Benedict Allen: Explorer of the new century

Benedict Allen's keep-it-real TV documentaries about the world's wild places rubbed his peers up the wrong way. And the model good looks didn't help, either. Christian House tracks him down
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The Independent Online

There's something wonderfully incongruous about meeting an explorer in these modern times. It feels like an act from a distant age, like cranking a car or filling in a dance card. Yet here I am listening to Benedict Allen explain how quickly he shed weight in the far reaches of Siberia. "I can remember this extraordinary feeling of going along on the back of the sledge and calories just burning off in a vapour trail," he declares. It's all very Phileas Fogg. In the sleepy atmosphere of the members' bar at the Frontline Club, favoured haunt of foreign correspondents, I can almost imagine a porter stepping up with a telegram on a tray.

Allen's demeanour is immediately disarming. He's a tall, slender branch of a man, all arms and legs lolling around our table - at one point his chair buckles under his frame. And there is an almost feline sharpness to his eyes. It is a combination of inquisitiveness and affability that has helped fuel a career that has included numerous BBC travel series and a sideline in modelling (he has just flown in from a photo shoot in Nice for the upmarket menswear company, Hackett). However, he remains a writer at heart, having detailed the world's far-flung deserts, jungles and plains in five books before turning to broadcasting.

His Siberian adventure, superbly chronicled in his new book Into the Abyss, almost proved fatal. The aim was to follow the lip of the Chukchi peninsular and onwards over the frozen Bering Straits by dog sledge. However, one night his beloved pack made a single error and sent them flying off a cliff into the unknown. The book ponders that near tragedy while analysing diverse theories on the nature of survival from history's greatest explorers. It's a paean to persistence.

"We are all explorers," acknowledges Allen. "We don't quite know how any of us get through bad experiences, it's not a rational science." The recent death of his father, a former test pilot who clearly inspired Allen's lust for the exotic, has shown that it doesn't take a polar trip to encounter calamity. "I was thinking about that sitting next to my dad as he's unconscious for three days and three nights. Thinking about this whole thing about survival. It is incredibly relevant to ordinary people."

So can explorers provide answers? "My interest is skewed towards the exploration of ideas," wrote Allen in the introduction to The Faber Book of Exploration, the anthology he edited. It's a declaration that was neatly countered when he met Thor Heyerdahl, leader of the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition: "I don't know the answer to your questions about survival, Mr Allen. You must keep on asking around. I know only that pursuing ideas has almost killed me."

"We live in a very risk-averse culture, which is why books like Touching the Void are exciting to millions," says Allen. "Certain characters need to prove themselves. They feel this inadequacy. And so places like the Poles provide a great stage to shout to the world that they are great. That is the ego thing but I don't think of myself as that. I think of myself as more incredibly curious."

He is as interested in the "mental terrain" as in the geographical landscape, with little time for the imperialist craving for the acquisition of territory. "This planting of a flag, as someone on the Nasa programme said, is like a dog seeing a lamp post and urinating on it." He believes the public imagination is now pinched between two opposing desires: to discover "a better place" and "to hear that there are head-hunters and cannibals out there". Explorers feed this fascination even if they no longer get the ticker-tape parades. "It's Beckham and Johnny Wilkinson," he smiles. "Those are our heroes now."

Allen's escapades remain firmly grounded in the amateur tradition. "There is a little bit of the well-let's-see-what-happens," he chortles. He travels solo - or with indigenous tribes - rather than part of an expedition group. And technological advances such as the GPS and the satellite phone are shunned, which I suggest to him could be seen as a pose. After all, explorers such as Shackleton and Scott used the resources available to them at the time. The difference, he tells me, is that these are "a safety net. You don't quite let go. Using this technology is like somehow not having the courage of your convictions."

It's a criticism that rankles and one that was levelled at him from Wilfred Thesiger who called such rejection "a stunt". Allen stresses the point that he lives and explores in a different era and with different goals. Immersion is his intention rather than the imposition prevalent in Edwardian days. Thesiger was renowned for circumcising over 6,000 Iraqi boys. Allen notoriously let himself be beaten up during a male initiation ceremony in Papua New Guinea.

For Allen the pen is a kind of belay line to loved ones, tempering his worst thought: "dying alone". It's an act of catharsis shared by the authors quoted in Into the Abyss, from 16th-century conquistadors and Victorian balloonists to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Joe Simpson. The prose created in such desperate hours is astonishing. Allen agrees, describing how moving it was reading Scott's diaries "written with this little pencil scratching along these beautiful sentences and he was just about to die. Writing in Siberia, my God, I found it hard enough to think. Your head is numb with the cold."

Siberia, he announces, "marked an end point, the closing of a circle" after he had been described as a cat who's used up six of his nine lives. So is that it? Well his next project is a more sedate series tackling the reputations of legendary travel writers. "Maybe I've at last grown up," he muses. But wait a moment: "I ought to mention there is an expedition that I really am going to try and do. Forget everything I just said," he laughs, arms waving out like a willow bent to the wind. "There's this desert I want to cross called the Taklimakan in north-west China. It means 'go in and you won't come out' and it's the last place I always pondered as a child."

It seems these modern times haven't quite won him over.

* 'Into the Abyss: Explorers on the edge of survival' by Benedict Allen is published by Faber at £17.99. To buy a copy for £16.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897