Best job in the world: Ed Stafford, explorer
Every child has dreams of becoming an explorer – Ed Stafford actually lives his. The first man to walk the length of the Amazon tells us about his remarkable job
- By Max Williams -
It mightn't always be the most comfortable existence, but few can deny being an explorer is one of the coolest jobs on the planet. In 2010, Ed Stafford became the first man in history to walk the length of the Amazon, an expedition which took him two and a half years. Sir Ranulph Fiennes described the achievement as “truly extraordinary… in the top league of expeditions past and present.” He is currently filming his fourth television series for Discovery Channel, and expecting his first son with wife and fellow explorer Laura.
You started off serving in the Army – could you tell us a bit about that?
I didn’t particularly enjoy the Army. Well, I made some good friends and had a laugh but the seriousness of being in the military meant that I never really relaxed. I would get the shudders just looking at the barbed wire that surrounds most camps in the UK. Even though I learnt a lot, I was glad to leave once my commission was up.
What made you gravitate towards exploration and endurance?
I think, like many explorers, it started out with a fair amount of escapism. Sure, I was driven to do something a bit bonkers, and sure I wanted to fast-track my career. However, if life back home had been all rosy, I wouldn’t have so easily chosen to carve a life for myself in a in a mosquito-infested jungle for over two years. I’d class my emotional state pre-Amazon as “unsettled”. Somehow though, the jungle provided me with an opportunity to re-write the script and escape that state of mind.
What’s the best thing about exploration?
I think it’s quite cool that I’m the only human to ever do something, and I don’t mean to sound egotistic but it is cool, isn’t it? I feel like we spend our lives trying to fit in. I’m not that sort of person, I wanted to stray away from the norm and do something that everybody told me was impossible. I was determined to prove them wrong.
And the worst?
It’s important to realise exploration can be very draining at times, and not that glamorous. It’s not about crawling out of bed and posing for some photos. To convince people that they should invest money in you isn’t an easy task, I also don’t have a regular income. I could spend over two years on one trip with little returns. That said, I certainly wouldn’t change what I’ve done for all the money in the world. The life experiences that exploration has handed me is astonishing, it’s solved a lot of my insurmountable problems along that way, and I now find myself in the fortunate position of really enjoying my life – home and away.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being Cub of the Year 1986 – or even walking the Amazon 24 years later.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes has always been there in the background, and my current plan is to name our first son after him! If I’m honest though, a lot of my heroes were rugby players. Former Leicester Tigers captain and England No.8 Dean Richards, he was a class act on the pitch and equally enjoyed his life away from it.
Your Amazon walk is literally in the record books – what gave you the idea?
I just wanted to do something massive that, if I looked back on it, I would be proud of. I love being in woods and forests. There is an almost magical quality to the air and it feels, to me, homely. Deciding to live a life where I would be next to nature for such an extended time was overwhelmingly enticing.
Did you ever come close to giving up?
Yes - many times, who wouldn’t. But I believe that if you say you’re going to do something, well then you kind of have to do it. I can’t really say, “It got a bit dangerous so I came home”, I knew what I was getting myself into. Sure, I wanted to go home but realistically I wouldn’t. Cho (my walking partner) used to say, “If we die, we die”, and I felt the same. That probably sounds a bit dramatic but it’s genuinely how we felt. It felt worth the risk.
What did you learn about yourself during this experience?
My biggest mistake when walking the Amazon was to fixate on getting to the end. I replayed a mental video of me running down the beach and into the ocean throughout the expedition and, with hindsight, it made everything harder. Anything that slowed me down frustrated me and the journey became a mere stepping stone with no value apart from getting me to the finish. It's a shame really because I realise now that it was the journey that I should have savoured and enjoyed. I think if I had my time again I would have just focused on enjoying and getting the most out of each day. The end would still have come – in fact it would have come with a lot less struggle.
You’ve travelled to many incredible locations around the world – do you have a particular favourite?
Argentine Patagonia holds some very special memories. I used to work there, running conservation projects for gap year kids and assisting biologists with their research. The landscape, the people, the steak and the wine. It’s hard to beat.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I’ve eaten giant armadillo, tapir, wooly monkey, skunk, electric eel and even puma. But by far the worst were tadpoles. They made me wretch like nothing I had eaten before. If you think about it they are just guts and a tail; and you know what guts are full of!
What about your closest shave?
I’ve had many but one stands out. I was warned by a tribe that if I walk through their village they would kill me immediately. Stupidly, I decided to try and sneak around the village without being noticed. I paddled out onto a long thin sandbank island in the river and tried to skirt around the community unnoticed. It was working well until I got to the downstream end of the island and my walking companion, Cho, calmly told me to look behind me. When I looked there was a small fleet of dugout canoes heading straight towards us at a frenetic speed. The men and women had their faces painted red and were furious. The men were armed with shotguns or bows and arrows and the women all had machetes. Because of the previous day’s death threat, I thought that this was literally the end of my life. Incredibly, they turned out not to be from the village that had sent the warning – they were from a neighbouring village and although they subjected me to a three-hour angry lecture they didn’t kill us.
How do you cope with the isolation?
Not terribly well. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was on Olurua. Isolation is easy if you are completely honest with yourself and have nothing to hide. It’s like a big mirror to yourself and there is nowhere to hide. My new self-awareness has caused many changes, all life-changing. I wouldn’t change the 60-day isolation period for anything in the world- but would I want to go through that again? No thank you.
You’re also a motivational speaker – could you share any life tips?
I just try and tell a pub story of a bloke who sets out to do something that everyone else thought was impossible. It’s about self-belief and about all the lessons I learned along the way. I’ve made tons of mistakes, but the one main thing I’ve taken out of the whole experience is live in the present. When we are “in our heads” we are constantly thinking about what might happen, or holding on to painful stories of what someone did to us. So, the best way to live a good life is to be the ever-present watcher of my thoughts and emotions... When I’m present (and I meditate daily) I have a further degree of choice- I’m less reactive and less judgmental too. I find it sets you free, no filters, no limitations. It’s liberating and a very decent way of living.
What advice would you give to any aspiring explorers?
Often, people can tell you that you can’t do something. Ignore them, prove them wrong. Only you know whether you can do something, and whether you think you can or you can’t, you’ll be right either way.
You and Bear Grylls are marooned on a desert island – who survives the longest?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I would obviously back myself though…
If you could go adventuring with any explorer, past or present, who would you choose and why?
Tim Peake. Present. Because he’s a lovely chap and he could give me access to space. I met Tim about four years ago at Buckingham Palace and I asked him what he did. He told me and I asked him if he’s ever actually been to space. When he replied that he hadn’t I said, “Well you’re not an astronaut then are you!” We met again last month and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m an astronaut now, Ed.” I like him - he’s cool and what he’s achieved is phenomenal.
What are your ambitions for the future?
Fatherhood and beyond. Laura and I are due in June and we’ve found out it's a boy so I have my first son on the way. Obviously the TV adventuring continues too and I have a new series to film in the first half of the year. I love being busy so the next few months are very exciting.
Is there any item of gear or kit you can’t go without?
No – it’s the reason the series (Naked and Marooned with Ed Stafford) was originally done naked, to really show that I was stripped over everything; clothes, gear and kit.