WE chat to Benedict Allen ahead of his Ultimate Explorer UK tour

BENEDICT ALLEN has spent his whole career exploring some of the wildest and most remote regions of the planet. He was the first known human to cross the Amazon Basin at its widest point. He once made a 600-mile traverse of the Gobi Desert… on foot, alone. In the 1980s he made contact with two remote tribes in New Guinea. In the Amazon, thugs employed by drugs baron Pablo Escobar once tried to kill him. On another occasion he was forced to sew up his own chest with a boot-mending kit. He has even cheated starvation by eating his dog. Last year he hit the headlines after contracting malaria and dengue fever in Papua New Guinea, and being rescued from a tribal warzone by helicopter.

Benedict, now 58, lives with his wife and three children in the Czech Republic. He has recorded eight TV series and written 10 books about his travels. This autumn he will be embarking on a 28-date speaking tour of the UK. [Visit www.benedictallen.com for ticket information]

It has been suggested that you are perhaps the last of the classical explorers. What does this mean?

In my 20s and 30s, I was fortunate to get the chance to embark on difficult journeys for which I had a good reason for going. Back then there were still large sections of the world we didn’t know; whole valleys and mountainous areas that even local people hadn’t recorded.

I also think people often think of me as a classic explorer type because I do it in an old-fashioned way. Off I go without GPS navigation or satellite phone. Actually, to me, this is all part of my rejection of that traditional type of explorer. I didn’t want to be planting flags, or imposing my point of view. I just wanted to go very quietly into people’s communities and listen to them. That meant going alone and spending a long time in remote communities. I wanted to see them as places that weren’t alien, and to strip away that idea of its being an exotic place; trying to get to a state where I’d see it as the locals did – like a home rather than a threat.

Is there anywhere left on Planet Earth that hasn’t already been explored?

Yes, there are pockets. There are mountain ranges in the Andes, gulleys in China, waterfalls in South America still hidden by rainforest. There’s Antarctica. And of course there’s the ocean bed. There are even a few tribes on the Peru-Brazil border that haven’t been contacted by the outside world. We’ve observed them from aircraft and they’re aware of us.

You are currently on an expedition in the Peruvian Amazon, visiting the Matses people. Will you be without GPS navigation and satellite phone there?

Yes. My fellow adventurers and explorers don't necessarily share my point of view and many of them take a lot of gadgets with them. But they’re doing different things perhaps. For me it’s all about learning from local people.

I will take a camera, however. Although I’m a low-tech person who tries to immerse myself into a community, part of the job of an explorer is to record. So I’ll be writing and filming as I go along. I’ll also take a survival kit.

Does your family miss you when you travel for long periods?

It’s always hard for the ones left behind. I have three children, aged 10, eight and two. I find it very hard leaving them. But it also fires me up. I feel I’m partly doing it for them.

Part of being an adventurer is that you’re not too sensible. You do assess risks, of course, but it’s also about exposing yourself to danger, and testing yourself. That's difficult to do with children.

During your years of travelling you have had some near-death experiences. Which was the scariest?

Nearly every time I’ve been under threat, it’s not been local people, it’s been outsiders who have threatened me. During my Amazon trip in the 1990s I was involved in an extraordinary chase in a canoe. I think they were professional assassins chasing me.

[Drug lord] Pablo Escobar was hiding out on the border between Peru, Brazil and Colombia. This was six months before he was killed. I was paddling along, and obviously got a bit near his camp. Shots began ringing out from this canoe, maybe 30 metres behind me. They kept on missing but I could feel the pressure waves of these high-velocity bullets zipping past my head. It was quite grim. I managed to jump into the rainforest and was suddenly safe. The whole episode went on for only two minutes but I was so vulnerable. It was a reminder that trouble isn’t to do with snakes and piranhas – it’s usually from people.

And what has been your most uplifting experience?

An explorer’s life is a life of highs and lows, there’s no doubt about it. You have to accept the low bits to get the high bits. In the late 1990s, I crossed the Gobi desert on foot. I remember coming out of the desert with my camels. I’d walked for six weeks, averaging 30 miles every day. Even though it was a really harsh and gruelling place, and I was always worried about not finding enough water for me or my camels, coming out of the desert was the most amazing feeing. I felt I didn’t want to leave. This place of nothing but sand had become my home. I felt like one of my camels.

On your UK tour, you plan to discuss the role of the explorer in the 21st century. You’ve said the golden age of exploration lies not behind us but ahead. What do you mean by this?

I feel very strongly about this. The world has never been more accessible, and we don't need specialists any more to get us into remote areas. At the same time, the world has never been in such a great crisis in terms of habitats and species which are under threat. So, right now, it’s incredibly important for us to get out there and explore the world. There may not be remote areas left. However, we don't fully understand how the world works. We don't understand all the different species. We’ve only named around five per cent of species on the planet – that’s without taking in all the bacteria.

Part of the job of exploration is science but there’s another crucial part: interpreting the world. This requires ordinary people to document how they see the world. The physical world is in crisis, the natural world is in crisis, and never before has it been more important to have people exploring it in all forms.

You often say that, to have an adventure, we don't necessarily need to travel that far?

Exploration doesn't have to mean someone with a pith helmet. It may just mean stepping outside and examining the local surroundings. Those can be urban surroundings too.

We need to change out definition of what an explorer is because, in the end, all humans are explorers. You can see it in how children are so curious about the world.

On your UK tour, you also urge people to take more risks in life. What kind of risks?

I would say I’m a challenge-taker rather than a risk-taker. I spend a huge amount of my time calculating risks. As any parent of young children knows, we have become very averse to risk. I feel it’s very important to take risks, especially when you’re young, because then you learn how to handle risks. You build up a resilience, and the knowledge of how to handle yourself in alien environments. But it’s important to calculate risks, not just take risks.