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Ed Stafford cruising down a river in Laos

Interview

Ed Stafford: The Mindset of an Explorer

The mark of an Ed Stafford expedition is the punishing physical and mental toll. Why does he do it?

Words by Patrick Tillard

A question that I’ve always wanted to put to explorer Ed Stafford is: “What is wrong with you?” It’s not meant to be a controversial tactic intended to get a rise, but a sincere query into the mind of a man who seems to be programmed differently from everyone else.

Why would you want to walk the entire length of the Amazon River, for example? Or choose to be marooned on an uninhabited island in the Pacific without food or water… and clothes? It doesn’t seem normal.

Recently, as he was in between masochistic projects, I was able to ask him that very question.

“I think a bit of my brain is missing,” Stafford replies, jovially. “In all seriousness, there is a medical condition that I was told I had called ‘developmental immaturity’. It’s not flattering, but it acknowledges that we all have different elements to ourselves and the bit in me that hadn’t developed properly was the adult, responsible self. It explained why I used to get into trouble a lot, and why I was happy to take huge risks.”

It’s an understatement to refer to his 2008 Walking the Amazon expedition as a “huge risk”. It was the first time this feat had ever been attempted, an undertaking fraught with peril including trekking through drug ganglands; encountering brutal temperatures; and covering 6000 miles through oppressive environments. It eventually wound up taking 860 days—nearly two and a half years—to complete.

“It was succeed or die,” he says. “We were told we would die many times but we kept walking. It was a strong, violent demonstration of endurance; a two-fingered salute to anyone who doubted me. It broke me, re-built me, and was the catalyst for immense personal evolution.

“Of course, there were low moments. Many pages of my diary were streaked as tears had literally been dripping onto the page as I wrote in my hammock. At times in Peru, I would just ask myself one question: ‘Are you going forward?’ If the answer was yes, then nothing else mattered. I was doing what was required.”

While the physicality of Stafford’s undertakings are usually substantial, it’s the mental preparation that is the key to success or failure.

“I struggled hugely and had wars going on in my head”

“I think I was massively underprepared for the Amazon in terms of mental robustness,” Stafford says. “I struggled hugely and had wars going on in my head. In hindsight, I still had a long way to go to make peace with myself and who I was. Nowadays I have nothing to hide from. I can deal with whatever life throws at me.”

It humbled me, it exposed me to cultures that taught me how to live better and more honestly. It held up a mirror and made me realise that there were more important things in life than my own achievements.”

New challenges

Marriage in 2016—to distinguished adventurer Laura Bingham—and a son named Ranulph appears to have changed the landscape for Stafford. With people to leave behind if things go south, has this altered the amount of risk that he’ll take on with an expedition?

“It does to some extent,” he answers. “When you become a dad you realise that you are important in different ways and that your role has shifted. It involves consideration and responsibility for others. Ignore that natural hormonal shift and you shirk the amazing opportunity to be a great dad – the sacrifices and the immense joy. I’m ready and happy for the shift to happen.”

For all of that, as we begin to discuss new undertakings and ideas for the next titanic challenge, it becomes quickly apparent that ambitious ideas still swirl in his head.

“There are loads out there. People just make excuses as to why they are not doing them. It always seems like people are hindered by the competition but it’s their own minds that hold them back. Life circumstances and finances can get in the way, but you just have to rip those walls down and say that you are going to make it work. Somehow. No-one has ever walked solo across Antarctica unassisted and unsupported. No-one has ever walked the whole length of the River Nile. All these journeys are there for the taking.”

More immediately, “once dad duty is over” (at the time of writing Laura is in Guyana, attempting to become the first person to kayak the Essequibo River), Stafford is filming the second half of a new series that he describes as “bigger and bolder than anything I’ve done to date”.

Bigger and bolder, he says, nonchalantly. As we part company, I’m still left wondering what’s wrong with Ed Stafford. I’ll try again next time.

Follow @ed_stafford on Instagram for more adventures.