Naturalist and thinking mum's pin-up Steve Backshall on his charmed life and what drives him to travel to far-flung places
In family homes across the UK, Steve Backshall is a household name. His show, Deadly 60, is required viewing for the under-10s. His infectious enthusiasm, daring encounters with dangerous beasts and penchant for taking his shirt off has made him a hit both in the playground and with the mothers on the PTA.
There’s no denying Steve Backshall has paid his dues. He spent his early 20s researching and writing the Rough Guide to Indonesia. He has led some of the most successful filmed expeditions in recent years. Lost Land of the Volcano took him to a remote volcanic caldera in New Guinea. Lost Land of the Jaguar saw him descend to the bottom of the Kaieteur Falls in Guyana. And the Emmy-nominated Expedition Borneo took him deep into one of the world’s last great wildernesses.
When I call him at his home in rural England he is recovering from an operation on his ankle, an attempt to solve a recurring problem from a rock climbing accident that saw him break his back. We had been scheduled to meet in London the week before, but complications with the operation had seen the interview postponed.
Steve is as chirpy and enthusiastic as he is on TV and has to break our conversation to usher out a duck that has wandered into his home. After a few crashes and clunks and the sounds of gentle persuasion he is back on the phone.
“Sorry about that,” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes they forget who is supposed to live where!”
From the outside looking in it seems like you’ve had a pretty charmed life – you decide to do something and it happens. But reading Looking For Adventure, it’s pretty obvious that you've worked really hard at it. For example, you put yourself through the Open University to improve your knowledge about wildlife and conservation.
It’s true. People are always coming up to me and saying, “You’re so lucky to have all this happen to you. I’d love to do what you do!” It’s very tempting to say “It’s not luck, I’ve worked my guts out and sacrificed pretty much everything in my life.”
But this lifestyle is what I want and what I’ve always wanted. To be living a life outdoors, in adventure, you have to be totally, totally committed, especially in the media business. Unless you’re prepared to sacrifice everything you’re not going to get anywhere.
What drives you to travel to these far-flung places? Is it the wildlife and the environment? Or is it something more?
It’s a bit of everything. I’m drawn by the wildlife and the landscapes and the people. But I think I’ve also always had the desire to take on things that frighten me a little bit. If I hear of a place or a challenge that might be beyond me or too much for me it will niggle away at the back of my brain and until it becomes something that I absolutely have to do.
New Guinea was very much like that for me. Even today it is still a very difficult and challenging country to travel in; so much of it is untrammeled, so much of it is still unexplored. And in the parts that are, there’s an awful lot of tribal violence. It’s some of the most difficult jungle I’ve ever tried to get through. It can be incredibly impenetrable. It’s a place that has always been lurking there in my subconscious, that I needed to take on.
It’s the same with other parts of the world that I’ve lusted after. It’s because it’s difficult. It’s because they’re wild and it’s because they’re a challenge to me.
I got the feeling from the book that you are driven to parts of the world that are untouched.
Yeah, I always have a slight feeling of disappointment that I was born when I was. I would have loved to have been around during the grand, golden era of exploration when people were genuinely finding parts of the world nobody knew existed and just seeing things for the first time with fresh eyes.
Having said that, there are still parts of the world that you can genuinely explore. There’s nothing more exciting than going to a place and knowing that your footsteps are the first that have fallen there. I've been privileged to be part of expeditions of scientific discovery where we have been the first to come across species that nobody has ever seen before. It’s very, very exciting indeed.
Over the years you’ve come back from a lot of knocks and setbacks. National Geographic Channel suddenly cancelled your show. You broke your back in a rock climbing accident. What drives you to pick yourself up from those knock backs and get on with it?
You know, all of the problems I have faced in my life are absolutely nothing compared to the things that many people go through every single day of their lives.
I’m lucky in that I know what it is that makes me happy. I know what it is that will brighten me up, to make me enthusiastic and it’s just finding a way to do that. In the years since the accidents – I’ve been limited in my movements and I haven’t been able to go out much – I’ve made sure I go on walks, I get out on my bike, I get out on the kayak and I get my exploring that way because that’s how I cheer myself up. I never let myself get pessimistic or defeatist.
All I’ve got to do is get outside, get active, surround myself with wild animals and I will instantly feel good again.
I know it sounds corny, I know it sounds clichéd but you’ve really just got to keep counting your blessings. You know, falling the height I did, on to rocks, I really should be paralysed. Instead, I just find walking a bit painful after having a number of operations. That is nothing compared to where I could have been and where an awful lot of other people are. So it’s about perspective. It’s very much about positive thinking. And it’s about realising what I need to do to make me happy and going out and doing it.
Talking about that enthusiasm, on television you come across as Britain’s answer to Steve Irwin. Kids love you on Deadly 60. My daughter is a huge fan. She asked me to get you to sign her copy of your Deadly 60 book.
Oh no! Give her my sincerest apologies. I had to have another operation on my ankle and it got infected and I have to go back in again.
She’s already figured out it must have been something terribly dangerous or exciting that made you cancel.
Thank her for being so forgiving!
So it surprised me reading the book that there were some really dark times. When you were in the middle of New Guinea and you were trying to get these shots and it just wasn’t happening. But as soon as the camera comes on you’ve got to switch on this sunny persona. How hard is that?
You know what? I very rarely have to. I am inherently a very positive, very optimistic and very enthusiastic person. And I very rarely have to fake it. It’s always there on tap.
Being a naturalist is about being excited by the common place as well as by the extraordinary so I know that I could walk out my back door now and apart from seeing the ducks standing in my garden (laughs) I’d be able to find species of spiders and insects that I’d never seen before and that would make my day.
The thing about the New Guinea trip was that it almost felt as if the island itself was conspiring against us, making things hard and when you’re under the pressure to make a TV program to be seen by millions of people around the world you do start to feel it after a while and it does start to get you down. The reason I included those episodes in the book is because they were very unusual for me. They’re not the usual thought processes I go through. I’m normally very good at saying, “Right! Let’s go find something exciting” and getting things back on track. And in the natural world that’s usually a very easy thing to do.
You’ve got a lot more responsibilities now with the film crews and the bigger budgets and that pressure of getting the shots. Do you ever wish you were that guy with his backpack blagging his way into the Belem Valley again?
Yeah, I do. I do love simplicity. Until I had my accident I made sure that every single year I would go on an expedition that had nothing to do with television and would be about total simplicity, cutting it back to the bone and having none of the equipment or the pressure of the TV show. I managed to keep that promise to myself right up to when I had the accident.
I had planned to do another expedition like that next year but because of the endless operations that’s had to go out the window for the moment. But soon as I’m back fit again that’s one of my main priorities to do something that has nothing to do with the media, that has none of the trappings with it, just pure adventure, to remember what it’s really all about.
Through shows like Deadly 60 you’re a hero to a lot of kids, who are your heroes? Or who were your heroes?
I guess my main hero was Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin. He was an incredible naturalist and came up with a theory on the survival of the fittest at the same time Darwin was coming up with his theory of evolution by natural selection. A most extraordinary man and probably the one person from history I’d most like to meet.
In terms of my contemporaries, people like Simon King, Chris Packham, Nick Baker are all people that I really admire and learn a lot from. They’d be as close to heroes that I have.
None of them are the thinking mum’s pinup, like yourself though.
Thanks very much. I’ll take that.
Well, you’re big hit on Mumsnet. There are countless forum posts dedicated to you. How does that feel?
It’s very, very flattering. I’ve been working in television for 13 years and I really enjoyed being in the position of doing all the things that I wanted to do and, occasionally, being recognised by someone who always had something nice and complimentary to say about the things I’d done.
Then all of a sudden Deadly 60 became a big success and my life has totally changed. I get mobbed. I get absolutely mobbed. If I go anywhere where there are kids then it’s absolute bedlam. It’s wonderful, but as a private person who values their own space it’s quite odd. And while I never set out to take on this role of educator it has become clear that I’ve got a tremendous responsibility and a great potential for what can be achieved over the next few years with getting kids into wildlife, getting them into conservation, getting them outdoors.
That’s why I did the Live and Deadly series last year and why we’re doing it again this year. To try and get some real impetus behind getting kids into stuff that I know for an absolute fact will make them happier, fitter individuals.
It was wonderful to see the result we had from the Live and Deadly series last year. One day 14,000 people turned up to hear me talk. Totally overwhelming. And getting these fantastic responses back from kids.
“I went scuba diving for the first time”, “I just went riding for the first time”, “I just saw my first ever Red Kite”, and just knowing that some of those kids, even if it’s just a tiny fraction of them, have been set on the path of the same kind of wonders that I experience every day it’s just mind blowing. Absolutely mind blowing. I’ll never make out for a second that I set out with that intention. But now I know that’s something that I just have to do.
What’s left? Is there some place that’s been eating away at you? Any hidden corners left to explore?
The possibilities are absolutely endless. The more you see, the more you realise just how little you’ve seen, how you’ve just scratched the surface. I’ve been to 101 countries now. But a lot of those I visited when I was with National Geographic and we’d just have four days, five days in the country. We’d do one story there and then we’d move on somewhere else. And those four or five days would make you go, “Oh my God! This place is awesome! I’ve got to come back and climb that mountain and visit that village and see that animal!”
My list of things that I want to do is 100 times bigger than it was when I was 20. It’s just endless. That’s the wonderful thing about travel, about the wild world, how infinite it is. I mean, there’s over a million species of beetles, for goodness sake. I’ve been filming wildlife every single day for the past 13 years and I haven’t even scratched the surface of one particular group of insects, let alone all of the mammals, the birds, the fish, the reptiles. It’s endless. So the more I travel, the more I do, the more I realise there is left to do.
Can you keep doing this? Will you have to slow down?
I think I will slow down. I’m overjoyed that I’ve been given the opportunity to get back into writing. That was what I really wanted to do when I was a kid. That was my ambition. Now I’ve been given the opportunity to do more writing I will certainly take my foot off the gas because I can’t keep travelling 6-12 months of a year. I want to have a family. I want to settle down. I want to have kids. I want to do more writing and to do that I’m going to have to cut back on the amount of filming I’m going to have to do. But not for a couple of years yet.
Steve Backshall's latest book, Looking for Adventure, charts his progress from a boy obsessed with artefacts from PNG to National Geographic's 'Adventurer in Residence' to popular TV naturalist. It is on sale at Amazon now.