My Life In Travel: Benedict Allen

'I'd like to travel by airship and drop into places inaccessible by helicopter'


What is your first holiday memory?

What is your first holiday memory?

I was on a boat off Scotland. I was about five years old, and I remember being violently sick overboard.

What has been your best holiday?

I only travel for pleasure occasionally, but my best holiday was probably in Havana. It was exciting as I knew nothing about Cuba before I went - something very different to my expeditions, which involve painstaking planning. My best expedition was along the Skeleton Coast in Namibia. I walked 1,000 miles with only several camels for company and had no contact with the rest of the world.

Are you a frequent traveller?

Yes, very much so. I was in Northern Cyprus recently with my Dad, which is fairly short-haul for me. I like that spontaneity of just popping off to places, as all my expeditions are for about six months. It is quite traumatic, leaving home and cutting myself off from everyone.

What have you learnt from your travels?

That people are the same the world over. I have spent a lot of time with tribes such as the Niowra in New Guinea and the Matses, or 'Jaguar' people, in the Peruvian Amazon, who emulate the jaguar by sticking spines into their noses and using lots of body paint. They are all just adapting to their harsh environment.

Who would be your ultimate travelling companion?

Captain James Cook. He was a man of great humanity - and a great navigator, which I'm not. When he arrived in New Zealand he was confronted by a group of Maoris. He realised what a threat his huge ship would be to them, so he approached them in a smaller ship and greeted them in the traditional way.

Are you a beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

I save the adrenalin for expeditions and culturefor holidays. In Cyprus, I loved visiting the castles that the crusaders built and trying to work out who had perished in the dungeons.

What do you read on holiday?

When I was travelling through the Gobi Desert I took Marco Polo's The Travels to keep my mind active. It was great to have his view of the Gobi, but I found myself infected with his perception because he talks about spirits who lure you off the path. I found myself rather spooked by it.

To where have you lost your heart?

Mongolia - I travelled 3,000 miles through it by horse and camel. I received endless hospitality, with people popping out of their felt tents or gers to offer me a cup of tea and shelter.

What has been the worst thing that has happened to you on holiday?

It wasn't on holiday, but on an expedition. I was shot at by the Colombian Medellin drug cartel just before the death of Pablo Escobar. Two people began chasing me in a canoe, but fortunately they couldn't shoot and paddle at the same time. I was crying and waiting for the end.

To where would you never return?

Singapore. It's a fake place that has lost its soul.

Where is the most underrated place you've been?

Russia is fascinating. I made a terrible expedition through Siberia, it was the worst winter in living memory. The Chukchi people, who are reindeer herders, had lost everything. Despite this, they were able to laugh in the most desperate of situations.

Where would be your trip of a lifetime?

To see the 10 ice dogs that I trained in Siberia, who took me 1,000 miles through the tundra. It was a terrible trip, but after six weeks I was able to train them and they began to trust me.

The world ends tomorrow - where do you regret never having been?

The Taklamakan Desert in western China it's the world's largest waterless place. It is on the Silk Road and is full of lost cities that have been swallowed up by the sand.

Where are you going next?

I still don't know, but I have got this idea of having an airship, like a Zeppelin, and dropping into unexplored places that you can't normally get to by aeroplane or helicopter.

Benedict Allen is an explorer and author

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