Ahead of an appearance in Harrogate, Steve Backshall talks to Laura Reid about climate change and a challenging year of pioneering expeditions.
There’s something about the Arctic that adventurer and wildlife enthusiast Steve Backshall finds “utterly life-affirming”.
“One minute it’s blue skies and searing sun, the next the wind and ice seems to be trying to end you. It’s a place where we as humans feel very small and yet our impact as a species is most dramatic.”
He wrote those words to the tens of thousands of people who follow his social media pages, during the airing of his television series, Expedition, back in August. The show charts his experiences during his greatest project yet - ten expeditions in search of new discoveries and world firsts in some of the darkest corners of the planet, all in just 12 months.
That year of adventures is over, but his highlighting of the effect of human activity on the planet’s complex workings is most certainly not. When we speak on a grey and cold morning in early October, he is on his way to talk to schoolchildren about the scale of climate change.
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“I think that we stand at a crux point in history right now,” he says, when I ask for his views on conservation and the environment. “There is no question what we are doing to our planet, the only real question is how we deal with it.
“While I can totally understand people’s reservations about the methodology of, for example, Extinction Rebellion, I think you would be very unwise to question their reasons. For someone like me, who has been travelling for a living for 25 years, it is crystal clear the damage we are doing to our planet and the time to act is now.”
He is at pains to point out the amount of work being done by young activists and conservationists. But whilst he is encouraged by all they are investing into the world, he wants his generation to stand up and do more.
“I am given great heart by the fact there are so many young people who have the belief and passion to go out and make big changes,” he says.
“We are so reliant on them and their enthusiasm but it’s time my generation joined in and started doing their bit as well - because we are so, so culpable.”
Backshall, 46, writes about climate change in his latest book Expedition: Adventures into Undiscovered World. That too documents his year of discoveries and those adventures are also the theme of a talk that he will give at the Royal Hall in Harrogate next week.
“I came up with this idea originally in the late 1990s,” he tells me. “I had just done my first few solo expeditions and was starting to become aware that there were quite a lot of big firsts that were still out there to do.”
One in particular stood out - travelling the mighty Baliem River on the island of New Guinea from source to sea.
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“I spent twenty years trying to convince every single boss I ever had, every single television commissioner I worked for that they should give me an opportunity, to fund going and doing this expedition and nobody ever went for it...Then in 2016 I managed to convince the BBC to fund me to do it and it went really, really well.”
Off the back of Down The Mighty River, Backshall planned his adventures for Expeditions. For over two decades, he had jotted down ideas for ‘firsts’, as well as contacts and connections to help him achieve them. From this “compendium of different possibilities”, he chose - and completed - ten.
Despite his writing experience - Backshall began his career as a travel writer and has written fiction, as well as factual and anecdotal accounts - he found documenting his latest adventures a tough ask.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, getting to the end of a long, hard day of yomping through the rainforest or climbing a mountain or sea kayaking in the Arctic and then having to sit down and spend an hour or so writing about it. It has been absolutely brutal.”
He had scrapes, narrow escapes and close calls with death, but he witnessed sights that few others have seen.
“There’s so many memorable experiences but one that really stands out is in the jungles of Suriname. We spent about five weeks there paddling down rivers that didn’t exist on any map, that weren’t even known to local people.
“We were on one of these paddling for day after day after day and eventually looking at the GPS, it was clear we had a lot of distance to drop in terms of height before we got back onto known territory…We came around a bend in the river and there in front of us was a waterfall, a 100m high waterfall of which there are no records or notes.
“We were the first people to see it and that is just absolutely staggering. The entire team were moved to the point of tears, just so so excited. It was incredibly beautiful, totally unexpected and to be able to experience something like that for the first time in 2018, as it was, is something I’ll never, ever forget.”
Backshall, who has a son with wife Helen Glover and revealed earlier this month that the couple were expecting another baby, won’t forget the dangerous and the difficult either.
Descending a whitewater river in Bhutan, his kayak overturned and he became stuck in a rapid. Trapped under icy water for almost five minutes, he was convinced he was going to die.
Without his team’s lead kayaker, adventurer Sal Montgomery, who managed to throw him a line and drag him out, “there’s no way I would still be here today”, he says.
“I have had near death experiences before and they always hit you retrospectively. It’s only afterwards that you realise how serious they were. But this was different.
“I had four and a half minutes to realise what was happening to me, to process it and know I was in big trouble. That’s a long time.
“It’s enough time to process what was happening, to think oh my god I’m never going to see my baby again, I’m never going to see Helen again, to run through what it actually meant to be losing so much...Because of that, I think it was a lot more emotionally affecting.”
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There are often times, he reflects, that he feels like giving up, that it’s not worthwhile and perhaps it is time for a change of career. “But the truth is, I am given so much positivity by the things that I see and do. I have these remarkable opportunities, almost daily, that give me enormous rewards.
“There is nothing that compares with the moment when you open your tent in the morning and look out on a stunning view, one that in some cases no human being has ever seen before.
“You look at a day of probable huge excitement where absolutely anything could happen and I am so, so lucky. It’s not something that I take lightly and things like that give you the positivity and endless enthusiasm to continue.”
Steve Backshall - Voyages to Undiscovered Places will be held at 3pm on Saturday, October 19 at the Royal Hall in Harrogate. It includes a Q&A session and book signing.
The event is being hosted by Cause UK, in association with the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and NiddFest, an event designed to celebrate nature and literature and highlight the importance of Nidderdale’s landscape and wildlife.
Clair Challenor-Chadwick, director of Cause UK, said: “We hope Steve’s talk will particularly engage children and young people and inspire them to get involved in nature and wildlife.”
Backshall added: “The more we engage with the natural world, the more we fall in love with it and the more we care for it.”