Can you be an explorer in the 21st century?

The moon was bright and all was calm in the forest. Or so it appeared. From my hammock, which was some distance from the gold miners’ shack, I could see all around me — the silhouettes of palms against the stars, the fireflies, the hunting bats. Also, the two miners sneaking up on me. “Let’s hurry up and do it!” said one. I noticed the knife in his hand.

I ran for my canoe, down by the riverside, and launched off, paddling wildly. I was alone in the Amazon, heading towards nowhere in the night, aged just 23. Ahead was the sound of ominously fast water.

In the event, it was a while before I capsized the dugout, but when I did, I lost almost all I had: food, mosquito net, my precious malaria tablets . . . I scrambled for the riverbank. There, surrounded by the hissing trees and shrubbery, I sat in despair — my clothes dripping, fingers bleeding from where I’d clawed my way ashore.

It struck me forcibly then. For 500 years the Amazon had contended with “explorers” like me. We had imposed with our dreams. Often, rather than add to the stock of human knowledge, we had come to reinforce myths — of our heroic endeavours, of insatiable piranhas and fiendish snakes, of perfect people we might aspire to or bogland headhunters we might fear. Even those explorers I most admired, the diligent 19th-century specimen collectors such as Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russel Wallace, were only, after all, seeking to advance our own scientific, rationalising perspective.

Allen, aged 23, on his first solo expedition to the Amazon, which ended in disaster. He is tall and blond, standing among dense undergrowth, wearing muddy clothes
Allen, aged 23, on his first solo expedition to the Amazon, which ended in disaster

Yet I’d grown up loving their tales. There were gallant Portuguese navigators like Vasco da Gama; the Scottish missionary Dr Livingstone; Amundsen, the Norwegian who made light work of getting to the South Pole using just huskies and skis. Our man, Robert Scott, on the other hand, believed in the “gentlemanly art of man-hauling” and was remembered because his end was so British, tragic and beautiful. As the blizzard swirled and the canvas of their little tent flapped, he extended his arm around his friend, Edward Wilson, before that too froze solid.

True, the motivation of many was questionable. Columbus, for one, was highly rewarded with gold (or, anyway, expected to be) and other notables weren’t exactly averse to a little fame and glory. But I’d adored hearing of their stirring deeds — how these men and sometimes women triumphed against the odds. Even when they didn’t, they met an interesting end.

And as a child I decided that I would join them, be one of these stirring characters who headed off to discover new things. Except we were now quite late into the 20th century and already there was a sense of an era drawing to a close. When, in 1969, Wally Herbert completed the first traverse of the Arctic via the Pole, no one much noticed. For the Americans had now walked on the moon, and during this and subsequent Apollo missions my playmates gazed up in awe, for the next chapter in the tale of exploration was unfolding.

Nevertheless, through my school and then university years, I clung on to my dream, albeit with increasing desperation. Already, our planet was satisfactorily explored, it seemed; even the heavens were now within reach. What’s more, any remaining explorers worth their salt went equipped with radio transmitters, medics, camera crews and all manner of back-up. None of this came cheap.

Nor were there any sponsors keen to further my own proposed, admittedly rather outlandish, outings — or any hastily suggested alternatives. For a solution, I’d have to look elsewhere. And then it occurred to me that the residents of places like the Amazon didn’t have sponsors either. They saw the fetid jungle as a resource, the innumerable trees as an unending repository of food, shelter and medicine.

Armed with nothing more than my naivety — for I was 22 and thus thought I was immortal — I headed off into the undergrowth, determined to cross the northern Amazon, 400 miles of untrammelled vegetation due to have a highway bulldozed through it.

How I managed to get as far as I did is anyone’s guess. I expect the people I encountered — missionaries, settlers, more traditional communities — didn’t want me to die on their hands. As it was, my luck ran out when I encountered some gold miners, with just 65 miles still to go.

And now here I was, alone, surrounded on all sides by marauding insects and the crowding trees. Only after a while did I gather myself, fashioning a shelter of leaves. And then, the long walk out.

I succumbed to one strain of malaria, then another. For weeks I stumbled on, half delirious, eating berries, sleeping with the ants, knowing only that I had a duty to my mum to keep going. Finally, I came into the daylight, trampling through a maize crop. I had survived — and knew that I hardly deserved to.

Allen, bare-chested, sits with from Pablito from the Matsés community in the Peruvian Amazon in 1992. Pablito, with red face paint, is showing Allen local skills
Learning from Pablito while with the Matsés community in the Peruvian Amazon in 1992

Once back home, with my various medical problems seen to, my thoughts returned to the indigenous folk and their take on things. Through history, it seemed, the European idea of exploration had always been about planting flags, conquering nature and going somewhere in order to make your mark. I would try to do the opposite — allow myself to be vulnerable, let these lesser-known lands make their mark on me.

The following year, I headed to West Papua, rather than back to the Amazon that had almost finished me off, and there picked my way through the understorey with a band of men armed with bows and arrows. Once more, for weeks on end, no one from my world knew where I was.

This was a frugal way of life — and, if you weren’t alert, a short one. There were tree falls, deluges, festering bites. My jaw ached from the endless chewing — of birds, of bones, of snakes. I was helped with my rucksack, made payments in salt; I wrote, I photographed, I communicated with my hands. I sought to record what I could of all these fast-dwindling cultures and habitats.

Only five months on, across the border in Papua New Guinea, at a Sepik village called Kandengei, did I at last settle down. There, with others of my age, I underwent an initiation rite, an exacting procedure designed to make us into men “as strong as the crocodile”, as the elders liked to put it.

Allen dancing during an initiation ceremony at the village of Kandengei in Papua New Guinea
Allen dancing during an initiation ceremony at the village of Kandengei in Papua New Guinea

Our heads were shaven; we were each given a grass skirt. Together we waited outside the Crocodile Nest, the fenced-off patch around the spirit house, wishing it was all over as drums were beaten. Men in their cassowary headdresses called out to the Avookwaak, the Crocodile Ancestor, to help us learn to be brave — just as they had once learnt to be brave. And all the while the women and children sobbed and wailed — for though the ceremony was secret, even the more slow-witted knew we were about to undergo terrible suffering.

Inside the Crocodile Nest, we were laid on canoes and cut repeatedly with bamboo blades, a process that took two hours (even if you didn’t happen to be six foot four, like me). By the end, we could barely stand. However, at least we now wore the proud insignia of the Niowra, hundreds of stipples marking our chests and backs. It was only a question of earning those marks.

We were beaten five times a day. This went on for six weeks — a long time when you’re waiting at any moment to be taken out for another round of pain. When we did emerge, though, we knew ourselves and what it took to live here among the forest.

Allen stands on the pack ice of the Bering Strait in 2001. He is dressed in fur-lined coat. Next to him sit his huskies
On the pack ice of the Bering Strait in 2001 . . . 

loading a camel while crossing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in 1997. The camel sits as Allen loads up his belongings on the saddle
 . . . and loading a camel while crossing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in 1997

And, as time went by, still seeking to be a reliable witness, I applied my modus operandi elsewhere. With skills taught by Mongolian nomads, I traversed the Gobi for six weeks, alone but for my camels. In Namibia I walked the length of the Skeleton Coast, after lessons among the boulders and sands from wandering Himba pastoralists. In the Russian Far East, thanks to Chukchi reindeer herders, I travelled through the worst winter in living memory, alone with my dog team into the Bering Strait pack ice.

Always things proved possible through immersing myself among indigenous communities — trusting not to my kind but to those who knew these marshes, deserts and ice lands as home. And so on, through the decades, trying to be an “explorer” even in the 21st century.

Two years ago, the distinguished anthropologist Wade Davis wrote in these pages that “the true and original explorers, men and women who actually went where no human had been, were those who walked out of Africa some 65,000 years ago.” Where, then, are we in the story of the exploration of our globe? It seems to me, nearer the beginning than the end. As yet, we’ve only named perhaps eight per cent of the species with which we share our spinning blue planet — let alone got around to understanding our own role in the wider web of things. The difference is that in the 21st century more terrain is accessible to more of us: we might all now take part in investigating what has so long appeared exotic.

There’s something else. On my last expedition, back to Papua New Guinea in 2017, I briefly “disappeared”, prevented from getting out of the forest by communal fighting. When I did emerge, I was a little disorientated by yet more malaria, it’s true, but perhaps nothing could have prepared me for the fascination caused around the world by my month’s absence from it. For here was a relic of the past, according to the news outlets, someone whose plucky tales hearkened back to a golden era of discovery. Others saw echoes of more sorry imperialism, a story that reinforced “colonial narratives of black savagery”, according to The Guardian.

Allen in 1987 with members of the Yaifo tribe in traditional dress. One of them is Allen’s friend Korsai
Allen in 1987 with members of the Yaifo tribe, including Korsai (second from right)

Allen and Korsai in 2017, smiling, with an arm around each other
Friends reunited: Allen and Korsai in 2017

Yet how strange: never has our long-suffering planet been in greater need of people to explore it. And in this, our risk-averse, interconnected age — with anything you might want to know at the click of a mouse — we surely need more than ever to disconnect from the familiar, step aside from the like-minded and relinquish our echo chambers so that we might encounter information beyond the merely convenient and reassuring.

Few bothered to ask the purpose of the journey — why I had, in this day and age, slogged up a peculiarly inaccessible mountain without so much as a GPS or phone. One answer might have been that I relied on the locals because they too knew a thing or two about their environs — besides, they could get me out faster than any rescue helicopter could get in. But as it happened, this mission was strictly personal. I’d wanted to track down a man called Korsai, one of many hundreds who had been generous to me over the years.

Once, three decades before, his people the Yaifo had taken me to be an intruding gold miner. They’d circled our small party, whooping and hopping with bows drawn, unleashing a terrifying show of strength. Later, understanding that their implausibly young and white-skinned visitor was harmless — half dead from the climb, I couldn’t have been much more so — he took it upon himself to guide me to safety over the mountain, an unimaginably arduous trek for us both.

Together we’d weaved through cold moss, drifting cloud and perilously slippery screes. And now, these years on, I had just wanted to check up on Korsai, shake this decent man’s hand. This I did, reaching out once more from my own world to connect with another.

‘Explorer: The Quest for Adventure and the Great Unknown’ by Benedict Allen is published by Canongate

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