Ed Stafford only recently returned from West Papua, a place he says is legendary among explorers for its reports of cannibalism and black magic. Being dumped in a remote corner of the world with this thought lingering in the back of your mind might sound like a nightmare for the average person, but he had an excellent time.
The survival expert, who is still recovering from the frostbite he sustained during another trip to Siberia, left for the Gobi Desert on Saturday, where he is currently walking for 10 days with no food and water (and an unhealed foot). After this, he flies out to Burma for a five-week expedition and then on to other corners of the world for almost the rest of the year before giving himself some time off in December ("silly season”). In short: life is busy, and there isn't much time to get comfortable.
He was also recently reunited with Gadiel "Cho" Sanchez Rivera, the Peruvian guide he spent over two years walking the length of the Amazon River with (breaking a world record), and even managed to twist his arm into joining another mission. This time though, Cho will be assisting Stafford’s girlfriend Laura Janet as she cycles from Barranquilla,in Colombia, to Buenos Aires. Like her partner, Janet isn't one to do things by halves, so she'll by cycling this journey without access to any money whatsoever.
Stafford's latest venture, Into the Unknown, is described as a “mission to explain the unexplained” and involves him travelling to some of the world's most inaccessible spots after choosing a destination just hours before. Each episodes sees him attempt to uncover what mysterious images obtained by the International Space Station and spy satellites actually are, with barely any time to prepare before beginning his journey.
The concept for this new format arrived while a friend was attempting to persuade him that virtually all of the world had been explored. “I was saying 'that's absolute bollocks', explains Stafford, "and he was like ‘prove it’, so I just got out the laptop, clicked on Google Earth and started looking. Immediately there were these weird things that you could see in the middle of nowhere - in the desert, in the jungle, up in the mountains. There is so much now that has been thrown up in terms of brand new information from the stupid amount of satellite data and imagery we now have which has opened up so many brand new mysteries."
This haphazard selection process meant Stafford was fortunate to have had just one ‘mystery’ disappoint. “There were these mad markings that you could see from space," he explained. "It looked like a virus was growing from the surface of the earth. We had to travel through this massive plane in an area where there were lions and hyenas, and we got there and it was a gravel pit that had been excavated by locals for a children's school. I looked at it and I was like, 'f**k, well this programme was all about honesty', so I just stood there on the site and joked: 'well that wasn't worth travelling half way around the world for, was it?'"
Others, however, proved much more inspiring. “The West Papua one was extraordinary because of the story that fell out of it. There was loads of tribal fighting in Papua and this particular tribe was just getting fed up with being invaded and moving from place to place, and started wondering where they could all live where no-one would bother them. So they picked the middle of the swap, which obviously no-one would be able live in, but then they built the land up out of the swamp and made their whole life out of it, even agricultural beds where they grew their own vegetables - it was amazing."
Stafford described this series a lot more “fun” than his previous ventures, such as in the Amazon, largely because he could avoid the isolation that accompanied two years of walking through dense rainforest. He said the theme of this series was human kindness, with Stafford often relying on the generosity and help of locals to get to his target.
“In Russia it was a disaster; I tried to learn basic Russian and no-one could understand a word of what I was saying, so we went to a school in the depths of Siberia and met a teacher who decided to take two weeks off to join us on our journey north. She was massively out of her comfort zone in this big pink puffer jacket and wasn’t remotely outdoorsy but she really enjoyed it. Her husband was a bit baffled about her leaving, but he was fine at the end.”
Stafford, who served in the British army until 2002, is refreshingly honest about the logistics of being in an extreme survival show without actually dying. “I’m always dropped in a place where it is possible to spot," he explained. “We have an SAS expert who goes in and says: ‘Yep, Ed could survive here if he’s really on the ball’.
“I’ve had one humbling situation in one series where I completely ran out of water and our progress was so slow that I had to get a helicopter to do a water drop. But without doing that I definitely wouldn't have got to the target. Not having water is a horrible thing, it definitely throws me psychologically."
He says Into the Unknown is a transition from a “beat your chest I can survive on my own” format to a more humbling one that required putting himself in the hands of complete strangers who would eventually become his friends. However, he was hesitant to refer to his latest adventures as him “winding-down”.
“It’s contained but its adventurous and fun. I’ve not said goodbye to the survival stuff. It’s bit of a sideways step, to keep doing that kind of expedition - if you’ve done it once, you should get out of it what you want to get out of it. I've got a girlfriend now, my sister has just has a baby, and it just works. I don’t think life is about proving yourself again and again, what matters is family. Work is one thing and feeling like you've achieved something else is another and I am still being pushed in every single episode.”
Ed Stafford: Into the Unknown will premiere 8pm, Thursday 27 August on the Discovery Channel (Sky 520 / Virgin 250 / BT TV 322 / TalkTalk 322)Reuse content