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Last year Ed Stafford became the first man in history to walk the entire length of the Amazon River. Ed, 34, has led remote expeditions all over the world. The Englishman started running expeditions after retiring from the British Army as a captain in 2002. Whilst not leading trips Ed worked alongside the United Nations in Afghanistan assisting with the first-ever presidential elections advising on security, planning, and logistics. Prior to this journey, Ed was in production with the BBC on their conservation series Lost Land of the Jaguar. Gapyear.com caught up with him to find out about flesh-eating maggots, being arrested for murder, living off the jungle and what it means to be an inspiration…
So Ed, first the obvious question: why did you decide to do this?
I’ve always had a tendency to get bored with the norm. I had a burning desire to do something massive – potentially dangerous – that would make me feel like I was getting the absolute maximum out of life. I had already been running jungle expeditions but when I did some research I found that no-one had done this before. That meant that it would be a world first and I was hooked.
28 months is a long time, how did you keep yourself going?
I would imagine going home to my local pub as a failure and having people slap me on the back and say, “We don’t think any less of you.” They would of course – and it would be such a humiliating scenario that I knew I could never accept it. Even though much of the expedition was unpleasant in some form – I knew I could never give up once I started.
No doubt from conception to partway through the challenge people told you that it couldn’t be done. What was your response to them and what’s your advice to others taking on tough challenges who might be receiving the same negative views?
Trust your own gut and your own capabilities. If you think it is possible, and you are honest about your own abilities to make that decision, then you can smile inwardly at the negative people and even use them as a driving force to spur you on when things turn nasty.
What was the lowest point of this challenge?
It was a period of about three months in Peru. Luke, my original partner, had gone home. Oswaldo, my original guide had left as he was too scared for his life, and I was walking through the drug trafficking area of Peru – the Red Zone – with various local people, many of them various Ashaninka Indians. My Spanish was still poor at the time and I found the whole experience so unrelaxing that I was pretty down and paranoid for much of it.
Any life-threatening moments?
I perceived them to be at the time yes, although on reflection I think that we were never that close to being killed. We were given a direct threat over the HF radio by a village that if we come through they would kill me. We snuck around the edges but were then confronted by some very angry Indians who detained us and took us back to their community at arrow point. We were told countless times that we would die with an arrow in the back of the head or would be eaten by jaguars but there are many melodramatic people out there who like telling stories and scaring people.
Many high points no doubt, can you identify the best point on the challenge?
When we ran out of food in the middle of the jungle over a hundred miles from the Amazon River main channel we were forced to live directly off the jungle. This was utterly enthralling as it meant our senses heightened as we foraged to seasonal fruits and nuts, fished for piranhas and, in extreme circumstances, sacrificed a tortoise to keep us going. We came out of that leg so much more confident in our capabilities.
24 months walking with Cho. That’s one helluva game of ‘eye-spy’! I guess ‘A’ for Amazon went pretty quickly? What did you talk about for 24 months? Or did the awkward silences go on for days?
Silences were never awkward. We chatted when we wanted to and had no need to think up things to talk about. We allowed our minds to dream in our heads for much of the time and conversed over the practicalities of the day: fishing, firewood, route selection, etc. He deserves a lot of credit for being a very easy, complimentary character to get on with. He had loads of patience and at times when I was finding days tough, he would understand my strains and stresses and just give me enough space.
Who inspired you early on in life? Who are your heroes nowadays?
In the early days, it was rugby players such as Dean Richards and Dusty Hare. Figures such as Martin Johnson still continue to act as non-flashy role models for me but in my arena, I am very respectful of the adventures of Mike Horn and Borge Ousland. Those guys are the real deal.
Many now see you perched upon the inspirational pedestal as you once saw Sir Ranulph Fiennes. How does that feel? (…and what will you do with that position to inspire others?)
I’m not there yet and may never be. I do think that people thrust into these positions have the power to do good though. If everything works out I would enjoy a future where I could help inspire kids to be as adventurous as possible and to learn as much as they can about themselves by getting outdoors more.
As more and more youth stay indoors locked away on Social Networks caught up in an online world, real-life explorers and adventurers might start becoming thin on the ground. Does the influence of social media on youth concern you at all?
I’m emailing this response to you and I’ve tweeted and updated my Facebook profile only seconds before. Its the new world and it should be harnessed rather than feared. I had the ability to broadcast my expedition through the Amazon virtually live using Twitter, Flickr and Vimeo. I think the juxtaposition of new technology and old school adventures works well.
“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
The most amusing thing that happened to you on this challenge?
I was arrested for murder by a Shipebo tribe who were convinced that because I was white I must be the culprit. They grilled me (not over a fire) for about three hours about my purpose for being there and then told me my passport was not valid as the Queen had not personally signed it. It was a farce but we had to play the game and pretend to take them seriously.
…and the most embarrassing?
It takes a lot to embarrass me. I suppose there were a couple of navigational blunders. Due to the difficulty of procuring good maps in Brazil we used Google Earth for much of the latter part of the walk. It’s not that easy to tell the difference between a logging rd and an oil pipeline overgrown with razor grass from a satellite image.
Anything to make our toes curl and hair stand up on end?
The obvious bot fly maggot living in my scalp and eating my flesh? The weepy leishmaniasis wound that could have mutated into a version that eats away at your soft palette leaving you with a permanent hole in your face? The machete would that cut right down to the tendon? None of them were that serious to be honest – the jungle is not as bad a place to live for two years as people think.
Knowing what you know now, would you walk the Amazon again …or is it slightly easier by boat? If yes, what would you do differently?
Of course, I wouldn’t do it again. Why would you? It was a grueling ordeal for much of the time. That said I’m proud of it and glad I’ve done it. It was a sort of self-challenge and I’ve ticked my own box now. I learned huge amounts from it including that it's much more pleasant to take a boat.
What’s next for you?
A secret – sorry.
You are obviously a man who never gives in, good skills to have in such tough times for many. Do you have any simple advice you’ve learned from this experience to give to those seeking inspiration in their life right now?
My dad used to say that if you start something then you have to see it through to the end. Its good advice and means that if you stick to it then people around you can rely on you. You become dependable – and that’s a good trait to have.
And finally… what do you want to do when you grow up…?
Become an accountant.