National-treasure-in-waiting Ben Fogle on his accidentally brilliant life
Ben has already moved onto his next project, of course, and is looking tanned and casual in shorts on a bleak, London morning. He chats animatedly about the book, his family and his charmed life, despite only getting back from filming in Wales at 1am this morning.
You just got back from coasteering in Wales. How was that?
I loved it. It’s for this new series I’m doing which is called Year of Adventures, a co-production with Lonely Planet and the BBC. If you think I’ve done crazy things now you should see what I’m doing between now and the end of the year! All pushing my buttons, if you see what I mean. I’ve done quite a lot of big challenges but everything from now on is stuff that stretches me.
What is it that stretches you?
Heights. Overcoming fears. Most of the things I’m doing for this series is stuff that I won’t take in my stride.
Like rally driving for example. Most of the things I do take a very long time. I’m the tortoise, never the hare. So anything that requires speed or haste I’m not particularly good at. Rally driving is not a slow sport.
I’ll be swimming from San Francisco to Alcatraz, for example, and I’m not a very strong swimmer. So it’s all things that are achievable, but will push me a little bit. I like that. Having done all these things – it’s not that it’s hard to push me but it’s harder.
You’ve done a lot of challenges. It must be getting to a point where you go, “What’s left?”
Dealing with crocodiles out in Australia and Botswana was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Even scarier than some of the stories I recount in the book (The Accidental Adventurer), like the boat capsizing, getting stuck in the crevice field and the plane nearly crashing in South America.
They were very, very scary but they were scary situations. They were things that happened to me. The crocodiles was the scariest situation that I had proactively put myself into. It was terrifying.
So that’s where I’m heading. The book follows the meandering path of how I got to where I am now.
I want to take you back to 1992. You buy a one-way ticket to Rio and you head off to Latin America. You say that trip was a really defining moment for you.
It was. My father is Canadian so I’d spent time in Canada and in America but never in a developing country. For me it was the first time I’d seen totally different cultures. It was a complete and utter change to anything I’d been used to. The smells, the colours, everything about it was rich and vibrant.
The visit to Potosi, in Bolivia, was the seminal moment. I’d had this really incredible year, I’d done the whole gap year, hippy thing, grew my hair long and wore the big woolly jumpers, colourful Andean trousers and things. Everything was good and safe and then suddenly I was in Peru, where it was a bit edgy because of terrorism and the Shining Path and then to Bolivia.
I remember seeing these young boys, 11 and 12, in their pants, covered in black soot and it was so shocking. It was one of those moments where I saw both sides. Suddenly it all made sense that all was not good with the world.
What did you do next?
I came back to England. I had a place at Birmingham University and I was miserable. It was like I was in mourning. I used to go to the Waterstones in Birmingham and sit on the floor in the travel section. I’d miss lectures. I’d pull out books, just to take myself back.
My room was full of travel books too. I had photos from my gap year, trying to recreate it beneath Spaghetti Junction and eventually I decided it just wasn’t going to work.
Telling my parents that I was going to leave was difficult. They’d worked really hard to send me to a private school, they wanted me to have a good education and I felt terrible. I felt as though I was letting them down. But I also knew that I had to follow my heart.
As you know from reading the book, that’s what my life is. I follow my heart, I follow my instinct. I'm a firm believer in not necessarily following a blueprint in life – go to school, go to university, get a sensible job, get a mortgage. I’ve never followed that normality. And my parents probably instilled that. So the guilt that I had was probably unwarranted. They were disappointed but they said, “If you want to go back, go back.”
What do you think it was about travelling that you were addicted to?
The freedom. The excitement that anything was possible. Here in the UK we still have these brackets, these expectations in life, that you get a job and that there’s a normal life that most people lead.
As soon as I left this country it was like, “Wow! Look at this whole world that’s here. Why do I have to live in England? Why do I have to conform to normality? Why can’t I come and live here for the rest of my life?”
Visiting Africa for the first time seems to have had an impact on you too.
Most of my friends went to Africa and I was always very haughty about it. I was a Latin America guy. I did a degree in it, I was really passionate about it. It was where I went on my first big trip. But on that first trip to Africa, which was in 2001, to Zambia, I thought, “I will live here one day!”
It was in the early stages of my career and I thought, "if everything goes wrong, I will just become a guide. I will get up at four or five each day and take people on a safari and share sundowners with them."
It still lifts my heart just to think about that. I know that if everything went wrong now I would do that and I would be happy until the day I die. And I say that after ten years of returning to Africa. It totally stole my heart.
What was it about Africa that had this effect?
Africa feels very light. I don’t know why. I can’t put my finger on it. They’ve had suffering and hardships and yet there is this happiness in Africa. It feels like you’re walking on air. That’s what I love about it.
You first came to the public’s attention through Castaway, one of the first reality shows. Why do you think you’ve been able to carve a long-term career from the show, whereas today careers that begin on a reality show seem to flicker out almost as soon as they start?
Because I never really wanted it. I did it for very pure, simple reasons. I applied to have a unbelievable year, isolated, marooned, castaway on an island, not because I wanted to be rich and famous. It never even occurred to me that going on that project would have led to what it did. I will admit, I wanted to be a travel writer and I thought I could maybe write something about it. But I never believed it would lead to what I’ve done.
I think that’s the reason I’ve been able to hang on. I was never so desperate that I would sell my soul. And no disrespect to people who have done other reality shows, but desperation, I think, can be a rather unattractive trait.
I saw that Taransay, the island on which the series was set, recently came up for sale.
I tried to buy it. I managed to raise pretty much the full amount. But it sold before I could nail it all down with contracts and so on. I was gutted. I was really disappointed.
But I was philosophical as well. I do believe in destiny but I think you make your own destiny. You make decisions. You tweak it. But I think things are meant to happen for a reason. If I wasn’t meant to get it, I wasn’t meant to get it.
My new thing is the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill. I can’t get it out of my mind. I’ve always wanted a bookshop. That’s the bookshop I’ve been to all my life, where I’ve down all my research, I’ve launched all my books there. It’s on the market and it’s right next to my house. Everything is saying, “You should put in an offer for this” but something is holding me back. I don’t know what it is. But to own a little travel bookshop would be amazing.
I saw on Twitter that they’d kicked you out when you tried to film there.
I know! It’s unbelievable. That’s probably one of the reasons I haven’t pursued it. How short-sighted! I was going to go there with NBC to shoot a little film about the joys of this little bookshop to me, for ten million Americans, and they kicked us out.
I got the impression from the book that you’re a man who can’t say no.
It’s true. My wife says it’s my biggest problem. I find it hard to say no, especially to charity things.
Actually, it can be detrimental to family life when you say yes to too much. It’s one thing to say yes to boxing, yes to things that are in my book. They’ve been big, life-changing moments. But when I say yes to every little thing it robs me of time with my family. I think it comes back to the self-confident thing. I’m afraid people will hate me. Or they won’t ask again.
Just looking on your Twitter feed. Since the beginning of July you’ve been to: Canada, New York, Peru, Argentina, Singapore…
The North Pole...
Australia and then yesterday Wales...
And by the end of the year – you started this – back to Australia, America, Canada, Costa Rica, Italy, Iceland…
Oh, and I forgot about your family holiday to Germany and Austria...
I’ve got four more trips to America and three more to Canada.
When you list it like that my first thought is embarrassment at what I’m doing to the environment. That’s my first thought. It’s crazy, isn’t it?
That’s the reason I’ve written this book. I’ve been terrified that I go away so much that it becomes monotonous. It’s no different to people’s tube journeys into work. I’ve always said that if it becomes routine, if it becomes boring, if I start complaining about it I’ll hand it over to some young person who is desperate for it. I know that every single reader of Wanderlust would jump into my shoes.
Why did you write the book?
There are so many trips I have done over the years I was in danger of forgetting. I was like, “Oh my God! I’d totally forgotten about Papua New Guinea!” Can you imagine? For most people that would be a journey of a lifetime. And I didn’t want that to happen.
Especially for my children. In all seriousness. One of the things that I started thinking about now is that I wanted them to know all the stories about what I did. They’ll probably be bored senseless by them, but when they’re my age I like the idea that they’ll pick up a copy of this book, wipe off the dust and think, “God! This book is so dated!” There probably won’t even be books then. It will all be digital. What’s a book?
How do you reconcile your itchy feet with being a father?
I’m totally torn. It totally divides me. Most of me is yearning to be with my children. I love them more than I knew it was possible. I just want to be with them the whole time. And I spend my whole time looking at photos of them if I’m away from them.
But I’ve also created a job for myself that I could only ever dream of. I love my job. And it’s what I do. The book recounts the tale of how I’ve spent ten years getting to the point I’m at now.
Some people criticise me for being away so much and they have every right to. My wife is amazing, putting up with me being away so much. And I feel guilty about being away so much. But it is what I do. It is how I earn a living now. I can’t stop.
A) I wouldn’t know what I’d do. And B) I’d have these itchy feet. I get back for a short while and then I want to go off and do something.
It doesn’t have to be extreme. I just spent two days in Wales and it felt like two weeks. It was so intense, the kayaking and the coasteering. It really pushed me and that will sate me for quite a long time. I like it that it is accessible stuff that my whole family will be able to come on. If they like. They might hate it. They might be the complete opposite. I will also respect that.
From your Twitter feed it seems that when you are back, you are very much a hands-on dad?
When I’m home and I’m back for a couple of weeks I do absolutely everything. I’m a real hands-on father. I get just as excited about childcare as my travels. When I was in Wales I got a call from Marina and she said, ”Guess what? Ludo just pooed in the potty!” The elation I felt. The excitement! Who would have thought you could get so excited about such a thing?
But that’s what I don’t want to miss. That’s what I want to be around for. That’s far more important than anything I do but I also love what I do. And I’ll keep on doing it. I’m not going to just stop.
Which challenge has been the most challenging for you?
The three big ones: The South Pole, rowing across the Atlantic, the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara. They were the three epic ones. But what I hope the book shows is that although there were some big seminal moments, it was actually all the little bits along the way that got me there.
Do you think it was these big moments that gave you some credibility?
If I do some self analysis I’d have to say yes. I always had this complex that I was just Ben, Posh Ben, Ben from a reality TV show. I wanted to build some credibility.
Like when I wrote my first travel book, The Tea Time Islands.I wanted to build up my credibility as a write. Ghost writers do not come into my world. I do all my own writing. I think there’s an assumption that if you’re in the public eye, if you’re a celebrity, that you don’t write your own books. Each to their own. But I do.
In the book you say that PNG is your favourite country. What is it about PNG that appeals?
It’s got this raw, untouched, virginal feel. It’s the only place where I felt like a pioneer. Every where I looked there was something new. I remember going to a bank in Port Moresby, in a proper building, with a guy with a bow and arrow standing next to me, waiting for a teller. It was like, “Is this a joke?” I couldn’t believe it.
The people were extraordinary too. Everything about PNG just put a smile upon my face. I hadn’t been taken aback by a place for a very long time. It was like a proper wild frontier.
You go to the Lost World in Venezuela, which is somewhere you dreamed of as a boy. Is there any other boyhood dreams yet to be fulfilled?
One that I won’t fulfil, because my family just don’t want me to, is Everest. I’ve spoken about it so many times and my wife has made it very clear that she would prefer if I didn’t. So that will be one that will remain unfulfilled.
One thing I’d like to do, but it isn’t really a boyhood dream, is the Tour Divide. This big mountain bike race from Canada to Mexico. James Cracknell and I had trained for it but then obviously wasn’t able to do because of his accident. When you spend a year planning and training for something, it’s not just something you can abandon. I like the thought that in five maybe ten years James and I, when we're a bit greyer, a bit fatter, will both take to our bikes and complete that. I like the thought that we might finish that one day.
Anywhere you'd like to visit?
I’d love to go to Madagascar. And I’d quite like to see Antarctica from the sea. I’ve been there twice but it’s always been inland. I’d like to go to Easter Island. I’d like to go to Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile. I’ve never been to Thailand. I’ve never been to Cambodia. For a person who has travelled a lot, there are a lot of places I haven’t been. And that’s what excites me. I can’t wait to do all that with my family.
So the plan is to take the kids on future adventures?
I’d love to. I’ve always had a dream to take them away for a year. To take time off work and go on a journey. Whether it’s sailing around-the-world, whether it’s in a car. Maybe just fly from place to place and spend a little bit of time in each one.
I have this romantic image of going around-the-world, going to about five different places and putting my children in the local school for a couple of months and just getting them to see the world and realise how lucky they are or even how unlucky they are compared to other people. I really want to give them the chance to see it. They might hate it.
But also to share an experience with my wife. Tomorrow is our fifth wedding anniversary and while we’ve been on lots of holidays we’ve never really had a big adventure together. I think that’s what’s missing in my life. A big family adventure.
I’m going to finish up with a couple of questions submitted by readers through Twitter and Facebook. One is about Pitcairn Island. Do you have any plans to go back there after being refused entry on your first attempt?
One of my early disappointments! I’d spent weeks getting there and then got deported.
I’m fascinated by Pitcairn. One of my TV ambitions would be to make a series about the Tea Time Islands. Pitcairn has a very sad recent history. The guy who booted me off is now in prison there. I shouldn’t laugh or smile when I say that because the reason he is in prison is terrible. But yes, Pitcairn is unfinished business.
Another question was about Ben Fogle socks. When are they coming to Marks and Spencers?
A company called HJ Hall got in touch a couple of years ago and asked if I would do a range of socks. We spent about a year working on them and I think they’re a great range of socks. They’re only available online right now. So if Marks and Spencers is reading this, I’d be very happy if they took on my range.
So in answer to the question, watch this space!
You lost out to Bear Grylls for the role of Chief Scout. Was that your biggest disappointment?
It was a big disappointment. When I was asked if I’d consider it my thoughts ran away with me. It would have been the culmination of this great journey, from having these childhood feelings of inferiority that I wasn’t as good as everyone else to doing what I'm doing now. To be able to share this with the whole movement of scouts, who I respected so much over the years, it was a really exciting offer. Then it went to Bear.
I accept the fact that Bear got it graciously and he’s doing a great job. But it was a big disappointment. But who knows? Maybe when he tires of it or retires from it, maybe it’s something I can do in years to come.