Katherine MacAlister interviews Benedict Allen about his many adventures

Intrepid explorer Benedict Allen is busy talking to me on the telephone telling me about his life and death experiences in Papua New Guinea, when the doorbell to his hotel room rings.

“Your gin and tonic sir,” the room service waiter pronounces, which considering it’s only noon, seems rather unlikely. Maybe that’s how they do in south east Asia?

Apparently not: “This is so embarrassing,” Benedict says laughing. “I didn’t order this by the way. This isn’t the way I do things. It must have been sent by the people organising the event.”

Benedict Allen is not known for room service or 1000 thread count sheets. Instead, he is happiest abiding in a mud hut, living on insects and cohabiting with an indigenous people.

So what’s happened? Has he gone soft? Did his recent trip to Papua New Guinea put him off for life? Considering that his latest 30 date tour is largely based on the back of the ensuing publicity, and his rescue by a national newspaper, what now?

And he roars with laughter, acceding the irony and knowing how it must look.

Based in Prague where his wife and children live, he is coming to Oxford’s Sheldonian on Wednesday night, to entertain us all with tales of his nomadic exploits.

“Communicating what you have seen is the most important part of what I do. If you are going to explore you have to report back,” he explains.

He has been doing just that for decades now, mainly through his six BBC TV series, ten books and endless motivational speaking tours.

But it was his ill fated trip to Papua New Guinea last year, that thrust him into the public spotlight in an unprecedented manner.

Revisiting a remote tribe he had lived with in his twenties, he got stuck in a war zone and couldn’t get out. Struck down by malaria and dengue fever, his future looked bleak until a helicopter swooped down from The Daily Mail thanks to the escalating national concern over his disappearance.

Picking himself and dusting himself off, the experience did make him question his own mortality, especially as a father.

“In the old days an expedition lasted 6-9 months, but now I try not to be away for more than two because of the kids, so I’m weaning myself off long trips.”

And yet he is still exploring, most recently revisiting the Matses tribe who taught him about the rainforest, helping him survive when loggers robbed him and left him for dead.

“Being an explorer is always humbling. You are not like Indiana Jones. But I have been doing this for 55 years and the romanticism has gone.

“The outside world has also moved in, but there is still an amazing world out there which is there for young people to explore, as long as they care about it and look after it. The world still has an enormous amount to teach us.”

So what was it about Benedict Allen that fixated on being an explorer? Was he already enthralled by the world and determined to explore its expanse? “My father was a test pilot and I used to be able to watch him fly over our garden in Macclesfield in a Vulcan bomber. It meant I believed anything was possible and freed me up to think outside the box in terms of a career, to be pioneering,” he explains.

Having gone on three expeditions at university, once he graduated, aged 22 Benedict Allen thought little of packing a rucksack and heading off to the Amazon to see what he could find, and his career as we know it took off from there.

“I decided early on to learn from the people who actually lived in these places how to survive and it worked weirdly well. They didn’t see me as a threat so even though I was incredibly naive, they just embraced me and took me along with them.”

But it was dangerous, I interrupt, you nearly died several times, “Ah but only because of outsiders. It was the illegal loggers, drug dealers and gold miners with knives, not the indigenous people.”

And yet in Papua New Guinea presumably even Benedict Allen saw his life flash in front of his eyes? “I kept going in and out of consciousness because of the diseases I’d caught, so things looked very bleak indeed. I was in a real pickle.

“But I couldn’t allow myself to think that I might die. It’s all about being positive. I had to think that I could get out if I wanted. But being rescued was so overwhelming. It was like angels coming out of the heavens.”

“So this is my turn to set the record straight and tell the real story of what happened, as well as describing what it’s like to be an explorer.

“But more than anything I hope my audience will go away thinking ‘there is still an exciting world out there to explore’. Because it has never been more accessible.”

  • Benedict Allen: Ultimate Explorer is at The Sheldonian on Wednesday October 3. 01865 305305. ticketsoxford.com