After months of streaming and sofas, who better than Ed Stafford to encourage us back out into the Hertfordshire outdoors. Here he talks about the Amazon, lockdown and new-born twins
Ed Stafford has experienced more adversity than many of us can ever imagine – from walking the length of the Amazon, to being dropped solo on an uninhabited island and being “left for dead” – but has he ever had to deal with dodgy wi-fi after months of being cooped up at home?
Despite my system, twice, crashing, Stafford remains calm and can finally answer my question about, after a life full of thrills and spills, the boredom of lockdown. “I’m not complaining at all,” he insists. “Like everyone, we have had a slightly twitchy period, not really because of the actual illness itself, but because it has just shaken everything. Weirdly, what I do has been a really good experience to go through something like this. I am always dropped in the middle of nowhere and suddenly you have got to cope with a completely new landscape, and you don’t have all the answers.”
It’s a decade since the ex-Army captain became known to the public, when Walking the Amazon was first aired on our TV screens. It was a quite astonishing feat – and earned Stafford a Guinness World Record, no less – and he encountered all manner of obstacles, from mosquitoes to the very real threat of death. “Before I went everyone told me it was impossible,” he reflects. “We went and did it in a slightly ‘two fingers up at the world’ bolshy way. People who had never been to the jungle would tell me it was impossible.
“It was gruelling at times,” he says almost nonchalantly. “You are waking up, putting wet clothes on, being bitten by mosquitoes and ants – it was those little things that were probably the most sapping of motivation. But I thought it was possible [to do]. I think I also have a faith in human kindness. There were some dodgy people who lined the route of the Amazon, drug smugglers and opportunists, and some of the mining community is pretty lawless – people have disappeared for fronting up against them. But I just thought I was not a threat to them, so I was as polite and respectful as possible to everyone I met. Looking back I am so proud of what I did and it has led to the most amazing opportunities in life.”
TV shows and books have followed, and Stafford’s passion to pass on his skills to the next generation also means Hertfordshire families will benefit this summer. He has joined forces with Camp Wilderness, who run the Cuffley Camp site, to create weekend exploration events. “Everyone has different levels of experience of the outdoors,” Stafford says, “so there is a three-day camp for kids who would just benefit massively from being outdoors and sleeping under canvas, and we have evolved that to the five-day residential camp. This takes things to another level.”
Considering the extent of my childhood experience of the outdoors involved a scout camping trip that was cut short after a day when my stomach decided it did not like cooking over a fire, what children visiting Cuffley Camp will experience is astonishing. “There is the fire lighting, for example,” Stafford explains. “Here you have more time practicing and learning. There is ponassing fish, there’s foraging, it’s all a little bit tougher. Part of the whole remit of putting people in situations where they don’t have all the answers is not wrapping them in cotton wool and not making life too easy for them.”
During Stafford’s residential camps, children can expect to find themselves dealing with emergency scenarios, complete with actors, where individual subjects they have been taught all come together in a meaningful exercise. After all, you just never know when you may need to rely on your own knowledge and what’s around you. “When I walked the Amazon, I didn’t know how to light a fire with two sticks,” Stafford says. “So to come away from [one of the camps], to be able to master the bow drill and blow an ember into flames, is a really cool thing for a kid to do. If you go into woods and you don’t have anything, then you have got more confidence to know the type of wood you need to get a fire going.”
Times are different in the 21st century, of course, and even though I wasn’t a particularly adventurous child, there were some things that I did that were off the (health and safety) chart. “When I was young, I was free to go and play in the fields behind my house, build dams and ditches and that sort of stuff. I think for me having something like Camp Wilderness offers a safe environment to have these explorative times. If you are free to have unstructured play, then you can learn by your own mistakes.”
Lockdown restrictions permitting, Stafford will soon be back traversing the globe and exploring far flung places, and you get the feeling that he can’t wait. “It’s been a very domesticated time,” he smiles. “I have spent the last year and a half being at home for the entirety of my wife’s pregnancy with twins [Mary and Camilla, younger sisters to Ranulph], and being around for the first seven months of their life, which I am utterly privileged to have been there for. But… I am slightly bored of being a domestic help! I want get out and be a provider again.”