The age of exploration – the search for new worlds, new frontiers, new starts – is over.
These days, just about every remote wilderness, distant archipelago and "pole of inaccessibility" has been conquered, claimed, inhabited, marketed into some kind of travel "experience". Today's Columbuses and Cooks aren't plundering crops or crushing indigenous uprisings – they're hawking lifestyle culture in exotic locales, setting up foraging retreats in the Western Isles and sashimi schools in southern Bali.
Despite technological advancements that allow us to dive deeper into the ocean, travel farther into space, Joe Public just isn't that taken with sea trenches and underwhelming planets anymore. These days, the places that really fascinate are examples of mankind at its most extreme; failed states, rogue regimes, garbage islands, narco cities, mega slums. The age of geographical exploration might be over, but human exploration is in full effect.
As the places that capture our imaginations have changed, so have the people guiding us to them. Traditionally, our sofa sherpas have been "proper" journalists; hardy, dignified camera crew prospectors, fluent in BBC English but sensitive to the wrongs of the West. They range from the very good (Palin, Reeve, Parry) to the watchable-but-dubious (Kemp, Portillo), to the dismal and really quite offensive (Sue Perkins dressing up as a geisha). For decades, this was the norm for British television; the "sensitive end of the empire", the friendly white face who lets the villagers play with their watch and knows when to shed a tear or two.
But as the media establishment has come into competition with digital democracy and influencer journalism, it's lost its grip on this monopoly, its ability to open and close the gate on the dangerous, the exotic and the far-flung. The internet has democratised the form and unveiled the process, and it turns out that going to these places isn't as difficult as we all thought.
DIY digital media has opened the world up again, just as Alan Whicker and Kenneth Clarke did for post-war television audiences. Places that we grew up dreaming of, fearing, not quite believing in, are now there to see at pedestrian level. The hosts of old – who our parents put so much stock in, with their pressed khakis and casual empathy – are mostly out of jobs, replaced by a brigade of 30-something men with wanderlust and redundancy packages. The era of the DangerTuber is upon us.
The DangerTubers are a certain breed: men with strange and bottomless finances, baseball caps and Huel bods; who talk in that odd, indulgent, time-slaying manner familiar to anyone with a social services-monitored uncle who's discovered Facebook Live.
Their raison d'etre is to travel to "the most" – the biggest, the scariest, the abandoned, the remote, the forgotten – gleefully ignoring Foreign Office advice and blagging their way into situations that were once only accessible to the big boys of international media. Places we couldn't even imagine 20 years ago are now conquered in a day by intrepid blokes from Didcot and Ripon – men who bring selfie sticks to the places where most bring AK-47s.
The channel "Bald and Bankrupt" is perhaps the purest and most popular example of the form. The host, Benjamin Rich, is an affable slaphead with a Home Counties accent, a handle on conversational Russian and an apparently deep-set desire to be as far from home as possible. But instead of going down the "Kygo-synced Gopro journal" path of fulfilment, he’s turned his existence into a perpetual danger wank. In his time he's ridden a box car train across Mauritania, danced at a Slovakian gypsy wedding, failed to be mugged in "Bolivia's most dangerous hood", found "a Soviet goblin" (jump scare warning), been stranded in "Russia's creepiest village", visited Beslan, Chernobyl and "Europe's cheapest hotel". Just last month, he smuggled a cat out of Cuba.
Really, it's hard not to be taken in by it all. The places Rich goes, the people he meets, the things he sees are genuinely fascinating – as are his Colonel Kurtz-esque immersions in local culture, and his unshakeable confidence. But you don't need to have read the complete works of Edward Said to feel slightly uneasy about how it's all handled. There's a palpable sense of intrusion watching a 45-year-old Englishman in a pair of Ray-Bans being forced to apologise for calling women "chicks" in Chechnya and trying to pick up ganja (as he insists on calling it) in Azerbaijan.
In Rich's trail follow myriad other accounts; there's "The Life of Jord", another Brit, whose bio states: "In 2014 I sold all my possessions, quit my job and began to travel the world," – a kind of Kerouacian epilogue for the entire movement. With the looks of an Equinox personal trainer, his take isn't quite as gung-ho as Bald and Bankrupt's, instead bringing us more a reflective take on the form: "THIS IS KAZAKHSTAN – The Mind Blowing Ustyurt Plateau", "We found INDONESIA's BEST SUNRISE spot", etc.
Then there's Indigo Traveller, a polite young Kiwi who "travels around misunderstood parts of the planet showing the human side of what we read in the headlines". It’s a lot more "Humans Of New York" than some of the other accounts (had that blog featured searches for Somalian pirates and footage of empty Venezuelan supermarkets). Drew Binsky, a double of every American you've ever sat next to on a plane, is another. "Nas Daily Official" is the king of the cheap title: "Most Depressing Country", "She Used To Be a Man", "Energy from…Poop?"
These channels' greatest selling point is their ability to go to the places television can't – their lack of impartiality, accountability, practices and standards. When Simon Reeve meets a kindly old babushka, he might join her for a shot of potato vodka and a touching chat about the Bloc days, but Ben Rich can (and will) finish the bottle, stay for a week and move on to the next nuclear containment zone to do it all over again.
But it isn't just toxic waste and moonshine luring people in. What these channels offer beyond their hosts is a chance to see the world at ground level – long, uninterrupted meanders through the wilder ends of human life. For all the titles about demilitarised zones and no-go areas, a lot of the appeal actually lies in just seeing what a corner shop, or a local cafe, or a road sign looks like.
I'd like to think that's why I like these channels, but I'm also aware of my own problematic desire for the weird and the dangerous. It's a form of media I can very much understand the appeal of, one I've become somewhat addicted to – particularly during work-shy mid-afternoons and my late night journeys through digital mediaspace. Amid the slurry of "this middling British actor eats a Pork Pie" content, and the teenage hysteria of your garden variety YouTuber, channels like these summon up a real sense of adventure, of "other" on the homepage – like Robert Carlyle in The Beach did for a generation previous. At its most powerful, visual media has the ability to transport – and to be taken from your living room to a place you've never to been remains a very potent thing, especially in the world we've now found ourselves in.
Yet despite all the fun and games and insights into places beyond Western comprehension, that sense of unease still prevails. These channels might appeal to my sense of adventure, but they also appeal to a thirst for extremity, one that's probably grown with age and exposure. They quench something within me that mainstream media can't really sate anymore. There's probably a parallel to be made with horror movies, LiveLeak vids and pornography here. The difference between what people know they should watch and what they do watch. The innate irresponsibility of the viewer.
Yet for all the performative globe-trotting, the most fascinating of the DangerTubers is, for me, CharlieBo – a channel that doesn't need infantile "challenges" or graphics, pick-up artistry or podcast philosophy. In fact, he doesn't even need to leave his home country or show his face.
What CharlieBo does is take us to the forgotten parts of America, places where Indigo Traveller and Drew Binsky would not – and could not – go. Categorised on the channel as "hoods", these are America's creepiest villages, or inner-city Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore, lesser known coronavirus disaster zones like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware. Charlie Bo has no fear, but he also has no ego. His videos are quiet, reflective, terrifying, anthropological and really quite effecting.
His is a power the DangerTubers should really stop to think about the next time they're gurning into their iPhones in the Sulaiman Mountains.