To timidly go?
TV's trendy explorer Benedict Allen on conquering the world without upsetting the locals.
I had only ever seen explorer Benedict Allen in exotic settings, up to his neck in sacred mud or bundled up in reindeer fur against a Siberian winter. So it was odd to be welcomed by him in the flesh into a small terraced house.
As he makes tea – normal tea, with a normal kettle – he explains that the brightly painted walls are an attempt to counteract any museum tendencies, as his collection of artefacts from across the globe accretes in every room. I don’t know why I’m experiencing culture shock – I’m sure Shackleton was perfectly at home on a sofa. After all, that’s what distinguishes explorers from natives. If Benedict Allen was always in reindeer fur, he’d just be a Siberian, and he’d have to come to West London to find his new experiences.
Allen isn’t much like Shackleton. He’s more interested in the travelling than in getting there to plant the flag, and seems sanguine about the failure of his latest expedition to reach its target. ‘I was aiming originally to cross the Bering Strait, this little gap between the whole of Asia, Europe and the Americas.’ Unfortunately, he had managed to pick the worst Siberian winter on record to attempt his journey. Temperatures fell below minus 40, and blizzards made it almost impossible to leave the town, never mind journeying a thousand miles to reach the Strait.
If the hero inside him is dashed, he’s hiding it well. ‘It wasn’t the objective, really, to be the first to cross the Strait – that wasn’t so much of interest to me. I was interested more in man’s relationship with dogs in cold environments – dogs have enabled people to survive in a place where they shouldn’t be able to survive.’
Local cultures, and in particular their use of animals, are a keen interest for Allen. He has travelled across whole deserts with only camels for company. Why? Surely it would be more pleasant to travel with people? Allen says he does it for a sense of freedom, and a ‘union of two different species’. And because it enables him to see a landscape through different eyes. ‘For me, these journeys were an extension of an experience I’d had with local people, so I’m re-educated in a way by local people and I carry on, using their transport, to probe a seemingly hostile environment.’
In Siberia, however, the use of dogs is no ancestral wisdom that has continued untouched for centuries. The locals from whom Allen was hoping to learn about dog teams were being thrown back on to primitive survival strategies by world events. It was ‘a great revival in dog culture because people were desperate, effectively: the Soviet Union had collapsed, and they were looking back to their ancestors, seeing how they coped. It had pretty well petered out’.
As he talks about the Siberians re-learning dog-driving, Allen seems to have found a resonance with his own feelings. ‘Because they suddenly realised they could no longer trust in the outside world, but man’s best friend, perhaps, they could trust in, they looked to their dogs. As I arrived, people were getting family pets into harness, trying anything they could to find a way of having mobility in the tundra.’ It seems that, like Allen himself, with his emphasis on primitive and traditional forms of travel over technological developments that might allow him to travel further faster, the Siberians have lost faith in a technologically advanced society, and are looking backwards.
The blizzards had other shocks in store for Allen. ‘When I arrived, I found the owner of my dogs wasn’t there, and it’s crucial – these dogs have a supreme loyalty to their top dog. Packs of dogs look to a leader, and you have to provide that role. So I had to rapidly become top dog from scratch, without knowing the commands, without even knowing the names of the dogs.
‘At first the dogs just ignored me. They thought “we won’t waste energy on him – energy is survival, ignore him”, and they would just curl up, these blobs in the snow -only when I fed them did they take any interest. It took about two weeks to get their undivided attention, but that still left the lack of respect, and lack of listening to my commands.’
Listening to Allen, he sounds more like a hapless supply teacher facing a class of recalcitrant teenagers than an all-weather explorer. ‘I didn’t know the commands for left and right, we didn’t actually know what the owner of the dogs had taught them. Gradually, gradually that sorted itself out, but really it took two months before they ever responded unquestioningly.’
Allen is very apologetic about having given the dogs English names like ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Blot’. ‘Well, I had to – it’s not something I’d like to do, because my whole philosophy is to go into a place and learn from the locals. You leave as much as possible behind: it’s not possible to get rid of all your cultural baggage, but to me that’s what exploration has to be now.’ Not being first across the Bering Strait with only dogs for company, but exploring ‘other ways of doing things, ways other than the West does things. There’s all these indigenous peoples who offer a different perspective on environments that we think we know, in our arrogance. These non-scientific societies, non-rationalising societies, see a different landscape than we see’.
But surely the role of an explorer is to ‘conquer’ land and alien territory (in the sense of discovering and describing it), rather than accommodating to local landscapes? Not for Allen, who is emerging as a curious mix of millennial environmentalist and Victorian adventurer. ‘My dad was a test pilot, in the days when planes used to fall out of the sky, and he used to fly to Africa and bring back little things – a stuffed crocodile, weaver birds’ nests. Things I’ve still got now that as a boy made me think “I want to go out and see these places too”. That was my initial spark.’
It was poverty that first pushed Allen towards his expedition style, but even with publishing and TV deals behind him, he has stuck with his ‘going native’ technique. ‘It wasn’t going to be a question of me launching out with my Western gadgets, or with jeeps, it was going to be quietly going in there, and the quieter I went, the more successful I was – the less like Indiana Jones, in a way.’
Allen is uncomfortable with taking too much baggage, technical as well as cultural. ‘If you take a gadget, maybe you never leave home, I mean mentally – you’re too linked in with the environment that you’re meant to have left.’ Again, it’s the quality of the process that holds allure for him, not the geographical target. ‘I think a journey begins to become a sport if all you’re doing is just trying to knock up a first or go further than anyone else – in the end, what value is that? Of course, these things can be amazing feats, but they are physical feats. I’m more interested in pushing barriers, and these are fake barriers, whereas I’m interested in other, mental ones: Man’s interaction, his human relationship with the world around us, which has got to be examined and re-examined.’
Allen is clearly uncomfortable with the some of the great explorers and their methods and achievements. ‘Exploration didn’t end back in the Victorian era – maybe we charted things, but we didn’t necessarily understand that land. Perhaps we never will, because it’s always changing. I do see the people as a way into understanding the landscape. There’s no such thing as virgin forest. People still talk about virgin forest – there were five million people in the Amazon once, so these were populated places, and you can’t ignore the human factor. I need people. I’m not a loner, actually, although I appear to go alone – I just make new friends while I’m there.’
But there is a contradiction between this urge to be with people and his solitary expeditions with no human contact. ‘Yeah, I think there is very much a tension there, I think it’s just…I’ve got this driving thing. As a general pattern I’ve gone to a community, lived there for a month, three months, longer, and then I’ve launched out, so I’ve needed to have a target in mind.’ A man in search of a mission, but haunted by doubt that the mission could be the wrong one. ‘I’ve sometimes thought, maybe I should just write fiction, stay in a village, and go on that sort of journey, or maybe just stay there as an anthropologist, and maybe I’ll do that one day, but I’ve got too many… I seem to need to push myself.’
Even the egotism of having a mission sows seeds of disquiet. ‘I’ve sometimes worried that I’m addicted to danger, even. I don’t think I am, but I’m certainly addicted to that sort of stimulation, the feeling of reaching out to try and achieve. That great feeling you get from having tackled something which was really beyond the possible.’
Allen is starting to sound like a restless soul who’s still looking for his personal frontier. ‘I think if things had worked out a little bit differently I would be an artist, or a novelist. I think it’s essentially the same process for me. I’m not a great athlete, I’m trying to wrestle with what the world is, and that’s my inner drive.’ In an age when society has no brief for explorers, is it possible to do more than take a subjective journey of self-discovery out into more exotic settings? ‘I had this romantic idea that I wanted to be an explorer but everybody was saying you can’t do that nowadays. It wasn’t to see the world that I went out, it was more to try and understand the world. I think there is a big difference.’
Allen starts to apologise for his status as TV personality. ‘It worries me. I just mean it’s a lot easier to entertain people and educate people when you’re living with the Masai or going through an extraordinary initiation ceremony, it’s much easier to get a platform. I think it’s harder, say, if you’re a painter, or a poet, or a playwright, to make an impact. These are the sort of doubts I have in the middle of the night, you know. I worry that it’s all very superficial and that all I am is somebody who’s finding an easy platform to do my angst. I don’t know. I hope it’s not that….’
Benedict Allen’s new series, Ice Dogs, starts on BBC 2 on 19 March 2002, and runs for six weeks.
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