Viv Hardwick discovers Benedict Allen is ready for new adventure after his latest TV series involved the BBC’s well-known journalist Frank Gardner

ADVENTURER Benedict Allen was fascinated when he got a letter saying that a fan thought he’d had at least six brushes with death.

“It sounded rather glamorous in a funny sort of way unless you assume it’s not incompetence of course. Then, I became intrigued and added all the occasions up and found out it was actually nine times and made me think of a cat losing its nine lives. It’s actually impossible to say because any of us, as a toddler, could be almost run over. There are a few classic incidents when it really looked bad,” says Allen.

He thinks the worst moment was when Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s gang started chasing him on the Amazon. “I can pinpoint that as a definite because their intention was to kill me. I was in the Putamayo region and on the border of Peru, Brazil and Colombia. Escobar was killed about six months later, but was hiding out in this area. I was an explorer exploring the wrong bit of jungle. There was nothing brave. I just happened to be passing his camp and it was assumed I was from the DEA because no one in his right mind would have gone there otherwise,” says Allen.

Until that time, he’d been led to believe that the Amazon rainforest was incredibly dangerous and not to be tackled. “When the people sent to kill me got off half-a-dozen shots, I jumped from my canoe and suddenly felt safe and it really underlined to me that the forest isn’t somewhere that you need to think about survival. The locals see it as home and it was hiding me behind its leaves,” he says.

The start of our interview is fascinating because the 57-year-old trustee of the Royal Geographical Society and ground-breaking TV documentary maker is on the phone from Prague early because he’s babysitting his youngest of three, Beatrice, “because she’s absorbed with a TV programme”.

Allen is heading to Darlington’s Central Hall, the historic home of touring lectures, to present a RGS talk about his most recent and challenging TV series which featured the writer-traveller accompanying wheelchair using journalist Frank Gardner to a remote part of Papua New Guinea to film and observe the elusive birds-of-paradise.

“What I’m mainly talking about is the programme shown in February called Birds-of-Paradise: The Ultimate Quest and this came about because Frank and I were chatting in a bar. He actually thought I was Ben Fogle first of all. Frank had been shot six times in Saudi Arabia and left for dead and the one thing he knew he was going to regret was never being about to see these birds. I told him I was the man because I’d lived in Papua New Guinea and made contact with two threatened indigenous peoples – the Obini and Yaifo. took six It years to organise and Frank is valuable to the BBC and I didn’t want him to disappear forever doing something foolhardy.

Allen recalls having to eat his dog to survive on his first expedition. “It wasn’t a pet, it was a dog I found during my visit to the Amazon. I been robbed by gold miners and lost everything. I tried walking out of the forest at the age of 22 and knew my mother and father would want me to fight to stay alive... and I played my last card. Many years later I filmed a series called Ice Dogs (2002) and managed to lose my dog team in the Arctic. I told myself if I ever got out I would take the dogs straight home,” he says.

After a nightmare night, Allen was reunited with his dog team and knew that he would have died on the ice without them and “kept his side of the bargain” and abandoned his attempt to cross the Baring Strait from Russia to America on a rare occasion when the channel was completely frozen for the first time in 12 years.

“I’d reached that classic halfway point... the point of no return and staked the team to the ice, but then lost them in a mini blizzard and couldn’t find my way back. I’m not a Christian, but I found myself sort of praying to the dogs with a kind of contract where I saw them as expedition companions. I trusted them, even though I’m not sure they trusted me. I suddenly felt at home in temperatures of -20, but I think it felt the same whether it was the desert, the jungle or the arctic. It’s all about coming away and feeling that place is more familiar and friendly,” he explains.

Allen has been dubbed one of history’s top ten explorers of all time and on a par with Sir Ranulph Fiennes while inventing the idea of self-filming expeditions. “I don’t know what Sir Ranulph would say about this. He’s every competitive. I was known as a bit of an old-school explorer and someone at the BBC came up with the idea of giving me a camera. It was the early days of camcorders and off I went to the jungle and just filmed whatever happened. There was no health and safety as far as the BBC was concerned because I was an explorer doing my job and making a video diary. The bonus was the films were very honest and I didn’t need a camera crew and it did revolutionise the experience of moving through remote places. I just happened to be the one that got asked and I found myself talking to a little camera from the jungle to the desert. That meant putting solar panels on a camel’s back and I’d take three or four cameras because one by one they’d break down, but I sort of managed to get away with it. I loved these little cameras because I was alone when I spent six weeks walking across the Gobi Desert (1998),” says Allen.

Another decision he made out on the ice alone was not to risk his life quite so often in future and become a family man.

“I did. I settled down and really, thanks to Frank Gardner, I found out what I was missing. I don’t think my wife was happy about New Guinea, but the people there remembered me after 30 years. And what I want to emphasise to the audiences is that Frank’s spirit was undaunted even though he knew at any minute the expedition might have to end if he got injured. He did have to be evacuated by helicopter but he told me that every day was a bonus. For that reason I’m looking round for new adventures.”

  • Benedict Allen: Adventures In Paradise. Central Hall, Darlington. Sunday June 11. 2pm.  01325-405405