BENEDICT ALLEN - ADVENTURER
“My expeditions are about looking the indigenous people I am living with in the eye and saying I am no better than you, I am not going to use a satellite phone to get rescued, I am living the same way you are and dealing with the same challenges.”
Benedict Allen is an explorer who has travelled all over the world to immerse himself with indigenous tribes and learn survival skills from them. He has learnt from indigenous tribes living in the world’s most extreme environments, from the rainforests of Brazil and Papua New Guinea to the Arctic and African deserts. I met Benedict for a coffee to speak about how he became an explorer, the philosophies that underpin his expeditions, and some of his most recent adventures.
When did you decide that you were going to dedicate your life to adventure and exploration?
I think all humans are explorers at heart, we are all curious about the world. My dad was a test pilot and I remember looking up and seeing him fly over the house tipping the wings of his plane in salute. I thought if my dad is a pioneer, pushing himself to the limit, I could too. I knew I didn’t have the temperament to be a pilot, I was far too passionate and bouncy. I remember announcing aged 10 that I wanted to be an explorer, I was a bit of a dreamer and a romantic; my mum sighed heavily but my dad, he thought it was a great idea.
What inspired you to immerse yourself in indigenous cultures?
I went on three scientific expeditions while I was studying environmental sciences at university, the first of which was to Costa Rica to look at volcanoes, but they were trips I was not involved in organising I was just joining in. After leaving university, I started thinking of ways I was going make a life of adventure for myself. I eventually settled on the idea of going to live in the Amazon, because I thought that there would be remote tribes living there that didn’t have any money either, they would live off the rainforest and teach me the skills I need to survive.
How did you hear about the Yaifo tribe in Papua New Guinea and end up living with them?
I was exploring the lowlands of Papua New Guinea, where I came across a missionary station. The missionaries told me about the Yaifo explaining that no one has ever been able to reach them. Around this time, there was a gold rush in Papua New Guinea, helicopters were flying all over the place and mining companies were moving in. I thought that no one is recording the indigenous cultures that are in danger of disappearing, so I contacted the tribe and asked if I could spend time living with them. Two of the Yaifo came down to escort me to their home and I was greeted by a great dance with bows drawn. I spent several months studying the Yaifo’s way of life.
What inspired you to want to revisit the Yaifo thirty years after having first spent time with them?
I essentially retired from exploration in 2000; I felt the world had changed and I was burnt out, it was time to settle down and have a family. Then I did a one-off TV programme looking at birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea and while I was there bumped into one of the men who had helped guide me to the Yaifo all those years ago; he told me that the Yaifo were still there and that no one else has been to see them since I had. So, I decided to return and had this amazing reunion with them but got caught up in a war between local tribes and had to stay for some time at a missionary station. There I got Dengue Fever and Malaria and was essentially trapped, unable to leave.
In this digital age, you are one of the few explorers that will not take a satellite phone or GPS on your expeditions. When you failed to make your flight out of Papua New Guinea some people criticised you for not having any form of communication on you. What do you say to those critics?
People have said I am left over and out of touch, but ultimately my expeditions are not just about practicalities they are underpinned by a philosophy. My expeditions are about looking the indigenous people I am living with in the eye and saying I am no better than you, I am not going to use a satellite phone to get rescued, I am living the same way you are and dealing with the same challenges. It feels more honest and less imposing. Exploration has got a history of imperialism and I want to do it differently and send a message to the people I am living with that we are in it together.
What sort of skills have you learnt from living with indigenous peoples?
I just got back from visiting the Matses tribe in the Amazon where I learnt about their hunting culture; they have spines piercing their lips and cheeks that imitate the whiskers of a jaguar as they take on the characteristics of the jungle cat when they hunt. I have also learnt survival skills from the Chukchi, hardy reindeer herders who live in the Arctic, and the Himba tribe that live in the desert. I always think I should do what the locals do. For instance, when I first went to live with the Yaifo there was an initiation ceremony which involved being cut repeatedly by bamboo blades and being thrashed with sticks but I thought it was important to take part.
Many adventurers rely on sponsorship to fund their expeditions, is that the same for you?
I don’t rely on sponsorship because I would not feel comfortable advertising a big corporation if I was living with an indigenous tribe. I don’t want to become a TV or celebrity adventurer, I want to go out there and record authentically. It means your relationship with the place is uninterrupted, bringing less clobber with you means concentrating on immersing yourself with a place. If I had a film crew then I would immediately be compromised. In this digital age where we are all connected I think it is important for someone to step out and cut themselves off from it.
Headline photo credit: Martin Hartley