The man who walked the Amazon talks about finding motivation, why the sun is the best navigational tool around and the psychological effects of being marooned on a tropical island
Ed Stafford leapt to fame back in 2010 as the first person to walk the length of the Amazon, an exploit Sir Ranulph Fiennes called “mad but marvellous” and that saw him crowned National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Since then his raw and brutal survival shows, including his 60-day stint on the uninhabited island of Olorua, have drawn in millions of watchers from all over the world. OAG caught up with him to find out what makes him tick.
Survival expert Ed Stafford | Discovery Communications/Luis Ascui
Will Robson: What led you to think of walking the Amazon?
Ed Stafford: When I left the army I looked for a job in London but that didn’t work out so I ended up taking gap year kids on expeditions in the South American rainforest. It was all good, fun stuff and I loved using my skills to (just about) make a living from expeditions.
Seven years later, freezing in Patagonia, I dreamt of being back in the jungle again and that’s when I came up with Amazon idea. I’d ask people how long they thought it would take to walk the Amazon and no one had a clue. I started Googling and found out no one had so that was it, I said to myself: “do you know what? I’m going to do that.”
WR: Was it just for the hell of it?
ES: At the time, I admit it was a bit of an ego thing to be the first person to do this. I also thought I could turn this into an epic adventure and, to be honest, I was also being career-minded. I reckoned that to make a life in expeditions financially viable, TV was the way to go. I don’t see any point in dressing it up to be anything other than what it is. I’m amazingly lucky to be able to do ridiculously cool stuff. There was no romanticism to conserve the Amazonian rainforest, it was just ‘balls-out’ adventure really.
WR: What motivates you?
ES: I spend a lot of time thinking about why I do what I do and I think it’s changed over time. Initially, even after the army, I was insecure and wanted to prove something to myself and other people. It’s a typical young male trait to want to show you’re tough and hard. The more I do it now though, I realise that although I could go and do a normal job, this type of work is actually keeping me alive and challenged to do exciting things. That’s really humbling at times, which is a good thing as it can make you a bit wiser and stop you getting stale, stuffy and pompous.
WR: Why do you think your TV programmes are so popular?
ES: I’ve always been a heart on sleeve person and every trip I do I learn something about myself. I’ll make mistakes, beat myself up about it and talk myself through that process during filming. It’s more about how you’re going about something, not what you’re physically doing with your hands. People connect with that, as being stressed about finding water is no different to being stressed about money at home.
This is why the programmes work I think, and I love the film-making process to be honest: it’s not just “Ed’s lit a fire and here he is ‘boshing’ a snake on the head”, it’s cleverer than that in conveying how people get through things by not giving up. I hope people see that there’s an honesty there and if that inspires people, not necessarily to go adventuring, to tackle something in their everyday lives in a different way, then that’s brilliant.
WR: What can you tell us about your new TV work?
ES: I did Into The Unknown last year where I kept my clothes on as it was a more explorer-based series, looking at mysteries rather than survival. We’re back filming Marooned with Ed Stafford and have done four episodes so far and I’ve got two more coming up. We’ve been to the Gobi desert, Guatemala, Namibia and Patagonia. It’s the same as before in terms of surviving without any gear, except that I’m wearing a pair of shorts, which everyone will be pleased to hear.
Discovery Channel says that the show where I spent 60 days on an island (Ed Stafford: Naked and Marooned) was the most successful format, so they want another ‘big event’. This coincides with me wanting to do a big expedition, so I’m planning away but it has to stay under wraps for now.
WR: Do you get enough time to recover from filming each Marooned episode?
ES: We can’t do them back-to-back, mainly because I genuinely don’t get any food! So there’s a limit to how many I can do, which is a maximum of one a month – two weeks on, two weeks off – so it ends up being nine episodes a year, by the time you take out Christmas and summer holidays. When I’m home I do some motivational speaking work, but essentially it’s a full time job.
Sometimes I envy survival shows that seem to get the filming done in three days flat but you can’t speed up what I do.
Ed enjoys ‘doing it for real’, which gives credibility to his TV programmes Communications/Luis Ascui
WR: You’ve written about some of the psychological downsides of undergoing such extreme challenges. Can you tell us how you go about coming to terms with the pressures?
ES: Life has changed a lot in the last two years. At the beginning of 2014 I had to go into therapy. The cumulative effect of being on the island for 60 days left me clinically depressed with various weird issues, including an eating disorder. I was meant to go to Thailand but just couldn’t even pack a bag. So I went into three months’ therapy. It was really difficult to commit to at first because you feel like you’ve failed, but it was the most positive thing I’ve ever done. I still do it every now and again.
In the last year I’ve moved back to Leicestershire from London, I’ve met this amazing woman called Laura who’s doing a crazy cycle journey from the west coast of Ecuador in South America to Buenos Aires, and she’s doing it with Cho, the guy I walked most of the Amazon with, which is great.
Laura and I are getting marred in September, so everything has come round nicely.
WR: How important to you are your roles with the Scouts and the British Explorers’ Society?
ES: I’m an ambassador for the Scouts and a patron for the British Explorers’ Society (BES) and they are both wonderful organisations.
The Scouts taught me so much and led to me joining the army and then exploration. It forged my connection with the outdoors. But if there’s one place I hope all this can take me, it’s connecting with kids who really struggle with life and have all but been written off by other people.
I gave a talk recently to a school where the kids were either on the autism spectrum or from extremely troubled backgrounds. As I was waiting to speak they were really rowdy and unsettled. When I said I didn’t usually speak to schools but as I had been expelled from school I thought we might get on, you could have heard a pin drop for 45 minutes.
It’s the young people with mischief in their eyes who haven’t really got a direction, the ones who may well get into trouble; they’re the kids that I’d like to help if I can because that same adventurous spirit could so easily make a positive difference to their lives.
Read the full interview in Outdoor Adventure Guide issue 142