Ed Stafford spent 860 days walking the Amazon. Now he gives his views on the world of travel
Mountain/Desert/Jungle/Ocean - which are you?
Jungle - without a shadow of a doubt. It’s an environment where you don’t need much stuff. In mountains you’re reliant on warm kit, ropes, harnesses, all kinds of stuff. In the jungle you can virtually do it with the clothes on your back. When my fancy boots gave up in the Amazon I just bought cheap wellies. When my clothes fell apart I bought cheap shirts and cheap jeans from the local market.
OK, you need a machete and you need a lighter, other than that you can really just get by with what you can find. I really like that simplicity. The routine we managed to settle into when things started going well and we’d got experience was just brilliant. Find a little river, wash in it each night, find some fire wood, put your hammocks up; it was a lovely environment really.
The jungle gets this really bad rep for being a hostile environment. I don’t see it like that at all. I think there are a lot of myths surrounding it when actually you can have a really nice life in the jungle.
First travel experience?
When I left school I went across Mexico for about two months but that was all very tame stuff. I was staying at hotels with swimming pools and things like that. It wasn’t too out there.
I was a scout as a kid, always going away on scout camps. It has a bit of a geeky reputation these days but I loved it. It was brilliant just to get away and again, making fires, sleeping and making bivouacs, it all came in handy later. It was all a good grounding. Even if you don’t physically use those skills at least you are used to living in the outdoors. You’re slightly more able than if you’d lived in a city all of your life.
It would have to be walking the Amazon. It just blows every other one out of the water. To walk for two and a half years in the jungle and then say something else is a better journey would be slightly farcical. It’s so far and above anything else I’ve done before.
Top five places worldwide?
Afghanistan. The people are amazing, really dramatic differences in landscape. When we got the chance to fly over it in UN helicopters, I found Afghanistan to be quite a cool place.
I love New Zealand, especially the south island. Argentina. Loved the people, the differences of the land. Colombia and England.
Passport stamp you’re proudest of?
I’ve got a Turkmenistan visa in my passport, which is the escape route out of Afghanistan had things gone Pete Tong.
Passport stamp you’d most like to have?
I don’t know if there are any passport offices, but Antarctica.
Who is your ideal travelling companion?
Best meal you had on your Amazon walk?
It was the Sardines en Croute Cho made for me. We’d eaten so many sardines, we were really bored with them. Cho bought some flour one day and spent about two hours making this pastry. It was phenomenal! He just put so much love into it. They were the best sardines en croute I tasted in my entire life.
There were so many, so many! In some of the communities where the people didn’t want us to stay there they begrudgingly gave us leftovers – a tiny bit of dried fish that we had to pick at and maybe a bit of cold rice. Nobody wanted to cook for us and we felt we couldn’t cook for ourselves in the middle of somebody’s village. We just had to pick at other people’s leftovers, the scraps that were given to us. There were a lot of shitty meals like that.
Where would you NOT want to go?
Crikey! I don’t think there’s anywhere I wouldn’t want to go.
What inspired you to travel? Did you have any travel heroes?
Good old Sir Ranulph (Fiennes) is probably my biggest hero. He’s just done such amazing stuff in the past. I really like the physical stuff. People like Sir Ran, and Mike Horn – the guys who have gone out there and really pushed that level of human endeavor. They might not necessarily be the best writers, be the most charismatic people, they might not necessarily be as media savvy as some of the other people, in terms of making the most out of what they’ve done, but I think in terms of actual physical achievement those guys are phenomenal.
Is there a song that takes you back to a particular time and place?
Maybe Cho singing ‘I hope I’m old, before I die’ by Robbie Williams. It’s funny, he didn’t know what he was saying because he couldn’t speak English but he was just listening to my iPod. Quite appropriate!
Is there any person you met in your travels who reaffirmed your faith in humanity?
Loads. It’s difficult just to pinpoint one. I was really struggling to get through the Red Zone before I met Cho. Nobody would walk with me and eventually I found this 16-year-old kid called Elias who said he’d walk with me. I asked him why he was living with his uncle and aunt and he said it was because his mother had been murdered with a nail through the throat. I was trying to explain my condolences to him and then I asked him when it was and it was only six days before.
It was phenomenal really. The fact that this kid was kind enough to see this helpless gringo and offer to walk with him through quite dangerous areas, so soon after his mother had died I thought that was the kindest thing. It made me put all my worries and fears at the time into perspective. I’m just going on a walk. This poor kid has just had his mother murdered, he was prepared to help me rather than think of himself.
What is the most useful or impressive phrase you know in a foreign language?
(Laughs) Non-rude ones, I suppose? (Long pause) My brain is just full of swear words! The Virgin mother of all whores is the only one I can think of!
What is your worst habit as a traveller?
I was still a smoker for most of the trip. It was a lovely little comfort I suppose, a bit of normality as I was going on this expedition but it really annoyed me that we were going through this amazing, pristine rainforest and I was sucking in nicotine.
When and where on this trip were you at your happiest?
I think it was when we were really remote and we’d had to push away from the river because we’d run out of money. Everything started to go wrong. We didn’t have the right maps, the GPS broke, the insurance lapsed, we were out of food, it was just one thing after the other and the expedition was therefore getting that little bit more dangerous.
Everything started to depend on us surviving on our wits and it became the most enthralling part of the expedition. Both Cho and I both just absolutely buzzed off it.
What smell immediately takes you back to that trip?
When ants fall down the back of your neck when you knock their nest and you get ants falling all the way down your back. It smells really musty and unmistakably ant-like. I hated that smell. I kept catching branches when I walked under trees and more ants fell down the back of my neck and start biting you.
Given a choice, which era would you travel in?
I think now. It’s amazing to be able to go somewhere like the Amazon, which was still pretty unexplored and pretty remote, but to have this ability to communicate with the outside world. A lot of people said they thought it took away a little bit from the expedition but we wouldn’t have been able to do it without what we had with us.
I mean, the fact that we built this online following, when we ran out of money, we put a PayPal link on the website and everyone who started following started donating and kept the expedition alive. We wouldn’t have got the funding to continue if it hadn’t been for that technology. I think I’m lucky to live in this day and age when this technology is just becoming possible to be able to upload videos and stuff.
If you could combine three cities to make one metropolis, what would they be?
The friendliness of the people in Argentine Patagonia. In terms of going out and having a good time, London, without a shadow of a doubt. In terms of getting out and having a nice active lifestyle, Christchurch, New Zealand.