In 2010, ED STAFFORD became the first person to walk the entire length of the Amazon River, SPARKING a career that has seen him become one of Britain’s most respected SURVIVALISTS and explorers. We caught up with him to discover the lessons he’s learned while PITTING himself against some of the world’s TOUGHEST environments…
The spindle blurs, spinning back and forth at a steady pace as it grinds against a circular indent in the hearth board beneath it. Within seconds the first wisps of smoke appear, the tendrils thickening as the hand drill continues to grind a fine, hot dust that settles into a small notch in the board. Patience is the name of the game here; that dust needs time and oxygen to form into a glowing ember, ready to start a fire.
Soon it appears, and that small glimmer of warmth is tucked into a bundle of dry tinder which quickly catches alight, the glowing flames spreading and illuminating the face of Amazonian explorer Ed Stafford. For the acclaimed survivalist, whose TV shows have seen him repeat the act in far-flung locations across the globe, the process is almost a formality, but as an uninitiated observer the simple act of making a fire by hand taps into a long-dormant primeval gene, and I fight the urge to let out a Tom-Hanks-in-Castawayesque cry of celebration.
Not that it would feel right for me to take any credit for the roaring source of warmth that’s crackling away in front of us, although I do chuck a couple of sticks on top for good measure. It’s all Ed’s work, and as we settle down on two hefty logs to talk about a career that includes becoming the first person to walk the length of the Amazon and surviving stranded on an uninhabited island for 60 days, I know that there’ll be a few more lessons to come before the morning is over.
WALK LIKE AN AMAZONIAN
Born in Cambridgeshire and raised by adoptive parents in Leicestershire, Ed’s love of the outdoors started when he was a member of the Cubs and Scouts, before he joined the Army as an officer in 1998. While it would seem to be the logical career choice for a young man with a love of adventure and the outodoors, he discovered that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“In the military, the environment was your enemy,” he tells me. “In the jungle, they’d be chopping down seven trees to build an A-frame! Every single soldier, every single night.” It was an attitude that stood at odds with Ed’s outlook on the outdoors and he left in 2002 with the full backing of his senior officers, spending the subsequent years running expeditions in Bolivia for teenagers.
Then inspiration struck after reading a book by Joe Kane, who was one of two travellers to successfully kayak the Amazon from source to sea in 1986.
“The book described these fleeting meetings with tribes, with them firing bows and arrows at their canoes as they went past,” he recalls. “It got me thinking, ‘wouldn’t that be a lot more immersive if you were literally walking through and had to look those tribal people in the eye and properly engage with them?’ As opposed to this weird notion of being on this plastic boat, whizzing past communities and not really experiencing them.” he pauses, before laughing: “I’m also rubbish at kayaking.”
The seed was planted, and Stafford’s project to walk the entire length of the Amazon River, a feat never achieved before, began to take shape. It wasn’t without its doubters though. The region’s dense forests, annual flood, and numerous indigenous tribes along the way had many convinced that it was simply impossible.
However, these attitudes were exactly the impetus Ed needed to go for it. “The more people I told the more people told me I was going to die, that really annoyed me. I wanted to prove them wrong.
I also had a young man’s ego; I wasn’t unaware that it would be a world first and that really appealed to me.” he admits. But, while ego may have driven the project in the beginning, there was no way it could sustain it when the going got tough.
For over two years, a year longer than he’d planned for, Ed walked beside the river day-in, day-out, enduring countless hardships. Along the way he encountered those indigenous tribes that people had warned him about, although more often than not they were welcoming and fascinated by his journey. He did occasionally find himself in dangerous situations too.
One time he was (wrongfully) arrested for murder after appearing in a village shortly after a local man went missing; on another, he was held at gunpoint and chased with bows and arrows. But those aren’t the moments he dwells on when reflecting on the trip, and instead he sees it as a coming of age that shaped him into the man he is today.
“I went to posh boarding school and we would do what we could get away with. We weren’t honest, it was a kind of feral world. And I don’t think, from a moral perspective, that I evolved from that until I was on the expedition.” he reflects, before tossing a couple more sticks on the fire and continuing.
“There was a point when Cho [Ed’s walking partner who joined him three months into the trek] and I took on two indigenous guides to walk with us, Alfonso and Andreas. When crossing the river [some sections were impassable by foot and the team would pick up the path on the opposite bank] we had to double up on these rafts and they both realised that they didn’t have to paddle very hard and could just drift down the river to a point further downstream. I tried to tell them we couldn’t do that; I wanted to walk the entire length of the Amazon. I said: ‘We can’t let this happen again’ and Cho just firmly said: ‘No, we need to do the whole section again’.”
A day was wasted, plus two more as the group returned upstream and then walked the section again, something that Ed couldn’t afford on tight funds and supplies. But it was a moment that defined a core principle that, to this day, lies at the heart of everything Stafford seeks to achieve.
He explains simply: “In that moment, Cho showed me the difference between doing the right thing and doing what you can get away with. The feeling in my shoulders relaxed, I started smiling, the stress was gone. We weren’t cheating. From then on, if we crossed the river, we would walk back perpendicular to where we launched from, to ensure we’d walked the entire length of the river. That was my little epiphany; I’m doing the right thing. It was a gut versus head thing. Life is much simpler when you’re honest.”
The pair eventually reached the Atlantic Ocean on 9 August 2010, successfully completing a trip that legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a hero of Ed’s, called: “truly extraordinary… in the top league of expeditions past and present.” Awards and accolades soon followed, as did a contract with the Discovery Channel commissioning an entirely different type of expedition, one that would test Stafford to his limit.
DESERT ISLAND TV
For the three-part TV series, Ed Stafford: Naked and Marooned, Ed was dropped on the remote pacific island of Olorua for 60 days equipped with, as the show’s name suggests, absolutely nothing but his know-how and a camera to film the experience.
While it was the ultimate test of Stafford’s survival skills, it was the intense loneliness that he experienced on the island that he says had the most profound effect on him. “It was a massive catalyst for [personal] change. There was something incredibly haunting about being dropped off on an island and not going anywhere. You’ve got to survive, but there was no daily goal. No miles to walk. I found that very harrowing.” he tails off.
It’s a side of adventure that isn’t often talked about, particularly after successful expeditions when the overwhelming atmosphere is one of triumph. But Stafford is refreshingly honest about the intense mental battles that took place on the island, and how the isolation challenged his own identity to its core.
“I was incredibly sick when I went on the island, completely overwhelmed by the emptiness. If you’re used to reactions in people and you have this behavioural anomaly of developing your sense of self from how others perceive you, then suddenly you feel physically sick. I didn’t have a clue who I was.” he admits.
After returning to civilization, Stafford plunged himself back into everyday life, but the experience caught up with him 10 months down the line when he had a breakdown, shortly before shooting started for the second season of Marooned. It’s not something that he shies away from, and as we add a couple more logs to the fire burning between us, I ask him if that profound effect was something that he’d expected before filming the project, and if it was something he regretted taking part in.
“I underestimated it,” he confesses. “I’d done some preparation, but in all honesty, you need to go through something like that to understand just how harrowing it is. If there’s one thing that it did teach me, it’s that isolation is a mirror. There’s no Facebook to distract you, no cigarettes, no alcohol, no chocolate, no porn.” he grins, before continuing. “There’s literally just you, and it’s a really raw version of you. It wasn’t easy, but I think it was one of the most important chapters of my life because it gave me a level of self-awareness that I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t go through that. There’s the old cliche of breakdown or breakthrough, and I suppose to an extent my old version of the world had to fall apart for a new one to establish.”
So, what are the lessons that such an intense period of life in the wild can teach a person?
“If there is life within us, it’s instinct. I’ve done ayahuasca* in a ritualistic, medical setting, and it was the most extraordinary game-changer in making me understand how the world works.
I read a book by James Lovelock called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, and in it he argues that the Earth acts like a living organism. You see that inter-connectivity on ayahuasca, and you see how it all slots into place. It’s very hard to then not carry that with you and feel connected to everything that’s around you,” he explains.
But Stafford’s quick to emphasise that you don’t need to head to South America, slip on a pair of yoga pants, and allow a shaman to serve you psychedelics to feel connected to nature or benefit mentally from time spent outdoors. Instead, he encourages people to head outside wherever and whenever they can: “I’m such a big advocate of getting people outdoors.
The magic happens when you start interacting with nature, rather than seeing it as a beautiful oil painting, then saying: ‘Oh that was nice, let’s go back in the car to McDonalds.’ In a world where not everyone wants to be a navel gazer and go into their deepest, darkest childhood trauma, it’s a quick fix, without being a cheap fix.”
ADVENTURES IN FATHERHOOD
Stafford’s work with Discovery Channel has continued with numerous TV programmes, including two more series of Marooned and First Man Out, a survival show with a competition format that has seen Ed pit his skills against ex-special forces man Aldo Kane and his survivalist mentor Will Lord, to name but a few. But, away from the limelight, there’s another ongoing adventure in recent years that Stafford has embarked on alongside his adventurer wife, Laura Bingham [who we spoke to in Volume 2 of WFA].
In 2017 the couple had a son named Ranulph, after Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and in 2020 the couple had twin girls named Mary and Camilla (Molly and Milly for short). So, has being a father changed his attitude to adventure and risk?
“Risk is important. Don’t take any and you can’t evolve to the same degree. By taking risks, you expand your own abilities, your own knowledge, and your own experiences. We’ve been quite overt about how we expose Ran to risks. When he was eight months old, we flew him into Laura’s expedition when she was kayaking the Essequibo in Guyana. He could just sit up, he couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand, and he was in the middle of the jungle.” he says proudly.
“Being passed around by the indigenous tribes was extraordinary for him, he even saw a jaguar sunbathing on a rock in the wild. If you believe reading your child bedtime stories is going to influence them then, fuck it, take them into the jungle, that’s bound to influence them in a really cool way!” he laughs.
But this attitude to parenting isn’t just about adapting family life to his and Laura’s adventures; it’s clear Stafford sees it as a way of being the best father he can be and teaching his children the lessons he’s learned along the way.
“I attribute a lot of the success that we’ve had as a family to taking risks,” he tells me, “Although every instinct says: ‘You’ve now got stuff in your life that’s precious. Protect it, don’t put that at risk’, that ends up being lazy parenting. Because you have to work harder to allow your kids to expose themselves to light a fire, to use a knife. You have to teach them, you’ve got to be attentive, you have to be there.”
Naturally though, family life has had some effect on Ed’s attitude to his own adventures. We get talking about bucket lists and Stafford’s tenuous plan to walk the Antarctic in 2016. It came just a year after Henry Worsley died trying the same feat, and it’s clear that Stafford has no regrets that his attempt didn’t go ahead.
“Discovery Channel commissioned it but wouldn’t pay for the actual trip, because they didn’t want to be responsible for my death basically,” he explains. “My agent rang me up and said: ‘I’m really sorry, we’ve hit the day that we need to call this, and the money isn’t in.’ I cried on the phone — out of sheer relief! It was such a risk that, with my young family, I just think, ‘thank fuck that didn’t happen’. That’s not the chapter of life I’m in anymore.”
Of course, Stafford admits that he’s lucky to have a career in TV that allows him to head off on ‘mini adventures’, a strange way to describe getting stranded in the Mongolian outback in a challenge against another survivalist. He explains, “Stepping sideways into TV has been the magic ticket for us. You have this adventure within quite safe parameters, and it has a salary! I need to pay the bills…”
But he’s also keen not to get stuck in a rut, to explore the concept of adventure beyond battling for survival in the wilderness. While filming for the third season of First Man Out will start soon, following a delay due to Covid-19, he’s keen to tell me about another project that’s on the cards in 2021. “To carry on lighting fires on TV forever isn’t a fresh challenge,” he points out. “I have a show coming up where I live with gypsies, which I find very interesting. It’s quite topical for all sorts of reasons, and it’s basically a discrimination story.
There’s a romanticism in living a life which is semi-nomadic, moving from place to place, yet we’ve made it illegal basically and criminalised a whole section of society. It’ll be a really interesting topic to tackle.”
From walking the Amazon as a young man, to challenging his own identity while stranded on an island, Ed Stafford has lived a life of adventure that few could imagine. But adventure is relative, and he’s keen to emphasise that he wants others to bring an element of the outdoors into their own lives. Whether it’s through his own projects, like his Camp Wilderness courses and online masterclasses, or even pushing people towards groups like the Scouts, it’s clear he sees it as a way of living a happier, healthier life.
“Lots of people are challenging the status quo now. People are reassessing what life is all about,” he reflects. “Do you want to live conventionally for the whole of your life and do what’s expected of you, or do you want to be a bit freer?”
To find out more about Ed’s bushcrafting courses, see www.edstafford.org. To keep up to date with Ed’s filming and projects, follow him on Insta @ed_stafford.