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Adventurer Aldo Kane on the Challenges of Exploring Uncharted Territory
Aldo Kane

We previously spoke to former Royal Marine Commando Aldo Kane earlier this year, where he told us tales of derring-do in his military career as an elite sniper while touring the globe on duty. Alongside this, his work as an extreme locations safety expert on big TV and film productions have seen him head into live volcanoes and rig abseils at heights that would make most of us weak at the knees.

Most recently he’s been heading into the unknown with presenter and explorer Steve Backshall for the show Expedition. Here they look to achieve world-firsts and make new discoveries by venturing into uncharted territory. The series on Dave has already thrown up some spectacular sights and a number of extremely hair-raising moments.

We caught up with Aldo to talk about his experiences on this groundbreaking show. Including mention of some wildlife that will have you thinking twice before heading into a jungle. How he gets his fix of nature living in the city. As well as finding out which destinations he still yearns to travel to.

The MALESTROM: So let’s start by talking about your series Expedition. It’s sort of discovering places where humans haven’t ventured. That’s what exploring’s all about right?

Aldo Kane: So, it’s a 10-part series on Dave, Sunday nights at eight o’clock. It’s basically Steve Backshaw and team. We head out to ten remote locations around the world, to, if we can, do a world first, whether that’s a climb, a kayak or the lost river in the Himalayas.

And the idea is that we were going to try and be the first people ever to do that. So we did extensive research and spoke to local people to get as much information as we could before we headed out there.

Then basically it’s a warts and all expedition of everything that we come across on the way. And sometimes, as you would not be surprised, we came across cases of people that have been there thousands and thousands of years before us. About 40,000 years before us, so it’s just been an amazing year.

TM: That sort of historical element must have been fascinating to witness?

AK: It was. We discovered some of the oldest figurative art in the world, you know that’s quite a big thing (laughs). It was truly amazing, positive, negative handprints on the walls of these caves.

To put it into perspective these caves in Borneo when these drawings and things were put on the walls, Borneo wasn’t a jungle it was a Savannah. It’s just mind-boggling, the scale of it.

And certainly getting to these places is hard enough as it is. But you know, you’ve got the full film crew coming along with you, and all the kit that goes with it. We managed to do 10 expeditions in 11 months. So it was pretty full-on. Steve and I were pretty broken at the end of it.

Aldo Kane

Aldo Kane sat in the woods

TM: So just going back to the caves, you talked about shifting all that kit about before. How do you think the people who actually made those drawings on the wall got themselves down there into those caves? 

AK: In Mexico as an example, Steve and I clambered into this cave system and it must have taken us six or seven hours to get in. And we used ropes and abseiled. And right at the back of the cave, like I say six or seven hours into there, there were several hundred smashed, pottery balls. Thousands of years old, maybe 2000 to 3000 years old, and smashed in offering to the gods.

There was also a sort of shrine that was built in there. And then also paintings on the wall, figurative paintings. Now these are much much newer than the stuff that we discovered in Borneo, but you know, the stuff’s still two and a half thousand years old.

And that’s the one we found where there was a picture of a Jaguar and almost a hunting scene. And so to imagine us seven hours in, head torches, boots, ropes, abseiling kit. All those thousands of years ago these guys must have been doing it barefoot and potentially building wooden scaffolds, we really don’t know.

Instead of abseiling down they were maybe using logs if they could get them to span the gaps.

It’s just truly amazing, but what’s even more amazing is you can stand with your hand near the art and you’re standing in exactly the same place that these people are standing and thousands of years ago.

TM: That must have given you shivers?

AK: That’s exactly what I said when I was there. It gave me shivers. Because there’s nothing there that changes, It’s a dry cave. I found this particularly interesting.

Where those pots were smashed on the ground, they’d been there for 2000 years, that’s exactly where they fell when they were smashed. It just completely blows your mind.

And what’s harder to understand, certainly in these caves in Mexico, when you’re in a cave and you switch your head torch off its pitch black, there is no ambient light. And so these guys must have been using, potentially animal fat torches or something like that.

But yeah, we’ve just been incredibly lucky this year. In a lot of the cases, we were definitely the first people to film all this and paddle the rivers in Suriname

But there was always signs of life. And in Suriname on one of the rivers, one of the rocks was completely worn away in a very smooth dipping arc. That’s where the nomadic people and hunters had been sharpening their blades on the same rock for thousands of years. It’s really humbling to see that.

TM: I know there’s a team involved, but how did you go about researching somewhere that’s essentially never been explored?

AK: So, basically Steve and myself to a lesser extent have been travelling fairly extensively over the years. And Steve’s got a huge black book of people, contacts, fixers.

So what happens is we work with activity specialists like Hazel Findlay, who is a world-class climber, we climbed with her in Oman and we work with our fixing teams in these countries to find out if anyone has been there. We also see if there are any reports from the Royal Geographical Society.

Eventually, you build up this fairly accurate picture of what’s being done and what hasn’t. So, we went to Suriname and did two expeditions. We had one in Bhutan, we had two in Oman, we had two in Greenland. We had two in Mexico, and one in Borneo so it was completely travelling the globe.

TM: Absolutely. The episode in Oman where you were super dehydrated looked seriously rough?

AK: It was. So, that abseil was a tough one for me as I’d been rigging for two days before that on the sinkhole bit I think you see at the start of the film.

Obviously, it’s my job to keep everyone safe. So I’m lowering people down into the hole and winching people back out, so I’m grafting on that for two days.

And then I spent another day in the sun rigging the abseil, and that was probably another nine or 10 hours hanging on the ropes just getting smashed by the sun.

So by the time I started going down, I was pretty hydrated. And I’ve worked in hot conditions before and never had any problems, and I drank seven or eight litres.

It was just one of those things on expeditions, your working at that level, and at that intensity. I guess it’s only a matter of time before something like that actually happens. It was pretty scary stuff.

Aldo Kane walking through the woods

TM: Of course. Who’s there to save the safety guy?

AK: (Laughs) I wouldn’t have gone down if I’d have known I was properly spent. But the first protocol in these expeditions that we’re on is self-rescue.

So, if we were up at the top, it would have been Steve. We all try and do two or three different jobs so if one person ends up being taken away then everyone else can jump in.

TM: What about other hairy moments on these trips? Bhutan and the white water rafting looked pretty crazy, especially the point where the raft was trapped…

AK: That was the one where Steve nearly drowned. From my point of view white water is one of the most dangerous environments for us as a film crew to be operating in because, every nanosecond that river is different.

It’s never the same river because of the way the water moves and the rocks move, so it’s a very dynamic environment that changes so quickly and it has the power to snuff life out in a nanosecond. And that’s always on the back of our minds, even in the safety rafts, there was quite a lot of it that we couldn’t get to.

We couldn’t physically get to the same areas the kayaks were going, so quite a lot of the time as a team we were split up and just relying on check-ins, voice phone calls, and then your radios. It was definitely one of the harder ones to manage, but what a stunning location, Bhutan is just off the charts beautiful.

Aldo Kane walking through a forest

TM: Was it was up there in one of the most incredible places you’ve been to?

AK: Yeah. Definitely. Out of all of the 10 expeditions, I think my favourites were Bhutan, Oman and Suriname for sheer beauty and wilderness.

TM: Greenland must have been a whole different ballgame?

AK: Greenland is amazing. I’ve wanted to go there for quite some time. We did a paddling expedition, it’s the first time anyone has paddled across the Scoresby Sound at that time of year.

That’s because the sea ice had broken up, it’s the earliest that the sea ice had broken up, on record. And so as much as we were doing a world first it was quite sad times as to why it was a world first. But that was what we were trying to highlight.

So we paddled across that and then up into the mountains, we skied up onto the glacier and did a first ascent up a mountain which we know nobody has ever climbed before.

That’s just amazing when you summit and know no one has seen that view before. That’s gobsmacking. So yeah, Greenland was amazing. It was also more amazing cause I’d just spent ten days in a nuclear bunker, so I was super happy to get out.

TM: Was that for the BBC Horizon documentary?

AK: That’s right.

TM: Do you ever get surprised when you visit these places? As in your expectations change massively once you get there?

AK: It happens all the time. I guess it happens more with people. We often have these preconceived ideas. Greenland was in a weird way exactly what I was expecting.

Suriname, on the other hand, was completely different. It was just so remote and Steve and I were both kind of prepared for what you see in Borneo.

When you go to Borneo and you fly over it it’s a fairly sad state of affairs because of all the deforestation that’s happening. Mining and the impact of people.

But when we got to Suriname and flew over the top of it, it has to be one of the least touched environments on earth. Around 96% of Suriname is still forest, which is pretty unheard of.

TM: With all those jungles you must have seen some pretty crazy wildlife?

AK: I think the weirdest thing we’ve seen on all of these is the Brazilian Wandering Spider, which is pretty gruesome. Listen to this. It bites you and its toxin is a form of Viagra.

So you basically get priapism, which I think is the technical term for a stiffy and you have that for about three hours and then you get complete loss of sexual function for the rest of your life!

When we found that in Suriname we were walking around at night with our head torches on and it was on a fern in front of Steve. He did his bit to camera and finished that and as we started having a good look around at where we were, there were plenty of them. And they were all on leaves roundabout where we were. So that was an exciting time.

Brazilian wandering spider
Brazilian wandering spider

TM: It sounds like it. I was going to ask you about the weirdest thing you’ve eaten on your travels? Or do you generally just eat the rations you take?

AK: Yeah, we take freeze-dried rations. We love eating local, but there’s quite a high risk when we do. People can get ill and if you’ve only got one camera guy or one sound recordist and they go down for a couple of days you end up losing time from it.

So more often than not, we’re eating rations. But I think last year when I did First Man Out, Ed Stafford’s show, I had some raw crab there that was still warm, that I’d just killed and some sea slugs which must go down as some of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. That was pretty grim.

Aldo Kane standing in the woods

Aldo Kane holding a cup of coffee

TM: One thing that keeps popping up on your Twitter is you talking about oral hygiene when your away. It’s an important thing…

AK: There’s basically no excuse. I guess I’ve been brought up in the Royal Marines from a kids age where hygiene is everything. But oral hygiene more so, because it’s more preventative.

If you are out on an expedition and you end up having a toothache, that’s a showstopper. It’s a big part of Steve’s and my routine, if we know that we’ve got a busy period of expeditions then we’ll go and see a dentist and get everything done that we need to. But I have to say, I don’t have any fillings.

TM: It’s alright for some isn’t it? Just looking at future travels is there anywhere you still want to go?

AK: I think the more you travel the more you find places you want to go to. I’ve never been to Alaska or Antarctica. And Tierra del Fuego in Chile. So they’re all on the list.

Hopefully, I’ll get there either with work or pleasure at some point. But I think the main thrust of the next 6-8 months is going to be writing a book.

I’ve been pulling something together for the last year and a half, several different ideas and stuff. So it’ll very definitely be heavy on adventure.

TM: Good stuff. And being a big nature lover, you like to get outdoors, but you live in the city, how do you get that fix?

AK: It’s quite tough. I live in South London so when I go out for a run I can link up two or three of the Commons, like Clapham Common or whatever.

When I’m in London I make sure I’m walking between places, between meetings, instead of getting the tube, or I cycle. And I make a point if I can of leaving every weekend, down to the coast or to Bristol or up to Scotland if I can.

That’s one thing I try and do is get out of London because at times it can be fairly maddening.

TM: Have you got a favourite spot in the city? Somewhere you can go to chill out?

AK: There are tons of parks which are great. But I was walking the other day to a meeting, and this is what I love about London, it has to be one of the greenest cities on the planet.

I just found this nice little park, I didn’t know what it was. It was behind the Fitzrovia area and it was just cool to lie down there in the sun, I fell asleep for half an hour, it was lovely.

TM: So even though you’re in the city there’s still some greenery?

AK: Exactly. The big one for me mental health wise is fitness and exercise and being outside. It’s all well and good going for a run, that’s only like 40 minutes or an hour.

But the more time I spend outside, the happier I am, and I can do that in London easily by just walking in between meetings like I said, or getting off the tube a few stops earlier. So it’s still easy to do.

Catch Aldo Kane on Expedition with Steve Backshall, Sunday Night at 8pm on Dave

Photography by Simon J Evans

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