From the depths of Mexican caves to scaling heights in the Arabian Peninsula, Steve Backshall promises to inject Harrogate audiences with the adrenalin of his most ambitious year to date. Interview by Ann Chadwick, Director of Cause UK.
He puts the wild in wildlife. The Action Man of TV. We’re used to seeing Steve Backshall holding a deadly creature on the children’s show Deadly 60 or swimming with sharks on Blue Planet Live, but his latest challenge was his most jaw-dropping yet.
Steve took on 10 expeditions in 12 months to remote parts of the planet not even on the map, proving that old-fashioned exploration and adventure is alive.
‘Expedition’ makes for gripping TV.
“The last year I’ve been on the road doing ten world firsts,” Steve explained. “Things like the first ever white water kayak in the centre of a river in the Himalayas, or the first ever ascent of a mountain in the Arctic and the first ever ascent of a mountain in the dessert. It’s been a year living in the most remote, most little known, most challenging, and most exciting environments on earth.”
It’s a project that he said left him mentally drained and physically destroyed by the end, albeit his trademark enthusiasm quickly bounced back.
“I think I’m lucky in that I’m just a positive and enthusiastic person. We got lots of experiences pretty much daily that rejuvenate any sense of enthusiasm that might otherwise be flagging. Whether it’s going round a corner and finding an animal that’s clearly never seen a human being before, or whether its dropping over a rapid that no-one’s paddled before, or even if it’s just seeing a stunning sunrise or sunset, those little moments are very good for resetting the clock and getting you back on track.”
His new book on the challenge Expedition: Adventures into Undiscovered Worlds was published this July. It’s hard to imagine Steve sitting at a dusty desk. He didn’t, naturally.
“It was written while I was on the expeditions!” Steve said. “It wasn’t done in a quiet room at home, it was done in my hammock at the end of the day in the rainforest, it was done in my tent once I got to the end of slogging up a mountain in the Arctic, it was done on planes, on trains, in cars and boats. It’s all down to keeping a very meticulous diary which is essential for putting together a book like this.”
Steve’s adventurous path is ultimately thanks to his upbringing.
“It was probably my mum and dad, they’re both massively into the outdoors and into nature, it was something that was very much a part of our childhood, so I kind of knew it was going to be a part of my life somehow. I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to happen. I wouldn’t of thought I’d of ended up working in television, I probably would of thought it was more likely I’d end up working in an African safari park as a guide, but it has been a happy accident, and one that I’m very, very glad that has worked out this way.”
It’s part of his message. That falling in love with the outdoors, nature and adventure as a child – on your doorstep – can have a lifetime of benefits.
“It’s always been a massive part of my message that you always have to start close to home –that adventure is found most deliberately in our back yard. I don’t think there is anybody who goes away on their first expedition to the summit of Everest. You go on an expedition to climb up the hill in your village – you discover the world first from the things that are close to you. And also you discover how to take care of those places as well because they’re ours, they belong to us, their heritage is placed in our hands. I think it’s critical that we find adventure close to home first, and we learn all of our skills to be able to have other adventures later on in life as close to home as possible.”
The team risk assess ‘every second of every minute of every day’ but Steve hit the headlines for almost drowning when his kayak flipped in icy waters. Life lessons are part and parcel of his line of work.
“Right from my very first expedition where I tried to walk solo across New Guinea on my own, I failed dismally and saw it as a disaster, but actually I learned more from my mistakes on that expedition than I probably learnt from any of my successful expeditions. You learn more from your mistakes than you ever do from your successes.”
Steve’s talk at the Royal Hall is being brought to Harrogate by local agency, Cause UK, with support from The Wild Watch, a project in Nidderdale AONB that is running the area’s biggest wildlife survey, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Part of their mission is to get children, and people of all ages, into the great outdoors.
The Wild Watch patron, fellow BBC wildlife presenter Lindsey Chapman explains, “We need a movement of people to be the custodians of our countryside, and the best way to get people enthused is to get them outdoors to engage with nature, and develop a love of our countryside and wildlife.” What we do not love, we do not save.
Steve agreed: “Very much so. I think it’s critical. I think nowadays it’s not enough to just make programmes that show the world at its most beautiful, you also need to talk specifically about the challenges that these environments and these animals are facing.”
He’s a passionate advocate for AONBs and protected landscapes.
“I think they’re actually vital. Some of the biggest fundraising projects that I’ve had over the last ten years have been about protecting habitats, about maintaining them. I think that it’s immensely important to maintain a living, functioning landscape as opposed to trying to recreate it from scratch, which is something that has inevitably a complexity that we can never hope to replicate. It’s always better to maintain a mature environment in its entirety than trying to bring it back after we’ve ruined it.”
Has he seen the impact of climate change first hand on his expeditions?
“Yes, absolutely. The Arctic expedition was one where we very much saw in real time things happening in the field of climate change, it’s also been a massive concern of ours on this expedition. Not only have we tried to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Site status for many of the sites that we’ve been going to, but also we’ve been the first UK TV production company to completely offset all our carbon emissions through forest purchase in Borneo. So the entire project has been ratified as carbon neutral.”
Is it the most important issue we face as a society?
“I think that each and all of the elements in terms of biodiversity, habitat loss, the plastic crisis – all of those things come together to spell an ‘eco-gedden’ if you like, which yes is the biggest problem facing us as a species and our planet. Fresh water, desertification, all of these things come together into one big topic which is going to be the biggest scenario for our children, for the next generation, to have to focus on.”
Steve’s mission is to inspire hope, to tap into a spirit of adventure and wonder. What does he hope audiences in Harrogate will leave with after his talk?
“Everyone will take something different from it. There’s always the opportunity for people to ask me questions, so to focus on the things that they’re most interested in. I hope they take away with them the sense that the world has not been completely explored and not completely despoiled and there are fabulous wild corners of it out there both to explore for the first time, but also to want to try and protect.”
So how does Steve follow up the most challenging year of his life?
“Good question! So I’m at present making another series of my kid’s series Deadly 60, which is very much this time round based on conservation, with conservation at the heart of everything we do. Then I’ve got another big project on sharks after that, so yeah, there will always be another new passion project for me, I’m sure.”
Imagine what an encounter with Steve could do to an aspiring explorer.
Steve Backshall – The Royal Hall, 19th October 2019, 3pm followed by a book signing of Expedition.
To book: www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/Steve-Backshall-Voyages-to-Undiscovered-Places Box Office: 01423 502116