerging from the Gobi Desert after a nine-month expedition and seeing litter blowing my way from the urban world. It seemed such a dirty thing and I thought, ‘do I really want to join that world?’ The noise and the idea of masses of people felt so jarring when I had been so tuned into the silence of a desert environment. But at the same time, it was a wonderful moment because I knew I was going to live and that I had completed my journey.
The lows: on my first expedition I had to eat my dog to survive.
Is there anywhere in the world you wouldn’t want to go, either because it’s too dangerous or you’re just not interested in going there?
I’ve got three children now and for that reason I am holding myself back. I thought I would carry on as normal but you find yourself not wanting to take certain risks. But there are places I just wouldn’t want go to: I wouldn’t go up Everest, for example. Of course Everest is still dangerous but it has become this commercial entity – people travel with oxygen and guides and follow routes already laid out before them. Everest has an interesting pedigree, there are greater feats in my mind. I’m more excited by someone who pushes themselves just to get up a hill because it’s something they’ve always dreamt of doing.
You’ve spent so much time living between remote communities and the developed world, is it difficult to reconcile the two experiences?
It’s very difficult to reconcile the two. For ages I used to go back to live with the Naiara because I felt I had a duty to keep up with them having gone through their ceremony, but at the same time I wanted to be home. I realised I could never really be at home in those jungle swamps, nor could I really be at home back in England because I felt that my experiences had become more and more extraordinary.
The stark branches of dead camel thorn trees in Deadvlei, one of Namibia's many otherworldly landscapes © Oleg Znamenskiy / Shutterstock
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
There’s a museum in Oxford dedicated to Pitt Rivers, the anthropologist, who collected incredible things from around the world like shrunken heads, canoes and bow and arrows. I’d like to think my body is a little like that. I’ve got my initiation marks from the Naiara tribe, as well as a collection of tattoos including a dragon from the Iban tribe in Borneo and a huge piece down my right leg done with a blunt safety pin from my time living with the Mentawai people in Sumatra.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I probably would grab my children and take them off to Namibia. Namibia feels a world apart from anywhere on this planet. Maybe I’ll attempt to climb K2 – if an asteroid is coming anyway I might as well just see if I can do it, just run up!
What advice would you give a first time traveller?
I’m tempted to say go alone. When you’re alone you approach things with an open heartedness, you find yourself having to make friends, you get invited into families, you have to learn the language and be adaptable.
Learn more about Benedict and keep up with his epic adventures on his website benedictallen.com.