Been there, done that: Ben Fogle reveals how travel changed his life
Childhood holidays in Canada and a gap year in South America prepared Ben Fogle for life as a globetrotter. Then came 'Castaway' and a world of adventure opened up before him
Saturday 31 December 2011
Hopelessly unsporty and worryingly un-academic, I was a desperately shy boy. But travel changed my life. It gave me confidence. As an adult, each travel experience has changed me. From Canada to the Outer Hebrides, my accidental adventures have allowed me to explore the world.
I was brought up in London, but my father is from Canada. Each summer my sisters and I would stay at our grandparents' wooden cottage on the shore of Lake Chemong in the Kawartha region of Ontario. I loved those summers; they were the antithesis of my London upbringing. My grandfather taught me how to fish – even how to catch my own worms as bait. We had a raft which we would sail around the lake. It was eight weeks of bliss, as idyllic as any childhood experience could be.
One summer, my best friend Toby came to stay and my father took us on a camping holiday to Algonquin Provincial Park. We packed up the wooden Canadian canoe that my late grandfather, Morris, had painstakingly reconditioned, and we headed off into the wilderness.
We paddled across clear lakes, portaging our canoe from one lake to the next. We encountered wild moose and bears, and our campsite was invaded by beavers. We fished for our food while Dad dived for freshwater mussels. I've never forgotten that trip, and Canada is still an important part of my life.
I couldn't wait to go on a gap year. I didn't get on well with education and failed my A-levels (including geography). So, as soon as I left school I set off for Latin America. I hitch-hiked 3,000 miles down the Amazon, from Belem in Brazil to Iquitos in Peru, falling in love with the people in the process. Then I lived with a family in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, while I helped out in an orphanage and taught in a school. I became fluent in Spanish and went on to do Latin American Studies at university. Looking back, it's easily one of the most enriching experiences I've ever had.
A year spent on the windswept, tree-less island of Taransay off the island of Lewis and Harris changed my life forever. In 1999, I applied to become one of the first volunteers in a new genre of television – reality TV – and was marooned with 36 other men, women and children in the Outer Hebrides for an experiment in sustainability and adaptation called Castaway 2000.
The idea was to see if we could become a fully self-sufficient community within a year. We reared our own animals and grew our own crops and built our own houses. I loved that year and stand by my conviction that those remote islands remain the most beautiful place I have ever lived. The huge skies and the endless beaches with azure waters, create a breathtakingly stark, barren, other- worldly place. I took my wife there for our honey- moon and have returned dozens of times since. I tried to buy the island when it recently came on to the market. I had grand ideas of creating a nature reserve there but, sadly, I was outbid. I still dream of living in the Outer Hebrides.
Hello! made me its travel editor-at-large for a year and I took the magazine to places it had never been before, and will probably never go to again. The Falkland Islands, East Timor and the Arctic were just some of my remote dispatches, but it was a safari in Zambia that created a new and enduring passion within me for Africa and for conservation. It was my first experience of Africa and I was smitten.
I visited the Luangwa Valley and went on a walking safari to see elephant and rhino and paddled down the river to see hippos and crocodiles. I loved safari life and I decided that if ever my life failed in Britain I would pack my bags and go to work on safari somewhere in Africa. I have since travelled to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Cam-eroon, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana, and I also hope to take my children on a safari as soon as they can safely take anti-malarials.
Tristan da Cunha
I love travel writing. I have thousands of travel books at home and can happily spend an afternoon as an armchair traveller. For a long time, I dreamt of writing a travel book of my own. In 2002, Penguin published my first book, The Teatime Islands. To research it, I spent a year travelling 100,000 miles around the world to Britain's Overseas Territories – Pitcairn, St Helena, Diego Garcia, Ascension, The Falkands and Tristan da Cunha. It was the last of these that affected me the most. It has no airport, or even a harbour, so reaching Tristan da Cunha involved sailing for 10 days from Cape Town aboard the Royal Mail Ship St Helena from which we were ferried ashore to the main settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.
With only 300 residents, this outpost in the South Atlantic between Namibia and Brazil is the most remote inhabited island in the world. Their existence made my own attempts at being a castaway look positively amateurish. The inhabitants are descendants of shipwrecked sailors.
It was a surreal year of slow travel to get to the farthest corners of the world. It took me the best part of three weeks, by sail boat, to get to Pitcairn in the Pacific Ocean, at which point I was promptly arrested on suspicion of spying and deported. One day, I will return.
Adventure travel began to get more physical for me in 2005 when I signed up for the Marathon Des Sables, a notoriously tough, 160-mile self-sufficient race across Morocco's portion of the Sahara Desert in six days. The race is an incredible logistical undertaking. Hundreds of runners from across the world descend on the border of Morocco and Algeria for the multi-stage event.
The week was one of the hardest and most painful experiences of my life, but it was also one of the most magical. It was a pure exercise in mind over matter and I met some incredible people during the race. I cried when I crossed the finish line, but it wasn't just me – I had never seen so many grown men weep. It was the most moving sight I have ever witnessed.
It was a moment that only those who have been through it, and experienced the same hardships, could understand. It was a moment of complete clarity, a turning point in my life. For the first time I realised I could achieve anything if I really turned my mind to it. I would go on to row across the Atlantic and trek to the South Pole.
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea blew me away; it was one of the most exciting places I have ever been. I led an expedition down the Black Cat Trail, following an old Second World War route through the jungle.
There was one encounter that I'll never forget: early one morning, as we reached a clearing, three young children appeared from nowhere and gestured us away from the path. We trekked through the jungle until we reached an enormous pair of gates made from leaves and vines.
Slowly the gates swung open to reveal a pretty little village with half a dozen long houses. A dozen men appeared in head dress and loin cloths. They were holding spears with bows slung over their shoulders. They stomped their feet on the ground and chanted hypnotically, holding the spears aloft as they began to move towards us. We stood frozen to the spot as they circled around us then escorted us into the village, all the time chanting and singing. As we entered the village, another group appeared from behind one of the longhouses, and then another.
The village was festooned with flowers and vines that had been strung from house to house. I noticed an old Second World War bomb hanging upside down as a bell, and there was the wing of a crashed plane as a roof. Singing echoed from the jungle beyond as a group of more than 100 women and children danced into the village. Fear turned to joy as more and more people flooded into the village. For an hour the ceremony continued as we all watched open-mouthed as the spectacle unfolded – Cirque du Soleil had nothing on this.
When I was younger, Dumb and Dumber was guaranteed to lift me out of a mood. Now I just take myself back to that joyous scene in the Papua jungle. I shall never forget the sight of all those men, women and children dressed in full ceremonial wear, waving us off, down the trail.
I would describe myself as a "Live Aid" child. I'm not sure Bob Geldof realised the effect he was going to have on the world. Like many, those images of starving children moved me a great deal.
Geldof empowered a generation to believe that we could make a difference. I still remember Michael Buerk's desperate reports from the famine in Ethiopia, and I was there at Wembley Stadium for the 1985 Live Aid concert. I felt that we were part of something special. When I bumped into Geldof recently, I told him how much he had helped shape my life. "I didn't do it for you," was his response. He had a point.
I first visited Ethiopia with a small charity called Facing Africa, which works with children ravaged by a disease called noma that leaves them facially disfigured. I spent more than six months returning to Ethiopia following the work of a team of plastic surgeons from Great Ormond Street Hospital as they attempted to rebuild disease-ravaged faces.
Ethiopia was nothing like the place I expected to find – it's a green, fertile land of educated and politicised people. What surprised me most was first how safe it was, and also finding myself embroiled in the lives of the people I met.
Just when you think you've seen it all and done it all, along comes an experience that blows you away and pushes you to the limits. My experience this summer in the Okavango Delta was a reminder: never rest on your laurels and always expect the unexpected. I had visited Botswana before to make a documentary with Prince William. But that was nothing compared to filming Swimming With Crocodiles.
I am now one of just a handful of people in the world to have scuba dived, without protection, amid wild Nile crocodiles, the most dangerous predator in Africa. It was without doubt the most terrifying experience I have ever had. Grey hairs appeared in my beard. The experience has pushed the boundaries of travel for me and opened up a new world of possibilities and adventure.
When I was 18 and in Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon, I met a traveller who gave me the single best reason to seek out travel: "Add life to your days, not days to your life."
The Accidental Adventurer by Ben Fogle is published by Transworld. Price £18.99
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