Copyright meets world-famous explorer Benedict Allen to find out what years of immersion in remote, indigenous communities have taught him about our planet, its people and himself
Benedict Allen is easily recognisable as one of the key figures in modern exploration. His individual quests to remote corners of the Amazon, distant Indonesian islands and the savannahs of Africa have introduced him to some of the world’s last remaining indigenous populations. Famous for integrating himself completely with the people he meets, his stories capture the imagination and arouse adventure. But years of exploration have revealed to Benedict a different take on discovery, one that includes us all.
How do you feel the has world changed during your lifetime? When I started out the world was very different, large chunks of the world hadn’t really been explored. On my expeditions I never came across another outsider like me. A lot has changed since then. I do feel very strongly that the word has sort of been shanghaied.
Has that changed what it means to be an explorer today? We’re all explorers in some way. Even someone who thinks that they’re not very exciting is still trying to understand the world and make sense of it. We all push ourselves in some way. We think of explorers as people in front of camera. Increasingly, a lot of expeditions can seem a little bit self-indulgent. There’s a time and place for them.
I’m excited by the person who makes the effort to go out and climb say a local hill fort, pushing themselves to their own limits rather than going to climb Everest for the status. I’m interested in people individually exploring, making the most of their time on earth rather than using the world as a sort of background.
What made you decide to become an explorer? As a little boy I had a dream of becoming a classic explorer, probably quite unusual, but my dad was a test pilot. I had a great role model. I didn’t have any money so the only way I could do it was to live with indigenous people. It was very much about immersion and learning rather than trying to impose.
On the other hand there is a schism between the old and the young. The young are often feeling helpless or simply drawn to our way of life. These small communities are faced with opportunities but also tests; gold miners, drug traffickers, loggers and governments selling off their land. They have always been told they are backwards and primitive, I think there’s an increasing feeling that they’re missing out on a slice of the pie.
The resilience though of some of these communities is amazing. In Sumatra, Indonesia the Metawai have survived tsunamis and persecution from the Indonesian government who have banned them tattooing themselves. They’re still hanging on, and that’s what’s so glorious. People like the Maasai, despite everything tourism has brought, are so proud and it’s a wonderful thing.
What can we learn from indigenous groups? They pay huge cost for living in the environments they do, for example health. Take the Matses, who are Amerindians living in the Peruvian Amazon, they have an infant mortality rate of one in five, one in five children die before the age of six or seven.
So it’s very hard to say ‘let’s go and live with nature’. For a start they wouldn’t have the same idea of nature that we have. We think of nature as a separate thing—we are human, nature’s out there. We have to change our philosophy and realise nature is everything, not just the wilderness areas that we’ve got left. It’s all the land, our gardens, our homes. We have to get much more holistic and realise we’re part of the process.
When I was a young boy and I wanted to become an explorer, I thought of these people as very exotic, the tattoos, body paint and bows and arrows. After years and years of having lived with them, having gone through their ceremonies, they seem less and less exotic. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt it’s simply that these are not other people they are just people that have found a way of coping in places we can’t.
Follow Benedict on Twitter @benedictallen