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Tourist vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen

How important is it to record your travels? This is the question I put to the explorer and Unbreakable tough guy Benedict Allen at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London this Saturday. I’m also interested in other people’s takes on this, and why they keep personal travel diaries?

Firstly, though, here’s Benedict Allen’s response:

It is crucial to record. The difference between a traveller and a tourist is that a traveller simulates that experience (for others) and records it.

Explorers like travellers are in the business of reporting back and, increasingly, this is a justification for going. We can no longer see the world simply as a playground (I was pretty self-indulgent when I started out). I feel better looking back that I recorded my expeditions: through writing, filming and photography.

You have to remember that is it s privilege to travel – many can’t do it (for financial and other reasons) – but by sharing it you give others a chance to get out there.

Of course, Benedict Allen has been on some pretty unique and far-flung trips. He added that the Niowra tribe he stayed with knew that their way of life was disintegrating and wanted him to record their Crocodile Initiation Ceremony for posterity.

But is there much value in the rest of us contributing our travel writing to others, especially if we aren’t adventurers but say backpackers following a well-trodden trail – or playground as Allen calls it? Is there anything for the world to learn from us?

Are we breaking down prejudices through our travel writing or are we just underscoring them?

And why are we so driven to record our experiences beyond the tourist holiday snap? Why, for example, do I have around 40-50 travel diaries locked up in a trunk in my house!?

(Aside: I did it so that I would have my best memories in writing for if I ever lost my memory. But also there were ideas of having published books, being the new Anais Nin, and let’s not underestimate the sheer habit of it.)

Finally, is ‘recording the experience’ really a difference between tourists and travellers? Or is it just that travelling types are often on long journeys with hours to kill so out comes the diary/blogging platform – or do you think you can you still be a ‘traveller’ on a weekend in the Lake District?

Of course, the irony of staying up late to blog my weekend of travel writing isn’t escaping me. I’m also reminded of Jack Kerouac who recorded the beat years while Neal Cassidy was the person who fully lived them.

So my finally question I’m pondering is how would my travels have been if I hadn’t stopped to record them – would I have live more fully in the moment, or is it worth saving some back to relive them later on?

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: See the list that keeps Benedict Allen alive

Girl with diary

A (wannabe) travel writer takes notes in a leather-bound diary at the Travellers' Tales festival, London (Feb 2010)


The list that keeps explorer Benedict Allen alive

Benedict Allen is a pretty experimental traveller – known for heading off into the remoteness with not much more than basic kit, some porkscratchings and a handheld camera.

Over the years, he’s had run-ins with everything from venomous snakes to blood-letting head-hunters.

But sometimes it gets really, really bad…


Eating with the Mentawai tribe in Indonesia /cc Wikipedia

He’s written many books about his adventures and posted his list of kit and survival tips on his website, but I was fascinated to see his list of last resort at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London at the weekend [20 Feb 2009].

It turns out that Benedict Allen carries a piece of paper in his kit that keeps him alive as much as anything in his survival or first aid kit. The scrawled list contains several bolds, underlines and scribbled asides – you imagine done in desperation at some treacherous point in his journey – and reads something like this:

  • A way out. Exit.
  • Assessment – face up to what’s happened.
  • Clear goal.
  • Morale.
  • Break down impossible objectives.
  • Adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Play to your strengths.
  • Work with forces bigger than you.
  • Not being afraid to being ruthless /unpopular.

(Bulletpoints are mine.)

Royal Geographical Society theatre

Benedict Allen at the Royal Geographical Society theatre for the Travellers' Tales festival

At least that’s as much as I could note down as speed before the slide on the big screen shifted to something else and Allen, solo explorer, survival expert and ‘pioneer of adventure television, started to elaborate on how, especially in the worst of times, he still shaves and maintains discipline, to keep up morale.

Of course, the extreme nature of his Boy’s Own adventures, has led to a number of times when the shaving routine has been dropped. And that’s when the list comes into its own.

For example…

The Amazon Basin can kill you in myriad ways.

Allen used his piece of paper several times on the last 300 miles of an Amazon Basin expedition from a bit of Ecuador and Columbia (‘the boring bits’) across the widest and most dangerous expanse of the basin and into Brazil.

This is a region of earth that can kill you in myriad ways, says Allen, and after experiencing three near-death experiences on this trip alone, he knows what it is like to see hope fade and die.

The worst was when, after being rescued by illegal loggers after stumbling across their camp, he was later betrayed by them when they ostensibly escorted him on his way, only to rob him and leave him to die in the middle of nowhere with no route out.

‘Self-pity flooded me.’

‘It is rather bad when you are going to die,’ adds Allen, drily.

  • Assessment – face up to what’s happened – tick.

‘The reason I did survive was the people back home waiting for me. But also there was this incredible sense of liberation. If I was going to die anyway, I had nothing to lose. So I decided to steal one of my bags back.

  • Adapt to changing circumstances – tick.
  • Not being afraid to being ruthless – tick.

‘I used tracking skills taught to me by Lucy [an eight-year-old girl he’d met earlier on the trip who had saved him from her five-year-old assassin brother], and tracked the two men. Then under cover of darkness I stole one of my bags.’

  • Play to your strengths – tick.

‘But I still had 100 miles to go – through dense rainforest. I had a survival kit and compass but no map. I thought, I can’t do it. I can’t do 100 miles.

‘Then I thought I could do 100 paces. So I got a stick and walked 100 paces. I notched it on the stick and it wasn’t long before I needed a new stick.

  • Break down impossible objectives – tick.
  • A way out. Exit – tick.

‘I began to believe in myself again.’

‘I wasn’t alone as there were all these people in my head – the Niowra tribe from New Guinea, the little girl, all those I had learnt from.’

  • Morale – tick.

Finally, he shows a slide of him walking barefoot and ragged out of the Amazon, wearing trousers that have rotted away into shorts and his girlfriends t-shirt. ‘Her t-shirt just kept looking better and better.

‘Never underestimate the power of women’s clothing.’

Benedict Allen shows the ladies his scars from the Crocodile Initiation Ceremony in New Guinea

Benedict Allen shows his scars from the Crocodile Initiation Ceremony in New Guinea - he survived that but will he survive the circling pack of lady travel writers?

Once again he had survived.

A fan once called him a cat who has used up six of his nine lives but Keyboard Cat isn’t playing him off just yet. Yet what keeps him (and people in general) going is what he is talking about at the Travellers’ Tales festival.

In fact, he makes sure to announce that he’s not just talking about survival instinct but that moment when your dreams disappear, things seem hopeless or death itself seem inevitable.

He also mentions depression: ‘Did you know 1 in 10 men suffer from depression? In fact, I can see some pretty miserable people in the audience right now.’

And, what is really good about Benedict Allen’s speech at Travellers’ Tales, is that here is someone who has faced the absolute worst of times and not someone who is there to brag about having been there and done that.

And when you look at his list, it seems a pretty wise and useful one, not just for extreme survival, but for life in general. My advice? Nick it!

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: Tourist Vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen