World-Record holder, explorer, ex-Army Captain, occasional naked island-dweller… is there anything Ed Stafford can’t do? Ahead of his new Discovery Channel show – Ed Stafford: Into the Unknown, in which he heads to harsh environments, including West Papua and Ethiopia, on just a few hours’ notice to explore unsolved mysteries showing up in satellite images – we caught up with the man himself on a crackly line from Peru.
Meet Ed Stafford, the ultimate British explorer
What was the scariest moment during filming for Ed Stafford: Into the Unknown?
I was outside my comfort zone in Siberia. It was so cold that it was actually causing my brain to slow down. I was slurring my words and my thinking capacity, which isn’t great at the best of times, just went down.
I got caught out because I just didn’t have the experience to realise what to do when you’ve got wet leather boots and it’s getting dark. I didn’t want to leave them outside my sleeping bag because I knew that they’d be frozen solid in the morning, so I put them inside my sleeping bag, which was right. But the wrong thing to do was to keep them on my feet. So my feet froze overnight and I had quite severe frostbite. I’ve got to have plastic surgery.
I do pride myself on being able to go to pretty much anywhere, but I’m also humble enough to say that I didn’t have much experience in that environment, so it did slightly get the better of me!
Ed meets locals in Siberia
You’ve travelled the length of the Amazon, been to deserted islands and seen incredible, untamed environments. What is the most beautiful thing you’ve seen, what will stay with you?
The things I end up getting touched by more than anything else are displays of human kindness. If I do have slightly teary moments it’s when somebody, out of the blue, gives you a plate of food when you’re starving.
In Peru, there are a lot of people who've been quite downtrodden and ask for money a lot. I got to a village where this old woman started walking with me and she had her three-year-old granddaughter with her. We walked together for about three or four miles towards this village and I thought, because I was getting a bit cynical and a bit travel-weary by this point, that she was only walking with me to ask me for money. When we got to this village she just gave me a hug, and her granddaughter gave me a big hug, and they just wished me well and saw me on my way.
Because I'd expected it to be so negative it literally brought tears to my eyes. They just wanted to walk with us and chat with us and have a nice time. It's this kind of thing that I find beautiful, more than an amazing sunset or something. It's when people touch you in some way.
Ed helping build a mud island in West Papua
Anyone who travels for a long time sometimes gets a little cynical, travel-weary, maybe a bit homesick. Do you have any tips on how to deal with that?
As much as I know that I love travelling and I love meeting people, you can get quite weary of it. I worked out that all I was suffering from was a sort of accumulation of small annoyances.
Invariably in Peru I had to answer the same questions or defend myself in the same way time and time again, as there is a degree of ignorance towards travellers. Over the months it became an accumulated intolerance, so that I could snap so easily at somebody who just asked me one question!
How do you combat that? I suppose just recognise it, and realise it's my responsibility to turn up with a smile on my face and be understanding.
Ed Stafford in Zambia
These are people's homes, this is their land; I'm the foreigner, I'm the one who has to step outside of his own comfort zone. If you've got the money to go and travel, then you've therefore got the responsibility to control what impact you have on people.
And that weariness – well, if you're that weary of travelling, go home! You've got to still have the capacity to step outside of it and make the effort for people. And if you haven't got that capability, I do think it's time to go home.
What do you think it means to be an explorer today?
I don't think it's always a geographical thing, and we're often not doing things for the benefit of science, either. It's far more of a personal thing, a human endeavour – but I don't think that makes it any less important.
We live in a world where people don't challenge themselves that much, they don't move outside of their sphere of comfort. To live in that sort of world, to wrap yourself in cotton wool, I don't think it's good for the soul.
Ed meets a local pastor in West Papua
It's good to put yourself through challenges every now and again, and discomfort as well, so you understand a bit of the yin and yang of life. And it helps you grow – because you've got to think outside of the box and cope with things that you maybe haven't had to cope with before – and on a personal level that's really important.
At a bigger level, I think it’s partly about inspiring other people. If you're doing something that helps you become a better person and it also vicariously seems to help other people, I don't think there's any negative there. You could talk yourself down into thinking it was a bit self-indulgent, but I genuinely don't think that.
A lot of explorers try and hide behind “I'm going on this expedition to raise money for charity,” and I don't think you always need that excuse. The trips are important, pushing the boundaries of human endeavour is important, and on a personal level just doing things that stretch you, gaining a bit more understanding about the world and yourself, is important.
Ed Stafford in Zambia
What’s next for you?
There'll be three more all-new episodes of Marooned, which is the survival series I've been doing for the Discovery Channel. Two weeks in the Gobi Desert, two weeks in Guatemala in the rainforest, and then two weeks in Madagascar in the baobab forests. So three months of not eating much, probably!
These environments are a little more extreme than the last series, so it's upping the ante a little bit, and I can't wait to get back into it. There's no script, there's no one else to deal with – you literally have a blank sheet of paper on each episode, so that's really exciting.
Ed Stafford: Into the Unknown will premiere on the Discovery Channel on August 27 at 8pm BST.