Since rising to fame on Castaway, Ben Fogle has become the UK’s favourite unlikely adventurer
C: You have been known throughout your career for travel and adventure, have you always held this passion?
“Yeah, my dad’s Canadian, so I spent a lot of my childhood in Ontario. I grew up in Central London above my father’s veterinary surgery, which was right in the centre of W1, and then for the summers I’d disappear off to Canada, which was all canoeing and camping and moose and beavers. I loved the wilderness. I loved the wildlife and I think that’s probably where my wanderlust began.
“When I finally got the opportunity to travel, I was 18, and I didn’t really care where. I looked through an atlas and literally put my finger down. It landed on Ecuador and that was the beginning of a long relationship with Central and South America.
“I went to university in Costa Rica for four years. I loved climbing mountains, exploring the jungle, getting into trouble in the cities. It was just so exciting! It was then I resolved I would make travelling part of my life.”
C: Travelling to South America must have been a huge adventure at that age?
“It was pretty gritty. I bought a one-way ticket to Sao Paulo in Brazil and the first thing I did was to hitchhike on a boat all the way up the Amazon. Three thousand miles on a tough, hard-working boat – it was a baptism of fire. It was unbelievably dull mind you. That was my abiding memory. It was the slow life and really quite harsh, but I came to love it.”
C: What did you glean from those early experiences?
“I think confidence is what I really got. I was a hopeless academic; I failed most of my exams. I left school and I didn’t have a university place. What I achieved was confidence in myself that, somehow, there were other options. It opened a wealth of opportunities that had been effectively taken away from me by my appalling A-Level grades.”
C: Do you think it’s something more people should experience?
“If I went into politics – which I wouldn’t, because it’s a thankless task, but I’ve dabbled with the thought of it – I would scrap the education system’s insistence that everyone must do something up to age 18, turn it to 17, and that one year would become a voluntary service year.
“It would be a conscription-type year. You could spend a year either working in the NHS, or travelling with a purpose, doing some kind of aid work.
“You could work for a charity, work in an overseas hospital, or work with the army, the navy or the air force. I firmly believe at least six months of being out of your comfort zone, and involving travel of some kind, would benefit most people immeasurably.
C: What do you think about the teenagers who go travelling now and the whole ‘gap yah’ image?
“You’ve just named it – the ‘gap yah’ – it’s kind of become the realm of the wealthy public school elite and it shouldn’t be. I paid for my gap year myself, working super hard – scooping ice-cream for Häagen-Dazs was my first job – and I worked every hour of the day, every month, to save money.
“I think it has become the realm of the elite, or certainly the upper and middle class, which is a shame because I think anyone should benefit, irrelevant of their social or economic situation.”
“I bought a one-way ticket to Sao Paulo in Brazil and the first thing I did was to hitchhike on a boat all the way up the Amazon”
C: Recently there has been a trend towards adult gap years. Do you think that’s a good idea?
“Yeah, absolutely, I love that idea. I’m just counting down the days for the children to leave home! Let’s by-and-large say most people are going to be between the age of 50 and 60, I would imagine, depending on how old you are when you have kids. That’s the perfect time to take a year out: get out of the children phase and into the couple phase again.”
C: Do you think you can still get the same things out of a gap year at age 50?
“No, it’s different. When I was 18 I went on a gap year and I saw all the poverty. I thought I could save the world. But, as you get older, you realise it’s tough to ever change things. I think you’ll get a different perspective and have a very different experience.”
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