Explorer on the Edge: Benedict Allen ‘I’ve Almost Died Many Times’

Posted on December 12, 2017


British explorer Benedict Allen has travelled to some of the world’s most remote places and lived with its peoples to learn about traditional living in often hostile environments. The stories he has gathered have the power to thrill, amuse and invigorate, because they tell us something about ourselves.

In November the world’s media was on red alert after British explorer Benedict Allen went ‘missing’. He had set out into the rainforests of Papua New Guinea looking to meet up with the Yaifo people in an inhospitable part of the country. In confused style he turned up alive and well days later, though suffering from malaria. Look at his account of the incident and he is adamant that despite being ill he was not wandering lost or incapacitated. Allen has years of experience trekking through and living in some of the world’s most hostile environments with its indigenous peoples.

Benedict Allen (centre, standing) with BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner (centre, seated) and the Niowra people of Papua New Guinea. Credit: BBC

In 2016 he and BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner travelled out to Papua New Guinea to search for birds of paradise for a BBC programme. Their journey saw them meet up with the Niowra people who Allen knew intimately. Thirty years previously the ardent explorer had agreed to take part in their initiation ritual to become a man, which meant being ritually scarred and beaten with all of the other young men of the village.

Allen recounts his stories of that first trip and other tales of his travels on his many public engagements. Here he speaks about his journeys through Papua New Guinea and the Amazon basin in intrepid style, and what that has taught him about himself and native peoples. He reveals his struggles firsthand, why he sets out alone into harsh environments and what makes people the same the world over.

Benedict Allen: Why I Set out Alone to Explore

“I thought I ought to explain why I go on expeditions alone. I go and live with indigenous people and learn skills from them. They see the environment not as a threat but as a home, that gives them their food, their medicine and their shelter. You might ask, ‘why go alone?’ The answer is that I didn’t always go alone. On my very first trip to the Amazon I took my dog and unfortunately I had to eat him to survive. We’ve all done it.

I know it’s a sad story, especially from the dog’s point of view and I won’t dwell on it too much. I was dying from malaria at the time, I’d been attacked by two gold miners, I’d jumped into my canoe, the canoe had capsized. And as I was walking out of the forest I got hungrier and hungrier and finally I had to do this terrible thing.

Ladies and gentlemen if you were the sort of child who went walking along a rocky beach and kept going, wondering what was around the next corner, then you are an explorer. I’m perhaps like you, the sort of person who collects things for the bedroom shelves, fossils and birds nests and stamps, and I used to hear about all sorts of exciting things and places like the Amazon and Borneo. I thought ‘one day when I grow up I’m going to be some kind of explorer’.

I clung onto that dream when I went through school and university and finally I found myself there in the Amazon. This was the place I’d been dreaming of ever since I was a little boy. Now I was there it was absolutely… horrible. I couldn’t believe it, insects screaming in your ears, 100 per cent humidity. It wasn’t just the plants and everything getting at me. I don’t know if you’ve discovered this, but I can’t wear underpants while I’m walking for say two weeks (not the same pair at least) because fungi starts to get in all the little crevices.

Trouble with Pablo Escobar

But it wasn’t just the fungal problems, it was the local people. I was paddling along in my canoe one day and I found myself being shot at. That was disappointing in itself because I come from Shepherds Bush in west London – a dodgy area – and it’s just the same there.

I still don’t know to be honest why I was shot at. I’ve discovered in my career that you can’t stop and ask you have to just keep on going. Being British I didn’t want to panic too much as I was trying to paddle away from these people. I know now that they were professional assassins, men who worked for Pablo Escobar – the great cocaine baron. He was hiding out locally and I had passed his camp so he sent two men to follow me and kill me.

Their guns were raised and bullets were flying past my head. It was a worrying experience, though I tried not to panic too much as these bullets were whizzing by me. I was paddling along waiting to die and I didn’t because they kept on missing. I wondered what was going on, how they missed, they were only 20 metres away from me. It turns out that professional assassins come in all different standards. You get first-class assassins who always get the job done, then you get your middle-rate assassin who more or less gets it right, and then you get your third-rate hitman – and that’s what these men were.

They didn’t know how to multi-task. I’m sure that women will agree that all men are like this, but effectively they didn’t know how to paddle a canoe and kill someone at the same time. They were getting really confused. Every time they picked up their rifles to kill me the canoe would start swinging round, they’d put down their rifle pick up the paddle and then they’d try and shoot with the paddle and it was all going hopelessly wrong. The last thing I saw of these men was them going round and round in circles in the shallows.

I got away with it. I jumped from my canoe into this forest and suddenly I realised what an extraordinary resource this place was. To me it was frightening. It was a threat, but to the locals and certainly to me on this occasion, it was shelter. It could look after me. As soon as I was among the leaves I was safe. These people didn’t know where I was. I just had to hang around and wait for them to go, then I could get on with my mission.

The Brazilian wandering spider is the most venomous arachnid in the world. During the day they hide in foliage but at night they crawl the jungle floor looking for prey, and can easily wander into human settlements.

That lesson stayed with me through the years. I realised that this place could be on my side. It was too big to fight alone, but if I had the resources, knowledge and skills of the local people I could use it to my advantage. I thought one day that I would come back to the Amazon and try to cross the whole of the Amazon basin – 5,600km. It would take a long long time, but one day that is what I would do in order to understand this place in a different way.

That was my dream and I began to prepare myself for it. I went off to north east New Guinea because the people there were supposed to be more traditional. They were indeed, in fact they turned out to be headhunters. You might have headhunters in your business but this was the real thing. I couldn’t help notice that this bloke, although he was friendly, he had a skull in his hand.

He said: ‘Don’t worry about that, it’s just my dad’. I thought ‘Who am I to judge? These people have a different way of doing things. They survive however they can and I’m here to learn.’ Nonetheless I thought to myself that maybe headhunting is like smoking, they say they’ve given up but you never quite know when they are going to lapse.

It was too early to pre-judge and I wanted to learn from these people (the Niowra people). Who was I as an outsider to say what was right and wrong to survive in this highly competitive world. I certainly gained an understanding about their culture.

Crocodile nest

Boys don’t get any recognition in this society until they’ve been through a ceremony to make them into men, as strong as a crocodile. That means being led away for as long as it takes, hidden away in what they called a crocodile nest, until they are a man as strong as a crocodile. I wondered about this ceremony that was secret and sacred but essential to their community. Men who have been through the ceremony have hundreds of little bumps down the chest and back – little stipules, scars that mark them out as a man who is the living embodiment of the crocodile ancestor.

The men had all these secrets that had been taught to them during the initiation ceremony and one said to me ‘If you call yourself an explorer then you should do whatever it takes’. I agreed that was true and he said that to understand them and their world I would have to go through the crocodile initiation ceremony. I thought to myself ‘Oh god’. I wasn’t quite sure if this was me to be honest. I can’t actually remember saying ‘yes’ to the ceremony but the next thing they were all celebrating.

I asked what was happening and they told me they had got the first person from outside the community in the entire history of their culture to go through the ceremony. I began getting more and more worried about this ceremony. A big fence was erected around the spirit house in the heart of the village and this was the crocodile nest. I along with the other initiates was going to be taken away and kept there for as long as it took to become a man as strong as a crocodile.

A little man wandered out and said ‘Psst, do you realise that the last crocodile initiation ceremony over-ran by a year?’ I was given a little grass skirt along with the others, we were led to the outside of the crocodile nest and prepared by the elders – who were dancing in and out – to be made into men.

Benedict Allen undergoing the Niowra initiation ritual to make him as ‘strong as a crocodile’. Credit: BBC

Bamboo Blades

We were led in and the worst part of the ceremony began. This was the bit we had been dreading. We knew something terrible happened because of the scars and now we were being given these scars. We were cut repeatedly with bamboo blades and it went on and on. We each lost two pints of blood (or a litre for those who like metric). I realised something at this stage, that unluckily I had a phobia about being cut repeatedly with bamboo blades. This is the moment when you hope that the man from health and safety is going to come along and pronounce it unacceptable.

This didn’t happen and days went by. The best thing was that we knew this would be the worst day of our lives. And what a wonderful feeling, you know what it’s like when you’ve been through a crisis, you’ve been tested to the limit and you come through and think now everything is going to be easier. Except this wasn’t the worst day.

The next day we were told to gather ourselves together and sing happy little songs and dance while all the old men came out and thrashed us with sticks. It was a nightmare. This was going to happen four times every day for as long as it took for us to become men as strong as crocodiles. One man said to me rather unkindly I thought ‘Well thank goodness you went to one of those posh public schools because it was probably just the same there.’

This was going to happen four times every day and we realised that this was core to the ceremony because, of course, I didn’t really belong among the Niowra of Papua New Guinea and this was not my culture, but the ceremony was all about forgetting your differences and coming together. The beatings were all about us bonding together. We knew we were only as good as the weakest member of our group. We weren’t going to be allowed out individually from the ceremony, we were only going to be allowed out together. That is what this was all about, finding the strength you had in each other and looking to that strength.

Raising the Spirits

After about a month, to be honest I was getting a little sick of being beaten every day. Someone asked me if I could do something to raise morale. The others had been singing and reciting traditional poems and they asked me if I could sing a song. I thought about what I could sing, I tried moonwalking but nobody really appreciated that in Shepherds Bush if I’m honest.

The ‘crocodile skin’ markings.

I thought, ‘I’ll sing ‘My Way’, everyone loves ‘My Way’. They said, ‘That’s what all the missionaries sing, haven’t you got anything else?’ One bloke said, ‘You’re British aren’t you – sing the national anthem!’ I thought, ‘God save our gracious queen… is it really that good?’ I mean I’m quite patriotic but I mean it’s not like the French national anthem. You can really imagine the French being beaten to the Marseillaise.

So anyway I started singing it and they said ‘No, not that. Your national anthem – ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm.’ So I thought, right change of plan. And it became a surprise hit at that initiation ceremony. I was dancing around, combining all the local wildlife – crocodile here, crocodile there. I got the drumming section working. If any of you secretly want to go through the ceremony this is the key to the whole thing. Above all it was all about getting us to think positively and we all know the importance of that.

After another two weeks we were behaving in a very different way. We had learned that we had to do everything together. We were now protecting the younger, weaker members of our group and at last we were combining together. We knew what was strong in us, what was weak and we were looking to our strengths. At last the elders said it was time to walk out of the ceremony.

We walked out through the trees feeling extraordinary pride that we had been through this trial. We were led to water, we pushed off into that water and given our freedom – this is what mother crocodiles do with their young (carry them to the water and introduce them to the outside world) – and that outside world was now ours as well. We knew this was just the beginning. We had to go out there and do our best for our community.

Off to the Amazon

For me as an explorer I knew that I should now raise my game. I had this invaluable preparation and it was time for me now to take on this big challenge of crossing the greatest rainforest in the world – the Amazon Basin. That is now what I decided to do. I tried to cross from the northwest up there in the Andes, right the way through the centre and come out in Brazil in the Mato Grosso.

It is about 5,600km and I thought it would take about seven months. The key was thinking like local people who did not see this terrain as a threat. There were people there called the Matses and I thought I would go and live with them, then get through the first section – not so difficult because you just follow the tributaries from the northwest into the main Amazon river. But 300 miles beyond these Matses Indians was the big challenge, cutting through the forest with no waterways to help you. 300 miles where I’d probably be alone. I’d need to get help at that point.

Into the Amazon: the jungle’s top predator, the Jaguar.

The Matses didn’t emulate the crocodile, they emulated the jaguar – another top predator. They looked to it for its stealth, its intelligence, its agility. This man Pablito had spines in his lips representing the jaguar’s whiskers and tattoos across his face like jaguar patterns. They look to this animal for as much advantage as they can gain in this environment. I thought ‘This is the man who can teach me how to survive’.

I began learning from him and I thought it would be me and his son and there he would be with his bows and arrows firing them off at monkeys. Unfortunately he got a bit sick of me. He had quite a few children and I said to him one day, ‘How many children have you got?’ 30 was the answer, but it always sounded like an estimate to be honest.

Jungle Incompetence

Anyway he had this huge family to look after and he saw me scaring away all the wildlife, with my big jungle boots and incompetence, so he passed me on to his younger brother. His younger brother got sick of me scaring away all the wildlife and he passed me on to the children. And this little boy who was only 10 decided to make a man of me. He walked me off into the forest and walked back again half an hour later because I’d failed even to catch the animals that he’d lined up for me in the forest and I’d ruined his reputation.

He then passed me on to his younger brother who was only five years old. He wasn’t allowed to hunt with an adult bow and arrow, he had a toy bow and arrow. Far more exciting than hunting with me was simply hunting me. He stalked off through the forest zapping me with his toy arrows and in the end I had to be rescued by his older sister.

This girl Lucy was only eight years old and by now I was realising the skills these children had, the boys who could hunt even as little children, the girls who were extraordinary gatherers. This girl Lucy knew 20 species that acted simply as disinfectant – you would rub a leaf on your skin and clean up a cut. This was extraordinary knowledge. She taught me how to eat the tips of ferns, the hearts of palms, all things that were going to be invaluable in the days ahead as I left these people and ventured on alone.

Now I began to be taught by Pablito how to make a mouse trap. They have very big mice in the Amazon. The mouse comes along, a log comes down and you get a flat mouse for supper. Sort of like jungle road kill. I was learning these skills but I was also becoming increasingly worried because I realised now that I was doing something incredibly arrogant. The central premise of that initiation ceremony in New Guinea was that you all work together. People here worked together with their skills. The forest was far too big to fight alone and yet I’d come here arrogantly expecting that I could walk alone through the forest against the ideas of these two sets of people.

Reading the Forest

I was getting increasingly scared about how I was going to pull it off. Pablito began teaching me how to read the forest as much as possible. The days were ticking away and he began helping me to identify all these species, this mass of life that has evolved to fight in this environment. Humans we know are very vulnerable physically, the only thing we have is our mind. We have to think as much as we can and identify advantage where we can in hostile places.

Pablito sat down one day and painted stripes across my face and I thought it was a sign that I had achieved something in this community. I now had jaguar stripes. Now it was time for me to take my courage in my hands and set off alone through the forest. It was very scary. I really just wanted to stay in the clearing. But if I did that I would never take on my dream and take on this challenge I’d set myself so many years ago.

If you’ve got your own project and you are in charge of your own destiny, whether you fail or succeed this is your thing and you know that you’ll succeed or fail by your own merits. At least you’ll know what you’re worth. So I was led off by the Matses through the forest, but it wasn’t the lovely farewell that I was hoping for with tearful goodbyes and good lucks. They just disappeared rather sadly back into the forest and their last words to me were ‘And no-one will be able to bury you’.

The Matses people imitate the jaguar and its whiskers.

Time for Strategy

There was this extraordinary exhilaration now as it was my project and I was really excited. I gathered myself together and started thinking through my strategies. I had two bags in case I lost one, everything was divided between them. My medical kit was on top for quick access. I’d shave every day because discipline was at the heart of all this. I had to keep myself focused because there is no horizon there. I had to keep an idea of where I was going and my long term vision of where I wanted to end up. I started walking.

Of course the Matses Indians could cope with this environment, not just because of their extraordinary skills, but because they worked together. If they failed to catch a monkey, then they walked home and there were gardens in the village and other people who could share food. I was by myself and had to be on top of my game every single day. There was no back up for me. After some time I realised I was no longer looking for monkeys, I was hanging around for hand-outs from them. I was standing at the bottom of fruit trees hoping they might throw things down at me in irritation or gathering up any discarded fruit.

I was no longer in charge of my destiny. I was more like a beggar, someone scrounging around reliant on luck coming my way. Of course luck isn’t always on your side. I began making mistakes, stumbling across lancehead snakes regularly, I was in a bad state. I was pretty sure I was going to die.

I was very lonely and I knew I wasn’t fit for this environment. The leaves have parasites and epiphytes on them. The plants are scrambling over each other. This is a place of biological and chemical warfare. I was covered in sweat and that is the perfect medium for nasty fungal diseases. I was falling apart.

I realised I was absolutely doomed. Imagine if you thought your friends, as I thought these people were, turned round and handed you a death sentence.

Choose your Friends Carefully

I needed a miracle in order to survive. And I got one, a second chance. I stumbled across some loggers in the forest. They said ‘Don’t worry we’ll help you and send you on your way’. They invited me in for a meal and I stayed with them for about two weeks until I felt much better. My spirits were raised again and two men walked with me through the forest to this river and they cut down a tree, took my bags and walked across.

I was just about to join them on the other side with my bags when they turned round and kicked the tree away and suddenly I realised I was absolutely doomed. Imagine if you thought your friends, as I thought these people were, turned round and handed you a death sentence. They robbed me of my two bags, walked off into the forest and left me to die.

It was one of those incredibly disappointing moments I ought to say. I was absolutely furious and rather disappointed. These were people I’d trusted and my belief in myself was eroded because I realised I’d misjudged these people. I thought ‘I’m just totally useless’. I sat down on the forest floor and began to mope about.

I wish I could stand here and say I was an absolute hero that day and everything came together, I solved the problem and my emergency plan sprang into action, but no I felt utterly pathetic and thought I was in the wrong type of travel – I should be selling timeshares or something – and instead I’m going to just die here.

I sat there in total shock that these people could do this to me. But it actually takes quite a long time to die in the forest. I sat there tapping my fingers and time went by. I thought I might as well make a bit of an effort, I knew my family and my girlfriend would be thinking about me, and I suddenly realised that I was probably going to die anyway so I should steal one of my bags back. They would probably try to kill me but it didn’t really matter if I was going to die. So I started to walk down the river and found a way across, walked back along the other side and began tracking these two men.

Tracking the Robbers

I began to think about Lucy and how she tracked animals through the forest. I tracked the men to their camp and under cover of dark got one of my bags. Now I believed that I could survive. Walking through this forest it was relentless. There was no daylight. Of course I was alone and frightened, but now I felt that I had a chance.

I’ve almost died many times, but the fact is that I haven’t died. That is down to two things in particular: preparation – the value of working together and using resources that are all around you – and belief.

I couldn’t believe that I’d walked 100 miles and still had so far to go to the outside world. It was just too much to imagine. But I could believe in 100 paces and I could virtually see 100 paces through the forest. So I cut a stick and began counting every pace, then every 100 paces I put a notch on the stick. I’d done quite well by the end of the first day. I’d filled up that stick. So the second day I got a bigger stick and now I began to see my progress. I could visualise the end of my journey and could think that the time when I walked out of the forest would be at the end of the stick.

I felt better about myself and was able to believe in myself, because I was making progress and I wasn’t alone (just like none of us are ever alone) because we have these skills in our heads that we have learnt from each other. I began peopling the forest with people like Pablito and the crocodile people, imagining them all around me teaching me things as I made my way through the forest and finally came out the other side.

Fulfilling the Dream

I didn’t look triumphant, I no longer had boots or socks, my long trousers were ripped apart, but I’d made it. More than that I’d fulfilled this dream I had as a little boy. Seven and a half months after entering the forest I’d got to the other side. You may ask ‘Why do it?’ Well, for me, it makes me feel alive. It keeps me going and the journey keeps on going whether crossing the Namib desert with camels, going through Siberia with a dog team or crossing the Gobi desert, these are all challenges, all puzzles, that I find exciting.

It might be a journey, it might be something as simple as wrestling with alligators. You might say ‘Well I just would not like to do that, I’m not an alligator wrestling type of person’. Yet in each of these occasions I had to find something special in myself. I believe that everyone has to find something special for themselves. We all have a dream of what we want to achieve. We all have a vision. This to me is our common ground.

I’ve almost died many times, but the fact is that I haven’t died. That is down to two things in particular: preparation – the value of working together and using resources that are all around you – and belief, and its importance in what I’m doing. If you have those two things then you can commit to the most extraordinary challenges and take on some of the most competitive environments in the world.

The fact that I’ve almost died so many times is not the point. It is really about how much any of us has fulfilled our potential. Perhaps it is more about how many times we have lived.”