The ex-British Army captain and explorer was the first person to walk the length of the Amazon. His TV series include First Man Out and Left for Dead for Discovery and 60 Days with the Gypsies for Channel 4. Brought up in Leicestershire, he now lives there with his wife, Laura, and three children, Ran, Molly and Milly
By Susan Gray
Relaxing at his family home in the Leicestershire countryside
You walked the length of the Amazon in 2010. What is the transformational effect of long-distance walks?
I went on that expedition for multiple reasons. As a child I was quite shy. If you feel the need to beat your chest on such a large scale – to walk the Amazon and film it – it reveals a huge desire to be seen. The Royal Geographical Society talks about whispering about your expeditions before you go and shouting about them when you come back. I shouted about the Amazon three months before I even got on the plane! Humility was a big part and I was reliant on local people to stay safe. Without them, as a single, 6ft 1in white man walking through the jungle, I would have been killed. My long-term guide, Cho, said he has no doubt that I would be dead if he hadn’t joined me.
You parted company with your first walking partner, Luke Collyer, after four months, but bonded with Peruvian Cho. What’s your advice for selecting trek partners?
It’s tricky. With Cho, the massive thing was his constancy. He was on a level whereas I was emotionally volatile. Cho wouldn’t get dragged into it – he was the most beautiful, naive human being inside an inherently wise body. When he was 12, his town was attacked by the Shining Path Communist guerrillas and he had to escape to the mountains. He had this expression ‘Cuando hay – hay. Cuando no hay – no hay’, which means there’s no point focusing on things you can’t change, so focus on the things you can. So the qualities I look for in a trek companion go back to Cho.
How did Cho react when he saw the ocean for the first time?
It was extraordinary as he dived into the ocean at the end. He’d never tasted salt water before because he’d never been to the coast. I had to explain you couldn’t drink it.
Is maintaining a social media presence on expeditions a blessing or a curse?
It’s a double-edged sword. I wouldn’t have completed the expedition had I not done it, although it made the rucksack heavy – a Mac laptop, chargers, batteries and all sorts of gubbins. Fifteen months into the expedition we ran out of money. As we had developed this tiny following, I put a plea out and we raised £40,000. Blogging means expensive satellite internet costs, insurance, flights, Cho’s wages, food and local guides. I came back £54,000 in debt.
Blogging’s upside was that you were able to reach a young audience…
We recognised early on that teachers, mostly in England, had found the expedition, and were doing Amazon projects. Unlike just looking at a big map, they’ve got some hapless idiot walking through the jungle. We did bi-weekly blogs, ranging from deforestation reports to a video about a spider monkey with opposable thumbs. Since then I’ve been involved in youth development. Adventures aren’t just about adrenaline seeking and escaping from reality. If you’re in difficult situations, you evolve as a human being, I’m a Scouts ambassador and work alongside Camp Wilderness for children and families. There are two ways of going into nature. One is treating nature like a landscape painting and admiring it from afar, and the other is to interact with it. The camps are the interactive version.
How did your Scouts experience shape your love and ability in the outdoors?
You only need to learn how to navigate or sleep out under canvas once, if you’ve been taught well, and I did all that in the Scouts. I was lucky enough to grow up in the late 1970s. We would run to the fields and build dams and treehouses. Those developmental benefits for kids are still available, but you need to organise the parameters.
As a parent, what do you think families get out of being in the wilderness?
If you’re a good parent, you’re constantly swimming against the tide. So many kids at my son Ran’s school have phones, and at age four that’s bonkers. Unless you actively make time for wholesome family activity, it won’t happen. With Camp Wilderness challenges there’s bonding, because families work together as a team.
You left London for Leicestershire. What drew you to the countryside?
I was in London for 14 years trying to make a career. But I wouldn’t want to bring kids up in a London flat and have limited access to the outdoors. My focus has shifted to wanting the best environment for my kids.
How important is countryside to you?
Wilderness, countryside, whatever you call it, we’re better people when we connect to it. Why I reference my background – I was expelled from school – is you can take people who’ve gone off the rails and put them in nature, and they work through their problems.
How crucial are rights of way across the countryside?
Talking from the naughty school kid inside me, there’s a run I do around the village. It’s not an official footpath and the farmer has started putting grease all over the gate I jump over, and barbed wire over the other end of the field. I’ve just done a 60-day immersion project with gypsies and travellers for Channel 4 and I have a strong opinion on access to land. It should be available for everyone to enjoy. There should be a greater level of access like in National Parks where people can just roam. I don’t believe in ownership of land.
Can people walk across your land?
There’s no footpath, but gates at both ends. If I saw somebody, I’d have a chat rather than get my shotgun out.
Walking the Amazon changed Ed's life
Was it a conscious choice to steer your career in a more anthropological direction with the 60 Days shows?
When I came back from the Amazon, I registered walking the Nile and walking the Himalayas, both of which [fellow explorer] Levison Wood did. It would have been too much of a cliché just to be the guy who walks rivers. If you haven’t scratched that itch by walking the Amazon over two and a half years, I don’t think it’s going to be scratched by any other river. I believe in being challenged, but I’m in a different phase of my life. I still make TV programmes, but I go away for short periods. Solo challenges smack of being a bit selfish. If I still had the desire to spend two and a half years working on my own, there’d be something wrong with my marriage! And with my moral compass as a father.
What’s your favourite
The Amazon. That experience changed my life.
I don’t have a favourite town walk. It’s an alien concept to me.
It would be back to home for this one. The best view is from my mum’s kitchen window across to the next village of Laughton, taking in Bradgate Park outside Leicester.
Essential piece of kit is a knife, as it helps you with building a fire and making a shelter. These are the skills that can keep you alive.
When I get back from a walk, I like to have a Guinness, from a can with a widget.
Ed Stafford is hosting courses at Camp Wilderness