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Disconnecting is key to exploring

  • Story Highlights
  • Benedict Allen explores without a backup team, technology or satellite phones
  • He has been to the Gobi Desert, Western Australia, the Amazon and Siberia
  • Bandits, then starvation nearly killed him on his first adventure in the Amazon
  • He believes traveling without technology helps people to discover themselves
  • Next Article in World »
By Brigid Delaney
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(CNN) -- There is such a thing as being out of time: of looking at a map in your bedroom and realizing the most intriguing bits of the world have already been explored, that many indigenous groups had already been ruined by modern life, that vast tracts of rainforests or deserts or seas had also been spoiled by progress, that climbing Everest has become just another sport.

Explorer Benedict Allen

Benedict Allen has been exploring the most remote regions of the world for 25 years

In a comfortable sitting room in his home in west London, British explorer Benedict Allen is surrounded by things also from another time --fossils he collected as a child, his grandfather's polar expedition's books (fraying now at the edges, spines cracked apart) and old leather bound back issues of Punch magazine.

He has been exploring for 25 years now -- trying to do things the old way -- going into inhospitable regions without a backup team, technology or satellite phones. The expedition that forms the subject of his latest book, Into the Abyss tells of traveling across Siberia in the freezing cold with only his husky dogs for company.

"My dad was a test pilot and used to fly back and forth to Africa. I was a dreamer, a romantic, I used to collect fossils. It was my dream of becoming an explorer character but I realized the world had already been explored," said Allen.

It didn't deter him for too long. He decided to start exploring the old--fashioned way. "I thought I just had to give it a go. Twenty--five years ago I started disappearing. It's archaic; it's an old thing, a Victorian thing. It may seem I'm a throwback -- because I'm trying to do things that those people like Douglas Mawson (an early polar explorer) used to do. It's a way of seeing how the world is. On one level I'm interested in being disconnected from the outside," he said.

His journeys have seen him go alone into such inhospitable regions as the Gobi Desert, Western Australia, Afghanistan, the Amazon and Siberia. He is currently planning a trip to the Congo.

He says three skills have helped him with this type of exploring: "calm in a crisis, stamina and good reflexes."

But he keeps on coming back to vulnerability. It seems that in order to get protection and help from the people whose lands he is exploring, he needs to disarm them: make himself vulnerable so they trust him more.

Of the indigenous people of Siberia who guided him through the bitterly cold and desolate tundra he says: "I was one more outsider with his plans and they were so gracious about the whole thing. Here people's lives are basic -- reduced to mere subsistence. Our lives have become so cluttered -- theirs are stretched. Life has been stripped down to the basics. But they had not lost their humanity. They know what counts."

It is a mixture of intellectual curiosity about the nature of survival and a strong interest in landscape and people that lead Benedict Allen to become an adventurer. He is also strongly driven by his first adventure in which he was almost killed, first by bandits, then by nature. The experience haunted him and each subsequent trip is an attempt to understand the nature of survival and human being's natural limitations.

Allen's first adventure was aged 22 was from the Orinoco to the mouth of the Amazon. "I wanted to find the land of El Dorado and so I worked in a warehouse to save money. I'm not scientific and I'm undisciplined. I thought I'd just go to the Amazon if I could get there however naive and disastrous that was. But it became the key to my journey, instead of keeping connection with the outside world I would just report what was out there and make a virtue of being vulnerable. But the indigenous people have been my back-up people -- almost without exception people will welcome you. It's the outsiders who are the problem -- the cocaine dealers, logging camps, gold diggers."

Then one night he was attacked by these outsiders. "Some gold miners said they wanted to kill me -- they were drunk, it was a tricky old thing. They thought I was an outsider or a spy or from an NGO and then one night they got really drunk and came at me with knives so I ran away with my dog. My canoe capsized and I was starving to death, I got sick, I had malaria. I ate my dog -- an Indian hunting dog that I adopted -- it was my companion -- a symbol of hope."

The man sitting across from me who is so thoughtful and considerate does not equate with the picture of such desperation and starvation but Allen says in the jungle, and facing death, suddenly choices and reality seemed very stark: "Things are very simple when you're in that situation, it was whether I would see my parents again or not."

He survived but the episode haunted him. In his journey to Siberia with the huskies there is the sense of a full circle.

"It didn't strike me until my journey started with the dogs and came back to the dogs ... it became the answer to something in my mind."

He is proud that he started the Siberia expedition with 10 dogs and returned with all ten dogs -- delivering them safely back to their owner.

Now he is planning his next trip and his next book, but the urge to explore and take risks has mellowed. "Now I don't have the hunger I had at the beginning. It's a lack of peace that gives you the drive. I'm more content than ever before -- I'm much more reluctant to risk my life."

When not writing and exploring, Allen gives motivational speeches. It is his belief that being an adventurer is a state of mind as much as someone who visits remote and dangerous regions.


"It's important to remember we're all explorers -- as humans we are risk-takers, whizzing down a hill on a bike. But we get settled in a pattern -- there is so much more inside us," he said.

He advises to take time out to travel: "Go with a guide that will take away some of the physical risks. It's about disconnecting. We are swamped by information. But we can became disconnected and do a journey on our own and go with a guide. Don't take a phone. Go for a week in the desert or a jungle and sense that for yourself." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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