Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Q&A: Steve Backshall

The BBC daredevil on his obsession with adventure and exploration

Steve Backshall has run ‘the toughest race on earth’, dived in a bait ball with feeding penguins, kayaked in Himalayan white water, caught a four-metre-long male King cobra, lived in a snow cave and raced a cheetah. Not bad for a children’s television presenter. Despite breaking both his back and his foot when he fell 25ft off a crag in Gloucestershire last year, he’s about to start filming the second season of his CBBC show, Deadly Sixty, in which he has six months to travel six continents in search of the world’s sixty most dangerous creatures. Here, in an exclusive interview, he talks to WideWorld before setting off on his next adventure.

What first attracted you to outdoor activities and adventure?

To be honest I’ve pretty much always been obsessed with adventure and exploration. I grew up on a small farm in Surrey, and my family have always had the attitude that time spent indoors is time wasted. It doesn’t really matter how you’re enjoying the outdoors; whether it’s thrashing down a grade five whitewater rapid, high altitude mountaineering, or just going out watching birds or walking the dog.

You work as a writer, director and television presenter. What was it that prompted you to incorporate the outdoors with the media?

I think it’s actually been the other way round for me. I was always concerned about how to make a career out of the outdoors, and the media proved to be a way for me to do this. I started out working as a travel writer for Rough Guides, but had an idea for an adventure television series, so took myself out to Colombia with a video camera. I spent a month living in the jungle filming snakes, spiders and scorpions, and unbelievably National Geographic’s television channel bought it!

You’ve managed to mix work and play into what seems to be the perfect job. Does it have any downsides?

The obvious downside to my job is that I spend almost my entire life away from friends and family, and very rarely have any time to live a conventional life. I learnt long ago that I have to live my life on the road, and see coming home as being like my holidays. However it’s especially hard now when so many old friends are getting married and having kids, and I’m missing big parts of their lives. Trying to hold down a relationship’s pretty challenging too!

It’s been less than a year since your accident in the Forest of Dean. Do you feel like you’ve fully recovered from your injuries?

No, and I never will fully recover. I’ll never walk quite as well, and running is off the cards for the moment. But I’ve made the best of it, and I’ve already got back into the swing of things to a certain extent, as well as making some hardcore plans for the future. I completed the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon in April, which is a 125 mile kayaking race – mostly to prove to myself that life doesn’t end with a messed up foot.

Were you itching to get back outside, or were you tempted to take a step back from adrenaline-seeking?

I was back to doing things very quickly really. I really pushed myself back into it but in fact my body wouldn’t let me, and in the end I was forced to take a step back from it all. I had a second operation which set me back too but I’ve kept on going despite the setbacks. My general attitude is that if I’m unable to run or rock climb, I’ll kayak more. There’s always something out there that I’d like to try my hand at.

You’ve caved, climbed, surfed, kayaked and explored all around the world; is there anything in particular that you’re still waiting to try?

Well, my biggest aim at the moment is to climb another 8,000 metre mountain. I’d love to do Everest, K2, Kangchenjunga, and to explore Patagonia. There’s a lot left on my list to be honest, but I definitely will do it all eventually; I’m not the kind of person to have all these great ambitions and then refer to them all in terms of ‘one day’ without ever following through. I’ve set myself these goals, so I’m going to do them.

You’re studying for degree in biology; do you feel that you’re applying what you learn academically to what you experience outdoors?

That was definitely always the idea, but it’s actually turned out to be a lot less relevant than I thought it would be. I’m determined to finish it eventually, but to be honest, when you’re out there in the wild; the most important thing is always going to your personal experiences with wildlife. Highly cerebral insights into how an animal functions at a cellular level are much less important in my job than just finding, identifying and understanding each animal, and that’s down to years of experience – not textbooks.

Do you find yourself inclined to pursue one sport more than others?

No, not really. Burying myself in just one sport would involve missing out on so many other fantastic elements of the outdoors. I have a lot of respect for people who focus on one sport to the exclusion of others – climbers who can work one route at E11 (the English grading system for rock climbs) for years on end. For me that misses the infinite variety of adventures available to us. I’ve recently spent a lot of time kayaking on the Thames near my house in Buckinghamshire, coasting past hunting hobbys and red kites, with tufted ducks and grebes paddling like crazy to get out of my way – it’s an awesome workout, but worlds away from sea kayaking in raging tidal races and heavy swell. There’s too much out there to get obsessed with one sport.

You’ve travelled extensively around the world. Is there anywhere that you find yourself returning to again and again?

I have quite a few destinations like that. I love South and Central America; Costa Rica for one is just so dense in wildlife. I also wrote about Indonesia for Rough Guides, and so subsequently I know it very very well: the wildlife there is just amazing too. But actually, if I was to have a week off, I’d almost certainly go straight to the Alps.

Do you generally find that you’re the one suggesting ideas for adventures, or is it other people who set you the challenges to complete?

It’s generally me; I always seem to have a new crazy idea for an adventure that I’d like to try out. Everybody just thinks I’m bonkers, but at the same time they’re pretty much used to me by now.

What’s the hardest thing that you’ve experienced over the past few years?

It would probably be when I did my Himalayan Mountain Leader Qualification with the Indian army in 2004, which involved living above 4,000m on a glacier for five weeks. They have you running at high altitude carrying massive weights, and trying to deliberately break you through hunger, exhaustion and cold, letting you know what a big mountain expedition can really be like. At the end of the month, having lost two and half stone I had to break trail through chest-deep snow up a 7,000m mountain. It got to the stage that I could only take one pace, then I’d collapse for several minutes. There was just nothing left

Do you ever have a moment of doubt before you set off?

Oh yeah, of course, all the time. I wonder why on earth I’m doing these things, and whether I’ve gone too far this time. So yeah, I always question myself, but I don’t pull out.

You’ve mentioned before that your greatest fear is that your children will grow up in a world where more and more animals are becoming extinct. What do you think poses the greatest danger to their survival?

It all comes down to overpopulation really, and the pressure that puts onto wildlife and wild places. I find it really frightening going back to places I last visited ten or fifteen years ago, and they’re totally unrecognisable. Virgin coral reefs I dived in my early twenties are now barren with nothing living on them at all, countries that I once flew over and could see nothing but rainforest to the horizon are now just smouldering fields and farmlands. There are twice as many people in the world now as when my parents were kids. I’m afraid the future for wildlife can look rather bleak.

You ran the Marathon des Sables four years ago for Wolftrust. Is that a charity that you’re still involved with?

Sadly Wolftrust had to fold due to a lack of support, so the money I raised was passed on to the WWF’s Snow leopard project. Wildlife and conservation charities really struggle for the kind of support the big human charities can muster… well, apart from cat rescue centres which rake in millions. I found the attitude towards this really alarming before running the MDS – even some close friends were actually quite indignant that I was running to try and save my favourite animal and not support a cancer charity.

Tell us about your upcoming plans.

I’m about to start work on the second series of a kids’ programme for CBBC called ‘Deadly 60’, which will be filmed all around the world, and I also have a big expedition to New Guinea in the autumn, which is going to be shown on both the BBC and the Discovery channels. Then I’m actually going on a big Himalayan adventure after that, so I’ve got quite a lot happening really. I have two books coming out as well: Steve’s Deadly 60, which is tied in with my CBBC programme, and The Wildlife Adventurer’s Guide, which comes out in the autumn.