Exploring Cultures

Benedict Allen has been described as the one of the last great adventurers in the classic mould, someone who ventures into some of the most challenging environments with limited support and back up, emerging many months later with remarkable tales of survival, of communities existing and in many cases thriving in remote and ostensibly hostile environments. 

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Benedict had always wanted to be an explorer, encouraged by his father who was a test pilot, and his first expedition, in which he was attacked and ended up eating his dog to avoid starvation, was so remarkable and “unbelievable” that he was accused of having made the whole thing up. Fortunately he was able to leave these allegations behind when he embarked on his second expedition to Lowland Papua New Guinea, a journey that included taking part in a brutal initiation ritual described in detail in his second book Into the Crocodile’s Nest. Returning home covered in crocodile markings that had been cut into his body during the course of the 6-week coming-of-age ceremony, Benedict left critics with no doubt as to the authenticity of his expeditions.

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Even though it is over 30 years ago since publication, I still remember reading with a combination of morbid fascination and admiration  his description of life with his fellow initiates in the crocodile nest. It is hard to find a better example of what it truly means to immerse oneself in a traditional culture.

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Over the course of a career spanning almost 40 years he has lived in many of the worlds most remote and harsh environments, often travelling alone without the technology many of us take for granted. His style of exploration places huge importance on advance planning , as well relying on local support and resources. Some might criticize Benedict for taking unnecessary risks: in our conversation I brought up the well known climber Alex Honnold, subject of the popular film Free Solo, who is also criticized for being a risk taker. What struck me is that both Benedict and Alex spend inordinate amounts of time  understanding, quantifiying, mitigating and minimising these risks, preparing themselves physically and psychologically for all possible outcomes.

Very few of us operate in such “high consequence” environments: nonetheless there is much we can about risk management from these approaches. As there is about how best to adapt to changing circumstances; how to be resourceful in the moment versus relying on the equipment you have in your backpack; the power of disconnecting and exposing yourself to whatever is in front of you.

No other travel writer has impacted me in the way that Benedict has. And even if you have no interest in the places he visits and the way he interacts with indigenous populations, here is a man who takes his “craft” of expeditioning very seriously, and has done for four decades.

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Enjoy listening to my interview with Benedict here.

Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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