Ed Stafford walked the length of the Amazon. The book and film of the journey were both a great success. Ed now films and presents Naked and Marooned on the Discovery Channel. I admire his accomplishments and his honesty. It was great to chat to him for Grand Adventures.
Alastair: Hi Ed.
Ed: Hello mate, how are you?
Alastair: I’m good thank you, how is life?
Ed: Yeah, it’s good actually, yeah, really good.
Alastair: Normally when I read other people’s adventures, firstly I’m quite jealous and then secondly I think, “Oh, I could definitely have done that, I should be getting the glory, not them.” Your Amazon trip is an honourable exception to that. I’m not at all jealous and I know I couldn’t have done it, it was a properly epic trip. It took two and a half years of your life?
Ed: Yeah, it did.
Alastair: What kept you going for all that time, what were you trying to prove?
Ed: How deep do you want to go? The expedition handbook used to say whisper about your expeditions before you set out and then shout about them when you get home.
Alastair: That’s brilliant.
The expedition handbook used to say whisper about your expeditions before you set out and then shout about them when you get home.
Ed: I massively shouted about mine before I left and made a big song and dance. I had a big website, got loads of people involved, told everyone I was going to have a big launch party. And then the sensation that a lot of people describe when they set foot on the expedition: I had no idea what I was going to let myself in for!
There are a few things that I try to live by and I think it’s good to be true to your word. If you say you are going to do something then you do it. It got so much harder and so much more dangerous than I thought it was going to be. But I just thought, “You know what, I really want to do it.” My very core wants to do it and my very core said, “I’m not an arrogant person at all but I believe I’m going to get to the end, I believe I can see myself running down the beach.” So we just kept going really and it was as simple as that. You’re quite right say you wouldn’t do it: I wouldn’t do it again today, I have to admit. It wasn’t enjoyable all the time. To a large extent it was a prison sentence, but I definitely had something stubborn within me that wanted to prove that I could do it. I think stubbornness isn’t necessarily an amazing attribute but I think it was worth it. It’s what got me through it.
Alastair: I’m sure people will often have said to you that you’re very brave doing that journey, but I do wonder with people who do mad big things whether it wouldn’t be braver after a point to say, “I’m out of my depth here, I can’t do it, I’m scared, I’m going to quit.” I personally felt that way with my bike trip, that I wasn’t brave enough to give up, despite it feeling like a prison sentence to me for a lot of the time.
Ed: Yeah, that’s an interesting take on it. The thing is everything has shifted since then [in my life]. Back then it was very much a boys adventure and, you know, if we die, we die. Cho and I would say to each other, in Spanish, “if we die, we die – si morimos, morimos“, and then laugh. It was one of our main jokes. We didn’t have many. We accepted it as a potential consequence. I look back now and I could never do it. The amount of risks and the remoteness with the lack of insurance and lack of evacuation plans and stuff like that. It was so out on a limb.
Malnutrition, illness, injuries, Africanized killer bees, wasps nests, snake bites, anacondas, piranhas, caiman, jaguar, drowning and upsetting the locals. That’s a properly nuts list. I like it!
Alastair: I was looking on the website from before you began the trip. On of the dangers you’d face, it’s got this brilliant list of malnutrition, illness, injuries, Africanized killer bees, wasps nests, snake bites, anacondas, piranhas, caiman, jaguar, drowning and upsetting the locals. That’s a properly nuts list. I like it!
Ed: Yeah, and the rest really! [laughing] The hardest thing was sticking with it, dealing with the monotony rather than the dangerous bits. In the dangerous bits the adrenaline kicks in and suddenly you are flying and you’ve just had the most amazing life-changing experience. But the boring bits you get no credit for getting through them at all. They are not fun, you don’t remember them half the time and yet they are the bits that dominate most of your time. The monotony was what I found harder than any of those so-called obstacles.
Alastair: I find from having done so many talks about cycling around the world, and distilling four years of my life down into a 40-minute talk with forty photographs, that those 40 photos come to define my four years of my life rather than the thousands of miles in between each one. When you think back now, what’s your general impression of the walk? Were you happy, content or desperate for the end?
If I did it again I would make my life so much easier by just forgetting about the end and just literally waking up and deciding I’m going to enjoy every moment of everyday.
Ed: While I was walking, I was completely fixated on getting to the end. Somebody wrote to me an email quoting Mohammed Ali saying, “Don’t count the days, make the days count.” That was so irrelevant to me because I was literally ticking the days off and so focused on getting to the end that I wasn’t enjoying the actual walk. It became a prison sentence and I just wanted to get to the end. If I did it again I would make my life so much easier by just forgetting about the end and just literally waking up and deciding I’m going to enjoy every moment of everyday, I’m going to get to know the people I meet more, I’m going to learn about the medicinal plants, I’m going to just soak it all in and enjoy it rather than wishing it all away. It seems crazy thinking back on it that I managed to get through that length of time. The whole expedition became a stepping stone to arriving on the beach which is just bonkers really, isn’t it?
Alastair: I’m sure you’re not alone in that. When I think back to my bike trip, I never regret the times when I accepted invitations and stayed a while and camped early to enjoy the sunset but I do slightly regret the times when I thought, “Fuck it, I’m just going to ride 3000 miles as fast as I can to get to the next country.”
Alastair: It’s youth perhaps.
Ed: I think it probably is, but as you get older you realise that it’s a cliche, isn’t it? Life is a journey, it’s not a destination. It’s what happens along the way that matters. You can’t pin all your hopes on one moment of arriving on a beach and expect it to be the best moment ever, because it’s really going to be about everything that happens along the way, isn’t it?
Alastair: Your blog for the final day of the trip said that “this is the best day of my life so far.” Is that true or was that just what you have to say at the end of trips?
Ed: It was true, I would say.
Ed: Almost in quite an angry way, I remember you describing a river in Canada or something, and everyone told you shouldn’t do it and it was like a red rag to a bull. You just had to do it to prove them wrong. This was very similar. Everyone from the RGS saying, “You know you’re going to die on this expedition”, Ranulph [Fiennes] saying, “It’s impossible.” I almost felt like roaring on that beach, “Fuck off everybody.”…
Alastair: … The good old “Fuck you factor”.
Ed: Yeah, but to a completely unhealthy level, I completely admit now. There was so much defiance in me. I don’t think it’s a logical thing to hear lots of people say it’s impossible to go to the Amazon and then have to go and do it just to prove them wrong! That doesn’t make any sense! To a certain degree it was about the media attention on the beach, the fact that people were recognising the trip, Radio 4 and all these different people that I never thought would be remotely interested in me. There was a little spark of pride, knowing I was right.
Alastair: And if nothing else, you wrote a book that led directly to you meeting your fiancee and then wife, which makes the slog worth it.!
Ed: It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?
Alastair: Was she a groupie? Is she a groupie?
Ed: No, if there’s an opposite to a groupie! [laughing] “When are you actually going to get a proper job?” she says! Walking the Amazon was nothing compared to meeting Amanda and having the family that we’ve got today. My life has changed so much more than from any expedition. As I grow older I realise this is an inherently selfish thing to do. What we do isn’t essential. I’ve certainly had to re-balance things I would say since having a family.
Alastair: In defence of yourself, two other phrases jumped out to me from your website. One was that expedition just for the sake of adventure is futile, and that the aim of your trips is to inspire adults and kids to get off the settee and go outside. I think both of those things take it beyond being purely selfish and futile.
Ed: I would agree with that. And also I guess it’s no different from a hard work out or something that makes you feel good at the end. You’ve suffered for half an hour and then you come out the other end and you feel really good about yourself. I think expeditions are that, they are doing things that we were meant to physically – exerting yourself, overcoming obstacles, thinking outside the box, having slight dices with danger. I think all that stuff is so important to keep growing as a soul.
If you have nothing in your life that challenges you, nothing that takes you outside your comfort zone, then you are just going to wither and waste away. It’s just that there’s a balance to it all. Who is the bravest man, the one who goes and names a mountain after himself or the guy who stays at home and looks after the kids? I think there is a big part of me that sees a lot of what we do as escapism now, and it’s not to say the activity is not healthy in itself but I think it really needs to be done with balance and recognition of what really is important.
If you have nothing in your life that challenges you, nothing that takes you outside your comfort zone then you are just going to wither and waste away.
Alastair: The introduction you wrote for the recent Sidetracked was really good, I thought Ed. It’s very good, the balance between a bubble-wrapped life versus the thrill-seeking one.
Let me ask you now about being naked and marooned on Olorua. That is a definite adventure but without going on a physical journey. I’ve been interviewing people all year and this is the first thing where someone’s done something that’s definitely epic but without actually going anywhere. Did that feel a bit odd compared to a journey when you are going obviously from A to B?
Ed: There’s something settling about having an aim and having to work towards that. There’s something quite unsettling about “right, just stay here and do nothing.” It’s really disorientating. When I was really, really finding it difficult to stay positive and sane, I remembered Sarah Outen across the Indian Ocean. That was 127 days at sea and she didn’t struggle with sanity or anything – well she banged on about Mars bars quite a lot, but she was alright. I just thought isn’t it bonkers that you can go to treasure island and you are literally sending yourself mad in days.
So, yeah, it was arbitrary. I wasn’t really shipwrecked and I knew I was going to get picked up. And I had that maddening thing of knowing I had an emergency satellite phone. I could end it any time when it was really getting difficult, and yet I didn’t just because I’m stubborn.
Alastair: Do you feel a pressure to come up with new ideas now that this is your career?
Ed: When I got back from the Amazon, everyone was saying “what is your next big expedition? What are you going to do next?” I still find it extraordinary that you can do something that no human has ever done before, and people just consume that bit of information and then move on to what you’re going to do next.
Alastair: I hate that question, too. I hate it.
Ed: It’s really bizarre. It’s like, who said I’m going to do anything next? I might just go home and have a cup of tea. I personally think that, in terms of massive expeditions, If I haven’t proved what I wanted to prove to myself by walking two and a half years through the Amazon then I’m probably going to be forever chasing it if I don’t look for a slightly different option. I think to try and do a bigger expedition, then a bigger expedition, and then a more dangerous expedition isn’t the way to prove that to yourself.
Alastair: Does it annoy you that for the rest of your life you will be known as the guy who walked down the Amazon lots of years ago?
Ed: Well, I prefer that than the naked survival guy off Discovery. [laughing] If they do think that, then that’s great. I’m proud of it, you know?
Alastair: Of course.
Ed: But yes, there’s definitely an element to which I think everyone needs to not allow chapters of their lives to define them. I did a talk with an Olympic athlete a while ago. He said, “our medals, our gold medals, are what defines us in life.”
And I thought, “That’s actually quite sad because maybe we have good fortune or bad fortune, you get it or you don’t get it on the day, or you’re blessed with good genetics or you’re not.” I don’t think they are what defines us. I think the way we are, the way we treat people, the way we look after our family, that’s what defines us. It’s great if you’ve got something which is bringing in the money and you enjoy doing it. But there’s a big difference between what you do and who you are.
I fully admit to making Walking the Amazon a commercial success. I got a lot of glossy photos taken in the jungle, I got a publicist, and I was quite savvy the way I did it. I almost, you know, created this sort of explorer myth. You need to see through your own publicity, and realised that it is just that. All you were was this stubborn idiot stumbling through the jungle, moaning and injured all the time.
Alastair: It seems to me, talking to you today, that your expedition side of your life you feel satisfied and fulfilled with. That’s a nice contented place to be, and then you can move on to whatever comes next.
Ed: I sort of feel like I’ve been fighting all my life. I always felt I had to prove something I had to defend myself against negative opinion or this or that. Maybe it is just a maturing thing, but you know what, I think now about how I can relax and enjoy myself for who I am without having to escape and go on an expedition or prove myself to other people by doing stupid stuff.
Alastair: I was reading about the Aboriginal guys who taught you. They get sent off into the wild for some sort of coming of age experience.
Ed: I think spending time with people like the Aboriginals helped me. They are masters of just that, I suppose. Just sitting with themselves and not feeling this need to be occupied all the time and doing the next thing and distracting themselves from who they really are. So yeah, I’m sure that has influenced me along the way.
Alastair: Your Amazon trip, you didn’t have enough money, did you? Did you know that at the start or did you think you had enough?
Ed: I suspected we didn’t have enough money.
Alastair: But you did it anyway.
Ed: I think we got 30 grand originally, and even the main sponsor said, “We’re dubious this is going to last you.”
Alastair: You might not be the best person to ask then, but what’s your advise to people in terms of raising money?
Ed: None of the cold-calling worked. None of the sending out millions of e-mails to companies worked at all. It was actually on a day off away from fundraising that I met someone who eventually said, “I’d love to sponsor your entire expedition.” I was just like, “Wow, that’s incredible.”
I think I’m a big believer in what you think about, you bring about. I really believed I was going to go and do this expedition, and trips like that don’t just fall into your lap. But I just think that you can get so stressed out trying to overthink these things. I just think if you decide you are setting off on a journey, then everything else will just click into place, and that’s the hardest part. In terms of actually planning, [you need to believe] “we’re definitely doing it”. We’re going to leave on this day, and the money will come in, and you must believe in that. It sounds wishy washy nonsense but there’s something about self belief and knowing you’re going to do something, which just makes things happen.
It sounds wishy washy nonsense but there’s something about self belief and knowing you’re going to do something, which just makes things happen.
Alastair: Were you committed to beginning on a certain date regardless of how much cash you had?
Ed: We were actually, because we’d done expeditions before [Ed began the walk with his friend Luke. Luke withdrew from the expedition after a few months]. We both worked for Trekforce, which is an expedition company. We actually had hammocks, we had mosquito nets, we had machetes, we had jungle boots. So we thought, we can just pack this, arrive there, buy a bag of rice and set off. That’s exactly what we would have done [if we hadn’t found a sponsor]. We would have saved up, or used our credit cards and just got the flight, and tried to make it work.
In some ways, I wish it happened like that. We complicated things by adding all those extra layers, you know TV and blogs and satellite communications, and blah, blah, blah. I suppose, in my heart I wish I had done it on a shoestring and just done it really, really authentically . But I actually get quite turned on by all the media side of it as well and enjoyed broadcasting it live from the jungle. It’s a double-edged sword.
I think overall the technology was a positive rather than negative. But maybe that is because that was what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to start a career. I was always very open about that. I did want it televised. And the artistic side of it is actually very rewarding, isn’t it?
Alastair: It’s nice to use your brain and your soul and as well as it just being a physical challenge.
Ed: Yeah, definitely.
Alastair: Could you have done this stuff without your military training? I wonder if people look at you and think, “Oh it’s alright for him. I couldn’t do that.”
Ed: I don’t know, you speak to a lot of soldiers and they over-complicate situations, because they’re thinking about it from a soldier’s perspective. But Luke often said, “this is the hardest thing that I have ever done” and I loved the fact that the military had given me something in my memory bank that was harder, so that this wasn’t the hardest thing that I had done. That’s quite a reassuring thing to know. And I think the older I get the less the military influences me, and the more the soft skills become important. Humility and being approachable: that sort of stuff gets you by a lot more than the military stuff.
Alastair: I wonder then if the main benefit of being in the military isn’t wielding machetes and stuff its just that being given that confidence to realise that you are capable of doing something like that, and being therefore brave enough to even begin it. It’s the realisation of self-confidence and competence which doesn’t necessarily come naturally to people… I imagine people often say to you, “I want to be like you. I wish I could do adventures like you.” What’s your answer to people who want to do adventure but for some reason aren’t doing it?
It’s not a case of, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?” It’s just “this is what I am going to do.”
Ed: I think you just got to do it. It’s not a case of, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?” It’s just “this is what I am going to do.” There are so many obstacles, whether it’s financial, whether it is the inordinate amount of pessimistic people in the world who tell you you’re mad and you shouldn’t do it – people who haven’t even been on an expedition. If you commit your heart and soul to it then I think it will happen. It’s just that internal decision, “No, this is going to happen and I am going to do this.” It’s a bit wishy washy, but if you really want something, you just go into it with a different attitude, “This is going to work. This is something am going to make happen.” I think it’s that energy that you bring to it that makes things happen.
Alastair: I completely agree, My final question to you, Ed is, if I was to give you £1000 to go do some sort of adventure, what would you do?
Ed: If you gave me £1000 to have an adventure I would spend the entire amount on BMC worldwide travel insurance for one year. I’d actually have to supplement it by six of my own pounds as the quote came to £1,006 for the “trek” option which allows me up to 5,000 metres. I would then attempt to circumnavigate the world without money, a wallet, or even a phone. No bills, no blog, no filming. Just one man, two hands, and half a brain. Imagine the freedom of just having the clothes you stand up in, a tiny light pack containing a light sleeping bag, basha, your passport, a tupperware container for carrying scraps of food, and an old Coke bottle filled with water. Now there’s an adventure! Could it be done? Could you stay within the law? Could you manage it without feeling like you were scrounging off people? Could you contribute to each place more than you took? How would you eat? Who would you meet? What would you learn about life? No rules, no limits, just the target of enjoying every day of the toughest challenge of your life…
No rules, no limits, just the target of enjoying every day of the toughest challenge of your life…
Follow Ed on Twitter (@Ed_Stafford), and buy his books here.
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!