I come from a family of adventurers. I couldn’t resist becoming one tooby Benedict Allen / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Seven generations of my family lived in India—one of them gave Kipling his first job, another narrowly missed giving his name to Mount Everest—and my oldest cousin lived in the jungle collecting moths. My father was a test pilot. One of my earliest memories was of him flying a Vulcan bomber overhead, waggling its delta wings at us as we stood in our back garden. Returning from his “tropical trials,” he’d pluck from his flight bag impossibly exotic objects: a snake pickled in meths, a weaverbird’s nest. It was natural for me to assume that I too would have adventures one day.
I was aged ten when I solemnly announced my future profession: explorer. Whereas most mothers and fathers would have smiled in the expectation that their child would grow out of it, in our household my declaration was treated with silent resignation. Only my father was excited. “But that’s a wonderful thing,” he said.
I’d long since been dragging the whole family off on fossil-hunting ventures. I’d even converted the garden shed into a museum. No one much came to see it—but it didn’t matter. And here’s the key: I was driven—there’d be no stopping me anyway.
I think this must have comforted my mother. No gormless teenager this one. I knew my future, and I’d soon be off adventuring. Although she never gave up hoping that I’d get a “proper job,” she stoically enabled my dream: allowing me to live at home through the first impecunious years. She did what she could, and off I went to the Amazon on my first solo venture aged 22 and duly almost killed myself by contracting malaria. The second expedition, to New Guinea, wasn’t much healthier.
I was living life to the full, you’d think. Along the way I was shot at by Pablo Escobar’s mob in Colombia and marooned on a rock in the Torres Strait off Australia. On and on, until one expedition to the Arctic. Alone, separated on the pack ice from my dog team and supplies, I was again facing death. But this time, it was different.
My mother had by now died unexpectedly, of cancer. I still had my father, and a brother and sister, but it wasn’t the same anymore. Out on the ice, I realised that my launch-pad was gone—the nest I’d repeatedly flown had been ripped from the trees.
When I did find…