British explorer Benedict Allen talks about resilience, travel and knowing your strengths

Nicholas Ng

The writer and traveller famously 'disappeared' last year on a trip to Papua New Guinea while looking for the tribe he had met 35 years ago

Nicholas Ng |

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In Papua New Guinea, Allen was reunited with a Yaifo friend after having lost contact after 35 years.

For those who dream of seeing the world, there is no greater career than that of the intrepid explorer. But it’s also one fraught with danger and, often, despair. No one knows this better than Benedict Allen, who has been a writer, traveller, and adventurer for more than 30 years, and has lived with indigenous peoples from the remotest corners of the world. British newspaper The Daily Telegraph even listed him as one of the top 10 British explorers of all time.

So how does he do it?

Speaking to Young Post when he was in Hong Kong last month for a talk at the Royal Geographical Society, Allen says that resilience – the ability to recover quickly from difficulties – is critical to being able to survive. “Not being afraid to make mistakes is how you gain resilience to be able to keep on going, day after day,” he said.

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Recounting one recent expedition, where he was stranded in bad weather with no one to talk to, Allen describes how he had to focus on the goal, not the situation. “I just thought, ‘I’ve got to stick to my plan, and believe in myself and sooner or later, things will turn around again’. Learning to not be dissuaded from what you really want to do is all part of resilience and success.”

Despite his feats, however, Allen admits his at times he does job at the expense of family life. Allen’s exploring days were already behind him when he married his wife, Lenka Allen – until an exciting new prospect lured him out of retirement.

“My wife was expecting to marry a person who used to be an explorer, so she found it incredibly hard when I told I her I was going to Papua New Guinea to make a film with [British journalist] Frank Gardner,” he says.

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That trip to Papua New Guinea in 2016 was followed by another last year, when Allen went in search of the country’s elusive Yaifo tribe, with whom he had lived 30 years ago. That trip made headlines when Allen became stranded, contracted malaria and dengue fever, and was rescued by staff from British newspaper The Daily Mail.

Allen is about to embark on yet another trip to the Amazon and, while he has no fears for his safety, his wife took more convincing.

“Things don’t usually go wrong during short expeditions, but given the events in New Guinea, she’s expecting the same mishaps again,” he says. “She generally believes and trusts in me to come back, but it does scare her. Often she’ll ask me ‘You’re not going to die are you?’”

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Allen, known for completely immersing himself into indigenous communities, says he is determined to change the global perception of these isolated groups. “They have different customs, sure, but if you look beyond that … they have the same divide of good and bad people among them like we have in our culture. Part of my job is to get the idea of them being different from us out of people’s minds.”

His approach even affects his choice of words when describing the groups he lives with. “I don’t even use the word ‘tribe’ any more, because it makes them seem very different from us.”

Throughout all of his adventures, no matter long or short, danger has never been far behind Allen. Whether he was being shot at by drug barons in Colombia, or trying to escape a forest amid clashes between rival tribes, Allen believes it was experience and adaptability that helped him persevere.

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“I’ve learned, rather like how a soldier trains for battle, what to do in a certain situation. I have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C – which is the exit strategy.”

Allen visited South Island School when he was in the city.
Photo: Andy Morris

It takes a certain type of character to deal with such a high-octane lifestyle, he says. “I think an extra factor is that I’ve simply got used to a crisis happening … I’ve got used to having to deal with people, and I know my strengths and weaknesses and how to keep on going when all else fails.”

This strength of character is something that Allen also sees in his long-time friend Frank Gardner, who joined him in Papua New Guinea to make the BBC documentary Birds of Paradise: The Ultimate Quest. Gardner was left paralysed in 2004 after being shot six times by a terrorist gang in Saudi Arabia. At first, Allen was unsure how Gardner would fare in the middle of the rainforest in a wheelchair.

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“I thought he was going to suffer … and that, after about three days, his angry side would show,” Allen says.

But his friend surprised him, and proved to be made of much the same tough stuff that Allen is. The trip was challenging, but Gardner didn’t allow his disability to get the better of him, says Allen, who believes that it’s how a person deals with adversity that truly defines them.

“People can last around three days and look great for three days, but when reality starts kicking in … that’s when you find out who they really are.”