You’ve been called Britain’s most fearless man. Do you agree?
It amuses me. I’m sort of proud in a funny way. But fear is a good thing to have. I do feel fear. When I was shot at by Columbian drug dealers in the Amazon (Pablo Escobar’s henchmen) that was one of my most scary moments!
Everyone needs to feel fear. I do risky things but not as much as anyone thinks! I don’t have a camera crew so I have no backup but, by being alone, you are sheltered by the local people. You aren’t a threat to them.
What do you prefer: being totally isolated or immersed in a new culture or tribe?
Mine’s a twin system. During the immersion I learn the skills, then I go it alone. I’m testing myself. It’s crucial to let go to understand. It’s very exciting to see a place on your own terms. I’ve never been lonely or alone.
You must meet some fascinating characters. Do you keep in touch?
It’s very hard. I’ve gone back to some places to see them. It’s often compromised with my work. I see people as subjects so I like to go back to be with them as people. I went back to the Matsu Indians in the Amazon. The effectively saved my life so I went back to explain.
You were an “entrepreneur explorer” - how did you become a TV presenter?
I was asked by the BBC. TV is totally incompatible with what I do because of the people, the crew. But with the video diary, off I went. It was perfect, instead of reaching a few people with a book, I could communicate with the world through the telly. And it was pioneering, a real chance to do something new. My camera became my companion. It felt less selfish
What’s your favourite means of transport?
Camels. I don’t ride them though, I walk with them. Riding is isolating as you are so high off the ground. I’d walk alongside and the camels carried the load. I like walking, it keeps you awake.
So what do you think about the London tube, then?
I like it because I like watching people. I live in London and I love it. I come back and, like a sponge, I fill myself up with my culture. I love the cosmopolitan nature of London. It’s wonderful. We are all explorers. If I couldn’t go abroad again, I’d find enough to keep me going just in Shepherd’s Bush!
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m working on a book about ice dogs and planning a trip to North West China, to the largest waterless expanse in the world: the Takla Makan which means ‘go in and you won’t get out’.
The next book is out in Autumn next year. It’s about Siberia, and my efforts to train the ice dogs, but also about how to survive when the world is collapsing around you. It’s about what keeps people going. Obviously Siberia is the perfect place to explore that.
What would you schedule on UKTV Documentary if you were the boss for a day?
I would bring back the old documentaries like the Under the Sun series. Proper anthropology. I bet people would watch them.
There were these great reports on the Hama people in Ethiopia, the women looked so exotic but they showed them to be real ordinary women. Also the classic films like the ‘Tribe that hides from Man’.