Robin Hanbury-Tenison is an explorer like no other: not only has he been awarded medals for his work with tribes around the world and for his expeditions across various landscapes, but he’s still doing it all at the age of 80 years old.
So, you say you’re an explorer: what is a modern day explorer?
I would unashamedly describe myself as an explorer. It’s a dying breed and a lot of people are embarrassed by the expression – and then a lot of other people use it when they’re not explorers.
To me an explorer is someone who changes the world through their exploratory activities. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in starting movements like Survival International and have been awarded the Patron’s Gold Medal by the Royal Geographic Society.
Robin Hanbury Tenison with Yanomami children in Brazil
Tell us about your ‘8 at 80’ challenge.
Last year suddenly it came to me with horrible shock that I was about to enter my 80th year. I’ve always been lucky to be very healthy and I felt quite young. I hadn’t minded any previous birthday, but 80, you can’t get away from it – 80 is bloody old.
So I thought I would spit in the face of fate and the gods and do eight silly things during my 80th year, raise £80,000 for Survival International – and irritate all my contemporaries by showing them that I can still do silly things.
So what have you done in your 80th year?
I started with the London Marathon. I hadn’t broken into a trot unnecessarily since I was at school, so that was a shock, but I succeeded and did it in six hours and twenty minutes.
Then I thought I would climb the four highest mountains in Britain. Then I did a skydive. And then the nastiest one: I spent six and a half hours underground in the deepest cave passage in Britain after a 750ft abseil in the dark.
The final one was my attempt to be the oldest person to waterski across the English channel. I set off merrily, with a wonderful team of British water ski champions, at 5am from Dover and it all looked good, but we hit seven-foot waves and I got completely knackered and had to pull out.
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I failed, and the British love a failure, so it was all over the papers. But then I went and did it down in Cornwall. I did the equivalent distance, 21 miles up and down the Camel estuary, just to prove that had it been calm, I could have done it.
What have you learned from your travels as an explorer?
I have huge respect for tribal people. I have been lucky enough to live with, or visit over a hundred tribal people all over the world, but the people I really loved the most, who I have been back to visit recently, are the Penan people of Borneo. I lived with them for fifteen months when I was running a big rainforest expedition for the Royal Geographical Society in the late seventies.
I made great friends with the Penan, who were then still living a nomadic life. They came out of the rainforest to visit our camp and see our doctors – many of them having no contact with Europeans before – and were the most wonderful people. One of the first to come out became my best friend and I went back to see him in Borneo last month; he is now 90 and very old but he is the wisest man I know.
Robin with the Penan in Borneo
Where is the most beautiful places you’ve visited on your travels?
Without any hesitation, a rainforest river in Borneo. It’s where I’ve just come back from and where I spent those 15 months living among the Penan.
There’s something about the rainforest; I feel very at home in it. It’s teeming with life, it’s hot, you struggle through for a long time in this wonderful environment, then you come to a little stream where you can just strip off and plunge in – it’s the best feeling in the world.
Robin with the Penan in Borneo
What’s the strangest food you’ve eaten on your travels?
I have very few principles in life, but one I do have is that there is absolutely nothing I won't eat. I believe there are around five meat sources and five vegetable sources in a British diet, but some tribes have up to 500.
Living with the Penan, they eat a lot of insects like caterpillars – they know which ones are edible and which ones are not. They have little hard ones, a little like potted shrimp, and that’s easy, but the bigger ones with soft centers are harder to express delight as your munch them down, but I tried my best to do that.
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