Meet Steve Backshall

We thought we'd have a chat to Steve ahead of his show on Dave and all that. Let's see what he says then.

Steve Backshall

What inspired your new series Expedition?

I've been pitching this project of big firsts in lots of different environments since about 1998. It was a reaction to my disappointment thinking that old-fashioned exploration was dead and gone; I thought it's what people did back in the days of the golden era of exploration, not now. But the more I started doing expeditions myself the more I realised that actually there are some massive things left to be done for the first time. I'd love to think that in a few months time I'll get letters from young people saying I saw the series and I've joined the scouts or doing a Duke of Edinburgh Award or setting off to do my own mission. I hope this is proof that it's still possible to find exciting places to explore.

Are you hoping to encourage people to do the same as you?

Absolutely. People will say you're encouraging people to ruin other parts of the world or to fly lots and burn up carbon budgets, and obviously all that is true. But I feel right now that we have a tremendous crisis and at the root of that is peoples' disenfranchisement and disconnection to nature. The best tangible thing I can do is get particularly young people excited about our wild world again because I believe people look after the things they love and treasure. It's a horrible cliché but a lot of young people won't get to walk barefoot on grass, be able to discern the difference between two different types of birdcall, they'll rarely be outside a city and spend far too much time indoors connected to electronics rather than to people and nature. As a society we have so much to lose from that and so much to gain from rediscovering our connection to nature - not least because we're at a crisis point in conservation. The only people who are going to want to do something and stand up for our environment are people who love it.

What skills does an explorer need?

You need to start small. You need to pick up your skills from organisations like the cubs, scouts and D of E [Duke of Edinburgh]. Mentality is more important that anything else; being a positive person and being able to be optimistic and see possibilities everywhere rather than unapproachable challenges.

How did you come up with the different locations to go to?

I have a little black book containing a wish list that I've been keeping since the 1990s. Over the years some have been crossed off because either I've been there myself or somebody else has. Then once we got the money together it was a matter of mapping the year out because quite a few are time specific, especially the Arctic trip. It had to be an exact time during one month of the year. Some of the stories had to go by the wayside and others had to be slightly more shoehorned in because it was the only way it would work in a certain timeframe. And there's been a phenomenal amount of serendipity, of things working when they probably had no right to. On all of my expeditions over the last 20 years or so, the failure rate is huge. We fail far more often than we succeed and you take that as being part of the adventure and this time round doing ten of them, I thought six of them might be strong, four lacklustre and one of them a complete catastrophic failure. But all ten of them worked. And since I started these latest expeditions, I have a longer list than I did before. I have at least 20 more expeditions that remain out there to be done.

Why did you think you could succeed where others have failed before?

It's all about the people. For each expedition we brought together a very small team of four or five who are the best at what they do. On the penultimate expedition, our two lead climbers were the best female adventure climber in Britain and the best male adventure climber in the world. They took us up a rock face that only a handful of people would attempt let alone be capable of doing. In Borneo we went with the expert in prehistoric cave art in Southeast Asia and we managed to find a cave full of hand paintings 40,000 years old that no one has seen for that long. It's all down to the specialists. There was no one on their first expedition learning the ropes; they'd be the first person to get sick or injured.

How did you train for it? You needed some serious stamina...

It was really hard because normally for expeditions I'd spend six months to a year training for each one and getting myself in to very specific shape for it. I did that for the first couple of expeditions like the cave diving expedition I had months of specialist training to get my cave diving up to a level where I was competent. By the time we were a few expeditions down the line I had a couple of weeks in between each trip; I was unfit and out of shape and didn't have my psych right - particularly for the white water expedition in the Himalayas. That was a class 5 un-run white water river so I should have been training nothing but white water for at least a year beforehand but hadn't been on a river in six months. That was far from ideal but the only way we were going to make the project work was to run them all the expeditions over the course of a year and hope for the best.

Did you manage to prepare mentally?

No because when I was home I was in the midst of baby time so I would very deliberately shut myself off from everything to do with expeditions. I turned up on location for both the white water expedition and the big wall climb and I was totally not ready - physically or emotionally - I was on completely the wrong planet to be attempting that kind of thing. And that's really hard because so much about particularly climbing is in your head. It's one of the first things you learn is that you have to relax and be confident; the second you start getting tense and frightened you hang on too hard so you use up too much energy and start to burn out and then you fall off. There was very little I could do about that until I was on the rock.

Were you worried then?

Yes very worried. But I also think I was a little bit more philosophical than usual. Normally I would have turned up at an expedition like that thinking ok I need to lead every single time I possibly can and climb every single inch of this rock. Whereas this time round I had in the back of my head, ok we just need to get to the top of this thing and there are lots of other things I can add to the expedition in terms of finding wildlife and evidence of unique objects on the climb. And as it turned out I managed to do all of the rock climbing and we found all of the things and more that we hoped for on the rocks.

Did these trips call on all your skills and resources? It seems like it's a huge culmination of everything you've done before...

It does. If you look over the course of the year we've done dog sledding, ski touring, mountaineering, ice climbing, rock climbing, canyoning, caving, cave diving, massive yomps with heavy packs, 120 nights out under canvas or under the night sky and finding wildlife in every habitat from desert to arctic to jungle. So it has been a culmination of all of my nearly 20 years doing this for a living coming together in one project, which has just been fantastic.

What was the biggest challenge?

Physically it was the white water river: the first descent in Bhutan. We had a former world champion kayaker and the other three people on my team were all professional kayakers, it's what they do for a living. And there were sections where they said we can't go any further. And if the river's giving them a good kicking, you can imagine what it was doing to me. I was in pieces but at the same time in this day and age this is a whole first river that no one's ever paddled on. It's such a privilege and honour, and then not knowing what's going to be around every corner - sometimes it was tiger prints, sometimes wild dogs or huge hives of Himalayan bees, or it might just be a stunning sunset. The knowledge that you're the first person to ever paddle down that rapid gives you an energy that your body probably doesn't actually have. It was a constant renewal of enthusiasm from the unexpected. Whatever we saw, nobody had ever seen it before, which is such a powerful thought. It's the kind of thing that drives you on even when you're absolutely wrecked.

Was there a time when you thought you really couldn't carry on?

There were quite a few moments when I thought I couldn't carry on, particularly on that river. And sadly on one of them I pushed on when I shouldn't have done and had a really bad experience. I was flushed down in to a pneumatic stopper, which is kind of like a circulating wave. It took me in and held me under for about five minutes. I was saved by Sal my safety kayaker otherwise I would definitely have drowned. It was the closest to death experience I've ever had. I have had other near death experiences but they're all over in a heartbeat and their significance is retrospective so you look back on them the next night and go, I nearly died. What was most powerful about this was that after two minutes of being in the glacial melt water, my hands didn't work, I had no strength to get me out, no air in my body, and I was being driven under and held under the water. I thought 'I'm drowning'. The wave wasn't going to release me because it hadn't released me or my boat in several minutes, there was no one upstream who could save me, and I didn't think there was anyone downstream who could. I thought this is how I go. And then I had another three minutes to think I'm not going to get to see Logan grow up, I'm never going to see Helen again. It was an incredibly traumatic experience and one that completely changed my mind-set about everything.

In what way?

It brought home to me what's important. This had seemed like such an important project from the very start of it but actually what's really important is my wife and baby and their future. I felt selfish, overwhelmed and guilty and once it was over this huge pressure, because really I should have just said, 'Sorry guys that's it, we should call this now'. But if we'd done that the whole expedition and project would have been a write off, which would have affected a lot of people. It was a really powerful moment and without question it was the toughest and scariest moment mentally. I feel very lucky to be alive.

Which was the most remote location you went to?

In Suriname we got the top of the mountain and we asked our local guides how far away the nearest village was. They said it would take 10 moons to get there and we went ok wow 10 days that's quite far. And they said no 10 months. 10 months to walk to nearest village is pretty remote!

Where did you experience the most magical moment?

The Borneo cave when I put my hand in to a hand print that someone had left 40,000 years ago. Knowing we were the first people since then to see that. That felt like a major discovery that adds quite a lot to the scientific understanding of the movement of people through that part of the world. All of a sudden I really felt this tangible connection to everything that had gone beforehand and it was absolutely amazing. The world expert on caves in Southeast Asia was crying; he'd never seen a print like that before and there was no record of that particular etching. We'd gone out there for three weeks and seen something completely unique.

What was the most exciting wildlife you saw?

Oh there was so much. The tapir in Suriname was awesome. I've seen tapir lots of times before but never one who had quite clearly never seen a human being before. It was wandering around going what's going on here? It was obvious no human had been there before because if they had it would have been sprinting off in to the forest.

How do these expeditions differ now you have a young family?

Up until now they haven't differed because they were all planned before I had a young family. So the question is what happens now? And we haven't had a chance to let the dust settle and figure out what the next step is. But my guess is it won't be as extreme as these last ten were because there were far too many times when it could have gone really badly wrong. Rock fall and things like that are things you can do nothing about - it doesn't matter who you are or how strong you are. I think we'll have a really serious conversation about how we can take this forward without the very real risk that we come back with fewer team members than we started with.

Did you get to chat to your wife Helen much?

In Mexico and Oman we had 3G and I video called Helen from a cave half way up an Oman mountain to show her the fossilised skeleton of a whale that I'd found. Everywhere else it was a satellite phone call sometimes every couple of weeks, which is brutal. I tried to call from just about everywhere but in the jungle reception is rubbish. It's worse than not making the call because you have maybe three minutes and they hear ten words. It's awful so you're probably better off not doing it.

How does Helen cope with it all?

Helen is furious that she's not on the expeditions. She would love more than anything to be doing them herself and I imagine she'd be considerably better at them than I am. Physically she is way better at just about everything than me. She has stamina like you wouldn't believe. So maybe that's a part of the future - we'll see. It's very difficult to figure it out. We have one baby and we'd love to have more in the future so I guess finding a way we can make sure that whatever it is works with a family future - that's the most important thing now. It's horrible being away from them. I'm gutted that I was away from Logan last night and missed him walking for the first time this morning - imagine what it's like going away for five and a half weeks. It's horrible I hate it. I've spent 20 years of my life getting to a stage where I can get the money together to make a project like this so to bin it completely now, Helen wouldn't want me to do that. But it is finding out how I can make it work with the important stuff.

So it obviously hasn't scratched your itch?

There are loads of places that I could explore. I'd get far more joy out of being able to show them to Logan though. I'm at a crux point now because there's a sense of anticipation amongst the team. We got back from the last expedition a matter of weeks ago so we haven't let the dust settle. But also because the programmes haven't started to go out yet we have no sense of what the public appetite or perception is for them. They are probably correctly cynical. A lot of the stuff you see on television in this kind of genre, there's a degree of artifice and construction there. Our profound hope is that people can see the difference and can tell that this is really happening. That will be a big part of whether people think it's overblown and sensationalised, or they get the fact that it's actually how it happened.

Why is it important to show these hidden worlds? Don't we want to keep them quiet so no one goes there?

I think we're past that. If we were to keep them quiet someone would go there and that someone would probably be a gold miner, a logger, someone who was going to exploit it. I'd rather have people experience a location for the first time who are invested in its protection. These places will get explored and I'd rather it was by people who have the right ethics.

How do we keep these places protected?

By having people invested in it. I'm involved in buying as much forest as I can and returning it to local ownership or getting it gazetted to national parks. It's the only practical way at the moment that I can make a difference now rather than looking at it 10-20 years in the future when it might be too late. There are longer-term strategies but that's my strategy for now.

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