Ben Saunders (Martin Hartley)
Interview Words : The World According To ... | 03 January

The World According to Ben Saunders

Polar explorer, record breaker and endurance athlete Ben Saunders explains why he wasn't too keen on Singapore and what makes him just plain furious!

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Polar!

First travel experience?

I have fond memories of childhood trips to Dartmoor, and family holidays to France, the Greek Islands, Turkey and Tunisia.

Favourite journey?

Travelling through Russia, from Moscow to the northern-most tip of Severnaya Zemlya, the setting-off point for North Pole expeditions starting from the Russian side of the Arctic Ocean. The journey through Siberia is a real adventure, especially if you're hustling firearms, controlled medicines, satellite phones and hundreds of kilos of expedition gear.

Top five places worldwide?

The Arctic Ocean; Tokyo; the Scottish Highlands, particularly the far north-west; New York city; the Watkins Mountains in Greenland.

Special place to stay?

Kearvaig bothy (Cape Wrath, Sutherland) and the Island Shangri-La hotel (Hong Kong).

Three items you always pack?

An MP3 player (ancient but tiny Korean thing for polar expeditions, iPod Nano for everywhere else); a Field Notes notebook; fish oil pills.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

I have one from Kulusuk, Greenland (though I’m not convinced it’s a genuine stamp – it’s a polar bear that looks like someone carved it out of a potato).

Passport stamp you'd most like to have?

Aside from Hong Kong I’ve not been to China and I think it would be a fascinating place to spend time travelling around.

Guilty travel pleasure?

Flying business class! Only when other people are paying, mind you. I’ve had some flights with flat-bed seats where they make an actual bed up for you, with crisp linen and fluffy pillows. It’s a different world.

Window or aisle?

Window for short-haul, aisle for long-haul.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

A girl with the initials KN. We were planning to walk the Nakasendo Way in Japan. I hope it still happens one day.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

Best: an amazing steak at a restaurant in Reykjavik (called Argentina, somewhat confusingly) after five weeks of freeze-dried rations on the Greenland ice cap.

Worst: I got an overnight bus from Mumbai to Panjim, Goa about 16 years ago. The ancient-looking Indian guy next to me was swigging from a hip flask when we set off, and before long had offered to share his drink. Naturally I had a sip or too, and all was well until he pulled out what I can only describe as a stone-cold, oily omelette from his jacket pocket, wrapped in newspaper, and offered me half of that too…

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

I visited Skye for the first time a few weeks ago, and we spent nearly a week surrounded by epic scenery, with no internet, phone signal or electricity. I’ve been to some of the remotest spots on the planet, but it was refreshing to experience genuine wilderness and isolation so close to home.

My most disappointing experience – and this isn’t a reflection on what I have no doubt is a magical country  – was a speaking engagement in Singapore. I spent 24 hours there before I had to fly home again, and I didn’t even set foot outside the hotel. The room I spoke in had no windows and I could have been in a swanky hotel in Milton Keynes.

Where do you NOT want to go?

Magaluf (although I absolutely love Mallorca and do a lot of training there each spring).

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

I loved reading old National Geographic magazines when I was a kid, and I started hatching expedition plans when I was working for John Ridgway (the first to row the Atlantic, back in 1966). I love Bruce Chatwin’s travel writing.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I have a pretty eclectic (if peculiar) taste in music. Drum and bass works particularly well for solo polar expeditions, especially for my recent North Pole speed record attempts. It’s like having caffeine delivered intravenously via your eardrums.

If I’m not on some head-banging, sledge-dragging mission, then Jonsi & Alex’s album Riceboy Sleeps is the perfect soundtrack for travelling.

What do you read?

I was given a Kindle this year and it’s a wonderful bit of kit, though I miss the tangible, tactile essence of a battered paperback. I always have too many books on the go at once, but chunky novels are good for long trips. Jonathan Frantzen’s Freedom was one such hefty book last year year.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

I’ve experienced a lot of heart-warming generosity from complete strangers – being cooked dinner by a family in Siberia as we waited for a weather window in 2004 sticks in my mind. They were dirt-poor but happy to share everything they had.

Seeing people litter, especially in wild and beautiful places, really makes me furious. The amount of rubbish we saw washed up on a remote beach on Skye a few weeks ago was genuinely upsetting.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

I know the Swahili for “This scooter goes very fast” but I’ve no idea how to spell it.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

I tend to treat the bit between getting off a plane and arriving at passport control as a race that I CANNOT LOSE. I reckon most Olympic speed-walkers could learn a thing or two from my terminal technique, and I feel especially smug if my victory involves avoiding the moving walkway and still overtaking dawdlers…

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

Scott and Shackleton’s team used to take it in turn to deliver lectures, though nowadays we might have some technological assistance; I know of one Norwegian explorer who was watching James Bond films each night as he skied his way to a South Pole speed record last year. I’m thinking of taking some poetry to Antarctica as I’ve always envied people who can reel off whole chunks of Keats and Frost.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

The highest highs and the deepest lows have been on my solo North Pole expeditions, which is probably why I keep going back there. On a good day it’s the most beautiful place on earth, and on a bad day it feels like the place is trying to kill you.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

Aviation fuel.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

Whenever the current crop of made-for-TV pseudo-adventure gets too much to bear I daydream about doing what I do in the Golden Age of Edwardian exploration, though I suspect the scurvy-ridden reality would have been pretty grim at times.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

New York city’s energy, Amsterdam’s bike paths (and a few of its lovely people) and Budapest’s architecture.

Video courtesy of Lynx Content

The Telegraph Adventure Travel ShowBen Saunders is the youngest person to ski solo to the North Pole and holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton. In October 2012 he will lead a three-man team setting out to retrace Captain Scott’s ill-fated return journey to the South Pole on foot.

Ben will be speaking at The Telegraph Adventure Travel Show at Olympia London, 28-29 January 2012. Wanderlust will also be there, offering half-day photography workshops. For more details visit the official website at www.adventureshow.com.

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