My dad was a test pilot. He used to fly Vulcan bombers – the ones that used to carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent – low over our house. He was such a gentle character, but he was also fine with pushing himself to the limit. I remember him bringing weaverbird nests back from Africa once. That’s probably what gave me the idea to become an explorer.
I kept getting told the age of exploration was over. ‘Even if you can find somewhere to go, there’ll be no money in it.’ I decided I’d give it a go just once, just to see. I saved a bit of money from a warehouse job and went to the Amazon. It was a bit of disaster – I got attacked by goldminers and had to walk out of the forest day after day because I had nothing to survive on – but it made me want to understand the forest.
The only way I could understand the forest was to learn from local people. I didn’t have any money, so all I could do was learn some skills from them, then do an exhibition about them when I came back. Back in the 80s, the window for learning from these people was still just about open and I knew I had to take the opportunity while it still existed.
I had to prove to them I wasn’t a threat. Their major experiences with outsiders were not positive ones: they tended to involve strangers extracting resources from their homes. By persuading elders that I really was here to learn – and by playing with children, who tended to be the ones who were receptive and had the time to play – I could convince people I wasn’t an intruder who needed to be killed.
Piranhas are not man eaters. At least not in my experience. Living in the rainforest, I learnt all sorts of practical skills, including shelter building and how to find free food. Fishing was one way. I’d be standing in the water and piranhas would surround my feet, chasing the insects I used as bait. They never touched me. Maybe in dry season, if they’re cornered in a small pool, or if you’ve got a gaping cut on your feet, they might go for you, but they never went for me. I think they’ve got a reputation just because of their sharp teeth and probably because we love that kind of story. But perhaps the biggest thing I learnt is that the forest is not a dangerous place if you know what you’re doing. If you’re in the Amazon, your biggest threat is malaria – or drowning. It’s not piranhas or anacondas or anything like that.
You need communication skills to be an explorer. You’ve got to be resilient, of course, but being able to communicate is key – whether that’s through words or pictures or film. If you can’t describe your experience for someone else, it has no value to anyone else – you are a traveller not an explorer. If anyone wants to be an explorer today, I’d tell them to learn to be a photographer, a film maker or a writer, and find a new angle and voice to describe the world. That’s what I did – I had to become a pioneer of the video selfie because it was just me, my camera and the forest.