Ed Stafford Can Survive Anything

The star of 'Naked and Marooned' talks us flimsy millennials through the Great Outdoors.

by Joel Golby; photos by Chris Bethell
02 November 2017, 11:36am

Ed Stafford has a baby slung over his shoulder like a tea towel. I should clarify: it is his baby. Ed Stafford greets us with a floppy baby because he just very recently had a baby. I have never seen someone so casually relaxed around a baby. Ed Stafford moves his baby – Ran, short for Ranulph, and with Ed Stafford being one of the UK's foremost professional adventurers you can probably work out the etymology of that one – Ed Stafford moves the baby like you might casually dribble a basketball, or how you might pinch a T-shirt beneath your chin to fold it, or with the casual domestic swoosh of three-pointing a wadded napkin up into the bin.

Half the time we are hanging out with Ran he is in the air, in some floating hover void just slightly above Ed Stafford, absolutely loving it. The rest of the time he merrily gurgles in a bouncing cot. Ed Stafford is a magician with a baby. If you handed me a baby right now – "Explode my life," I might say, "please set off a nuclear bomb inside the comfortable confines of my life, by giving me a baby" – I would probably freeze and clam up and cry. Just me and a baby, both sobbing, both afraid. Ed Stafford's baby just sort of chuckles along and occasionally vomits up milk. I'm pretty sure that already – at the tender age of eight months – Ed Stafford's baby could beat me up. It is an incredible baby.

Ed Stafford's house: enormous, fantastic, two gigantic red-eyed dogs. Chickens, a quail, a printed out screenshot from a time the two fat ladies from Two Fat Ladies cooked in there, up above the Aga. There is a sword in Ed Stafford's downstairs bathroom, which I think tells you everything you need to know about the man, and conversely everything about every man in the UK who does not have a sword in his downstairs bathroom. Out in the back there is a massive expanse of garden – huge, sprawling – that turns over a small stream into a steep hill studded with trees. Just breathing out here feels quite brisk and healthy. Just being out here feels like the feeling you get when you've not drunk for four days and just had a smoothie. Like you could open a branch of Whole Foods and be the kind of person who knows what flaxseed is. Imagine it: imagine you, eating above and beyond your five portions of fruit and veg a day, not looking at your phone screen, maybe in the evening you tend to a small fire and occasionally prod it until it burns down to embers. Wouldn't it be so healthy, to live here, and not really worry about what Facebook is? I mean, you're never going to do it, but. But it's nice to think about.

"I got knocked to the ground with a flip-flop once," Ed Stafford is saying, while he hammers a selfie stick towards my nose, swings back, feints how he would jam it through my stomach, double me over, kick me in the head. It's fun, we're having fun. So: "He took his flip-flop off and knocked me to the ground and I was like: fuck."

The thing we have done here is given Ed Stafford a load of "millennial things" that he could feasibly survive with, to teach us all (you and I: the flimsy millennials) how to use the only items we own once society inevitably breaks down in the next five to ten years and/or some sort of plague or nuclear anomaly tears the planet open and we all have nothing but our wits and our instincts to live on. So tip one is: you can use Krav Maga and a folded-down selfie stick to shatter the fuck out of someone's nose, should you need to. "Krav Maga, which was made by the Israeli special forces," Ed explains, while calming swinging at my face. "It was so the Jews could have a means of self defence against the Nazis, initially. It's very simple. They use everything from rolled-up newspapers or magazines." He swings a bit closer. "If you are using everything, you can take people by surprise."

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Let's for a second move away from Ed Stafford threatening to absolutely beat my shit out and instead do a biographical recap. Ed is notable for being the first ever human to walk the entire length of the Amazon River, starting in April of 2008 and finishing over two years later in August of 2010 (Ed Stafford, nonchalant: "I was held up at arrow-point by three different indigenous tribes." Ed Stafford, calmly bottle-feeding a baby: "I got held up at gunpoint three times by drug traffickers."). He admits he more-or-less did this to make his name as an explorer, and so Ed Stafford became the Walked The Entire Fucking Length of the Amazon guy.

The plan worked: when he got back to the UK, the Discovery Channel commissioned a three-part series called Naked and Marooned (pitch: imagine if Bear Grylls had no pants on, for some reason) where he had to survive, alone and stranded and filming his own show, and again with absolutely no clothes on, for 60 days on an uninhabited tropical island. Naked and Marooned soon turned into another series (Marooned), and another (Into the Unknown), and now Ed is a regular face on Discovery, his job being to occasionally abandon civilisation for ten to 50 days and, like, eat the heart of a fern plant, or weave his own leaf skirt, or hunt deer, or generally just try not to cry or die while drinking water out of puddles and clam shells.

"The Discovery Channel programmes for me are my bread and butter, but I sort of view it as payback for the suffering along the way," Ed says. Ed thinks TV programmes are necessarily a bit fake, even when he's been left alone and naked on an island for 60 days for one. That, to Ed, is quite a tame way of adventuring.

Anyway, you can make a rabbit trap out of an iPhone cable, Ed says, if you find an animal trail and create a sort of guiding wall-of-sticks around it, so the animals that use the trail (animal trails are just small paths, you can figure this out) are sort of forced through the "gate" – which, in fact, is a chord or cable tied into a lazy noose – and then get stuck and then you can kill them and skin them and eat them. "I caught an agouti in one of these," Ed says. "In Venezuela. I ate the whole fucking thing. It was great."

Or: you can use a fidget spinner to create fire, Ed says, if you dismantle your fidget spinner with a hunting knife and isolate the spinning section proper ("That bit is essentially a big ball bearing," Ed says). Then, using a notched piece of wood and a large wooden spinner, you put the ball bearing heart right where your hand would normally go to create a frictionless top ("You want lots of friction there, and there," Ed says, motioning towards the notch, where a small pile of tinder awaits ignition, "but zero friction here," he says, motioning to his hand.) Then you just… spin, for a bit, and the wood-on-wood friction at the base creates enough heat to start a small crackling of fire. Stack that up the traditional way – ember, tinder, kindling, full on logs – and you can get a campfire going. "That's quite a premium fidget spinner, Ed," I say. "Quite high end." "Well, you can't light a fire with a fucking plastic one," he says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. If we learn anything today, it's: upgrade your fidget spinner in anticipation of the end of the world.

Or: you can use an avocado for survival, Ed says. "Just eat it."

Or: your fun and trendy aviators, which you like, you damned millennial: those can be use to flag down planes or communicate from afar asking for help. Just sort of reflect them around a bit. You don't have to worry about morse code. "One of those British Corps myths is that you'd go dot dot–dot–dash," Ed says, flicking his aviators around. "You wouldn't. It was just to draw people's attention. There are a lot of things in the British Army pamphlet that are utter nonsense. Someone's written it from a classroom, and self rescue technique is difficult to explain, but it's just fucking nonsense."

Ed is more of an instinctive survivalist, with a lot of his learning coming on the ground, in the mud, and from spending time with the indigenous tribes in areas he survives in. "In West Papua we signalled to a boat with them," he says. "The boat was probably 2 kilometres away, on the other side of this harbour, and the boat was signalled about using a mirror. If the boatmen saw a glint they would come and pick them up. The villagers told us, 'You just need to take a mirror and flash it across that.' In 20 minutes they came and got us."

Or: you can use a safety razor, Ed says, when the apocalypse happens, to create a sort of cutting tool. "[Quiet sound of grunting while he cracks a Gillette apart, isolates a blade, slices his thumb a bit and grafts it to a stick using blood and twine]" Ed says: "I suppose you could, sort of… skin a rabbit, with that?"

We're back at the kitchen table because Ran needs some baby medicine (he came out to the woods with us and gurgled at the trees and, again, I'm pretty sure this unspeaking baby is now a more qualified survivalist than I am), and the two red-eyed dogs gallop up and smother us with brown-grey muddy paws, and Ed Stafford somehow manages to make a round of teas while balancing a baby carefully on his shoulder, and now we are talking about his life and work.

Ed took the traditional path into adventuring: a keenly outdoorsy kid ("We as mates in the village used to explore, go over the fields, build dens, dams, treehouses, all that sort of stuff. I had a real natural bond with the outdoors from the word go. It was back in the day when you could do that. Our parents could kick us out the door in the morning and we'd come back for tea in the evening") which turned into a really, really intense love of Scouts and Cubs ("I was Cub of the Year, 1986," he says, nodding to a trophy above the stove that says "CUB OF THE YEAR, 1986"). From there he whittled away any non-outdoors based subjects at school as much as possible and, post-university, the obvious career path seemed to be the army. "Did a year at Sandhurst," Ed says, "which is the officer's training academy. Did the Platoon Commanders Battle Course, which is infantry down in Warminster at the time. And then three years as a platoon commander, doing operational tours to Northern Ireland." A mooted return for a two-year tour of NI had Stafford rethinking his options ("I thought: 'I'm in my mid-twenties. I don't want to spend two more years in a bunker in Northern Ireland.'") and the first job he took as a civilian was as an expedition leader with Trekforce, taking gap year students to Belize to build a new visitor's centre. "After about seven years I got bored of listening to who fancies who, who's got what A-level results and all the gap year talk, and I decided I'd do a big expedition." Ed got so mad at gap year students he walked the entire length of the Amazon. What have you ever done.

The Amazon walk, he admits, was a sort of put-you-on-the-map adventurer version of a PR stunt. "I'm definitely not lost to the fact that I've been lucky along the way," he says. "I've worked hard, but a lot of ex-military consultants who work in the industry haven't made a name for themselves. There are a lot of people out there, like Yorkshire climbers and people doing gnarly stuff, really gritty stuff – but they don't publicise it well. It's just savage in the fact that if you've done something, you get yourself a Guinness World Record, then you've got a bit of a tagline, haven't you? 'The Guy Who Walked The Amazon'. It doesn't mean I was more experienced than any of the others, but it helped get a Discovery Channel and Channel 5 commission, which in turn got really good viewing figures. It was at the right time, it was real, it wasn't the scripted thing, and I stumbled into a television career and that's how I make money."

Adventuring isn't exactly a waged job, so others in the industry find non-TV ways of making ends meet and financing future endeavours. "A lot of other adventurers do more of the motivational speaking and make it work through that," Ed says, "writing books and stuff. I've done two books and I do motivational speaking, but this place—" he gestures to his entire house "— is paid for by the TV, no hiding that."

Ed talks about his Discovery Channel adventures – which, to recap, often involve him being dropped off entirely naked ("If I've got no clothes, I've got nothing hidden up my sleeves," he says. "I've got no Mars bars."), slurping water desperately out of puddles and eating handfuls of tadpoles in an urgent attempt to take on protein – with a sort of contempt, because despite him being utterly alone out there, he still does have the safety net of a 20-minute response team and an emergency walkie-talkie should he need it. Adventuring, but make it less lethal. "[Before the Amazon], we did a risk assessment and it came out as 'Completely Unacceptable'. If we'd had a head injury, or been bitten by a snake – anything that needed immediate medical help – we were three weeks away from medical help. But we had to accept, in order to do something that was the world first, we had to do the unacceptable routes." At one point a fly lived inside his head for a week ("It's just annoying, the little pin pricks. Because it's growing by eating your flesh"). Twice, his Peruvian walking partner, Cho, managed to get his fingertip bitten off by a piranha ("It only took off half a centimetre, but enough for him to be in fucking pain"). Another time, more brutally, Cho managed to fall, thumb webbing-first, onto a machete. "He slipped on the smaller trees across the bottom of a stream. He was holding his machete and somehow the machete came loose and he held the blade and he landed on it, and it went right down to the tendon, right in the middle of the jungle as well. And the only thing we had were the iodine drops you use to clean water with, and duct tape and loo roll. Iodine, loo roll, duct tape, crack on."

Here's the least likely sentence you're ever going to see written after an anecdote where some lad machetes his own tendons off then tapes the wound up with gaffer tape: "We were really lucky in terms of illness."

There's a certain machismo that fuelled Ed's Amazon Walk, which he readily acknowledges. "I've never hid the fact that maybe it was a bit of young male testosterone, beating the chest and wanting to be the first," he says. "There was an element of ego, definitely." That's mellowed a little with the arrival of Ran. "Last year I tried to get an expedition to Antarctica off the ground, and spent about eight months trying to get the expedition going, but failed to get the corporate sponsorship. Then I thought: 'What am I doing? I've got a regular job.' I was going back to the almost precarious world of being an explorer and having to seek sponsorship and all that. And just thought: 'I've got a baby and I've got a wife.' All this type of stuff is fun and you get to go on these amazing adventures if it gets organised for you."

He talks freely, too, about the toll extreme periods of stress and isolation have on his mental health. "[In Naked and Marooned, his first series] I just didn't realise how much harder [being completely actually naked] would make it. Day 23 I was in a cave, shivering, crying, saying, 'What the fuck?' And there isn't anyone to even shout at. I couldn't even get angry at anyone, even though I did in my head. I can't have a laugh with anyone, I can't take the piss. It got intense very quickly. And I also did not take into account the effects isolation could have on you. I thought I was going to get lonely after two weeks, but I remember almost being sick at the enormity of the shock of the boat leaving when it dropped me off. It was the biggest challenge I've ever done to date. I was very open in my book that I had to go to therapy – I was in psychotherapy for over two years afterwards. Just the sort of decompression of the sort of effects of that."

Ed's wife, Laura Bingham, a fellow adventurer, did a 7,000km bike ride across South America, made harder by the rule that she wasn't allowed to touch money on her trip. "She was foraging through bins and picking stuff off the side of the road that people had dropped up, begging and bits and bobs," Ed says. "We went to Sainsbury's on the day she got back and she just stood in the vegetable aisle and burst into tears because she was so overwhelmed with the abundance."

Right now his major challenge is Ran (Ran is teething, in between learning how to make fire with a fidget spinner and how to flag an aeroplane down with some sunglasses), with Discovery Channel projects always puttering away in the background, threatening to whisk him away to an uninhabited island for a bit to either thrive or die.

"What five things do millennials need to do in a survival situation, Ed?" I ask, as we try to get him away from harrowing medical stories and back to the job in hand. "The first thing you'd do if you found yourself lost in a remote location is just stop, take your backpack off. If you smoke, have a fag, calm yourself down. That would be the first thing to do," Ed says. "There's a military acronym that says 'S.T.O.P': Stop, Think, Organise, Plan. First is to Stop, sit on your rucksack. Think is: where did I last see the group? Where did I last know where I was? What do I know? How many hours of daylight do I have left? How much time do I have to plan? Do I need to be thinking about sleeping or could I do some self-rescue? Organise is pretty much everything you've got on you. Empty your pockets. OK: I've got a knife, I've got a plastic bag, I've got a fidget spinner. What are the things that could help me in this survival scenarios? And Plan is putting it all together: whether that be self-rescue, or maybe I'm here for the night, what am I gonna do to make myself comfortable?"

He then goes on for like ten more minutes about destroying areas of forest, exploring the local area in a star-shaped direction, finding a water source, building a shelter. And I realise: we are fucked, all of us. When the dust clouds come or the planes drop our bombs we know nothing beyond eating an entire sleeve of Jaffa Cakes and how to type relatively quickly on a number of Apple devices. In the apocalypse event, which has to be on the horizon now, nearer than we've ever been, we are, all of us, deeply unprepared. Maybe that is why we like survival shows so much: we like to watch a rugged recreation of what success looks like where we would fail. We like to watch the trivia of it – ah, you can drink water from this leaf! Orient yourself via this star! – but absorb absolutely none of it. When the zombies rise up, when the earth is on fire, when the horsemen come, I am just running. Running and running and running. To Ed Stafford's house, where I will beg for him to help me. And, if he is sensible, he will have my body torn apart by his two enormous dogs.

You can follow Ed's latest adventures on Twitter (@Ed_Stafford), Instagram (ed_stafford) or Facebook (edwardjamesstafford)

@joelgolby / @christopherbethell

Ed Stafford