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Benedict Allen with Mentawai.jpg

Benedict Colin Allen (born 1 March 1960) is a British traveller. He is best known for his survival modus operandi: tapping into local, indigenous knowledge above reliance on modern inventions. His approach is to present himself as ready to learn, like an infant; the communities that he visits take him under their wing, equipping him with the necessary skills. It is not always the adults but sometimes the children that ‘adopt’ and teach him. Allen prefers to travel alone and, within exploration, spearheaded the video diary documentary format for filming his solo journeys.

In 2009, Allen was one of four stars of the reality epic Expedition Africa, airing on History. The eight-part series followed Allen and three others as they retraced the journey of Henry Morton Stanley in his quest to find David Livingstone. It was this journey that allegedly ended with the famous phrase, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

Contents

Background

Allen’s first forays were during his childhood, when he would embark on fossil-hunting expeditions in Lyme Regis. His main inspiration has been his father, a test pilot who brought back exotic presents and so passing onto his son the sense that there was still an exciting world out there waiting to be explored. Amongst explorers, his heroes are Laurens van der Post and naturalist Peter Matthiessen. To him, "the greatest explorers are people like this who just listen and learn, and don't impose."

"To me exploration isn't about conquering natural obstacles, planting flags... It's not about going where no one's gone before in order to leave your mark, but about the opposite of that - about making yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to whatever's there and letting the place leave its mark on you."

Allen was educated at Bradfield College, and read Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia. He joined three scientific expeditions during his last year and gained full marks for his thesis. The first of these expeditions (to a volcano in Costa Rica) was to be the catalyst for his wanderlust; by the end of the third, he recognised the local people to be "the real experts". It was at this point that he decided not to participate in any further scientific expeditions and to travel alone, learning from the locals. He went onto the University of Aberdeen to read Ecology, but was distracted and flunked the final exam, instead concentrating his efforts on planning his first independent expedition. To realise these plans, he worked in a book warehouse to fund his journey from the mouth of the Orinoco to the mouth of the Amazon. He exploited his perceived harmlessness, immersing himself amongst the local ‘tribal’ people, to whom these so-called hostile environs provided both a home and food source. They lived with, not pitted against, their jungle habitat.

This paved the way for further ‘immersion’ into remote communities and natural environments for prolonged periods, forging and consolidating his career as an explorer of both the known and mostly-unknown world.

"We are all explorers – it's part of what makes us human. You don't need to be a professional, like me, hacking through a jungle or listening to the tales of a remote tribe. We all explore, whether working as dealers in the Stock Exchange, or hunting as nomads in the heart of Borneo. And whether we gather what we discover into books, computer files or just memories, these are perhaps our most precious resource. These are our archives; our past and our future. As valuable as any fossil fuel or mineral, they help us mark where we are in space and time."

Expeditions

  • Scientific expedition to a volcano in Costa Rica
  • Scientific expedition to a remote forest in Brunei
  • Scientific expedition to a glacier in Iceland (leader)
  • Crossing North East Amazonia (1985)
600 miles on foot and by dug out canoe (Mad White Giant)
Flight from the Obini community in Irian Jaya. Participation in the "Niowra", a male initiation ceremony (Into the Crocodile’s Nest)
An investigation into the "Orang pendek" ape man, via the Mentawai of Siberut and the Kubu of Sumatra (Hunting the Gugu)
‘First contact’ with the uncontacted Yaifo community in New Guinea. (The Proving Grounds)
1,200 miles from the Andes of Ecuador, through the lowland jungle to Mato Grosso in Brazil, helped by the skills of the Matses Indians (Through Jaguar Eyes)
  • Cocha Brava
In search of the Wild tigers (ducks of the Lost Lake)
Three and a half month journey in extreme conditions, with three reluctant camels. Learning from the nomadic Himba tribe to survive with little nourishment or water and to work with, not against, the forces of the desert (The Skeleton Coast)
Five and a half month 3,000 mile trek by piggyback and camel through Siberian drylands, Mongolian steppe and across the Gobi desert (The Edge of Blue Heaven)
Investigating the Kalapalo Mexicans’ story of the disappearance of Colonel Fawcett (The Bones of Colonel Fawcett)
Working with a wayward dog team to travel 2500 miles through Chukchi and Inuit communities and beyond (Ice Dogs)
  • Visiting spiritual healers of the world
Voodoo witchdoctors in Haiti, the Mentawai in Indonesia, the Huichol of Mexico and shamans in Siberia (Last of the Medicine Men)

Books

As author

  • Mad White Giant (1985, published in America as Who Goes Out in the Midday Sun?
  • Into the Crocodile’s Nest: Journey Inside New Guinea (1987)
  • Hunting the Gugu: In Search of the Lost Ape-Men of Sumatra (1989)
  • The Proving Grounds: A Journey Through the Interior of New Guinea and Australia (1991)
  • Through Jaguar Eyes: Crossing the Amazon Basin (1994)
  • The Skeleton Coast (1997)
  • The Edge of Blue Heaven (1998)
  • Last of the Medicine Men~ (2000)
  • Into the Abyss (2006)

As contributor

  • More Great Railway Journeys (1996)

As editor

  • The Faber Book of Exploration: An Anthology of Worlds Revealed by Explorers Through the Ages (2002)

TV series

  • The Skeleton Coast (BBC, 1997)
  • The Edge of Blue Heaven (BBC, 1998)
  • The Bones of Colonel Fawcett (BBC,1999)
  • Last of the Medicine Men (BBC, 1999)
  • Ice Dogs (BBC, 2002)
  • Travellers' Century (BBC, 2008)
  • Unbreakable (Five, 2008)

Other TV appearances

  • The Raiders of the Lost Lake (video diary)
A voyage through the Brazilian Amazon to reveal the secrets of the Cocha Brava (Wild Lake), home to the giant monster snake - which no white man has ever seen.
  • Great Railway Journeys: Mombasa to the Mountains of the Moon (1996, BBC)
Through Kenya to Uganda. An account of contemporary life in East Africa.

Highlights and mishaps

  • On his adventures, Allen considers the primary threat to come from humans, usually non-native. He has never been attacked by a wild animal.
  • On his first journey, he was attacked by gold miners and was left without food or possessions. Eventually, Allen had to eat his own dog.
  • Allen is the only non-tribe member to have undergone a six week Niowra initiation ceremony on the Sepik, Papua New Guinea. It was designed to make boys into men “as strong as a crocodile”. He has crocodile markings on his back and chest from the sacred ceremony.
  • Allen funded his crossing of the Amazon Basin by working in a warehouse. His eight month 3,600 mile crossing was accomplished without the aid of a map or compass
  • In Colombia, he escaped from what he believed to be armed drug barons. They tried to pursue him, using the butt of a rifle to paddle. On the same trip, his guides abandoned him, taking his supplies with them.
  • In The Skeleton Coast, Allen had to train three camels to help him cross the desert. This was to become his favourite travel memory, “Emerging out of the Namib Desert with my three camels - led by the heroic old camel Nelson. I'd been alone more-or-less for six weeks. I was so proud of my camels, who had become more like professional colleagues than working animals. Nelson hated sanddunes - and the sea, and elephants, and women! Gradually he overcame his fears and helped get me safely out of the desert.”
  • In The Edge of Blue Heaven, Allen crossed 1000 miles of the Gobi desert alone
  • His attempted crossing of the Bering Straits coincided with the worst winter in living memory.
  • During his stay with the Mentawai of Siberut, Indonesia, Allen was offered and received a tattoo on his right leg. A blunt safety pin is used for the decorative tattooing, which the Mentawai believe to reflect the beauty of the spirits around and within them.
  • In the Arctic, he lost his dog team. This would have meant certain death if he hadn’t found them after only one night, which he had spent sheltering in a snow hole.

External links

See also








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