Survivalist, explorer, and adventurer Ed Stafford has seen the extremes all over the world – from the unforgiving Australian Outback to the banks of the Amazon River, and he’s about to take on his latest challenge in Left For Dead, a brand new series by Discovery.
Set to premiere this 17th October, Left For Dead will see Ed dropped into an environment and forced to survive until extraction – or give up and be rescued. As the first man to ever walk the length of the Amazon River, Ed’s proven he has the pedigree to survive the most unwelcoming of environments, but without tools or supplies and only his wits about him, the ultimate adventurer will show viewers just how one can make it through the worst of situations.
We recently got to talk to Ed in a phone interview, where he discussed the challenges of exploring, the rise of the adventurer, and his greatest challenges. Read on below!
Morning Ed! Let’s jump right into it – You’re known as the first man to walk the length of the Amazon River, a journey that Discovery already did a documentary on. Tell us a little bit about what made you want to take that challenge and your preparation in regards to that.
Ed Stafford: Okay, yes, nice to speak to you this morning. I – it was quite a long time ago now, I have to admit. I think this will be my sixth series for Discovery. And so, you know, walking the Amazon was back in 2008-2010. It took two years to walk it.
I think the inspiration was that I’d found myself in my early 30s really wanting to make a bit of a mark, wanting to do something that I thought I’d be able to look back on and be really proud, I suppose. And so I thought if I did a big expedition, that would do it. And I was literally just looking online for other expeditions that had walked the length of the Amazon, and because I’d never been there, and I couldn’t find any. And there weren’t any at all. And the more I looked, the more I realised that this was probably a world’s first, in that nobody had ever done it before. And so, I think as soon as I realised that, I thought, ‘Do you know, this has got my name written on it, and I’m going to achieve it.’
And yes, it was undeniably much, much harder than I thought it was going to be. I thought it would take one year, but actually, you know, because of the fact that I was cutting a path through the jungle for most of the time and literally I [inaudible] down by just all the branches and thorns and stuff, it took two and a half years to walk the whole thing.
You walked for more than two years. So, what was the hardest part about the journey, and how did you feel when you actually returned home after so long?
Ed Stafford: Again, I think, undeniably, I’ve not been shy about saying that I think the hardest part of any of these sort of journeys is the mental side of it. Often people think, you know, it will be the snakes or the jaguars or maybe the angry local tribes or the drug traffickers or things like that. But it wasn’t. It was definitely the mental side of it. And I think, you know, anybody could have done this trip, but it was just a lot of, sort of putting up with fairly bad, I suppose – fairly uncomfortable conditions, lots of mosquito bites, lots of putting on wet clothes in the morning, and it was just grueling, I think.
There wasn’t any one particular day that was very negative. And certainly, stuff happened that was dangerous. I mean, I got held up at arrow point by indigenous tribes. I got held up at gunpoint by drugs traffickers. I got arrested for murder one night.
But yes, no, it wasn’t any one particular thing. All of those times when dangerous stuff happened was fantastic actually, because it meant that my mind was active again and being used. But it was the monotony. It was the boredom. It was going through the same motions and walking every day for 860 days. That was definitely the hardest bit.
In terms of once you came back from the Amazon, did you find it hard to assimilate back into your daily life?
Ed Stafford: I think everyone thinks that, you know, you walk straight out of the jungle and get on a plane, and then there’ll be this weird, sort of, I don’t know, cultural shock. But actually, Brazil is very developed. So, the last six months of walking really, we were going through cattle ranches, and, if we went through a cattle ranch, and we met some farmers, they’d give us steaks. And actually, it was surprisingly civilized, even though we did have big stretches of jungle to do right at the mouth of the Amazon. There was a huge amount of walking along roads. So, culturally it wasn’t that difficult.
I think the one thing I did find difficult was I came straight back to a lot of positivity. I was on, sort of, local TV shows and stuff like that. And then it all went quiet. And it was quite a strange experience coming back and having completed it and having been successful and then realizing in no uncertain terms that I’m exactly the same person that I was before. Nothing has changed whatsoever. I found that all quite difficult to deal with.
What has been the most challenging terrain that you’ve ever explored and maybe some surprising elements that you’ve come across about trying to survive in those terrains?
Ed Stafford: I think invariably everything that I’ve done since has deliberately been to an environment which isn’t very easy to survive. Discovery Channel obviously liked that Walking the Amazon expedition. It played well throughout the world, got good viewing figures and stuff. So, they deliberately wanted to put me in intense environments that would push me, that would make me struggle, that would obviously make good TV.
And so, originally I did one big expedition on a desert island, which wasn’t – I suppose, in people’s minds, they imagine desert islands being holiday destinations, being beautiful sandy beaches, coconuts etc. But that was my first experience of doing a proper survival experiment, to literally go into a situation without – not just without a tent or without a knife or without the basics that you’d need, but without any food, without any water and without any clothes, was just difficult beyond words, really difficult. To get off this – to start from absolutely nothing, to start from scratch and actually have to, you know, make everything from your clothes, to your cutting tools, to a shelter, to fire, to eventually – to a sort of moderately evolved life, was a real shock to me.
That then spanned off into two series of Marooned, which was literally dropping me off in the most diverse and hostile places all over the world. And literally, from Patagonia to Siberia, I literally found myself in the most contrasting and different locations; deserts, jungles, mountains. And they were all deliberately chosen.
I think the hardest one was – bizarrely it was Western Australia. I was dropped off on a very, very exposed part of Western Australia, and it was extraordinarily hot. And for the whole ten days I didn’t see a single animal, literally not one. And it was almost barren of life. And afterwards I came out, and I remember saying to the Aboriginal Australians who were living nearby, and I said, ‘Look, I couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t find anything to eat at all. And, you know, what would you have eaten?’ And they said, ‘We wouldn’t.’ They laughed at me, and they said, ‘We wouldn’t be here at this time of year. We’d be about 200km inland.’ So – yes, I mean, it was just literally barren rock and no life at all. So, that was probably the hardest.
On top of all of the things that you do with the team, you also self-filmed two series for Discovery, which is Into the Unknown and Marooned. So, would you say that showing people the rawness and beauty of nature is something that is passionate to you? And if so, what ignited your passion for the wilds? Was there a particular point in your life, where you thought, ‘This is exactly what I’m going to be doing,’ or did it all happen by accident?
Ed Stafford: I don’t think – I think showing people the rawness and beauty of nature wasn’t the primary aim. Yes, of course, these places are in amazing, wild locations. I think first of all, they’re entertainment programmes, but they’re survival programmes. They’re about the personal hardship and what you can do with very little in the way of things to help you. I do have a very close affinity with nature, and I think it’s an absolute privilege to work in some of these remote and utterly beautiful locations, but I think they’re more films about people and how you can overcome obstacles really.
I think that each individual show might sound like it’s completely detached from everyday life, because I’m in the middle of nowhere with no tools and going through struggles that most people might think that they can’t relate to at all. And yet, all of the problems end up being quite relatable to everyday life. If you can’t find water, you know, you become obsessed with it, and you become quite – you can become quite negative and have, sort of, negative thought patterns about it. But that equally can happen about money in everyday life.
And I think, how I end up overcoming different problems, how I have to think around and maybe get humbled by situations and then have to, you know, think around the situation, and come up with new solutions, I think all of that is quite relatable to. It isn’t a programme specifically designed to wow people in terms of the locations. I think they are the backdrop for a fairly, sort of human story, really. Does that answer the question?
Yes. Okay, what kind of environment presents the greatest challenge for someone even as experienced as you are?
Ed Stafford: Okay, well, I just answered obviously, the environment that posed me the greatest challenge being Western Australia. I think, at the end of the day, the environments that don’t have anything are much harder than the environments that have lots. In the jungle, there’s all sorts of materials that you can use in order to help yourself. There’s vines. There’s leaves. There’s materials for shelter building and making fire, and there are animals to hunt as well. Whereas, in more exposed areas like the desert and potentially, sort of, cold weather, sort of, tundra area and high altitude plains, there’s far less. There’s less trees. There’s less animals. There’s less things to eat. So, therefore everything becomes harder. So, yes, I think desert is almost the ultimate. And then if you take that to even further extremes, Arctic desert would be even harder, because then you’ve got the cold to deal with as well.
You self-filmed Into the Unknown, which looks at strange markings that have puzzled scientists all over the world. So, of the many strange things that you might have come across, which has been the most inexplicable, and did you have any theories or any running hypotheses running through your head when you think about it?
Ed Stafford: I thought it was a fascinating series to film. It was literally just going on my computer at home and opening up Google Earth and scanning through Google Earth and finding things that I just couldn’t explain. So, bizarre markings in the desert or – one from Siberia was a – it almost looks on Google like a – this sounds weird, but sort of, a nipple shape in the landscape. And it was right in the middle of the forest in the mountains of Siberia. And I had no idea what it was at all. And I suppose the reason it sticks in my head is because I still, to this day, probably really don’t have a very good idea what it was.
I went on a crazy mission into Russia. Most countries there’s people who can speak a little bit of English, but I had to tackle this a little differently, it was almost like an investigative mission. I was almost fact-finding as I went along. So, I had to speak to people, and in this part of Russia not many people spoke English. And so I had to try and first of all find an English speaker, which was quite tricky. But eventually in the local school, I found an English teacher, who was prepared to come with me on my daft mission. And she was able to help me speak to people and find out about where this crater is and how to get there and what they thought it was. And it went from all sorts of things, almost mystical explanations of a nest of a fire-breathing dragon to probably more realistic ones, which were – it was almost like as if there was a, sort of, flammable pocket of gas underneath the earth that at one point exploded and caused this sort of ripple effect on the surface of the earth.
So, it was a fascinating story, but I literally, when I got there I – because most of these missions, I went in with a drone. So, I was able to fly the drone above my head and be able to see these things from above as well, again, to confirm what they were. But that one, I was there, on the ground with the drone, and I still didn’t really know what it was. No one really knew. And it was called the Patomskiy Crater in mid-Siberia, so yes, absolutely fascinating.
I would love to have done another series of Into the Unknown, because they were literally just genuine missions of discovery, going out and trying to find out about weird and crazy things around the world.
Wow, that sounds really cool. Okay, so this is the final question I have for you today. In your opinion, what does it take to be an explorer or a survivalist? How would you term yourself, actually?
Ed Stafford: I think it’s a very odd thing to call yourself an explorer in 2017. I think there are a lot of people who go out and do very active things in remote locations, and they’re probably more often than not, they’re adventurers these days. You know, it’s people going out there and doing human endurance, rather than actual exploration. I think, to be good at that, people need to have quite a varied sort of set of skills, really. I think, at the end of the day, they need to be able to almost run a business from their laptop. They need to be able to operate in remote conditions. They need to be extraordinarily confident, but also flexible. They need to be able to change their plan at all times, because, you know, invariably when you’re walking into somewhere where you don’t know what’s going to happen and you don’t know who you’re going to meet, things change very, very rapidly. So someone that can think on their feet, someone that’s, I suppose, humble enough to be able to get on with a lot of people and, if they do meet people, to be able to get them onside and get them to help them.
I think it really does need – it doesn’t need superhuman strength, I don’t think. I think that’s one misconception that people have is that all explorers are ridiculously strong and sort of tough in that sort of almost military way. I don’t think it needs that. I think it needs an open mind – a sort of flexible mind – and, yeah, I don’t think that – those are the sort of qualities that you need to be a so-called explorer, but probably now adventurer.
Okay. Thank you so much for your time.
Ed Stafford: Absolute pleasure. Thank you.
Left For Dead premieres on Tuesdays, 9pm, only on Discovery (Astro Channel 551), starting 17th October.