Steve Backshall on world-firsts, uncovering secret sites and his brush with death in Bhutan

For his new book and television series, the BAFTA-winning adventurer seeks out unexplored corners of the globe on 10 expeditions that had yet to be done before – in Mexico, Suriname, Borneo and beyond...

7 mins

Your new project, Expedition, is all about discovering unexplored places. What gave you the idea?

The oldest cave paintings in the world emblazoned on the rock walls in Borneo (Shutterstock)

The oldest cave paintings in the world emblazoned on the rock walls in Borneo (Shutterstock)

I first came up with the project in the late 1990s, aiming to prove that there are still undiscovered, final frontiers on our planet - not just in space, the deep oceans or at the end of a microscope, but in places that people have genuinely not been to before.

I’ve been pushing it ever since but, as anyone who does expeditions will know, the hardest part about them is fundraising and getting people to commit to actually supporting the project. It’s taken me 20 years to get this off the ground.

Over the course of one calendar year we did 10 expeditions, each of which comprised some kind of first. It feels like the sum of my life’s work. It's pretty extraordinary actually, ending up in Borneo standing in a cave that occurs on no maps and doesn’t have a name.

But what it did have was 40,000-year-old cave paintings – the oldest in the world – emblazoned on the walls, and we were the first modern humans to see them. That felt like something really significant to all of us. It’s been an emotional ride for lots of different reasons, but it’s something we are all very proud of.

Why is travelling to untouched territories so appealing to you?

The sense of unknowing is what truly excites Steve (Steve Backshall)

The sense of unknowing is what truly excites Steve (Steve Backshall)

I have always been thrilled by the idea of exploration, of the unknown. I think that’s something that does drive us as a species.

That desire to discover and uncover and learn new things that perhaps were not known before and being able to realise that in a very tangible way was thrilling.

Getting up every single morning not knowing what’s going to happen in that day, not knowing if we’re going to find a staggering stretch of river that’s never been mapped before, covered with animals that have never seen human beings before, or whether we’re going to spend all day slogging through 20 or 30 metres of undergrowth and getting nowhere.

The sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next is really exciting.

You've completed 10 world-firsts as part of this expedition. Is an experience better if you’re the first to do it?

(Steve Backshall)

(Steve Backshall)

For me, it is. There is nothing that beats, for example, being able to hold a species of animal in your hand that is unknown to science.

Nothing compares to standing on a summit knowing that you are the first person ever to see that view from that place.

It transports you back several hundred years to the golden era of exploration when the whole world was not known and was dark and frightening. I find that uniquely exciting.

This has driven generations of explorers. It drove on the likes of Mallory and Irving and Shackleton, that desire to push boundaries to push forward frontiers. It's something deeply human.

In the book, you say that you wish you had been born in an earlier time. If you could travel back in time, which explorer would you join?

It would be with Alfred Russel Wallace. He was usually thought of as a biologist and naturalist, but was also a great explorer.

Having been to some of the places he went 100 years on and finding them challenging now, my respect for him is paramount.

I consider him to be one of the greatest heroes of all time. And describing thousands of new species of animals every year, his backlog of work is humbling. 

One of Nepal's most famous trekking sights (Shutterstock)

One of Nepal's most famous trekking sights (Shutterstock)

I have been lucky enough to summit very challenging mountains that have been done thousands of times by other people.

It’s always been a thrill to stand on the summit, but it’s nothing compared to standing on a summit knowing that you are the first person ever to see that view from that place.

- Steve Backshall

Where would you and Alfred go?

One of the best reasons to visit Borneo: orangutans (Shutterstock)

One of the best reasons to visit Borneo: orangutans (Shutterstock)

I would probably go to Borneo with him. It’s a place that has changed emphatically, particularly over my lifetime, and when he was there it was still an island covered entirely in forest.

It would be depressing to compare it to Borneo today, but to have seen it back then would have been something very special.

Of all the unexplored places you could've visited, why did you choose the locations you did?

Picking places people have never been before is Steve's life's work (Steve Backshall)

Picking places people have never been before is Steve's life's work (Steve Backshall)

I wouldn’t say there are lots of other places that offer firsts. If you look at the major mountain ranges, you look at the Alps or the Pyrenees, there are no more first ascents to be done in those mountain ranges at all. If you head, as we did, to the Stauning Alps in Greenland, the majority of peaks have never been climbed before.

Likewise, with our desert canyons, if you were to go to Jordan or Israel or Sinai, you would find canyons just as beautiful as the one we encountered in Oman, but they’ve all been done decades ago.

It’s exactly the same with the rainforest. We spent five and a half weeks in Suriname on rivers that don’t even occur on maps, going to places that people have not seen before, but if you were to go to Guyana next door, which has very similar rainforest, all the rivers were done years ago.

It is very strategic. Picking these places has been my life’s work.

 Which was your favourite destination?

Bhutan (Shutterstock)

Bhutan (Shutterstock)

It’s hard to look past Bhutan. It’s a very special place. I’ve been lucky enough to do two expeditions, both of which have been life-changing. It’s almost entirely forested, has this wonderful ethic behind the people and culture, and is a real haven for Himalayan wildlife.

To be able to paddle a single rapid which hasn’t been paddled before is a big deal, to be able to spend weeks on a river where every rapid is new, probably close to 100 rapids that have never been paddled before, is an honour that I almost find impossible to put into words.

Bhutan also stands out for me because it was where I had the closest call. We were making this first descent of the Chamkhar Chhu white water river and I got trapped in a small waterfall in a canyon with vertical walls on either side and I was held in this rapid for the best part of five minutes.

It is icy cold glacial melt water, there was just no breath in my body and if I hadn’t had my fifth kayaker Sal come to my aid then without question I wouldn’t be here today. That’s very powerful and inevitably has a massive impact on your life and how you think about everything. 

You could have died in Bhutan. What drives you to go through that and then continue with new challenges - especially with a family at home?

A harpy eagle sighting makes it all worth it, says Steve (Shutterstock)

A harpy eagle sighting makes it all worth it, says Steve (Shutterstock)

I think we’re very lucky that no matter how terrifying, no matter how much drudgery and boredom, no matter how much pain and physical aversion you go through - every day is bound to have something, some kind of moment that will inspire your enthusiasm and positivity. 

That could be something as simple as a stunning sunset, or it could be as dramatic as wandering out into the rainforest to a waterfall that no one has ever recorded before. Those moments give you the positivity to continue. They ignite your enthusiasm.

When you’re slogging through the rainforest and thinking about everything that hurts, and you’re encased in fungus and bug bites... a harpy eagle will land in the tree next to you and stare down at you imperiously and it’s the best feeling you’ve ever had. That will give you enough energy to paddle for another three or four hours and barely feel it.

 You had half a dozen near death experiences on the expedition. Was the white water incident the scariest?

(Steve Backshall)

(Steve Backshall)

Unquestionably. I think that, generally speaking, the close calls I’ve had in the past have been quick. They’re ones that you only realise how bad or how close they were afterwards.

You look back and you think, 'wow, that rock fall was really close'. You have a gulp and you carry on going. But with this? Five minutes is long enough that you really realise what’s happening.

You have the time to take in the implications of what’s occurring to you and that was really traumatising. It’s taken me a long, long time to get over it and to get myself right again.

You say you want to inspire a new age of explorers. What is your biggest piece of advice for them?

Keen to explore? Start with the basics of camping (Shutterstock)

Keen to explore? Start with the basics of camping (Shutterstock)

My biggest piece of advice is to start close to home. I think it’s really important that we get our skills to live and work in outdoor environments in a way that’s safe.

That literally starts with camping in your back garden, not taking massive chances, making sure you are comfortable with making a fire, putting up a tent, walking for long hours in a day, carrying a rucksack.

It’s knowing that you can have a big adventure close to home and it’s going to teach you so much.

Is there anywhere closer to home yet to be discovered?

Steve Backshall suggests looking for seals in Penzance, Cornwall (Shutterstock)

Steve Backshall suggests looking for seals in Penzance, Cornwall (Shutterstock)

There’s nowhere really undiscovered in the UK unless you look at cave-diving, in which case, there probably are a few caves to be explored. Otherwise, our countryside has been well discovered years ago.

I would say that, for me, the best place to discover in the UK is Penzance in Cornwall. You can launch a kayak on a beach or from a harbour surrounded by hundreds of people in the middle of the summer and paddle around a couple of bays and be totally on your own, have seals and sunfish and gannets around your boat.

It’s simply taking that wonderful stretch with a paddle in some water that takes you to a new and different out.

If you could have done more than 10 trips, where else would you go?

Steve Backshall keeps the destinations he wants to visit in the future a secret (Steve Backshall)

Steve Backshall keeps the destinations he wants to visit in the future a secret (Steve Backshall)

I have a long list of expeditions that I am very keen to do. I was looking to make sure that I had balance so that we had Arctic, desert, Himalayan mountains, rainforest, sunken caves... lots of different environments.

It was important to get across the scale of different exploration that there is to be done. That was a big part of what we were aiming to go for.

In terms of the other expeditions that I have up my sleeve, I guard those as jealously as if they were made of gold, because to anybody else in my realm they’re priceless.

They are the sum of 20 years of work and it’s the most mortifying thing when you set something up and somebody else does it first. I’m going to keep my cards close to my chest on those.

Do you try travel in an eco-friendly way?

You can offset your carbon footprint by contributing to the rainforest (Shutterstock)

You can offset your carbon footprint by contributing to the rainforest (Shutterstock)

This is the first TV production that has been ratified as entirely carbon neutral. We offset every single emission from the use of our camp stoves to the obvious costs of aviation and helicopters. A significant part of our budget was for offsetting, because I cannot at this point in my life just give up flying - it’s just not possible.

That would essentially be my career over, and I know that there are positive things that come out of my career. But what I can do is make sure that I offset every single air mile and through doing that I’ve managed to raise millions of pounds to buy tropical rainforest and protect it.

Someone like me cannot tell people that they should not fly. What I can say is we need to limit our flying to the essential and we need to think about offsetting in a way that is really productive.

I work for a charity called the World Land Trust that regularly runs '£100 an acre' forest appeals. This means for £100, you can buy an acre of rainforest the size of a football pitch. Even if you only give £10, that’s a penalty area of a football field. It’s not beyond the realms of anyone. It’s something that we can all do something about.

Are the views from Oman the best you’ve ever seen?

Sunset View of Hajar Mountains in Oman (Shutterstock)

Sunset View of Hajar Mountains in Oman (Shutterstock)

I think that the best views are always going to be from on high. The higher you get, the further you can see, and the more view you have to take in.

So, there is nothing that compares to the views from the High Himalaya, where you might be able to see over the area of a decent size country from an 8,000m mountain. Those views will always stand out to me.

One of the firsts was the first exploration of the world’s longest cave system in Mexico. Would you say the cave-diving in Mexico is the best in the world?

Steve Backshall diving through a cave system (Gabriel Gasca Rubi)

Steve Backshall diving through a cave system (Gabriel Gasca Rubi)

It’s certainly the most exciting in terms of exploration.

There are still so many miles of cave passages that haven’t been explore and they are all beautiful.

There wasn’t a single metre that didn’t completely blow my mind. You’re swimming into a passage that no one has ever seen before. That is ridiculously special.

You’ve seen animals we’re all familiar with, like the polar bear, and animals that have never seen humans before. What was the most thrilling?

In Suriname, seeing not just one, but dozens of species of animals that had not seen humans before and were curious and inquisitive, rather than being flighty and taking off. 

They were coming close to look at us. I think that is the thing that made the biggest impression on me, animals that were totally naïve to us as human beings.

You say it was your craziest year ever. How do you top that? What does the year ahead hold for you?

Hopefully something considerably less crazy. I’m going back to doing another series of Deadly 60, this time from a purely conservation bent.

Steve Backshall (True to Nature)

Steve Backshall (True to Nature)

How did it feel to be able to name the Arctic peak and desert drop after your son, Logan?

Over this last year I have gone through every single emotion I can imagine.

I’ve missed home awfully, I’ve missed Logan and Helen desperately, but I’ve also had the opportunity to come back to them. I’ve had the opportunity to name an Artic mountain after him, and a desert pool and canyon after him.

That’s not something everybody gets the chance to do and, who knows, someday I might get the opportunity to take him back to those places...

Which is trickier raising Logan or the expeditions?

I’ve mostly had a good ride with raising Logan. He’s a very smiley and happy baby. It’s been nothing but a positive experience.

It’s certainly very different from being out on the expeditions, although with just as little sleep at night.

Expedition with Steve Backshall airs at 8pm on Sundays on Dave. The book based on the series, Expedition, is out now 

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