British Adventurer Ed Stafford talks TV, Desert Island Loneliness & the Key to Survival in the Unknown
We’ve all heard the expression travel broadens the mind, and if that really is the case Ed Stafford’s must be pretty expansive. Since becoming one of the world’s most popular adventurers, former Platoon Commander Ed has headed to some of the toughest locations on the planet, taking on daunting challenges for his Discovery Channel shows such as 2013’s Ed Stafford: Naked and Marooned, where a starkers Ed was dropped on a desert island in Fiji for 60 days with no kit, food or water and left to fend completely for himself.
Of course many will be aware that Stafford initially made his name by becoming the first person to ever walk the entire length of the Amazon River from source to the sea. He spent 860 long days in the jungle trekking an incredible 4,000 miles. A trip that would transform his perspective forever. We spoke to Ed ahead of the release of his new book, Adventures for a Lifetime, which is filled with inspiration for anyone with the desire to get out and explore the world. He told us about why it’s important to move out of our comfort zones, where he first learned his survival skills and the one piece of kit he relies on above any other.
The MALESTROM: Where did your love of the great outdoors initially come from?
Ed Stafford: I grew up in rural Leicestershire and I was lucky enough for it to have been in the era where people weren’t worried about kids going off and roaming the fields. So we were literally out all day building dams and tree houses. I think I’ve therefore always had a bit of an affinity towards the outdoors, I then got skills that helped me develop that a bit further from organisations like the Scouts and the Cadets, so how to navigate, how to pack a rucksack and basically administer the skills myself in the wild, I think that was really the grounding to it all.
That’s why I’m very keen to give back to the Scouts, I’m an ambassador for them, I do a lot of free work for them because I think it’s really important that young people get the opportunity to have a bit of an outdoor education as well as a formal normal education, I think it’s really important to be well rounded.
TM: How did you transfer those early survival skills into becoming the adventurer you are today?
ES: The skills I learned really early on I still use today. In terms of transferring, I suppose it sort of evolved over time. I joined the military after I left university, I did Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which is an officer training course and then specialist training as a platoon commander. As an infantry platoon commander you’ve got to be really really competent in the field, you’ve got to as good as your soldiers or better really and you’ve got to lead by example. So I think that was an amazing thing for me at such a young age, at 23 years old commanding a platoon of soldiers and I did an operational tour to Northern Ireland and leading guys in small teams through all the fields, in operational circumstances was quite a lot of pressure. But, it also taught me lots about leadership and management.
When I left the military, bizarrely, I thought I was going to get a job in the city at first, there’s a lot of ex-army officers that end up becoming estate agents and stockbrokers. But it just wasn’t really interesting to me at all, and then I found this list of jobs available to ex-army officers and at the bottom of this list of very boring office jobs, was expedition leader in Belize. It was to lead a group of gap year kids into the Belizian rainforest in order to do a conservation project. So I thought I’d give that a go and I’ve literally never looked back. It was all the nice stuff about being in the military, it was very tangible, obviously outdoors, good fun and with a genuine reason behind being out there. A sort of whole industry of expeditions that I didn’t realise existed opened itself up to me, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
TM: And that presumably led onto the incredible Amazon walk?
ES: Well basically I’d been leading these expeditions for about 7 or 8 years I suppose, predominantly for young people, sometimes for film crews and stuff, but predominantly for school leaders. I was just starting to get a little bit bored with, who fancies who, and what A-Level results they were getting, so I thought I’ll do something off my own back. Based on the experience I’ve got, I’ve spent a lot of time in the jungle, I thought what’s the biggest expedition I could do? I’d never been to the Amazon, spent a lot of time in Central America and some in the Far East as well, but I’d never been to the Amazon Rainforest.
So I looked there and people had already kayaked the river, I’m pretty rubbish at kayaking, so I thought I’ll have a bash at walking the length of the river and so I was looking for other expeditions that had walked it to look at their expedition notes and learn from them. But, the more I looked, it dawned on me that no one had ever walked the length of the Amazon before, and, I’ve got to be honest I think there was an element of ego there. I realised that potentially if I took this project on, I could get a Guinness World Record for being the first person. So that was part of it, and one thing led to another and I ended up committing myself to quite a big expedition.
TM: Did you realise the commitment in terms of time, apart from the preparation? It was a real unknown…
ES: It was a massive unknown and it was largely a guess and in order to keep sponsors from spilling out I kind of capped it at a year but secretly I thought it might take longer than a year. It sounded feasible that I could walk 11 miles a day but actually, when I ended up averaging 4 miles the expedition took two and a half years, so it was much, much more than most people were expecting and I was quite surprised when I got back that there wasn’t more backlash about what a pointless expedition it had been. If anything I think people just responded to the commitment. Even though it took two and a half years, you didn’t come home and you didn’t give up, and I think people were impressed by the sheer duration of it I suppose.
TM: How did that experience change your life?
ES: I think probably more than anything else I’ve ever done, I think it’s all too easy when you leave the military to become an ex-military consultant, and sometimes if you’re lucky you can get work in TV behind-the-scenes, but more often than not you’re going out to Iraq or Afghanistan, taking semi-mercenary type work or you’re completely shifting careers and doing a fairly middle of the road job in cities in the UK and I just thought, I don’t want to fall into that trap.
Somehow, by doing something that nobody had ever done, and it was important I think that it was a world first – I sort of had a tagline if I would introduce myself you know (not that I’d actually say it) – but people would say “oh it’s the bloke that walked the Amazon” rather than “oh he’s an ex-military officer and he’s this much experience and that experience”. Its managed to elevate my status to such that I’ve got the Amazon series on Discovery channel and that’s led to 8 Seasons now of various survival/adventure shows.
I don’t think I was blind to the fact that if I did a world first it would give me a foot in the door and a kickstart in terms of a Television career. I’ve been quite inspired by Bruce Parry – who did the BBC Tribe series – he and I had worked together in Belize doing these conservation expeditions before. I’d seen his TV career rise and I thought it’s hugely impressive what he’s managed to do in a really fun industry that I was a part of, but he’s actually managing to forge a proper career and a bit of money out of it.
So that was the plan, and I’m quite a believer in positive visualisation. If you really want something and you believe you can have it, things start weirdly shifting so that you end up more likely to get it. I think with the Amazon, I was so determined to do it – and it’s weird because I’m not an arrogant person – but I could definitely see myself completing it and I could see myself falling into the Atlantic Ocean at the end, way before I knew that I would complete it. I had so much luck along the way, in terms of getting through scrapes and dangerous situations, but obviously, it all went well in the end.
TM: What was the most dangerous situation you found yourself in then?
ES: Well there was a number. I was held up at arrow point by indigenous Indians a few times, I think three times in total actually. At gunpoint by drug traffickers as well a couple of times. The one that sticks out the most, I was trying to get past an area where the village was called Pennsylvania bizarrely – there’s an HF (High Frequency) radio system that sort of connects all the villages and all the indigenous communities along the river in this area. And it was originally installed to help the villagers fight off the communist guerillas, but they still use it as the main form of communication. I called ahead to this downstream community called Pennsylvania and they very, very categorically stated that if a white man walked through their village, they’d kill him immediately.
And so, I couldn’t obviously walk through Pennsylvania, but there was a big island in the middle of the river that was about a kilometre long and we’d got these little inflatable rafts and I thought if we paddle out to the island, walk the length of it and then paddle back to the shore we can bypass this community, and no one would be any the wiser. And, it worked really well until we were near the downstream part of the island, and my walking partner at the time said “look behind you”, and there were five canoes racing towards us, all the men were stood up with bows and arrows and all the women had machetes. And I mean crikey, you know, I’d made a point of doing the whole expedition unarmed, we did have machetes, but no shotguns or anything like that, because we just thought it would escalate any sort of violence, and wasn’t the right signal to be sending.
But it was the only time in the whole expedition where I thought we’re just going to be hacked to pieces, this is it! We’ve been told that we’ll be killed and now they’re coming towards us, and although they were absolutely furious, it turns out they weren’t from the same community. But, they still took us back to their village at arrow point and made us unpack all our belongings – they were very suspicious about what we were doing and very angry that we hadn’t sought their permission to get through – but in the process of unpacking all this stuff that they’d never seen before like solar panels and MacBook computers, they became so fascinated they sort of forgot they were angry.
To cut a long story short, a couple of them agreed to walk with me, which was brilliant because if we were walking with indigenous guys we got a far better reception in all the communities that we came into. I thought they’d walk for about 3 days – they were called Andreas and Alfonso – and they walked with us for about 47 days and got us right through all the dangerous areas where we were facing quite a lot of problems. And when we came to the communities, someone always knew one of them, so we got a good response, and they’d end up throwing a party and we’d all get drunk. So really it was quite a jolly affair. When they went home, I thought… because indigenous guys, they really love their alcohol and we paid them quite a lot of money, I thought it was going to be a slightly messy ending where they get horrendously drunk, but they bought an outboard motor for their village and spent their money on that – so it was a nice ending.
TM: So, tell us the idea behind the new book, Adventures for a Lifetime. It’s something a bit different…
ES: Well it is yeah. If I’m being completely honest, the TV stuff is really good fun, it’s been challenging and it’s kept me on my toes and kept me young in many ways, but I don’t think it’s book-worthy. So I really wanted to write another book and embrace this idea of encouraging other people to get out and explore. So I thought I’ll pick a number of different adventures with all different skill sets, from all different environments around the world and put them all together into an inspirational book, that takes people beyond what they would be able to get at a travel agent basically.
It’s stuff that you’d have to organise off your own back, stuff that you’d have to get yourself trained up and experienced in order to do. Things that you would actually go, “wow wouldn’t it be great if I could get an expedition like that off the ground?” I’m really pleased with the end result, I worked with some great illustrators and some of the maps are really good fun. It’s not really a bucket list for people, it’s to inspire, and get people thinking along those lines. All you have to do really is open a map, put a finger on it and you can actually go there, book a flight and 9 times out of 10 you can have an amazing adventure, so that’s the nuts and bolts of it I suppose.
TM: There’s a great foreword by Ranulph Fiennes, he talks about exposing yourself to risk in order to develop. Do you echo that sentiment?
ES: I definitely do. I’ve just become a Dad, so I’m questioning my own morals and values and how I want to bring up my boy and I think there is something really constrictive and uninspiring about doing the safe option every time, it doesn’t take you outside your comfort zone, it doesn’t cause you to think outside the box or try new ideas. I think there is an element, where having risk or danger in an activity forces you to operate on a different level really. One where you’re learning and growing, and developing character, so I think it is really important.
It’s not a reckless book, it’s not written so people just go out and do dangerous things for the sake of it. And it’s not really a thrill-seeking, adrenaline junkie book either, although some of the trips would appeal to those people. For me, it’s more about pushing your own boundaries, stretching your own capabilities and doing stuff that you never thought you’d potentially be able to do. In that respect, I stand by it and think it’s a really healthy thing for people to take controlled risks in order to get the most out of life really.
TM: What’s the most testing environment you’ve experienced?
ES: I have a phobia of marine environments, especially desert islands because I think I’ve just spent too much time on my own in them (laughs), so I’ve got a slightly negative perspective. I’m not a great swimmer and there’s something to do with the combination of being surrounded by something you find inherently scary anyway, which is the ocean, and then, of course, all the dangers in it, along with the solitude of island life. It’s weird, on the face of it a lot of tropical islands are conducive to surviving, they’ve got palm trees, they’ve got materials, stuff that you can eat and it shouldn’t be that hard, but, I think being alone certainly made it a lot harder. Some people handle being alone really well, but if you have got any skeletons in your closet they soon come to the surface when you are on your own.
It’s one of the entries in the book, it’s more of a concept than an actual location but, deliberately putting yourself in a situation where you’re isolated for an extended period of time… the book cannot shy away from the fact that it’s more about personal development, it’s about becoming a better version of yourself as well, so as harrowing as it was doing 60 days on my own on a desert island, I learned so much from it. It was a catalyst for so much change and self-awareness, so while I consider it to be the most grueling experience, it’s one that I wouldn’t change and recommend people have a stab at doing. It doesn’t even have to be a desert island, it could be isolating yourself in the middle of a forest for a weekend, turning off your phone and deliberately isolating yourself, I think there are huge benefits from that. There’s a lot of Native American Indians who put themselves through extended fasts and isolation periods in order to get to a higher place and I genuinely understand that. It’s a really positive, personal evolution.
TM: So what would you say is the biggest mistake you’ve made in a survival scenario then?
ES: I think it’s always when you let your fears and your apprehensions run riot, and that’s from overthinking. When I’m composed and happy, I can deal with pretty much any situation, and that’s not being big-headed, I just know that I’ve got the experience and the trust in myself to be able to deal with any situation. Equally, I know that if I’m flustered, in my head as I call it, that I can confuse the simplest of situations and get myself in a right panic. I’ve spent a lot of time with Aboriginals and it’s in the book the concept of the three brains. The Aboriginals believe that there are three brains, head, heart & gut, and I totally buy into that concept. A lot of westerners think that they are their logical brain and therefore complicate life and live in this world of fear, apprehension, anxiety, and stress because according to Aboriginal belief the physical brain in your skull is just not meant to be where thoughts and ideas originate. It’s meant to be an analytical tool which filters out the ideas that come from a more instinctual or gut level.
I now meditate in my everyday life and when I’m on these survival trips as well, because I think coming from a much deeper place, that instinctual place, the larger brain as Aboriginals call it, just makes life simpler. You’re not second guessing yourself, you’re not worried all the time, you are more in sync with all of your surroundings. For me, that’s made everything a lot more simple, so I would say the biggest mistake is to be stuck in my head and the best way out is to meditate and get myself back to a place where I’m a lot more centred.
TM: Is that how others can overcome their own fears and anxieties?
ES: Yeah I think fear is very much a mind issue, the world isn’t as scary as we think and the human brain is so developed that it can project all sorts of unknown conclusions and it suspects that a lot of the outcomes might be negative and therefore you start thinking about negative, horrible things happening. If you’re not engaging that tool, you’re not looking into the future and worrying about what might happen, then you’re just dealing with the current situation and more often than not, in fact, all of the time, you can deal with the current situation because it’s in front of you, it’s practical, it’s tangible and you can do whatever is necessary at that moment.
What you can’t deal with is something that’s an imaginary projection into the future because you can never be sure that things are going to go one way or another, so you lose yourself in this fear about what might happen and you start tying yourself in knots and it’s completely unnecessary. So being present, being centred from a deeper instinctual place and living in the moment rather than allowing yourself to project too much into the future. It’s one of the most important things, it comes above being able to light a fire with two sticks or having to make a shelter. None of those skills even comes close to being able to get the psychological part of it right.
TM: What about the new Discovery Channel show then?
ES: It’s called First Man Out and it’s the first time I’ve done a survival show where I’ve taken the top survival experts from around the world to compete with me. I’m still dropped off in a remote environment, but the change in this series, unlike the others, is there is another equally competent expert. And they range from former US Marines to South Korean Special Forces or Native American Indians, so a real spread of people that I go up against. I’ve always believed that stretching yourself is a really healthy thing to do. Certainly with the series Marooned, being dropped in the middle of nowhere with nothing was becoming the norm almost and there wasn’t really any time pressure. I was dropped in and had the time to do things I need to do to survive and then eventually, hopefully, come to the situation where I’m thriving. In a way that’s kind of artificial, because in a survival situation there would be far more time pressure, you would either want to get out of that situation or even you might be ill and need medical help.
So, by adding the competitive element it adds a huge amount of pressure, in terms of time, because you want to be first, and reputation, because all of these people have a big reputation that they don’t want to lose. I’ve found it’s allowed me to step up to another level, it’s stretched me massively, a couple of times I’ve been humbled by it, coming across people who are extremely good at what they do and it’s made me realise in some areas, that my skills are lacking. But again that’s a good thing to know because I believe in being self-aware and realising your own shortcomings and also what you’re good at, I was quite vulnerable in that respect because there’s nowhere to hide.
It was quite interesting to see who refused to do the series and who was up for the challenge, there are some quite big names who didn’t want to go into a competitive environment because they would consider that their career would be potentially ruined if they lost. For me it wasn’t really about that, I kind of viewed it as a charity rugby match, I’ll give it my best and if I win, I win, and if I lose, I lose. Anyway, I’m really excited, it comes out I think near the end of this year or maybe beginning of next. It’s a much bigger series than anything I’ve done before, all filmed in 4k ultra HD, so it looks spectacular – so very exciting.
TM: What piece of kit would you always have with you, except when you’re being dropped off without anything of course?
ES: Well the fact that I’ve done it with nothing means at least I know it can be done, but the thing that accelerates everything is a knife. Of course, you can get a rock and smash it and get a very dull blade and you can braid things and approach situations from a very different standpoint, but at the end of the day, if you’ve got a knife or a cutting tool, you can do so much more and so much quicker. Building shelters, skinning animals, all sorts of stuff, so always a knife. It doesn’t have to be a complicated one, I’m not a knife snob, there are really simple Swedish brands that are only about eight quid and that’s all I really need or use, it certainly makes life a lot easier.
TM: What’s next for you? Apart from the TV, any other goals or challenges?
ES: My wife (Laura) is pregnant again, so we’ve got another baby coming in April next year. We have got a big project with Discovery which could potentially happen, it’s not been greenlit yet. It’s a family thing so it would involve Laura, so that’s exciting. I’ve got a show with Channel 4 potentially, but I’m not allowed to say what that is, so loads going on.
TM: We always finish by asking for a piece of wisdom. So anything you’d like to add?
ES: One of the ways I check in with myself to see if I’m in a good place or not is to see if I’ve still got a sense of humour. If something’s so stressful that I lose my sense of humour, I know that I’m not in a good place, I use that as a sort of yardstick. I don’t think anything is so important that you can’t have a little laugh along the way. So I really just make sure I’m still smiling or laughing. With survival situations, I always used to tell people to treat it like a game because people freezing or panicking because the odds are so high doesn’t do them any favours at all, not in a flippant way, just taking the enormity out of it. And the same applies to life really doesn’t it (laughs).
TM: Sounds like a good way to live life, thanks Ed.